Fortunate Wager - by Jan Jones
Newmarket. April 1817Caroline was reading in the window seat when Scroope opened the door to the sitting-room. She hastily arranged the first volume of Emma underneath The Racing Calendar and looked up enquiringly.
"Lord Alexander Rothwell," announced Scroope.
An immaculately dressed gentleman strode into the room. "You appear afflicted with deafness," he said to the butler. "I asked for Mr Harry Fortune, not one of the young ladies. Or is this another ploy on behalf of your mistress to ensure that all marriageable men in the vicinity are introduced to her daughters whether they will it or not?"
Scroope turned brick-red with outrage. Caroline bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself laughing. She had seen Lord Rothwell from afar during the tedious half-season she had done last year before her godmother fell ill and she had left London to nurse her. Now she confirmed her impression that the second son of the Duke of Abervale was tall and well-made, had dark-brown hair with a meticulous fall of curls across the left side of his brow, and eyes of light hazel. A personable figure and a very tidy estate. No wonder he had been so sought after. The only slight flaw was that his face held an impatience suggesting he was often bored witless by other people's stupidity. Caroline knew how he felt.
"I was under the impression," said Scroope, his jowls quivering accusingly as he looked at Caroline, "that Mr Fortune was in here. Along with Miss Taylor."
Caroline assumed her most guileless smile. "Certainly he was, but poor Louisa came over unwell, so he felt obliged to see her safely home."
The butler stiffened. "I was not aware of any such occurrence."
"No?" said Caroline, even more innocently. "It must have been whilst you were absent from the hall."
"Fascinating though these domestic details are," said Lord Rothwell in a curt tone, "they do not get us any closer to your brother's present whereabouts. He is not at his Penfold Lodge stables where I was expecting to transact a matter of business with him, neither is he here. At what hour do you expect him?"
"Oh, I never expect Harry," said Caroline. "It makes it all the more pleasant when he does appear. I daresay the alarm over my friend's indisposition caused his appointment with you to slip his mind. May I ask him to wait on you?"
Her visitor's eyes grew sardonic. "That will not be necessary. If he hasn't the courtesy to be at Penfold Lodge himself, I shall take my horse regardless of his groom's pettifogging objections. Perhaps you would tell him so when you have the happiness to see him next." He turned to leave.
A quick alarm jumped in Caroline's breast. "Has there not been some mistake? We - my brother does not train any of your lordship's horses."
Lord Rothwell's well-shaped eyebrows rose. He put up his quizzing glass and surveyed her from top to toe. Caroline returned the look in defiance of the edict that young ladies should be modest at all times. She knew well enough what he was seeing: brown hair that refused to curl, regular features with nothing to lift them out of the ordinary, an ill-fitting gown in blue-spotted muslin, slightly scuffed indoor slippers. In other words: a plain girl, indifferently dressed, too unfinished for society's taste and not rich enough to be worth cultivating. "You are conversant with all the inhabitants of your brother's stable?" he said sarcastically.
"Yes." She caught the flicker of surprise in his face and schooled herself not to show any satisfaction at having bested him. "Harry runs Penfold Lodge for our cousin - and since he has never been much of a hand at letter writing..."
"The reports fall to you. As do making his excuses whenever they are called for." Lord Alexander Rothwell's disapproval was etched into his countenance. "I should have thought you too young."
"People generally do," agreed Caroline.
He held her eyes a moment longer, then shrugged. "I won a horse from your brother last night. His groom is adamant that it cannot be released to me without Mr Fortune being present to confirm the transaction."
"I am glad to hear it." But despite her light tone, Caroline's stomach abruptly dropped away. That was why Harry had slithered off this morning. And she had been sorry for him and Louisa for having to snatch these stolen moments where they could! Which horse had he lost? They couldn't afford to give away any of them. She covered her anxiety with the superficial chatter she had developed to distract Mama from the fact that she wasn't doing whatever it was that she had been asked to do. "I am sure if the case were reversed, you would tell your own men to do exactly the same."
"I, Miss Fortune, would have left instructions to - " Lord Rothwell broke off as he registered the unfortunate juxtaposition of syllables in her name. "Dear me," he said, "now I understand why your older sister was so precipitous in accepting that wet fish Mitton's offer of marriage. At the time I assumed it was to escape your mother's relentless thrusting of her into the bosom of society."
Caroline gasped. He really was astoundingly rude. "Mr Mitton has many good qualities. He and Honoria are very happy. If you will excuse me whilst I change my shoes, I will accompany you to Penfold Lodge to resolve this muddle."
"You?" He looked unflatteringly sceptical.
She drew an exasperated breath, not caring whether he heard. He was the most uncivil man she had ever met, she was furious at Harry having staked one of their horses in a wager when he had promised faithfully that he would never do such a thing again and just at this moment she wanted nothing more than to be rid of the pair of them. "It seems the most expedient solution. Especially in view of the fact that the first sweepstake is due to start in little over an hour and you will doubtless wish to attend it." She didn't give him a chance to argue (or ask how she came to be conversant with the times of the races on Newmarket Heath), but swept past the loitering butler and ran up the stairs to her chamber.
Within a very few minutes she was ready. So, alas, was Scroope. He barred the doorway, righteousness incarnate. "Do I understand, miss, that you are proposing to walk through the streets with a gentleman unrelated to you without even a maid?"
Caroline sighed. Scroope was a new addition to the household. New and extremely tiresome. "It is but a step to Penfold Lodge. And if you can find a maid in this house prepared to set so much as a toe out of doors when Newmarket is populated by the racing fraternity, I will gladly take her."
The butler's jowls quivered. "Mrs Fortune would never forgive me if I allowed you to go out in such an improper fashion."
"Nonsense. Whatever your feelings on this head, Mama's maternal anxieties will be considerably allayed when she hears Lord Rothwell escorts me."
The gentleman in question instantly swung around from where he had been adjusting the tilt of his high-crowned hat in the mirror. "Good God, you are right. How considerate of you to alert me to the danger." He clicked his fingers at the young footman standing glassily to attention at the foot of the stairs. "Is your presence by that newel post vital for the next fifteen minutes?"
"No, sir," said the footman, flustered. "That is - "
"Then you may follow us to Penfold Lodge and prevent either of us from compromising the other on the way."
Caroline knew she should be mortified by Lord Rothwell's accurate reading of Mama's character, but was having difficulty not laughing at the incensed look on the butler's face. "I shall call on Mrs Penfold whilst I am there, Scroope. One of the Lodge servants will escort me back."
They traversed the short distance rapidly, Lord Rothwell evidently not considering it necessary to decrease his normal pace simply because a female walked alongside him. "Are you always so rude?" Caroline asked.
"I find it separates the wheat amongst my acquaintance from the chaff. Are you always so direct?"
"Certainly not. Young ladies with no accomplishments, small portions and average looks cannot afford to be."
He glanced at her, surprised again. "And yet you are to me. May I ask why?"
"Because I have no accomplishments, a small portion and average looks, of course. The 'my lords' of this land are rarely interested in commoners, however much Mama may wish otherwise, and so it is better to be businesslike, is it not?"
"It is unfortunate your brother is not of the same mind," said Lord Rothwell. "You would then have been spared a walk."
"Think nothing of it. I like to walk and would not have been able to otherwise. Harry has done me a favour with his forgetfulness."
She spoke unconcernedly, but she was increasingly certain that her brother had 'forgotten' Lord Rothwell on purpose. Dearly as she loved Harry, she cherished few illusions about him and knew he was apt to be unrealistically optimistic when in his cups. This was not the first disastrous wager he had made. Every time he swore he would not do it again.
At Penfold Lodge, there was a surface calm which did not deceive Caroline for one moment. Her quick eyes noted a closed door on a stall which had been empty that morning, two strangers whom she assumed were Lord Rothwell's grooms, and all their own men, even those who should by now be taking their break, standing in attitudes of unconvincing idleness in the yard. "Good morning, Flood," she said. "I understand there has been a little trouble."
The head groom's stolid, weatherbeaten face relaxed. He jerked a thumb at one of the men in front of the closed stall. "The trouble, Miss Caro, is that this here nasty, cheese-faced runt said he had orders to take away Rufus. So I said I didn't have no orders to let him. So then his lordship turns up but with no sign of Mr Harry nor no note or letter neither. So that's where we stand."
Caroline's hand had flown to her breast in alarm. "Rufus? What exactly were the terms of your bet with my brother, my lord?"
Rothwell spoke impatiently. "I wagered my bay hunter against his chestnut stallion that I would throw sevens before he did."
Dice! The part of Caroline that wasn't panicking was furious. Harry hadn't even bet at cards where he had some skill, but at dice which everybody knew was purely luck! "Then I am afraid I see the problem only too well," she said, keeping her voice composed. No wonder her brother had escaped with Louisa leaving her to sort this out! She was venturing on to very shaky ground here. The only thing she could think of was to trust to his lordship's sense of honour. "I regret to inform you, sir, that you have been misinformed. Rufus does not belong to Harry, and so was not his to bet. Rufus is mine."
Lord Rothwell looked bored. "Naturally he is. Has been since last week, I daresay, and the ink barely dry on the transfer papers. I confess I am disappointed. I expected a better ploy."
Anger flickered in Caroline. "I assure you it is true. Lady Penfold left him to me in her will last year. She was my godmother. If you care to ask at the Jockey Club, they will tell you he has been entered under my assumed name of 'Mr Lodge' for the past three meetings."
"S'right, my lord. That's what I tried to tell this thieving cat's-paw of yours, only he's seemingly got dung in his ears and couldn't hear me," said Flood. "Mr Harry don't own a chestnut stallion at all."
"Then what the devil was he doing accepting the wager?"
"I might ask what you were doing proposing it when he was evidently in his cups," countered Caroline.
"I beg your pardon?"
Caroline gave him back stare for frosty stare. "It stands to reason that he must have been, my lord."
For a moment they locked wills. Caroline could feel the flags flying in her cheeks but she was determined not to give way. A scandal such as this, touching on Harry's honour, could ruin him completely.
"Is it common knowledge?" Lord Rothwell snapped at last.
Relief thundered in her veins. "That I own Rufus? I believe so. Certainly amongst the regular race-goers."
"Your magpie here knew for sure," put in Flood. "Seen him making enquiries last October."
Lord Rothwell's eyes swivelled to his groom. "Is this true, Jessop?"
"No, sir," said the undersized man virtuously. "I'd have telled you if it was." He shot a malevolent look at Flood.
Caroline found his lordship's gaze on her again and read fury, chagrin and exasperation in it. Now she had made her point, she could almost feel sorry for him. He would be roasted unmercifully once his friends discovered he'd been gulled. Stop that, Caroline! Stay on the attack! "Perhaps you would like to inspect the rest of our cattle?" she said. "To prove that the only chestnuts on the premises belong to other people?"
His lips thinned. "I believe I would."
"Not him," said Flood, jerking a thumb at Jessop again. "I'm not having the likes of him loose in my stables."
"Back to the White Hart, Jessop," said Lord Rothwell. "Saddle my riding horse. I shall not be long."
The groom sent another vicious look at Flood and hurried away. The second lad gulped and followed.
"You allow your groom extraordinary licence," observed Lord Rothwell.
"Flood has been at Penfold Lodge these thirty years. I would not dream of questioning his judgement when it comes to stable matters." Caroline halted at the first paddock where the foals frolicked up to the rail, expecting treats. She was surprised to see a softening of her companion's features as he watched their antics. Perhaps the man was not wholly inhuman after all. They continued on past the two-year-olds ("The chestnut filly and the bay colt are ours, the other two belong to my cousin.") to the last field where the older horses grazed. Rufus ambled over, blowing gustily down the front of her pelisse.
Lord Rothwell compressed his lips. "You have made your point. He is evidently your horse."
"Only since Lady Penfold died," said Caroline, feeling that she could now afford to be generous. "But I helped her grandson birth him and then I cared for him when Bertrand was sent overseas with his regiment, so we have always had a special bond."
"This horse must be five or six years old. You were surely very young to be playing midwife?"
"Thirteen. I daresay I was a great pest." She took a shaky breath and turned her face away, berating herself for not yet having conquered her sense of loss. "Bertrand was killed in the Peninsular which is why Penfold Lodge now belongs to Lady Penfold's great-nephew." She gave the stallion a last rub along his neck and headed back towards the stables.
"And these are all you have?"
Caroline forced herself to sound businesslike. "Apart from two mares running today. Our facilities are excellent - Lady Penfold was something of a stickler where her horses were concerned - but we do not have that much room at the Lodge, and thought it sensible to stay small for the first few years. Harry is a good trainer, especially of young horses, but it is awkward enough having him in direct competition with the Fortune string without giving Papa even more excuse to accuse him of overreaching himself."
Lord Rothwell gave a short laugh. "Sense is not an attribute I would have awarded to your brother after last night's exhibition."
"It was very bad of him to mislead you by omission. I daresay it never crossed his mind that he might lose." Please, she thought, please let him be magnanimous.
There was a heavy silence. Then, "I am prepared to forget the matter."
Swift relief coursed through her.
"Provided, of course, that he keeps to the second half of the bet."
Caroline perceived that she had celebrated too soon. Her heart sank into her boots. "There was a second part?"
"Why yes, that he could take any horse in my stables and turn it into a race winner by the last day of the Second Spring Meeting." Lord Rothwell looked at her blandly. "He was most insistent it could be done."
He would be. And sadly, the brag had Harry's bravura stamped all over it. There would be no getting out of this bet.
"You must see that as a conscientious owner, I could not pass over such a chance."
"No indeed. Very laudable of you." Heavens above, if harry was making that sort of boast, it was astonishing that they didn't have a stableful of his cronies' no-hopers! Caroline picked up her pace as they returned to the yard, trying to think how best to deal with this new development. She moved distractedly to the closed stall. "Who is in here, Flood?" she said, lifting the hasp.
"Imbecile girl!" yelled Lord Rothwell, hauling her back. "Don't you know never to approach a strange horse without hearing its history!" As if to underline his words, a loud crash, as of a furious hoof hitting a timber wall, was heard from the stall.
Caroline's heart banged wildly in her chest. Not at the horse's kick but at Lord Alexander Rothwell's grip on her arm. She would never have believed he could move so fast or be that strong. There were disciplined muscles under the fine waistcoat and moulded coat. Calm down, Caroline. No sensibility on show, remember? "Ah. that will be the second part of the wager, I take it," she said, praying for her voice to sound detached. "You had best let me have the horse's details for our records." She moved across to the tack room and reached for a ledger with hands which shook a little. "Did your bet encompass terms? Is Harry to provide you with this winner at his own expense for the next month?"
Lord Rothwell had also regained his aplomb. He brushed a fleck of dust from his coat. "You are either impressively cool, Miss Fortune, or abysmally ignorant. Send the reckoning for the usual livery and training costs to the White Hart." His eyes glinted. "The mare is called Solange. Four years old. Also known as the Widowmaker. Good day."
Caroline watched him stalk through the archway. "And good day to you also, my lord," she muttered. "Flood, if you see my brother before I do, you had best tell him to get himself measured for a coffin," she said.
Alex strode irritably up the High Street, irritation compounding what hadn't been a good mood to start with. Giles would be in whoops. Doubtless the mistake would be all over Crockford's before the day was done. Be damned to Fortune! Why couldn't he have said straight out the chestnut wasn't his? He hadn't been that foxed. A twinge of conscience interposed. Maybe he had been. Maybe they both had been. But what the devil was there to do other than drink and gamble when one was away from the distractions of London or the obligations of one's estate on the far side of the metropolis in Surrey. Alex ground his teeth. Only two days into this ridiculous task and he'd already had to bite his tongue not to defend himself against the scorn in that chit's eyes. Lady Jersey had a lot to answer for.
Alex crossed the road and wheeled sharply right. The yard of the White Hart was crowded with post-chaises and horses, but Jessop came up at once leading Chieftain, the brown gelding Alex favoured for crowded events such as race meetings. A flick of Alex's eyes showed him one of his hacks, also saddled and ready. Damn the man's impertinence. "I shan't need you," he said curtly, then swung himself onto Chieftain's back and set off at a smart trot up the street towards Newmarket Heath.
Once there, Alex blessed the gelding's easy strength and placid temperament as they forged a path through spectators and competitors alike. More than one gentleman was having trouble controlling a highly-strung mount made over-excited by the crowd. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Giles d'Arblay's man in the grooms' enclosure, taking a pull at a tankard. Alex tightened his lips. Giles was far too lax. Let him catch one of his own grooms drinking whilst in charge of the horses and there would be trouble.
He guided Chieftain towards the post, exchanging greetings with spectators on horseback and nodding courteously to acquaintances manoeuvring curricles into optimum viewing positions.
"Giles!" he called, espying the blond locks and classic profile of his friend.
The Honourable Giles d'Arblay extricated his horse from amongst a knot of others. "Not riding your new acquisition? Damn, and I was going to challenge you to a few furlongs before you'd got the measure of him."
Something in his laughing face gave Alex pause. "You knew? You knew when you suggested the bet?"
Giles grinned ingenuously. "There was always a chance Fortune would be greenhorn enough to pay up."
"Instead of which I have been made to look a fool. Why, Giles?" Alex spoke mildly, his attention apparently on the runners lining up for the sweepstake.
Giles shrugged. "I lost money on that damned chestnut last year. Offered to buy him afterwards but Fortune had the infernal cheek to tell me he wasn't for sale. Thought losing to the son of a Duke might teach the scoundrel a lesson."
"Using me as an instrument of revenge, in fact."
"Can't change the habits of a lifetime. Look out! They're off!" And with a whoop, Giles was plunging after the racers with the other like-minded Bloods.
Alex followed more slowly, unable to conjure up any enthusiasm for a race where he had nothing at stake. He could hear Giles hollering, exhorting the jockey he had backed to greater efforts and was vexed by his friend's insouciance. Surely a gentleman approaching his thirtieth birthday should not still be playing off the same tricks which had amused him a decade earlier?
In the Penfold Lodge stables, Caroline and Flood opened the top half of the door to the grey mare's stall.
"Hello, Solange," said Caroline in gentle tones.
The horse rolled a bloodshot eye at her.
"What do you think?" Caroline asked Flood. "Has she been ill-treated?" She couldn't really believe it. Not after the way Lord Rothwell had smiled at the foals.
The stocky groom subjected the mare to an experienced scrutiny. "No marks, but she's as nervous as a grave digger on All Hallow's Eve, that's for sure."
"We'll just talk to her, then," said Caroline, leaning her elbows unthreateningly on the half-door. "Get her used to our voices. How did those grooms get her here?"
Flood snorted. "Push, pull and prod. Bloody near come in sideways, she did. So many sparks flying off her hooves it's a wonder we wasn't burnt to the ground. The youngster was terrified. Reckon he was only there to hang on to the rope and take the blame if she got away."
Caroline was thoughtful. "You said you'd seen Jessop before?"
"Know him of old. Ugly customer. No feel for animals, up to all thr tricks going, none too choosy about his company and too friendly with the bent legs about the course for comfort. Never stays with anyone for long."
"Lord Rothwell is not much of an employer if he takes on men like that."
"Most likely done through an agent. His lordship'll find him out soon enough if the whispers that he's planning on making a stay here are right."
Caroline wasn't quite sure what she thought about that. Normally the ton moved on once a race week was over. The idea of Lord Alexander Rothwell striding impatiently around the town after everybody else had gone was vaguely disturbing. "Would you say the mare is calmer?" she said. "Shall I rub her down? It cannot be comfortable having her coat stiff with dry sweat, and it may be that she will find the presence of a female in her stall less threatening than that of a male."
"I'll slip her in some water first. Mr Harry'll have my ears if she lashes out at you."
Caroline continued to talk to the mare as Flood filled a bucket and pushed it through the floor-level hatch designed for the purpose. Solange seemed quite quiet now, and bent her head to drink.
Caroline watched for a moment more, then entered the stall. Mama was forever enumerating her failings, but lack of courage had never been one of them. She took a handful of hay from the rack and unhurriedly began to rub it across the grey mare's flank.
"Keep an eye out for bruises, Miss Caro," warned Flood, his hand on the hasp of the half-door ready to fling it open at need.
"I can't see any. But she does most decidedly need a good brush."
"I'll see to that after you've done. Them grooms where she was must have been too chicken-hearted to go near her." He sounded disgusted that members of his own calling could have put up such a poor show.
Working steadily, and talking softly the while, Caroline had finished one side and nearly completed the other when shouts from the yard announced the return of the men from their break. Instantly Solange's head whipped up and a challenging scream broke loose from her.
God in Heaven! Caroline was suddenly trapped against the wall facing a horse composed entirely of sinew, teeth and iron-shod hoof. She kept mortally still. "Quieten them," she said on a thread of breath.
Flood cast her an agonised glance, but could do nothing to rescue her. He scrambled for the door. The grooms' voices fell abruptly silent. Caroline's heart thumped as tension slowly shivered out of the grey mare. Solange rolled her eyes one last time, snorted and lipped her hay. Caroline edged out of the stall and sat down in a rush on a bale.
Lord, Miss Caro, I thought you were a goner for sure there." Flood pushed the hasp back down with a grunt of relief.
Deep breath. Several deep breaths. It was a long time since she'd last felt that threatened by a horse. "She's not partial to noise, then."
"You could say."
Caroline's eyes met his. "Which means," she mused slowly, "if we're to win the bet and turn her into a respectable member of horsekind to boot, this stable will have to be kept quieter than a faro table in Heaven for the next month."
A grim smile appeared on the groom's face. "Trust me for that, lass. 'Widowmaker' indeed. They'll be eating their words by the time we're through."
They had better be or it would be bellows to mend with Harry, thought Caroline. She was still trembling with reaction to Solange's potentially lethal transformation. Her mind recalled the sardonic amusement in Lord Rothwell's light hazel eyes as he'd made his adieux. He had known full well what he was leaving them. Good God, it was tantamount to murder! What sort of man played that kind of trick? She dearly wished she could see his face if he ever learnt that it wasn't Harry who trained the difficult horses, but Caroline herself.
End of Chapter 1