Ireland, early December, 1800
Honora Hoyt stood on her boot toes on a low stone wall to see the race track above the heads of the Marquess of Belden’s elegant party. When a tipsy Lord Harrow stepped in front of her as if she did not exist, she accidentally on purpose toppled his ridiculously tall top hat with her heavy umbrella. The day had turned out quite warm and bright, and she’d regretted the accessory until now.
“Oops, so sorry,” she murmured, catching the fallen chapeau. “I’ll hold it for you, shall I?” Relentlessly, she tucked the curly-brimmed beaver behind the back of her fur-trimmed pelisse, where he couldn’t reach without a tussle. A gentleman did not tussle with Lord Belden’s very proper niece.
The fat toad glared, but the horses were starting to line up on the grassy track, and he returned his attention to the betting. The Christmas festival hadn’t been part of their original schedule, but the bored aristocrats in Belden’s party had been delighted to join in the local celebrations, and even more delighted that it involved horse racing as well as trading.
A city girl this past decade or more, Honora had little interest in rural pastimes and would have preferred a warm fire and a good book. The scent of mince pies and warm mulled cider, however, along with the fiddlers playing in the distance, added a lovely cheer to the day. Although it appeared many of the locals, as well as the gentlemen, were sipping a more potent brew than cider.
She stood on her toes again as a gunshot signaled the horses had broken from the starting line. She’d heard Harrow make a large wager on the favorite, and spitefully, she hoped he lost. Sometimes, her uncle’s business associates were quite tiresome.
Harrow roared in dismay, along with the rest of the drunken crowd, as a small bay mare broke ahead of the pack, eating up the muddy turf with impossibly powerful strides.
“The jockey is a woman,” Honora exclaimed in wonder, to no one in particular. It wasn’t as if anyone in the noble party had an interest in listening to a twenty-seven-year-old spinster of unimposing stature and no prospects.
But the fact that she was normally of quiet nature caused her uncle, Harrow, and a few others to study the bay’s rider closer. Harrow cursed most volubly. The favorite, a stallion, was falling behind.
Honora was oddly pleased that the horse in the lead had a woman rider. Generally, she didn’t approve of breaks in tradition, but generally, she didn’t attend horse races either. She was simply surprised at seeing a woman in breeches. Perhaps female jockeys were common, and she hadn’t known it. She knew London society would censure the disgrace, but this was rural Ireland, a different culture entirely, one that had only just emerged from violent rebellion. As long as she was living dangerously, she might as well enjoy the decadently entertaining sight.
As she strained to watch the horses approaching, she noted a gentleman farther down the wall, wearing a rather festive green tweed coat. He lifted his rakish cap hat at her, but he didn’t stand up to follow the race as others had. Instead, he kept people from blocking his view by the simple expedient of swinging a walking stick the size of a small cudgel in front of him. She could swear he winked at her before returning his attention to the race. Oddly, her pulse beat a little faster. Did she know him?
“Damme if I lose to a woman!” Harrow roared as the horses galloped toward the finish line where Belden’s party stood.
Before Honoria understood what he meant to do, the drunken gentleman snatched a loose stone from the wall and flung it at the pretty mare racing ahead of the pack.
The horse shied. The crowd gasped. The jockey held tight, but it was too late. Off-stride, the mare’s hoof hit one of the mud holes in the turf track. The horse fell, and Honora screamed as the jockey flew over her mount’s head.
Men rushed to grab the mare. The rest of the race continued without it. Oblivious to the mayhem he’d caused, Harrow hollered his satisfaction as the stallion crossed the line to win by a nose.
Wanting to weep, Honora considered beating the wretch over the head with his own hat, but her uncle would disapprove. She respected the marquess far too much to behave in a wayward fashion. Instead, she flung Harrow’s expensive beaver in the mud, and with furious satisfaction, used it as a stepping stone to leap from her perch. Picking her way toward the fallen jockey, she left the hat to be trampled by Belden’s party as they pushed past her. As usual, she was left behind.
“May I?” The gentleman with the cudgel held up his elbow to assist. He leaned heavily on his stick, and his demeanor was grim as she accepted the offer of his arm.
“You saw what he did?” she whispered in horror. And then, the stick and the thick golden-brown hair spilling from beneath his cap registered. “Mr. Burke! Oh dear, we’re a pretty pair again.”
There had been a time. . . when she had been so very green, clenching her cup of ratafia and fighting back tears in some fading ballroom. Tall gentlemen in their colorful frock coats and embroidered vests had passed by her without acknowledging her existence, bowing to the smiling, slender, graceful young ladies who swung gaily through the lively dances. Honora had tripped over her own feet the last time anyone had taken pity on her and asked for a dance.
She’d been absurdly, almost tearfully grateful when a young gentleman in an out-of-fashion coat limped up to ask, “May I?” gesturing at the seat beside her.
“If you do not fear unpopularity is contagious,” she’d replied, and had instantly wished to bite her tongue. Her mother had warned her that she was too quick to snap.
Instead of taking offense, he’d laughed and eased into the chair, stretching an apparently stiff knee in front of him. “The contagion spreading this evening is inanity. I’ve recently been inoculated.” He gestured at his limb. “Tried to outrace a mail coach while riding another man’s steed. Never again.”
Honora tried not to compare the misshapen lump of his knee and weakened leg with his more muscular and shapely other leg. “The horse was a poor one?”
“It was as stupid as its rider and veered at a coney. I ask you, what kind of animal is afraid of a rabbit?”
Honora winced. “A poorly trained one, it seems. Did the horse’s owner know it was so badly behaved?”
“Most likely,” he said with a shrug. “A wager is a wager, and I was the dupe.”
His self-deprecating air was refreshing, and the hours passed swiftly as they exchanged gossip and opinions and developed a friendship that had lasted the season. But he’d done just as he’d sworn he would from the first—left London and never returned. He’d always been honest.
“It’s Meath now, viscount, if you please,” he said, limping toward the track. “My father died, but yes, as usual, we adorn the wall. And as usual, we’re the only ones to observe.”
Although she remembered Mr. Burke—Lord Meath—as entertaining that first spring after his accident, he was not amused now. After ten years, he’d become a powerful man with an unshaven scruff and thick muscles. When he frowned at the backs of the gentlemen surrounding the fallen jockey, she shivered at his fierceness.
“But we’re no longer helpless children,” she announced with a confidence she’d not possessed a decade ago. He may have shattered her foolish heart back then, but they had both grown up since. She marched toward the track. The viscount’s limping stride matched her short one as he fell in with her.
“True,” he agreed with his more familiar humor. “Bell has taken worse falls, but losing this race is a catastrophe for her family and not the Christmas gift they’d hoped.”
“You know the jockey’s family?” she asked in surprise.
“Earl of Wexford’s daughter, Lady Isabell. She’s been a handful since birth, but she’s the one who has been keeping food in the mouth of her little sisters. I don’t suppose you’ve married Croesus?” he asked in a harsh tone.
A lady, daughter of an earl, riding astride! Honora tried not to gape in astonishment while she gathered her wits. Harrow could have killed an earl’s daughter! She had thought forcing the bosky toad to pay for the girl’s injury and the horse’s loss would be sufficient, but this required a whole new round of thought.
“No, I’m not married, but I’m my uncle’s hostess. Belden is richer than Croesus, and Harrow is one of his miserable friends. Someone must be made to pay.” She gripped his arm and winced as a group of men lifted the unconscious lady jockey from the mud.
“That’s her father weeping,” Lord Meath said without judgment. “It’s hard to say whether he weeps for his daughter, the horse, or the debtor’s prison he faces.”
Honora set her lips, poked a few broad backs with her umbrella, and forced her way through the mob in the direction they carried the girl.
Without the confinement of her riding cap, the jockey’s rich mahogany hair spilled down her shoulders. The girl looked much too young to be in this crowd. A few reputable females clung to their husbands’ arms, but in general, it was a rowdy lot unsuitable for very young misses.
“My lord, your carriage is closest,” Honora called to her uncle. “Let us take her to the manor and call a physician.” Finally reaching her goal, she dropped Meath’s arm to take her uncle’s and nudge him into directing the men carrying the unconscious lady.
“Hmpf, yes, of course, a physician. Do they have physicians here?” Belden inquired, gesturing peremptorily at his footman. Of average height and unprepossessing figure, he spoke with an authority that had lesser men stepping out of his way.
“This is Ireland, not Africa,” Lord Meath said in amusement, falling into step with them. He used his cudgel to herd bystanders away as they progressed in the direction of the carriage lane. “Wexford, have you sent for Callahan?” he shouted to the weeping man following his daughter.
The older, slender gentleman stopped and wiped at his face with a handkerchief as he waited for them to catch up. “Meath, good to see you, lad. Are you with his lordship’s party?”
“Introduce us, my lord,” Honora whispered. Her uncle could be a pinch-penny unless confronted with reality. She was determined to set matters right since it was his inebriated party responsible for this disaster. And it was almost Christmas and the lady’s young sisters were at risk!
Lord Meath raised his caramel-colored eyebrows at her imperious command but did as told. “Lord Belden, Miss Honora Hoyt, may I introduce you to Glendon Boyle, Earl of Wexford.”
Belden harrumphed. Honora dropped a hasty curtsy and told the earl, “I’ll attend your daughter if you can help us reach the carriage before we’re crushed in this crowd.”
That gave the men direction. Meath cleared a path with his cudgel, while Wexford straightened his spine and escorted them toward the lane. The crowd parted in their wake, and they arrived in time for Honora to catch up and add propriety to the patient being loaded into the open carriage.
She insisted on taking the backward facing seat and holding the unconscious girl’s head while her uncle, the Marquess of Belden, claimed his usual seat across from her. Belden settled in the center of the seat, as always, and gravely regarded the fallen jockey.