Every English village had to have at least one eccentric-and Mary Gates, the old squire’s daughter, was Lyford Meadows’s. She dressed in men’s clothing, was capable of out-swearing a stable hand, and claimed to be as good as any man alive, if not better . . . especially when the subject was horses.
Tye Barlow stifled the urge to swear aloud as he spied her wending her way through the crowded yard. He’d not wanted her here. Had hoped she’d stay away. Why didn’t Mary know her place like other women?
Instead, she moved among the completely male crowd of buyers assembled at Lord Spender’s stables for the horse auction with easy, loose-limbed grace, seemingly oblivious to the surprised but appreciative silence trailing in her wake. Conversations stopped. Eyebrows raised. Speculation appeared in men’s eyes.
Tye understood their response. Mary was a beauty, the loveliest woman in the shire, a red rose among the smell of muck and horses. Aristocratic breeding might mark her high cheek bones and straight, elegant patrician nose, but in the depths of her sea green eyes was a hint of fire, a trait passed to her from some Viking ancestor who had raided these parts . . . and she had a sensual full lower lip that begged to be kissed.
Nor did her unconventional dress disguise womanly curves. Her buff breeches were baggy in the seat, her brown wool jacket over long, and yet from the scuffed toes of her worn boots to the rakish tilt of her beaverskin hat, her mannish dress enhanced feminine attributes in a way that excited the imagination. Her sole concession to her sex was the trim of lace edging her snowy white neckcloth, a cool, silent thumbing of her nose at the world.
Mary did what she liked and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.
She stopped to greet Lord Spender and removed her hat. Sunlight caught and held on the gold-silver splendor of her pale blonde hair. Pulled back in a simple queue, it reached her waist and swung with the movement of her body like a bright and dazzling lure.
Men gaped in stunned admiration. Several of them, the outsiders, moved closer, their predatory instincts aroused. Tye frowned. If she were smart, she’d move her tail nearer to where he stood alongside her brother-in-law. Of course, Mary always bragged she knew how to handle unwelcome attention. And as much as she vowed she didn’t need or want a man in her life, he suspected she knew exactly how attractive she was. In fact, right now, she appeared to flaunted it . . . and there didn’t seem to be a man in the area who could resist her.
Because he knew her. Too well.
Behind her vibrant beauty was the stubbornness of a high-strung broodmare in foal. And when Mary kicked out in anger, she always hit her target.
Her estate bordered his. Her grandfather had given his grandfather a precious stake of land for years of devoted service and her family had rued the day since. In retaliation, her father had feuded with Tye’s, a feud Mary gleefully carried forward and he resignedly upheld in self-defense.
As if she sensed she was being watched, she slowly turned and looked through the milling crowd directly at him. She placed her hat on her head at a jaunty angle and gave him a small salute. Instantly, Tye was on guard. She was up to something. His frown deepened and she laughed.
He turned to David Atkinson, the local horse doctor and her brother-in-law. “What is Mary doing here?”
Atkinson pulled his pipe from his mouth. “You couldn’t have expected her to stay away from the biggest horse event of the season? Not Mary.”
Tye had expected it. In fact, he’d gone to great pains to keep the news of Spender’s sale from her. It had not been easy. He’d personally waylaid any handbills that could have gone in her direction and sworn his friends to secrecy.
“You didn’t tell her?” Tye accused.
“No, but I would have,” David shrugged. “She’s my sister-in-law.”
“I pity you.”
David grinned. “There are times,” he admitted.
Brewster, the local pub owner, confessed, “I told her.”
Tye confronted him. “You know I didn’t want her here. You promised.”
“Come, man, Mary’s one of us. She has to be here. It’s the sale of the Stud,” Brewster said in his defense.
“I told her, too,” Blacky said. He was a barrel chested man who ran the village smithy. “She has admired the Stud as much as any of us. He’s been a part of our lives and now he will be gone. I remember when he won his first race. I made a handsome profit and have always backed him since. I can’t believe Spender is selling him. ‘Tis a pity this day, I tell you. The sky should be black.”
“Aye,” Brewster said. “What will Lyford Meadows be without the Stud?”
Tye understood their sentiments. He’d watched Tanners Darby Boy grow since the horse was a green colt, had even had a hand in his training. To date, Tanner was the winningest horse in all Britain. Spender was a fool to sell him just because the horse had gone lame. The foals thrown from Tanner would be worth a fortune-a fortune Tye intended to make. He’d come to this auction not was an observer but as a bidder. He had eight hundred carefully saved pounds to his name and he’d spend it all if need be.
As if reading his mind, Brewster asked David, “Who do you think will buy him? Appears all of England is here.”
“And some from foreign parts, too,” Blacky said with a dark glance at a group of Europeans. “Next to them Spaniards is Frenchies. Can you believe it? The smoke from our cannons has barely cleared and here they are trying to buy our horses.”
“He’ll go to whomever can afford him,” David said flatly. “Spender told me he doesn’t care who buys him as long as the price is high.”
“How much do you imagine he’ll bring?” Brewster asked.
Blacky shook his head. “A winning horse like Tanner with years of breeding ahead of him? Five hundred, maybe as high as six or seven.”
“He’ll bring in seven times that as a stud,” Blacky said with disgust. “Why sell now?”
They all looked to David for the answer. As horse doctor, he had the most reliable gossip. He didn’t disappoint. “To give to his nephew. That’s him down front.” He nodded to a ruddy faced young man who appeared barely old enough to shave and whose lime green waistcoat and red jacket made him stand out like a rooster among sparrows. Worse, the gent wore blue velvet boots. Tye couldn’t understand why any man would put anything but good leather on his feet.
“He’s Spender’s heir,” David continued. “The old man dotes on him and a more selfish, priggish lad you’d have to travel far to meet.”
“But to sell the Stud . . .?” Brewster said.
“The lad wants to go to London and live in style,” David said. “Spender wants him to be happy. Besides, he can’t let a horse of Tanner’s caliber fall into the nevvy’s hands. The lad’s not a horseman. Has no appreciation for the beast. This way, Spender raises the blunt and ensures Tanner goes to a man who will see the horse’s line continues to rule the race courses.”
“And what of Lyford Meadows?” Brewster asked. “The Stud was like one of us. We were all so proud of his every victory.”
“I don’t think either Spender or his nephew cares what the horse means the village,” David answered.
But Tye did. If all went well, he’d be a hero this day, although he kept his own counsel.
Vicar Nesmith wandered up. “I say, Barlow, knew I’d see you here. I’m to ask if you can come to the vicarage for dinner Sunday. Grace made me promise.” Grace was the oldest of the vicar’s five daughters, each of them lovely and sweet . . . and anxious to marry.
“Oh,” Blacky said as if remembering something he’d almost forgotten. “Clara is hoping you will join us for dinner tonight.” He lowered his voice. “I was supposed to ask yesterday but I forgot and you’d better say yes or she won’t give me a minute’s rest. Having an unmarried sister is becoming a burden beyond compare. You and me will have our meal then sneak out to Brewster’s for a pint to console ourselves over the loss of the Stud.”
A tingling along the back of his neck warned him Mary had approached even before her mocking voice said, “Ah, yes, the Buck of the Parish is in demand.”
Tye frowned. “Mary,” he said, a curt acknowledgement.
“Barlow,” she countered.
The others were friendlier. There were times Tye suspected they all actually liked her. As the late squire’s daughter, she was accorded respect, even if the man had been a bastard beyond compare.
The vicar said with an apologetic shrug, “Barlow is the most eligible bachelor in the parish. Just because you don’t want him, Miss Gates, doesn’t mean the other lasses aren’t going to chase him.”
Brewster snorted. “Now that would be a sight, Miss Gates and Barlow courting.”
The others laughed, sharing a good joke . . . but Tye and Mary didn’t. For the briefest second, his gaze met hers, and he wondered if she was remembering a time when she hadn’t been so adverse to him. A time when he’d avidly given chase–?
As if reading his thoughts, she gave him her back. “Yes, that ‘twould be a sight, wouldn’t it?” she arrogantly agreed with the others and lifted a tankard of punch from the tray of a passing servant. “What is your motto, Barlow, ‘love them all; settle on none’? Fortunately, I have higher standards than dallying with former servants.” She referred to his grandfather having served as her family’s head groom.
Several jaws dropped at her insult. Mary pushed the limits. He’d be justified in leveling her and she’d have naught to say in her defense.
Nor was she in any position to attack him. Not after the scandal she’d created-how long had it been now, nine years ago when she had been sixteen and he turning twenty? Yes, here was the opportunity to set her in her place, right there in front of them all–but then, something about the defiant lift of her chin coupled with the hint of troubled shadows in her eyes brought him to his senses.
She hadn’t had an easy time of it. Her father had been a gambling fool who had practically destroyed Edmundson, the family’s horse farm, with his excesses and grand ambitions. She’d kept the estate together with hard work and shrewd management. And then there were the rumors of an affair between herself and Lord Jergen’s son. ‘Twas whispered her father had practically thrown her at the man who had taken advantage of her and subsequently jilted her.
Tye didn’t know the truth. He did know that at one time Jergen’s son had been enamored but had returned to London alone. Shortly after, Mary had donned her breeches and forsworn men.
In another lifetime, she could have been a biddable lass, happily married with children clinging to her side. Instead, she ran Edmundson for her fourteen year old brother Niles who was away at school. She did a good job in spite of the fact everyone knew the family lived from hand-to-mouth.
Yes, Mary Gates had learned the hard way how to squeeze a shilling. Any dreams she’d harbored of a wealthy husband and secure position in society were lost. Tye could let her have her pride.
Fortunately, Lord Spender decided the time had arrived to start the auction. He was a self-important man who clung to the era of wigs, snuff, and satin jackets for special occasions and his horse sale was a major event. His belly overflowed his breeches and strained at the silver buttons of his vest. The slightly askew angle of his wig gave testimony to the strength of the punch he was serving.
“His dandified nephew must cringe every time he spends company with the man,” David said from the side of his mouth and
Tye agreed. However, today the pompous nevvy seemed at peace. Anything for money.
Lord Spender relished the moment by welcoming them with a few modest jokes. Tye crossed his arms impatiently, anxious for the sale to begin.
At last, Spender called up the auctioneer, a Welshman, he had imported for this event. The villagers muttered to themselves that this was one more slight his lordship had handed them. Brewster could have run the auction better. Tye didn’t join in the black comments. Tense with the waiting, he stood a little to one side of his friends. He noticed Mary did the same.
The auction started with the presentation sale of several inconsequential broodmares. Fine horses all, but not the caliber of Tanners Darby Boy. Tye’d always believed Spender should have invested in better mares. The prices these animals fetched were low. He chomped at the bit for the sale to move on.
Then, at last, the moment arrived. With the proper flourish, the Welshman announced Tanner. The crowd of buyers perked up with interest. Several moved forward toward the front. A groom led the strutting bay stallion out-and Tye had never wanted anything in the world as much as he wanted this horse.
Tanner had been England’s premier winner until an accident on the field eighteen months ago had cut short his racing career. His breeding was impeccable as was his conformation: long back, short head, powerful legs. He was the embodiment of the very best in a race horse.
“Turn him around, turn him around. Let them see all of him,” Lord Spender urged his groom and then beamed with pride as the lad complied, retracing the horse’s path before the half circle of buyers. The horsemen craned their necks, evaluating the Stud with seasoned eyes. These were men who appreciated good horseflesh and knew it came at a price.
Abruptly, the horse stopped. His ears pricked up and he scanned the crowd, intelligence in his dark brown eyes. His gaze honed in on Tye.
For a heartbeat, Tye couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. The horse was choosing him. He felt it all the way to his bones