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Newmarket, Suffolk, England
A great swell of music rose from below, bursting over Lord Stephen Manning like a bubble and causing him to lengthen his stride.
He was late.
This is what came of dawdling in Newmarket all afternoon. Titchley Hall lay just outside the famous racing town, and Stephen had passed through on his way to the Earl of Toswick's house party. He'd attended the spring meetings before, of course, but today he'd been unable to resist stopping to see the courses, clipped and ready, and the Heath, lush, green and quiet after all those gorgeous thoroughbreds had finished exercising for the day.
Everything had looked the same, and yet it all felt very different. Stephen had wandered the long, familiar stretch of High Street, trying to unearth a reason for his sense of displacement. Not until he found himself back on the Rowley Mile, mentally measuring the padding on a course post, did the realisation strikeNewmarket was the same. It was he who had changed.
He had been discerning details and noticing incidentals that he never had beforebecause today he looked through new eyes. No longer was he just a spectator, another young blood of the ton seeking the excitement of the races and the thrill of risking his quarterly allowance. He was older now, and hopefully wiser, and, most importantlyhe was a man with all the burdens and responsibilities that came with owning his own racecourse.
All the warmth of pride and accomplishment swept over him again as he reached Titchley's grand stairway. After two long years of work and sweat and sacrifice, he'd done it. He'd taken a neglected and broken-down estate and literally transformed it. Fincote Park lay waiting, pristine and challenging and bristling with potential.
Impatient, Stephen brushed the thought away. He banished, too, the wispy, haunting image of his forlorn mother. Shame and despair had once been Fincote's main commodities, but those days were over now. That's exactly what all those months of labour had been about. He summoned instead the picture of Fincote's people, all the eager and hopeful faces that had seen him off. They were why he had come here. They were what made this house party the most important social event of his life.
The marbled hall at the bottom of the stairs had emptied already. To the right echoed the clink of porcelain and the clatter of furniture as servants transformed a long parlour into a dining area. Stephen rounded the turn in a hurry and headed left instead, toward the brightly lit passage leading towards the ballroom. If luck was with him, then he'd only missed the opening set.
The call came from the door behind him, accompanied by a gust of cool, evening air. Stephen turned. 'Devil take me! It is you!'
A reluctant smile turned abruptly into a wince as George Dunn, Viscount Landry, crossed the hall to pound him enthusiastically on the shoulder.
'By Godbut it is good to see you! How long has it been? I never thought you would stay away from Lon-donand yet it's been months and months.'
'Too long,' Stephen agreed. 'Damned if it's not good to see you, too.'
'Lord, but haven't we missed you? Town has been as dull as ditchwater without you to liven things up!'
Stephen laughed. 'As dull as that? Not that I believe it for a second, old man. Not with you about. You always dreamt up more mischief in a day than I ever could in a month.' He pulled his hand away before the viscount could wring it from his arm.
'Well, that goes without saying,' retorted Landry with a grin. 'But there's never been another that could claim half your style.'
Stephen sketched an ironic bow.
'Do you know that they still talk in the clubs about how you convinced your brother's ladybird that she needed some sort of gambit to truly stand out from the rest of the demi-monde?'
He could not hold back a reminiscent snort. 'I didn't suggest the Bird of Paradise themeshe thought that one up all on her own.'
Landry laughed out loud. 'Garish feathers attached to every gown and bonnetand even her shoes. The daft girl had feathers braided into her mount's mane and entwined through the spokes of the wheels on her gig.' He laughed harder. 'And your brother sneezed every time he got within a yard of her!'
Stephen's smile grew wry. 'Which is only one reason why Nicholas, at least, has been happy to have me tucked away in Sussex.'
'Ah, yes, I recollect it now. The estate you inherited from your mother is out there, is it not? But Good God, man! Surely there was no need to cloister yourself away like a novice in a nunnery!'
Good humour swiftly abandoned him. 'I'm afraid it was necessary. The estate needed attention.'
'Attention?' The viscount gaped. 'I'm sensing one of your infamous understatements. I shudder to imagine what sort of shape the place must have been in to have required nearly two years worth of attention.'
Stephen stiffened. Deliberately, he forced his muscles to relax and reached for a quip to turn the growing intru-siveness of the conversation, but Landry beat him to it.
'No, please.' The viscount held out a staying hand. 'None of your witticisms right now. And do spare me the details. The heavy yoke of my own responsibility is weighing me down. I've no need to add yours to the mix.' He shook his head, his movements gone slow and heavy as if the weight of the world did indeed rest on his shoulders. 'I never thought it would all come so soon. But look to your familyyou, farming out in Sussex, Nicholas happy with his duchess, and your sisters all married and spitting out brats as prodigiously as they used to stir up scandal.' He sighed heavily. 'If the notorious Fitzmanning Miscellany has bowed to convention, then who am I to resist?'
The music drifting from the ballroom ended with a flourish. As if it had been the signal he'd been waiting for, Landry straightened and adjusted his neckcloth. 'Well, let's to it then, shall we?' He set off, but had only taken a step or two towards the ballroom before he stopped abruptly. 'I say, Manning.' Tension hardened his face as he turned back towards Stephen. 'You're not here after the new heiress as well, are you?'
Startled, Stephen laughed. 'God, no.'
Landry relaxed. 'Ah. Good, then.' He bit his lip, considering. 'Not that it's a bad idea, particularly if your estate's coffers are poorly. But I've got first crack at this new girl, I say. She's just back in England.'
'And thus unlikely to have heard anything untoward about you?' Stephen asked with a grin. 'Have at it, man.' He rolled his eyes. 'If you stopped to think a minute, you'd recall just how we Mannings and Fitzmannings came by our epithet. My father married an heiress, did he not? And considering how that all turned out, do you think I would be so eager to repeat his mistakes?'
'Hmm. I hadn't considered it from that angle.'
Stephen gave a shudder. 'You're looking for a leg-shackle? Consider the field open, man. I've far too many irons in the fire to even contemplate such a thing.' Fin-cote was his priority and deserved all of his focus.
Landry brightened. 'But your father did have the right idea about one thing, at least. Marriage needn't make a monk of me.'
They had nearly reached the ballroom. Groups of guests had spilled out and gathered in the passageway here. Landry nodded at an acquaintance, still musing.
'Of course, I cannot see that I would abandon my heiress to live out my days with my mistress, as he did.' He cast a hurried glance in Stephen's direction. 'Not that any man could blame your father. Catherine Ramsey. that is, your stepmother the duchess, eventually Well, there will never be another like her, will there? Women like that come as rare as hen's teeth.'
Stephen didn't respond. It wasn't much of a struggle, really, to keep his face carefully blank. Someone like Landry could never understand the wealth of conflicted emotions he held towards his father, his mother and the woman who had split them apart, but still welcomed him into her chaotic home and happy family. He'd become accustomed to this sort of awkward commentaryjust as he'd become accustomed to deflecting it with a jibe.
Scandalous parents and an unconventional upbringing were burdens that Stephen shared with all of his siblings and half-siblingsand each of them had developed their own tactics to endure them. Redirect, reflect, sidetrackit was a bag of tricks that worked for Stephen as a child. As a course of action it had proven ever more valuable as he grew and had to face even more difficult challenges.
One of which waited within. He and Landry had come to a stop just outside the wide, sweeping doors into the ballroom. Light, heat, noise and the chatter of many voices emanated from within. It might only be the diehard members of the racing community here in Newmarket nearly a week ahead of the start of racing, but it appeared that Toswick had encountered no difficulty filling his guest list.
Landry hung back, obvious reluctance in his eye as he faced the glittering assembly. 'Damn if I'm not envious of you, Manning. You are free to enjoy the evening as it comes, while I must assemble my weapons and enter the hunt.'
'Well, there you are wrong. There's more than one sort of hunt afoot at an event like this. And more prizes to be had than just heiresses.' In fact, the thought of chasing down a woman and her money to solve his problems sent his every feeling into revolt, and not only because of his parents and the mess that they had made of their relationship.
He'd come so far in the last gruelling and backbreak-ing monthsa thousand leagues beyond the attention-hungry young man that Landry had known. And he had done it on his own. He wanted to see this through, must see it through, to prove to himself, and to the people at Fincote, that he could.
Interest, spiked with a bit of mischief, lifted Landry's brow. 'Oh? On the hunt, but not in the petticoat line? What is it then? Shall you rescue your fortune and your estate at the card table?' The viscount looked wistful. 'Perhaps I will join you there, later.'
'No, not cards,' corrected Stephen. 'Something entirely different.' He grew exasperated at his friend's lifted eyebrows. 'It's not farming that I've been up to in Sussex. I've been breaking my backand my bank accountturning Fincote into a world-class racecourse.'
Only Landry could convey so much scepticism with a blink.
Stephen shrugged. 'It's true, old man. Ah, but I wish you could see it.' His heart thumped. With calculation, he allowed his enthusiasm to leak into his words. 'Two courses, both smooth and done up to every modern standard. One with a climbing start and a section along the Downs where you can feel the sea wind in your face. The other a demanding track through the woods with an uphill finish. New stables, accommodations, everything.'
'By God, you're serious!'
'I am. The town's merchants put together a cup and we held a local meet to test the waters. It went off smooth as silk. Fincote is ready and waiting, and now I need to catch the attention of the racing world. It's why I'm here.'
Landry stared as if he'd never seen him before. 'Passion, purpose and planning. My God, it truly is the end of an era.' His mouth twisted into a grin. 'But what do the signs tell you?'
Stephen laughed. 'Rest easyI haven't changed that much. I kept my eye open for portents every step of the way hereyou'll be happy to know that they were all favourable.'
'Well, that is a relief. I confess I would have been distraught had you given up your superstitions entirely.' Landry chuckled. 'And gaining attention was always your strong suit. Have you a plan?'
Stephen lowered his voice. 'What I need is to arrange a truly remarkable private match. A spectacular race that will launch Fincote with a noise heard throughout racing, gain the attention of the Jockey Club and bring every owner, trainer, spectator and stable boy flocking to our doors.' He ran an eye over the shifting crowd before them. 'That's why, even as you are angling after your heiress, I will be angling after an introduction to the Earl of Ryeton.'
Landry's mobile face went perilously still. 'Ryeton?'
'Yes. Do you know him?'
'Enough to warn you away from the man.' Even Lan-dry's voice had gone cold and flat.
Stephen stared at his friend. 'Why?'
Landry shook his head. 'I cannot elaborate. Only believe that I mean this as a friendyou'd do best to stay far away from the man.'
'That's not an option.' He frowned. 'The earl is the reigning king of the turf. His string of winning horses is a mile long. The depth of his stables is amazing. But, most importantlyhe owns the most talked-about racehorse since Eclipse.'
'Pratchett.' Landry nearly chocked on the horse's name.
'Yes, Pratchett. That horse is why I'm here. He's incredible. If I can convince Ryeton to race him at Fin-cote, our success will be assured. People will flock from every corner of the kingdom to see that thoroughbred run, no matter who he's matched against.'
Landry snorted. 'It's a sound enough idea. Unfortunately, Ryeton's not likely to go along with it.'
Stephen bristled. 'Why not?'
'The man's an elitist. A racing snob. Some of the old guard is like that, you knowif you haven't been breeding and racing since the time of Charles II, then you are nothing. And Ryeton's the worst. He decries the entrance of the nouveau riche or even the newly interested into his snug little world.' He made another dismissive sound. 'Although he's not above taking their money.'
Stephen's jaw tightened in determination. 'I have to try. This plan is the best and quickest way to Fincote's success.'
'Try, then.' Landry sighed. 'But you would do best not to hint at an association with me. It won't do you any good in Ryeton's eyes.' 'It's as bad as that?'
'Don't say I didn't warn you.' The viscount stood tall and smoothed his coat. A footman sidled by, heading into the ballroom with a full tray of champagne flutes, and Landry reached out and snagged two as he passed. He handed one to Stephen and held his aloft. 'Success to us both,' he toasted.
'And my thanks for the advice.' Stephen took a sip and watched as Landry drained his in one long drink.
'Ah, the music begins again.' Landry handed his empty glass to a footman positioned just outside the ballroom door. The poor man looked at him and at it in bemusement. 'It is our call to the start, Manning.' He tossed a last cheeky grin as he moved forwards to melt into the crowd. 'And we're off.'
Stephen laughed, then he squared his shoulders and slid into the crowd in another direction. The race had indeed begun. And he did not mean to lose.