Overview

Will wishing on a star save her life . . . and bring her love?
Die, Aldridge.
The painted threat oozes down the stable’s walls. Nicole Aldridge, the only child of England’s finest jockey, is driven by one goal: to protect her father from merciless blackmailers. To make ends meet, she disguises herself as a boy to compete in a celebrated derby. But her new employer is Dustin Kingsley, the marquis of Tyreham, a devastatingly attractive nobleman who soon ensnares Nicole in his ...
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Wishes in the Wind

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Overview

Will wishing on a star save her life . . . and bring her love?
Die, Aldridge.
The painted threat oozes down the stable’s walls. Nicole Aldridge, the only child of England’s finest jockey, is driven by one goal: to protect her father from merciless blackmailers. To make ends meet, she disguises herself as a boy to compete in a celebrated derby. But her new employer is Dustin Kingsley, the marquis of Tyreham, a devastatingly attractive nobleman who soon ensnares Nicole in his sensual thrall. London’s most eligible bachelor, Dustin has despaired of finding a woman who can be his equal in every way. When he discovers that his new jockey and the restless beauty he meets under a starlit sky are one and the same, he uses his seductive wiles to coax out Nicole’s deepest secrets. But their passion spirals out of control, plunging Dustin and Nicole into a world of shadow and mystery. With enemies all around and hope fading fast, destiny grants the desperate lovers one last wish.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When England's best jockey refuses to throw a race for a murderous gang, his daughter, Nicole Aldridge, knows he has to go into hiding. To make an income, she poses as a young man and takes a job as a jockey for the renowned horse breeder Dustin Kingsley, Marquis of Tyrehamand brother of Echoes in the Mist's Trenton Kingsley. Dustin immediately recognizes her as a woman, nicely avoiding the more clichd aspects of this overused device. Nicole and Dustin love each other immediately, which, while it scotches any romantic tension, does motivate Dustin to investigate the gang threatening his "miracle." Kane's stiff and unnatural writing is the biggest distraction: even before a reader can settle into her armchair, Nicole comes out with "Thus, I know what pressure you've been suffering these past weeks," continuing on to "Exactly who are these horrible men? Are they capable of making that threat a reality?" All in all, for a Regency romance, this is a pretty good mystery. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781453265574
  • Publisher: Open Road Media
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Series: Kingsley in Love , #2
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 477,487
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Andrea Kane is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty-five novels, including fourteen historical titles and twelve contemporary novels. Her books have been published in sixteen countries and translated into more than twenty languages. Kane published My Heart’s Desire, her first historical novel and the first book in the Barrett family series, in 1991. Others quickly followed, including Samantha, the second book in that series, Echoes in the Mist and Whispers in the Wind (the Kingsley in Love series), as well as her acclaimed Black Diamond, Thornton-Bromleigh Family, and Colby Coin series. Kane’s 2000 romantic thriller Run for Your Life became an instant New York Times bestseller. Her other suspense novels include No Way Out, Twisted,and The Girl Who Disappeared Twice,a New York Times bestseller that introduced Forensic Instincts, an eclectic team of maverick investigators. The Line Between Here and Gone (2012) continues the Forensic Instincts story. Kane lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter.  
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Read an Excerpt

Wishes in the Wind

The Kingsley in Love Series (Book Two)


By Andrea Kane

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1996 Andrea Kane
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-6557-4


CHAPTER 1

NEWMARKET, SUFFOLKSHIRE, ENGLAND APRIL 28, 1875


DIE, ALDRIDGE.

The painted words pierced Nicole's soul like the fatal stab of a dagger.

Bloodred, they trickled down the stall's rear wall, sending shards of terror streaking up her spine. Unconsciously, she gripped Oberon's reins more tightly, unable to enter the thoroughbred's quarters, equally unable to back away.

All semblance of the past hour's reveling vanished in a heartbeat, the jubilant celebration spawned by her father's victory in the 2,000 Guineas forgotten in lieu of this grotesque spectacle.

Die, Aldridge.

Nicole's eyes squeezed shut—a futile gesture, for it could not erase the imprint of that pointed, sinister threat.

"Nickie?" From thirty feet away, Nicholas Aldridge sensed, rather than saw, his daughter's reaction. Extricating himself from his fellow jockeys, he made his way through Newmarket's stable to her side, patting Oberon affectionately as he passed. "What's wrong?"

His question died in his throat as he followed Nicole's gaze. "Damn," he swore softly.

"Papa," she managed, turning to face him. "What ...?"

"It's paint, Nickie. Only paint. Not blood."

"I realize that." She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "But its meaning is clear." Violet blue eyes studied her father astutely. "It's because of the race, isn't it? Because you wouldn't cooperate?"

Her father glanced furtively from side to side. "How did you know about that? Sullivan swore to me he wouldn't say a word."

"Sully told me nothing. He didn't need to. I'm not blind, Papa. Nor am I deaf. I've heard you tossing about at night, just as I heard your hushed conversations with Sully. Thus, I know what pressure you've been suffering these past weeks. But I had no idea the consequences of your refusal could be as serious as—" Nicole broke off, her tormented stare returning to the ominous crimson letters. "Who painted that?" she demanded. "Exactly who are these horrible men? Are they capable of making that threat a reality?"

"The scum who painted that message are merely pawns, Nickie. They deliver messages with their fists." Shoving back his cap, Nick dragged a forearm across his brow, then gulped at the bottle of ale he held. "As far as who issued their orders, I have no idea. But will he make sure they're carried out? I fear—" His mouth snapped shut.

Nicole needed no further reply. Her chin came up, determination overriding panic. "Then we must act. Now. Before they have time to do so first."

"Act?" Fatherly protectiveness surged to life in Nick's eyes. "Nicole, you don't understand what—who—we're up against. These men are experts at coercion. There's no way for me to escape. I knew that from the instant I was approached, just as I knew there'd be hell to pay if I didn't throw this race. My visitors made that very clear." His somber gaze returned to the painted message. "Consequences," he muttered. "Pursuit. Harassment. Hell, even a beating. I expected all that. I also figured they'd try to blacklist me. None of it would have worked. I'm too damned tough to whip into submission and too damned good at what I do to be banned from the course. But murder?" His expression grew haunted, as if by uttering the word aloud he'd made the prospect all the more tangible.

"Let's go, Papa." Nicole was already in motion, having urged Oberon into his stall and untacked him with the skillful speed of a professional head lad. Snatching up a rag, she seized her father's bottle of ale, dousing the wall and vigorously scrubbing until the warning was no more than a muted blur. "There. Now no one will know the reason we fled."

"Fled?" Nick's head jerked around. "I just finished telling you—"

"Hey, Nick!" Gordon Sullivan's deep voice interrupted them. Seconds later he strode into Oberon's stall. "We're celebrating your victory. What's keeping you and the elf?"

Unsmiling, Nick turned to his longtime friend and colleague. "They were here, Sully. They left their calling card."

Sully's grin vanished. "Dammit. I was afraid this might happen." He broke off, his uncertain gaze flickering to Nicole.

"Say what you like," Nick supplied. "My clever elf has figured it all out."

An unsurprised nod. "What type of calling card?"

"A threat," Nicole supplied, inserting herself between the men. "Painted in red. Bloodred. Sully, they mean to kill Papa. I've got to convince him to get out of here. Before it's too late."

"Kill him?" Sully echoed. "They used those words?"

"Their precise message was, 'Die Aldridge.' That's terrifying enough for me."

Beads of perspiration broke out on Sully's brow. "Nick, something's not right here. You know as well as I do that these bastards don't kill. Pressure, thrash—yes. But kill? No." A flicker of apprehension. "Unless they're backed into a corner."

"You're talking about Redley," Nick supplied with a scowl of disbelief. "He was a bloody fool, Sully. Besides, we have no proof those lowlifes killed him."

"Don't we?" Sully's tone was ominously quiet. "You and I both ran the course at Doncaster last September. We both heard Redley boast to everyone within hearing distance that he'd thrown the St. Leger trial for himself, not for the scum who'd browbeaten him. He vowed to turn the tables, blackmail them out of thousands of pounds. Three days later, his quarters were ransacked and he was found dead."

"Oh, my God." Nicole went sheet white. "I thought he'd been robbed."

"It's possible he was." Nick wrapped a protective arm about Nicole's shoulders. "Stop it, Sully. You're scaring Nickie. Besides, the point is moot. I didn't give those hoodlums any cause for alarm. All I did was refuse to throw the race."

"Then why are they threatening to kill you?"

"The reasons don't matter," Nicole intervened. "Papa's safety does. I won't gamble with his life, Sully. I'm taking him away. Now."

Sully took in the all-too-familiar set of Nicole's jaw. "I agree, Nick must disappear, but not through your efforts, through mine."

"No." Nicole's veto was instant and fierce. "That would endanger your life as well. I won't have it."

"Nor will I," Nick concurred. "We'll find another way."

"Neither of you is thinking clearly," Sully accused with an exasperated shake of his head. "It's not my life that's at stake here. Nor is it solely yours, Nick." Scowling, he gave voice to the unpleasant truth. "These men aren't amateurs. They know everything about you—including the existence of your revered only child. If you're in danger, so is Nicole."

"Damn," Nick hissed, all the color draining from his face. "I never considered that."

"Even if that's the case, Sully, you won't ensure my safety by risking your own," Nicole interrupted, her mind racing for answers. "So please don't get involved. This problem is mine. Mine and Papa's."

"Really?" Sully arched a brow. "And how do you intend to handle it? By dashing off to parts unknown like a reckless filly, Nick in tow? By running away with no strategy or means of survival?" He assessed Nicole's mutinous expression in utter exasperation.

Raucous laughter reached their ears.

"We haven't time for this argument now," Sully pronounced, glancing swiftly over his shoulder to confirm that none of their fellow jockeys had drifted close enough to overhear him. Confident that, for the moment, they remained alone, he dug into his pocket and extracted a key. "Take Nick to my quarters. They're less than a mile from yours and a whole lot safer. Undoubtedly, whoever left that message knows where you live. By tomorrow they might have figured out that you've taken off, and come looking for you. I'll slip into your rooms tonight, before that happens. I'll fetch your things and bring them to you. By morning we'll have devised a plan to get you out of Suffolk—both of you—to transport you somewhere secluded. And I do mean secluded, not London during the heart of the racing season. Once we get you settled, you'll stay put until those bastards find a new victim. They can't hurt you if they can't find you. Now go."

"No bloody way," Nick denounced with a hard shake of his head. "Sully, have you lost your mind? I'm a jockey. How do you suggest I ride if I'm stashed away like some hidden treasure?"

"I don't suggest you ride. I suggest you stay alive. For your sake—and Nicole's." Sully wasn't mincing words. "Now get the hell out of here before those ruffians come back to effect their threat." He groped in his jacket, pulling out several folded bills. "Take these. It's not much but it's all I've got, and, combined with your prize money, it'll be enough to buy you food and a place to stay."

"Keep your wages." Nick shoved his friend's hand away. "You're as noble—and as rash—as my daughter. Even if I were willing to give up racing and drop out of sight to protect Nickie, she and I need an income in order to survive. How long do you think we'd last on a few pounds?"

"Well have an income, Papa," Nicole inserted, fists clenched at her sides. "I'll provide it."

Simultaneously, both men glared at her.

"What crazy idea are you thinking up this time, Elf?" Nick demanded, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"It's not crazy. It's perfectly reasonable. Sully just claimed that I, as well as you, are in danger. Or rather, that Nick Aldridge and his daughter are. Well, I can eliminate both the danger and our lack of money."

"And how will you do that?"

"By ceasing to be your daughter."

Another silence, more ponderous than the first.

"Listen to me, Papa." Nicole gripped her father's forearms, excitement tingeing her cheeks as her plan took shape. "Those men will be hunting for Nick and Nicole Aldridge. Well, we won't be found. You'll be in hiding. And I'll no longer be Nicole Aldridge."

"And who, may I ask, will you be?"

An unconcerned shrug. "I haven't invented a name. At least not yet. But what I call myself doesn't matter. What matters is what I shall be, not who. And the answer to that is any one of a dozen things. A stable hand. A trainer. An apprentice to a trainer. I could go on and on. The point is, I'm qualified to perform any of those jobs. Better, in fact, than most any man in this stable. You, more than anyone, realize that's true. Not only did I grow up with horses, I learned from the best. Nick Aldridge. I can answer whatever equestrian ads the Gazette brandishes. Take any position at any stable, public or private." The tiniest of pauses. "I could even be a jockey."

Despite the refusal hovering on his tongue, Nick couldn't help but grin. "Ah, now we get to the truth. A jockey. Your greatest wish—to race. Is this your attempt to replace me in next month's Derby then?"

Nicole shook her head. "No one could replace you, Papa. You're the finest jockey in England. My wish is to race beside you, not in your stead."

"You underestimate yourself, Elf." Affectionately, Nick brushed a strand of ebony hair from her cheek. "Your horsemanship constantly amazes me. And that's a qualified assessment, not paternal pride talking. You have an incredible knack with horses."

"If so, it's because I'm your daughter."

"Not for long, according to the plan you've just spouted."

A tolerant sigh. "My pretense will only be for the world's prying eyes, Papa."

"I see. Tell me, then. This scheme of yours, hasn't it failed to take one very important detail into account?"

"The fact that I'm female."

"Um-hum."

"Well, I won't be. Not outside our home. When I go to seek employment, I'll be a man."

"A man," Nick repeated woodenly, ignoring the choked sputtering that emerged from Sully's throat.

"Yes." Nicole grinned impishly. "And a bloody good one at that."

Without looking away, Nick raised his palm, effectively severing Sully's oncoming verbal protest. "Elf," he continued, "that's absurd. Impossible."

"Why?"

"To begin with, there's nothing manly about you. Why, you're scarcely five feet tall and slender as a reed."

"And you're but a few inches taller and not many pounds heavier. As was my grandfather, and his father before that. The entire Aldridge line—all exceptional jockeys—were short and slight. An asset, I believe you said, in your line of work. I don't recall anyone questioning your masculinity."

"You're not only tiny, Elf, you're delicate and ..." Flushing, Nick sought the right words, eventually abandoning his attempts and gesturing vaguely in the direction of Nicole's softly curving body. "You're twenty years old, Nickie. A grown woman. Although God knows I seem to forget that fact often enough."

"If I'm able to make you forget, the rest of the world will be easy to delude—especially once my disguise is complete. I'll pad my uniform, bind myself down. Believe me, Papa, no one will suspect I'm anything but an eager and adept young man."

"Hey, Sully! Where the hell are you?" came a shout from the far end of the stable. "Now we've lost you and Nick?"

With a start, Sully recovered both his voice and his awareness that precious minutes were ticking by. "Coming!" he called back, his worried stare fixed on Nick. "Go out through the rear," he hissed. "I'll tell the others Nicole took sick." Purposefully, he shoved the bills into Nick's hand, disregarding his friend's protest. "Don't be a bull-headed fool. You'd do the same for me. Now go. We'll talk later."

"Sully, I ..."

"Go, dammit." Sully planted himself directly behind them, thereby obstructing any onlooker's view of their departure.

"Thank you, Sully," Nicole whispered. In a heartbeat, they were gone.


Spraystone Cottage The Isle of Wight

"Dustin, you're as restless as the waves of last night's storm," Ariana Kingsley declared, her turquoise eyes glimmering with humor, "and you have been ever since you arrived at Spraystone. It's been three days. And, while I never thought I'd say this, you're more insufferable than Trenton when you brood."

"That bad?" Dustin Kingsley returned with mock dismay. He rolled his brandy goblet between his palms, gifting Ariana with the melting smile that, according to countless affirmations, left a line of swooning women in its wake.

"Worse." Despite the levity of her tone, the duchess of Broddington studied her brother-in-law anxiously, wishing she could discern the cause of his unrest. Since the day they'd met, she and Dustin had been solid friends—and not only because of their mutual love for Trenton. Theirs was a caring, honest rapport, one that made Ariana feel as much Dustin's sister as if they were bound by blood.

Which made his uncustomary reticence all the more perplexing.

Blowing a wisp of auburn hair off her face, Ariana was on the verge of probing further when, from the corner of her eye, she spied a more immediate dilemma—one that propelled her from her armchair and sent her dashing across the sitting room in record time.

Deftly, she extracted her eight-month-old son, Alexander, from beneath the sideboard, scolding him as she gathered him in her arms. "And just what are you doing?"

Chuckling at his nephew's antics, Dustin leaned back against the cushioned settee, crossing one long leg over the other. "I believe he was on the verge of mastering the fascinating challenge that's been endlessly plaguing him. After days of eyeing the sideboard and all its bottles and fine crystal, he was hell-bent on inspecting them at close range. Had you delayed your interruption a scant moment longer, he would have pulled himself up and accomplished his feat."

"And my entire floor would be doused in madeira and garnished with slivers of glass," Ariana muttered. With an exasperated sigh, she glared at her innocent-looking son, striving to appear stern. "You," she informed him, marching back to her chair, "are an untamable tempest."

"I quite agree." Dustin flexed his shoulders, grimacing at the resulting stiffness. "Every muscle in my body aches from that tiny tyrant. I'm unused to such a whirlwind of activity."

"Now why don't I believe that?" Ariana responded dryly. "From the gossip I've heard thus far this season, it sounds as if you've attended every party and danced with every woman the ton has to offer. Soon you'll be forced to travel abroad in order to discover new prospects. Rather like you do with your thoroughbreds."

"An interesting concept." Surprisingly, Dustin sobered, staring pensively into his drink. "Unfortunately, however, I'm finding the allure of my thoroughbreds to be far more long-standing than that of my liaisons. I fear my brother snatched up the last real treasure in a vast array of shoddy imitations."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Wishes in the Wind by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1996 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1 Newmarket Suffolkshire, England April 28, 1875

Die, Aldridge.

The painted words pierced Nicole's soul like the fatal stab of a dagger.

Bloodred, they trickled down the stall's rear wall, sending shards of terror streaking up her spine. Unconsciously, she gripped Oberon's reins more tightly, unable to enter the thoroughbred's quarters, equally unable to back away.

All semblance of the past hour's reveling vanished in a heartbeat, the jubilant celebration spawned by her father's victory in the 2,000 Guineas forgotten in lieu of this grotesque spectacle.

Die, Aldridge.

Nicole's eyes squeezed shut -- a futile gesture, for it could not erase the imprint of that pointed, sinister threat.

"Nickie?" From thirty feet away, Nicholas Aldridge sensed, rather than saw, his daughter's reaction. Extricating himself from his fellow jockeys, he made his way through Newmarket's stable to her side, patting Oberon affectionately as he passed. "What's wrong?"

His question died in his throat as he followed Nicole's gaze. "Damn," he swore softly.

"Papa," she managed, turning to face him. "What...?"

"It's paint, Nickie. Only paint. Not blood."

"I realize that." She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "But its meaning is clear." Violet blue eyes studied her father astutely. "It's because of the race, isn't it? Because you wouldn't cooperate?"

Her father glanced furtively from side to side. "How did you know about that? Sullivan swore to me he wouldn't say a word."

"Sully told me nothing. He didn't need to. I'm not blind, Papa. Nor am I deaf. I've heard you tossing about at night, just as I heard your hushed conversations with Sully. Thus, I know what pressure you've been suffering these past weeks. But I had no idea the consequences of your refusal could be as serious as -- " Nicole broke off, her tormented stare returning to the ominous crimson letters. "Who painted that?" she demanded. "Exactly who are these horrible men? Are they capable of making that threat a reality?"

"The scum who painted that message are merely pawns, Nickie. They deliver messages with their fists." Shoving back his cap, Nick dragged a forearm across his brow, then gulped at the bottle of ale he held. "As far as who issued their orders, I have no idea. But will he make sure they're carried out? I fear -- " His mouth snapped shut.

Nicole needed no further reply. Her chin came up, determination overriding panic. "Then we must act. Now. Before they have time to do so first."

"Act?" Fatherly protectiveness surged to life in Nick's eyes. "Nicole, you don't understand what -- who -- we're up against. These men are experts at coercion. There's no way for me to escape. I knew that from the instant I was approached, just as I knew there'd be hell to pay if I didn't throw this race. My visitors made that very clear." His somber gaze returned to the painted message. "Consequences," he muttered. "Pursuit. Harassment. Hell, even a beating. I expected all that. I also figured they'd try to blacklist me. None of it would have worked. I'm too damned tough to whip into submission and too damned good at what I do to be banned from the course. But murder?" His expression grew haunted, as if by uttering the word aloud he'd made the prospect all the more tangible.

"Let's go, Papa." Nicole was already in motion, having urged Oberon into his stall and untacked him with the skillful speed of a professional head lad. Snatching up a rag, she seized her father's bottle of ale, dousing the wall and vigorously scrubbing until the warning was no more than a muted blur. "There. Now no one will know the reason we fled."

"Fled?" Nick's head jerked around. "I just finished telling you -- "

"Hey, Nick!" Gordon Sullivan's deep voice interrupted them. Seconds later he strode into Oberon's stall. "We're celebrating your victory. What's keeping you and the elf?"

Unsmiling, Nick turned to his longtime friend and colleague. "They were here, Sully. They left their calling card."

Sully's grin vanished. "Dammit. I was afraid this might happen." He broke off, his uncertain gaze flickering to Nicole.

"Say what you like," Nick supplied. "My clever elf has figured it all out."

An unsurprised nod. "What type of calling card?'

"A threat," Nicole supplied, inserting herself between the men. "Painted in red. Bloodred. Sully, they mean to kill Papa. I've got to convince him to get out of here. Before it's too late."

"Kill him?" Sully echoed. "They used those words?"

"Their precise message was, 'Die Aldridge.' That's terrifying enough for me."

Beads of perspiration broke out on Sully's brow. "Nick, something's not right here. You know as well as I do that these bastards don't kill. Pressure, thrash -- yes. But kill? No." A flicker of apprehension. "Unless they're backed into a corner."

"You're talking about Redley," Nick supplied with a scowl of disbelief. "He was a bloody fool, Sully. Besides, we have no proof those lowlifes killed him."

"Don't we?" Sully's tone was ominously quiet. "You and I both ran the course at Doncaster last September. We both heard Redley boast to everyone within hearing distance that he'd thrown the St. Leger trial for himself, not for the scum who'd browbeaten him. He vowed to turn the tables, blackmail them out of thousands of pounds. Three days later, his quarters were ransacked and he was found dead."

"Oh, my God." Nicole went sheet white. "I thought he'd been robbed."

"It's possible he was." Nick wrapped a protective arm about Nicole's shoulders. "Stop it, Sully. You're scaring Nickie. Besides, the point is moot. I didn't give those hoodlums any cause for alarm. All I did was refuse to throw the race."

"Then why are they threatening to kill you?"

"The reasons don't matter," Nicole intervened. "Papa's safety does. I won't gamble with his life, Sully. I'm taking him away. Now."

Sully took in the all-too-familiar set of Nicole's jaw. "I agree, Nick must disappear, but not through your efforts, through mine."

"No." Nicole's veto was instant and fierce. "That would endanger your life as well. I won't have it."

"Nor will I," Nick concurred. "We'll find another way."

"Neither of you is thinking clearly," Sully accused with an exasperated shake of his head. "It's not my life that's at stake here. Nor is it solely yours, Nick." Scowling, he gave voice to the unpleasant truth. "These men aren't amateurs. They know everything about you -- including the existence of your revered only child. If you're in danger, so is Nicole."

"Damn," Nick hissed, all the color draining from his face. "I never considered that."

"Even if that's the case, Sully, you won't ensure my safety by risking your own," Nicole interrupted, her mind racing for answers. "So please don't get involved. This problem is mine. Mine and Papa's."

"Really?" Sully arched a brow. "And how do you intend to handle it? By dashing off to parts unknown like a reckless filly, Nick in tow? By running away with no strategy or means of survival?" He assessed Nicole's mutinous expression in utter exasperation.

Raucous laughter reached their ears.

"We haven't time for this argument now," Sully pronounced, glancing swiftly over his shoulder to confirm that none of their fellow jockeys had drifted close enough to overhear him. Confident that, for the moment, they remained alone, he dug into his pocket and extracted a key.

"Take Nick to my quarters. They're less than a mile from yours and a whole lot safer. Undoubtedly, whoever left that message knows where you live. By tomorrow they might have figured out that you've taken off, and come looking for you. I'll slip into your rooms tonight, before that happens. I'll fetch your things and bring them to you. By morning we'll have devised a plan to get you out of Suffolk -- both of you -- to transport you somewhere secluded. And I do mean secluded, not London during the heart of the racing season. Once we get you settled, you'll stay put until those bastards find a new victim. They can't hurt you if they can't find you. Now go."

"No bloody way," Nick denounced with a hard shake of his head. "Sully, have you lost your mind? I'm a jockey. How do you suggest I ride if I'm stashed away like some hidden treasure?"

"I don't suggest you ride. I suggest you stay alive. For your sake -- and Nicole's." Sully wasn't mincing words. "Now get the hell out of here before those ruffians come back to effect their threat." He groped in his jacket, pulling out several folded bills. "Take these. It's not much but it's all I've got, and, combined with your prize money, it'll be enough to buy you food and a place to stay."

"Keep your wages." Nick shoved his friend's hand away. "You're as noble -- and as rash -- as my daughter. Even if I were willing to give up racing and drop out of sight to protect Nickie, she and I need an income in order to survive. How long do you think we'd last on a few pounds?"

"We'll have an income, Papa," Nicole inserted, fists clenched at her sides. "I'll provide it."

Simultaneously, both men glared at her.

"What crazy idea are you thinking up this time, Elf?" Nick demanded, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"It's not crazy. It's perfectly reasonable. Sully just claimed that I, as well as you, are in danger. Or rather, that Nick Aldridge and his daughter are. Well, I can eliminate both the danger and our lack of money."

"And how will you do that?"

"By ceasing to be your daughter."

Another silence, more ponderous than the first.

"Listen to me, Papa." Nicole gripped her father's forearms, excitement tingeing her cheeks as her plan took shape. "Those men will be hunting for Nick and Nicole Aldridge. Well, we won't be found. You'll be in hiding. And I'll no longer be Nicole Aldridge."

"And who, may I ask, will you be?"

An unconcerned shrug. "I haven't invented a name. At least not yet. But what I call myself doesn't matter. What matters is what I shall be, not who. And the answer to that is any one of a dozen things. A stable hand. A trainer. An apprentice to a trainer. I could go on and on. The point is, I'm qualified to perform any of those jobs. Better, in fact, than most any man in this stable. You, more than anyone, realize that's true. Not only did I grow up with horses, I learned from the best. Nick Aldridge. I can answer whatever equestrian ads the Gazette brandishes. Take any position at any stable, public or private." The tiniest of pauses. "I could even be a jockey."

Despite the refusal hovering on his tongue, Nick couldn't help but grin. "Ah, now we get to the truth. A jockey. Your greatest wish -- to race. Is this your attempt to replace me in next month's Derby then?"

Nicole shook her head. "No one could replace you, Papa. You're the finest jockey in England. My wish is to race beside you, not in your stead."

"You underestimate yourself, Elf." Affectionately, Nick brushed a strand of ebony hair from her cheek. "Your horsemanship constantly amazes me. And that's a qualified assessment, not paternal pride talking. You have an incredible knack with horses."

"If so, it's because I'm your daughter."

"Not for long, according to the plan you've just spouted."

A tolerant sigh. "My pretense will only be for the world's prying eyes, Papa -- "

"I see. Tell me, then. This scheme of yours, hasn't it failed to take one very important detail into account?"

"The fact that I'm female."

"Um-hum."

"Well, I won't be. Not outside our home. When I go to seek employment, I'll be a man."

"A man," Nick repeated woodenly, ignoring the choked sputtering that emerged from Sully's throat.

"Yes." Nicole grinned impishly. "And a bloody good one at that."

Without looking away, Nick raised his palm, effectively severing Sully's oncoming verbal protest. "Elf," he continued, "that's absurd. Impossible."

"Why?"

"To begin with, there's nothing manly about you. Why, you're scarcely five feet tall and slender as a reed."

"And you're but a few inches taller and not many pounds heavier. As was my grandfather, and his father before that. The entire Aldridge line -- all exceptional jockeys -- were short and slight. An asset, I believe you said, in your line of work. I don't recall anyone questioning your masculinity."

"You're not only tiny, Elf, you're delicate and..." Flushing, Nick sought the right words, eventually abandoning his attempts and gesturing vaguely in the direction of Nicole's softly curving body. "You're twenty years old, Nickie. A grown woman. Although God knows I seem to forget that fact often enough."

"If I'm able to make you forget, the rest of the world will be easy to delude -- especially once my disguise is complete. I'll pad my uniform, bind myself down. Believe me, Papa, no one will suspect I'm anything but an eager and adept young man."

"Hey, Sully! Where the hell are you?" came a shout from the far end of the stable. "Now we've lost you and Nick?"

With a start, Sully recovered both his voice and his awareness that precious minutes were ticking by. "Coming!" he called back, his worried stare fixed on Nick. "Go out through the rear," he hissed. "I'll tell the others Nicole took sick." Purposefully, he shoved the bills into Nick's hand, disregarding his friend's protest. "Don't be a bullheaded fool. You'd do the same for me. Now go. We'll talk later."

"Sully, I..."

"Go, dammit." Sully planted himself directly behind them, thereby obstructing any onlooker's view of their departure.

"Thank you, Sully," Nicole whispered.

In a heartbeat, they were gone.

Spraystone Cottage

The Isle of Wight

"Dustin, you're as restless as the waves of last night's storm," Ariana Kingsley declared, her turquoise eyes glimmering with humor, "and you have been ever since you arrived at Spraystone. It's been three days. And, while I never thought I'd say this, you're more insufferable than Trenton when you brood."

"That bad?" Dustin Kingsley returned with mock dismay. He rolled his brandy goblet between his palms, gifting Ariana with the melting smile that, according to countless affirmations, left a line of swooning women in its wake.

"Worse." Despite the levity of her tone, the duchess of Broddington studied her brother-in-law anxiously, wishing she could discern the cause of his unrest. Since the day they'd met, she and Dustin had been solid friends -- and not only because of their mutual love for Trenton. Theirs was a caring, honest rapport, one that made Ariana feel as much Dustin's sister as if they were bound by blood.

Which made his uncustomary reticence all the more perplexing.

Blowing a wisp of auburn hair off her face, Ariana was on the verge of probing further when, from the corner of her eye, she spied a more immediate dilemma -- one that propelled her from her armchair and sent her dashing across the sitting room in record time.

Deftly, she extracted her eight-month-old son, Alexander, from beneath the sideboard, scolding him as she gathered him in her arms. "And just what are you doing?"

Chuckling at his nephew's antics, Dustin leaned back against the cushioned settee, crossing one long leg over the other. "I believe he was on the verge of mastering the fascinating challenge that's been endlessly plaguing him. After days of eyeing the sideboard and all its bottles and fine crystal, he was hell-bent on inspecting them at close range. Had you delayed your interruption a scant moment longer, he would have pulled himself up and accomplished his feat."

"And my entire floor would be doused in madeira and garnished with slivers of glass," Ariana muttered. With an exasperated sigh, she glared at her innocent-looking son, striving to appear stern. "You," she informed him, marching back to her chair, "are an untamable tempest."

"I quite agree." Dustin flexed his shoulders, grimacing at the resulting stiffness. "Every muscle in my body aches from that tiny tyrant. I'm unused to such a whirlwind of activity."

"Now why don't I believe that?" Ariana responded dryly. "From the gossip I've heard thus far this season, it sounds as if you've attended every party and danced with every woman the ton has to offer. Soon you'll be forced to travel abroad in order to discover new prospects. Rather like you do with your thoroughbreds."

"An interesting concept." Surprisingly, Dustin sobered, staring pensively into his drink. "Unfortunately, however, I'm finding the allure of my thoroughbreds to be far more long-standing than that of my liaisons. I fear my brother snatched up the last real treasure in a vast array of shoddy imitations."

Ariana inclined her head. "Did something unpleasant happen at Newmarket?"

"Yes. My mare lost."

"Very amusing. That's not what I meant and you know it. You're not one to agonize over your losses -- probably because they rarely occur. Now, are you going to answer my question?"

"Touché." Dustin raised his glass in tribute. "Very well. No, nothing happened at Newmarket -- at least nothing tangible. But you're right. I am restless. Why? I haven't a clue. Perhaps it is time to travel abroad. I might not find intriguing women, but I'm sure I'll discover an Arabian or two.

Unfooled by his lighthearted quip, Ariana studied Dustin, wondering how her brother-in-law would react if she were to tell him what she believed to be not the immediate but the underlying cause of his malady. Was he ready to hear it? And was she the one to impart the fact that he was far too warm and loving a man to be eternally content with empty dalliances and profitable horse races?

Chewing her lip, Ariana resettled herself -- and her son -- in the cozy armchair.

Alexander was gone before she'd smoothed her skirts. He slid down the seat cushion, dropped to the rug, and crawled toward the sideboard -- a miniature bandit intent on completing his crime.

He collided with his father's boots.

"Well, I see you've kept your poor mother occupied. All day, I suspect." Hoisting Alexander into his arms, Trenton Kingsley crossed over to his wife. "I'm home, misty angel." He bent, brushing her lips with his. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too." Ariana caressed her husband's jaw. "You've been gone forever. It was scarcely dawn when you left for Bembridge. Was the storm's destruction that severe?"

A tired nod. "Unfortunately, the village sustained quite a bit of damage. The good news, however, is that most of it is now in the process of being rectified."

"In other words, you spent all day securing the homes and providing for the families."

Trenton smiled tenderly at the blatant pride in her assertion. "It wasn't so remarkable a feat. After all, I have the money and the knowledge of the structures."

"You also have the heart," Ariana added fervently, love shining in her eyes. "You're incredible -- and I don't mean as an architect or a duke. I mean as a man."

"And you're beautiful." Trenton frowned, stroking the shadows of fatigue beneath her lids. "But you look exhausted. In retrospect, I'm sorry we didn't bring Alexander's governess to Spraystone with us. At least you would have had some assistance."

"I couldn't do that to Mrs. Hopkins. She was more exhausted than I. Why, she nearly wept with joy when I told her to stay at Broddington for a much-needed rest. I suspect she'll sleep the entire week in anticipation of Alexandees return. Besides, I did have some help. Dustin was a savior."

Trenton's gaze flickered to his brother. "My thanks are twofold, then. One for helping Ariana with my rascal of a son, and one for remaining at Spraystone and keeping an eye on them both while I was away. I know you wanted to help out in the village, but when I left this morning, the skies were still ominous, the grounds were covered with splintered wood, and the base of the hill behind the cottage was badly flooded. I would never have left Ariana and Alexander alone, nor would I have trusted them into anyone's care but yours."

"My pleasure." Dustin waved away the thanks, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly. "Although, if you ask me, neither debris nor rushing waters are any match for your son. In truth, I believe that, had the storm chosen to resume, it would have survived a scant hour in Alexander's company before spinning out over the Solent as fast as its winds could whip."

Laughter rumbled in Trenton's chest. "You're probably right. What did my little villain do today?"

"You name it," Dustin replied, counting off on his fingers. "Painted the oriental rug in the library a vivid green, used the silver tea service as a thunderous new musical instrument, plucked stray feathers from your hens. He has a propensity for detail, your son. The uneven feathers seemed to offend him. So, once again, did the inexplicable existence of facial hair on human beings." Gingerly, Dustin touched the ends of his mustache and winced. "I take it I'm the only one he knows with one of these."

"Actually," Trenton replied thoughtfully, "I never before considered it, but yes. No wonder it baffles him so."

"Well, I've endured eight months of bafflement in the hopes that he'd come to accept it. But now he's graduated from bafflement to attempted obliteration. He spent the latter portion of the morning trying to detach my mustache from my upper lip. Thus, I've decided to concede and shave the bloody thing off the instant I return to Tyreham. At least that will leave one less part of me for Alexander to destroy." A wry grin. "In any case, by mid-afternoon Ariana had reached the point where she looked as if she were about to drop. So, I took over myself, confident that an eight-month-old's stamina was no match for a vigorous man of two and thirty. After three hours of frolicking in the barn and two hours of storytelling in the nursery, I'd altered my opinion. Your heir wasn't a bit fatigued, while I, on the other hand, fell asleep on the nursery floor, where I snored away the afternoon, awakening only when Ariana came to fetch me for dinner."

"I see." Trenton had to struggle to control his mirth. "And what, pray tell, did Alexander do during your well-earned respite?"

"Located a new diversion," Ariana sighed. "He squirmed down the stairs, feet first, only to discover the beloved haven you just completed for me. I spotted him as he crossed the conservatory threshold, eyes alight as he realized that it afforded him the same intriguing amusements as the conservatory at Broddington. By the time I'd dashed after him and crept through the pile of dirt he'd spilled, he'd already managed to upend three ferns and topple six geraniums."

Trenton's shoulders were shaking. "He's your son, Ariana. Inspired by flowers and animals."

"I beg to differ with you, Your Grace," Ariana retorted. "Alexander's propensity for getting into trouble is inherited from you. I was, and am, serene and content."

"Content, yes -- after a fashion," Trenton concurred, having given the matter proper consideration. "But serene? Not until I've worn you out."

"Nevertheless," Ariana hastily interrupted, blushing as Dustin disguised his chuckle with a cough, "Alexander's devilish resolve is a Kingsley trait. Like all of you, he's intense, impatient, and perpetually in search of a challenge. I should know. I'm surrounded by Kingsley men."

Dustin stood to replenish his drink. "Why, Ariana, you cut me to the quick. Intense? Impatient? And here I thought I was remarkably easy to get along with; far more charming than Trent, and not nearly as moody or volatile."

"Normally, I'd agree." Trenton joined his brother at the sideboard. "But not this week. This week you've been testy as a bear and unsettled as hell."

Groaning, Dustin lowered the bottle with a thud. "First Ariana, now you. Well, you can both stop worrying. To my knowledge, nothing is wrong. Other than the fact that my trainer is retiring and my last three jockeys have been totally unable to win races." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm just becoming intolerant in my old age. Or maybe, as I told Ariana, it's time to go searching for new horses and horsemen to fill my stables."

"You have the finest thoroughbreds in Surrey -- perhaps even in England," Ariana inserted quietly. "'Tis their owner who is out of sorts, not they."

Silently, Dustin traced the edge of the mahogany sideboard. "Perhaps you're right," he acknowledged.

That did it. Ariana's decision was made.

Rising, she transferred Alexander from Trenton's arms to her own, giving her husband a meaningful look. Talk to him, her eyes pleaded. You're the only one who can.

Wordlessly, Trenton nodded.

"Once again, I'm going to attempt to put Alexander to bed," Ariana stated. "And, given that it's after eight o'clock and his eyelids are drooping, perhaps I'll succeed. After which we can take a chance and sample our dinner. Since Clara was unable to get through Bembridge's flooded roads, I tackled the job of preparing today's meals. I'm encouraged by the fact that Dustin has consumed two of them and continues to live -- a hopeful sign indeed. With a modicum of luck, we'll all survive the ordeal."

"You're a superb cook, misty angel."

"She'd be even better if you'd allow her more time in the kitchen," Dustin suggested, his mischievous grin revived. "Between satisfying Alexander's continual needs and your exhaustive ones..."

"That's it." Ariana scooted toward the door, her cheeks aflame. "I'm off to the nursery."

"Hurry back," Dustin called after her rapidly retreating back. "I look forward to continuing our discussion of your culinary skills."

Still chuckling, he turned to his brother. "She's quite a prize, Trent. Open and honest and so bloody in love with you that it's humbling. You're a lucky man."

"I know." Trenton sipped his madeira, his gaze fixed on Dustin's. "Care to talk about it?" he asked bluntly.

Dustin didn't pretend to misunderstand. "I would if I knew what it was." He sighed, humor eclipsed by uncertainty. "All I know is that lately everything seems so meaningless -- the day-to-day rituals, the business arrangements, the competitions."

"The women?"

"Yes -- them, too." Dustin abandoned his drink. "All in all, my life has become utterly tedious and predictable."

"Predictable?" Trenton's brows rose. "This from the man who changes partners more frequently than he changes clothes?"

"That's just sex, Trent, nothing more than a pleasurable distraction. Gratifying, yes, but distinctly unfulfilling."

"I could name a dozen women who's be thrilled to convert that distraction into a lifetime commitment."

"Marriage you mean?" Dustin shook his head. "I'm afraid you've spoiled me, Brother. After seeing what you and Ariana share, I won't settle for less. The women you're referring to regard me as a coveted prize. They like my money and the title Queen Victoria granted me. Well, perhaps that's enough for some, but not for me. At least sex is honest. Fleeting, but honest. It assuages the body but circumvents the heart. Surely you recall?"

"Yes, I recall," Trenton murmured with the quiet insight of a man who, thanks to his miraculous wife, knew the difference between lovemaking and sex.

"Then there's nothing else to say. I'm drifting, and I know it. But for the time being, I see no alternative."

Trenton nodded, shifting to another unsettled aspect of Dustin's life. "You mentioned several upsets in your staff. I know Banks's retirement comes as no surprise. Still, he's been training your thoroughbreds since you began breeding them to race. His resignation must pose a major setback."

"I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Banks is the best trainer in Surrey, perhaps in England. But I understand his decision. I'd probably make the same one, were I he. Trent, the man is nearing fifty. He's got a wife, children, even grandchildren. He's been training for twenty years, not to mention the ten years of riding he did prior to that. He's tired. Training is grueling as hell. I can't blame him for his choice."

"Nor can I," Trenton concurred. "Have you made arrangements for a new trainer?"

"I've interviewed five. Two of them are good. Damned good. I plan to meet with each once more. Then I'll make a decision."

"What about the ineffectual jockeys you mentioned?"

Dustin rolled his eyes. "Every one of the last three, while appearing to offer great promise when hired, has turned out to be a colossal disappointment."

"You'll rectify that."

"I already have. They've all been dismissed. Permanently. I'm finished tolerating indifference and mediocrity. My stables boast the finest thoroughbreds to date. I want an equally fine rider on their backs. In my mind, only one man fits that description -- Nick Aldridge."

"I can't dispute that." Trenton nodded his approval. "Aldridge is one hell of a jockey."

"Indeed he is. With him in the saddle, my champions will take every race of the season."

"Then I presume Aldridge has agreed to your terms?"

"He will. Once I unearth him, that is."

"Unearth him? Didn't he just ride at Newmarket?"

"Yes, brilliantly. He won the Two Thousand Guineas by at least ten lengths. I fully intended to resolve things then and there by offering him a retainer -- and a small fortune -- to ride exclusively for me. However, as luck would have it, he was surrounded by a mob of well-wishers the instant he passed the winning post, after which no one seemed able to find him. I even sent a messenger to his home that night, but to no avail." Dustin shrugged. "He was probably out celebrating. I'm not concerned. I'll find him. I would have pursued the matter further, had I not been leaving for Spraystone. Upon my return, I plan to place an ad in the Gazette -- one that clearly states Aldridge's name and the terms of my offer. I'm arrogant enough to believe he's heard of me, and that, between my reputation and the sum I'm willing to pay, he'll find me." Dustin rubbed his palms together, a hint of the old Dustin surfacing in the challenging gleam that lit his midnight eyes.

"It sounds as if your tedium is about to come to an end."

"Yes, at least in business matters." The gleam vanished. "So, now that all my problems are resolved, we can ready ourselves for Ariana's excellent meal." An enthusiastic squeal from the upstairs nursery negated that thought.

"You spoke too soon," Trenton muttered with a wry grin. "Evidently, my son has recouped his strength. I'd best go up and hasten this bedtime procedure, lest we starve."

Another squeal reached their ears, followed by Ariana's soft, loving admonishment.

Dustin swallowed, oddly shaken by the tender exchange between mother and son. "Trent, I'll be leaving Spraystone in the morning."

Silently, Trenton absorbed his brother's announcement. "That's a rather sudden decision, isn't it?"

"Sudden, but necessary."

"Why? You arrived only a few days ago."

"I know. And I've enjoyed every moment of my visit. But you need time alone with your wife and son. While I..." Roughly, Dustin cleared his throat. "I've a great deal on my mind and quite a bit to resolve. I'm restless as hell, which you and Ariana both noticed. I think it's best that I return to Tyreham and address that restlessness -- at least the part that's within my ability to control. I've got to get on with my life, whatever the future may hold."

"I understand, perhaps better than you think. Although you know you're welcome here as long as you choose to stay." Trenton placed his hands on Dustin's shoulders, searching for just the right words. "Dustin, you, better than anyone, know how very little I believed in before I found Ariana. I was nothing more than a callous and embittered shell until that blessed day she stumbled into my life. And now? Now I'm whole. I believe in love, in trust, even in forever. If there's hope for an unyielding cynic like me, there's certainly hope for you."

"Thanks, Trent." Dustin didn't pretend to misunderstand. "However, waiting is fast becoming more than a mere inconvenience. To quote your wife, I'm intense, impatient, and perpetually in search of a challenge. A Kingsley trait, I believe she said."

A corner of Trenton's mouth lifted. "Ah, but the rewards are well worth the wait. Just look at how contented this Kingsley has become."

Warmth pervaded Dustin's gaze. "I have. And if ever I doubted the existence of miracles, your transformation has long since erased those doubts. As for the love you and Ariana share, I could wish for no more." He arched a speculative brow. "Now if only I were sure that wishes are granted."

Miles away, gazing, out the window, Nicole was pondering much the same thing -- but for entirely different reasons.

Her eyes damp, she clutched a filigreed locket in her hand, seeing naught but dread in the starlit sky above. "I'm frightened, Mama," she whispered to the ubiquitous heavens. "So frightened. Papa's a wonderful man, and he's all I have. I don't know what I'd do if I lost him." Unsteadily, she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "Can you hear me, Mama? I'm wishing. Just as you taught me, I'm wishing -- for Papa's sake, and for mine. If ever I needed the magic of my wishing locket, it's now. Please..." Nicole's voice faltered, her fist clenched tightly about the delicate piece of silver, "please let this wish come true."

Copyright © 1996 by Andrea Kane

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