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NEWMARKET, SUFFOLKSHIRE, ENGLAND APRIL 28, 1875
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.
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."
"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."
"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."
Excerpted from Wishes in the Wind by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1996 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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