In Book One of Romance of the Turf, a refreshing new Regency series from rising star Theresa Romain, a mystery demanding to be solved brings unlikely allies together in more ways than one...
How far will a man go
Talented but troubled, the Chandler family seems cursed by bad luck-and so Nathaniel Chandler has learned to trade on his charm. He can broker a deal with anyone from a turf-mad English noble to an Irish horse breeder. But Nathaniel's skills are tested when his stable of trained Thoroughbreds become suspiciously ill just before the Epsom Derby, and he begins to suspect his father's new secretary is not as innocent as she seems.
To win a woman's secretive heart?
Nathaniel would be very surprised if he knew why Rosalind Agate was really helping his family in their quest for a Derby victory. But for the sake of both their livelihoods, Rosalind and Nathaniel must set aside their suspicions. As Derby Day draws near, her wit and his charm make for a successful investigative team...and light the fires of growing desire. But Rosalind's life is built on secrets and Nathaniel's on charisma, and neither defense will serve them once they lose their hearts...
"Utterly charming." -RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ stars, for To Charm a Naughty Countess
"Superbly written...it is easy to see why Romain is one of the rising stars of Regency historical romance." -Booklist, for To Charm a Naughty Countess
About the Author
Historical romance author Theresa Romain pursued an impractical education that allowed her to read everything she could get her hands on. She then worked for universities and libraries, where she got to read even more. Eventually she started writing, too. She lives with her family in the Midwest.
Read an Excerpt
Late April 1818
Nathaniel Chandler sometimes thought he had traveled every road in England, and he liked them all. He liked the stony walks of Cornwall that fell away sharply to the salt-scented sea. He liked the wagon paths through endless, shifting Yorkshire moorland. He even liked the ramshackle corners of London's rougher bits-where a man had to keep one hand on a pistol and the other on his purse-as much as the wide, smooth paths of Mayfair, where the houses were large and the coal smoke hung less heavily in the sky.
The only road he did not like was the one he was on now, which wound from the high street of Newmarket through his father's lands. Because when the rotunda of Chandler Hall appeared above the trees like a gleaming middle finger to fate, Nathaniel's journey-wherever it had taken him-was at an end.
Not for long, though. Not if he could convince Sir William that his plan was a good one.
When grooms scampered from the grand stables to take charge of the horses and carriage, Nathaniel hopped down and strode off toward Chandler Hall. He crossed the glassy marble floor of the entry hall, turned the handle of the study door, and nudged his way in. "Hullo, return of the prodigal son and all that. How is everyone this afternoon?"
The baronet's study was a slim semicircle that, with the entrance hall and a few other chambers, made up the echoing rotunda of Chandler Hall. Tall windows and a set of glass-paned doors alternated with bookshelves, all stuffed with heavy bound volumes.
Spare and unadorned, it wasn't a pleasant room, exactly. But it was efficient. Which, Nathaniel supposed, suited his father much better than a study full of burled walnut and red velvet tapestries.
Sir William Chandler sat behind the stretching mahogany table he used as a desk. The feathered barb of a quill lay in picked-apart shreds across a series of papers before him. "Nathaniel." When he looked up, his heavy slate-gray brows were furrowed. "Right, right. You were meant to be back today."
"Well-yes. I am back. And I bring good news from London."
The baronet ran skeptical hazel eyes over his younger son. "Did something odd happen? Your clothing is filthy."
Was he? Nathaniel glanced doubtfully down at his coat and waistcoat.
Oh, yes. Right. He was spattered with mud and was all-over grimy.
This was due to a cracked carriage wheel. After crawling on the ground and hammering things, being covered in dirt was inevitable.
But he had learned long ago not to speak to his father of things like cracked wheels-or thrown horseshoes, runaway horses, or thieves who didn't realize Nathaniel carried a pistol. When one traveled the length and breadth of England buying and selling horses, one had to be prepared for unusual occurrences. Still, it was best if Sir William thought everything went smoothly on Nathaniel's journeys.
"It was a milkmaid." Nathaniel leaned against the study wall. "Caught me just after dawn today. She was overcome by lust and wrestled me to the ground. I barely escaped with my dignity intact."
"I wouldn't be so certain you did." The baronet's heavy brows lifted. "You encounter a remarkable lot of milkmaids on your travels." I don't believe you, said the tone behind the words.
Nathaniel shrugged. You don't have to. I'm back, and so is the carriage. "There's a saying about that, isn't there? ‘Some are born milkmaids, some achieve milkmaids, and some have milkmaids thrust upon them.' I seem to be the latter sort of person."
A laugh, quickly smothered, reminded him of the room's other occupant. At the short end of the table sat Sir William's secretary, a young woman named Rosalind Agate.
Nathaniel had met her only once before, when she had been in his father's employment for no more than a month. Sir William did not mind a female secretary after being aided so long by his daughter Hannah-especially when his three previous male secretaries had, as he put it, "hardly known the arse end of a horse from the front."
Miss Agate made a neat ruddy-haired figure in a print gown that covered her almost from chin to wrist and down to the floor. Nathaniel had an impression of forthright green eyes, wide cheekbones, and a quick twist of a smile before she returned to her work, quill racing across a sheet of foolscap.
He smiled back-but a tense silence fell, and after a moment, so did his grin. "All right. I can tell something is wrong. What is it?"
Sir William scrubbed a hand over his face, making a deranged tangle of his stern brows. "The colic."
Nathaniel cursed. With the Epsom Derby a few weeks away, ill horses were the last thing a stable needed. "Which horse? Or horses?"
"Sir Jubal's colt, Epigram."
"Epigram? How can that be?" If ever a horse was, well, healthy as a horse, it was the strapping colt that had recently won the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes. The elderly Sir Jubal Thompson had transferred his champion to the Chandler stables to join the company soon to travel south for the Derby.
"Not only Epigram." Giving the mahogany wheels of his chair a little push, Sir William angled himself back from the desk and pulled a watch from his waistcoat pocket. "I need to meet with Sir Jubal in the stable in a few minutes. Miss Agate, please acquaint my son with the latest happenings while I see to my brandy. Taking it early won't hurt just this once."
About Miss Agate were arranged industrious islands of paper, ink, and quills, of ledgers and correspondence and waxes and seals. With her brows puckered, she sifted through papers.
"Two other animals have developed colic," she explained in a low, calm tone, her accent as tidy and crisp as the angled streets of Mayfair. "All three were to travel to Epsom in a fortnight to await the Derby. Other than that, they've little in common. Epigram does not belong to the Chandler stable. Pale Marauder is one of your father's racehorses, but the third is not a Thoroughbred at all."
"Do you mean Sheltie?" At the secretary's nod, Nathaniel grimaced. The fat little pony had kept the Chandler Thoroughbreds company for twenty years, soothing fractious tempers-human as well as equine-with her stolid presence. "Poor little Sheltie. Sick at her age; that's rotten luck." Nathaniel sank onto the edge of the wide table, resting his weight.
"Off. Off the desk, Nathaniel. I tell you this every time." Sir William looked up from his fussings with the brandy decanter. "Do you think it's a matter of luck, then? Sheltie's illness?"
Nathaniel slid from the table and planted his feet. "Do you think it's not luck? What else could it be?"
"That," said Sir William, "is a question against which we've been beating our brains for some time." He indicated the papers before him. "For the three ill animals, we have reviewed exercise schedules, stable care, water sources..."
"Currying supplies, the tack," continued Miss Agate. "And feed."
"They shared feed," said Sir William. "That's all. When Smith last delivered lucerne hay, did you remember to check it for mold?"
The baronet's tone was mild, which was far worse than when it rang out sternly. Mildness meant disappointment. Mildness meant I should have known better than to trust you with this.
"Of course I did," Nathaniel replied. "I cut a sample from the center of a few of the bales, and the quality was perfectly acceptable. Since my childhood, I have known how to tell good hay from bad."
"I suppose," granted the baronet. "And Lemuel Smith has been supplying this family's stables and stud farm with lucerne for decades. Which means the colic can't be caused by feed either."
"There is some common cause," said Miss Agate. "And we will find it."
We, she said easily, as though she had already become an indispensable part of the household. It had been thirteen years since Nathaniel had spoken or heard that effortless we.
It had been longer still since he'd felt the certainty reflected in her words.
Sir William eyed his glass, then poured in a few more drops of brandy before resealing the decanter. This ritual was performed at the same time every day. It was always a half inch, never more and never less.
In the slanted sunlight of late afternoon, the brandy glowed like liquid gold. Half an inch was no more than a taste of heat, a splash of sharp, buttery warmth on the tongue. At the end of a journey, Nathaniel wanted that brandy as much as the carriage horses had wanted their stable and hay.
But there was always a reason to want brandy. Or whisky. Or port. Or claret.
Nathaniel turned away, squinting toward the west-facing windows and their glimpse of the stables. "Have you time to hear my news of London before your meeting, Father? I had some success there."
"Did you? We could use some good news." We again, and Nathaniel had no idea if the pronoun included him or not. The baronet twisted his empty glass, the crystal making a heavy sliding sound on the table. The sound of luxury, of a half inch of brandy that was enough, that had to be enough.
Nathaniel swallowed the craving. "Yes. The chestnut and bay colts sold for much more than expected."
When he named the price, Sir William's heavy brows lifted. "Not bad. Those two could never win one of the classic races, but they'll be quick after the fox if they're gelded and trained up as hunters."
"I also purchased a broodmare named Helena for the stud farm. Sothern is bringing her up to Newmarket." At the name of the trusted groom, Sir William grunted his approval. "And," Nathaniel continued in a rush, "Sothern will remain with her until she is settled under Jonah's care, which means I-"
"Of what line is she?" Sir William broke in.
Nathaniel bit off the rest of his sentence. The most important part. "I beg your pardon?"
"Of what line is she? The broodmare?"
"Through her dam, she is of Matchem's line." One of the finest Thoroughbred bloodlines of the past century.
Sir William tipped his head toward Miss Agate. "How does one know that?"
Was this a test for her or for Nathaniel himself? "Because the horse told me so," he muttered. "She's a Houyhnhnm, just like the talking horses in Gulliver's Travels."
The secretary's mouth twitched. "A great piece of luck," she said. "In cases involving a nonspeaking horse, I believe one would be required to consult the General Stud Book?"
This book of reference was practically the family bible. Hundreds of pages of illustrious names and begats.
"Good, Miss Agate," Sir William approved. "You're learning the racing world quickly."
Nathaniel rubbed at his unshaven chin. "Right. Well, that's how it's done if one hasn't the good fortune of meeting a Houyhnhnm. Check the Stud Book. Trust Nathaniel. Buy fine horses." He took a deep breath and began his request again. "While Sothern is occupied at the stud farm-"
"It was wise to have him walk Helena there. There is no one more trustworthy, and she sounds like a very fine broodmare," Sir William interrupted for at least the thousandth time. "Jonah will welcome the addition to the stable. He thinks Matchem's descendants are sturdy. Healthy too, and good-tempered."
Nathaniel agreed. "That's why I chose Helena." An extravagant purchase that he was nevertheless confident would pay dividends. Dividends even more precious than gold coins; dividends in the form of fleet-footed, race-winning foals.
Jonah, huge and inscrutable, was the oldest of the four Chandler offspring. He oversaw the operations of the stud farm north of Newmarket. On those spacious acres, Thoroughbreds were born and received their first training.
Far more at ease with horses than people, Jonah had an eye for racing potential and a knack for bringing it out. The stud farm, like the stables at Chandler Hall, housed not only the family's horses but also horses belonging to many others. Hopeful owners betting that the fees they paid the Chandlers would bring not only the best care and training, but also success on the turf.
Sir William glanced at his watch again before stuffing it back into his waistcoat pocket. "I must be off to the stables. Sir Jubal is expecting me. If we're to have a prayer of getting these horses to Epsom in time, they'll need to be physicked quickly."
"I shall accompany you." Both Nathaniel and Miss Agate spoke at once.
Nathaniel blinked at the secretary with some surprise. She smiled at him tentatively. "We shall?"
"You both ought to join me," decided Sir William. "Nathaniel, you must learn more about the situation so you can acquaint Sothern when he arrives."
I have asked him not to come. It was on the tip of Nathaniel's tongue to say so, to blurt it out after so many interruptions. I want to take the horses to Epsom instead, to lead the one journey I have never yet made for this family.
But it was a great deal to say all at once, especially when worry over ill horses was poking at the ever-tentative peace between father and son.
"I would be delighted to see the horses," he replied. This was always true.
He pushed himself away from the wall. The brandy decanter winked at him as he walked by the table.
He turned away, instead sidling around the table to unlatch the French doors leading out from the study. As he reached them, he somehow jostled Miss Agate, who was moving in the opposite direction. She caught her balance on the table's edge, scattering a batch of quills.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "Sir William, I shall set this to rights and join you directly."
"Allow me." Nathaniel reached for the quills.
"No need, thank you. It will take only a moment to tidy this." She was already crouching, her face hidden. Only the smooth back of her light print gown was visible, and that great crown of russet hair picking up golden-red sunlight.
Nathaniel hesitated, half crouching himself-but Sir William made an impatient sound. "Sir Jubal awaits. If you're coming?"
Nathaniel unfolded himself, cracking an elbow on the underside of the table and smothering a curse. He always felt a bit out of place in Sir William's world, wrongly sized and out of step.
It hadn't always been that way. But it had been that way so long that Nathaniel had almost forgotten that things had once been different.
Maybe Sir William had too.
Holding open the glass-paned door with one boot and an outstretched arm, Nathaniel made way for his father. With the agility of long practice, the baronet steered his cumbersome chair out from the study onto a stone path paved smoothly for wooden wheels.
And Nathaniel followed in the lines his father had so carefully laid out.
Rosalind kept her face turned demurely toward the floor until the French door had swung shut again. Crawling forward one tiny nudge at a time, she peered around the legs of the large table.
The Chandlers were moving steadily down the path to the stable. Away from the study. Good.
It only took seconds to tidy up the mess of quills she had created by way of excuse. Rubbing at her elbow to reduce the tightness of her old scars, Rosalind then took up a fresh sheet of paper and dipped the quill again. After folding the paper and inking the direction, she smoothed it out and scrawled:
Several horses have fallen ill. They might not be able to race in the Derby.
Should she say more?
What more could she say? She considered the possibilities, quill poised over the paper.
Alpha and I have no idea what is causing the illness.
Nathaniel Chandler-no, she called him Gamma in letters to Aunt Annie. Gamma returned from London with good news, muddy boots, and an unlikely tale of a milkmaid.
Gamma's blue eyes are full of mischief and plans. I should like to know what is on his mind.
This last thought was as sweet as it was irrelevant. Rosalind's snipped and abandoned friendships and posts lay about England like a shawl full of dropped stitches. She had been a housemaid time and again, a governess for family after family. There was no sense in regretting any of these departures when each hole, each break in the pattern, was only one among many.
But she did regret them. All of them. She was tidy by nature, and she would rather knit than unravel.
No, she would add no more to her brief letter right now. She wiped the quill and set it aside.
After sanding the paper to dry the ink, she folded the note to Aunt Annie and slid it into the bodice of her gown, along with a gummed wafer. Once she knew more, she would complete the letter. Tonight, in her small bedchamber, with the stub of a pencil.
When she had an opportunity, she would shuffle her letter into Sir William's others and take it to the post. Just one bit of correspondence among the many she had written for the man who thought he owned her loyalty.
Just one, to the person who truly claimed it instead.