|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||4.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.84(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Joan Wolf
Warner BooksCopyright © 1999 Joan Wolf
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was three o'clock in the afternoon, on a beautiful but blowy day in mid-May, and I was as usual, in the office of the stables of the Earl of Cambridge talking with his Head Groom. I was lounging in my chair, in a most unladylike posture, when there came the sound of a carriage being driven rather precipitously into the stable yard.
Clark jumped to his feet like a shot. "Lord Almighty, Miss, could that be his lordship?"
I said a little dryly, "Since I don't know anyone else who comes sweeping in here quite so grandly, I rather imagine that it is."
Clark disappeared out the door. I slid down a little farther on my spine and idly wondered what could be bringing the Earl of Cambridge back to his ancestral home in the midst of the London Season.
A brilliant ray of May sunshine came slanting in through the small office window and rested on the top of my head. It had been a cold April and the heat felt delightful. I closed my eyes to savor it.
"You here, Deb?" a familiar voice asked, and I opened my eyes to regard the man who had just come in. The Most Noble George Adolphus Henry Lambeth, Earl of Cambridge, Baron Reeve of Ormsby and Baron Thornton of Ware, stood in the door looking at me out of his famous dark eyes.
"I'm always her," I returned mildly. "Where else am I to be-at home with Mother, gardening?"
He flashed me a swift, charming grin. "Well, since you put it like that ..."
He came into the room and sat on the edge of the desk, facing my chair and swinging his leg.
"The really interesting question is what are you doing here?" I asked. "Isn't the Season still in full swing?"
"I'm going over to Newmarket tomorrow to take a look at Highflyer," he said. "The Derby is in a few weeks, and I want to make certain that he's training well."
I bolted straight up in my chair. "May I come with you?"
He sighed. "You know you can't do that, Deb. It ain't proper for an unmarried lady to be alone all day with a twenty-four-year-old man."
"Fiddle," I said vigorously. "You and I have been friends forever, Reeve. No one will think anything odd of me going to see your racehorse."
He snorted. "Won't they? My reputation is not exactly spotless, Deb, and I am not going to besmirch yours. You can't come with me, and that is final."
I glared at him. "But it is so boring here, Reeve. The only thing the local girls do is giggle about boys and talk about getting married. It is enough to make one go stark raving mad. If I didn't have Clark to talk to, I think I should go mad."
He looked like a dark angel as he sat there, swinging his booted leg and looking at me out of enigmatic eyes. "You ought to think of getting married yourself, Deb. You can't spend the rest of your life as a spinster, after all."
I could feel my face take on what my mother calls its stubborn look. "No one wants to marry me, Reeve."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said.
"It's true," I insisted. "For one thing, I'm too tall."
"You're not too tall." His straight black brows drew together. "Stand up," he commanded.
Two strong hands closed around my wrists and dragged me to my feet.
"Hah!" he said. "The top of your head only comes up to my mouth. That's a perfectly good height for a woman."
I was annoyed. "Reeve, you are several inches over six feet. I don't know if you have ever noticed, but most men are not quite as tall as that. They like girls whom they can look down upon."
His eyes flicked over me. "They also like girls who wear something more feminine than ancient riding skirts and jackets that look as if they were rejected by the local orphanage."
I scowled up at him.
"It's not as if you were a Valkyrie, for God's sake," he said. "If anything, you're too thin. I could probably fit my hands around your waist."
"Well don't try it," I warned. I backed away from him and folded my arms across my breast. "How did we get started on this conversation in the first place?"
"You started it."
"I did not."
"Yes, you did. You were complaining that all the local girls are on the catch for a husband."
I leaned my hip against the desk that he had stepped away from. I shrugged. I hated to admit that I was wrong.
"It's perfectly normal for girls to want husbands," Reeve went on. "I don't know why you should find the topic so boring, Deb."
"It's not only boring, it's fruitless," I said. "Not only am I too tall, but I have no money. Don't forget that little fact, Reeve. Gentlemen are not inclined to marry a girl who is virtually destitute, which is what Mama and I are. We are lucky to have a roof over our heads." I shook my head. "No, I fear I am doomed to a life of spinsterhood."
I must admit I was not as unhappy as perhaps I should have been about this situation. My long legs might have made some of the shorter local swains uncomfortable, but they gave me a distinct advantage in the saddle. In point of fact, except for Reeve himself, I had the best seat in the entire countryside. This was the reason that I had the free rein of Reeve's stables, of course. He knew the horses were in good hands when I took them out.
Realizing that he was getting nowhere with his discussion of marriage, Reeve changed the subject. "It looks as if Highflyer is going to be the favorite for the Derby," he said smugly. "What do you think about that?"
"I think it is wonderful," I replied slowly. "But what does Lord Bradford, your trustee, think?"
Reeve scowled. "Bernard is a spoil sport," he said. "All he does is spout prosy speeches about the evils of racing. He has no understanding that racing is something that all real gentlemen do. He lives on that boring little estate in Sussex and does nothing but see to his farms and his flocks of geese. Wait until Highflyer wins. Then he'll see the value of keeping a racehorse!"
I said carefully, "Reeve, where are you getting the money to have Highflyer trained?"
"Oh, Benton loaned it to me," he replied carelessly. "I'm to repay him as soon as Highflyer wins the Derby."
A note of foreboding struck my heart. "And what if he doesn't win?"
The earned me the famous Cambridge glare. "Of course he'll win! He's by far the best horse in the race. That's why he's the favorite!"
He picked up an iron paperweight in the shape of a rearing horse and slammed it down on the copy of the Stud Book that Clark and I had been looking through. "Damn Bernard, anyway. Why does he have to make my life so difficult?"
It was a question I couldn't answer.
Reeve raked his hand through his dark overly long hair. "You don't think I should have borrowed the money from Benton?" he challenged me.
I looked back at him, taking a minute to think before I answered. Even Reeve's glower could do nothing to disguise the classical purity of his face's bone structure. The only thing that saved him from being outright beautiful was the bump in what had once been a perfectly straight nose. He had broken it when he was twelve. Someone had been riding too close behind him over a fence and crowded his horse, and both Reeve and the horse had come down. He had been laid up for weeks with broken ribs and a broken collarbone as well as the nose.
I had known Reeve since I was seven, however, and I was so accustomed to his dark splendor that it rarely got in the way of my reading the inner man. So I knew now that under the bravado he too was nervous about the money he had borrowed. I also knew that he would never admit it.
"It is just that I would hate to see the relationship between you and Lord Bradford deteriorate further than it already has," I said carefully.
Reeve gave a short bark of humorless laughter. "I should think that is impossible, Deb," he said.
There was no answer to that so I pushed away from the desk. "It's time I was going home," I said. "Mother will be looking for me."
He nodded. "I really wish I could take you to see Highflyer, Deb, but even if you could find a chaperone, I'm not coming back here after Newmarket."
"That's all right, Reeve," I said resignedly.
"Give my best to your mother."
And so we parted.
Highflyer lost the Derby. He stumbled on his way up the last hill and pulled up with the lower part of his leg dangling. He had snapped his canon bone. They put him down right on the Epsom course.
"Oh my God," I moaned when I read the account of the race in the Morning Post the following day. "This is terrible. Poor Reeve. What incredibly rotten luck."
"Let me see." Mother reached across the breakfast table to take the paper from me.
"Oh dear, that is too bad," she said in distress when she had finished reading the article. "Lord Bradford will be very annoyed when he learns that he has to pay out training money and now Reeve doesn't even have a horse he can sell."
"It isn't just the training money, either," I said gloomily. "Can you see Reeve not betting on his own horse? A horse that is the Derby favorite?"
"Oh dear," Mama said again. She knew Reeve well enough to recognize the truth of what I had just said.
I didn't see him for two weeks after the Derby fiasco. Then, one hazy June morning, as I was helping Mama in her garden, which fed us for most of the summer and half of the winter, he drove his phaeton up to the front of our cottage, pulled up with his usual flourish, and jumped down. I wiped my hands on my skirt and walked over to greet him.
"Hello, Reeve," I said. "How are you?"
"I've been better," he replied shortly.
In fact, he looked ill. He had lost weight, which made his high, classical cheekbones more prominent than usual, and there were noticeable shadows under his eyes.
"I was so sorry to hear about Highflyer," I said gently. "What a terrible way to lose a good horse."
He nodded tersely. Reeve had never been very good about dealing with his own feelings.
At that point, my mother came up. She patted him gently on the arm and said, "It's good to see you, Reeve."
She too knew him well enough to realize that an excess of sympathy would not be welcome.
"I've come to ask Deb to go for a drive with me," Reeve said to Mama. "Will that be all right, Mrs. Woodly?"
"Of course," Mama said. "Change your dress first, Deborah. You cannot be seen abroad in that dirty old gown."
"She looks fine," Reeve said impatiently.
"If you don't mind, I would like to wash my hands at least," I said mildly. "I won't be long."
He gave me a very somber look. "All right."
Good heavens, I thought, as I went into the cottage. Something must be very wrong indeed. Could Lord Bradford have refused to pay his debts?
A cold chill struck my heart. Surely Reeve had not gone to the moneylenders? He would not be that stupid!
I washed my hands and face, brushed off my dress, and was back downstairs in ten minutes. Reeve was standing beside his horse, talking with Mama and looking tense.
"I'm ready," I said lightly and let him take my hand to help me up to the high seat of the phaeton.
As we rolled away down the country lane, Reeve was very silent, ostensibly concentrating on driving his matched pair of bays. I didn't say anything either. He had obviously sought me out for a purpose, and from past experience I knew I was going to have to be patient until he was ready to bring it out.
Reeve steered the phaeton away from the well-kept paths and splendid gardens of Ambersly and aimed instead toward the river, following one of the local country roads that at this season were lined with leafy trees and small grassy meadows filled with wildflowers. At last he pulled off the road and stopped the horses in a small glade that was hidden from the road by a stand of graceful beech trees.
He loosened his reins so the horses could stretch their necks and turned to look at me.
I could hold my tongue no longer. "Whatever is the matter, Reeve?" I asked. "Did Lord Bradford refuse to cover what you owed on the Derby?"
Dark color flushed into his cheeks. "If I live to be a hundred, Deb, I do not ever want to spend another hour such as the one I spent with Bernard after that race. He is such a clod. Do you know what he said to me? He said that raceowners were a congregation of the worst blackguards in the country mixed with the greatest fools. That is what he thinks me. A fool!"
Reeve's eyes were glittering dangerously and there was a white line around his mouth.
"Lord Bradford is a very conservative man," I said carefully.
"You won't credit this, Deb, but he seems to have no understanding that what I owe on the Derby are debts of honor." Reeve thrust his fingers through his dark hair. "I shall be drummed out of the Jockey Club if I do not pay up on my bets, do you realize that?"
"Of course you must pay your debts," I said. I added carefully, "Er ... how much exactly do you owe, Reeve?"
He scowled. "I bet sixty thousand pounds on Highflyer to win. Then, of course, there is the money I borrowed from Benton for training fees. That is another ten."
My heart sank. Seventy thousand pounds!
"And has Lord Bradford refused to meet your obligations?" I asked.
"He has said he will meet them, but he has made a stipulation."
For the first time he looked away from me, averting his face and staring out over the shining dappled brown backs of his standing horses.
I looked in puzzlement at his profile, which was shaded by the overhanging canopy of leaves from the beeches. There was a single stripe of sunlight on the left shoulder of his rust-colored coat.
"And what is the stipulation?" I prompted when it didn't seem as if he were going to continue.
I could see a muscle jump in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. "I have to get married."
I was dumbfounded.
"Married?" I echoed. "But what does getting married have to do with your debts?"
He didn't answer immediately and the truth slowly dawned on me. "Oh, I see. He has found you an heiress."
Reeve's reply was bitter. "I don't need an heiress, Deb. Even Bernard knows that." He turned around to look at me directly once again. "It seems that my esteemed cousin and trustee is a great believer in the settling effect of matrimony on a man. He has hopes that if I take a wife, and begin to set up my nursery, then my wildness will disappear. In fact, he has promised to give me access to half of my money when I marry and the other half if I can maintain what he calls a 'decent life' for a year."
"Good heavens," I said faintly. "Can he do that? I thought your father's will stipulated that you could not come into your inheritance until you were twenty-six."
"Apparently he left it to Bernard's judgment to put forward the time if he felt I showed sufficient 'maturity.'" Reeve's gloved fingers opened and closed on the loosened reins he was holding. He added grimly, "A stipulation that Bernard has not seen fit to inform me of until the present."
Excerpted from The Pretenders by Joan Wolf Copyright © 1999 by Joan Wolf . Excerpted by permission.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As the title suggests the book is about ¿The Pretenders¿ Baron Reeve of Ormsby, Earl of Cambridge and Deborah ¿Deb¿ who pretended they were engaged so that Reeve could get his hands on his inheritance. I cannot ¿Pretend¿ I liked the book, I kept reading in hopes something would happen, but I was greatly disappointed.Reeve lost both parents and his father appointed his Uncle guardian over his estate and finances until he felt he was responsible. Well Reeve could not keep himself from visiting the gambling rooms or betting on horse races in which he entered his own horse and ended up not finishing the race and owing money that his Uncle did not want to pay out. In order to insure his uncle would pay off his debts he needed to get married.Once he discusses his dilemma to Deb she agrees to pretend an engagement, her mother supports her since Reeve has always been so good to them since her mother only gets a small allowance from her step-brother.The story has great potential but fails miserably, no chemistry between the two main characters. There are parts left out of the story, and I don¿t understand why some of the things happened. There is only one book I have not finished reading during my lifetime of reading and this was almost the second, I just felt obligated to finish.
Really good book, kept me on the edge of my seat.