Save a Horse, Ride a Viscount – Valerie Bowman

I m going to steal that horse,” Lady Theodora Ballard said as her maid, Maggie, fastened her stays. “Are you certain that’s the best way to handle the situation?” Maggie replied, sighing heavily. Theodora shook her head. Poor, dear, sweet Maggie. She wasn’t just Thea’s maid. Maggie had been her closest friend since their births, which were only months apart. Maggie had been the daughter of one of her mother’s favorite maids. The girls had grown up together on the estate. Thea’s mother—God rest her soul—had been the type of lady who hadn’t been bothered by convention and formalities. She’d been nothing but happy to allow her daughter to play with the daughter of a maid. And while there were obvious and inevitable differences in their educations and upbringing, the two girls hadn’t allowed their stations in life to bother them much. When the time had come, Thea had insisted upon taking Maggie as her lady’s maid so they could remain together forever. But Maggie had never been as outgoing, adventurous, or as cocksure as Thea. Maggie was forever trying to talk Thea out of her latest foibles. “I’m not actually stealing the horse,” Thea qualified, poking an errant dark curl behind her ear.

“He’s my horse. Supposed to be at least.” Thea held up her arms to allow Maggie to slip the day dress over her head. “But didn’t you say your brother lost the auction?” Maggie prompted, spinning Thea around so she could button the back of the gown. It was a routine they’d perfected over the years. Maggie was short and blond with dark brown eyes and round cheeks. She had a constant smile on her pretty face, except for the times she was chasing Thea around to ensure she didn’t end up in trouble. Those times Maggie usually had an exasperated expression on her face. This was certainly one of those times. Thea rolled her eyes at her friend.

“He did lose the auction, but that’s hardly my fault. I gave Anthony specific instructions to win at all costs. If that blasted auction house would only allow females, I certainly wouldn’t have lost.” Maggie arched a brow. “Perhaps your father gave Lord Anthony a limit. For his purse?” This was offered tentatively as if Maggie hated to bring it up, but thought it might be an important point. “Oh, I’m certain he did,” Theodora replied, “which is precisely why I intend to go in search of my father as soon as you finish buttoning me.” “Well, as to that, I’m finished now, milady,” Maggie replied, patting Thea on the back to indicate that she was properly and completely buttoned. Theodora swirled in a circle and spared a brief glance at herself in the looking glass. She’d never cared much about her appearance.

She’d always been more interested in riding and horses than she’d ever been in frocks and the latest hair fripperies. She took in her own dark brown hair and determined gray eyes. The gown was lovely. The modiste had just finished sewing it. It was a light peach satin with small flowers embroidered around the hem and sleeves. White stockings and gloves and matching peach beaded slippers completed her ensemble. She looked quite proper on the outside even if she was seething with frustration on the inside. Thea lifted her chin. “A pity I couldn’t dress as a man and attend that auction. I swear I would have won.

” Maggie sharply sucked in her breath and shook her head. “Oh, please don’t say such things. Why, I’d have a fit if I had to dress you as a man. I’m a lady’s maid, not a valet.” She chuckled. Thea smiled and lifted her shoulders while heaving a loud sigh. “Very well, I suppose this will have to do. Thank you for your help today, Mag. Wish me luck with Father.” “You’re quite welcome,” Maggie replied.

“And I wish you all the luck in the world.” “I may need it.” Thea swept her skirts into her hands, turned, and marched out the door of her bedchamber. Her destination was her father’s study. Father wasn’t often home. The Earl of Blackstone tended to spend most of his time in London, with his mistress. Thea pushed the thought from her mind. It only served to anger her. Father was home this time of year because he came to visit the estate and see to the planning of their annual Christmastide ball. No doubt he’d be back to London as soon as he’d spoken to the housekeeper and butler.

But for now, Thea had the perfect opportunity to ask her father about the horse auction. It was his fault the horse was at auction, after all. She made her way through the wide upstairs corridor, then down the sweeping marble staircase that led to the foyer of her father’s country house. Once downstairs, Thea continued through the foyer to another corridor that led to the far western edge of the estate where her father’s study sat. When she approached, the door to the study was open just a crack. Father liked to call at passersby upon occasion. Today, Theodora stuck her nose in the crack and blinked at the middle-aged man sitting behind the desk. Her father was tall and handsome, with a tinge of gray at the temples. Thea took after him in looks, or so Mother had always said. Thea certainly had inherited his dark hair and gray eyes.

She hadn’t taken after him in temperament, however. Perhaps that was why they’d rarely agreed upon anything. “I see you, Miss.” Her father’s voice floated from the room. “And I’m quite certain I know why you’ve come.” Thea interpreted the comment for an invitation to enter the room. She pushed the door wide and strolled inside. “Good morning, Father,” she said in her most pleasant tone. She and her father had never quite been on what one would call ‘friendly’ terms. He’d been gone to London much of her childhood and just before her mother died, Thea had learned precisely what he’d been doing in London all those years.

He was much more like a well-dressed stranger than a father to her. But at times she was forced to speak to him and today was one of those times. She always strove to keep their interactions civil and quick. Her father frowned. “I’ve been expecting your visit. Anthony returned last night and told me he lost the auction in London.” Thea marched over to stand in front of her father’s wide mahogany desk. “That is precisely why I’m here,” she allowed. “The Arabian was my horse.” Her father’s frown intensified.

“The Arabian was expensive, Theodora. You’ve no idea how much that horse ended up selling for.” Thea pressed her lips together. He’d called her Theodora. That just went to show how little her father knew her. He always called her Theodora. No one called her Theodora. Her mother and Anthony and Maggie and everyone called her Thea. As for what Father had said to her about the horse’s price, she wanted to reply, “Then perhaps you should never have sold him to begin with so we wouldn’t have to purchase him again.” Instead, she said, “I told Anthony to use my dowry if necessary.

The horse couldn’t possibly have cost more than that,” she replied in as calm a voice as she could muster, while utter frustration coursed through her veins. Her father pushed himself back in his chair and narrowed his eyes on her. “First of all, there is no possible way I was going to approve of your dowry being spent on a horse, but what if I told you the horse cost the original amount we agreed to plus your dowry and double?” Thea’s mouth fell open. She couldn’t help it. She quickly snapped it shut again before expelling a breath. “That cannot be. No Arabian has ever sold for that much?” “Trust me,” Father replied. “That’s the exact amount he went for. I was shocked to learn it myself. I’m confident Anthony did the best he could.

He did not have my permission to pay anything near that amount.” “I cannot believe anyone would pay that much,” Thea replied, resting her chin atop her thumb. She shook her head, trying to absorb the astonishing news. Who exactly would have paid such a price? It was outlandish. The Arabian was a gorgeous, nearly perfect piece of horseflesh indeed, but that amount of money was … ludicrous. “My guess is the horse’s relationship to the Duke of Harlowe had something to do with his price,” Father continued. Thea’s brown knit into a frown. “The Duke of Har—” Thea trailed off as Anthony stepped into the room. Her brother stopped short as soon as he saw her. He gave her a wary look and took an unwitting step back.

“Come in, Anthony,” Father said. “You might as well be a part of this discussion, too.” “I’m waiting to see if Thea intends to scratch out my eyes,” Anthony said, a half-smile riding his lips. He resumed his saunter into the room, but continued to keep a watchful eye on Thea. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at her brother with one brow arched. “Father just told me how much the Arabian sold for.” Anthony let out a pent-up breath and sighed. “Believe me, I tried my best. I’d no idea anyone would bid that high.” “Are you certain you didn’t mishear the cost?” Thea ventured.

Anthony’s bark of laughter filled the room. He shook his head. “I may be five years your senior, but I am not yet old enough to be hard of hearing. I’m quite certain the Arabian sold for an exorbitant amount.” “Who would be foolish enough, reckless enough, to pay that much?” she demanded, her anger at her brother quickly finding a new target … the bastard who paid a fortune for her horse. Anthony ran a hand across the back of his neck. “You don’t understand, Thea. In addition to its bloodline, the horse belonged to the Duke of Harlowe. Everyone in the country has heard that sad story.” Thea gave her brother a patient smile.

Of course she knew the story of the Duke of Harlowe. Or, more precisely, the former duke. Maggie loved to read Thea the society pages of the Times on a regular basis. The entire story had been chronicled there. After being purchased from her father six years ago, the Arabian had been the mount of the former duke’s younger brother, a soldier who’d taken the steed to war. The poor young man had lost his life on the Continent and the magnificent horse had been carefully returned to England by the Earl of Wellington himself to be returned to the duke. The horse could not replace his brother, of course, but the duke’s younger brother had adored the animal and the steed was worth a small fortune—even before he’d been sold at auction for the mind-numbing amount Father had just reported. The sad tale of the Duke of Harlowe did not end there, however. The young duke died unexpectedly in his sleep not two months after the horse’s return. Because the duke had been unmarried and his younger brother was already dead, the man’s title and all worldly possessions—including the horse—had been auctioned off by the soon-to-be new Duke of Harlowe.

The new duke was a distant relation who’d arrived in London and caused nothing but scandal and havoc since his arrival. According to all sources, the man was a disgrace and the dowager duchess, the former duke’s mother, who was still in mourning for both of her sons, was at her wits’ end dealing with the shame the man was bringing upon the family name. Poor lady. But the misfortunes of the Duke of Harlowe’s kin were not Thea’s concern. While she felt badly for the dowager duchess, and the unfortunate dead brothers, if someone was going to get that horse at auction, it might as well be her. He’d belonged to her previously, after all. And if her father wasn’t such a selfish clod, he never would have sold the animal. “I’m quite sorry for the Duke of Harlowe and his deceased brother, but I never wanted the horse because of the gossip surrounding its former owner,” she insisted. No. She wanted the horse because of Mama.

Riding was a passion that she and her mother had shared. Alabaster, the Arabian, had been the foal of Mama’s horse, Helena. During the months her mother had laid dying in her bed, riding Alabaster had been Thea’s only respite. She’d lost her mother, but she would not lose her horse. Only she had lost the horse, or more precisely, the horse had been ripped out from under her. Her father had wasted no time selling her mother’s horse and the Duke of Harlowe, who’d made the offer, had doubled it when he realized Thea’s horse was descended from the same bloodline. Father, ever one to make a profit, had sold both horses while Thea had been holding her mother’s hand, ensuring that she drank at least a trickle of water, and sponging her heated body. Father hadn’t cared. He’d barely come to visit Mama in all those months. Instead, he’d casually informed Thea via a letter of all things that her horse had been sold.

Alabaster was gone before Thea even had a chance to make it to the barn to see him one last time. She still shook with anger when she thought of it. At her mother’s funeral, Thea had informed her father that she would never forgive him for his thoughtlessness. At the time, her father had attributed her reaction to her age of eighteen years and the fact that she was grieving her mother. “There are other horses in this world, Theodora,” her father had blithely replied. Now, four years later, and still unforgiven, her father had relented when Thea had pointed out that Alabaster was to be auctioned. She and Father had agreed upon a price and Thea had begged her brother to go to London and see that the matter was settled. She would finally have her beloved horse back. Only she wouldn’t, because apparently someone had been mad enough to pay a ridiculous price for her horse. “Harlowe’s story may not have been of consequence to you,” Anthony continued, “but the tragic story of the duke had every horse-loving man in London at Tattersall’s that day, with his pocketbook at the ready.

I’ve never seen the place so crowded. It was madness.” Thea clenched her fists. Confound it. Why did her horse have to have former owners with such a dramatic history? She immediately chastised herself for having such an ungenerous thought. It was hardly the Duke of Harlowe’s fault that he and his brother had died unceremoniously. But Thea hadn’t counted on there being such stiff competition at the auction. And she certainly hadn’t counted on the horse selling for more than Father had in addition to her dowry. There had to be a way to get more money and buy the horse from whoever had won the auction. Which reminded her … Anthony had yet to give her the name of her new sworn enemy.

“Who was it?” Thea demanded, plunking her fists to her hips and fighting the urge to stamp her slippered foot. “Who paid that much? Who won the auction?” “Clayton.” Anthony replied, inclining his head. “Viscount Clayton. I knew the man had money, but his investments must be doing even better than I’d heard.” “Indeed,” Father added, nodding sagely. “Clayton?” Theodora repeated, narrowing her eyes again. She tapped one finger against her cheek. “The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I’m not placing him.” “Viscount Clayton lives here in Devon.

He’s a good man. Smart. Shrewd. A favorite in Parliament. A scientist, I believe,” Father said. “Have I met him?” Thea asked, her eyes still narrowed. “I don’t remember him. Does he attend our Christmastide ball?” “I invite him to the ball every year, that’s probably how you remember the name. But he always sends his regrets. He spends a great deal of time in London.

He has been here before, but it’s been many years. I’m certain you wouldn’t recall what a lot of old men were discussing. His family has lived at Clayton Manor for generations, of course. The current viscount is a force in Parliament from what I understand. Quite the politician. Knows everyone. Very connected.” Thea stepped toward the window and stared out toward the pasture. Perfect. An old man bought her horse.

An old rich man. Someone who probably wouldn’t even be able to ride the animal and enjoy it. Perhaps she could talk him out of it. Perhaps she could appeal to his kindness. He’d been in competition against other men at the auction. Perhaps a young woman could talk him into seeing reason, to appeal to his softer side. At least he was a neighbor. She wouldn’t have to travel terribly far to get Alabaster. Surely if she explained to Viscount Clayton that she didn’t want the horse because of the notoriety surrounding his former owner, but because of her deep love of the animal, the man couldn’t possibly refuse to sell her the horse. Not if he were a gentleman.

Thea turned swiftly to address Anthony and her father. “How far away is Lord Clayton’s estate?” “About an hour’s ride from here,” Father replied. “Due East.” Anthony narrowed his eyes on his sister. “Why are you asking?” “I’m simply curious about the man,” Thea replied, calmly folding her hands together in front of her. It wouldn’t do for Anthony to guess that she intended to visit the viscount if she had to. Her brother would surely put a stop to it. Or try to at any rate. Theodora turned once more and stared out the window, her mind racing. In addition to her dowry, she had additional monies that her mother had left her.

Mother had left special instructions that she was to have control over it. It was meant to ensure that she would be able to pick her own husband, but instead, she would use that money and the additional amount to get her horse. A horse was more important than a husband after all. More loyal at least. Besides, what did Thea need with a dowry? She was already two and twenty and firmly on the shelf. Her mother’s death prior to her come-out had ensured that Thea was able to skip that obnoxious event and then, two years later, when her father had insisted she arrive at the palace and be presented to the queen (her mother’s childhood friend Lady Hophouse had sponsored her), Thea had promptly curtsied to the queen, made the obligatory rounds, and retreated to the countryside where she’d remained for the last two years, ignoring Lady Hophouse’s repeated letters begging her to return to London and find a husband. Husbands weren’t good for much. Horses were. Of course even if her father gave her their originally agreed upon amount and she used her dowry and the additional money from her mother, it still wouldn’t be enough to pay Viscount Clayton as much as he’d spent. How in the world would she come up with the difference? She wasn’t entirely certain, but she knew the first step would be to write to the viscount and find out if an attempt to buy the horse from him would be in vain.

She’d worry about how to procure the money later. Yes. She intended to write a letter to old, frail Lord Clayton, and appeal to the man’s heart … the first chance she got.

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