Tempt Me, Your Grace – Tamara Gill

Miss Avelina Knight, Ava to those close to her, tightened the girth of her mount, and checked that the saddle wouldn’t slip whilst hoisting herself onto one stirrup. With a single candle burning in the sconce on the stables’ wall, she worked as quickly and as noiselessly as she could in the hopes that the stable hands that slept in the lofts above wouldn’t wake. Pleased that the saddle would hold, and that her mount was well watered before her departure, she walked Manny out of the stables as silently as possible, cringing when the horse’s shod feet made a clip clop sound with each step. Ava blew out the candle as she walked past it, and picking up her small bag, threw it over her horse’s neck before hoisting herself up into the saddle. She sat there a minute, listening for any noise, or the possibility that someone was watching. Happy that everything remained quiet, she nudged her mount and started for the eastern gate. There was still time and she didn’t need to rush, now that she was on her way. Tate had said he’d meet her at their favorite tree at three in the morning, and it was only half past two. She pushed Manny into a canter, winding her way through several horse yards that surrounded her home and past the gallop her father used to train their racing stock. Or what was once her home. From tonight onward, her life would finally begin. With Tate, she would travel the world, make love under the stars if they so wished, and not have to be slaves to either of their families’ whims or Society and its strictures. Tate and she would find a new life. A new beginning. Just the two of them until they expanded their family to add children in a few years.

Pleasure warmed her heart at the knowledge, and she couldn’t stop the soft laugh of delight which escaped her. In time, Ava hoped her father would forgive her, and maybe when they returned, happily married with children even, her father would be pleased. The shadowy figure of a man stood beneath the tree. Yet from the stance and girth of the gentleman, it did not look like Tate. Coldness swept over her skin, and she narrowed her eyes, trying to make out who was waiting for her. Her stomach in knots, she pushed her horse forward unsure what this new development meant. Ava looked about, but could see no one else. With a couple of more steps she gasped when she finally made out the ghostly form. Her father. Her heart pounded a frantic beat.

How was it he was here and not Tate? They had been so careful, so discreet. Why, they had not even circulated within the same social sphere to be heard whispering or planning. With Tate being the heir to his father, the Duke of Whitstone and Ava only the daughter of a racehorse notable, their lives couldn’t be more different. Ava rode her horse up to the tree. She saw little point in turning back. Pulling up before her father, she met his gaze, as much of it as she could make out under the moonlit night. “Ava, climb down, I wish to speak to you.” His tone was not angry, but guarded, and the pit of her stomach lurched at the notion that something dreadful had happened to Tate. Had he been hurt? Why wasn’t he here to meet her instead? She jumped down, walking up to him, her mount following on her heels. “Papa, what are you doing here?” she asked, needing to know and knowing there was little point in ignoring the fact that he’d found her out.

She dropped her horse’s reins, and her mount reached down to nibble on the grass. Her father’s face took on a stern cast. “The Marquess of Cleremore will not be meeting you here, Ava. I received a note late last night notifying me that, as we speak, his lordship has been sent to London to catch the first boat out to New York. From what his father, the Duke of Whitstone, states, this was the marquess’ decision. Tate confided in his father the predicament he’d found himself in with you, and that he didn’t know how to untangle himself from having to marry a woman who was not his equal.” Ava stared at her father, unable to fathom what he was saying. Hollowness opened up in her chest and she clasped her shawl as if to halt its progress. Tate had left her? No, it couldn’t be true. “But that doesn’t make any sense, Papa.

Tate loves me. He said so himself at this very spot.” Surely she couldn’t have been wrong about his affections. People did not declare such emotions unless they were true. She certainly had not. She loved Tate. Ava thought back to all the times he’d taken liberties with her, kissing her, touching her, spending copious amounts of time with her and it had all been meaningless to him. She had been a mere distraction, a plaything for a man of his stature. Her stomach roiled at the idea and she stumbled to the tree, clutching it for support. “No.

I do not believe it. Tate wouldn’t do that to me. He loves me as I love him and we’re going to marry each other.” Ava stared down at the ground for a moment, her mind reeling before she rounded on her father. “I need to see him. He needs to tell me this to my face.” “Lord Cleremore has already left for town. And by morning, he’ll be on a ship to America.” Her father sighed, coming over to her and taking her hand. “I thought your attachment to him was a passing folly.

His lordship was never for you, my dear. We train and breed racehorses and, in England, people like us do not marry future dukes.” Ava stared at her father, not believing this was happening. She’d thought tonight would be the start of forever, but it was now the beginning of the end. Her eyes smarted and she was powerless to hold onto her composure. “But I love him,” she whispered, her voice cracking. Her father, a proud but humble man from even humbler beginnings, straightened his spine. “I know you think you did, but it wasn’t love. You’re young, too young to be throwing your life away on a boy who would have his way with you and then marry another titled, well-connected woman.” “I’m not ruined or touched, father.

Please don’t speak in such a way.” She didn’t want to imagine that Tate could treat her with so little respect, but what her father said was worth thinking over. The past few weeks with Tate had left very little room other than to plan, to plot. Would they have thought differently, would Tate have acted differently if he’d been older, more mature? If his departure showed anything, it was certainly that what her father was saying was true. He had regretted his choice and had left instead of facing her. Letting her down as a gentleman should, had not been his course. It showed how little he thought of her and the love she’d so ardently declared to him. She swiped at her cheeks, wanting to scream into the night at the unfairness of it all. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking at her half boots and not able to meet his gaze. How could he have done this to me? She would never forgive him.

He sighed. “There is one more thing, my dear.” More! What else could there possibly be to say! “What, papa?” she asked, dread formed like a knot in her stomach at her father’s ashen countenance. She’d seen a similar look from him when he’d come to tell her of her mother’s passing and it was a visage she’d never wanted to see again. Ava clutched the tree harder. “I’m sending you away to finishing school in France. I’ve enrolled you at Madame. Dufour’s Refining School for Girls. It’s located in southern France. It comes highly recommended and will help prepare you for what’s to come in your life; namely, running Knight Stables, taking over from me when the time comes.

” Finishing school! “You’re sending me to France! But Papa, I don’t need finishing school. You know that I’m more than capable of taking over the running of the stables already. And I know my manners, how to act in both upper- and lower-class society. Please do not send me away. I won’t survive without you and our horses. Don’t take that away from me, too.” Not when I’ve already lost the happiness of which I was so certain. He shushed her, pulling her into his arms. Ava shoved him away, pacing before him. Her father held out his hand, trying to pacify her.

“You’ll thank me one day. Trust me when I tell you, this is a good thing for you, and I’ll not be moved on my decision. We’re leaving for Dover tomorrow and I, myself, will accompany you to ensure your safe arrival.” “What.” She stopped pacing. “Father, please don’t do this. I promise not to do such a silly, foolish thing again. You said yourself Tate was leaving. There is no reason to send me away as well.” Just saying such a thing aloud hurt and Ava clutched her stomach.

To have loved and lost Tate would be hard enough; nevertheless being sent away to a foreign country, alone and without any friends or support was too much to bear. He came over to her, pulling her against him and kissing her hair. “This is a good opportunity for you, Ava. I have worked hard, saved, and invested to enable me to give you all that a titled child could receive. I want this for you. Lord Cleremore may not think that you’re suitable for him, but we shall prove him wrong. Make me proud, use the education to better yourself, and come home. Promise me you will do so.” Ava slumped against him. Her father had never been flexible on things and once he’d made a decision it was final.

There was no choice; she would have to do as he said. “I will go as I see there is little I can say to change your mind.” “That’s my girl.” He pulled back and whistled for her mount. She couldn’t even manage a half-smile as Manny trotted over to them. “Let us go. I’m sure by the time we arrive back home breakfast will not be far away.” Using a nearby log, Ava hoisted herself up onto the saddle. The horse, as if knowing her way home, started ambling down the hill. Light shone in the eastern sky and glancing to her left, Ava watched the sun rise over her land.

Observed the dawn of a new day, marking a new future even for her, one that did not include Tate, Marquess Cleremore and future Duke of Whitstone. A lone tear slid down her cheek and she promised herself, there and then, never to cry over Tate again or any other man. She’d given him her heart and trust and he had callously broken them. That the tear drying on her cheek would be the last she ever afforded him. And his precious dukedom that he loved so dearly. More dearly than her. S K CHAPTER 1 o many miles separate us. I do not sleep with the thought of you. When did your love for me perish? I cannot fathom why you would not confide in me that your feelings had changed, maybe even moved on elsewhere… – An excerpt from a letter from Miss Ava Knight to the Duke of Whitstone night Stables, Berkshire, 1821 Ava pushed her newly purchased mare, a fine sixteen hands thoroughbred that had breeding to rival her own, into a blistering gallop. She smiled, sitting low over the neck of this precious girl, and they started around the corner and down the home straight of their family gallop.

Her stable manager and trainer, Mr. Greg Brown, stood watching from the side of the gallop, hearing his exuberant shouts as she went past him in blistering speed. She smiled, impressed with her horse’s unfathomable swiftness. The early morning mist started to burn off the grass and trees, freshness in the air after a light shower of rain. Pulling up the mare, Ava kept her in a slow trot to return to Greg. The mare blew steam out of her nostrils with each breath and Ava patted her, giving her a congratulatory rub. Ava breathed deep herself, marveling at the beauty of her life, the beauty of this place that was now hers. “What did you think, Greg? Do you think she has a chance at Ascot?” Ava teased, knowing they had a lot ahead of them before they could even think to enter the mare into such a race there. He chuckled, bending under the railing and coming out to pat the horse himself. “Maybe next year if she keeps performing as she is.

She’ll have to prove herself at Epsom before then, though.” Ava kicked her feet free of the stirrups and jumped down. She handed the reins to Greg and walked around the horse, checking to make sure she was sound after her run. “Gallant Girl will prove herself, just as her name suggests, you wait and see. And with the new yearlings in a year or so that we’ll produce with Titan breeding with Black Lace, we’ll have more beauties like this one.” “About Titan,” Greg said, pulling off his cap and running his hand through his hair. “There may be some difficulty having him cover with Black Lace as you wanted. I got word today that Mr. Tuttle has sold him.” Ava paused in her inspection of the horse and placed Gallant Girl’s front right hoof down.

She met Greg’s gaze and read that he’d not been making a joke. “Titan’s been sold? But Mr. Tuttle promised my father that if we gave them the first foal off Black Lace two years ago, that he would allow us to have Titan to cover Black Lace this year. My father held up his end of the bargain, and you’re telling me that he has not?” She started for the stables, yelling out to one of the young lads to saddle up Manny. Greg followed her as fast as he could while leading Gallant Girl beside him. “Wait, Miss Ava. Wait. I do believe there are options other than Titan that you should consider.” There was no other horse better than Titan and if Mr. Tuttle thought to swindle her and her late father, why, she would take back that little foal, Beatrice, and be damned the scandal in the racing world.

How dare the man cheat them in such a way? He’d shaken her father’s hand, damn it. Didn’t that mean that the agreement was as waterproof as a ship’s hull? “There is no other horse as fine. I want Titan to sire the next generation of foals here at Knight Stables and there is nothing anyone can say to change my mind. You know as well as anyone that he’s the best thoroughbred in England, possibly on the continent as well. His height, along with his strong blood lines and speed, makes him the only horse that’ll do.” Ava thanked the lad who saddled up Manny for her and, clutching the saddle, she hoisted herself up. “Where are you going?” Greg asked her, clutching the reins under her horse’s neck. She frowned at his impertinence. He let go. “I’m going to find out what Mr.

Tuttle is about treating my stables with so little respect. I may be a woman, and my father may be gone, but we had a deal. I’ll not stand for it.” She turned her mount and kicked Manny into a canter, heading directly for Tuttle Farm. When her father had been alive, nothing of this sort of underhanded business ever took place. They would never have thought to cheat her dearly departed papa. But here she was, a woman, and being treated with so little respect. Anger simmered in her blood, and even by the time she trotted into Tuttle Farm’s yard, her temper had not waned. She spotted Mr. Tuttle lunging a horse in the lunging yard and walked her mount up to the fence, waiting for him to notice her.

His look of contrition told her he knew exactly why she’d come. “How could you, Mr. Tuttle? You had an agreement with my father that still stands with me,” she demanded, forgoing all pleasantries. The older gentleman yelled out for a nearby stable lad to take the rope and whip and walked over to the fence. He seemed to have aged in the last few months since she’d seen him. As she looked down at his gray, receding hairline and whiskers to match, a little of her temper eased. “I had no choice, Miss Ava. In fact, if you do not purchase your foal back from me, you’ll be buying her back at auction.” She frowned. “What is wrong, Mr.

Tuttle? Has something happened to force you to sell Titan and Beatrice?” He sighed, his shoulders slumping at the words. “It has, my dear. I don’t mind telling you as our families have known each other for many years, but I made a bad investment last year and, well, it’ll cost me the farm. We’re preparing to move to Bath where my wife, Rose, has family. Selling Titan, at least, enabled me to pay off the most pressing debt. With the sale of the house, the land, together with the horses of course, we may have a little left over to keep us for a few years in reasonably comfortable conditions.” He met her gaze, his eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I’m sorry, Ava. I know how much you wanted Titan’s bloodline.” Forgetting about the horse, she said, “Can I help at all? Is there anything that I can do to ease the debt and enable you to stay? These stables have been in your family for three generations.

I would hate to see you lose it all.” “Well,” he said, looking about his property, the love he had for his land evident in his gray orbs. “When one makes a mistake, one must own it. I’m just sorry that my wife and my children will lose all that we’ve worked so hard to build. And I thank you, Miss Ava, but I cannot accept your generous offer. It wouldn’t be right.” She nodded, wanting to press, but Mr. Tuttle had always been a proud man. To force him into anything had never worked before and she could not see it changing now. And she did not want to part having argued with him, even if she wanted so very much to help.

“Very well, but do let me know if I can support you in any way. Or if there is something you do not want to be sold off to anyone else that maybe I can purchase. At least you’ll know who has it and that it’ll be loved.” “You’re a good girl. And know that I would never have reneged on our deal if I could help it. There really was no other way around it.” Ava adjusted her seat, watching the horse that was being lunged who seemed quite interested in their conversation instead of doing what it was supposed to be doing. “May I ask whom you sold Titan to? Maybe I can negotiate with them.” He looked down at his feet, shuffling them a little. “Mr.

Tuttle,” she ventured when he didn’t reply. “As to that, my dear. Well, that is to say…” What was wrong with the man? “Mr. Tuttle, tell me. Surely, it is not a secret.” He met her gaze and, for a moment, she wondered if he had been sworn to secrecy. Surely not? “The Duke of Whitstone purchased Titan, Miss Ava. I heard from your father, you see, all about your family falling out with them and, well, I’m sorry that for you to have Titan cover your mare you’ll have to go through his grace.” Her hands shook at the mention of him and she clasped the reins tight, anger simmering in her veins at having heard his name. Even after all these years.

“Why did you sell it to him? I could’ve matched the price you wanted.”

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