“To our health.” Eva McKenzie raised her glass in salute to her friend’s toast and observed as the edges of their glasses clinked together above the surrounding noise. Eva did her best to smile and not appear nervous, sipping the champagne from the bowl-like glass and trying not to sneeze on the bubbles.
“And a bright future for us both,” Eva added after swallowing her mouthful of the delicate liquid. “Indeed.” Lily Randolph beamed and sipped at her glass again. Eva did the same and set the crystal aside. As a rule, Eva was not fond of alcohol and preferred a heavily steeped pot of tea to a tipple any day. She was taller than the rest of the girls her age, always had been, which made Eva feel out of place, but today especially so. “Shall we indulge in a perambulation? To combat the nerves?” Lily sent Eva a sympathetic glance.
“Yes, I should inspect the horses up for auction one last time.” Grateful for her friend’s intervention. “Are my nerves so much on display?” Eva glanced around the fenced off marquee area where the cream of New York Society had gathered to watch the year’s first thoroughbred auction take place. She patted her honey coloured hair that her maid Agatha had painstakingly wound up into a bun behind her head. The hat she wore matched the gown perfectly. All straight lines in order to compliment her fuller figure. The problem was the cut of the fashionable gown put her breasts on display, adding to Eva’s discomfort.
“You place far too much pressure on yourself, Eva.” Lily set her glass aside and wrapped an arm around her. “You are by far the best trainer in Sheepshead today. Do not question yourself, my dear.”
“I’m the only woman trainer to be sure.” Eva inhaled deeply and stepped forward. With their arms linked, Eva felt a measure of safety in her friend’s presence. She had hoped a few of her other school friends from Miss Porters might have come down to Coney Island for her first big auction, however Lily had been the only one she’d seen so far. Eva nodded to several people of her acquaintance. Everyone, including she and Lily, were dressed in the height of 1890s fashion.
“After spending four years under the tutelage of Miss Porter, I’m surprised to hear you use your gender as an excuse for anything.” A sniff accompanied Lily’s tart reply. Her friend lifted her chin and the striking young woman’s profile hit just the right angle in the sunlight to appear flawless. Although, in Eva’s opinion, Lily was flawless with her pale unmarked complexion, and black shining hair that did anything her maid wanted. It didn’t hurt her figure was long and willowy in comparison to her own, as all the bullies, including her father, were wont to point out at every opportunity.
“Don’t become sanctimonious now,” Eva accused, nodding to the men standing at the entrance to the marquee as they watched the throngs of equine lovers who could not afford tickets to the grand marquee milling around the rest of the track grounds. “I believe I might have witnessed a scene where you inveigled two dapper gentleman out of their choice of sandwiches earlier with the flick of your eyelashes.”
“They were attempting to scoff the last of the cheese sandwiches.” Lily’s tone turned outraged. “Leaving only cucumber, and you know how much I hate cucumber. It’s an offence to the entire world of vegetables.” Eva smiled at her reply. A genuine reflection of the warmth she had for the woman beside her. Although Eva had made several close friends while at Miss Porters, it had been Lily’s unwavering loyalty and belief in her that saw her here today, auctioning off the first of her bred and trained thoroughbreds into the American Racing World.
“I can always count on you to choose your stomach over manners, Lily.” Eva’s wry comment caused her friend to grin back in response. They passed the pens of horses waiting for the auction to begin. Eva was lucky to have stalls in the main barns, one of the few advantages her last name and connection with her father presented. Lily shrugged in response, her face tightening for a minute before smoothing again.
“An empty stomach is one of life’s great tragedies.” Before Eva could comment on her friend’s odd statement, Lily continued speaking with an observation on the crowd. “Every buffoon and person of base character appears to have come down to mingle this afternoon.” Eva followed Lily’s gaze to where a group of meanly dressed men with caps low over their eyes stood slightly apart from the rest of the crowd.
“The world of thoroughbred racing is as exciting as it is dangerous, Lily.” Eva warned her friend, shifting her eyes away from the group of men when one looked over and took notice of her staring. “We must be vigilant.” “I hope you’ve taken precautions with your charges.” Lily patted Eva’s arm with her free hand. “After the stories in the papers regarding this syndicate.” She waved her hand in the air. “One cannot be too careful.” “Sadly, doping and horse theft are not uncommon in the thoroughbred racing world.” Eva pursed her lips, her mood turning pensive. “I hired extra hands for my stables after the first horses went missing from Van Tassel and Kearney’s horse auctions in the city.”
“Good thing you attend to all the horse racing news despite being up in Connecticut,” Lily commended. “It wasn’t easy, trading gossip with the rest of the train‐ ers, but I did my best between studies,” Eva asserted. She had first heard of the horse abductions from a letter sent by her head trainer from her stables here at Sheepshead. The owners were keeping the theft quiet, not wanting the greater public to know of their misfortune.
“Is that who I think it is?” Lily sounded nonplussed. Eva followed her friend’s gaze, her heart rate ticking up a notch.
“Out of everyone who might have attended today’s events, why must it be her?” Eva’s confidence began waning as her heart plunged into her stomach. The pleasant heat of the early spring morning now felt suffocating and Eva wished she had worn black instead of the pretty emerald silk dress her friend Josephine had cleverly designed just for today. Eva tried to tilt her head forward to shield her face from the approaching couple.
“Miss McKenzie, how fortunate to meet you today.” said the young man standing beside the woman with hair so pale it was almost white. “Does your father have horses in the auction?” His drawl indicated better than anything his social status amongst New York’s elite families of The 400.
“Master Ripon, you are looking well,” Eva murmured. “How nice not to see you wearing black.” The young woman beside Master Ripon commented. “Miss McKenzie is so forever swathed in black bombazine, the rest of the girls at Miss Porters thought she was in constant mourning.” The girl’s mouth turned up in a smile at her own quip. Not mourning, Eva thought, but she could hardly point out she wore black constantly to hide her larger frame, until her friend Josephine had taken over her wardrobe.
“Miss Burwell, I admit to being surprised at meeting you here this afternoon.” Lily spoke in her straightforward manner. “The last impression you gave on the subject of horses was not favourable.”
“It’s true, I believe horses are dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.” Miss Burwell leaned heavily on Master Ripon’s arm and tilted her head in such a manner, as she appeared at once besotted while pouting. The whole effect was meant to impress Eva and this was not the first time she witnessed the other woman unleashing her signature pose. The effect on poor Master Ripon must have been potent as he blinked several times as he stared down at her. “However, Master Ripon has forgiven me.”
“How lucky for him.” Lily’s dry comment caused Eva’s mouth to quirk up despite her nerves at meeting her old school bully.
“I’m sure we’ll be seeing much of each other over the summer season. I’ll be on the lookout for all the black silk barges.” Miss Burwell’s comment hit the mark and Eva winced at the subtle reference to her wardrobe and its commonality with the spinsters left the shelf.
“Miss McKenzie has several horses of her own up for auction.” Lily’s tight tone indicated she was suppressing what she really wanted to say to the couple in front of her. “You should look them over, Master Ripon. You might find something you like.” The shot fired over Miss Burwell’s bow left the other young woman frowning.
“Really? Miss McKenzie, how unusual.” Master Ripon’s eyes widened and he inspected Eva closely. She did her best to hide her unease at the unwanted attention, but it wasn’t easy. After spending a lifetime being taller than all the surrounding girls, not to mention clumsy when it came to delicate drawing room furniture, Eva hated male regard of any kind.
“Yes.” Eva plucked up her courage. After all, she was a businesswoman and a horse owner and trainer. She could little afford not to engage with potential buyers. “Look for the name of my stud on the card, Chanler.”
“Chanler?” Miss Burwell’s tone suspicious.
“The maiden name of my mother. She was one of the three Chanler sisters. You might have heard of them?” Eva quipped knowing Miss Burwell would have been very much aware the family of heiresses Eva descended from.
“Such an unfortunate marriage,” Miss Burwell intoned.
“Unfortunate?” It was Master Ripon’s turn to appear surprised. “My dear Charlotte, the union of Miss McKenzie’s mother and father has produced some of the finest race horses America has ever seen. Unfortunate! My good‐ ness Charlotte, your education on thoroughbred racing needs to be brought up to scratch. It’s a good thing I’m a patient man.” Charlotte Burwell’s face pulled down in a frown before she stared pointedly at Eva and Lily. The amusement Eva felt over Master Ripon’s comments about her parents union, which had been unfortunate in the eyes of many of The 400, faded away. Charlotte Burwell was not a woman who took slights well, and she never forgot one.
“We must be away. Do look in on the horses.” Lily gently pulled Eva to encourage her feet to move. “Nice meeting you this afternoon, Master Ripon and I hope you improve Miss Burwell’s education on horse breeding.” Eva, moving to depart with Lily, nodded at Master Ripon and ignored the outrage on Charlotte Burwell’s face.
“She’ll have her revenge on you for that,” Eva commented with a sigh.
“Let her.” Lily’s chin rose in the air at her words of defiance. “We are not attending Miss Porters any longer. This is the real world. Charlotte’s time as the arbiter of decorum ended when we left school. Now is the time for you to be the author of your own story, dear Eva.”
“Charlotte is not the only one out in society now,” Eva reminded her friend glumly. Ahead she spotted the pen with the horses she elected to put up for auction. She smiled at the four horses she had watched birthed into this world and kept constant with their training. Beauties every last one of them. Eva would have loved to keep them all, but she was growing her stud and she had to continually remind herself that she had to think of her horses as a business.
A man stood in the small crowd in front of the Chanler stud pen. He was a head taller than the rest, as tall as Eva and that was no mean feat. Eva noted he asked several questions and spoke to her stable hand Henry. The horses in the line shifted and Eva spotted the Grey stallion lined up with the rest. She quickened her pace to her enclosure, startling Lily, who rushed to keep up.
“Henry! Henry!” Not caring that she might make a scene, Eva unwrapped her arm from Lily’s and bowled to a halt at the side of the pen. The young boy glanced over, eyes wide. “What do you mean by this?”
“Miss Eva?” Henry questioned.
“Storm Dancer is not among those up for auction.” Eva pointed to the flighty stallion with a bad temperament. The horse was one of Eva’s pet projects and might well become a legend in horse racing circles, but for now he remained poorly behaved, prone to kicking down stall doors and bit anyone he deemed suspicious who wandered too near. A crowded horse auction was no place for Storm Dancer.
“I’m sorry, Miss Eva.” Old Tom Boyson stepped forward. “We couldn’t get the girls out of the stall without him doing injury to the gates. I brought him out just to settle things.” The old man apologised in a soft voice, rough with age. Her father had turned Tom out just as Eva bought horses for her own stud. The man was professional, had a great eye for horseflesh, but most importantly to Eva, shared her compassion for bringing up horses ethically.
“I understand, but we should have him sent back to the barn lest potential bidders believe he is on the block too.” Eva stared at Tom.
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded his head and turned to his task. Eva pressed her lips together and twisted to face the man who had been interested in Storm Dancer. Immediately she was caught in his golden gaze, his patrician nose should have blighted his features, but instead he reminded Eva of drawings she had seen of Roman busts. His dark brown hair was cut fashionably, but it ruffled in the wind and she guessed he had a hard time managing it.
“The Grey is not for auction?” Francis directed his question to the woman who had interrupted his conversa‐ tion with the stable hand. Large blue eyes shaded by a fashionable wicker hat adorned with minimal flowers and a matching coloured ribbon to her emerald dress settled on him. A frission of awareness swept through him at her direct gaze.
“No,” she asserted in an upper crust accent Francis associated with New York. “Storm Dancer still needs training.”
“You are acquainted with Storm Dancer’s training?” Francis asked her in surprise, wondering at the identity of this woman.
“Naturally.” The woman straightened her shoulders and shifted to stand square to Francis. He felt his heart rate speed up at the show of authority. Women of Francis’s acquaintance did not challenge men. “I am the owner and head trainer of Chanler Stud Farm,” she announced. Francis’s head spun and he blinked. Feeling rather like an idiot, Francis regrouped as only his army training and experience in battle both on the fields of horror and drawing rooms allowed.
“Forgive me mum, I’m not from these shores and it is rare for a woman to own and train her own thoroughbreds.” Francis made a formal bow to the woman. “My name is Francis Wentworth, Duke of Wiltshire.” He saw colour infuse the woman’s cheeks, satisfied he might have gained the upper hand.
“The auction has drawn more than just the brown stone fronts from Fifth Avenue then,” a woman with hair the colour of a raven’s wing and pale complexion announced into the silence. “You are English are you not?” “For my pains,” Francis replied in a drawl.
“Born to rule and sacrifice,” the second woman quipped. “This is my good friend, Miss Eva McKenzie and I am Miss Lily Randolph.”
“At your service mum.” Francis nodded his head to Miss Randolph.
“I’m sorry about Storm Dancer.” Miss Eva appeared to have regained her ability to speak. “However, as you can see I have several mares on offer today.”
“Very fine specimens.” Francis turned his attention to the four horses on offer. Each of them appeared to be very fine contenders. If Eva had raised and had a hand in training these specimens, she had done a very good job. They all had strength and spirit; unfortunately it was the Grey’s fire Francis needed.
“If you will both excuse me.” Miss Lily stared at her friend as she spoke. “I believe I see a friend.” Eva nodded and watched as her friend stepped into the throngs of people.
“Would you consent to a private sale of Storm Dancer?” Francis asked in a low voice. He turned his body away from the crowd in an attempt to keep their conversation confidential.
“No, I’m afraid the Grey is not for sale.” Eva’s chin went up and Francis recognised the stubborn tilt from many women of his acquaintance. He would not get very far with a direct approach. Perhaps flattery? “They brought Storm Dancer out as a mistake.” She turned her head in dismissal.
“The mares are fine,” Francis spoke quickly. Now he had seen the Grey, Francis knew the others would have seen him too. There was magic about the Grey that defied definition. “The chestnut on the end is particularly nice.” Francis did his best to steer her towards where a charming chestnut thoroughbred stood stamping her feet every few seconds. He had a glimpse of the Grey as a groom led him back to the main barn and stables of the racetrack. “She is two years.” Eva nodded at the chestnut. The horse recognised her and stretched her neck out for a pat on the nose. “A good runner as the track times will attest, but I think she will do as a breeder. Solid bloodlines and a fair record on the female side of live births.” Whatever thoughts Francis harboured over a woman owning a stud, Eva knew her business. “Do you have many racing thoroughbreds in your stable at present? Are you looking to race or breed?”
“Both,” Francis answered. He owned a small, but prestigious stud by patrician standards. However, purchasing horses for his own stables was not what had brought him to New York. He was after far more sinister prey and the Grey was a perfect lure. “The Grey would make a valuable addition.” He prodded with care.
“Storm Dancer would make the perfect addition to any stud.” Eva’s gaze remained steady on his face. Francis knew there was no way to harangue Eva into selling him the Grey or anything else. Francis respected a woman who knew her own mind, especially a horse owner who under‐ stood the value of horseflesh. If she had any idea Francis was planning to use the stallion as bait, he could only imagine her anger. “I’m sure you’ll excuse me.”
Eva slid away to answer questions from a couple of dandified gentlemen. Francis could think of nothing to hold her attention and watched for a minute more gritting his teeth through his frustration. It wasn’t every day a woman denied Francis. Not that he was known for chasing women, but the powers that be gave Francis this mission because he was very good at getting what he wanted. With one last look at the blue-eyed beauty, Francis left the area in front of the Chanler Stud and did his best to feign interest in the next stud.
“Francis.” His best friend came to stand beside him as he looked over an offering at the next stud. Eva’s horses were in much better condition and would no doubt beat this set on any outing.
“Walter,” Francis intoned not looking at his best friend. “The Grey?” Walter questioned.
“Not possible.” Francis turned from the pen and joined the foot traffic of punters looking to survey purchases before bidding began.
“He’s the one,” his friend commented. For a second the image of Eva flashed vividly in his brain, the way her chin tilted when she was making her point and the way she stared directly into his gaze. She might have felt some nerves at the start of their conversation, but the ease at which she spoke of her horses brought a measure of ease to her contenance.
“Unfortunately, the grooms brought him out by mistake. We must find another prime specimen to lure out our prey.” Francis surveyed the rest of the stock as they walked down to the end of the pens.
“The Grey was a show stopper,” Walter told him. “You are welcome to try.” Francis waved a hand airily. “The owner is adamant and we can see why.” “The syndicate might try for him, anyway.” Walter lowered his voice.
“Not here,” Francis hissed back. They were playing a dangerous game against an enemy with no regard for life, neither horses, men or women. He nodded to a stretch of lawn beyond the marquee, auction ring and pens. Walter followed him in silence.
“Several people noted the Grey.” Walter waited until they were out of earshot of everyone.
“We can’t force the stud to sell to us,” Francis muttered. “We might keep an eye on the Chanler Stables tonight if another horse does not present itself.”
“There has already been four abductions since we came to these shores.” Walter’s tone turned outraged. “We’re supposed to be here to investigate and put an end to these happenings, but it’s only becoming worse.”
“The avarice of the syndicate is increasing. This may benefit us.” Francis found Eva in the crowd. She was speaking to several men in front of her pen now. It appeared she had a rapt audience. Eva was unlike any young woman of his acquaintance. Perhaps all the young women in New York were the same? They had only been here for a few weeks and spent little time in the drawing rooms too busy hunting their prey.
Scanning the crowd, Francis found Eva’s friend Miss Lily. The black haired and dark eyed beauty was in the middle of a heated argument with a rough looking man who appeared to be threatening her. Instinct took over and Francis was moving before he realised his intent. He swept through the crowd of people shouldering his way through until he reached Lily’s side. By the time he reached her, the man had departed and Lily’s face was impossibly paler.
“Miss Randolph, may I afford you some assistance?” He searched her face quickly before scanning the crowd. “No, thank you, my lord.” Lily pasted a social smile to her lips that was acceptable yet strained.
“Here you are Lily.” Eva bustled up to the duo. “I’ve been searching for you. The auction will commence anon, we must go to our places.” The newcomer glanced over at Francis and he felt the weight of her narrowed eyes. “Are you all right, Lily?”
Yes!” Lily placed her arm through Eva’s. “A case of mistaken identity. You know how it is when amongst the rabble.” Lily’s voice turned hard and Francis wondered at it.
“I warned you of the dangers of the racing set,” Eva remarked. “If you will excuse us my lord?” It was Eva’s turn to rescue her friend. Francis barely nodded before the two women stepped forward, heading towards the marquee set for the upper crust.
“You didn’t even have time to introduce me.” Walter stood alongside him as they watched the girls wait in line for admittance to the fenced off marquee. “The dark eyed definitely has something attractive about her. The big one, well, they breed them large here. It’s the Dutch blood. Knickerbockers and all that.” He dismissed the upper echelons of New York society with a derisive snort.
“There is something to be said about a girl who has a bit of meat on her bones.” Francis pursed his lips. “And she is not big, Eva’s frame appears perfectly proportioned for her height.”
“Rather like a man-of-war for my taste,” Walter mocked.
“You don’t have to play the sad vulgar all the time, Walter,” Francis sighed heavily. “Besides no one is trying to tie a chain to your leg and force you to marry her.”
“Heaven forbid!” Walter exclaimed dramatically. “We’re not here to chase skirts.” Francis put the subject of Eva out of his head. “Come on, we might find some‐ thing to tempt the blackguards out of their hidey holes.” He stalked towards the end of the line waiting for entrance to the marquee with grim determination.
“It’s a shame about the Grey. He’s a right gee-gee,” Walter lamented.
“He’s certain to see the winners ring if he runs,” Francis agreed. “Perhaps it’s better she refused my offer. There wouldn’t be much left of him after the syndicate caught hold of him.” Francis nodded at a couple of ladies who smiled in his direction from under sun umbrellas. His title alone had given Francis entrance into the best studs in New York and the surrounds, let alone his own vast wealth and connections.
The training he received in the army coupled with his instincts for ferreting out secrets and espionage brought him into some of the most dire haunts of New York on his quest to bring down a thoroughbred racing syndicate terrorising both sides of the Atlantic. He glimpsed Eva’s emerald dress and forced his gaze away. The Grey was all that interested him. She wasn’t selling the stallion; there‐ fore his interest in her was over. Francis repeated the sentence a few times, fixing his resolve.
“Congratulations on your well-deserved success.” Rose lifted her glass of champagne to Eva in salute. Eva smiled back at the petite young woman with auburn hair and dark brown eyes who was one of the gentlest creatures she had ever met. Rose’s family was not necessarily as wealthy as some others in their group, but she was never meant to feel it. Unfortunately, Rose’s father had plans for his temperate daughter to marry into one of the 400 of New York society’s elite. In Eva’s opinion, Rose was meant for much more moderate pursuits than social climbing. As one of her closest friends, Rose’s opinion meant the world to Eva.
“Thank you.” Eva didn’t bother trying to hide her pride in her accomplishment today. Her glass clinked together with Rose and Lily’s as the three of them drank to her achievement. Lily’s behaviour was reserved until Rose joined them halfway through the auction. Out of all the girls, her situation at home made it harder for her to leave the consistency of Miss Porter’s School for girls. Even though they were all destined to see one another over the course of the year at different society events, Lily’s life at home revolved around her elderly father who was house‐ bound and forgot he had a daughter at times. Eva had little time to question her friend between the congratulations of her fellow horse owners and breeders.
“Not only did you have the highest selling horse today, you had the second highest too.” Lily spoke with unfeigned joy for Eva.
“And you have snared the notice of a few eligible and highly affable young men.” Eva nodded at Rose. “We can discuss my prospects later.” Rose smiled at Eva. “Tonight is all about your success and it sounds like this is only the beginning.”
“I hope so.” Eva sipped at her fizz. She normally would not have had over one glass, but today’s success had been years in the making. Her mind went over the yearlings at the stud and the horses she waited on to make their debut on the track this summer. Storm Dancer was not the only four-legged fortune she had been hiding away in her stalls.
“Is this where you spent all your time away from Miss Porters?” Rose asked as she surveyed the ballroom of the Sheepshead Bay Owner and Jockey Society.
“Yes, although I spent little time here in the club, I rarely had much time out of the stables before I had to return to school.” Eva followed Rose’s gaze. “The Owner and Jockey Society only holds balls for special occasions throughout the year. It is quite a journey from New York.”
“One most of the owner’s wives would prefer not to make,” Lily commented. Eva nodded.
“My mother prefers to spend most of her time in town and only comes down to Sheepshead for the big races.” Eva’s parents marriage had strained under the pressure of unhappiness for years, her father escaping to the track and her mother burying her sense of neglect in endless social rounds in the city.
“Where is the righteous Mr McKenzie this evening?” Rose’s question held an edge. “I saw him amongst a few of the older set earlier.” Her displeasure at Eva’s father clear in her tone.
“It is small of him not to congratulate you,” Lily offered in a conciliatory voice. “You are the toast of the evening after all.”
“You know what he’s like.” Eva didn’t want to taint the evening with an argument either with or about her father. “He has his pride and sadly it’s divided into my three older brothers.”
“Poppycock,” Lily sniffed. “Although I won’t say more as I know it upsets you.”
“You have your own worries,” Eva murmured. In fact, Eva worried for her friend as her father was negligent in the extreme. On more than one occasion he forgot to send her pin money and left her with nowhere to spend the holidays.
“There he is. The Duke of whatever you spoke to this afternoon.” Lily nodded to where the crowd parted and Eva saw the Duke’s profile across the room. She remembered his name and the way the early morning light caused his golden eyes to flicker. Eva pursed her lips on the memory of their conversation this morning. He might be handsome, but there was no way Eva would allow him to use his wiles against her in changing her mind about Storm Dancer. As Charlotte had implied this morning, Eva might be on the shelf; however, that didn’t mean she would crumble at the attentions of a man, handsome or not.
“He has charmed the old guard,” Rose commented as they continued to watch the Duke. Something he said caused the surrounding men to break out into laughter, Eva’s father amongst them. Whatever her father found amusing was sure to cause Eva’s teeth to grind. “How is your father? I thought you mentioned he might come today.” Eva broke her gaze away from the duke. She did not understand why his charming of the old guard bothered her, but it did.
“Out at some supper with mother.” A crease formed between Rose’s brows. “He is always out on social calls. Especially if there is an eligible bachelor in the offering.”
“Your father will have little bearing on your choice.” Eva reached out with a free hand and patted her friend’s forearm. “We will protect you.”
“Perhaps.” The ringing of the supper bell followed Rose’s noncommittal reply. Eva turned towards her father, the president of the Owner and Jockey Society and waited for him to announce supper.
“Good evening, gentleman,” Alexander Mackenzie intoned and added as an afterthought. “Ladies, welcome to the annual Sheepshead Bay Owner and Jockey Society auction. This year we have welcomed equine enthusiasts from far and wide. The quality of horse breeding on show today, reflects the principal values of the members of the club.” Eva listened to the rest of the indirect grandiloquent speech with a growing sense of unease. Her father’s gaze continued to return to her several times, a glint in his eye Eva knew well from her childhood. Alexander McKenzie was planning something and whatever it was did not bode well for her.
Eva would be lying to herself if she hadn’t hoped her success today at the auction might act to forge a bond between them. A way to bridge the ever-growing chasm threatening to permanently divide father and daughter. Her hopes at some happy reconciliation were fast being dashed.
“My daughter, Miss Eva McKenzie, took home the first and second highest bids today.” Applause erupted around the room and hearty congratulations rang out. Eva’s blush swelled, but one look at her father’s face revealed he was not proclaiming her achievement to praise her. “Without further ado, if I could ask the Duke of Wiltshire to escort my daughter into supper, perhaps he could give her a couple of lessons in ladylike decorum. He is the principle advisor on thoroughbred racing to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”
Lily caught her champagne glass before it fell from her listless fingers. “Bastard.” She hissed the most.unladylike curse Eva could ever imagine coming from her friend. Eva’s mind went momentarily blank; she had no idea who her father was trying to insult more, the Duke or her. Silence reigned supreme in the ballroom for a hushed moment.
“After viewing the horseflesh Miss McKenzie brought to auction today, there is no doubt in my mind, I would have very little knowledge to impart.” The Duke of Wilt‐ shire stepped gallantly forward and held out a hand. Laugh lines creased from his eyes as he surveyed her features, but a smile warmed his lips. Rose gave her a little push. A second later, Eva found herself swept along on the arm of the handsome duke to further applause by the guests in the ballroom.
“Are you well, Miss McKenzie?” The Duke murmured for her ears alone as he held a chair out in the opulent dining room at the seats indicated by the staff.
“Yes, thank you,” Eva nodded and whispered back. She sat with as much grace as possible, although it wasn’t easy as she worried over not upsetting the finely laid out service in front of her. Coherent thought came rushing back and she waited until the Duke sat beside her before turning to him. “I must apologise for my father, my lord,” She began.
“No need.” The Duke waited until a staff member flicked the linen napkins out on each of their laps. “We shall place Mr McKenzie’s bad form on the copious amount of scotch he consumed before supper.”
“Oh dear!” Eva reached for her water and shook her head at the waiter holding a bottle of wine. Perhaps it would be better to forgo further inebriation herself. The room felt particularly warm sitting next to the Duke. “Did you have any successful bids today, my lord?” Eva needed to steer the conversation away from her father. She looked down the long candle-lit table set with all the gilt and pomp of New York society. Disappointment welled when she saw Lily and Rose seated too far away for any rescue.
“I’m afraid I fell in love after surveying the charms of your lovely Grey.” The Duke sat back in his chair while replying. Eva’s eyes narrowed. “I know. I know. He’s not on the block. Yet.” She almost snorted, but kept a polite expression on her face. Although the man made her pulse race, he was an insufferable charmer like the rest of his ilk. Not only did Alexander McKenzie deserve a stern talking to for his unforgivable rudeness, but also far more importantly he needed a rebuke for saddling Eva with such a boring supper companion.
“The first course. Soup,” Eva remarked as a servant came forward to ladle soup into the bowl in front of her. “I’m certain you have more conversational skills than commenting on the courses, Miss McKenzie.” The Duke’s mouth tipped up in a smile as he regarded her. The way the flames danced in his golden eyes made him appear as if he were inviting confidences. Eva turned her head and regarded her soup.
“A broth? I’m not sure what those green bits are.” She deliberately picked up her spoon.
“Chive?” The Duke replied in a bored tone. Eva sneaked a quick look at him while she swallowed a spoonful of soup to find he appeared disappointed. Aside from his unusual interest in the Grey, Eva really couldn’t fault the man beside her. She made an effort.
“You never really divulged why you are in New York when we met this morning, my lord.” Eva ventured. “A conversation not based on food. Much more rivet‐ ing.” The Duke grinned at her and Eva’s heart thumped hard. She blinked a few times and reminded herself that she was immune to all charmers. “I’m here scouting horse‐ flesh.” He lifted a spoonful of soup to his mouth and it gave Eva a moment to consider his answer.
“You are a confidante of the Queen?” Eva ventured. “Only in matters pertaining to thoroughbred horsing, mum.” The Duke continued to eat his soup. “She has far more discerning gentlemen about her to advise on other matters.”
“Somehow I find that hard to believe.” Eva wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the Duke. The only thing she knew was that he caused her to feel uneasy. He might be a charmer, but he was smart too and she had a premonition the Duke was not only here to survey New York’s finest horseflesh.
A guard of servants removed the soup bowls with quiet efficiency. Eva glanced down the table to see Rose in an animated conversation with a gentleman of her father’s ilk, while Lily’s gaze remained distant. There was definitely something bothering her friend, but it wasn’t always easy to get her to share her worries.
“Very sad to hear the news of the latest horse theft here in New York.” The Duke’s comment brought Eva’s eyes to his face with a start.
“I hadn’t known they had made the news public.” Eva commented evasively. She hadn’t heard a word of Green Meadows misfortune today amongst the racing set. It might be the gossip at the front of every horse owner’s minds, but everyone was showing remarkable restraint and unity.
“One does not mean to dabble in base talk, it is so plebeian. However, we have had our own problems with syndicates in Britain.” The Duke’s golden eyes fell on Eva’s face. Again, there was something in the way he commented that caused Eva’s mind to think there was much more to the Duke than he presented.
Francis regarded the woman next to him. She really was unlike any other woman he had encountered. Most ladies when told he was a confidant of the Queen peppered him with innumerable questions about her and the royal family. As a gentleman, his answers were always general and preserved the dignity of Her Majesty. However, Miss McKenzie appeared unimpressed by his connections or anything else about him.
“Do tell, my lord.” Eva wet her lips and the Duke stared at Eva’s mouth for longer than socially acceptable. “There’s been an epidemic of horse thefts across several English stables and possibly some Irish studs, although they are unwilling to confirm in most cases.” Francis sat back in his chair. A delicate salad of seafood came next on the menu. “Most of the horses turn up weeks later. Dead from doping.”
“Do you have any idea who would do such a thing?” Miss McKenzie hadn’t glanced back down at her plate. Her rounded eyes remained riveted on Francis’s with an expression of pure horror, telling him that he’d surmised her feelings correctly. She loved her animals dearly.
“Syndicates working here and back home.” Francis pried his eyes away from Eva’s and picked up a small fork. “It appears the racket holds clandestine race meetings. A few dishonest stud owners take part in the races. Others steal horses they believe will win. All the money set down is cash. Very lucrative for those organising the races.” And dangerous, but he didn’t mention the murders the syndicate had left in its wake.
“I cannot believe a horse owner or trainer would knowingly place the lives of their horses in such danger.” Miss McKenzie picked up her own fork, but Francis noticed agitation prevented her from eating. Instead, she pushed the salad around on her plate. “Such people do not deserve to own animals.”
“Very true,” Francis murmured. They didn’t deserve to live as far as it concerned Francis. He didn’t need to relate this information to Miss McKenzie, his mission was his own.
“Let us hope the authorities catch these blackguards before they can make any more mischief.” Miss McKenzie set her fork aside. “Rumours of cheating and doping already beset the racing world in perfectly legal races, we do not need help in blackening our reputations.”
“You know the racing world well?” The Duke found himself very interested in Miss McKenzie. In one way shy and the other fiercely loyal. A paradox.
“Since birth.” Miss McKenzie gave him a wry smile. “I begged my parents to allow me to spend all my free time down at my father’s stud. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the races and the life around the barn in general. There is a satisfaction in watching the results of one’s labours.”
“Indeed.” Francis nodded to her. “Although I spent some time in the army, mostly regarding familial responsibilities, my time officially as part of the war office finished months ago and I spend much of my time at my stud these days.”
“You were a soldier?” Miss McKenzie’s eyes widened. “An officer,” Francis corrected quietly.
“Goodness, have you seen action?” she asked him. “We have the veterans of the Civil War and there are any number of skirmishes in the wilds, but I haven’t met many officers.”
“I’ve seen some action.” Francis would not relate any war stories to her. Nor would he tell her his superiors removed him from his regiment to focus on his special talent of reconnaissance. There was much stigma about being labelled a spy, even though it kept countries such as Britain safe and played a role in the reason why his superiors selected him for this specific mission even though Francis had sold his commission months ago. “Tell me how you found yourself the owner of the two top auction horses today?”
Miss McKenzie frowned and stared at him for a moment. “I’m not altogether sure I know the answer.” Her candour and general bemusement at her own situation made him chuckle. Francis’ amusement was contagious because she laughed with him. Everyone seated around them must have thought the picture they made was odd, but Miss McKenzie did not appear worried in the least. Her shoulders eased and she shook her head.
“Tell me of the Grey.” Francis held up his hands. “I know you’re not interested in parting with him, but where there is a magnificent animal there is a great tale.” “I warn you.” Miss McKenzie shifted while waiters lifted away the seafood course. “If you give me leave to talk of my horses, you may be here all night.” “Consider me forewarned,” Francis told her charmed by Miss McKenzie’s admission. There were few young ladies of Francis’s acquaintance outside the immediate royal family interested in talking of their stables. “Storm Dancer is a favourite of mine.” Miss McKenzie sounded like she was making some ill-mannered confession, however Francis discerned her admiration this morn‐ ing. “His birth was difficult and one of my brother’s bet me a guinea he would not live out the week.”
“But he did.” Francis nodded. His esteem building. “Not without some extraordinary lengths from my head trainer. I missed two weeks of school, but I flatter myself when I say I think it was a combined effort between the two of us.” Miss McKenzie cleared her throat, a twinkle in her eye. “Never underestimate the lengths a Scot will go to winning a guinea. Especially from their brother.” Francis chuckled at her joke, knowing she cared far more for the horse than the money.
“I will remember your sage advice when approaching a wager with a Scot,” Francis told her in mock solemnity. “Then I shall say your visit to New York has been a great success.” Miss McKenzie beamed at him. The supper plates arrived and departed and Francis barely gave them any attention. The young woman beside him had captured his interest and they talked of horses, politics and the odd social customs that differentiated the New World from the Old World. Francis felt himself genuinely laughing and allowing his own guard to ease as the evening wore on.
“Well, dessert is the signal for the ladies to depart.” Miss McKenzie pushed a plate with three different, neatly arranged and untouched cakes away from her.
“Surely the club caters to both sexes.” Francis peered down the table and noticed the other ladies taking their leave.
“Ladies such as myself are present under duress only.” Francis’ admiration for Miss McKenzie burned brightly in his chest when she smiled at him. “It was nice sharing a meal with you, my lord.” She offered tentatively, appearing unsure of his response for the first time since they laughed together at supper.
“Thank you for sharing some of your wisdom.” Francis stood up and held out his hand in a formal gesture. “It has been some time since I enjoyed a meal thus.” Miss McKenzie placed her hand in his and stood up, almost upsetting the linen tablecloth, but righted it with a quick tug in a movement so fast Francis believed it must happen to her often.
“Good luck with the rest of your journey.” She squeezed his fingers and quickly let go. The warmth of her skin in his hands sent a peculiar awareness through Francis and he scolded himself for behaving like an untried schoolboy.
“I look forward to reading of your horses’ successes in the papers,” Francis countered. Miss McKenzie blushed and an awkward pause ensued between them, a feeling like neither wished to part from the other’s company, but they had no way to extend the interlude.
“Well, good evening.” Miss McKenzie swept away in a flourish of emerald skirts to meet her friends waiting by the exit to the supper room. The double doors closed. The atmosphere in the room changed and the men sat back in their chairs and relaxed a fraction.
Decanters of ardent spirits replaced the plates of tiny cakes.
“Cigar?” Walter, his travelling companion, offered. “No, you know I hate them,” Francis declined. Instead, he took a glass of brandy from a passing waiter. He nodded to a corner of the room where they could speak in private without raising suspicion.
“You find out anything further?” Francis asked Walter. “Not much.” Walter savoured his cigar. “Tight-lipped bunch these New Yorkers.”
“That shouldn’t have been a problem, didn’t you wave your title around?” Francis asked. Walter raised one brow at him.
“None of the owners or jockeys would speak openly about the Green Meadows horse theft.” Walter breathed a plume of cigar smoke into the air in front of them. “The ones who did speak, believe it was a relatively isolated inci‐ dent. There have been horse thefts in the past, a poisoning of a prize winner, but nothing to suggest a syndicate might operate around New York.”
“We know differently,” Francis confirmed darkly. “So do they,” Walter asserted.
“We’re outsiders.” Francis contemplated the men standing around in small groups speaking to one another. He found Mr McKenzie in a red tartan vest having dispensed with his dinner jacket after the ladies’ departure. “Our titles only work on mesmerising their women.” Francis sniffed at Walter’s jest. “And did you have much luck with the lady of the day?”
“In what sense?” Francis narrowed his eyes on his companion, the thrum of possession causing his tone to sharpen at Walter’s enquiry.
“You appeared to have much in common.” Walter ventured eyeing his friend with interest.
“She had the two top auction horses today and her two others did very well for a first time stud on the block.” Francis told Walter what he already knew. “Miss McKenzie is an interesting young lady.”
“Interesting enough to be running horses in illegal side races along with our syndicate?” Walter asked quietly. Francis snorted.
“Highly unlikely. In fact, I don’t believe Miss McKenzie or most of the other owners in this room have any idea just how dangerous or far reaching these criminals truly are.”
“Still, it looked like the conversation engrossed you for most of supper.” Walter let the comment hang in the air when Francis did not comment, he continued. “Not that Miss McKenzie is really the young lady one peruses for dalliance.”
“Indeed,” Francis agreed. “She is a well-bred young lady and might jab any pursuer with her hat pin.” The thought of Miss McKenzie fending off unwanted suitors made his blood unexpectedly boil.
“And she is hardly the most fashionable young lady we have beheld in New York,” Walter observed. Francis felt his temper rise, however normally he would have agreed with Walter. Miss McKenzie was unlike any of the young ladies to take his notice in the past.
“Being fashionable has a limited currency,” Francis replied noncommittally.
“Well you’re not going to hang up your ladle with one of these young ladies when all the pretty New Yorkers have already descended on London looking for husbands.” Walter sniffed. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to shackle yourself to a lifetime of sidestepping the likes of Mr McKenzie. Even I have to admit, he is an ass. To be the daughter of such.” Walter shook his head. Francis nodded in agreement. The man had left his daughter to endure a potential public humiliation.
“Shall we do the rounds?” Francis finished his brandy and glanced around the room.
“It’s what we’re here to do,” Walter agreed, not sounding very enthusiastic at the prospect.
“Once we find a lead on the syndicate members, we can exchange niceties using our fists.” Francis grinned at Walter who grinned back and saluted with his cigar. Both were men of action, but knew how important it was to lay the groundwork in any investigation.
“I’m sure knocking a few heads together might just make the crossing of the Atlantic worthwhile,” Walter agreed stepping towards the nearest group of men.
“It’s why I invited you,” Francis confirmed and made a path towards where Mr McKenzie was holding court with a brandy balloon in one hand.