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“Of all the preposterous schemes you’ve concocted, this one wins the hand.”
Flora lifted her chin. “That is a very rude thing to say.”
“Perhaps.” Her sister, Juliana, raised a shoulder, although the movement was subdued so as to not wake the small boy asleep in her lap. “But rude does not mean it’s untrue.”
“Truth is not an absolute thing. It very much depends on the person and their definition of what is true or not.” Not that Flora believed such nonsense, but she would prefer not to begin this discussion on shaky ground.
“I’m sorry,” Juliana began, glancing about the ornate solar they sat in. After skimming her gaze over her husband, the Duke of Ashwood, who sat reading the paper in the chair opposite Flora, her piercing stare landed on her. “Were you attempting to distract me from your foolish plan with that bit of nonsense you just uttered?”
“It’s not foolish!”
Juliana looked to the duke, who smirked knowingly as he continued to read the page in front of him. “You intend on applying for the assistant trainer position at Amstead Gardens. Disguised as a man.”
Sitting up straight, she nodded. “That’s the right of it.”
“You’re cracked!” The duchess held a hand to her mouth as the young boy in her lap mumbled in his sleep. After a prolonged moment, she continued, albeit in a softer voice. “Do you honestly think you’d be successful in disguising yourself as a man, not just for an evening of subterfuge, but for months on end?”
Flora swallowed, willing her tone to remain even. Winning her sister’s approval was paramount—if Juliana agreed to her plan, the duchess would defend her to the death if the endeavor were to go south. And as the duke denied his wife nothing, Flora would have two powerful defenders. She desperately needed an ally, and her sister and the duke were ideal.
Now to convince Juliana of how much this meant to her.
“Jul, people see what they expect to see. You know this. If I am dressed as a man and play the part of a man, I doubt anyone would look closely enough to see that I’m not actually growing any facial hair.”
“Or in possession of an Adam’s apple,” the duke offered dryly.
“And if they do look closely? If you slip in your performance and reveal your true identity, what then?” Juliana leaned forward, her eyes wide. “You could be hurt. I cannot abide that happening.”
Old habits died hard. “It’s not yours to abide.”
Curse her tongue.
The duchess pulled back, her fingers idly combing through her son’s blonde hair. Her laurel green eyes speared Flora. “I suppose not. You’ve always done whatever you wanted, no matter what objections Niall or I, or even Mother and Father, made. So why are you telling me your scheme beforehand, rather than simply enacting it and apologizing later?”
Flora battled the urge to shift in her seat. “This is not a lighthearted prank or a bit of innocent mischief. I am aware there is more at stake.”
“Pray tell, what do you consider to be at stake?”
“My safety, as you mentioned. My reputation. The family’s good name. Your reputation.” She dropped her eyes to her hands, which sat knotted in her lap. “Niall’s political career.”
Their brother, Niall, the Marquess of Inverray, held a powerful position in the House of Commons, and the sisters had both worked to further his political agenda. But since Juliana’s marriage, hostess duties had fallen on Flora’s shoulders, and she tried her best to execute them flawlessly, despite how she chafed. This outlandish plan of hers would be disastrous for so many if she were discovered. Yet even knowing what she risked, Flora was determined to see it through.
Juliana’s soft chuckle rankled. “Ah, so you have thought out the consequences.”
Flora gritted her teeth. “Of course I have. I’m not completely selfish.”
“No, not completely.” The duchess dragged a pillow to her side and slowly shifted her son onto it. After a tense pause, she relaxed back into the cushions, her hands coming to massage the swell of her abdomen just beginning to show through her day dress. “Why now, Flo? Why must you take this great risk now?”
Determined to deliver her explanation as eloquently as possible, Flora breathed deeply to calm her racing heart. “I want to learn to be the best horse trainer I can be.”
Juliana stared at her, apparently unmoved by her impassioned decree.
She tried again. “You know I did not want to go to London. I was perfectly happy at Loch Kilmorow, overseeing the stables and ensuring the Campbell tradition lived on. I never dreamed of a London Season or endless balls and soirees. My life in Scotland was challenging, interesting, and fulfilling.”
“That’s because you had the run of the estate.” Juliana shrugged. “Father was content to let you oversee the stables. He had no qualms about you gallivanting all over the Highlands in breeches and tartan.”
“Exactly. I have gone from being a wild highland falcon to a caged dove.” She closed her eyes. “I’m weary of my prison, Jul.”
Her sister was impervious to her hyperbole. “Why did you agree to come, then? Father would not have pushed you if you were truly against it.”
Flora rose and walked to the window, gazing out over the lush, manicured gardens that extended from the wide terrace steps down to the lake that sparkled in the distance. Such a sight made her want to escape the confines of the luxurious sitting room and frolic in the sun, the fresh Yorkshire air a tempering balm.
But escape was impossible when the prize remained elusive.
Propping a hip on the windowsill, she turned and met her sister’s eyes. “I didn’t want to disappoint Niall. He so rarely visited, and when he did, it was for a big event. I used to count down the days until he’d appear at the end of the long drive leading to the castle.” She quirked her mouth. “When he said he wanted to take us to London for a Season, I did not give much thought to what that would entail. I simply wanted to spend time with my brother.”
A soft, sad smile settled on Juliana’s lips. “That was one of the reasons I agreed to come, too.”
“What were the other reasons?”
“I actually wanted a Season. I thought perhaps I might meet a man I could imagine as my husband.”
The duke slid his gaze to Juliana, so much tenderness in his eyes Flora sighed in annoyance. “Well, you were obviously successful.”
The duchess laughed. “I know.” But when she spoke again, her words were hesitant. “Don’t you want to marry, Flo? Find someone who belongs to you as much as you belong to them?”
“Under English law there would be no reciprocal belonging. I would have no claim over his person, estate, or even my own children unless he deemed it so.”
“You know what I mean.” Juliana rolled her eyes.
“I-I have only ever thought of marriage in the abstract, in that I would probably marry because it’s expected of me. Not because I actually desire marriage.” She smoothed down her skirt as if such an action would order her thoughts. “Being beholden to another person, dependent on their whims and desires, and most often on their schedule, never appealed to me. Marriage would mean giving up the small sliver of autonomy I have, and I do not find that a tempting prospect.”
“Did you feel this way before or after your dowry was transferred to your possession?” Ashwood drawled, not looking up from his paper.
She snorted. “Before, although being in possession of forty thousand pounds certainly solidified my beliefs.”
“If you do not marry, what do you intend to do with the funds?”
Flora nibbled her lip before she blurted out, “If Niall finally allows me to access them, I’d like to purchase a small estate. Breed and train my own racing stock.”
“Ah, so we’re back to your desire to be a horse trainer,” Juliana murmured, her brow crinkled in thought.
“I learned a great deal in the stables at Loch Kilmorow, but there is much I still don’t know. Amstead Gardens is one of the oldest and most storied stud farms in England, and the current Lord Amstead has been the lead trainer for the last decade.” Flora tried to tamp down her enthusiasm on the topic, but she couldn’t help it. She found it all fascinating. She pushed herself off the windowsill and explained, “Before the late marquess was killed in the barn fire, they were poised to bring three colts to the Guineas Stakes. Most farms are lucky to bring one.”
While the old marquess’s death was the most tragic casualty of the fire, it wasn’t the only one. “I have learned that Amstead has acquired two stallions in the Godolphin Arabian line from Egypt, and he has hired Mr. Baniti Mubarak to train them. Mr. Mubarak has trained some of the best horses in the Orient, and I want to be there for their training. I want to soak up as much knowledge as possible so when the time comes, I can put it to use in my own stables.”
The duchess listened quietly, her gaze distant. Several silent minutes passed and a frown darkened her face. “Do you not want a family of your own?”
Flora didn’t miss how the duchess took in her sleeping son as she voiced her question. Her sister was a loving mother, and Flora adored her two nephews and the niece or nephew who would join the family in the summer, and yet...
“I have always felt like my horses were my children.” Catching Juliana’s expression, she held up a hand. “Don’t do that, Jul. Do not feel sorry for me. There is nothing wrong with me or with the fact that I don’t desire children of my own.”
“I did not say there was.”
“Your expression certainly did.” When Juliana made to argue, she shook her head. “I know women are expected to have children and raise them while their husbands do whatever it is they do.” She snuck a glance at the duke, who continued to read the paper, now with a slight curl to his mouth. “But I think we know by now that I’ve always had a bit of a problem doing what others tell me I should.”
“You have done a very good job of rising to the responsibilities Niall has given you.”
“That’s because he’s horribly bossy.”
A burst of laughter flew from Juliana’s mouth before she slapped a hand over it. “That is why serving in Parliament is an ideal fit for him. He’s willing to guilt and cajole to get what he wants.”
“And I have tried my best to meet his expectations. I have hosted his salons. I have overseen his dinners. I have smiled until my face hurt and made inane small talk with vapid, ridiculous women, all in the name of his political career. I have stabled Banrigh along with my unfettered freedom, curtailed my tongue”—at her sister’s raised brow, she grimaced—“I have tried my best to, at least. I have sacrificed all the things that make me feel like me for him. I find I don’t have the fortitude to do so any longer.”
“You have been quite patient. And what excuse will you give Niall?”
“I told him I was returning here to help you during your confinement. He didn’t argue when I promised to return in time for the start of Parliament.”
Juliana groaned, pressing fingers to her closed eyelids. “I wish you wouldn’t have. You are putting Ashwood and me in a difficult situation. Do you expect us to lie to Niall when he inquires after you?”
Flora pinched her lips. “Do you really think Niall will care enough to inquire after me?”
Her sister sighed long and deep. “That is wholly unfair, as well you know.”
Lifting a shoulder, Flora turned away without comment. She was confident in her brother’s affection for her. She just doubted he respected her or her ambitions.
“And what of Little Windmill House? You have worked so hard to set up the patronesses group. Do you feel comfortable leaving when there is still so much work to do?”
Her chest grew tight. Niall had established a foundling home, Little Windmill House, of which Juliana and Flora served as patronesses. The home had been the project of her heart, and she dearly loved serving as the riding instructor. Many of the children had been around horses before, but some had not, and taking them up for their first trot or gallop across the park was always a joy. She had worked hard to create a group of caring patronesses to serve the interests of the home and its young occupants, and she was certain her young charges would be loved and cared for in her absence.
“There are twelve ladies in the group. Charlotte has been responsible for leading the meetings for the last year, and now that little Daisy is old enough to accompany Alethea to meetings, I suspect the duchess will want to be more involved,” Flora said, ticking the names off on her fingers. “I’ll be superfluous.”
“I highly doubt that. But I’m sure dear Charlotte would appreciate the help with her time of confinement so close,” her sister murmured, absentmindedly rubbing her stomach. Their friend, Lady Firthwell, was expecting her first child not long after Juliana was expected to deliver. She pursed her lips. “I am in no way convinced this is a good idea, Flo.”
Gritting her teeth, Flora held her sister’s gaze. “I will do this, whether I have your blessing or not.”
“And if I tell Niall?” The duchess’s voice dropped, and so did Flora’s stomach.
“You would do that? After all the ways I supported yours and Ashwood’s courtship? After all I have done to aid Niall?” Emotions threatened to clog her throat. “I have helped everyone. Darington and Alethea. Firthwell and Charlotte. Now that I am finally taking a risk for myself, you would sabotage it?”
“You have been the ton’s very own Scottish cupid,” Ashwood quipped, turning a page.
Despite herself, Flora clamped her jaw to contain a chuckle.
Her sister didn’t react to the duke’s comment, but instead studied Flora for a tense moment. Flora was not sure what she glimpsed before Juliana looked to her husband. “What do you think of her plan, my love?"
The Duke of Ashwood folded his paper and lounged in his chair as he considered Flora with shrewd blue eyes. “Well, it is foolhardy. Your chances of being discovered are absurdly high. Niall will be furious with us—with me—should he learn the truth. But then, that’s never intimidated me before.”
Hope seeped out of her like a deflated aeronautical balloon. If Ashwood failed to support her, Juliana would feel justified in her concerns. She could still always act on her plan, but Flora was not certain she wanted to without their support.
“Do you know the Marquess of Amstead? Would he recognize you?”
“I have never met him. I’ve asked Niall numerous times to arrange an introduction, but apparently Lord Amstead is rarely in town.”
“That’s true.” The duke stroked his chin. “The marquess ventures to London only sporadically, I understand.”
“Even if he did frequent town, I doubt Niall would introduce us. He’s said that the marquess has a bit of a rakish reputation.”
Ashwood waved a dismissive hand. “No more than any other bachelor lord. Amstead just tends to be a bit rougher around the edges. His manners are more blunt. Less refined. No doubt from all the time he spends in his stables.”
“All that time has been well spent, as far as I’m concerned.” Flora grinned. “It’s made Amstead Gardens the premiere training facility in the country.”
The duke narrowed his eyes. “If you’re keen to learn from him and his new Egyptian trainer, this is the time to do it.”
She knew it. With the marquess’s recent acquisitions, the betting books at White’s and other such establishments were already stacked firmly in the Garden’s favor for the upcoming racing circuit. And Flora wanted to be part of the preparation for the Two Thousand Guineas, the first leg in the Triple Crown.
“Like you, sister dear, I’m of the belief that people see what they expect to see.” Ashwood raised a brow. “Have you considered your disguise? It will have to be good enough to outlast a mere day. It will have to become part of your very identity.”
“Duncan has helped me acquire clothes I think will work for the role. And I’ve been practicing my mannerisms.” Her cousin had not been eager to help her, but she knew enough of his secrets to ensure his cooperation.
“I’m certain you will need more than a working man’s attire to succeed at this subterfuge.” Rising to his feet, the duke tugged on the bell pull. Almost immediately, the butler appeared. “Please have Jones come here.”
“What are you going to ask Jones to do?” Juliana asked, her head cocked to the side.
“To do what a valet does,” he said as the door opened. “Dress a man.”
Turning to the tall, imposing figure who looked more like a pugilist than the valet of a duke, Ashwood said, “Lady Flora is in need of your help. She will explain how you can assist her, and I ask you to see to her wishes. Return here when the task is complete.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Jones murmured.
A new thought occurred to her and she paused. “Do you suppose I will need to cut my hair?”
“Yes,” Ashwood softly said. “A hat could easily blow away in the wind or during an energetic ride. If it did, how would you explain whatever coiffure you put it in?”
“I don’t know.” She ran shaking hands through the wisps and curls that had become dislodged from her simple bun. She had always loved her thick black hair, and the idea of cutting it left her slightly nauseated.
“It will grow back.” Juliana’s voice was gentle. “And you do not have to cut it completely off. I’m sure a short queue would be perfectly acceptable.”
Flora nodded, her dry throat making words impossible.
“Her Grace is right. Your hair will grow back.” Ashwood’s pause drew her gaze up to meet his. “What is hair in comparison to your dream?”
Peering into her brother-in-law’s questioning stare, her priorities clicked into place. Hair did grow back, but the chance to work at Amstead Gardens, at such a time, was not an opportunity that would quickly come around again.
“It’s a luxury, I’m sure,” she said, setting her jaw, releasing whatever vanity she clung to.
“Bravo, my lady,” Ashwood said, while the duchess nodded in approval.
Flora grinned. “I’ll return shortly.”
“Oh, I think it will take longer than that,” she heard her sister say as she closed the door.