Miss Olive Harper clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her laughter, but the shaking of her shoulders gave her away.
“It’s true,” protested the Duke of Nottingvale. “She flew out of that tree without a single care for gravity.”
As was time-honored tradition, all of the other guests at the duke’s annual Yuletide party launched into equally fantastic tales of gossip they’d read about Olive and the famous Harper horses, or antics they’d witnessed with their own eyes.
She turned to her father, who stood between the pianoforte and a table full of treats. “His Grace claims he saw me drop from a tree branch onto a passing horse.”
Papa’s eyes twinkled. “Sidesaddle or low pummel?”
“Low pummel, of course.” Papa was the one who taught her how.
She and her father had been inseparable for as long as she could remember. Not only were they the best of friends, they’d worked side-by-side on their stud farm from the moment she was out of leading strings. Olive had learnt to ride before she’d learnt to read.
Local blacksmith Sébastien le Duc groaned. “And then there was the time she wagered Lucien her horse could leap further than his.”
Olive tamped down a smile. The Harpers and the le Ducs lived across the street from one another, at the edge of the only road leading into the village.
She repeated his comment to her father in sign language. Papa could read the lips of one speaker if the circumstances were right, but it was impossible to watch everyone at once in a crowd.
“I do not race with Mademoiselle Olive anymore,” Lucien le Duc admitted grudgingly. “I already know la démone intrépide will win.”
“Perhaps it’s not Olive who has preternatural talent,” teased another friend. “Perhaps it’s the horses who have preternatural powers.”
Olive interpreted as quickly as she could.
Papa gave a wicked grin in response. “Who do they think trained our horses?”
“Horses like Duke!” crowed another friend, turning the teasing to the party’s host. “The Harpers’ prized stud is more famous than you, Nottingvale!”
The Duke of Nottingvale affected faux outrage. “I don’t know whether to take umbrage at being compared to a horse, or to pout because I did not emerge the victor.”
“Neither did Prinny.” Sébastien turned to Olive. “Is it true you refused to sell Duke to the Prince Regent?”
Olive batted her eyelashes innocently, whilst interpreting for her father.
“I refused three times,” she assured the party, to the delight of all. “For the good of the country, of course. Duke won’t let anyone but me ride him. He would toss Prinny into a lake at the first opportunity.”
“When has common sense stopped Prinny?” laughed a friend. “I wager it was Olive who chased him away. The Regent is more terrified of you than Napoleon.”
“As he should be,” she agreed primly.
The Harpers were not only renowned horse breeders and trainers, they were also champion grudge-keepers. Had Prinny tried to take Duke from them by force, they would have done everything in their power to get Duke back… or make the Regent regret his actions. Their horses meant the world to Olive and her father.
Fortunately, no such dire circumstances had come to pass. She was having one of the best Yuletides—nay, one of the best years!—in recent memory.
As her father aged, he’d entrusted more and more of the farm’s operations to Olive. She was no longer “Mr. Harper’s daughter” but a respected horse trainer and business owner in her own right.
Oh, very well, she didn’t own anything yet. But she and Papa were each other’s only relatives, which made Olive the estate’s sole heiress. Their farm was her kingdom, and she its Queen. Her horses’ well-deserved fame had long proved her talent and success in an arena dominated by men.
What more could a lady want?
One of the new faces here tonight turned to Olive. “Would you sell Duke to me?”
“I wouldn’t sell him to anyone,” she replied.
She allowed certain customers to mate their mares with her stallion or purchase a foal, but she would not part with her favorite horse. Duke was part of the family.
“What if I offered…” The stranger named a figure five times higher than Prinny’s best offer and gave her a hopeful grin.
“Not even for ten times as much,” she informed him and quickly glanced away.
Her tight-lipped smile wasn’t because she found the question offensive—a stud farm was meant to breed and sell horses, after all—but because Olive didn’t want the cheerful stranger to see what she hid behind her smile.
When she was younger, Papa had assured her she’d grow into her too-wide mouth and over-large teeth.
Olive had not.
It was the only lie Papa had ever told her.
She knew it was because he loved her. To Papa, his daughter was beautiful. He probably thought she had grown into her features. But there was no reason for her to subject strangers to her oversized teeth. Or to open herself up to ridicule.
Instead, she smoothed her hands over her prettiest gown and did her best to smile with her eyes instead of her tightly closed mouth.
The sound of champagne popping filled the air.
“A toast.” Nottingvale held the foaming bottle aloft. “To my sister, on her betrothal.”
Glasses clinked and cheers filled the air.
Olive was thrilled for the duke’s sister, she really was. But Olive was even more glad that she need never worry about being in the same shoes.
Her fulfillment came from her work. Olive wasn’t missing anything. Papa was the best companion anyone could ask for. They had each other, which was more than enough.
She knew her purpose, and excelled at it. Even before the Prinny Incident, the Harper horses had been famous. Olive was no shrinking wallflower. She was a very busy spinster and she liked it that way.
Papa had been making noises about retiring, and Olive was more than ready to take the reins. She was in control of her own future, and soon would be in charge of the entire Harper farm.
“After this, we’re singing carols,” called out one of the guests. No doubt they would be at it for hours.
“I believe I’ll return home,” signed her father.
“I’ll go with you.” Olive was happy to interpret, but the struggle to switch back and forth between languages for long periods of time was exhausting. She looked forward to a peaceful evening with her father. She turned to the duke. “Thank you so much for a lovely afternoon.”
There was almost too much revelry for her to be heard over the noise, but the duke bowed and invited them back later in the evening for dancing.
Olive relayed the invitation to her father before addressing their host. “We’ll see.”
This meant no. There was no reason to dance with gentlemen she was uninterested in flirting with, and besides, keeping one’s mouth guarded for twenty-minute sets at a time was exhausting.
“Don’t forget my Twelfth Night ball,” Nottingvale reminded her. “If you can’t come tonight, I’ll save you a dance then!”
Olive retrieved hats and coats from the butler and followed her father out into the brisk winter day. The sun was still an hour from setting, but the air was cold enough that snow glistened everywhere without any sign of melting.
They could have flagged any one of the sleighs Cressmouth used as hackneys for a ride home, but it was easier to walk and talk, and Olive enjoyed quiet moments like these with her father. She and her father conversed using their usual signs.
“Can you believe the Duke of Nottingvale’s sister is marrying a tailor?” Olive made an expression of faux shock as she gestured with her hands. “His Grace is toasting now, but I can only imagine what his face looked like when he first found out.”
Papa screwed up his features and clutched his chest in an exaggerated parody of apoplexy.
She grinned at him, over-large teeth and all. Her father’s love was unconditional. “I’m glad for her. They seem to suit each other well.”
“About that.” Her father’s typically merry eyes grew serious. “I’ve decided on a husband for you.”
The words pelted Olive like icy snowballs.
“You what?” Her cold fingers shook in the wind. “I don’t need or want a husband.”
“I shall give him one hundred percent of my shares in the farm,” Papa continued relentlessly, “upon your marriage.”
“Our farm?” There was no reason to feign apoplexy. Olive was certain her heart was exploding right out of her chest. Her gestures were sharper. “Why would you do this?”
“You need a husband, daughter.”
That was the last thing she needed.
Olive wanted to be respected on her own. Considered as capable as any man. She’d thought she was, at least to her father.
“No.” She shook her head, negating with her fingers. “You’re hamming me.”
“You spend almost all of your time with me or on the farm. You do nothing for yourself, and little with your friends. You deserve an opportunity to relax.”
She gaped at him in disbelief. “You think marriage means less work for a woman?”
Long ago, Olive had decided to do whatever it took to be independent. Yes, she spent every possible moment raising the horses, training the horses, checking that the stable hands were properly attending to the horses… And she wouldn’t trade a single moment of it.
She loved her life.
Papa pushed open the front door to their home and gestured her through. “I’m getting old, Olive. I used to be helpful, and now I am not.”
“Our farm makes more than enough money to employ as many hired hands as we need.” She shoved her pelisse onto its hook. “Besides, I can—”
“You can do anything the stable hands can. I know that. But now you won’t have to.”
The back of Olive’s throat pricked with heat. She’d dedicated her entire life to proving herself as deserving an heiress for the farm as any male heir, and she still wasn’t good enough.
Even when she was the only one, her father would still rather find someone else.
Her hands trembled. “I cannot believe you would betroth me to some random—”
“Not random.” Papa’s eyes held hers. “You’ll marry Elijah Weston.”
The breath rushed out of her lungs with such force that Olive staggered backward until she regained her equilibrium. No.
Her lips parted, but she could not force herself to repeat that name. The mere thought of him turned her back into a sobbing, humiliated fourteen-year-old.
“It’s a means to an end.” Her father shifted his weight as if he knew just how much he was hurting her. “I’m old. It’s time to heal the rift between our families. Three decades of rivalry is long enough. We are stronger united.”
Papa didn’t think Olive had deficiencies after all.
He simply had ulterior motives.
“That’s not better.” Her muscles rebelled at the injustice. “Using me as an inducement is worse, no matter your reasons. The answer is no. I won’t marry any man, and especially not that man.”
“I shan’t debate you on the matter. You’re of age, so legally I cannot force you. But marriage to Mr. Weston is the only way you’ll have my shares in the farm.”
“How can I have them at all?” Her spine collapsed against the wall. “You’re giving control to him, not me.” She could not bring herself to form his name. “I’d rather stay enemies forever than to see that happen.”
Olive’s father and Elijah Weston’s father had grown up together. Inseparable, bosom friends, practically twins—despite their differences in class.
Mr. Weston’s father was Lord Milbotham. He’d been born with a silver spoon and a courtesy title. As a wealthy marquess, he needn’t ever lift a finger if he didn’t wish to.
On a lark, Papa and Milbotham began a stud farm together, just outside London. As the partnership grew, so did their business. Their horses were celebrated at Tattersall’s, the farm famous throughout England.
Olive did not know what had caused the falling-out, but it had been swift and destructive. The rift occurred about the time both men had married. One day, Papa and Milbotham were partners, and the next they were dividing their beloved farm between them.
Milbotham kept the land, and the prestige their farm had built. All Papa got were a few horses. Milbotham had no doubt cackled over that swindle.
Until it turned out Papa was brilliant. His stud horses quickly eclipsed those of Milbotham, which of course could not be allowed to stand. Thus began decades of war as breeding rivals, then racing rivals. The conflict and determination rose with each passing year.
Her father did not engage in vindictive competition with anyone else. Just the marquess. Papa was mortal enemies with Milbotham because he had once loved him like a brother. There was no other way he could have been hurt so deeply.
And now he expected her to marry Milbotham’s son? The one who had humiliated her so deeply, Olive still awoke gasping in the night? Her hands clenched.
Elijah Weston and his father were pustules of deceit and destruction.
They could not be forgiven.
“No.” She straightened her spine off the wall. Olive was stronger than that. She hadn’t seen Weston in ten long years. His specter could not harm her now. “I will not—”
Three loud raps sounded against the knocker.
A distraction. Thank God. “Someone’s at the door.”
Papa’s eyebrows rose. “It must be Weston.”
“What? How could he arrive from London so fast?” Understanding dawned. Hurt prickled beneath Olive’s skin; a thousand tiny blades. She tried not to show her pain. “You told him before you told me?”
Rather than reply, Papa motioned for her to attend to the door.
Her heart beat too fast for rational thought. Her legs yearned to run away. To cower; to hide.
She yanked open the brass handle in part to prove to herself that she could.
It was him. Elijah Bloody Weston.
Ten years older. Ten times more attractive. Ten times more dangerous.
Her vision seemed to shrink until all she could see was him.
Boots, black as coal. Supple buckskin breeches clinging to indecently muscled thighs. A well-made coat the color of old ash cut in a style completely unsuitable for northern climes—but happened to display to perfection the breadth of his shoulders and the musculature of his chest and arms. A snowy neckcloth at his throat was the only scrap of clothing not molded to his plethora of flat planes and defined muscles.
Weston’s appalling magnetism infuriated her.
His face… God save her, that face. Time had not at all ravaged him the way she had hoped. His jaw was squarer, his face fuller, a hint of laugh lines just beginning at the corners of his long-lashed brown eyes. What the devil did the handsome scoundrel have to laugh about?
Just looking at him was enough to bring back the old shame. His soft, kissable lips make her want to burst into tears all over again.
Olive’s fingernails dug into her palms. To the devil with men like Weston!
This time, she would not let him win.