Vying for the Viscount
Hearts on the Heath
For Hudson, the newly titled Viscount Stildon, moving to England from India where he was born and raised was already an arduous enough endeavor. When he learns the fate of the racing empire he inherited along with his title depends upon him getting in the good graces of another stable owner, he's even more at a loss.
The stable at the neighboring estate has been Miss Bianca Snowley's refuge for years, and when a strange man appears to be stealing the horses, she jumps to their protection without a second thought. Upon learning Hudson is actually the new owner, she can't help but be intrigued by the area's newest eligible bachelor.
Any thought of romance is quickly set aside, however, when Hudson proposes they work together to secure suitable spouses for each other. As their friendship grows, Hudson and Bianca begin to reconsider what they truly want in life. But will societal expectations and the weight of their responsibilities keep them from pursuing their true desires?
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The problem with life was that one’s plans could be upended by the multitude of other living creatures in the world—both human and equine. The all-too-recognizable and equally unwelcome jerk of her horse nearly sent Miss Bianca Snowley tumbling to the ground. So much for a long, hard ride across the Heath to blow her problems out of her mind. She’d simply have to find that sense of peace elsewhere this morning.
With a sigh, she pulled the horse to a stop, kicked free of the stirrup, and dismounted, wincing as her foot landed on uneven ground and sent a shot of pain up her leg. She shook it out and
gave the horse a reassuring pat on the neck before looping her arm through the reins.
Owen, the groom who’d been riding with her, circled his horse, Apollo, around to where she was standing. The tall former racehorse with a deep, rich chestnut coat snuffled in protest.
“I’m well, Owen,” Bianca said as she set about adjusting her riding skirt for walking. “I’m afraid Atalanta isn’t going anywhere
but back to the stable, though.”
“We’ll return immediately,” the groom said, shifting his weight to prepare to dismount.
Bianca stopped him with a look. It was well known that the groom tended to avoid tasks whenever possible, but would he truly wish to give up a ride on Apollo, a beast that possessed enough power to win four of the ten races he ran a few years ago?
Of course not. Nor could Bianca allow him to make such a sacrifice for something as silly as perceived propriety. Besides, Apollo had barely managed to do more than fill his lungs with fresh air. He deserved a good long run. “We have not even reached the edge of Hawksworth’s pastures, Owen. There is no reason for both of us to miss a charge across the Heath.”
The groom frowned. “You mean to return alone, miss?”
If she couldn’t free her thoughts in the wind created by a running horse, she could at least enjoy a solitary walk with a beautiful horse at her side. It was the next best thing. “I promise to go straight back to the stable and remain there until someone returns. It’s empty but for horses right now, and I rather think I’ll enjoy their company.”
He didn’t look happy about it, but Apollo, despite being excruciatingly well trained, was starting to fidget. There was a limited window of time in which the Heath would be open for horses to run this morning, which was why all the grooms were out exercising the animals at the same time.
“Apollo needs to run, Owen.” Since it was a statement that couldn’t be argued, Bianca took Atalanta’s reins and started the short walk back to the stable.
“I’m waiting until you top the hill,” the groom grumbled.
“If that makes you feel better,” she called over her shoulder. She rubbed a hand over her mount’s soft nose and received a jarring nudge to the shoulder in return. “If that is your version of
an apology, I accept.”
After one last reassuring pat to the horse’s cream-colored neck, Bianca resumed walking, though she put a bit of space between herself and the horse in case the animal tried to apologize again.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be taking that saddle off and seeing what’s wrong with you in a few short minutes. Hopefully it’s nothing but a pebble in your shoe.”
The horse nudged her shoulder once more, drawing a low chuckle from Bianca as she opened the gate and led the horse into the stable yard.
She kept a tight hold on the horse’s reins, even though she expected the mare was already intent on returning to the stable. Part of the beauty of horses was their unpredictability. Of course, part of their appeal was the ability to control that volatility. She’d long ago recognized that she liked the power of having a huge animal listen to her and depend upon her.
The affection from the beasts was pleasant, too, even if it was actually a hunt for the treat they could smell in her pocket. A masculine laugh joined hers on the air, making Bianca’s feet
come to a halt. There was a man in the stable. The stable that was supposed to be empty. She and Owen had been the last ones to depart fifteen minutes ago, and the household servants never ventured out to the horses.
It was possible Mr. Whitworth, the stable manager, had decided to come by today, but he would know all the grooms would be out this morning. Besides, Bianca could count on one hand the number of times she’d heard the man so much as snicker.
So, who was in the stable?