Gambler’s Choice by Linda Nightingale

Gambler’s Choice by Linda Nightingale

Gambler’s Choice by Linda Nightingale

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He’s determined not to sell, but the rivals are thrown together by an accident that leaves Austen with a broken leg and the threat he’ll never ride again. More info →
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Chapter One

Rebecca McQuaid was in England for one reason.

To find the perfect match.

Size was important. Becca was a tall girl. Money was of no consequence whatsoever. Becca was a wealthy girl. Heart mattered most. He must have the heart to go the distance. She dreamed of a partnership that would last a lifetime. But looks did rank quite high on her list of priorities.

“I simply can’t ride an ugly horse. That would be like dating an ugly man.” Tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder, she laughed and winked at her friend.

Meg shot her a frown, her tone accusing Becca of being an uncivilized colonist. “Rebecca McQuaid, you say the damnedest things.”

An appreciative chuckle turned her around to squint into the sun. A tall, elegant, dark figure of a man on a magnificent horse caught her imagination mid-stride. She couldn’t see the rider’s face, but she knew he’d overheard the exchange with her friend. He saluted her with a tap of his whip to the brim of his hat as he rode past. Excitement capered over her, and she smiled. The horse’s muscled, blood bay rump glistened. The stallion was sixteen-two hands, fit and impeccably groomed.

“Nice buns. That one’s good-looking enough for me.” She elbowed her friend. “Who is it?”

Meg shaded her eyes. “Gambler’s Choice and Austen Heath. Both horse and rider satisfy your criteria, my dear girl.”

“The horse is handsome.” She wished she had gotten a better look at the bay, but he was a mahogany blaze in the morning sun. “Are you telling me the rider is?”

“That’s the general consensus, but Austen hides in that rambling, dark mansion of his.” Meg studied the pair picking up a trot along the arena. “Fierce competitors. Hard to beat at Intermediate. We’ll see how they handle Advanced.”

“An Advanced horse?” Becca wriggled her shoulders. “I’m in the market.”

“Look elsewhere.” Meg’s finger jutted at Becca’s nose. “Austen won’t sell Gambler for love or money. Guaranteed. Not even for the kind of money you’re willing to spend.”

“Meggie.” She linked arms with her friend. “Everything has a price.”

Meg balked like a donkey. “You’re in a different world, princess.”

“Well, not everything. Love doesn’t have a price.” Pain wrenched her heart as a memory of the breakup with Daniel flashed through her mind. The hurt was too fresh to even think of another man. “But I’m not in the market for love.”

Becca had found that the best way to protect her heart was to play spoiled little rich girl. She had that part down pat, and, as Winston Churchill had said, There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. She was looking for a horse to fall in love with and help mend her broken heart.

Yesterday, Becca’s flight from Dulles landed late afternoon in London. The train to Somerset deposited her at the station past ten in the evening. By midnight, she was comfortably settled on Meg’s sofa in their quaint thatched roof cottage on a mega-spread of two acres—the size of one of the paddocks back home in Virginia.

An early morning mist hugged the grass, the air autumn crisp. They arrived at the Brewster Horse Trials in the bustle of preparation for the dressage tests—horses being groomed, riders emerging from trailers in shad belly coats and top hats. Becca wasted no time looking at the equestrian center but shepherded her friend through the stables. A horse neighed, echoed by another. The clop of hooves on the brick aisle was music to her ears.

One competitor and three trainers stopped her to chat about prospects. Long distance, Meg had counseled her, ad nauseam, to contact one person—Patti Brewster. In her enthusiasm, Becca had flung the net a trifle wider. Now, she wondered if the shotgun approach was a mistake. The word was well and truly out to the horse community. A rich American was in the U.K. to buy a horse, and the mannerly British wouldn’t let her return home without one.

“Settle down, filly. I’m going for a fizzy lemon.” Meg pointed at a yellow-and-white tent, its broad blue banner fluttering a welcome.

The cool breeze carried her favorite scents—fresh mown grass, horses, and leather. Becca gazed into the distance at the majestic oaks cloaked in wisps of low-lying fog. What time was it anyway? She glanced at her watch. They mustn’t miss the first competitor’s ride.

The Brewster Horse Trials was an unrated but prestigious two-day event, by invitation only, a social affair and showcase of talent. Meg had insisted she attend the show hosted by shipping magnate Patrick Brewster. In an email, her friend had said, “Being hard to get into contributes to the competition’s popularity. Because we British are snobs.”

“Meggie, I know this time I’ll find my horse. Where’s Patti? Who’s up first?”

“Gawd in heaven, you are single minded.” Meg bent to study a schedule stapled to a board fence. “Up first, our hometown boy, Austen Heath riding the bay you were ogling.”

There were many reasons she wanted a new horse. She had advanced in her riding and needed a partner to challenge her to the next level. She loved horses to the bottom of her soul and would collect them down to the last one. But the overriding reason was to her rather sordid. Her father was urging her to find a superior mount to beat the competition—the daughter of his competitor, the Senator on the opposing side of his current lobby.

A rider from the last Olympics trotted into the warm-up arena. The sights, sounds, smells, and fever of competition swam over Becca, and her spirits soared. She fidgeted a step closer to the showground.

Her friend tiptoed, clinging to Becca’s arm to tell the tall blonde something she could easily see. “Austen just started warming up. We’ve got time for a drink.”

“My dear Margaret, you needn’t climb on this young woman’s shoulders to watch the show,” a woman said. “You’re invited to the family box.”

Crisp enunciation. Twenty-two-carat gold sarcasm. Becca recognized the voice. In hours-long conversations and numerous emails, she’d been introduced to Patti Brewster’s dry wit. She turned, smiling, anxious to put a face with a name.

“Patti Brewster, it’s not nice to make fun of the Little People.” A faint Irish accent tinted Meg’s voice, but natural red hair spoke as strongly of her heritage. She shot Becca a mischievous grin and winked. “Here’s the pot of gold I promised. Becca McQuaid.”

Patti clasped Becca’s hands. “Welcome to Brewster. I’m glad you could make the show. You may well find a prospect. We’ve quite an interesting turnout.”

Many times, Becca had visited England with her parents. Last summer, she studied at Cavendish Hall, an elite equestrian boarding school. She’d never competed on the U.K. circuit, but she’d spent enough time in England to know that Patti’s upper crust accent belonged to old money not blue blood. Becca liked her even more for not being a plum-in-the-mouth aristocrat. Most of the nobility she’d met were incredibly dull.

Patti dusted a bit of straw from Becca’s sleeve and overrode Meg’s insistence on buying what Becca assumed was the British version of lemonade. “There’s plenty of food and drink in the family’s box. Hurry or we’ll miss the first ride.”

Becca and Meg matched Patti’s rapid march to the spectator stands. A French braid swung down to the tailored waist of her tartan jacket. The Brewster crest was embroidered in miniature on her velvet collar. The navy jodhpurs were a designer label not riding gear. Becca guessed Patti’s age at thirty-something. Their hostess had a regal face, with a rather large nose, but an honest and friendly smile. Patti smiled often, an endearing quality. She strode ahead a couple of paces, and speaking rapidly into her cell, ordered Meg’s drink.

The loudspeaker crackled, “Welcome to the 10th Annual Brewster Horse Trials. The dressage portion of the competition will begin shortly. After that, the show jumping will get the old adrenaline pumping. Tomorrow, the thrills, chills, and spills of cross country.”

Patti waved for them to hurry. Becca trotted alongside, but Meg’s shorter stride slowed their dash across the lush grass. Freshly-painted bleachers gleamed white in the sunshine. On a red awning, the Brewster coat of arms fluttered over a section railed off from the common spectators. Crimson, yellow, and blue cushions littered the benches.

Meg whispered behind her hand, “You must be curious how a wealthy family can buy a coat of arms but not a title.”

“Frankly, it hadn’t crossed my mind.” Becca rotated tense shoulders.

“Colonist,” Meg muttered.

She laughed. “I wouldn’t waste my money on a title.” Becca preferred to be in the thick of things, breathing the perfume of leather and horseflesh, not hobnobbing with the local gentry. She craned her neck to watch the bay cantering in the warm-up arena. His three-beat gait was smooth, even, his muscles rippling with each stride. Her breath caught when he angled across the arena in a graceful half-pass. Gambler’s Choice was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. With him, she was sure she could leave the Senator’s daughter in the dust and make her precious daddy happy.

As they excused their way along the bleachers, Patti greeted those chosen to visit the family box. Becca offered them a vague smile, her thoughts on the bay stallion. The rider’s elegant form flashed through her mind. Was Austen Heath as handsome as Meg claimed? Didn’t matter. She wasn’t in the market for a boyfriend, and Virginia was a long way from Somerset. When they reached the center of the railed area, their hostess motioned for them to take their seats.

Sandwiched between Meg and Patti, Becca watched a uniformed waiter carrying a silver tray of Mimosas. Behind him, a woman served mini quiches. Another offered scotch eggs.

Their hostess propped her elbow on her knee, leaning around Becca to speak to Meg. “How do you think Austen will fare at Advanced?”

Staring at the arena, Meg swept a hand through her saucy red curls. “I’d be willing to wager a small sum on his success.”

“You shouldn’t encourage me to bet against my neighbor.” Patti pursed her lips, shaking her head.

The waiter interrupted their friendly banter. On the tray with the Mimosas was a pale lemony drink. Becca accepted a crystal flute. A white-gloved hand offered Meg the tall glass.

The announcer called, “First up, Austen Heath aboard Gambler’s Choice.”

Patti straightened, her gaze, like Becca’s, focused on the white sand arena.

“Heads-up.” Meg nudged Becca. “Dreamboat’s about to sail.”

The big bay trotted down the centerline. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, her pulse quickening. Lord, he is beautiful, but I must keep my mind open to other prospects. There was a problem. Becca chose her horses with her heart not her head.

The rider halted and saluted the judge. Sunlight sparkled on the brass brow band of the black bridle. The stallion picked up a trot, performing an impeccable shoulder-in down the long side of the arena. Tall, long-legged, Heath sat his horse with fluid grace. A breathless silence held the crowd as Gambler’s Choice danced the pattern in perfect synchronization to the rider’s invisible cues. For a few seconds after his final salute, no one spoke, then applause rippled over the audience.

Again, Patti leaned across Becca to tap Meg’s arm. “Did I hear you call Austen a dreamboat?”

“I called the horse a dreamboat. Gambler has caught Becca’s eye.” Meg sipped her fizzy lemon. “But as dreamboats go, I bet you wouldn’t kick Austen out of bed.”

“I’d kick him out of bed.” Patti nodded. “To do him on the floor. Oh, I hope I didn’t offend you, Becca.”

“Not at all.” Becca tucked her hair behind her ears. “If Heath looks as good in bed as he does in the saddle, put my name in the hat.”

Patti threw back her head and laughed. Meg studied Becca with the oddest expression. Was she shocked or amused? Mischief as effervescent as the champagne bubbled in her throat. Meg could be such a prude. Becca hoped she was shocked. The conversation had been a little risqué, but in a few seconds she’d learned a great deal about their hostess and the mysterious Heath.

Becca twisted to peer through the bleachers as the bay walked behind. Even in the shadows, he gleamed like a dark jewel. Heath dismounted, patting his horse’s shoulder. Maybe Meg was right about him being a hunk. He was tall and sleek in his skin-tight white breeches and black coat. She couldn’t see his face. He hadn’t removed his hat. Heath bent, loosened the girth, then straightened and ran a caress down the tight black braids on the crest of the stallion’s neck. Looping the reins over his arm, he strode into the sun. The bay nudged his master’s back, hurrying him along.

Her broken heart quickened. So Gambler’s Choice had personality as well as talent. Her determination to own him, at any cost, solidified. Somehow, she’d persuade the man to sell.

Heath turned, clasped the stallion’s face, kissing the velvety nose. A warm feeling spread through her. A man who loves his horse is good in my book. He was a stranger, but she liked him already, not an advantage in negotiating. First, she must meet him, sooner rather than later. She fidgeted on her blue-and-gold cushion.

“I’d like to wander.” Becca waved away her companions’ protests and offers to accompany her. “I want to look around and watch a couple of rides from the rail.”

Meg would understand her restlessness and not be offended. Galloping to Becca’s rescue, her friend engaged Patti in conversation about her new Hanoverian foal. She hurried from the stands as if pursued. As she ambled through the spectators in casual country tweeds and riders in hunt coats, breeches, and boots, heads turned. She smiled but didn’t really see the people in her path until he stopped her in her tracks.

The black hair tickling his unbuttoned collar had a slight curl. He was over six feet of lean muscle. The man was simply walking yet each stride conveyed confidence and purpose. She wasn’t the only one staring at him, but he was unaware of the impact of male perfection. The breeze blew wisps of hair across his chiseled face. He swept the strands back with an elegant masculine hand. Hooked on his thumb, his coat draped rakishly over his shoulder. Brass buttons on his canary-yellow vest glittered. White riding breeches molded his physique. Shiny black boots hugged long legs. Her willful eyes lingered on the bulge to the right of his zipper.

As he strode past, he tossed her a glance and a distracted smile. His eyes were as dark as his hair and simply enchanting. If she stretched her arm, her fingertips would brush his shoulder. How exciting to touch a stranger, especially a beautiful stranger. Her silly heart raced at the thought. She trapped her lower lip between her teeth and turned to watch until he disappeared in a group of competitors. Who was Mr. Knock-’em-dead Gorgeous? If she described him, and lord knows she’d devoured every detail, maybe Meg would know him.

Rarely did a man stop Becca in her tracks—or ignore her.

“Get a grip. I’m here to find a horse not a man,” she muttered.

“Are you lost, little girl?” A touch on her arm startled her.

She whirled. “Oh, hi, Meg.”

Becca tried to hide her disappointment. She needed to spend time with her friend, but dreaded being dragged back to the stands. If she wandered, she might run into the hunk again. This time she’d speak to him.

“Show jumping starts in, oh—” Meg glanced at her watch—“about thirty minutes. They are setting up the jumps now. I thought I’d roam around with you.”

“Sure.”

As they meandered in no particular direction, Meg asked, “Have you seen anything, other than Gambler, that you’re interested in?”

A two-legged stud.

“No, I…was very impressed with the first dressage ride.”

“Yes, Austen and Gambler were spot-on. Austen’s not running the four-stars at Badminton and Burghley though he’s a damn good rider. Never had a horse with enough talent. Until now.”

An image of the bay stallion flashed before her eyes. “Where did he buy Gambler?”

Meg linked arms, guiding her through a knot of spectators. Curious glances followed. “He didn’t. He bred him.”

Not good news. Becca’s heart nosedived. If Heath had owned Gambler since he was a foal, it was unlikely he’d sell. How was she going to separate the winning team?

Gambler’s Choice by Linda Nightingale
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