She played a dangerous game, but it was the only solution to a highly volatile situation.
Rachel Leeds handed over the voucher with what she hoped to be a credible smile. "Five thousand on Inferno."
The man, who resembled a greasy gypsy dressed in fine clothing, smiled thinly though his eyes widened a little at her recklessness. "Excellent bet, Madame. Though the odds are long. Perhaps you would care to venture another small gamble on a surer thing, such as Traitor's Hope or Goliath--"
"Just the one, thank you," Rachel interrupted, not wanting to admit how hard her heart pounded. If she lost, all was doomed, but if she won ... dear God, let Inferno do what his jockey swore he could. If nothing else, maybe she could sell him for a tidy sum if he made a good showing.
Not enough, of course, to pay her dead husband's creditors. For that, she needed the unpredictable black stallion to win and not only give her the sizable purse, but also vindicate her brazen wager.
"Ah, Lady Leeds, it is not like you to attend a race meet, much less frequent the bookmakers."
That soft drawl made her stiffen, her chin lifting as she glanced up. Sure enough, she saw that looming over her with his usual stark masculine presence stood Lord Richard Peyton, the devastatingly handsome youngest son of the Duke of Lyston.
"I beg your pardon?" she said icily.
His smile was the infamous curve of his lips so many hapless ladies had found too alluring to resist. "I love it," he said softly, "when women beg. But you must tell me what you didn't understand, Rachel."
Staring up at his tall form, unwillingly aware of his height and startling dark good looks at a time when she could afford no distractions, she said coolly, "If you are being deliberately suggestive, my Lord, you should save your suave charm for the eager young ladies who fawn around you night and day. As you may have noticed from our past acquaintance, I am neither young or ... eager."
He laughed, a disconcerting sound of genuine mirth. "Twenty-three is aged? I must be a relic then at twenty-eight. And as for eager, I remember at least a little ... eagerness."
People were all around them, the stands being packed full on such a beautiful spring day. The sun beating down on her parasol caused tendrils of curling hair to cling to her temples and she felt damp and disheveled. And, considering she had just wagered her future on the whims of one high-strung and unpredictable horse, she was not in the mood to banter with a man like Lord Richard. Heaven knew she had tried to discourage his pursuit, but that only seemed to add fuel to the fire. Hoping no one had heard his last very improper statement, she said flatly, "I cannot understand your determination, my Lord."
"Then perhaps you haven't glanced in your looking glass lately, Madame." His eyes were dark, like sultry midnight framed by unfairly long lashes, and his voice dropped a notch as he spoke. He seemed unaware of the crowd, or perhaps just didn't care ... his reputation as a rake of the first order indicated he didn't worry about public opinion anyway. Tall, athletically built, and well-dressed, he stood blocking her way, people having to pass around them, several heads turning already as their intense conversation was noted by the aristocratic crowd.
"The compliment is appreciated, if not subtle," Rachel said dryly, the wager ticket clutched in her gloved hand like a loaded pistol, "but being pursued for the sake of my looks alone is not exactly flattering. I'd like to think there is a little more to me than the color of my hair or how the features are arranged in my face."
"Don't forget your absolutely splendid breasts, my dear. I haven't."
"If you are at all a gentleman, you will keep your voice down." Her voice shook slightly and heat shot into her cheeks.
"Surely I am not the only one who recalls our little interlude in the garden?" One dark downy brow edged upward as he stared down at her, taller by at least a foot. His face was starkly modeled, his masculine beauty striking and undeniable. Dark glossy hair brushed his collar, his gaze uncomfortably direct.
Moonlight, strong arms, his heated body over hers as he moved hard and hot between her legs ... she remembered only too well. Rachel hissed in a low tone, "It was a mistake. Now, if you will excuse me, I want to watch the next race."
"Watch it with me in my private box and perhaps we can make the odds even more interesting."
He had audacity, she would give him that, but then again, when a man had a title, arresting good looks, and a vast fortune, not to mention an exalted family, he was probably born audacious. Rachel smiled thinly. "I already have a large sum on my late husband's horse, and that is all I can afford. Besides, the odds are set by the bookmakers, my Lord, not you."
"Some odds are."
"Now you are being cryptic."
His perfect mouth quirked a little at the corner, the sunlight making his dark hair gleam blue-black. Smiling in lazy charm, he murmured, "A side bet is what I am suggesting, my lady. Something you can most certainly ... afford, given the possibility you lose. My horse Goliath, by the way, is the clear favorite."
Lose? If it happened, her life would be over. "Inferno will win," she declared firmly, her palms sweating beneath her fine kid gloves.
"If you are so convinced, please allow me to escort you to my box. There we can get some refreshment and discuss our little wager. I have champagne waiting, hoping you would join me."
Rachel stared, suspicious and unsettled, certain she distrusted this man implicitly. "Why would you think I would even be here? I have never come to the races before."
"Because," Richard Peyton said smoothly, "you don't have a choice but to be here and bet on your horse. It is exactly what I would do if I were in your untenable position."