Winner Takes All - Anna Harrington

Chapter One

Epsom, Surrey

Early May, 1810

Jackson Shaw narrowed his eyes at the horse thundering down the backstretch of the racetrack, then glanced at the pocket watch in his palm. The sweep of the second hand couldn’t keep up with the fast pace that the black colt was setting.

He grimaced. Unfortunately, the horse wasn’t his.

“Who the devil…?” he muttered and watched the colt lengthen its powerful strides as the jockey on its back urged it to run even faster.

Horses from all over the country were coming in to train for the annual Epsom Derby, now less than a fortnight off, including a few from as far away as Scotland and Ireland. He thought he knew all of them, had already seen them show their power—or lack of it—during their daily exercise sessions.

But not this one. This horse he would have remembered.

Good God, that colt was powerful, strong, tall…and without a trainer. Or at least no other man stood trackside to give orders to the exercise boy on how to pace the colt, as Shaw did with his own horse and rider at every breaking dawn.

He ignored his own horse as the gray colt galloped past, the exercise boy keeping to the training pace Shaw had set for this morning. Ghost had decent bloodlines, good disposition, a fine frame, and the best jockey Shaw could find in Benny to race him, and he hoped to sell the colt for a princely sum if they made a good showing. But Ghost lacked that special spark which the greatest horses possessed. The one that made them think they could race the wind. And win.

But the black colt possessed that trait in spades. Even now he fought the jockey for his head, for the freedom to race completely unchecked.

“Don’t give it to him,” Shaw muttered the warning to himself. “You’ll teach him to be a bully.” But damnation if he didn’t want the lad to do just that, only so he could see how many lengths those flying hooves could eat up against the ticking watch in his palm.

Paddy Brannigan came up to the fence beside him and followed his gaze. “Whose colt?”

“No idea.”

The black horse reached the far turn that curved back toward the front stretch and the grandstand, still fighting the jockey for his head. Yet no trainer appeared from the nearby stables where the other horses were being boarded in preparation for the race, still no answer to who owned him or had entered him in the Derby.

But Shaw knew this much—that black colt would be his toughest competition for the cup. A win he desperately needed for himself.

His horse training business was slow. Slow? He should have laughed at that understatement. It was practically non-existent. Four years ago he’d started his own horse farm, but he hadn’t yet been able to turn a profit. While the rich and aristocratic admired his skills with saddle horses and driving teams, they were less convinced that he could make his mark in the area of horsemanship that truly mattered to them—racing.

But more than his reputation was at stake. So was his farm. The rent was due, grain and hay needed to be ordered, and he had no idea where he’d find the blunt in his accounts to pay for it all. The only way to save both was to earn the Derby’s prize money and sell Ghost on the heels of his win. If not, the farm would be lost, and he’d be forced back into being a stable master again, into caring for another man’s horses instead of his own.

A bird flew up from a clump of grass beside the track and darted directly in front of the black colt. Startled, the horse jerked to the left, and the jockey flew to the right, came off the saddle, and hit the turf. Hard.

Christ! Shaw ducked under the railing and sprinted toward the lad who lay crumpled on the ground.

“Get the colt!” he shouted at Paddy, who nodded and hurried to signal to Ghost’s exercise boy to chase down the black horse, who was now enjoying the freedom to run as fast as it wanted.

Shaw knelt on the ground beside the fallen rider. The lad was much younger than he’d assumed even for an exercise boy, with slender shoulders and a slight frame. He lay on the turf, his face turned into the turf and his arms wrapped over his abdomen as he fought to regain the breath that had been knocked from him. Each deep