Winning the Gentleman (Hearts on the Heath #2) - Kristi Ann Hunter
After twenty-two years, Aaron Whitworth should have been aware of his closest friend’s idiocy. Yet it had never crossed his mind Oliver could do something so utterly foolish.
One could argue the man had saved Aaron’s sanity, if not his life, during their school days, but sometime in the years since boyhood, the heir to the Earl of Trenting had lost his mind. Befriending Aaron hadn’t been the wisest decision, though, so it was possible Oliver’s penchant for making poor choices, or at least rash ones, had always been present.
Aaron clamped his teeth together to avoid saying anything he might later regret. Yanking memories of better times to the front of his mind, he forced his voice to remain even. “You did what?”
“Accepted a challenge. That is what men of the turf do.” Oliver lifted his chin as his gaze slid from Aaron’s and dropped to the horse patiently awaiting its rider.
Aaron frowned at the reins in his hand. He’d been moments away from mounting, ready to make the ride to the Stourbridge Fair in Cambridge and approve an order of saddles one of the sellers planned to deliver after the fair.
Dawn was stabbing its first streaks of light into a clear sky. Oliver’s cook had prepared him a breakfast of cold meat, cheese, and bread to eat as he rode. Aaron’s horse, Shadow, had been energetic on the short ride from his cottage to Oliver’s stable, assuring an enjoyable journey to the next town.
The promise of the morning paled in the aftermath of his friend’s blunder.
Aaron sighed and draped Shadow’s reins over a hook on the wall of the stable. Ever since Oliver had gotten betrothed to the daughter of one of Newmarket’s prominent horse breeders, he’d been determined to participate in the interests he would one day inherit.
Starting with the racing stable.
Unfortunately, though Oliver was a solid, loyal friend, his knowledge of property and business was little more than conceptual. He seemed to know he’d made a mistake this time, even if he didn’t realize the enormity of it.
Aaron spoke slowly, weighing every word before allowing it to cross his lips. “Yes, men of the turf—and please don’t use that term again—arrange and accept challenges.” He paused. “It is customary, however, to only enter a challenge when one has a jockey to ride his horse.”
Oliver shifted his weight and cleared his throat, slowly sliding his gaze back to Aaron’s. “We don’t have a jockey?”
“Not since I fired him four days ago, no.” It should have been done weeks, if not months, before, but Aaron had put it off because finding a good jockey who was willing to work for him was difficult. He had high demands on the skill of the rider, the care of the horses, and the character of the man.
Because Aaron’s reputation was less than ideal, he often had to settle for two out of three. Since he wasn’t about to let the animals pay the price, he’d been forced to give way on character. Hughes had been a lout, but he rode well and never hurt the horses.
At least, he didn’t when he was sober.
“Why did we fire him?” Oliver asked.
And that unwavering loyalty was why Aaron would always put up with Oliver’s naïveté.
“He was enjoying his gin so much he thought the horses should have a nip as well and poured two bottles into the water trough.” Risking his own health and reputation was bad enough, but endangering the horses was unacceptable.
“Don’t we employ more than one jockey?” Oliver asked.
“Your other two took horses to a race in Yorkshire and have been delayed returning,” Aaron said. “Right now, I’m just hoping they’re here in time for the first of the October Meetings.”
“What about Hudson’s jockeys?”
Hudson, Viscount of Stildon, owned the other stable Aaron managed, though Hudson had been absent from the area until a month ago. They’d moved from employer and employee to friends faster than Aaron would have thought possible, and he wasn’t sure he fully trusted the relationship or the way it had changed his life.
Still, if the situation were dire enough, Aaron could probably stomach asking a favor of him.
Fortunately, that wasn’t an option. “One went to visit his ailing mother and isn’t due back for at least another week. The other stepped wrong dismounting yesterday and turned his ankle.”
Oliver ran a hand through his hair, making the light brown strands stick up at odd angles. “Equinox has no jockey.”
The quiet statement cut through Aaron’s control, and a groan escaped as