One fast horse, and a whirlwind romance set among the glamour of Royal Ascot.
It’s a long way from Merindah Park, Australia, to Royal Ascot–but that’s where I’ve found myself. The international stud farm that bought my horse, Biographical, want him to race and as his trainer, they need me here. I’m not the top hat and penguin suit type, and the media here don’t get my horse at all–unlike the beautiful woman reading the newspaper over my shoulder on the train today. I’m going home soon so I shouldn’t fall for Ananya, but she understands me as well as horses … and she’s sexy as hell …
According to my middle class, hard-working parents, I have the world’s weirdest hobby. I love doing pedigree analysis on racehorses, and I spend much of my hard-earned cash every year on clothes for Royal Ascot. Still, I didn’t mean to lecture this cute Aussie about his own horse on the train today–or to be pulled into his fancy world of horse breeders. I’m a London girl and he’s from the other side of the world … but we both forget that when we kiss. What happens when the races are over?
Shannon stared out the window of the train at the sun trying to rise through the grey skies, and tapped his foot. The colour of the grass here in England was extraordinary; more vivid than anything he’d seen in Australia. Even in the dim early morning light, it glistened with all that abundant rainfall they got here. He picked up the British paper, hoping to help pass the time faster, but nearly threw it down in disgust as he flicked over the snide comments from the English press about his horse.
Last night, the last bloody place he’d wanted to be was at his mate Lee’s family mansion in London for fancy drinks; with a crowd of people he didn’t care for talking about whatever it was people chatted about socially. He always struggled to follow the way their brains worked as they flitted from one dull topic to another. At least Biographical’s new owners had been in attendance, so he’d been able to talk horses to someone other than Lee and his own family. He understood horses more easily than people. The party had gone on and on and he hadn’t been able to extract himself until this morning to head back to the stables at Ascot. He only went to Lee’s family house for his mate—and because his sister Serena had assured him he wouldn’t be away from his horse for too long—nothing else would drag him away from Biographical. He shook his head. The staff at Ascot had strict instructions for Biographical’s feed last night. Shannon checked his watch; he was a little late for the morning feed, but he still had plenty of time to take the burly colt for a walk to stretch his legs before the racetrack filled with people ready for the day’s races.
Two years ago, he’d been training bush scrubbers, the rejects from his family’s farm Merindah Park, the horses who were too small or crooked-legged to be sold. Today in about six hours, his horse Biographical, would take on the world’s best sprinters on the most famous stage of all. Sure, the prizemoney was shit compared to what was offered back home, in Australia, but the prestige of being at Royal Ascot with his horse—well, that was every horse trainer’s dream. The local papers were full of it though, especially this one. His fists crumpled the edges of the paper beside him; it was rough on his palms. The story was full of nonsense about how Biographical was a second-rate-chance.
Even though he has the mighty Choisir’s blood in his veins, the journo dismissed that connection. Choisir’s incredible record still held all these years later. No horse before Choisir had won the two big sprint races in the five-day Royal Ascot carnival, and none since. The paper dismissed Biographical’s record, lumping him in with some failures to come from down under—even having the damned nerve to compare him to the injured brigade. Those horses who’d come here with high hopes only to get hurt in trackwork and retire before they faced the starter. He sighed. Better that than the overhyped ones who’d run last. He flicked the paper out to read the bottom paragraph. Well, shit. Yes, they’d compared his champion to those ones too. ‘An overblown, overrated racehorse trained by a nobody from the bush.’
He folded up the paper, which was rustling slightly in the air-conditioned quiet train, rather than scrunch it up in disgust, and laid it on the seat beside him. An odd choking noise sounded beside him, and he glanced sideways. A pair of huge brown eyes peered at him, reminding him of an owl in the dusk; a deep frown settled between finely arched black eyebrows.
‘I’m sorry, but can I finish reading that article?’ Her voice reminded him of home, the wind in the gum trees, whispery or something, even though her accent was all British. Not the same posh accent as his friend and soon to be brother-in-law Lee, but close enough to his ear as to be almost the same.
‘Sure.’ He shrugged and handed her the paper. Her fingers brushed his as she took it and the simple touch soothed the rolling anger at the useless know-nothing journo’s words. Unfolding the paper, her gaze flicked to the article he’d been reading. Interesting. Had she been reading over his shoulder? About his horse?
‘Is he right?’ he asked, immediately regretting it. He didn’t need another bloody pompous English opinion on the dire chances of his horse. Fuck, if the new owners—world-renowned stallion owners and among the biggest horse breeders in the world—thought Biographical was Royal Ascot standard, shuttle stallion standard, then no one else’s opinion mattered. He shouldn’t have read the article. He knew his horse. Other people’s opinions were just that. Not worth using as toilet paper.
‘No. The paper is wrong, but that’s good.’
‘Good? Why?’ Something about her, a cleverness in her gaze, made him want to ask questions he didn’t normally bother with. He couldn’t look away.
‘It’ll make his odds better. No horse since Choisir, or maybe Starspangledbanner, has come to this carnival with such excellent form. Biographical has all the right elements. He’s a Group One miler against his own age, he’s a Group One sprinter against older horses.’ She stopped, shaking her head, and he wanted her to keep talking. He inhaled, and a whiff of her light rose perfume, filled his nostrils.
‘Keep talking. Why did you mention his Guineas win?’
She smiled, and he noticed her, all of her for the first time, as her whole face lit up.
Her brown skin glowed and a shot of heat raced down his abdomen. Hell. This elemental attraction to another person was rare for him because it came without any of the usual confusion or second-guessing he usually felt when people talked. When she smiled all her features glowed and came together with a beauty, like nothing he’d encountered, that hit him with a force to the chest, like a fucking ton of bricks.
‘The best Aussie sprinters at Ascot are mile winners before they come here. They need the extra stamina for the last uphill furlong. The pure sprinters always fade.’
She knows about horses. ‘Like Black Caviar? And she was injured.’ Outside his family and a few friends back home in Australia, he knew almost no one who could talk horses with the same level of interest as him.
‘Yes. Her efforts were incredible. Her will to win was something else—what a giant heart she must have. That was the toughest victory I’ve ever seen here, and I’ve been coming since I was a teen.’ She paused and he remembered the last three strides of that race, holding his breath, just as he had then.
‘The way she lifted at the end when the jockey had dropped his hands to let her coast to the line and Moonlight Cloud came at her was something special.’ Yes. This gorgeous stranger on the train understood exactly the moment as he did. A shiver raced up his spine, just as it had when Black Caviar surged ahead and won by a nose.
‘Biographical is no Black Caviar.’ He stated the obvious, unable to make his brain work properly around this woman, no, this racing fan who spoke about horses with an adoration that he didn’t often see in other people. In only a few words, she’d drawn him in and he wanted more. A love of horses, and beautiful too—she stole his breath.
‘People shouldn’t compare champions. Just enjoy them.’ Her words were fucking perfect. Shannon’s veins sizzled as he fell in love with her right then. He swallowed at the passing thought. Not really a thought, not yet, just a sneaky whisper.
‘True.’ He paused, trying to centre himself back in the conversation. People were so damned confusing—even his own brain came up with wild ideas that were better dismissed. ‘Bio isn’t a champ yet.’
‘Yet. Wait and see. I’ve been watching him ever since his Guineas win. The Irish purchasing him makes absolute sense from both a pedigree and race-record point of view. It was only a matter of time, really.’
He stared at her. Really stared, taking in the enthusiastic passion for racing and the way her eyes glowed with a dark brown warmth, and her mouth moved with flashes of white teeth. Full lips, high cheekbones, black hair pulled back with a green fascinator perched on the side of her head. He let his gaze widen so he took in all of her. Soft curves under a colourful dress. Fuck me. He shifted on the seat, surprised at his body’s reaction to her. She cleared her throat as his gaze settled on her broad hips. The dress draped over her skin, tucked in under her full breasts with the fabric spread down to her lap. She sat with crossed legs and green ankle boots poked out the bottom of the dress. The boots were not at all practical with their narrow heels. He dragged his eyes north to her face.
‘Only a matter of time?’ He repeated, hopelessly lost by his own reactions to her. This was why he didn’t really talk to people.
‘Yes. He has stallion credential written all over him.’
‘People keep saying that.’
‘I’d love to have a mare to send to him.’ She sighed, a sad flutter, as she shook her head
‘Why don’t you?’
Her harsh laugh made him sit up straighter. ‘Money.’ Her simple answer made him regret his question.
‘I assumed you were …’ He didn’t finish his answer. She was a racing fan, dressed up for the day, obviously travelling to Ascot with the other racing fans for today’s carnival opening event. The train wasn’t crowded yet; that’s how damned early it was. Her presence on the morning train demonstrated her keenness for the full race-day experience.
Even his family were coming later, taking their leisurely time to get ready at bloody Lord Waldebroke’s mansion. He still couldn’t believe his sister, quiet, careful Serena was marrying an English lord. Hell, he couldn’t process that his best mate had hidden his title and all the shit that went with it from him. Lord bloody Ambrose Headley Edwards. Lee, his neighbour and mate, rival horse trainer, nearly his brother-in-law, and apparently brother to an Earl.
Lee’s brother had welcomed them to stay in the mansion as Shannon’s whole
damned family had come to Ascot to watch his horse. He’d stayed with Biographical, only going into the city last night for dinner. This train was the earliest one back to Ascot, and his horse. The new owners had lent him staff for the whole trip from Australia to England, so Bio was in safe hands, but he didn’t want to be away, not with the opening race today. In six hours, he’d be saddling up and legging Rachel on board. God, he’d second-guessed his choice so much. Going around in circles—local jockey or jockey who knows the horse? He still wasn’t sure he was right.
‘Rich?’ She chuckled, the sound surprising him with its lyrical notes.
‘Yeah. It’s Royal Ascot. You speak like a racing person, and you are dressed up in finery.’ He wore yesterday’s clothes, the only difference being fresh underwear. Re-wearing jeans for a couple of days at a time had never bothered him before, yet sitting next to her made him feel grubby and somehow less. A reminder of the printed opinion in the paper. His goddamned suit was waiting for him at the stables—all hired, with top hat and fucking everything. He’d walk his horse first, stretch his legs, nothing strenuous, before getting ready.
‘I’m just a fan. I save up every year to come to Ascot.’ She shook her head ruefully. ‘No one notices me.’
‘A fan.’ He’d noticed, and now he couldn’t un-notice her.
‘Yes. It’s a bit silly really. I love pedigrees the most, the way some strains just go on and on for generations, like Nearco, Northern Dancer, Sadler’s Wells, Galileo, and others ebb and flow. Almost as though they are in a support role.’
‘That’s not silly. That’s—’ He didn’t know what it was.
‘It’s pointless, that’s what it is. I’ll never have the means to test any of my theories. I have to watch other people’s mating plans and see if I’m right about the outcomes.’ She tucked a strand of long black hair behind her ear, drawing his attention to her arms. Arms that didn’t look like she’d done a day’s hard work in her life—city girl arms, round and soft. She’d be so glorious to sink against in bed, all those plump, womanly curves. He ground his teeth together—better that than lick the soft inside of her elbow. The tip of his tongue tingled, and he jammed it against the back of his teeth. Anything to stop the distraction. Today was about Biographical, nothing else.
‘Sounds unsatisfying.’ Yes, think of being unsatisfied. He almost rolled his eyes at himself, and yet, he wanted her to keep talking. He could listen to her voice all day: it washed over his skin, clever and pleasant. Just the type of voice that would soothe a flighty young horse.
‘A little, but I’ve always believed in pragmatic dreams. Every year I get to watch the world’s best horses on my turf battle it out. The pedigrees are fascinating, the colour and flavours of the turf, the people, the horses. It’s my hobby. I don’t need it to be more.’ She shrugged and looked away, out the moving train’s window, but not before he saw the hint of a dream in her eye.
‘Pedigrees are only a small part of the picture. It’s the horse that matters more.’ Shannon couldn’t help himself. He was a practical trainer, preferring to work with the individual rather than think about the genetic base or the potential in the pedigree.
‘You mean the individual. The one who gets the lucky combination of genes to soar above the opposition.’
‘Yes. And environment. Some farms are shit producers, others have magic grass.’ She giggled, a warm welcoming sound, unlike a giggle he’d ever heard before. ‘Magic grass?’
‘Fine. Good fertile soil, excellent management …’ He waved his hand. Once again, he squared his shoulders and met her head on, wanting to draw out the discussion and get her to giggle again. Seriously? He had to stop himself being swept away by her sweet combo of sexiness and horse knowledge.
‘Are you saying pedigrees don’t matter?’ A little frown flickered between her eyebrows. She paused, then tilted her head. ‘Because I completely disagree.’ The way she pulled herself together, ready to defend her opinion didn’t help Shannon with his burgeoning desire. He focused on the argument, so he didn’t think about the way his body reacted to hers.
‘Horses don’t know who their parents are. Besides, I can’t train a pedigree. All it tells me is how much a horse will cost; it tells me nothing about the way a horse is put together, or how well it will eat, or whether it has heart.’
Her eyebrows rose slightly, the frown replaced with a cynical stare. ‘There is a reason good pedigrees cost more.’
‘Okay?’ Shannon met her stare with one of his own. He shouldn’t be enjoying this argument so much he had to try not to smile.
He barked out a rough laugh. ‘You should meet Toshiko, she’d adore talking to you about numbers.’
‘Why would she?’ Something in her voice reminded him of almost every time he talked to people; that little undertone which told him he’d said something wrong. He ran his tongue over his teeth. The way she’d confidently sparred with him had been the key to why he’d kept talking.
‘Toshiko is my sister-in-law. She’s into that stuff.’ He didn’t understand why he needed to reassure her of how Toshiko fitted into his life, except it seemed important to let her know he was single. Available. Oh, hell, this conversation had to stop before it went any further. People were too hard.
‘Numbers.’ He turned to stare out the window. Maybe he could pick up that bloody newspaper and hide in it, except he’d given it to her, hadn’t he? He checked his phone—only an hour until he was back with his horse. Where he wanted to be, not dragged into a discussion about the theory of horses. All that stuff was witchcraft, quackery, and didn’t make any difference to the actual horse. His unsubtle hint worked and they sat in silence for a while.
He checked his phone again; this time for the time back home. This trip had meant he’d left his stable under the guidance of his foreman and other staff. Fifty other horses needed his attention too. Well, twenty. Twenty winter horses—the others were out for a spell, and he’d bring them back in once he got home again. A sudden longing for home spread over his gut. He’d never needed, or wanted, to leave Merindah Park before—had never travelled further than a race meeting in another state. The idea that he was about to dress in a penguin suit and train a horse on the other side of the world had a surreal element. More than simple nerves, this moment was bigger than he’d ever been able to dream. Somehow he’d ended up living someone else’s dream, someone else’s life. He’d never thought he’d be taking on the challenge of flying Biographical to the other side of the world and getting him ready to win, keeping him healthy and happy.
And yet somehow here he was in England, absorbing everything and learning so much about the different methods here. Soon after arriving here a month ago, he’d taken he opportunity to go to Newmarket—where the other internationals were based alongside some of the world’s greatest trainers—with the huge wide expanses of gallops, and the utterly different way the horses were worked here, almost like interval training. He felt like his brain was overflowing with new information as he compared the way he trained horses at home with the way the big-name trainers did it here. He adored how much he’d learned in the month since arriving with Bio, had enjoyed listening to the Ascot-based trainer he’d been stabled with. One benefit of a big international stud being Bio’s owners was that he’d been able to be based at Ascot, not Newmarket. The set up at Ascot better suited Shannon’s style of training than Newmarket did, plus it was quieter with less eyes watching him, and had the bonus that Bio didn’t have to travel on a truck this morning.
‘Yeah.’ He turned his head towards her, towards those guileless curious eyes that saw right into him, to his deepest desires. Fuck, he must be nervous if he was thinking nonsense like that.
‘You said you can’t train a pedigree. And your accent—’ She didn’t finish her sentence.
‘Australian.’ He assumed she wanted to know where he’d come from.
‘I know.’ Her certainty made him glower at her. ‘I live in London, I’ve heard most accents.’
‘Did you have a question?’
Her cheeks darkened. Was she blushing? He liked that she didn’t flinch under his glare, showing the same tenacity he admired in the best racehorses. A determined will to win, and a big heart—what set apart a great horse from a good horse. ‘It’s a little embarrassing, in hindsight.’
He tried not to cackle as he realised she’d just figured out who he was, and he smiled, anticipation building in his chest like a young horse coiling up ready to buck.
‘You don’t have to look so smug, Mr Bassett. I figured it out when you mentioned Toshiko was your sister-in-law.’
‘Toshiko won’t be thrilled to know she’s famous.’
She smiled. ‘The elusive punter who was in all the racing papers when she got picked up by Australian customs; it was all racing could talk about for a few weeks.’
‘Racing should focus on the horses.’ Shannon didn’t care for all the gossip. Sometimes this game was too small, and everyone got in everyone’s business.
‘The horses. Yes. Ever since it was announced that Biographical was coming here, well, let’s just say I did some background research.’
She shifted on the seat. The fabric of her dress tucked awkwardly under her thighs, stretching tight across her to reveal more than the loose dress had allowed before. Talking to her would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so beautiful. Shannon wanted to lie down with his face in her pillowy lap, so close to heaven. He’d bet she would taste amazing. His mouth filled with saliva and his pulse quickened. Stop. He didn’t know anything about her, except she was a racing fan. Thinking about her like this wasn’t good for either of them. He needed to put her out of his head and focus on Bio’s race today.
‘By the way, I wasn’t to know you were reading about your own damned horse.’ Such a comment he’d normally smugly enjoy but her throaty whisper instead inspired a flood of desire. His attention was now firmly on her face, not the promises of her lap.
‘Technically, Biographical isn’t mine,’ he croaked, ‘I just train him.’ Her hands flew to her cheeks. ‘I’m so sorry. This is so embarrassing.’
‘Yes. Oh gosh. I mean, hell.’ She drew in a deep breath, one that made her chest swell, drawing his gaze to her round breasts and the plunging neckline of her dress. A necklace lay against her dark skin, the colours contrasting like fresh grass on fertile rich earth. An odd twinge in his gut felt almost like homesickness for the farm, and he wanted to make it go away.
‘Don’t be embarrassed.’ He forced himself to look up, again, into her wide eyes. Temptation beckoned, and he gently pulled her hands away from her cheeks. Shockwaves soared up his arms as he touched her. He dropped her hands, folding his arms across his chest. In his twenty-nine years, he’d never had such a physical reaction to someone before. He’d had sex plenty of times, of course, and it’d been lovely, an excellent release for his physical needs, but the way his blood soared at a simple touch made him jerk away to protect himself.
‘I just argued with you about your own horse, and not just that, but I went on about my pedigree theories. To you. You have so much more real experience than me. I’m just a hobbyist.’
‘Don’t dismiss your own ideas. It’s refreshing to talk horses with someone so enthusiastic.’ He clenched his jaw before he let slip he could listen to her talk about horses all day.
‘Yes.’ He eased out a breath between thinned lips, nearly whistled in the prickly air between them. ‘Do you want to meet him?’ He didn’t understand where the question had come from, as he barely tolerated the owners and his family around his horse. What the fuck was he doing offering this random stranger on the train the chance to meet his horse on race day? Her gasp and the sheer joy on her face showed him exactly how she’d look during an orgasm. Fuck. That was why he’d offered. Because he needed more of her, more of her enthusiasm. He had to get control over his reactions to her. She was hardly offering sex, just some informed opinions. Although he’d take sex if she would look at him with the same excitement she had for meeting Biographical. His head was a mess; luckily no one could hear his thoughts, especially her. She’d be bound to assume he was a creep. He tightened his arms around his chest and stared at the seat opposite him.
‘Of course. I didn’t bring any other damned horse here.’ His gruff tone sent a wave of regret coursing in his veins. One that disappeared like the clean pair of heels of a horse galloping away after dumping him as she grabbed his folded forearms. Her touch burned him in a good way; not that awful sear he sometimes got when someone he didn’t like touched him.
‘I would love to meet him. Thank you so much. Oh, this is amazing. Is he tall? The papers haven’t really mentioned his height, and it’s so hard to get a handle on it from the telly. I mean, Danzig was so small, but most of that Danehill and Choisir line seem to be bigger. Can I pat him?’ Her excited babbling made him smile, pushing away all the worry about his reaction to her.
‘Thank you so much. Oh, this is the best day ever.’ The flutter in her voice as she drew out ‘ever’ and the lilt in her voice as she rolled the r delighted him. He nodded tersely, not trusting his voice.
One more question, if I could trouble you further.’ She pulled her hands away—leaving his forearms cool—and she twisted them together in her lap.
‘Yeah?’ He wouldn’t look down. At least, not again.
‘Does it matter that I have no experience with horses?’ She whispered as though she didn’t want to ask.
‘But you know so much …’
‘Theory, yes. I’m a third-generation Londoner. Where in the city would I be able to learn practical horse stuff?’
He shrugged, ‘How would I know? Doesn’t the queen have horses in the city?’
‘The Queen?’ She tipped her head back, exposing her throat as she laughed. ‘Yes, the Queen has horses in the city. Other rich people do too.’
‘The basics aren’t hard. I’ll teach you.’ He didn’t really get her joke, although he supposed she was saying she wasn’t rich. As if that mattered to him. Dad had always said, ‘Money lost, nothing lost. Courage lost, everything lost.’ Whenever she spoke about horses, she glowed with confidence. Sexy and hot. Hotter than a car’s bonnet on a summer day.
‘I promise to be a good pupil.’ She couldn’t possibly know how fucking erotic that sounded. He tried to stop the grin, but the side of his mouth shifted to give away his joy. She returned his smile, her face transforming her into the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.