Gold Dust and the Billionaire by Edith MacKenzie

Chapter 1

Freddy kept his gaze steady on the cards in front of him. Inside he felt like his innards were vibrating. The men who sat around the table all had the veneer of social, genial gentleman, but he knew they were ruthless. The big man in the corner of the room had a memorandum book with names and numbers and he always got what was owed, one way or another.

But not tonight. Tonight, the gods smiled down on Freddy, and he’d come up trumps. “Silvio, are you going to meet or fold?” Freddy tried to keep his voice coolly casual.

A bead of sweat broke out on Silvio’s forehead. With his baldness and pale fleshiness, it was hard not be put in mind of a nervous boiled egg. Freddy rather liked eating them for breakfast. He knew his friends would be surprised to hear the ruthlessness of his thoughts. After all, they were quite often of the mind to think of him as lackadaisical and without ambition. Fact was, he had plenty, just no clue what to do with it.

“Silvio? What is the saying? Poop or get off the pot.”

Silvio spun the thick gold ring on his index finger with his thumb. “I’ve got nothing left to meet with except…” He ran a hand over his head. “I have a horse. I bought it for my wife.”

“I didn’t know your wife rides.” Freddy had seen pictures of the woman in the society pages, and he felt a sudden pity for the beast having to lug her gargantuan frame about.

“She doesn’t. There’s a girl who rides him. Sally just goes to the events as his owner and gets to keep the prizes.”

“Seems … sporting.”

“The horse is fully imported, bloodlines in the purple, and a stallion. Worth a bomb, and from what my wife tells me, wins everything it enters. I’m adding the horse to the wager.”

Freddy quirked a brow at him, running his nail over the edge of his cards. “You’re offering me a racehorse?”

“Not a racehorse. A warmblood. One that does dressage.”

“A horse is a horse, I guess, old chap. Fine, I accept. Throw it in the pot.” A trill of anticipation made his senses sharpen. “Now, show your hand.”

Mutely, and with a gleam of triumph, Silvio revealed his straight flush.

“I do like a flush myself,” Freddy murmured as he turned his cards. “Personally, I find a royal flush much more satisfying.” Silvio gaped at him, revealing yellowing teeth. “Now, what’s my new horse called?”

* * *

“Bella,you’ll never guess what I just won. And before you say anything, yes, I know it’s bad that I’m gambling, but a chap needs to have a few vices. It keeps life interesting. It’s a horse! Can you believe it, Bella? Remember how much fun we used to have going to pony club when we were children? Well, you loved it. I wasn’t such a fan of the jodhpurs that mother insisted I wear. Old Poppy and Billy, those were our ponies names, do you remember? I don’t even remember what this horse is called. I guess I’ll find out. When you get this message, call me back, Bella. I know you’re mad at me, but I’m just trying to be a good big brother. I miss—” The beep cut off the last of Freddy’s message.

The stone he carried around in his belly grew heavier, the ice around it frigid. He flicked through his phone, his friends’ names scrolling by. Landon would be in bed with his pregnant wife, Chora. Freddy kept scrolling. Alistair would be out of range until he got back to the station homestead. More names flicked by. Stirling sparked hope through him. His pal Stirling, Hollywood producer and fellow billionaire, would surely be around. He quickly pressed on his name and waited, tapping his foot while it rang. “You’ve reached Stirling Saint-Claire. Please leave a message.” Freddy’s mouth puckered. He was probably doting on his fiancée, Cassie.

Deciding there was nothing else to do, he tapped his driver on the shoulder. “Take me to Park Lane, old chap. There’s a game there that has my name on it.”

* * *

The bay stallionlowered his head, letting out a great snort as if releasing all the tension from his body. “Good boy, Denny.” Harper dropped her reins and patted the horse on both sides of his neck. “Very good boy.”

Around them, the stable yard was a hive of activity, the sand arena with its white fencing having been built with the stable blocks wrapping around it. Some days, Harper liked to imagine that the younger horses were learning as their heads peered out, watching the older more experienced horses like Denny. She tangled his mane around her fingers as she headed for the gate at C. Denny was her heart horse. From the moment he’d entered her life five years ago as a horse with all the right breeding and talent and a horrendous reputation, she’d known that he was the one for her.

She still marveled that somehow, when she’d been a fresh-faced twenty-two-year-old, she’d been given the opportunity to ride him. Maybe it was because she was the only one stupid enough to take him on after he’d been kicked out of every training stable in Europe. But she’d known what she had, and she’d worked hard for it. Back when her stables only had two clients’ horses and she was forced to train anything that came her way, she’d always had a burning ambition that she was going to make it. That and a good plan and strong work ethic to back it up.

Sitting deep in the saddle, she pulled Denny to a halt and slipped her feet from her stirrups before gracefully swinging her leg over to dismount. The stallion immediately swung his head around, rubbing the itchy spot he always got just above his eye on her. “Denny, this is why I can’t wear white.”

“You always wear white.” Carol, her head groom, laughed, running the stirrups up on the saddle before undoing the girth.

“Whoever decided to make white competition wear needs to be shot. I spend more time soaking clothes than someone my age ought to.” Harper undid her horse’s noseband and throatlash before slipping it gently from his head and replacing it with a headcollar. “I’m too young for the in-depth laundry knowledge I have.”

“You and me both.” Carol grinned, taking the bridle from her and heading to the tack room.

Harper reached into the grooming box at her feet and retrieved a cookie. His soft nose gently tickling her palm, Denny took the treat from her. “Thanks for today. You tried so hard for me.” The bay stallion munched slowly before nudging her again as if to say that surely he deserved another one if he’d been such a good boy. “Okay, but only one more.”

Having made her way back, Carol waited while Harper gave Denny a final pat. “When you’re ready, I’m going to take this great lump and give him a hose down.”

Denny swished his tail, clearly unimpressed with being called a lump, but followed the groom meekly as she led him away. Harper unclipped her helmet, running fingers over damp hair. She always tried to save Denny as the last horse of the day to ride, that thing that, no matter how pear-shaped everything else might go, was sure to brighten it for her. The gravel crunched under her boots as she walked over to the bench, dragging the boot jack closer as she sat down. It was a relief when she pulled her feet free from her top boots.

She peered closer at her red socks, noticing the hole beginning near her big toe. A few quick stitches and it would last her ages longer yet. Harper sighed contently in the gentle ray of afternoon sunlight. Her sock was an awful lot like her stables. Everything was well-maintained, if a little weary. The stables were old but freshly painted with brightly-colored flowers in little baskets hanging from the eaves of the roof. Even an old wheelbarrow having lost its wheel now housed a multitude of brightly-colored petunias. The arena might not have the most fashionable, technically advanced surface, but it was well-harrowed and did the job just fine.

Harper wiggled her toes before tugging on her Wellingtons. The most important thing about her yard—her horses—were gleaming and the picture of health. With every aspect of their care scrutinized over, they definitely knew they were the lords of their domain. Speaking of which, Carol had finished scraping the water from Denny and was on her way back with him. Pushing herself to her feet, Harper headed over to start filling haynets, and then it would be time to skip out the manure from the stables again. Maybe after that she could have a nice biscuit and a cup of tea. Maybe.