Hannah Chandler, raised at the heart of the Regency horse-racing world, knows two things for certain.
First, the rival Crosby family cannot be trusted. Ever.
And second, she’s just bought the champion colt Golden Barb for a fortune-making stakes race.
But when Hannah tries to claim the colt from handsome young baronet Bart Crosby, Golden Barb’s current owner, everything she believes falls apart. The prize colt is stolen—and with it go both families’ dreams of rebuilding troubled reputations.
Is Bart to blame for the theft, or is he truly as honest and determined as he seems? As Hannah and Bart rush to solve the mystery before race day, they uncover scandalous family secrets—and learn that enemies might just make the best lovers…
Story elements: Enemies to lovers, rivals, partners, care for animals
“It’s the rare author who can construct [a novella] that is as strongly characterised and plotted as a full-length novel – but Ms Romain has risen to that challenge. …Thoroughly engaging and intelligently written.”
—All About Romance
“Theresa Romain couldn’t have picked a better way to introduce her new series to a potential reader. …It’s a tall order to ask any novella to launch the next three to four stories, but after finishing The Sport of Baronets I’m already eager to jump back into this world for more.”
—Romantic Historical Reviews
“I haven’t made a secret of my love of Theresa Romain or my love of horses…I’m a sucker for a good burying the hatchet trope, and I am SUPER thrilled to have this series start.”
—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“Great banter and a healthy dash of female empowerment…I’d absolutely recommend this one for any fans of Regency romance.”
—Beverages and Books
About the Book
- The plot of The Sport of Baronets is loosely inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “Silver Blaze.” The racehorse Golden Barb’s name is an homage to that–as well as hint at fortune and Cupid’s arrow. (Sorry, Bart, but sometimes a racehorse’s name DOES make sense.)
- Bart had already been established as a baronet in my Matchmaker trilogy, in which he appeared as a minor character. To suit my plan for the series, the Chandler patriarch needed to be a baronet too. Since I am a big fan of Pride and Prejudice, the word that comes to my mind after “Sir” is “William.” Sir William Lucas was a knight rather than a baronet, but the honorific is the same.
- Usually the working titles I come up with are terrible, and my editor has to gently guide me to something that better captures the spirit of the book. Maybe I’m learning something, though: The Sport of Baronets was always the title I had in mind for this novella, and I love that it stuck.
- For a look at the visual inspiration for this novella, visit my Pinterest board for The Sport of Baronets.
Late April, 1817
“I am here for the colt, Crosby.” The female voice addressing Bart was clipped and unfamiliar.
As Bart crouched on the damp turf of the stable yard, trailing his fingers down Golden Barb’s cannon bone, he tossed a reply over his shoulder. “It’s Sir Bartlett, please. I’ll be with you in one moment.”
His wiry groom swung down from the bay colt’s back as Bart finished his examination of Golden Barb’s foreleg. The colt’s tendons felt sound, but the week before the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes was no time to make assumptions. Bart squinted up at his groom. “You say he favored the leg during his gallop, Northrup. What about during the walk back?”
“His walk seemed all right, Sir Bartlett. But walkin’ won’t serve him in the race, if ye pardon me sayin’ so.”
“Of course.” Bart studied the colt’s black-stockinged legs for another long moment as Golden Barb shifted his weight. Like so many mincing ladies of the ton, the horse hated to get his feet wet. Perhaps the soggy ground, dampened by a persistent spring drizzle, had caused him to break stride today.
Bart could only hope.
“Goin’ to hurt the odds on him if he doesn’t get a good run,” observed the groom. “Bookmakers—they’ve an eye out for ever’thing like this.”
“My first concern must be for the colt, not the bookmakers.” Bart stood. “Cover him with a light blanket and walk him around the yard slowly until he has cooled. Take a stable boy with you, and if the colt favors his foreleg at all, send the boy to find me.”
As he spoke, Bart rummaged through the capacious pockets of the old gray coat he wore at the stables. Finding a small apple, he split it over the nearest stall door and extended it on a flat palm, one half at a time, to Golden Barb. The horse’s ears pricked forward, and fixing Bart with a warm brown eye, he lipped up the apple. His stub of a docked tail swished, sending an insect careening away. Lucky colt, to dismiss unpleasantness so easily. He seemed wholly unbothered that a week hence, he was to carry not only Northrup as jockey, but also the fortune and reputation of the Crosby family.
It was a dreadful weight to bear, and Bart felt every bit of it on his own shoulders. As the day of the race grew closer, the burden only grew heavier and more taxing. Northrup seemed to unsaddle Golden Barb far too slowly, and Bart bit back the urge to hurry the groom along.
Instead, he prepared to respond to the woman who had addressed him a few minutes before. How may I help you? was almost on his lips as he turned toward her.
“Damnation,” he blurted instead. “Hannah Chandler.”
If one were a Crosby, damnation and Chandler were practically synonyms.
He hadn’t seen her in years, but there was no mistaking that freckled nose or stubborn chin. The dark gold hair that used to fall straight and thick as reaped wheat was now pinned up beneath the black moss-silk of her round hat, but nothing could hide the triumphant sparkle in her hazel eyes.
“Damnation Chandler? Dear me, those years in London have stripped away your manners. That ought to be Miss Chandler, Sir Bartlett.” This time, she deigned to use his honorific correctly. Cursed woman; she knew perfectly well that Bart was a baronet, and she certainly knew how a baronet ought to be addressed. Her own father had been granted a baronetcy for outfitting cavalry regiments during the recent wars against France.
“Why are you in my stable yard, Miss Chandler? Is this some sort of subterfuge?” Usually the sight of a pretty young woman sent Bart’s tongue into a tangle, but Hannah Chandler was first and foremost a rival.
“As I said, I am here to retrieve my colt.”
“Of what colt are you speaking?”
“Golden Barb, of course. Your mother sold him to my father on my behalf yesterday, and I’ve come with a groom to take him back to the Chandler stables.” From a pocket in the long, green skirt of her riding habit, she took a folded paper and shoved it into Bart’s hand. “I’ve the bill of sale, if you wish to examine it.”
Bart’s fist closed on the paper, its corners biting his palm. “My mother would rather expire than do business with your family.”
“Unless she passed on to the afterlife this morning, that seems not to be true. The bill was drawn up by a solicitor and signed by all parties. It is quite binding.”
“With the small but significant exception that Golden Barb is not my mother’s to sell.”
Miss Chandler’s jaw hardened. “I assure you, the bill of sale—”
“You can assure me until your head falls off. None of my horses are for sale now, and I certainly have sold none to your family.”
“That is not the impression held by anyone else involved in the transaction.” Again, her hazel eyes held a wicked sparkle—almost as though she were enjoying Bart’s discomfiture.
Almost? There was no almost about the matter.
He wiped his expression blank, then unfolded and smoothed the paper.
As a condition of the sale of Nottingham (chestnut) to Margery, Lady Crosby, in January 1801, Sir William Chandler claims his right to purchase any colt sired by that stallion…
Nottingham, that stalwart old chestnut, had indeed sired Golden Barb—along with many other colts and fillies in the years since his triumphant retirement from the turf. If this bill were true, conditions had been placed on the horse’s purchase about which Bart had never known.
Dense lines of legal-looking language—surely far more than there ought to be?—were followed by the scrawling wreck that had become Lady Crosby’s signature. Below that, Hannah’s signature was tidy, and the engraving-sharp lines of Sir William Chandler’s name seemed smug and superior.
Why had his mother ever—in the distant past, and especially now—trusted a Chandler in any matter of business? Just as Bart’s parents had taught him how to train a colt to obey without fear, they had taught him to be wary of the treacherous Chandlers. The two families had been racing and training Thoroughbreds for decades, and they had been undermining each other the whole time. Poaching staff with promises of higher salaries. Tampering with bookmakers’ odds. Bribing jockeys.
The Chandlers had begun the offensive; everyone knew that. The Crosbys had to retaliate in kind for their own protection. Kill or be killed. Cheat or be cheated.
Win, or be lost.
Bart passed a weary hand over his eyes. The strain of the past year—of his mother’s illness, of their ebbing fortunes—was telling on him. Every week brought some unforeseen complication, some dip in the race back to solvency.
When he met Hannah’s gaze, she arched a brow. “Are you satisfied, sir?”
No. Never, until the race is won. His sigh ran as deep as his marrow.
Bart craned his neck to check on Golden Barb’s progress around the yard, which was bounded on three sides by stables of light gray-brown brick. A few curious equines poked their heads over the lower halves of white-painted wooden stall doors.
Fewer horses than in past years. Far too few.
But all they needed was one colt. One champion, and the two thousand guineas he would soon win, if all went well. If all went as it ought to.
The paper was sharp-edged in his hand as he tried to summon a cutting reply. But the only phrase that came to mind was, “Let us speak in my office.”
Jerking her chin toward her groom—stay here, do as we’d planned—Hannah then followed Sir Bartlett Crosby down the row of stables.
The baronet walking ahead of her hardly appeared to be the frivolous dandy about whom Hannah’s father had often complained. Though she had glimpsed the edge of a brightly checked waistcoat, Sir Bartlett’s worn coat was the color of gravel and cut with unfashionably large pockets. He wore no hat, and the misty spring sun traced a few silver strands in his near-black hair. His stride was quick and determined, and had Hannah’s not been equally so, she would have had difficulty keeping up with him.
That young Crosby is not the horsewoman his mother was, not by a long shot, Sir William had often said as he gazed from Chandler Hall’s windows toward the stables of Newmarket. His hands are too careful.
Hannah knew better than to interrupt such reveries with I doubt he is a horsewoman at all, though the idea of such a response always made her smile.
Bart Crosby was three years older than her twenty-five, and for more than a decade she had seen him in Newmarket only rarely. The turn of the seasons had drawn him away to Eton, to Oxford. To London to dance through the city’s lavish ballrooms, and sometimes to his country estate and tenants in Lincolnshire.
Now that Hannah was able to observe him closely, she was not sure her father was right to disparage careful hands. The young baronet had handled the Thoroughbred with calm and confidence, and the horse responded in kind.
A man who could win the trust of a horse might not be completely worthless.
Might not. But it did not matter, did it? She was here for the colt. That was all.
Working open a lock, the baronet shoved at a stall door at one end of the angular U of stables. “Come in and sit, Miss Chandler.” He held the door ajar with one shoulder, allowing her to pass.
As she squeezed by him, holding up the long skirts of her habit, she brushed against his body. Solid as the door itself, and pleasantly straw-scented. “I beg your pardon.” She ducked her head, grateful for the brim of her modish little hat, which shadowed her rosy features.
“Not at all.” He sounded distracted. As soon as the door closed behind him, he asked, “Why are you here, Miss Chandler?”
He swiped at one chair seat with a handkerchief, then motioned for Hannah to sit.
She did so warily, taking in the rough surroundings with quick, curious glances. While her father’s stable office was smooth of floor and wide of doorway to accommodate his wheelchair, Crosby’s was a walled-in loose box set at one corner of the stable. The chairs and table were as plain as though they’d been pilfered from a tack room. A broken bridle lay across the table, weighting a haphazard stack of papers. The stall floor was the same packed dirt the horses’ hooves knew so well, though without cushioning straw, and Hannah’s sturdy black boots quickly picked up dust.
She drew back her feet and squared her shoulders. “I am here to claim ownership of Golden Barb.”
“You mistake my meaning, Miss Chandler.” He eased into a chair facing hers across the rough table. “Why are you here, rather than…”
Someone better. She narrowed her eyes, daring him to finish the sentence, but he simply watched her with an unflinching mahogany-dark gaze.
He was not aware, then, that there was no one else. Sir William had not conducted business in the field since falling ill with palsy more than a decade before.
Following the disappearance of his bride several years before, Hannah’s eldest brother, Jonah, had abandoned human interaction in favor of overseeing the Chandler stud farm several miles north of Newmarket.
Jonah’s widowed twin, Kate, lived in Ireland with her children.
Brother Nathaniel, roguish and charming, traveled England as family business demanded. He was currently in London to keep an eye on Tattersalls—and probably a few lusty widows as well.
“There is no one better than me, Crosby,” Hannah replied into the weighty silence. “I serve as Sir William’s secretary, you know. In my brother Nathaniel’s temporary absence, you may consider me to be my father’s right hand.”
His brows drew together. “I will not consider any communication in which your father has a hand. Not right, nor left. Nor even underhanded, which it is likely to be.”
So it was to be a battle? Very well. “Is this how you speak to ladies in London? If so, I do not wonder that you are still a bachelor.”
“I might not always know how to speak elegantly to ladies. But you? First and foremost, you’re a Chandler. And I know exactly how Chandlers ought to be treated.”
There was neither sneer nor frown in his voice. Just a firm chill, as when one laid one’s hand against untouched stone.
Hannah clasped her hands tightly in her lap. They were protected by gloves of York tan, smooth and elegant, their stitching almost invisible from the outside. “I hope,” she replied, “that you are able to set aside your irrelevant personal feelings long enough to transact a matter of business. Will you do me the simple courtesy of reading the bill of sale in its entirety?”
Something closed in his expression, though he did not shift his proud posture by a whit. “Golden Barb is my colt,” he stated as his eyes skimmed the densely written lines. “But I will do you the courtesy of admitting that this reference to his sire’s sale in 1801 indicates some shared obligation between our parents.”
“You want to add, ‘I cannot imagine why,’ do you not? Only you are wondering if you have already been impolite enough for one conversation.”
He fumbled the paper, a flush staining his high cheekbones. “Would it be more impolite for me to contradict or to agree with you?”
Aha, a crack in his stony reception. “Both responses would be more impolite.”
Her nonsensical reply, spoken with a haughty lift of the chin, caused his gaze to flick upward from the paper and catch hers. “You allow me no chance to win, Miss Chandler?”
“Did you expect that I would? Surely not. If you know how to treat Chandlers, I know how to treat Crosbys.”
He examined her with the same close scrutiny he had granted to his colt’s foreleg: jaw set, eyes searching, searching.
He would find the sore and tender places if she let him study her much longer. He would notice how green she was, how untried, how unsure of her footing.
She must remember that she had nothing to prove to this man, and everything to gain through success in this matter. “You appear to be staring, sir. Are you confused by some point in the bill of sale? Do you wish me to offer clarification?”
“Yes.” Those expressive brows furrowed. “But not only about the bill of sale. This whole situation is terribly improper. When did someone from your household—that is, your father’s household—meet with my mother? She has received no callers since—” Frowning, he cut himself off. “She has not received callers for some time.”
Hannah knew that Lady Crosby had lost her wits. All of Newmarket knew it. But if Sir Bartlett wanted to pretend that wasn’t the case, she would allow him his fiction.
She certainly allowed herself fictions enough. Most recently, the fiction that this transaction would be carried out smoothly.
The young baronet was staring again, and she kicked out. Figuratively. “See anything you like?”
“Not particularly,” said the young baronet. “To maintain the rules of polite discourse, I ought to ask you the same, but I already know your answer. Tell me, Miss Chandler, what did you expect me to do about this? Surely you did not think I would transfer a prize colt into your keeping.”
“If you are a man of honor, I expect exactly that. Is your hesitation because I am a woman, or because I am a Chandler?”
He looked down at the bill of sale. “It’s because I did not agree to sell my damned colt.” His face flushed, highlighting the strong lines of his cheekbones. “I beg your pardon, Miss Chandler. I should not have used such language in your presence.”
An indignant reply was ready to trip from Hannah’s tongue—but when her gaze caught his, it fell back. Because his apology meant he had recalled she was a woman. And his consciousness of her femininity made her suddenly aware of it too. Of her stays molding the curves of her figure. The wool of her habit seemed far too warm, the collar too scratchy on the sensitive skin of her throat.
They were alone, male and female, and the door was latched.
“This whole situation is terribly improper.” She tried to offer a cool, flippant echo of his statement, but her tone sounded more like a croak.
He seemed to follow the line of her thoughts, because he shook his head. “It can’t be improper for a Chandler and a Crosby to speak in private, can it? Nothing more scandalous could occur than—oh, I don’t know. The annihilation of the world.”
“Or, what is worse, of my reputation.”
“How you do threaten a fellow,” he said mildly. Drawing the document toward him, he muttered, “I shall need some time to review this.”
She was dismissed then, with the blush still lingering on her cheeks.
She could not permit a failure. Even a delay was too much to risk, with the race only a week away.
Shoving back the chair, she sprang to her feet. “You are welcome to take all the time you like to review the bill. In the meantime, my groom will take the colt back to Chandler Hall.”
Manners dictated that Sir Bartlett follow her movement, and he too stood. “The time to address concerns, Miss Chandler, is before one stoops to horse theft.”
His voice had become low and soothing, just as it had been in the stable yard. How did he change its timbre so easily from sandpaper to satin? Its calm resonance made Hannah want to sway toward him.
No. To shrug him away. That was what she wanted to do. “If you can find the papers related to Nottingham’s purchase, that might settle the matter.” She looked pointedly at the tumbled stack of papers atop Crosby’s table.
“That is a reasonable suggestion.” He eased around the table and faced her before the door of the stall-turned-office. “For a Chandler, you impress me.”
“I would say the same if I could,” she replied, and his mouth crimped into an unwilling smile.
That small curve of lips felt like more of a victory than any of her spiked words. As she looked up at him, for just a moment, she wondered.
What was it like to own things outright and not only serve as an emissary?
What was it like to travel where one wished? To attend a ball, to spin through a waltz and steal a kiss?
What had hardened Bart Crosby’s features and dusted gray through his night-colored hair? Perhaps the foreign pleasures of London, which Hannah had never tasted.
Or perhaps he had always looked thus, and time had smoothed her recollections of the neighbor boy to whom she was never allowed to speak.
Her throat caught on so many questions. Sir Bartlett spoke instead. “Any document dating to 1801 would be stored in the house rather than in this office. I shall search at my first opportunity, Miss Chandler. You have my word.” He held up his hand, bare-skinned and strong-fingered. “I realize that means less than nothing to you, but that is your misfortune.”
“I will accept your word,” she decided, “if I may look along with you to ensure the worth of the search.”
“That is remarkably presumptuous, but I’ll consider the matter.” Again, the tiny curve of a smile, and Hannah had to bite her lip not to return it. He reached over her shoulder—to touch her? No, only to fiddle with the latch and let the door swing open behind her. “After you,” he said.
She took one step into the open air—then froze. Stunned by the scene before her. Heedless of Crosby’s muffled curse as he collided with her back.
Sothern, her groom, lay prone and still at the center of the stable yard, his forehead bleeding from an ugly cut. Crosby’s stable boy had been gagged, tied hand and foot, and tossed beside him.
And Golden Barb—the colt who was to carry her future—was nowhere in sight.
* * *
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