“There will be no incidents today. Routine, that is what I need. It is all I ever need.” The moment Anthony urged the steed out of the stable, he sighed with a sort of contentment.
All is in place and in order.
The grey horse was a handsome animal, well-structured and proportioned, worth the money Anthony had spent on him. The steed had proven a pleasant companion repeatedly on Anthony’s morning rides.
Urging the animal away from the stable, Anthony started slowly. Never did he gallop too fast, fearful of how it would look to a passerby. No, he must be seen to be in control at all times; that was the way of things.
What else is expected of a duke, after all?
He laughed gently at his own thought and turned the animal out of the estate, toward the parkland beyond.
This morning routine he found helped him these days. The regularity of it, the perfection of going out on the same day and doing the same ride sat well within his heart. It brought him rhythm, and it was a rhythm he liked very much. Sitting tall in the saddle and adjusting his top hat so that it sat at the perfect angle on his head, he turned the grey steed to ride far from the drive and head down toward the parkland estate that stretched beyond.
When a path opened out into the public parkland, he angled his horse onto his usual path. The birds in the nearby trees chirped and hastened off. In the distance, he could hear the ducks landing in water, showing he was not far from the nearby river. Turning the horse’s nose toward this second path, he angled himself to the river.
Seeing he was not alone today, he slowed the pace of the horse. Clearing his throat, he adjusted his cravat a little more and the sleeves of his jacket.
Everything must be just so…
Curving along the side of the river, he found a group of ladies and gentlemen, ready for their promenade.
“Good morning.” He tipped his hat to them all, fully aware of the way all their eyes danced across him. The ladies admired him and fluttered their eyelashes beneath their bonnets. He didn’t doubt they did it just because they knew he was a duke. The gentleman stared too, possibly because of the fineness of the animal or his clothes, he wasn’t sure.
Urging the steed ahead again, he took a darker path through the parkland.
Routine, rhythm, this will help me prepare for the day.
This path was somewhat swathed by trees. Few people walked down here, especially this early in the morning. Most days, Anthony had the run of the forest to himself. He could quite easily happily trot down this road and not have to tip his hat to anything but the birds that would flutter past him.
That’s why the sound of a second horse startled him so much.
Jerking his head to the side, Anthony felt his dark hair dance across his forehead. He reached up and tucked away those tendrils so that they were hidden beneath the top hat as he searched for this other horse.
He could hear the thuds of the galloping hooves, heavy and fast. Someone was riding at such a great speed, somewhere, that it was as if the fire of hell was at their heels.
Feeling the brush of wind whipping past him, Anthony flicked round in the saddle.
He saw the green leaves of the nearby trees dance, rippled by the energy of the other rider that had chosen not to take the path but carve their own through the trees.
“What the…” Anthony trailed off. He had seen no more of this rider other than the black hair of the horse then they were gone through the thicket of trees once again.
Something must be wrong, gravely wrong, for why else would someone have cause to ride like that?
Anthony rode on though he picked up the pace a little, at all times keeping to his path. He kept angling forward in his saddle, upsetting the line of his top hat on his brow, as he searched for this other rider. They had disappeared completely from view.
Anthony sighed and sat back in the saddle. He was just beginning to think the whole incident had been a wild imagining when it happened again.
“Look out!” a voice cried.
He turned round in the saddle to see the rider coming past him. They appeared from the tree line in front of him, cutting into the path and then leaving again on the other side, ending up back in the trees.
“God’s wounds!” Anthony had to pull harshly on his reins to stop his steed from being spooked and bolting.
His gaze shot across the rider, barely getting a glimpse of her before she was gone again.
It was unmistakably a woman. She was riding in the trees nearby again, wearing a dark navy cloak that was fastened tightly at her shoulders, yet it billowed behind her in the wind that she was creating from galloping. It revealed the gown beneath, a pastel blue. It was her hair that was the most noticeable though, for she had not worn it up.
Scandalous. What lady would go out in such a way?
Her hair was madly curled with brown wisps flying in the wind.
“My Lady? My Lady!” Anthony found himself calling to her. He could feel it in his gut. Something had to be very wrong to make a woman ride so fast through the park and to wear her hair in such a state.
He rode forward again. This time, he dared to gallop, pushing the horse harder though, still, he kept to the path, never once straying from it.
For a second, he thought he lost the mysterious rider. Her dark horse disappeared through the thicket of lush greens and dark branches then he caught sight of those mad curls through a tree full of blossom petals, so he darted forward again.
It took some time to catch up with her. Anthony was forced to bend down over the neck of his steed and pull his top hat lower than usual over his brow in order not to lose it. When his horse drew level with hers, she appeared once again in the path.
“Oh, my goodness!” she squealed, nearly colliding her horse with his own, for she had clearly not seen him properly through the trees nor expected him to be so nearby. Anthony was forced to jerk on the reins of his animal, pulling the grey to a harsh stop as the lady appeared directly in front of him. “I did not think you would ride so fast.” She laughed heartily and tipped her head back, revealing an unrestrained smile.
Anthony flinched at the sight of it. He could not remember seeing a woman laugh with such abandon before.
“Is all well?” he asked, plainly panicked.
“Well?” She seemed confused, lowering her head enough for him to have a proper look at her face.
He was struck, instantly. They were brown, he could see that at this distance, for they were so large in her face, dominating the rosy cheeks and broad smile.
“Forgive me.” He tried to look away from her, down at her horse.
A gentleman should not stare. I know that.
“To see a lady ride like that, and in your state, of course, I presumed something must be wrong.” He motioned toward her. “I know I am but a stranger, but please, I will help if I can.”
“My state?” She seemed puzzled with her brows furrowed together then relaxed as she giggled once again. Lifting her hand to her lips to cover the breadth of that laugh, Anthony noticed something else about this mysterious woman.
She is not wearing riding gloves.
He didn’t doubt the coarseness of the leather reins would be cutting into the palms of her hands, perhaps even grazing her, but she didn’t appear to have noticed this.
“When you refer to my state, you must be referring to this?” She passed a hand through the curls of her hair. Something happened inside of Anthony at that touch.
For a second, he could imagine himself doing the same thing, weaving his hands through that hair.
What has happened to me?
“Tell me, stranger,” she said with something of a mischievous smile upon her wide lips, “is it so scandalous to not wear one’s hair in a chignon?”
His horse pranced forward a step until they were face to face with their horses’ noses nearly touching. His horse snorted whilst the other one whinnied as if greeting one another.
“Well…” Anthony didn’t answer right away. He watched as the lady gestured to his own hand.
“I warrant you do not wear your hair in a chignon or some other fancy updo each day. Therefore, why should I?”
“This was not a conversation I was expecting.” Anthony laughed a little before controlling himself, staring at the lady again.
They were in quite a secluded part of the forest now. The leaves were close in around them, and the pollen too danced in the air, appearing like dust that hovered in the streaks of sunlight that streamed between the trees. The lady brushed away some of the pollen from her face as she returned her focus to him.
“I came to ascertain you were well, My Lady,” he explained, trying to be serious and return the conversation to something he was more used to.
“Perfectly.” The lady shrugged as if there was nothing wrong in the world.
“But you were riding as if…” He trailed off and waved a mad hand to the path he had just come down.
“As if…?” she encouraged him to finish, raising her eyebrows as she did so.
“As if a madman were chasing you,” he said with vigor. “Or something dreadful had befallen.”
“Dreadful?” She shook her head, her smile falling from her face. “It is a kindness, stranger, for you to worry for me so, but you need not fear. I do not ride like this because of something dreadful. I ride for my own amusement.”
Anthony felt as if the wind had been taken from him. He cocked his head to the side, analyzing the lady a little more. When his top hat nearly fell off, he reached up, planting it down firmly.
“Oh, dear,” she said, pretending to be aghast. “Have I offended you? I hope I have not. It was not my intention, after all.”
“I just do not understand.” He shook his head once more. “You were rather destroying the peace.” He was startled to see his words amused her, and she laughed again.
“Who rides for peace? I certainly do not.” With these words, she turned the horse, angling in the other direction though she didn’t ride away quite yet. Instead, she glanced back at him with those bold eyes pinning him to the spot. “Is that what you ride for, stranger? For peace.”
“Undoubtedly.” He found his words came out rather deeper than he had expected. His eyes were darting over her countenance now, taking in more of her. There was a leaf trapped in her hair though she didn’t appear to have noticed, and there was dirt upon her cloak.
Surely, she is not a lady from the ton to ride and be like this in public?
Yet the gown he could glimpse beneath her cloak suggested that she very much was.
“Are you a lady of the ton?” he asked, unable to keep in his curiosity. She trotted forward a few steps. Determined not to lose her, he hurried the grey to ride alongside her, glad this time she had chosen a much slower pace.
“What would that matter?” she asked, glancing at him in such a way that he abruptly felt guilty for asking.
Was that a bad thing to ask?
“I did not mean anything by it. Simply that it is not normal for a young lady…” he trailed off again. Anthony shifted his gloved hands on his reins, frustrated at himself. He was usually so confident of what to say, yet in this moment, he was so befuddled by this lady’s appearance, he found he did not know what to say at all.
“Oh, do not feel you must finish the sentence, stranger,” she said and tilted her head forward, turning those dark eyes on the path down the road. “I know very well what most gentlemen and ladies would say to see a lady riding in such a way. I hardly care to hear what they think, I am afraid.” She shifted her focus back toward him. “The fact your jaw has nearly landed on your poor steed’s head shows me how much I have surprised you.”
She was clearly amused, pointing at his expression. Anthony closed his slackened jaw, struggling for words once again.
“It is just not something one comes across every day.”
“And you come here every day, do you?” she asked.
“Well, yes.” His words made her pull the horse to a sudden stop.
“Every day?” she repeated, her eyes so wide he found it rather difficult to look away.
“Why is that so amazing?”
“Would you never wish to ride your horse elsewhere, stranger?”
“I am happy as I am.” Anthony shifted his hold on the reins once again, discomforted by this conversation. As intrigued as he was by this mysterious woman, he was considering turning and riding his horse away, perhaps outriding her with speed.
When was the last time I rode my horse with such abandon?
“Ah, then I can see why my appearance this morning might have upset someone who likes a certain amount of routine.” The words she had chosen made him jerk the horse forward a step.
I like my routine.
“Care for a race, stranger?” she asked, gesturing ahead to the path. “We could alter your routine for one day.”
“A race? No, I could not say yes.” He couldn’t help smiling, feeling tempted by it. There was something quite scandalous about seeing the lady ride with abandon as he had done seconds ago. He knew he shouldn’t want to, but something in his gut rather liked the idea of seeing her ride in such a way again.
“Whyever not? Are you fearful a lady could beat you in a race?” she asked, moving her horse so that they were standing side by side as if a starting line were in front of them.
“That is not what I said.”
“Is it what you thought?” When he didn’t answer her, she laughed again. “I thought as much.” He smiled too.
This was not what I was expecting from this morning.
“One race, stranger?” she asked, holding up her finger. “Then I promise to leave you alone.”
“One race? Perhaps. What does the winner get?”
“Oh, pride alone, I would not wager anything more.” She turned her head forward. “The first one to reach that fence on the far side of this path. What do you say?”
He looked ahead, scarcely able to see the path from where they were.
“Very well. On three?”
“Two…” He couldn’t help joining in the count.
“Three!” She leapt ahead on three, and Anthony hastened to follow behind her.
The beginning of the race was hurried and relentless. He had not expected the lady to go off with so much vigor, and he was forced to adapt his position. He could no longer sit in the saddle, but he had to ride with his feet in the stirrups, and his body lifted, bent over the head of the horse.
When did I last ride like this?
He couldn’t remember feeling the wind in this way, making his top hat slip back on his head, and ripple his clothes. Nor could he remember this sort of thrill.
She streaked ahead. It didn’t seem to matter how much Anthony urged on the grey that had cost him so much money. Together, he and the steed could not match the mysterious lady and her black horse. The two pulled far ahead.
Anthony urged the grey on more, whipping the reins, but his top hat slid completely off his head and fell to the ground.
They were reaching the edge of the race now. With the fence in view, Anthony was ready to slow down so that he did not collide with the fence.
“You win, My Lady!” he called after her as he pulled on the horse’s reins. Yet, she didn’t slow. If anything, she sped up. “My Lady!” Anthony felt the fear rise as if his heart had leapt into his throat then he watched, jaw agape again, as the lady made her steed jump.
The two of them together leapt the fence at the end of the path. They landed in the field beyond, easily. Never had they been in danger of scraping the fence at all.
Anthony froze, staring after the lady as she turned her horse round and smiled at him over the fence line.
“I have won my pride, I see,” she said with victory and a wide smile. “I hope you will not doubt the skills of a lady when it comes to riding again, stranger.” With these final words, she turned her horse, laughing jovially once again, then she was gone.
She rode with equal freedom as she had done before, cutting across an open field to another line of trees beyond. He watched her go, unsure what to say or think, rather startled by the way her mad hair still danced behind her.
Only when she was gone from sight did he turn back to amble along the path again. Finding his top hat, he jumped down at the side of the horse and picked up the hat. The beaver fur was dampened by dirt and mottled by dust. He did his best to knock off the dirt, knowing exactly what his mother would say at such a sight.
“It is not becoming of a duke, is it? To bear such dirt upon you.”
Yet Anthony could not dwell on the thought. His eyes were back on the field and the very spot where the lady had disappeared.
He had this urge to return home to his paints. He had never painted anything less than perfection before, but now, a new idea made him curious.
What would it be like to paint a lady so unbound by propriety?