Anna squinted as the afternoon sun burned the sod on the large oval track. Her fingers clenched the railing of her father’s box as the horses flew around the last turn. A big brown colt surged just at the end and won by a neck. She released the rail and turned toward new guests gathering for the final race, the Landseer Cup.
One more race and then it was her turn. She quit gnawing on the inside of her cheek as an ache moved to her chest. The start drew closer with every thump of her heart. This race was the beginning of a new life for the Princess of Sutherland. This was where she proved her worth. She would be next to her brother, leading knights and men, not sitting around like a stupid court ornament.
Today she would silence the sneers of her father’s advisor, Seamus. Even her father would see her as more than a little girl. They would take note as she rode Farley, the young stallion no man had been able to tame. Anna would not only ride him, she would win as Farley ran all those smug men into the ground. Her lips lifted into a slight smile at the thought of it. She drank the rest of her punch and set her glass on a servant’s tray. It would be her first day of respect.
The air buzzed with the low rumble of people finding their seats. Women flapped their fans and exclaimed at the heat. Men exchanged last minute coins before the horses stepped on the track to run for the ultimate prize—the golden Landseer Cup. A rowdier crowd gathered at the rails and men downed large mugs of ale. The tangy scent of it drifted upward and turned her stomach. She wished she had worn a dress that didn’t cut into her waist.
Anna glanced down at the oval turf once again. Horses pranced onto the track for the next to last race with gleaming coats and flashy jockey’s colors on their backs. Flags emblazoned with Sunderland’s seal—a bright orange flame set against a white mountain—flapped above the riders’ heads. It was almost time to go.
The man next to her interrupted Anna’s thoughts.
“Anna, you have an eye for horses. Do you think Prince Lewis will win the Cup again?” asked Count Jadran. “His horses are always fast, but I was honestly hoping someone from Sunderland would win this year.” He nodded back toward her father’s seats. It was no secret winning this race was a conquest the king had never achieved.
“Lewis is hard to bet against,” Anna said, the color rising in her cheeks. “But you never know, we might have a trick up our sleeves this year.”
He raised an eyebrow. “A trick?”
“I heard at the stables there might be a last minute entry. A desert horse, I think, but running for Sunderland.” She flicked her eyes toward the stables where she had snuck Farley in before dawn. She should be on her way by now.
“Who told you that?” His voice softened.
“Some stable boys, but you know how they talk.” Anna shrugged while beads of sweat trickled down her neck. Jadran was a perfect gentleman. She always liked the honest way the skin crinkled at the corner of his eyes when he smiled. She didn’t mind giving him a betting tip, but she was running out of time. Go away, Count Jadran.
Jadran nodded, jingling gold coins in his hands.
“Your father needs a win. I hope he gets it today.” He sauntered toward the betting table, and Anna exhaled her relief. She would get her father the win and pull him out of the twelve-year pit he’s been in, ever since her mother died. He would be proud when Farley won. He would laugh. He would embrace her. He would send Seamus away. Or it could make matters worse. She shook her head, pushing the doubts back down.
Her heart skipped a beat when some of the horses left their stalls. Grooms and riders scurried around them. Anna’s stomach dropped. The time had come. She glanced at her father who was chatting with the royal court and flicked her fan in front of her nose. Her older brother, Stefan, the crown prince, was dashing in his dress-hunting tunic and surrounded by three young ladies eyeing for his attention.
“I need a little air,” she said to no one in particular and slipped to the back of the landing while the crowd moved forward. No one seemed to notice as she crept down the stairs.
Anna fanned herself as she walked toward the stable, trying to cover her face as much as possible.
I have to at least try. She started to sweat and knew it wasn’t from the heat. Anna stopped by the entry office and gave the official the papers and the money to run. The man raised his eyebrows in surprise, but handed Anna her number, nine.
“The horse’s name?”