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Odds On the Rake
Author: Sofie Darling


Chapter One



Suffolk, England, March 1822


Gemma squinted up at the time-beaten sign swinging above the coaching inn’s entrance, shoulder braced against her brother’s heavier weight, and couldn’t help marveling that months of running had led them here—an inn called The Drunken Piebald located in the nether regions of Suffolk.

It wasn’t the name of the inn that put her off, but rather the knowing smirk on the horse’s mouth as he held up a tankard in jolly toast.

Unnerving, that horse’s smile.

“Whoever heard of a drunk horse, anyway?” she said to make light conversation for her brother whose face was stretched into a pained grimace.

Liam gave a dry snort. “Old Featheringham gives his Thoroughbreds biscuits and canary wine on race day.” He winced as she carefully maneuvered him across the inn’s threshold. “Watch how you go, sister,” he groused under his breath, a bead of sweat running down his cheek.

In the cramped receiving area, the fug of the inn’s taproom met them full in the face—spirits gone sour and ale gone stale mixed with the sweat of unwashed bodies, both past and present. It was a smell Gemma and Liam had come to know well over the last year as they’d moved from one inn or stable loft after the other.

They never stayed long in one place. It was how they hadn’t been caught.

But soon that life would be behind them.

Soon, they would be able to plant their feet in one place—which was what had brought them to Suffolk.

Liam frowned and attempted to ease a measure of his weight off Gemma as she swiped the perspiration from her brow. Hobbling around with a brother whose leg was broken above the knee presented more difficulty than she’d expected, truth told.

From his place behind a high oak desk, the cool-eyed innkeeper of The Drunken Piebald sat, unmoved and unmoving, and observed the two strange auburn-haired brothers as they approached step by shuffling step.

How much more askance would he be viewing them if he only knew the scrawny brother with two good legs was, in fact, a sister.

Well, he wouldn’t know.

Gemma had long since discovered that was what trousers, chest binding, and a slouch hat were for.

Still, if she’d been dressed as a woman, he would’ve been left with no choice but to assist them. But two lads staying in the cheapest room on the ground floor? They were left to get on beneath their own steam.

She dug into the pocket of her dull brown coat and pulled out a pouch, which gave a muted clank when it hit the oak surface.

“Half, as agreed,” said Liam through gritted teeth, as if the words cost him more than what was in that pouch.

He always spoke for them, making it easier for Gemma to pass without much notice in public places. Tonight, a light sheen of sweat coated skin that had paled with the journey up from London. He needed to lie down.

“And the other half at the end of the month,” he finished.

The innkeeper’s mouth widened incrementally—what passed for a smile on those thin, stingy lips, Gemma supposed—as he tested the weight of the purse before peering into its contents. Satisfied, he nodded and tucked it away.

The tension in Gemma’s shoulders released an increment. One obstacle overcome. The Drunken Piebald was the nearest inn to where they needed to be—and the cheapest.

The innkeeper swept around the front desk. “If you’ll follow me,” sounded in his wake, the syllables as clipped and efficient as his feet.

Gemma and Liam met one another’s gazes with lifted eyebrows. They didn’t need much more than that to communicate. It had ever been so since they’d emerged from their Mam’s womb seven minutes apart—Gemma being the elder, as she liked to remind her brother when he needed it.

“You’d think he was paying us,” muttered Liam as Gemma dug a shoulder beneath his armpit.

“Ready?” she asked, the weight of his long, lanky person settling onto her slighter form, though she was lanky too. Lanky enough she could pass for a lad of seventeen years.

“Toward the promise of a bed?” he asked, hobbling forward. “Aye.”

One six-inch step at a time, they negotiated their way through the cramped foyer. “It’ll be hard and lumpy, you know,” she said, again trying for lightness.

He snorted. “Not anything I’m not already used to.”

Now, it was Gemma who snorted.

Liam wasn’t complaining—and neither was she. They might be sleeping on hard, lumpy beds, but they were living a life of their own forging.

What were a few hard, lumpy beds compared to that?

Through the near-empty taproom they shambled, one unbalanced step after another toward a—blessedly—short corridor, at the end of which stood the innkeeper with an exasperated frown, room key grudgingly extended. He seemed to be having second thoughts about accommodating this motley duo of lads. Gemma snatched the key away before he could change his mind.

“If that will be all,” said the innkeeper as he pushed around them, the words trailing in his wake.

Left alone, Liam lifted a single, silent eyebrow, and Gemma inhaled a chirrup of laughter as, together, they took in the room. A single, narrow bed filled one corner, the stand for a jug and washbasin the other. A table and chair were positioned beneath what looked to be a sizeable window. Thank goodness for small miracles as that pane of glass would provide Liam’s only view beyond these four walls for the next month.

“Ah, blessed bed,” he said, crossing the distance on a few short hops before lowering himself and swinging first his good leg onto the hard, lumpy surface, and then the broken leg more gingerly.

The surgeon had told him he’d been lucky the fall from the Thoroughbred hadn’t broken the bone clean through. From what the man had been able to tell by pressing and digging into the wound with his fingers, the bone was fractured, which still needed ample time to heal, but Liam wouldn’t be permanently lamed—as long as he stayed off it and didn’t injure it further. A directive that Gemma had been struggling to enforce.

While Liam settled upright onto the bed, Gemma got to the business of transforming the room into her brother’s home for the foreseeable future. She dragged the jug and washbasin stand to position it within easy reach. Same went for the chamber pot beneath the bed. All he’d have to do was lean over to reach it.

Liam was tall for a jockey. Everyone commented on it, but still he’d been making a name for himself as a rider with his sensitive hands and light touch with the bit. Until he’d been thrown from one particularly surly beast and landed at an angle just wrong enough to break his leg.

Wrong enough to nearly break every single one of their dreams.

Except Gemma wasn’t about to let that happen.

So, they’d journeyed to the wilds of Suffolk anyway—to be near the Duke of Rakesley’s famed racing estate, Somerton, as they were being paid to do. Even though Liam couldn’t exactly try for a jockey position in Rakesley’s stables with a broken leg.

It was a problem.

But not an insurmountable one.

Gemma was determined.

She dragged the room’s only chair next to the bed and took a seat. “All set?” she asked.

“As much as I can be,” her brother groused, shifting his bottom an inch this way, then that, until he eventually settled. His gaze landed on Gemma, and a stubborn light entered his eyes—one she’d come to know well this past week. She readied herself for a battle.

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