"Good Lord, she's lovely!" Christian Atherton murmured, his accent carrying the undiluted, polished tones of a British public-school student. As he came to attention his shoulders pulled back beneath the fine wool of his navy jacket. His square chin came up a notch above his neatly knotted maroon tie, emphasizing the classic lines of his lean face. In response to the tensing of his muscles his horse shifted restively beneath him.
His attention was locked on the young woman riding into the show ring to collect a blue ribbon. He'd been a connoisseur of women for nearly twenty-two years, ever since the summer he'd turned thirteen and the gardener's daughter had suddenly developed breasts. The lady he had his eye on now was well worth a long look.
"Who is she?"
"Where have you been? Living in a cave?" drawled Robert Braddock, his voice as rich and Southern as pecan pie. His wide mouth cut upward in a sharp, handsome smile. He leaned lazily against the pommel of his saddle, showing none of the form that had made him one of the top hunter-jumper trainers in Virginia at the tender age of twenty-seven.
"Close," Christian said dryly. "I've just spent three weeks in England at the family mausoleum, better known as Westerleigh Manor. Uncle Richard passed away."
Braddock's manners asserted themselves, and he straightened in his saddle out of respect for the dead. "I'm sorry, Chris."
"Don't be." Christian grinned at his friend and rival, a brilliant square white smile that made him look exactly what he was—handsome, aristocratic, and a bit of a rake. "Uncle Dicky was ninety-seven. He drank like a fish, drove like a maniac, and die—er—in the saddle, so to speak. He had a wonderful life and a pleasant passing. We should all be so lucky."
His neon-blue eyes took on a slightly wistful expression, and the glittering good humor that usually resided there faded momentarily as he sighed. Uncle Dicky was dead. The stuffy Athertons were down to one black sheep—him.
"Alexandra Gianni," Braddock said, answering Christian's original question. "Cold as a pump handle on a January morning," he added in ill-disguised disgust.
"Turned you down, did she?" Christian said dryly, arching a brow.
"She's been here three weeks and has managed to say one word to every fella who's asked her out--no."
"Well, that just shows she has good taste and sound judgment."
"I suppose you think you can do better?"
"Please," Christian drawled disdainfully. "Of course I could do better. Admit it, Braddock, you've won your share of dim-witted stable girls, but you're simply not in my league."
"You pompous ass," Braddock said with a good-natured grin. "I'll bet you don't get anywhere with her either. You might be the Casanova of the show-jumping world, but this lady would give the iceberg that sank the Titanic a run for its money."
Christian's speculative gaze settled again on Alexandra Gianni. She didn't look the ice-maiden type to him. With her olive complexion and dark eyes, her unruly short black hair and lush mouth, she looked more like the hot, feisty type. Tempestuous. The type to stand toe-to-toe with a man in a fight and rake her nails down his back in bed.
Braddock turned and grinned at him suddenly. "How much do you want to bet?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Put your money where your mouth is, Romeo," he challenged. "I'll bet you a hundred dollars you can't get her to go with you to Hayden Hill's big bash before the Green Hills Jumper Classic."
Christian barked a laugh of surprise that startled his horse. The thoroughbred danced beneath him, and he quieted the gelding with a hand on the horse's neck, never taking his eyes off Braddock. "That's more than a month away! Have you developed a sudden yearning for poverty?"
"You forget, my friend," Braddock said slyly. "I've spoken with the lady. I have firsthand experience and the frostbite to prove it. A hundred says she won't go with you."
Christian considered the outrageous wager for a moment. It appealed to the reckless rogue in him, the quality that made his stiff-necked family shake their heads in disappointment. He thought of what Uncle Dicky would have done, and grinned. "Make it a thousand and it's a deal."
Braddock's dark eyes glowed with delight and greed. "You've got yourself a bet, my friend."Chapter Two
"Good job, honey," Tully Haskell said in parting.
Alex murmured a thank-you and turned toward the stalls she had rented for the day. She jumped and gasped when the man patted her fanny, but when she wheeled to glare at him, he was calmly walking away as if what he'd done hadn't been the least bit out of line.
Alex stood in the aisle, fuming for a moment, then turned to stare pensively at the stalls of her two star performers, both owned by Haskell. A Touch of Dutch, the sweet-tempered mare she'd just won on, and Terminator, an arrogant, ill-mannered lout—not unlike his owner. That was the world in a nutshell. Females were meek and malleable, and males took what they wanted.
Everything inside Alex tightened against the memory that tried to surface. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought it with every scrap of willpower she had, succeeding only in fighting back the images themselves, not the feelings they evoked. Her muscles tensed until she was trembling.
When a large male hand settled on her shoulder, she didn't think, didn't question, didn't turn to confront. She simply reacted as she had been trained to react. A second later Christian Atherton lay sprawled on the cobbled floor at her feet.
Alex stared, wide-eyed, aghast at what she'd just done. She had just heaved the three-time American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year over her shoulder. She had just slammed to the floor one of the most highly regarded people in her profession.
"Oh, no . . ." Her groan mingled with his. She slapped a hand to her forehead and cursed herself in rapid Italian.
Christian sat up gingerly, wincing at the stinging pain in his shoulders and back. He'd been thrown from horses with less force. Shaking his head to clear it, he looked up at Alexandra Gianni with a stunned expression. Petite, dainty Alexandra Gianni, who stood no more than five feet five.
"I say, are you a former commando or something?"
"I'm sorry," Alex whispered, too mortified to speak any louder. She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut again, wishing the scene would disappear by the time she opened them.
This was no way to build a favorable reputation in Virginia, she scolded herself. Flinging influential people around was not going to win her friends or respect. She had learned to live without the first, but the second was essential.
She put a hand over her eyes and peeked cautiously through her fingers. Christian was still sitting on the stable floor. He had taken up a relaxed pose, with one knee drawn up and an arm draped across it. He stared down the corridor at the half-dozen people staring back at him, a look of annoyance drawing his brows together and twisting his handsome mouth. His champagne blond hair fell rakishly across his forehead. All in all, he looked damned sexy.
Alex imagined he looked that way regardless. Her heart was pounding, and she knew it had little to do with the exertion of throwing him over her shoulder. She could have told herself it was because he had startled her. She could have told herself it had nothing to do with the fact that Christian Atherton was even better looking in person than he was on the glossy pages of the horse magazines. She could have told herself those things, but they would have been lies.
"I'm really so sorry," she mumbled in an agony of embarrassment.
"So you said. Do you always go about throwing chaps to the ground, or was I singled out?" he questioned, his cultured tone martini dry.
"You snuck up on me!" Alex said accusingly, tossing her hands up, then grabbing them back against her as if she were trying to recapture and subdue her emotional outburst. She looked more guilty for having openly reacted than for hurling Christian to the cobblestones. Taking a calming breath, she composed herself and said, "You shouldn't have snuck up on me."
"I see." Christian's brows rose and fell. There was a whole passel of odd mysteries to decipher just in her action and reaction. He shook his head again. "Well, I've always known better than to approach a horse from behind. I guess I should add women to that rule of thumb as well."
"I'm really very sorry," Alex said, contrite again, holding out a hand to help him up.
Christian eyed her hand dubiously. "I'm not sure I should accept that," he said dryly. "Do you promise not to twist my arm behind my back and slam me face first into a post?"
Alex couldn't help but laugh in both relief and humor. He was taking it better than most men would have. She had humiliated him in front of his peers, and he was looking up at her with twinkling blue eyes and a wry, self-deprecating smile.
Her own smile faded as she realized how easily he had breached her mental defenses with that infamous grin of his. Professionally, he would be a very good man to befriend. Personally, he would be a very dangerous man for her to be around.
"I'll be on my best behavior," she promised soberly.
"That may not be saying very much," Christian teased, taking hold of her small hand. "But I guess I'll have to trust you."
He rose gracefully to his feet, somehow managing not to look rumpled in the least. Not even his maroon nec...