Hunter Westbrook rode as if the devil was chasing him. Chestnut locks flew around his face and his moss green eyes were bright with sheer exhilaration. The muscles in his thighs were strained as he urged the stallion forward, a rush of adrenaline coursing through him. There was, he thought, nothing in the world as thrilling as racing the wind atop his favorite stallion. Except, perhaps, racing against Filly Barrett.
“You are a scoundrel!”
Beside him Filly pushed her mare harder, trying to gain the lead. If she were any other woman Hunter would have let her win, but he had never eased up when racing Filly. He would be damned if he would start now. Her blonde hair was glowing in the sunlight and the long braid she kept it in bounced against her back. Loosening the reins on her horse, Filly’s laughter filled the air, and she pulled ahead of him. Despite his annoyance at the loss of his lead, Hunter smiled. Her love of racing rivaled his own and he could not help but enjoy her excitement. With a smirk, she looked back to him.
“You and your horse are getting too old for racing, I think!”
Hunter’s smile instantly turned sour and, to prove her wrong, he released his reins altogether and allowed Midnight to run as free as the stallion would dare. Their finishing line came into sight and with one glorious movement, Midnight took the lead and Hunter found himself victorious. As the two finally settled their horses, Hunter tossed a grin over to his companion.
“Not bad for an old man, I would say.”
Filly pouted her lips at him but he could see the amusement in her eyes.
“Being as you are leaving me tomorrow, you could have at least let me win one race.”
The horses needed rest and he quickly dismounted Midnight and went to assist her. She hated when he tried to help her from her mare but, as he was now blocking her from dismounting on her own, she had little choice but to accept his help. He looked up to her with a grin.
“You would not enjoy my company nearly as much if I let you win.”
“It is my birthday as well, you know.”
Hunter was about to respond with his usual annoying wit, but at that moment his hands came around Filly’s waist and a jolt of awareness seemed to soar through him. He did not know how it happened, but with that one touch, he was suddenly aware that Filly was everything he needed. It was such a strange and unexpected feeling, and he lost all thought.
Filly’s whole life revolved around her stud. When she was young, it was amusing. Having no female influence in her life, Filly grew up almost as if she were a man. Right down to the way she dressed. He had never seen her in anything other than breeches and men’s shirts. She always wore a man’s cap and most people, upon meeting her, mistook her for a stable lad.
As he lowered her to the ground, though, he was suddenly very aware that she was a woman. Before his father had passed, he had often warned Hunter that love had many ways of revealing itself. Filly had been in his life for so long he would never have imagined she would be the woman to capture his heart. Yet here he was. Completely shocked and completely in love. With his best friend. Who was staring at him entirely perplexed.
“Are you alright? You look a bit pale.”
He cleared his throat but when his eyes met the startling blue of hers, he forgot how to speak again. Had her eyes always been so lovely? Wide, blue and sparkling from the exhilaration of the ride. How had he never noticed how beautiful they were? As he stared at her, concern reached them.
Shaking his head, Hunter desperately grasped for something to say.
“Have you always had blue eyes?”
Filly now looked at him like he was daft.
“Since I was born, Hunter. What has gotten into you?”
He blushed. He could feel it. Hunter had never blushed before. He was certain of it. Then, to make it all worse, she pressed her soft hand to his cheek and brow. He could not imagine how her hands remained so soft with all the work she did on the stud. But her touch was so gentle.
“Do you have a fever? Maybe we should go back.”
Hunter took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“I am fine. Come, the horses need rest. I think the sun has just gotten to me. We can go sit under our tree and I will be right as rain.”
She looked at him one more time and shrugged.
“If you are sure. I mean…I know you are getting old now. Perhaps the rides out here are getting to be too much for you.”
A slow smile came to her lips and Hunter hastily looked away from them. The last thing he needed was to start thinking about her lips.
“As you just stated, today is actually your birthday. You are the only one getting older here.”
They began to settle in the grass beneath an old oak tree. The routine had become so comfortable. The race. The heartfelt talks under their favorite tree. The way they always made fun of each other. For the first time Hunter realized that this was the future he wanted forever. They had already started such a wonderful life together and neither had been aware of it. Until today. Hunter inwardly groaned. The desire to lean over and kiss her was almost impossible to resist. He longed to do so.
But this was Filly. A woman who had no interest in marriage. She had no interest in doing anything that was typical of a woman, for that matter. Hunter knew that he could not just profess his love for her. The time was not yet right. Patience, he thought. That is what he really needed. There were still some obstacles he would have to sort through before he could truly think about pursuing her.
Filly twirled a piece of grass through her fingers and sighed.
“I cannot possible see what London can hold that is beautiful as this field.”
Hunter’s eyes did not leave her.
“Although London does not have anything as beautiful as what is in my vision right now, it does hold my family. With my sister Aria coming out this season, it is important that I be there. This will be the first season we return to London since our parents passed on.”
Filly met his gaze and smiled warmly.
“Yes, of course. I know you need to go, I just dislike when you are not here.”
Hunter wished that she missed him because she loved him. He knew she did not. There were simply not many people who understood Filly in Newmarket. She was far too unusual for most to befriend. Reaching out to her, he took her hand in his and squeezed it.
“I will miss you every moment I am gone.”
Filly looked to him for a moment and then burst out laughing.
“Good Lord. False flattery may get you far in London but you cannot possibly believe I would entertain such nonsense. I really think the sun must be getting to you. Are you sure you are not getting ill?”
Hunter sighed and realized the first thing he needed was to make sure it was his brother who found himself a wife this season. Right now, there was a good chance Storm would remain a bachelor and Hunter would be the one to inherit the dukedom. Filly may be unusual here, but at least she was accepted. She could never have a life in London. Hunter knew he could not attempt to seek a future with her until his brother got married. Then he would sire an heir to pass the title to and Hunter would never have to worry about the title getting passed on to him. Releasing her hand, he lay back, defeated, hands behind his head.
“At least while I am gone you can practice your riding skills in hopes that you will win a race when I return.”
This earned him a lovely scowl and Hunter inwardly groaned. How on earth was a scowl lovely? If his brother did not get married soon, Hunter was sure he would go mad by the time he did. There was, he knew, only so much patience a man in love could have.