“I do not need the accolade, Blackwell,” she said gently. “I do not need any of it. I have won. The crowd knows it, you know it, and I know it to be true. I have won the Gold Cup. That is more than enough for my heart.”
Matthew felt his irritation begin to die away, seeing the look in her eyes and hearing the gentleness of her voice, but yet something within him began to turn against what the gentleman had said. He wanted Lady Wells to see just how many people were in awe of what she had done, of what she had achieved. He did not want her to turn away, as content as she might be within herself. He wanted her to see the crowd cheering for her, to feel that sheer joy in her heart.
“No,” he murmured, putting one hand over hers. “No, Lady Wells. It is not right for you to be treated so. Let me set things to right.”
The official began to stammer again, perhaps believing that Matthew was about to demand that Lady Wells be a part of the official presentation, but Matthew ignored him completely. Moving away from Lady Wells, away from Beauchamp and the official, he turned to face the crowd and spread his arms wide.
“You have seen a magnificent race today!” he began, bellowing loudly until finally, some of the crowd began to turn towards him. Looking to the grandstand, he saw Lord Brighton and Lord Richardson began to shush those about them, clearly wanting to hear what he had to say.
“You have seen a victor come forth,” Matthew continued, knowing full well that he would, most likely, lose his voice by the time he came to the end of his speech. “My jockey has proven to you all that a woman can ride just as well as a gentleman and, in this case, even better than a gentleman!” This statement was met with a few groans, a few mutters of disapproval but, mostly, loud cheers that made Matthew’s heart rise with pride. “She is magnificent,” he shouted, gesturing towards Lady Wells and seeing how she ducked her head, clearly a little embarrassed. “She rode better than anyone here today. Beauchamp, my horse, responds to her in a way that he does to no other. I cannot help but be filled with pride. My jockey has won!”
The crowd exploded with cheers and applause, and Matthew, a grin on his face, turned to the official and gestured for him to hand the winnings and the Gold Cup to Lady Wells. The gentleman clearly did not want to do so, but with a quick glance towards the crowd soon realized that he did not have any other choice. Without a word, without complaint, but also without a smile, he took the bag and the cup from the small boy and, with hasty steps, hurried towards Lady Wells. Handing them to her without ceremony, he jerked his head in a brief nod before turning on his heel to scurry away. Matthew’s anger burned but with an effort, he dampened the flames. The roar of the crowd as Lady Wells looked down at what she now held lifted his spirits, making his chest swell with pride as she turned her eyes to his, seeing how they had flared with wonder.
“Your champion!” he yelled, clapping wildly as the crowd’s roar swelled the air again, their thunderous applause and cheers and whoops of delight making Lady Wells face – what he could see of it at least — flush bright red.
“My champion,” he said to her, as he came close enough for her to hear him over the crowd. “Listen to that noise, Catherine. They are cheering for you. They are applauding for you. You deserve all of this and more, my dear. You are the victor. You are the champion. You are completely and utterly magnificent.”
Her eyes spilled over with tears, dampening the
kerchief as she reached out her hand to his. He held it tightly, prouder than he could express. The Gold Cup was not anything of importance to him any longer. Instead, it was the sheer happiness in Lady Wells’ eyes that filled his heart. She had fulfilled a dream she had never allowed herself to hope for and came out as the champion of one of the most important races of the year. He hoped she would never forget this moment.
“Catherine! Good gracious!”
Catherine tried not to cry as her mother reached for her, her hands shaking violently as she embraced her daughter.
Those words came from her mouth without any real understanding in her own mind as to why she said them. What was it she was sorry for? She did not regret racing, nor did she regret leaving London in the first place to pursue a different life for a time.
And then, it hit her. As her mother clung to her, Catherine recalled how she had so often meant to write to her mother, to let her know that she was safe and unaffected by scandal but, what with one thing and the next, had quite forgotten to do so.
“I should have let you know that I was quite safe, Mama,” she admitted, her voice hoarse as Dinah and Merry stood nearby, watching the reunion. “I am sorry I did not.”
Her mother swallowed hard and let Catherine go, her eyes glistening with tears. “I have been frantic with worry for you.”
“I had to go,” Catherine replied, trying to explain without completely breaking down into tears. “I had to find a new way forward, Mama. I could not simply be a lady of the ton, expected to behave and act as everyone else did.”
“Dinah believed you had gone in search of such a thing,” Lady Whitehaven replied, glancing towards Dinah who was, much to Catherine’s surprise, not looking at all judgmental but rather appeared relieved that all was well. “She said that you might have returned to the Duke of Blackwell’s estate, since you had mentioned his horse on one prior occasion, but I did not think she was at all correct.” Lady Whitehaven shook her head. “It seems I was wrong.” A tear trickled down her cheek, sending another stab of guilt through Catherine’s heart.
“I am sorry, Mama, for hiding my intentions from you, but I could not tell you for fear that you would not let me go. I had to seek out an opportunity to fulfill all that I had dreamed and hoped for, for so long.”
Lady Whitehaven accepted the handkerchief that Merry surreptitiously handed her, dabbing at her eyes. Her lips trembled, her face pale, and yet there was something like pride gleaming in her eyes.
“And you have done so at last, it seems.”
Catherine said nothing, her hands twisting in front of her as her mother wiped her eyes.
“You have managed to achieve something that no other person has ever achieved before,” Lady Whitehaven continued, lifting her chin just a little and looking directly at Catherine. “You outran every other rider out on the race today, by at least eight lengths!” The shake was slowly beginning to leave her voice. “I could hardly believe it when Merry told me that it was you riding that great creature.”
“Beauchamp,” Catherine interrupted, as her mother shook her head in evident astonishment. “The Duke of Blackwell’s horse. And yes, Mama, before you ask, he was aware of the truth of my identity but chose to allow me to ride anyway.”
Lady Whitehaven’s eyes rounded a little more. “He did not–”
“He has been nothing but a gentleman, Mama,” Catherine promised. “I have never once been in danger. I swear that to you. My reputation has not been damaged in that sense.” Taking a step closer, she reached out and settled her hand over her mother’s. “Although he does wish to speak to you, Mama. He suggested that I come to you alone so that we might speak together first but, whenever it is appropriate, I know that he wishes to call on us. On you.” She smiled as her mother appeared even more astonished, although a slow understanding appeared to be dawning on her. Lady Whitehaven caught her breath suddenly, her hand tightening on Catherine’s.
“You mean to say that he…”