The next week, Victoria was so busy treating Mercy that she had little time for anything else. The duke took over riding Black Devil and Willow, barely speaking to her as she cared for the injured animal. Nearly two weeks after Cheltenham, Mercy was finally walking without badly favoring her leg. Victoria was still using poultices but had begun to walk her on the grounds three times a day. Despite the abuses she had suffered, Mercy was quite docile around the men who worked in the stables. She liked to think it was because the duke only hired men like him to work there. Men that were kind and good-natured, men with a gentle hand. Mercy’s soft nicker interrupted her thoughts and she turned to see the duke watching her.
“Your grace.” Victoria bowed quickly as Harrison stroked a hand across Mercy’s back.
“She looks wonderful,” Harrison commented.
“Aye, your grace,” Victoria answered with a smile. “She’s gained some weight, her hooves are growing out quickly, and her tendon is healing nicely.”
“You’re quite skilled with horses, Vic,” he murmured.
“Thank you, your grace.”
“I wonder,” he continued. “Are you also skilled with people?”
“I don’t understand what you mean, your grace,” Victoria answered, the hairs on her neck prickling.
“I have a problem I could use some help with,” Harrison explained. “Involving my sister.”
“Yes, Helena. She’s twenty-six.”
“What does your sister need that I could help her with, your grace?” Victoria asked skeptically.
“She’s afraid of horses,” he answered softly. Victoria froze for a moment before relaxing.
“She’s afraid…” she murmured. “Of horses?”
“Precisely,” Harrison answered. “She was thrown as a child and broke her leg quite badly. She’s been fearful of them ever since.” Victoria chewed on her lip as she thought this over.
“Her leg was broken?” she asked. Harrison nodded. “Permanent damage?”
“A debilitating limp and weakness in the affected leg,” Harrison answered tightly.
“Hmm,” Victoria mumbled to herself. “What are your goals in my helping her?”
“My goals?” Harrison thought for a moment before answering. “Foremost would be for her to be able to control, if not overcome, her fear of horses. The only reason my sister stays on at Stoke Manor is to help me acclimate to my role as the Duke of Guildford. She scarcely leaves the house for fear of seeing a horse close by. Once she believes I am, shall we say, self-sufficient, she will leave for London.”
“What’s so bad about London?” Victoria asked.
“She’s my sister and my friend, Vic,” Harrison answered. “I wouldn’t mind if she left for London if she willingly chose it, but not out of fear. No.” He shook his head. “Not out of fear.” Victoria smiled gently as Harrison continued. “The second reason would be for her to be able to ride again, if possible. She used to love it and was quite a natural. She rode astride, much to our father’s annoyance, and outran my brothers and I on multiple occasions.”
“How was she thrown?” Victoria asked softly.
“Father forced her to ride sidesaddle,” he answered. Victoria chewed her lip a moment before she nodded.
“I believe I can help her, your grace,” she finally answered.
“I can try, if she’s willing. I can help her but accepting that help is up to her.”
“Aye,” Victoria answered, smiling when he grinned at her.
“She’s just up at the house,” he commented. “Shall I bring her to the stables?”
“Oh no.” Victoria laughed. “That’s too much at one time. Can she walk far? It would be easier to start in a more comfortable setting.”
“The brook, just over the hill, would be perfect.”
“I’ll have her there,” Harrison answered. “When?”
“Bring her down in a half hours’ time. Her morning dress will be fine, but make sure she’s wearing sturdy shoes.”
“Sturdy shoes?” Harrison asked, curiosity lighting his eyes.
“Aye,” Victoria answered seriously. “None of those damn slippers.”
“As you say, Vic.” Harrison chuckled, already walking back towards the house.
* * * * *
Precisely a half hour later, Victoria heard a commotion coming from the other side of the hill.
“Put me down and let me walk, you bull-headed prig,” a woman’s voice commanded.
“Not a chance, Helena,” the duke’s jovial voice answered. Victoria smiled. This might not be so difficult after all. With one sentence, Victoria had learned that Helena might not have two good legs, but she had quite a strong backbone.
“Damn you, Harrison,” the woman grumbled. “I could’ve made it.”
“Possibly,” Harrison conceded. “But then you’d have no strength left in your leg for whatever Vic would like you to try, and then where would you be?”
“I hate that you’re always right,” she muttered. Harrison was chuckling as he crested the hill, Lady Helena Stoke safely secured in his arms. Helena looked quite like her brother, only more feminine. Her eyes were the same shade of deep green, though they were currently filled with frustration. Victoria waited patiently as they came down the hill and Harrison gently set his sister to her feet.
“Lady Helena,” Vic bowed.
“Mr. O’Reilly,” Helena answered with an inclination of her head.
“You’re free to leave, your grace,” Victoria stated, giving Harrison a small bow.
“I beg your pardon?” Harrison gaped. Helena didn’t bother to stifle a giggle.
“You heard the lad,” Helena commanded. “You are free to leave.” He gave his sister a quelling look before sighing.
“My lady,” he bowed to his sister before sending a frustrated look to Victoria. She stood her ground without fear this time and Harrison turned on his heel and trekked back up the hill.
“That was immensely refreshing,” Helena murmured after Harrison was far enough away not to hear.
“I take it his grace isn’t used to being given orders?” Victoria asked with a smile.
“Not recently,” Helena answered. “It does wonders for one’s ego to be brought down a peg or two every so often.”
“Aye.” Victoria chuckled. “Shall we begin, my lady?” Humor gone now, Helena nodded stiffly. “Can you walk a bit?”
“Of course,” Helena answered proudly. “How far?”
“Just to the other side of the tree,” Victoria answered, pointing to a large willow, it’s long branches dipping in the water a few yards away.
“Let’s be off then.” Victoria offered her arm to Helena, who took it with a smile.
“I hope you won’t be putting me on a horse today?” Helena asked, skillfully hiding the shaking in her voice.
“No,” Victoria dodged. “We’ll be starting off with something much easier.” They rounded the tree to find Mercy grazing peacefully near the bank. Helena halted so forcefully, Victoria nearly pulled her down when she kept walking.
“Is there a problem, my lady?” Victoria asked quickly. “Is it your leg?”
“No, my leg is fine,” Helena asked, not hiding the tremor in her voice now. “I was just taken aback.”
“Is that all?” Victoria murmured, giving her a smile. “Let’s sit over there.” She pointed to a small hillock near the horse.
“Sit?” Helena asked.
“Aye.” Victoria led her to the hill, holding her arm as she carefully sat in the grass. She followed suit, sitting next to Helena as they watched the horse graze.
“Is this the mare Harrison bought at Cheltenham?” Helena asked after a few moments. Her voice no longer shook.
“Aye,” Victoria answered. “Her name is Commodore’s Mercy, though we just call her Mercy. A three-year-old thoroughbred mare.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Helena asked, seeing the wrap around her right front leg.
“She sprained a tendon during the race,” Victoria explained. “And was beaten for being frightened and in pain.”
“Beaten?” Helena’s voice was shocked.
“Aye,” Victoria answered sadly. “See the marks on her flank and hindquarter?” she asked. “The jockey struck her hard enough to cut into the muscle in a few places. I had to stitch two of them.”
“That’s barbaric,” Helena whispered.
“Aye,” Victoria agreed. “I suppose that’s why I hit the jockey.”
“You hit the jockey?” Victoria nodded.
“And I suppose that’s why his grace bought her.”
“That sounds like Harrison,” Helena whispered, leaning forward to watch the mare. “Will she be permanently injured?”
“She’ll always have the scars,” Victoria murmured. “But the leg will heal, and it’s quite likely that she’ll race again. The scars will serve to show that she can overcome anything.” Helena sat silently for a few moments.
“She really is quite pretty,” she spoke after a moment. “Even with the scars.”
“Yes,” Victoria commented, her eyes on the mare. “The best ones are.” Helena smiled, looking back at the mare. “Would you like to meet her?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Helena answered, her face paling.
“She’s quite gentle,” Victoria commented, seeming to ignore Helena’s discomfort. “Despite her mistreatment. She recognizes kind hearts. She did so with your brother.” Helena snorted at that. “She will with you as well.” She whistled softly and Mercy’s head came up. She walked leisurely toward them as Victoria stood. Helena sat upright, fear filling her features.
“I’ve been teaching Mercy some things since she’s been here,” Victoria commented. She murmured a word in Gaelic and Mercy halted, carefully bending down on her front legs in the grass. Her hind legs pulled beneath her as she lay on the ground and she snorted out a breath as she settled in the grass.
“I didn’t know you could train a horse as if they were a dog,” Helena commented, her surprise overwhelming her fear for the moment.
“You can with the ones smart enough to learn,” she answered. She took a step toward the mare, rubbing the horse’s face. “Scoot closer, my lady.” She motioned to Helena, who shook her head stubbornly. “Trust me, Helena.” Helena bristled at the use of her given name but after a moment, scooted closer to Victoria.
“Mercy, lie down,” Victoria murmured, running her hands beneath the mare’s cheek as she lay on her side. “There’s a good girl,” she murmured as she brought the mare’s head slowly down, right into Helena’s lap. Helena stiffened as the weight settled on her legs. The mare let out a breath, her nose tickling against Helena’s shaking hand.
“What happened to her face?” Helena’s voice shook as much as the hand that tentatively stroked the mare’s muzzle. Her fingers trembled as she ran them over the scabbed wounds on her cheekbone.
“She was hit with a crop,” Victoria explained. “Maybe even a cane.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Helena’s voice softened with sympathy as her hand steadied.
“Her prior owner was Lord Maybourne,” Victoria answered.
“Was that not your last employer?” she asked.
“My father’s employer, yes,” Victoria murmured. “This happened after he…” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “After we left. Neither of us would have stood for such abuse if we had been there.”
“I’d think not,” Helena agreed. “You’ve worked with Mercy before then?”
“I have,” she sighed, leaning back on her elbows. “My father and I were training her for steeplechase. I could tell she was going to be great. She has the right composition, the attitude, the heart.” She smiled, watching the mare flick her tail lazily in the grass. “Lord Maybourne wanted to run her at Cheltenham. My father disagreed. He knew she wasn’t ready.” She clenched her jaw, remembering the day with perfect clarity. “But Mercy was not my father’s horse and he was obligated to obey his employer.”
“He’s a scoundrel,” Helena murmured. “Lord Maybourne, that is.”
“Scoundrel is too gentle a term for the likes of him,” Victoria growled. “My father had been right, after all. Mercy wasn’t ready for Cheltenham and she paid the price for Lord Maybourne’s arrogance.”
“She’s free of him now,” Helena crooned, stroking the mare’s face with a steady hand. “She has quite the champions in you and my brother.”
“And you as well,” Victoria added, sitting up again.
“Me?” Helena chuckled as she began to braid Mercy’s forelock. “What could I possibly do for a horse?”
“Be a friend,” Victoria answered, drawing her knees up. “She’s had quite the lack of them in the last few months.”
“A horse needs a friend?” she scoffed.
“Every living creature needs a friend.” Victoria smiled. “She’ll need walking, a few times a day. Not far, mind you, but it will help her heal faster if she’s moving.”
“Are you asking me to walk her?” Helena watched Victoria nod and began to laugh. “Isn’t that a bit like the blind leading the blind?” She gestured towards her legs. One foot was visibly turned in.
“More along the lines of like leading like,” Victoria replied with a smile. “You both have your scars, you’re both healing. You understand each other.” Victoria let that statement hang as Helena thought it over.
“You want us to heal together,” she finally murmured.
“That’s the idea,” Victoria answered, grinning now. “I’ll walk with you the first week or so, while you get accustomed to each other’s limits. But I think you’ll find it easier than you’re expecting.”
“I don’t do well with horses,” Helena pointed out as she picked a flower and stuck it in the braid.
“You’ve had her head in your lap for a half hour without any issue,” Victoria pointed out with a grin. Helena closed her mouth and looked down at the head lying across her legs.
“I suppose you have a point,” she conceded loftily. Victoria laughed and stood. She carefully lifted the mare’s head with one hand and offered the other to Helena. Once she was steadily on her feet, she clucked her tongue and Mercy rolled until her feet were under again.
“Tell her suas,”
“Soow-aus?” Helena repeated and Mercy hefted to her feet, giving her head a shake as she stood. “What did I just say?” She laughed somewhat breathlessly as she reached out to touch the mare’s nose.
“You told her up in Irish,” Victoria answered with a smile.
“Hmm,” Helena murmured. “That would be the first Irish word I’ve ever spoken.”
“You don’t know enough Irish then,” Victoria stated, making Helena laugh.
“I have a feeling I’ll be corrected on that lack of education in short time.”
“Oh aye,” Victoria chuckled, her Irish lilt reappearing. “Do you think you can make it up the hill?” she asked. “I’m sure his grace is waiting just on the other side.”
“Knowing Harrison,” Helena muttered. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You can lean on me if you need to, my lady,” she told her. “This side of the slope isn’t as steep.” They began their walk up the hill slowly, Victoria stopping every so often, with the excuse or allowing Mercy to graze a bit. Once Helena had caught her breath, they walked on, reaching the top of the hill moments later.
“You were right,” Helena stated, pointing to the grass just below the crest of the hill. “He was waiting.”
“Aye,” Victoria snorted. “But I thought he’d be awake.” They giggled together, making the sleeping Duke of Guildford jump.
“I am awake,” he grumbled, sitting up in the grass.
“You were snoring,” Helena pointed out.
“Oh posh,” Harrison deflected. “Lesson over for the day?”
“Yes,” Helena answered. “I’d like to try and walk the rest of the way to the house,” she told him. “But I may need your assistance.”
“I am at your disposal, my lady,” Harrison answered gallantly with a sweeping bow.
“What utter rubbish,” she told him with a roll of her eyes but took the arm he offered. “Would ten o’clock suffice for tomorrow, Mr. O’Reilly?”
“Aye, my lady,” Victoria answered. “I’ll have her haltered and ready.”
“Good day then.”
“Good day, my lady,” Victoria bowed with a grin as Harrison escorted Helena down the hill. “I think I rather like her,” she whispered to Mercy. The mare nickered softly as Victoria turned her toward the stables.
When writing a story, it helps to have a visual of what your characters look like. Having an actual picture of someone to base your character on helps you keep track of even the most minor details.