Catherine Coulter


The seventh book in the Bride series, 2001

Chapter 1

The Cat Races

The McCaulty Racetrack,

near Eastbourne, England

A bright Saturday afternoon, April 1823

MR. RALEIGH, GET Tiny Tom out of Mr. Cork's way. Blessed Hell, he'll run right over him!'

Tiny Tom was jerked off the track just in the nick of time, not more than two seconds before Mr. Cork would have laid him flat. Tiny Tom was Mr. Raleigh's great hope, but he just wasn't yet ready for this level of competition. Tiny Tom, black as the devil's familiar with small white paws, was, after all, only one year old, not fully grown or as yet well trained.

But when the runners had scampered and darted past, Mr. Raleigh set Tiny Tom back on the track, swatting his hindquarters and growling in his little ear. That growl, evidently, promised chopped-up chicken livers. Tiny Tom, tasting those chicken livers going down his little gullet, shot forward.

Meggie Sherbrooke scanned the racers, cupped her mouth with her hands, and yelled again, 'Blessed Hell, Mr. Cork! Run! Don't let Blinker II catch you! You can do it, run!'

Reverend Tysen Sherbrooke tended to ignore his daughter's very occasional lapses into the favored Sherbrooke curse, since it really was quite fit for the racetrack, and yelled himself. 'Run, Mr. Cork, run! Cleopatra, you can do it, sweet girl, go!'

Mr. Cork, who'd finally finished growing into his paws six months before, was a big tabby, all orange-striped on his back, the top of his head, and snow white all over his belly and legs, strong as Clancy, Mr. Harbor's prize bull. He ran only to the smell of a trout, about six pounds and thankfully always dead, baked with just a squeeze of fresh lemon, held by Max Sherbrooke at the finish line, who waved it back and forth like a metronome, keeping Mr. Cork's attention focused on that trout in front of him. When not in strict training, however, Mr. Cork many times spent his mornings beneath the dining table, his orange-striped tail waving lazily from beneath the tablecloth, announcing that he was ready to be served a nice strip of crispy bacon, or perhaps a small bowl of milk, or both, if the donor would exert himself a bit.

Strong and big, legs pumping with muscle-sheer power and poetry in motion-said Lady Dauntry of Mr. Cork in admiration. She'd been the mistress of ceremonies for the past fourteen years, always calling the race, even in inclement weather. Lady Dauntry deplored corruption on the racetrack, and even now, in 1823, it was rumored that there were still occasional attempts to fix races, and so there was always stringent oversight by all racing mews.

Mary Rose, Tysen's Scottish wife for eight years now, yelled in a very loud and lovely lilt, 'Run, Cleo, my bonnie girl, run!' Then she ratcheted up her lungs and yelled, 'You can keep up with her, Alec! Run, lad!'

Seven-year-old Alec Sherbrooke was actually trying to keep up with Leo, whom he worshipped. It was being said in the major racing mews that just perhaps Alec Sherbrooke was one of a very rare breed indeed-a cat whisperer. If he was, he would be extraordinarily special. It was said that Cleo would begin leaping whenever Alec was about and thus that was how she'd been trained so quickly to this new technique. Everyone marveled-a cat whisperer. If Alec Sherbrooke was so blessed, his was going to be a famous name in the racing world. Since Alec wasn't yet big enough to keep up with her, Leo, his older stepbrother, was Cleo's on-track trainer. Meggie privately wondered if Cleo ran because Leo ran beside her or because of what seven-year-old Alec whispered in her white ear before each race.

For those who preferred the more dainty racers, like Cleopatra, christened Clea Mia by a visiting Italian curate some months before, she was a natural leaper. Breath held, Mary Rose watched her run her very fast six steps, building up momentum, then like a dancer, she took off her hind paws, legs extended, leapt forward, stretching her long calico body in the air and landed directly ahead of Blinker II.

Everyone cheered. Lady Dauntry had announced that Cleopatra was grace in motion, and all agreed it was true.

In the beginning of the race, Cleo was content to run a good six lengths behind the leader, running alongside Leo, with seven-year-old Alec trying to keep up. Leo said her name over and over, just loud enough for her to hear, keeping pace with her, difficult when she leapt, but Leo was young and strong and he loved to see Cleopatra stretch and leap and land some three feet ahead of all the other racers. The Harker brothers, from the Mountvale mews, praised the technique as unique and ever so lovely to watch. Then they would speak of Alec and shake their heads and wonder how he would change the world of cat racing with his gift. A cat whisperer, just imagine.

Blinker II poked his head out, running all out, managed to pass Cleopatra again. He was running his paws off, staying right in the middle of the course, hearing his master's shout of encouragement, a shout that meant to Blinker that he would get all the fresh warm milk he could lap up as it was squeezed out of Trudy, the Grimsby cow. He didn't even veer away when another racing cat nearly ran over him. Mr. Grimsby hadn't overtrained him for this meet, heeding the Harker brothers' advice some six months before to keep laps at no more than ten per day. Blinker II was all gray, with bright green eyes. He always purred when he ran.

Meggie was getting hoarse, but it didn't matter. She yelled at the top of her lungs, 'Come on, Mr. Cork! Move! You can ran faster than Blinker II! Look at that delicious trout Leo is waving for you. Just you smell that tangy flavor!'

Mr. Cork was serious now, running so fast his legs were a blur, his golden paws barely skimming the dry dirt course. His green eyes were fastened on that gently swinging trout in Max's right hand, now in full sight, standing just over the finish line.

Cleopatra executed a major leap, landing her some three and a half feet ahead of Leo. He panted to catch up with her because when she couldn't see him out of her right eye, she would simply stop and wait for him. Or perhaps she waited for both Leo and Alec, no one could say for sure. It was the only drawback of this training method. Leo Sherbrooke, seventeen, trained as hard as any of the racing cats in the vicarage mews. In the early morning both Leo and Alec could be seen running across the fields toward the Channel.

Horatio Blummer's stark white racer, Candace, shaped much like a cannon, mean as could be, was all snarls and fangs when she got near another racer. Those racers who didn't move away from her quickly got bitten hard on the ramp. Candace was running fairly well today, snarling with every step. Just plain mean, that was what Mr. Blummer said proudly of Candace. She didn't need any bribes to make her ran hard.

Mr. Cork paused just an instant to snarl back at her before, tail stiff in the air, he sprinted past her.

Mr. Goodgame's Horace, ten years old now, but still game, a small joke, always repeated by Mr. Goodgame, was long and skinny and looked like a white-and-gray spotted arrow flying through the field of racers. Mr. Goodgame had attached a flag to Horace's fat white tail, and it waved madly in the breeze. It showed two cats standing on their hind legs, holding crossing swords, the words beneath:

Leve et reluis

Translated: Arise and re-illumine, a beautiful sentiment, surely, but not entirely understood by the locals.

They were nearly to the three-quarters mark. Only three cats had been seduced from the track by hooligans who hooted like owls to scare the cats into skidding off the track, or hollered like fishmongers, waving overripe fish or raw chicken legs. Training assistants from surrounding mews wrestled the hooligans away from the track.

Meggie shouted, 'Mr. Cork, I'll give you three strips of bacon if you beat out old Lummley!'

Old Lummley was a champion. He knew his business, and needed only to see his mistress, Mrs. Foe, standing

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