The Bourbon Kings Page 1

Author: J.R. Ward

Series: The Bourbon Kings #1

Genres: Fantasy , Romance


Charlemont, Kentucky

Mist hung over the Ohio’s sluggish waters like the breath of God, and the trees on the Charlemont shore side of River Road were so many shades of spring green, the color required a sixth sense to absorb them all. Overhead, the sky was a dim, milky blue, the kind of thing that you saw up north only in July, and at seven-thirty a.m., the temperature was already seventy-four degrees.

It was the first week of May. The most important seven days on the calendar, beating the birth of Christ, the American Independence, and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

The One Hundred Thirty-ninth running of The Charlemont Derby was on Saturday.

Which meant the entire state of Kentucky was in a thoroughbred racing frenzy.

As Lizzie King approached the turn-off for her work, she was riding an adrenaline high that had been pumping for a good three weeks, and she knew from past experience that this rush-rush mood of hers wasn’t going to deflate until after Saturday’s clean-up. At least she was, as always, going against the traffic heading into downtown and making good time: Her commute was forty minutes each way, but not in the NYC, Boston, or LA, densely packed, parking-lot version of rush hour—which in her current frame of mind would have caused her head to mushroom cloud. No, her trip into her job was twenty-eight minutes of Indiana farm country followed by six minutes of bridge and spaghetti junction delays, capped off with this six-to ten-minute, against-the-tide shot parallel to the river.

Sometimes she was convinced the only cars going in her direction were the rest of the staff that worked at Easterly with her.

Ah, yes, Easterly.

The Bradford Family Estate, or BFE, as its deliveries were marked, sat high up on the biggest hill in the Charlemont metro area and was comprised of a twenty-thousand-square-foot main house with three formal gardens, two pools, and a three-hundred-sixty degree view of Washington County. There was also twelve retainer’s cottages on the property, as well as ten outbuildings, a fully functioning farm of over a hundred acres, a twenty-horse stable that had been converted into a business center, and a nine-hole golf course.

That was lighted.

In case you needed to work on your chip shot at one a.m.

As far as she had heard, the enormous parcel had been granted to the family back in 1778, after the first of the Bradfords had come south from Pennsylvania with the then Colonel George Rogers Clark—and brought both his ambitions and his bourbon-making traditions into the nascent commonwealth. Fast forward almost two hundred fifty years, and you had a Federal mansion the size of a small town up on that hill, and some seventy-two people working on the property full- and part-time.

All of whom followed a feudal rules and rigid caste system that was right out of Downton Abbey.

Or maybe the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s routine was a little too progressive.

William the Conqueror’s times were probably more apt.

So, for example—and this was solely a Lifetime movie conjecture here—if a gardener fell in love with one of the family’s precious sons? Even if she were one of two head horticulturists, and had a national reputation and a master’s in landscape architecture from Cornell?

That was just not done.

Sabrina without the happy ending, darlin’.

With a curse, Lizzie turned the radio on in hopes of getting her brain to shut up. She didn’t get far. Her Toyota Yaris had the speaker system of a Barbie house: there were little circles in the doors that were supposed to pump music, but they were mostly for pretend—and today, NPR coming out of those cocktail coasters just wasn’t enough—

The sound of an ambulance speeding up behind her easily overrode the haute pitter-patter of the BBC News, and she hit her brakes and eased over onto the shoulder. After the noise and flashing lights passed, she got back on track and rounded a fat curve in both the river and the road … and there it was, the Bradfords’ great white mansion, high up in the sky, the dawning sun being forced to work around its regal, symmetrical layout.

She had grown up in Plattsburgh, New York, on an apple orchard.

What the hell had she been thinking almost two years ago when she’d let Lane Baldwine, the youngest son, into her life?

And why was she still, after all this time, wondering about the particulars?

Come on, it wasn’t like she was the first woman who’d gotten good and seduced by him—

Lizzie frowned and leaned forward over the wheel.

The ambulance that had passed her was heading up the flank of the BFE hill, its red and white lights strobing along the alley of maple trees.

“Oh, God,” she breathed.

She prayed it wasn’t who she thought it was.

But come on, her luck couldn’t be that bad.

And wasn’t it sad that that was the first thing that came to her mind instead of worry over whoever was hurt/sick/passed out.

Proceeding on by the monogrammed, wrought-iron gates that were just closing, she took her right-hand turn about three hundred yards later.

As an employee, she was required to use the service entrance with her vehicles, no excuses, no exceptions.

Because God forbid a vehicle with an MSRP of under a hundred thousand dollars be seen in front of the house—

Boy, she was getting bitchy, she decided. And after Derby, she was going to have to take a vacation before people thought she was going through menopause two decades too early.

The sewing machine under the Yaris’s hood revved up as she shot down the level road that went around the base of the hill. The cornfield came first, the manure already laid down and churned over in preparation for planting. And then there were the cutting gardens filled with the first of the perennials and annuals, the heads of the early peonies fat as softballs and no darker than the blush on an ingenue’s cheeks. After those, there were the orchid houses and nurseries, followed by the outbuildings with the farm and groundskeeping equipment in them, and then the lineup of two- and three-bedroom, fifties-era cottages.