An Event at Epsom
The Ladies of Almack’s #6
by Marissa Doyle
A horse is a horse, of course…isn’t it?
Young widow Annabel Chalfont, Countess of Fellbridge, has two small sons to raise, a mountain of her late husband’s debts to pay off, and a secret: she’s a shadow-shaper, able to manipulate shadow as anyone else might clay. She and six other high-born ladies with equally extraordinary abilities defend England against supernatural crime—but the world knows them only as the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s, Regency London’s most exclusive social venue.
It’s June, which means that the fashionable of London are off to Epsom for the annual race meet. A newcomer is favored to win the Oaks Stakes—a mysterious filly who came from nowhere to win the spring races left and right. It will be up to the Lady Patronesses to discover her identity—while Annabel discovers what her true feelings are for Lord Quinceton…
The Ladies of Almacks series #6
Marissa Doyle intended to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted, so instead she excavates tales of magic and history from the matrix of her imagination. Or something like that. She lives in MA with her family, her research library, and a bossy pet rabbit. Visit her online at www.marissadoyle.com.
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En route to Epsom, Surrey
“I have always wondered why they call them ‘downs,’” Maria Sefton said, gazing at the rolling green countryside outside the carriage window. “Don’t they go up as much as down? Indeed,” she said, warming to her subject, “since they must go up in order to go down, why are they not called ‘ups’? It seems dreadfully arbitrary.”
Across from her, Annabel smiled. It was an exceedingly Maria-ish thing to say. “I don’t know, but ‘Epsom Downs’ sounds much better than ‘Epsom Ups,’” she replied.
“That’s true.” Maria’s brow wrinkled. “I shall ask Derby about it when I see him. If anyone would know, it is he.”
“Except I believe there are downs elsewhere and not only in Surrey,” Annabel couldn’t resist adding.
“Oh, dear. That does complicate the question.”
“Does Lord Derby know we’re coming?” Georgiana Bathurst, seated next to Maria, asked. She’d spoken barely a word since they’d left London and had spent the intervening hours wearing a slight frown as she gazed fixedly at nothing. Annabel had feared she was carriage-sick, but they’d not needed to pause for her to cast up her accounts in the hedgerow. The only other conclusion to be drawn was that something was troubling her.
“Of course he is expecting me. I don’t think he knows you’re coming,” Maria replied. “This investigation was Mr. Almack’s idea, not Derby’s. However, I am certain he would be monstrous glad of our help if it turns out that there is indeed something not-quite-right going on here.”
They were on their way to Epsom, site of two of the most hotly-contested (and lucrative) horse-races in England—the Derby and the Oaks Stakes—which had also become one of the more popular events of the season. Mr. Almack’s death had not blunted his keen interest in the Sport of Kings, and a curious story had come to him that made a man—er, ghost—of his experience sit up and take notice.
“Speaking of peculiar, there’s something verra odd going on in racing circles,” he’d announced at Monday’s Lady Patronesses meeting after they had discussed the incident with the Potamides at Eton. “Something that I think you ladies might want to look at.”
“Odd in what way?” Sally had asked, taking a fresh leaf of paper and dipping her pen.
The tale Mr. Almack had recounted had indeed been an odd one. Earlier that spring a new filly had appeared on the local race circuit around Newmarket and had won almost every race she ran. Her owner, a Sir Oswald Broxley, was known amongst the gentlemen of the turf as a not-very-successful amateur breeder and trainer. With this horse, however, his luck finally seemed to have turned the corner. When asked, Sir Oswald was not forthcoming about Maharahnee’s origins; he would only smile smugly and say that she’d been bred and born on his family’s estate.
Dorothea had snorted. “I do not see what is so mysterious about this as to be of interest to us.”
“I’m getting to that part,” Mr. Almack replied, a little testily. “What is of interest is that she’s a verra intelligent horse; as far as anyone can see her jockey is more or less along for the ride whilst she chooses her own path. She also doesna seem to need to rest; she’ll run one day and be at a race twenty miles away the next day, ready to go.”
They’d all been silent, absorbing that. Sir Oswald was not known to possess a wagon capable of carrying horses, so how could this Maharahnee win a race one afternoon, then walk twenty miles to the next one in less than a day and be ready once again to race?
Sally had finally spoken. “Either this Sir Oswald has managed to tame a kelpie—”
“Can one tame a kelpie?” Frances interrupted, wide-eyed.
“Nae, it canna be. It’s a filly, and most all kelpies are male.” Mr. Almack sounded amused. “’Twould be difficult to hide that.”
“Oh. Yes, it would.” Frances blushed. “I beg your pardon, Sally. Pray go on.”
Sally nodded and went on, “—or some poor horse has been put under a compulsion spell. I expect it must be that.” She turned to Mr. Almack’s empty—or rather, apparently empty—chair. “I presume the horse’s owner is making a tidy profit in winnings?”
“Aye, he is. And from all accounts, he needs it—the man’s known to have the worst luck—or judgment—in three counties.” Mr. Almack’s tone made it clear which he thought was the case. “The Oaks Stakes—it’s a race for three-year-old fillies, ye ken—comes up at the end of this week at Epsom, and if there’s somethin’ not natural about one of the competitors, I think we should look into it.”
“I expect we should.” Sally looked down the table. “Maria, this would seem to be a matter you would best be able to get to the bottom of. Will you take it on?”
“It would not be any trouble at all, as Sefton and I had already planned to go to Epsom on Wednesday to stay with Lord Derby,” Maria said. “If Georgiana isn’t otherwise occupied, perhaps she would come as well. Georgiana?”
“Yes, I suppose, if my rheumatism does not confine me to bed.” Georgiana sighed. “And so long as it isn’t a kelpie.”
And so Maria and Georgiana were undertaking the investigation, with Annabel to assist as needed with gathering information. A footman had been dispatched at once to secure accommodation for them at an inn in the vicinity. Annabel had doubted he would—rooms would be almost impossible to find in Epsom at this late hour. Fortunately for them he was an engaging fellow, and the fund Mr. Almack had left for the Lady Patronesses’ expenses a deep one; comfortable rooms had been found for Annabel and Georgiana at the Horse and Oak, conveniently close to the racecourse. Maria of course would be a guest at Lord Derby’s house.
Annabel watched the green hills ebb and swell through the dust raised by the carriages in front of them—the closer they got to Epsom, the more crowded the roads had grown—and could not help wishing that she could have spent these days alone. On Monday this had seemed as if it would be an amusing investigation to help with. But that had been Monday. Now it was Wednesday—and her life had turned upside down in the intervening day.
Not a great deal had actually happened on Tuesday, aside from the prodigious amount of shopping she’d done with Mama, which had cast her maid Winters into transports of joy. The part of Tuesday that had plunged her into such confusion had been, outwardly, a small one: the brief exchange she’d had with the Marquis of Quinceton whilst they drove in Hyde Park that afternoon.
Such a little thing on the face of it, those few words. Except that they had forced her to confront the fact that she did regard him differently than she had three months before—that she now found him more than a little attractive, more than a little…love-worthy.
When he had asked her—shyly, almost (fancy the haughty Marquis of Quinceton being shy!)—to call him Quin, she’d darted a glance at his face. There was a warmth in his eyes that made her look away again before he could see her discomposure. And his softly voiced, “Please?” had nearly undone her; she’d whispered, “Yes, Quin,” so quietly that there should have been no way he had heard her above the jangle of harness and the clop of his horses’ hooves.
But he’d heard her.
Oh, the immediate “what” was simple: to investigate this miracle horse for the Lady Patronesses. It was a shame, however, that she would have to help conduct the investigation with a brain that had apparently regressed to that of a green girl in her debut season engaging in her first flirtation.
If only there had been time to confide in Mama; she’d clearly grasped the situation with Quin at Eton. Heavens, she’d shamelessly arranged their meeting in Hyde Park yesterday. But there had been no chance to talk, as Papa had invited friends to join them for dinner last night at the hotel, and then he and Mama had left early this morning to return to Belsever Magna. She would have to wrestle with this alone.
Very well, then. Wrestle she would.
Life as a widow—even if not a wealthy one—was in many ways most agreeable. Emily thought she should enjoy herself more and take a lover, and indeed the idea was tempting after her less-than-satisfying marriage to Freddy. But while other women seemed to be able to do so even when they weren’t widowed, she couldn’t contemplate the idea with Emily’s pretty insouciance. She did not long for dalliance, but for love.
And if she found a man she could wholeheartedly love, well…men had an unfortunate habit of expecting to control the women in their lives, as she well knew. Was she prepared to give up her life of relative freedom and subject herself once more to the tyranny of a man, deliciously tempting as that might be if the tyrant were someone as attractive as Quin?
In which case, a few days away from London was probably a good thing after all. She would have time and distance to mull over her feelings about Quin—unless he had been serious when he’d suggested that he might look in at the races. Then again, finding her amongst the thirty or forty thousand other race-goers would not be an easy task. So she could assume she’d have a quiet few days to contemplate—
“I suppose our first task will be to find this Maharahnee as quickly as possible, so that Georgiana and I can talk to her before the race on Saturday,” Maria said, breaking into her thoughts. “You two can try to discover where she is stabled, assuming she’s gained enough of a reputation. Your being at a local inn is very helpful.”
“That makes sense.” Annabel gave herself a mental shake. She and Georgiana could ask innocent questions, and if required, she herself would do some more covert information gathering—eavesdropping, to be blunt—safely concealed in a shadow. But if all this investigation required was finding out where the horse was kept and Maria having a heart-to-heart talk with it, she would probably not have much to do. In fact…“I wish Emily were here. We could simply turn her loose on this Sir Oswald and find out exactly what is going on.”
“Annabel, you know we require solid evidence of wrong-doing. Emily’s skills are useful to shape the direction of investigations, but we never rely exclusively on what she reads,” Maria said, a little reprovingly. “And anyway, Dorothea wanted her to help investigate that odd business with the ghost and the new gas lamps in Pall Mall.”
“Those things.” Georgiana shook her head. “There’s something off about that.”
“Gas lamps?” Annabel asked. “I’m not convinced about them either, but I can see how useful they might be for street lighting.”
“That is not what I meant. Have you not noticed how busy we are this year? When in past years have we had more than one investigation happening at any time or had them so close together as we have this year?”
Annabel blinked. “I don’t know. This is only my second year as a Lady Patroness. Is this year busier than usual?”
“I hadn’t paid much attention,” Maria said slowly. “But I do believe you are correct, Georgiana—this is probably the busiest it’s been since the nineties.”
The nineties, when war with France had first kindled, then blazed. Annabel glanced at the faces of the other women and guessed their thoughts were flowing on similar lines. “You don’t think that the French—” she began.
“That the French might be responsible for how busy we’ve been of late?” Maria said. “I don’t know. I don’t see how the situations involving Mr. Marjoribanks or the Ronderleys could have anything to do with the war. The Sirens are perhaps questionable; Aunt Molpe may not have told us everything about how they came to be in England, but I doubt it.”
“But the Potamides—and the gas lamp incidents Dorothea and Emily are investigating…?” Georgiana said.
“Frances will be making discreet inquiries into the Potamides,” Annabel said. “If there’s any possibility that Lord Rossing might not—not be loyal, surely she’ll find out something.”
“Yes, and I shall be interested to hear what she finds out,” Georgiana replied.
After that, they all fell silent while the carriage moved slowly with the stream of traffic flowing toward Epsom. Annabel couldn’t suppress a faint shiver; joking about sending Angelique Ronderley to Paris to sabotage Napoleon’s pictures in the Musée Napoléon was one thing. But contemplating that an Englishman such as Lord Rossing might be doing the Emperor’s bidding here in his own country—and engaging in activities that might have sent her son and his Eton classmates to a watery grave in the Thames…she shivered again. Thank heavens Frances was looking into it.