“It’s a bet!” Lord Swindon said with a laugh and a greedy glint in his eye. He held out his hand. The Viscount Rivers gave the man a tight smile as they shook on the deal.
Epsom Downs was unusually quiet, with only maybe a hundred people milling about or chatting from their carriages. The Derby Stakes, one of the biggest races of the season, would not be held for another few weeks. This made it a perfect day for the private relay race, which had been arranged by Lord Bunbury to hold over eager race-goers as they awaited the big day.
Rivers had been thrilled to hear of the race, which was to be ridden not by jockeys but by anyone at all who wished to enter. He’d signed himself and his daughter, Diana, up immediately.
“And here I thought you were an intelligent man,” Swindon said with a shake of his head. “Clearly, looks are deceiving.”
“I beg your pardon?” Rivers asked, lowering his eyebrows.
“It’s one thing to bet on a race you’re riding in,” Swindon said, dipping his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets, spreading apart his open double-breasted coat of blue superfine, “but a relay where half the race is being ridden by a girl?” He quickly held up a hand, “Now, don’t misunderstand me, your daughter is a pretty little filly, but there’s no possible way she can ride well enough to win you this race.”
The man, oblivious to the stupidity of his words, turned to look at the young woman in question. She was standing some ten feet away talking with her cousin, Lord Audley. “I might like her to ride my…” He gave a little chuckle and wisely chose not to finish that sentence. “But I doubt her ability to ride a horse well enough to win a race.”
“Did we say five hundred?” Rivers ground out between his clenched teeth. He gave the man a hard smile. “I meant five thousand.”
Swindon’s eyebrows rose to the top of his forehead. “Do you have that sort of money at hand, old man?”
“Do you? Do you have the guts to make the wager?”
Swindon lifted his nose into the air. “I want it in writing.”
“Fine. Get some paper.”
Swindon’s lips quirked up to one side as he gave Rivers a little nod. “I’m sure someone has some about.” He turned and headed off to find the required implements, assuming Rivers would follow. He wasn’t wrong.
Diana Hemshawe, allowed her mare, Nike, to start off the race toward the back of the pack in order to gauge the strengths of each rider and mount. Slowly, as she watched other horses fall away behind her and Nike, she was certain they wouldn’t have any difficulty winning. The race had been open to the first ten people to sign up, as long as they weren’t professional jockeys, so she’d worried a bit that there could be some serious competition. Happily, it didn’t seem as if there were too many here who had the skill and experience of her and her father.
They’d been racing throughout Europe for the past nine years, traveling from course to course, town to town. It had been an incredible way to spend one’s adolescence. She’d learned more about the world and its people than she ever would have from the comfort of her father’s estate.
Her mother had implored her not to go with her father. When he’d invited her, she was only ten-years-old. Her mother had promised Diana she could learn as much about the world as she wanted—through books. Diana nearly laughed as she recalled her mother’s earnest, if futile, arguments.
No, Diana had eagerly gone with her father, and she’d never once regretted the decision. She loved the thrill of the race, the camaraderie of the racing set, even the parties afterward. Today when they won this race, she would celebrate with him as she had after every race, sitting comfortably among the men and women of the racing world in the local pub or inn. Of course, now everyone they sat with would be speaking English—something Diana was still getting used to after so many years of living in France and Germany.
Her father had insisted they return to England when Diana turned nineteen so she could find a husband. She was yet to be convinced of the necessity, but she did admit she was enjoying London. They’d been here for nearly three months, and she’d even managed to make friends, which wasn’t something she’d ever done very much of. It was simply too difficult to maintain when one traveled so frequently. Now, as a member of the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society, she knew what true friendship was.
From the corner of her eye, Diana spied two competitors who might actually provide her with a challenge. They were both men on thoroughbreds and clearly as eager to win as she. But despite the fact that their horses were bigger than hers, the riders themselves were both much heavier. She clearly had the advantage.
Leaning forward, she whispered in Nike’s ear, “Good girl, Nike, just a little faster now. Not too much, though; we don’t actually want to show these men what we can really do yet.” She loved seeing the shocked expression on gentlemen’s faces when they saw just how fast she could ride. But she would hold off on that for a later race. A slight tightening of her knees against the horse’s flank gave her mare the signal to increase her speed just enough to edge out her two competitors. She approached Tattenham Corner, where her father would take over the race.
Once her father had taken over, Diana rode her slightly heaving horse into the center of the field to watch her father easily win the race. She’d gotten only about halfway across when her father’s body jerked upward as if he’d been shot. He dropped the reins, his right hand going to his left shoulder. Diana jolted with shock as he tumbled from his horse. Thank God he was on the inside of the track and tumbled into the center, away from the deadly hooves of the other horses.
Within seconds, she was galloping toward him and frantically looking around to see who’d shot him. Why would someone do that? Had he crossed someone? Could her dear, sweet, charming father have an enemy who’d followed them to England?
She jumped from her horse when she was barely a few feet away and ran to his disturbingly unmoving body.
“Papa! Papa!” she screamed.
He lay there, his face gray and still—too still. He wasn’t conscious! His leg was bent at a terrible angle, and it was clearly broken.
“Doctor! Is there a doctor?” she screamed out over the thundering of the horses still racing.
A man came running, ducking under the rail on the other side of the racetrack. “Is he all right?”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m Bunbury. I organized the race.” The man knelt down and put a hand over her father’s mouth to see if he were still breathing.
“Didn’t you hire a doctor to be present should there be an accident?” Diana asked.
The man’s worried eyes met hers. “No, I didn’t think of it.”
“Is he all right?” asked Audley, Diana’s cousin, dropping to the ground next to her.
“No. We need a doctor immediately,” Diana answered.
“He’s breathing, but barely,” Lord Bunbury said. “I’ll get a wagon and send for a surgeon. We’ll take him to the King’s Head. It’s not far.” He took off running.
Tears pricked Diana’s eyes as she reached out and brushed her father’s dark brown hair from his forehead. “It’s all right, Papa. It’s going to be all right,” she whispered, praying he could hear her.
An agonizing twenty minutes later, he was lying on a bed at the King’s Head Tavern. The surgeon had just come in and been appraised of the accident. Diana stood off to one side of the room, watching intently. Never had she seen her father fall from a horse. She was certain he didn’t know how.
“Look for a bullet hole in his shoulder,” she directed the surgeon, who’d started with the most obvious thing, her father’s leg.
The man stood up from where he’d been bent over her father’s lower limbs and turned to look at her. “He was shot?”
“That’s the way it looked. It’s what made him fall,” she answered.
The surgeon immediately examined both of her father’s shoulders. “Are you certain? There’s no bleeding, no broken skin. Nothing,” the man said.
“That’s… That’s very strange. I distinctly saw him sit up and put his hand to his shoulder. It was then that he fell,” she said.
“I saw it too.” Audley nodded.
She tried to give her cousin a smile to thank him for his support, but she couldn’t get her lips to cooperate. There just wasn’t a smile in her.
“No. There’s no wound here at all,” the doctor confirmed. He felt along his body. “He’s got some broken ribs, which isn’t surprising. But it’s his leg I’m most worried about. It needs to be set immediately. Good thing he isn’t conscious, because this is going to hurt.”
Diana turned away as he got to work cutting away her father’s boot and stockings to reveal his leg.
Unfortunately, it must have been the pain that actually made her father come to. He inhaled sharply as the doctor set the broken bone. Once again, his hand flew to his shoulder.
“Papa!” Diana flew to his side. “It’s all right, Papa. The surgeon is here. He’s seeing to you. You’re going to be fine.”
Her father’s pale blue eyes shimmered from his too-white face. “Diana, my sweet… You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. He seemed winded, even though she knew that couldn’t be the case.
“Of course I’m here. I will always look after you. You know that. I’ve always done so, haven’t I?”
He gave her a weak smile and a feeble pat on her arm. “You have. I don’t know…what I would do…without you. Please don’t mourn…for me when I’m gone…my sweet. Ride. Ride another race…to celebrate my life.”
Diana gave a strained laugh. “Papa, what a goose you are! You’re not going to die.”
He took in a shallow breath and winced.
“It’s just your ribs. Some are broken. The surgeon said so. He’ll bind you up and you’ll be good as new in no time,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words.
Her father shook his head from side to side. “No…” A tear slowly leaked from one eye and slipped down his temple into his hair that in the past year had begun to turn gray.
“Ah, well now,” the surgeon said with forced cheer, “you’re awake, I see. Good, good. We’ll get you wrapped up and patched up in no time. You’ll have to stay off that leg for a good six weeks or more, but your ribs should heal in a much shorter time.” He came up the other side of the bed and smiled down at his patient.
“Doc, I…” Lord Rivers started.
“Now, now, no talking. Just take shallow breaths to ease the pain for the moment, and then I’ll give you some laudanum to let you sleep.” The man went back to splinting Lord Rivers’ leg. Diana held his hand and tried to force herself to be as upbeat and optimistic as the doctor seemed to be.
Andrew Crowther sat back in the post chaise he’d hired to transport himself and his valet from Dover to London. The crossing from Calais had been easy enough, but sadly, Michel didn’t do well on the water. The valet had been hanging over the side rail, sick as could be, for much of their time aboard. If Andrew had known he had that problem, he could have brought some ginger tea to calm his stomach. It had just never occurred to him, being a strong-stomached traveler himself.
“What use is having a physician for an employer,” Michel had cried in his native French.
Andrew had felt bad, but there’d been nothing he could do for the fellow.
Even now, Michel still looked a little pale and gray. Andrew handed him another piece of sugared ginger.
The man took it with a nod of thanks. “It is very green, your English countryside,” he said, practicing his English.
“It is. Not so very different from France, no?”
“Perhaps. I do not much go outside the city.”
“Well, you’ll feel right at home in London, I assure you,” Andrew said, giving him a reassuring smile.
“If I survive the journey,” the man groaned, leaning his head against the side of the carriage.
“Keep your eye on the passing scenery. It will help.”
Michel nodded. “Oui, c’est vrai.”
They sat for a few minutes in silence, each watching through the window. Andrew did his best to keep his worries at bay. It had been nearly three years since he’d last seen his parents. They’d been momentous years for him—studying and learning all he could at the feet of the great French physician René Laennec. Laennec’s new discovery, which he called the stethoscope, was going to revolutionize coronary medicine, Andrew was certain of it. Already, it had saved the life of a number of patients. Andrew was excited to bring this new tool with him to London. He didn’t know if he would be the first, but he would certainly be one of the only physicians there with one.
What worried him, however, was how his parents were coping with the death of his brother in a riding incident. It was a terrible thing to think, but Andrew had been relieved to learn he’d died that way and not by a disease that Andrew might have been able to prevent. Still, now Ian was gone, it would be Andrew who would have to take over the role of heir to his father—not something he was looking forward to at all.
The one thing Andrew was absolutely certain about, however, was that no matter what his father said, he would not be giving up his medical practice. He’d worked too long and too hard to give it up now. He was still a little new, a little green in the field, but he had great ambitions—and nothing, not even an earldom, was going to convince him to give it up.
Read a vignette from the past of
The Games She Played
The 1806 Season