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June 11th, 1819
“Mother, is that the Duxley carriage?” Mary asked, eyeing the humble arc of the transport.
The Duchess gazed over at the horses then quickly looked back at her daughter. “Yes, I do believe so.”
Mary let go a sigh. She’s here? Oh bother…
The Thanet Manor was impressive and had been passed down through generations. In 1731, the estate was even passed to the mistress whose husband passed away and her son, only two. A modest household of ten bedrooms, kitchen and staff quarters, the territory spanned several hundred acres with stables, woods, roses and lawns.
Mary was thrown off-guard when she learned that their invitation had been a collective one. Seems as though the Earl of Thanet invited the Duxley’s, Giselle and her chaperone, Lord Wrentmore, the gossip-mongers and the Duke and Duchess of Somerset to dine with them as well. One big happy heirs and assigns.
Mary had been quietly staring at her dessert as she recalled the last two evenings of dinner invites. All beyond boredom, until…
She had been to the Thanet manor many times before but on that particular evening, Mary had never been tenser. The Lord’s Wrentmore were seated to dine at the back of the table, next to them were Lady’s Parham and Addicott, across from them were the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, along with William, and besides them the Duxley’s with their children, Georgiana and Arthur. Giselle was across from her, Mary’s mother and father sat next to her, Frances on her left, while Lord Harper and his father, the Earl of Thanet were seated towards the head of the table. Lady Addicott also invited her grand-daughter, Estelle, who sat next to Arthur Duxley.
Lucas had proposed to her at Lady Parham’s and their easy childhood friendship turned from carefree to strain and Mary had never been so apprehensive in front of him. This care-free dinner party had never felt so uneasy!
Mary quietly moved her tart around on her plate as she contemplated her next move. Dinner at the Duxley’s was no different, just a repeat of the prior evenings at Lord Wrentmore’s. Who should she favor? Mr. Duxley, Lord Seymour or Lord Wrentmore? Wrentmore, Seymour or Duxley?
Frances noted Mary’s disinterest and irregular state and pinched her thigh underneath the table. “What has you tied in such a knot?” She whispered into her ear, fumbling around with her own desserts, piled high.
“Something is amiss,” Mary whispered back.
“Do tell,” Giselle asked, intrigued.
“Unclear,” Mary determined.
“Dear, Miss Duxley asked you a question…”
Mary blinked back her surprise and then focused on her mother first before gazing down the table at Miss Duxley. She had been strategically placed by Lord Harper and Mary moved uneasy in her chair. Her eyes moved along to his seated position and she couldn’t help but notice the strange look on his face. Odd as well, for now she wanted to know the color of his eyes, but how could she do so without having to get up close? She instead rested eyes on Lord Seymour. He was quiet that evening, and barely raised his head. Mary turned to look at Lord Harper again. He was now, scowling.
Could it be? How could she instinctively know his moods? At the ball, the other day and now this day, where had things suddenly reversed? Mary could sense something was bothering him again and she gave him a scowl back before asking, “I beg your pardon, Miss Duxley?”
Miss Duxley gave a glimpse over to Lord Harper first. They met eyes, and for some bizarre, unfamiliar reason, Mary felt a twinge way deep down in her heart.
Minute by minute, Mary was growing jealous of this Miss Duxley and she couldn’t fathom why. She had no possible reason to be envious of her! Mary knew her dowry beat Miss Duxley’s tenfold! What was the difficulty?!
“A race,” she finally spoke up. “Up the creek, towards the meadow, pass the farmhouse and back again.”
A horse race? Mary thought. Does she even know how to saddle a horse? And worse yet, does she even know what she was proposing? “When?” Mary blurted out quickly, feeling all heads turning towards hers.
Miss Duxley let go a chuckle, “Saturday?”
“I did not know you rode, Miss Duxley,” Mary replied to the quick.
“Why yes,” Miss Duxley replied as a matter-of-factly, “Since I was three or four, right father?”
Mr. Duxley nodded his head.
Mary met eyes with Lord Harper and then watched him as he leaned into Miss Duxley, giving her the most beguiling look. It unnerved her. “Why not today?” Mary asked, with one eyebrow raised.
The Duchess turned towards her daughter, “Dear, neither one of you are dressed. The sun is almost down….and the weather has turned.”
Mary suddenly didn’t like this Miss Duxley and challenged her in more ways than one.
“I accept,” Miss Duxley disclosed, smiling.
Lord Harper threw down his napkin and stood up excited, “By jolly, we’ve got ourselves some interesting entertainment.” Looking over at one of his servants he shouted, “John, call my valet and get him to find these young ladies some knickers and riding boots.”
It was a terrible idea, she knows that for sure, but Mary had never felt so much rivalry. She wanted to prove to this Miss Duxley that even though she had been riding since age three, two whatever it was – Mary was going to show her.
She wished to the Heavens and back again she had Maximus here at the Thanet Manor, but instead had to settle on Lord Harper’s steed. Thunder, was his name, a black stallion of magnificent horse-flesh, she was grateful for that. She was even thankful that Lord Harper opened up his high-quality stall to her first and not to Miss Duxley. Miss Duxley had to settle on the horse next to Thunder…Lightning was his name.
The race started out as none other. Just a few in attendance, the weather had indeed begin to change. The sky now a dark grim, mist formed all around them and in the woods beyond. Mary first surveyed her surroundings before digging in her heels. Lord Harper was on the outset on one horse, while Mr. Duxley rode on his on the other. Lucas and Frances also on horses, while her parents, Giselle, the Earl, the Ladies Parham and Addicott and Estelle all rode onto the field in open carriages.
Mary was determined, her game face on, she first eyed Miss Duxley adjusting her gloves then boots. Mary gazed down at her own attire then adjusted her gloves and boots before looking up and watching Lord Harper stride over to Miss Duxley’s side.
So many questions, not enough answers.
“A mile down the fairway, around the single oak tree then back again, understood?” Lord Harper shouted for both girls to hear.
Mary then pulled back on Thunder’s reins to get him set when she heard the loud snap of Lord Harper’s shotgun shooting into the air.
Thunder, within immediately hearing the surprising startling noise, kicked back on his hind legs, nearly throwing Mary off his posterior. Good thing for Mary, she knew the workings of an alarmed equine and leaned in, lowered her body and quickly sped off moments after Miss Duxley.
Yes...moments after. Miss Duxley had the lead, a few short lengths ahead of Mary and Mary would have none of that. Crouching down, she dug her heels into Thunder’s sides urging him to move a little faster. And boy did he…Thunder was magnificent as he sped by Miss Duxley in full gallop, racing past her length by glorious length, passing the single oak tree, not running around it but rather progressing it…speeding, darting towards parts unknown.
Mary pulled back on the reins but Thunder…would not…slow down. Hastily, pulling back on his mouthpiece, Mary decided to ease him down rather than stop him completely. This seemed to help, as she gradually began to see him responding to her commands. It was the turbulence again that spooked him. In all her haste to get to the finish line, Mary was unaware of the thunderstorm above. Calmly, she got the horse down to a jumpy gallop when all of a sudden she noticed that she did not recognize any of her surroundings. Thunder had obviously wandered into deep woods, and Mary was unsettled. The downpour was relentless as well; in a matter of moments, the mist had turned into heavy rain and Mary grew more and more…wet.
She managed to maintain Thunder to an easy trot while she tried to make sense of north and south. Where was everyone? Had no one seen that the horse kept running? Was no one coming to see if she was at least, fine?
Mary could not see ten feet in front of her much less others. Tree after tree, Mary trotted by until she could hear sounds of water gushing by. Water? No, that was a river…a river was suddenly forming in and around them. Without warning, Thunder rose up on his hind legs not wanting any part of the rapid current.
Mary controlled his weight, got him down to all four legs when she looked up and finally saw someone drawing near. She held the reins back to get Thunder to hold his ground when she watched Lord Harper on his horse quickly approaching.
“Mary, thank God! What are you doing?” Lord Harper yelled at her, pulling back on his horse’s reins.
“Your horse,” she managed to get out, wiping water away from her face.
“Follow me,” he yelled again, trying to corral Thunder with his own horse.
“Where are we going?”
Lord Harper turned around, “Somewhere safe…”