“… Aaaand winning by a nose… iiit’ss Mistress Maryyyy!” The grey mare lunged over the winning post as the jockey victoriously raised his crop in the air.
Spectators in the stands and lining the turf erupted in hoots and hollers as they hugged one another. Mistress Mary’s odds were twenty to one and those brave enough (or stupid enough) to bet on an outsider had been rewarded for their courage. Women in expensive heels and even pricier hats shrieked joyfully at the prospect of cashing in their winnings. No matter how wealthy one is, my dear, an unexpected windfall is always welcome.
I, on the other hand, disgustedly tore my betting ticket in half and let the wind carry it onto the race track. As a legal clerk working hard to earn her BA LLB, I didn’t move in horsey circles and wouldn’t know an Arabian from an Airedale. It had only been at the insistence of one of our clients, a certain Lady Abigail Dainford that I was even at the damned races.
It had pained me to have to schlep to the milliners to buy a fussy hat for the grand occasion, but fortunately Mr Langley, the senior partner at Langley, Watson and Johnson, had insisted I attend. He had duly issued instructions to his secretary to make sure the company footed the bill. I was under no illusion that Mr Langley’s gesture had been one of kindness. He liked employees to ‘hob’ with the ‘knobs’ – just in case they could rub shoulders (and get into the pockets of) the wealthy. And the less healthy and the wealthier they were, the better. And that was certainly the case of Lady Abigail’s mother, Agnes Dainford, the Countess of a far-flung region of the British Isles. No one knew where it was; however nobody dared ask for fear of looking like a twat or, even worse, annoying a peer of the realm.
I stared glumly at the other losers milling around me, the winners having headed straight to the bookies to collect their winnings. I noticed the bookies’ faces were gloomier than mine. Twenty to one odds would make a very deep hole in their bank accounts.
“Di, dear,” a lilting voice called out to me, “your face is a picture!” A homely middle-aged woman weaved her way through the crowd towards me. She held a delicate lace glove over her mouth as she chuckled at my misery. It was Lady Abigail Dainford. Unfortunately, some ugly ducklings don’t grow up to be beautiful swans, and so it was with her. It wasn’t that Abigail was unattractive; she was just so unremarkable-looking. Her brown hair, stumpy nose and round face assured her a place in the shade amongst the pampered young socialites that populated her life.
Now, although the dowdy young woman’s title may have impressed some, it was the trust fund she stood to inherit upon her widowed mother’s death that impressed everyone. In particular, her husband, one Andrew Smythe Esq., a man who, unlike Abigail, was more than gifted in the looks department. The brightness of his floppy blonde hair matched the gleam of his sparkling white teeth that he flashed, often. His tanned body (compliments of a recent holiday to the Greek Isles funded by his wife), square jaw and lean legs reduced even the snowiest of noblewomen to adolescent schoolgirls.
“Trust me” I groaned, “placing all my money on the favourite for first place.”
“Oh dear, how much did you lose on Rosehip?” Abigail asked, her brow furrowed with concern.
“Not much really. I’m just a sore loser; that’s all,” I answered, grinning. I wasn’t about to admit to her that losing two hundred quid meant that I’d be eating more fried eggs on toast until the end of the month than was good for me. My arteries wouldn’t thank me for it.
“Thank heavens for that,” she said, relieved. “Otherwise I would’ve felt guilty for inviting you.”
“Not at all,” I reassured her, “it’s been great. It doesn’t help that I’ve never been to the races, let alone bet on a horse!”
“You’re very sweet, Di. That’s why I invited you. You’re so different to these other pains in the bum,” she joked, waving her arm at the thinning crowd. I burst out laughing. The debutantes could learn a lot about humanity from her, I thought, instead of just worrying about their expensive wardrobes, clubbing or whether to winter in Verbier or Gstaad.
She hooked her arm through mine. “Now, come with me. We’re having a late luncheon in the family’s private suite. Champagne and lobster, don’t you know dahling,” she joked, affecting an even posher accent than normal. I caught a whiff of the soft floral fragrance that danced around her pale green chiffon dress. It occurred to me that those who thought of her as unattractive hadn’t taken the time to look at her closely enough. And those who bothered to talk to her would find her irresistible. But the world is too preoccupied with obvious beauty to be concerned with brains or charm.
“No, I couldn’t. I’ve got to…” I’d be about as comfortable at the lunch as a chicken among a pack of hungry wolves. Just thinking about it made my head hurt.
“I’m not listening. You’re coming with me, and that’s that. Now, put one foot in front of the other and let’s go grab some of those bubbles before Uncle Hubert polishes off the best vintage.”
“I… I’m not sure…,” I started to argue weakly. My heart was telling me to get the hell off the turf and into a safe pub, but my head put on the brakes. After all, the partners at my law firm would be very impressed if I managed to bag another member of the nobility as a client. My head, or should I rather say, my ego, won. “Sure, why not. Let’s go.”
”Excellent! Now smile, or you may even be in danger of enjoying yourself,” said Abigail with a grin.
We strolled arm in arm across the turf towards the racecourse buildings chatting amiably about nothing in particular. I knew better than to delve into her family’s private affairs.
We climbed the stairs and entered one of the larger private suites on the top floor of the administration block. My boss would have been pleased to know that it was crammed with famous faces and titled individuals with very deep pockets. I felt my spirits rise at the prospect of profitable networking, the letters BA LLB safely behind my name and a healthy pay rise. With luck, I may even soon be able to buy that apartment on the Thames I’d been eyeing.
Abigail scanned the room, looking for someone. “Hah, there he is,” she said, as her eyes fell on her quarry. “Andrew! Andrew!” She called out, waving her hand in the air to catch his attention.
“Come and talk to my gorgeous husband,” she urged, tugging at my arm. “You have met him before, haven’t you?”
“Uh, yes, we’ve been introduced…,” was all I could manage in reply. I bloody knew I should’ve gone to the damned pub; I thought grimly.
The truth was I had loathed the man even before I’d met him. His reputation alone was reason enough to avoid him, something I had succeeded in doing for almost two years. Until now, that is.
It was an ill-kept secret that Andrew had only married Abigail for a trust fund large enough to solve the European debt crisis and still have enough left over to buy an airline. But there was a major hitch in Andrew’s plans to get hold of that fabulous money. And that ‘hitch’ was the Countess, his wife’s mother. Or, to be more precise, the fact that the old woman stubbornly remained above ground. Not until she was six foot under would Abigail inherit. I recalled a conversation I had had with a colleague.
“Jeez. What a good looking dude. I bet he can pull any bird he wants” I remarked as Andrew had swept into our offices looking like the poster boy for Horse and Hound – all leather, tweeds and fox’s leer.
Jonathan, my colleague, peered over his computer screen to see Mr Lord-of-the-Manor schmoozing the boss’s pert secretary.
“Oh shit, not that fucking twat!”
“Why so enthusiastic about him?” I asked sarcastically.
“That idiot had to marry money. He couldn’t earn an honest quid even if he were starving.” I watched as Andrew combed a stray lock of blonde hair off the secretary’s face. She stared at him as though she thought she’d been touched by an angel. “I’ll tell you a bit of history about that jerk and let you decide” Jonathan continued.
“Yeah…? Go on, go on” I urged. Besides being filled in on some juicy gossip, you never know when some “inner-circle” information may come in handy when dealing with clients.
“Mister Smythe,” he began caustically, “chased the knickers off Lady Abigail Dainford. He must’ve spent his last brass bloody farthing wining and dining her. Anyway, Lady Abigail fell for his lines and his bullshit and then, ‘bam’, he popped the question.”
“What’s so shit about that?” I asked, “after all, women manipulate men to get what they want. Remember Jennifer, your last girlfriend?”
“Fuck off, you cow! This isn’t about me.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry I mentioned it. But seriously, surely Lady Abigail smelled the jackal in the chicken coop?”
“That ‘s the problem. Abigail isn’t, shall we say, the best looking chick you’ve ever seen, so she didn’t have any, uhm experience with men. And she was a 30-year-old spinster when she met him. I guess she was bowled over by ole pretty boy there. She was either so desperate or maybe grateful that she didn’t even have him sign a prenup before they got married. Daft, if you ask me.”
“He is a 22 carat jerk. Shit, he may have sold his soul to Satan for the cash, but he doesn’t look like he’s having a crisis of conscience,” I remarked wryly, watching him blind another female staffer with his white choppers.
“Well, yes and no. I reckon Satan may still have the last laugh.”
“How so?” This conversation was making an unexpected U-turn. I was intrigued.
“Abigail only gets an allowance every month. She can’t touch the big money until mummy dies. And ‘Mummy’ is none other than the Countess of Shepperton or something. Our firm drew up the Trust Deed. I’ve seen it.”
“Wait a minute” I interrupted, snapping my fingers, “I remember reading somewhere that the Countess had a stroke, and she’s in a coma! Or am I confusing my Countesses with my Duchesses and Viscountesses or whatever the hell they are?”
“Nope, you’re right. The old duck has been non compos mentis for months now. The old bird had a stroke just after her daughter’s wedding to that prick. Fucked up the reception well and truly, I can tell you. Some say the Countess had the stroke because she couldn’t bloody bear the thought of her daughter marrying Andrew. Now our friend over there” he nodded at Andrew, “is circling lazily over the old woman waiting for her to snuff it so he can get his oily hands on Abigail’s wonga.”
“He’s a right sweetheart. What’s the word about the Countess’s health?” I asked. News about her progress, or imminent demise, had been thin since her stroke.
”The doctors are stumped. They reckon her stroke was so massive that it should’ve killed her straight away. But the old bird keeps hanging on. It’s driving Andrew nuts apparently.”
“Seems pretty pointless though. I mean the Countess is… what, about 70? And she must be pretty frail. It’s a game she can’t possibly win.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. Looks like Andrew will get what he wants. He just has to sit tight and wait for the funeral bells to ring. Then Bob’s your uncle, Martha’s your auntie, and he’s got his hands on the trust fund.”
“Fuck it, the man’s mercenary!”
“Never has one person done so little for so long for so much.”
“But can’t Abigail see what Andrew’s up to?” It galled me to see a naive person being used so callously.
“Nah, she’s too besotted with him. Woods for trees and all that shit. That woman would never divorce Andrew. No matter what! To make matters worse, she’s a devout Catholic. And you know what that means! ”
“Uh, no I don’t.”
“Divorce is a fate worse than hell. Out, of, the question!”
“My angel! Where have you been hiding?” My thoughts were interrupted by the subject of my derision – Andrew. He had spotted Abigail, and I could see his bright blonde hair bobbing around the room crammed with champagne-toting guests. The only angel you’d anything know about, I thought, is one with black wings, mate.