One Hoof in the Grave

One Hoof in the Grave
Carolyn McSparren

December 2011 $14.95
978-1-61194-017-6

Book 2 in the Merry Abbott Carriage Driving mystery series.
 
Our PriceUS$14.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Once again, Merry Abbott has to catch a killer in the high-stakes world of carriage-horse competitions.

Nothing ruins an elegant Southern horse show like finding a murdered man with a tent spike through his neck.  Merry's at the top of a long list of suspects who have plenty of reason to want the victim dead.  But soon it becomes obvious that she's also at the top of the real murderer's next-to-die list. 

Climb into the carriage seat for a wild ride as Merry hunts for clues, teacher her first (and maybe last) driving clinic, tries to rein in her attraction for a handsome GBI agent, and dodges a killer.  Merry Abbott's taking a new mystery out for a spin.

Reviews

"…the latest Merry mayhem is an enjoyable investigative whodunit… Readers will enjoy this warm lighthearted romp (unless you're the victim)" -- Klausner’s Bookshelf – TheMidwest Book Review

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Saturday morning

Merry

Marathon day is always tense at a carriage driving show. There was enough adrenaline floating around to win every gold medal at the Olympics. I breathed deeply of the scent of pines that crowded both sides of the starting track and tried to relax.

It was barely dawn on a chill north Georgia morning in early May. Around me horses put to carriages paced the staging area atop the Tollivers’ hill as they waited for their signal to start down to the first obstacle.

Harness jingled, drivers and grooms cajoled their teams to settle them. Eager to start, the horses whinnied, stomped, and snorted. Peggy Caldwell, my landlady and first friend in Mossy Creek, Georgia, was driving our pair of Halflinger horses, Golden Boy and Ned, over her first marathon course. She’s a natural reinsman, but I’d been training her less than a year. Now, she needed the experience of driving a pair in an actual show.

I was more nervous than she was. At least I would be with her, standing behind her seat on the steel marathon carriage as her gator—short for Navigator. My friend Pete Hull swears that some anonymous driver shortened the term because "gators” are mean suckers with big mouths, the better to snarl at their slow or downright dangerous drivers.

As gator, I was supposed to keep us on course, on time, and use my not inconsiderable weight to counterbalance the carriage around turns.

Until we got the signal to start, I was standing in front of our Halflingers and slipping them sugar cubes to keep them calm, so Peggy wouldn’t tense up even more. I was tense enough for both of us.

"Where the hell is Raleigh?” I heard Pete Hull shout. "Wasn’t he supposed to start first?”

Peggy and I were due to go second, after Giles Raleigh’s four-in-hand team of Dutch warmbloods. I saw the judge in charge of starting speaking on his cell phone, and a moment later he came over to us. "Peggy, Merry, that was Raleigh on the phone. He’s got to replace a broken pole chain on his lead horses. He’ll be here in a couple of minutes, but we can make up the time if y’all go first. How about it?”

"Oh, Lord,” Peggy whispered. "Do we have to?”

I gave her a thumbs-up. "Our boys are getting more antsy by the minute.”

"Why don’t you take over the reins?” she asked me.

I shook my head. "You’ve trained with both Ned and Golden. You know the course. I’ll be on the step right behind you coaching you. You’ll do fine. Have at it.”

She sucked in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Then let’s do this thing.”

I gave Ned and Golden a final pat, walked around behind the cart, climbed on the gator’s step, and patted her shoulder. "Okay, kiddo, let’s have some fun.”

"Oh, Lord,” Peggy whispered and clicked to the pair of Halflingers. "Trot on.”

They trotted smoothly down the path toward our first obstacle. We were off.

Peggy and I had agreed on one goal. No disasters. Like all the competitors, we wore hard hats and body protectors, even though we had no intention of driving our horses at a dead gallop the way the more experienced drivers did.

"We might as well be driving through the clouds in the Alps.” Peggy said. She had a point. Heavy mist nearly obscured our path. It rose in thick clouds from the surface of the little lake in the valley. "We’re driving into a witch’s cauldron.” Peggy whispered. "I’ll never be able to see where to turn onto the bridge.”

I could feel the tension in her shoulder when she leaned back against the seat in front of me, but her hands seemed steady on the reins.

At the bottom of the hill we had to make a sharp right turn beside the lake onto a causeway that led to a wooden bridge. The bridge wasn’t steeply arched or narrow, but some horses hated the sound of their hooves on the wood so much they took one step, stopped dead and refused to cross. Peggy and I had practiced driving across boards with the Halflingers for the last couple of months. We figured they were cool, even if we weren’t.

On Friday evening, all the drivers and navigators had ridden over the marathon course on the back of pickup trucks, so we knew what obstacles we’d encounter and where. The bed of a truck, however, gives a different perspective from when you’re handling the reins of sensitive horses who’ll picked up on every emotion transmitted through your hands.

"Good boys,” Peggy called. Their fat little yellow butts jiggled from side to side as they sped up. Halflingers are the size of large ponies, but they are classed as draft horses. That means they can be a handful to drive.

She’d driven in a couple of short non-rated marathons, but always in single harness with my Halflinger, Golden Boy. What he didn’t know about driving hadn’t been figured out yet. But Peggy’d never before driven a pair in a recognized event.

The mist lifted some as we neared the bottom of the hollow. Drivers not scheduled to go until later, grooms, spectators, and hangers-on straddled their ATVs or stood out of the track of the carriages where the teams made the turn, so they could watch the first carriages cross the bridge and plan their own runs.

I caught the odor of coffee from the big cups most of them held and wished I could swap places with them.

The sun now glittered off the lake so brightly that I wished I could fit Golden Boy and Ned with their own Polarized sunglasses, like Peggy’s and mine. Their golden coats and flowing white manes blazed nearly as bright as the sunlight.

"Easy,” she called.

"Half halt right,” I said. She gave a short tug on her reins and tapped her brakes to slow down the horses and set them up for the last part of the trot downhill.

In yesterday afternoon’s hazards class, where we threaded the carriage through the various hazards set barely wider than our tires, our boys—Golden Boy and his new teammate Ned—had performed as though they’d been working together all their lives. Golden Boy, actually my Halflinger, inherited from my father, was an old pro. As right hand horse, he kept the younger and less experienced Ned in line admirably. Ned was Peggy’s new acquisition—willing, but green. Green horses always worried me.

Peggy slowed and swung the team right onto the causeway. Perfect. Right down the center. Even though it was narrow, there was plenty of room between the banks.

"Horses are slaves. Free them now or die in their place!” The voice was so loud it sounded as though God himself were issuing a new commandment. A second later, a garish banner flapped open across the bridge dead ahead of us and popped noisily in the morning breeze.

I yelped, levitated two feet straight up in the air, and almost fell off the carriage. Peggy hauled back hard on the reins and stomped the brakes. Even Golden Boy was startled. Of all the crazy...

Terrified, Ned reared and pulled hard to his left. His left hind hoof slipped in the mud at the edge of the causeway and slid down the bank toward the water, canting the carriage to the left. Peggy hauled right on the reins as I threw my weight to counterbalance the listing cart.

Too late.

We drove straight into the lake. The team’s momentum dragged us a dozen feet into the water. Both horses and carriage sank instantly. The horses thrashed, trying desperately to free themselves from their harness and keep their heads above the water.

Even in May the water hung on to its chill. All I could do was suck in a breath and pray. Choking and spitting, weighed down by clothes, boots and body protector that felt as heavy as chain mail, I fought my way to the surface. My eyes stung and then my hard hat spilled an icy waterfall down my face.

I dashed the water out of my eyes with one hand and grabbed the back of Peggy’s body protector with the other as she broke the surface. She choked, spat and twisted out of my grasp.

"Let go of me!” she screamed. "We have to get the horses loose!”

The carriage was submerged, but I could feel the top of the seat with my boot. I kicked off to swim forward to the horses. "Swim to the bank.” I shouted. "I’ll get ‘em.” I didn’t know whether Peggy could swim, but she was not young and the water was frigid. I didn’t want to have to rescue her too.

I heard splashes behind me, and a moment later, a couple of spectators I didn’t recognize swam past me to grab the horses’ bridles. Shouting, others jumped in after them until people and horses roiled the water like an interspecies feeding frenzy. If someone was kicked under water or hit by the heavy center pole of the carriage, or if one of the horses broke a leg, this could be a tragedy, not simply a disaster.

I had to trust Peggy would be all right. Surely someone on the bank would drag her out.

The horses’ heads broke the surface of the water ahead of me but immediately sank again. I sucked in a deep breath and dove. The water was murky, but those white manes floated ahead like ghosts. I swam to the pair of singletrees that attached the horses to the carriage. I could see someone doing the same thing on the far side of Golden.

The horses fought us, but their kicks had little force under the water. They were attached to the cart by quick release carabiners designed for just such emergencies. You couldn’t cut the horses out of their rig. It’s impossible to saw through either Biothane plastic—the newest material for harness—or thick leather, and certainly not under the water. Cutting them loose wasn’t an option.

We had to free them from the singletrees first, then from the strap that held them both to the long pole shaft between them.

I managed to get both carabiners on Ned’s side free, then surfaced to see men holding both horses’ heads above water, before I pulled myself forward by grabbing the nearest handful of pale mane. Someone had already unhooked the pole strap, which meant that although the horses were free of the carriage, they were still coupled together.

Releasing the coupling rein that held Ned to Golden meant they could swim forward on their own. A pale hand came out of the murk and unhooked Golden from the far side.

I grabbed Ned’s bridle. Once he was released from reins and carriage, Ned kicked forward. I felt his hoof brush my knee. Golden would be free by now as well. I trusted that whoever had unhooked him would aim him toward the shore.

Ned tossed his head, thereby lashing me across the bridge of my nose with about two feet of wet mane that felt like a cat o’ nine tails. "Ow!” I yelped and sucked in a mouthful of pond water. I swung my right leg over his back, startling him even more, and turned him toward the bank.

Where was Golden? I risked a glimpse behind me and saw him swimming close behind Ned. All around me people swam with the horses. I recognized Jack Renfro, the Tollivers’ huge groom, hauling Golden along like a barge towing a john boat.

"We got ‘em!” A gray-haired man I’d met at Friday night’s exhibitors’ meeting tilted his head back and let out a rebel yell. From the bank I heard shouts and applause. The horses shook their heads to free their ears of water, but otherwise, didn’t react. They were used to spectators and just wanted out.

I saw Peggy sloshing along the shore still wearing her driving gloves, hardhat, and back protector as she attempted to climb down the bank toward us.

"Whoa! We don’t need to rescue you too,” Peggy’s Gentleman Caller Dick Fitzgibbons said, grabbed her around the waist and swung her up the bank.

Horses are excellent swimmers, and our two were no exceptions. Hands reached down to grab bridles and help the horses find their footing on the bank. I dropped off. Dick hauled me up and reached down to grab Golden’s bridle from Jack.

Peggy shook Dick off and ran to embrace the horses and me. "So much for getting around the course safely.” I said and steadied myself with an arm on Peggy. "You okay?”

"I am now.” Peggy stood between the two horses with an arm around each neck as they nuzzled her. Their white manes were green from pond algae. Their long outside reins and shorter inside coupling reins were still attached to their bridles. Ortega, Dick’s groom, hooked lead lines to both bridles. Peggy and I unhooked the reins and dragged them out of the water. They felt as slimy as wet leather shoes.

"Could ‘a been a damn sight worse,” Dick said. He dropped his dry windbreaker over my shoulders. Someone had already draped a driving apron around Peggy, and I saw our other rescuers being tended to as well.

"But your poor carriage...” Peggy wailed.

"Screw the carriage,” Dick said. "We’ll drive the tractor down here as soon as the others get past the bridge. We’ll winch it out in no time.”

"But...”

"It’s steel, Miss Peggy,” said Jack Renfro. He patted her shoulder. "Water can’t hurt it.”

"The harness...”

"It’ll be good as new after a powerwash.”

Dick turned Peggy to face him. "We need to fix you? How are you?”

"I’m mortified is how I am.” Peggy looked past Dick at the bedraggled group that had saved the horses. "You’re soaked. I am so sorry.”

Now that the danger was past, everyone around us, wet or dry, was laughing and clapping. "Thank you so much,” she shouted. A chorus of ‘glad to do it’s’ and the like came back to us.

Catherine Harris, the official technical delegate to the show, walked up behind Dick Fitzgibbons with her hands on her hips and an expression on her face that would have melted lead. "Those horses could have drowned.”

I’m sure Catherine realized intellectually that Peggy was not to blame, but in the final analysis, it’s the reinsman’s job to keep his team under control, even in the event of a nuclear disaster. A horseman’s initial reaction in any accident is anger that horses have been put at risk. And we tend to take out that anger on whichever human being is closest.

Catherine took a deep breath. "Sorry, Peggy, Merry. Not your fault, but when I find whoever set this up, I intend to flay them alive.”

She turned to her young assistant. "Troy,” she said, "Go bring me that ludicrous banner.” She stormed off toward the bridge. "I’ll teach the moron who did this to put horses in jeopardy.”

Peggy caught my eyes and essayed a shaky smile. "At least she’s got her priorities straight.”


 

Chapter 2

Merry

If I ever found the idiot who thought opening a flapping banner across that bridge and howling into a bullhorn were appropriate methods to make an animal rights statement, I would do what the Chinese used to do to traitors. I would tie the fool’s arms and legs to four big strong horses and gallop them off in different directions until he was yanked apart at the seams. No, I’d use oxen and walk them slowly. He’d take longer to die that way.

Catherine Harris would be a willing assistant. We’d known one another for years. My father Hiram actually taught her to drive when she was a teenager. She felt the same way about people who hurt horses as I did.

Through narrowed eyes, Dick stared into the thick copse of pine trees bordering the road, then nodded at two grooms who stood at the edge of the lake holding the Halflingers. "The Halflingers aren’t going anywhere while we’re here,” he said. "Y’all, go see if you can find where that voice came from.”

They ran into the woods and craned their necks to peer into the branches. "Damned voice didn’t sound human,” Dick said. "Probably using one of those fake voice things. Wouldn’t want to be recognized.”

"I see it!” Jack Renfro pointed toward a tall pine that stood among the trees edging the course. He started toward the trees, but Peggy put a hand on his arm and stopped him.

"Forgive me for saying this, but you are entirely too big to climb trees.”

"Yes’m.” He sounded disappointed.

"Leave it,” Catherine called. "I want the police to see the set-up.”

As soon as I heard the words "set up,” I knew what to look for. I clutched Dick’s jacket around my damp body and squelched over to the causeway in my wet paddock boots. Even though I had already started to dry, the breeze on my wet jeans and shirt made me shiver. I ignored the discomfort while I searched the ground just past the turn.

I found the trip wire for the banner almost at once. The wire was stretched just above fetlock level on a horse. Thank God it was thin enough to break easily when the horses hit it, although once they were cleaned up, we’d have to check for cuts around their ankles.

"Dick, come look at this,” I said. The two broken ends of the trip wire lay on the damp grass and glinted in the sunshine. Each end was twisted around a stout twig driven into the soft ground on either side of the causeway. I knelt and spotted some kind of spring arrangement on the bridge. Break the wire and the banner would be released from the bridge rails on either side. Sort of like a horizontal Jack-in-the-box. I assumed there was some connection to synchronize the noise of the bullhorn as well, but somebody else could find that. Possibly someone was standing back in the shadows of the pines to cue the bullhorn. In today’s world, they probably used a cell phone app.

Not my problem. I gave up shinnying up trees when I was a teenager and before I had a grown daughter.

Dick hunkered down beside me and looked at the wire without touching it.

"Peggy and I weren’t supposed to be in the first carriage, but I suppose this wire thingie would have been triggered by whichever carriage was first,” I told him. "An equal opportunity trap.”

"The order of go was posted yesterday afternoon,” Dick said. "Makes you wonder.”

Dick pulled me to my feet. Peggy had stayed with the horses. I didn’t think she could hear us, but she’d definitely know we’d found something.

"Anybody who triggered that banner and the noise would probably have wound up in the lake,” I said. "The calmest horse would have spooked. And a pair would be that much harder to keep on dry land. Once Ned’s foot slipped in the mud, we were toast.”

One good-sized horse might have been relatively easy to release from a submerged carriage, but Halflingers, although they qualify as a draft breed, are the size of large ponies, and with two of them to free—I didn’t want to think what could have happened to them.

"I’m not certain we could have saved a four-in-hand of short Welsh ponies,” Dick said. "No matter how many people were holding their heads up, four horses wear a lot of harness, and it’s not easy to find the carabiners under water. Those heads would have stayed under, and there would have been nothing we could have done for them.”

He was right. Horses can snort, and they can close their nostrils for a short period of time. I suppose that’s from when they were faced with snow or sandstorms in their wild days. But they can’t keep the water out of their lungs for long, and Ned and Golden had been dragged under again and again. An eighteen-hand draft horse might have been able to stand on the bottom and keep his head above water without assistance, but not these little guys.

"We might also have some drowned human beings,” he added.

As usual we think of horses first and people second. Marathon cross-country carriages carry a minimum of two people, but they often carry a third person as well. In that instance the navigator rides up front with the driver while another person hangs off the back as a counterbalance. The big carriages may carry a fourth person. That would have meant three or even four people in the water.

Peggy is remarkably fit despite her age, and apparently she can swim, but dunking unprepared elderly drivers into a frigid lake might well cause a heart attack or seizure. Or drowning. Probably my drowning if Peggy ever heard me call her elderly.

"Come on, you two need a hot shower and dry clothes,” Dick said. He threw one arm around my shoulders and one around Peggy.

"The horses...” I said.

Dick called over his shoulder, "Ortega, bring up the Halflingers as soon as you can, please, and give them a good bath. They’re starting to smell like a dead alligator. Come along, Miss Peggy,” he said to her. "We’ll pull the carriage out after everyone else has crossed over the bridge.” He called to Catherine, who stood on the bridge glowering down at the strip of canvas at her feet. "Catherine,” he called, "May we borrow your ATV? I rode down with somebody else.”

"Give me a minute, then I want to speak to Merry and Peggy before they leave. Can you two put up with being damp for a minute?” She asked us.

Of course we said yes.

"I need to alert the other judges at the obstacles to what happened here and ask them to check their venues. Who knows what else this lunatic left? Tack strips? Elephant traps?”

As a show manager, I’d often worked with Catherine Harris when she acted as Technical Delegate. She was in charge of following the national association rulebook and seeing that everyone else did as well. She took her job seriously and was very good at it.

Whoever had set the trap had better be long gone, because if Catherine caught him or her, there’d be hell to pay.

"We have to call the police,” said a woman behind me. "What were these blockheads thinking? They could have killed horses.” No one had so much as mentioned the possibility of killing us.

"What the hell kind of show are you running, Catherine?” A bass voice shouted from up the hill near the starting gate.

I knew that voice. Everybody knew that voice, as a matter of fact, and everybody hated it.

The equipage originally scheduled to start first, Giles Raleigh with his four-in-hand team had halted halfway up the hill. His big bay geldings weren’t a bit happy that Giles had slammed on his brakes and stopped them so soon. They stomped and fussed while Raleigh’s groom stood at the head of the team and struggled to calm them.

Raleigh tossed the reins to his daughter Dawn, his Gator, jumped from the box and strode down the hill toward Catherine.

"Who told you to start down?” Catherine snapped.

"I got to the start. Judge nodded. I started. Obviously you need better communication with your underlings,” Raleigh sneered.

Catherine glanced at Troy.

"I called, but he’d already left,” Troy said. He sounded sulky. "Probably jumped the gun.”

"Oh, God,” Peggy whispered, slipped away from Dick and turned to intercept Raleigh. "Catherine’s not to blame for my accident, Mr. Raleigh.”

He turned his attention to Peggy. "Woman, if you can’t keep your team out of the lake, you better take up knitting.”

I dropped a hand on Dick’s arm. Dick loathed Giles Raleigh. In another age, he’d have called the man out and skewered him with his sword to defend Peggy’s honor. The spectators would probably applaud and provide Dick an airtight alibi.

Dick was taller than Giles, who was built like a fireplug with a gut, but he was also twenty years older and thirty pounds lighter. I doubt if Dick had ever been in a fistfight, and certainly not with a snake like Giles Raleigh. Raleigh would cheat.

Up to this point Peggy had seemed pretty apologetic. That is, until Raleigh attacked Catherine, who patently didn’t deserve it. "Young man,” Peggy said. Giles was in his fifties, but Peggy had been a college professor before she retired. I’d give her eight to five odds against King Kong. "Take out your anger on the idiot who deserves it. A nasty practical joker landed my team in the lake.”

I was supposed to be first on course this morning,” Raleigh said.

"How fortuitous for you that you were late,” Catherine snapped.

For a man like Raleigh, there’s always someone handy to beat up on when anything gets in his way. "The starter should never have let me on the course with the pileup down here,” Giles said. I had to admit he was right about that, although I’d be willing to bet Troy was right as well. Giles had either jumped the gun or at least fudged his start.

Giles turned back to Catherine. ”If I weren’t such a damn fine driver, I might’a run my ole boys smack into that woman and her horses. Don’t know many drivers good enough to stop a team of seventeen hand warmbloods halfway down a hill when they’re rarin’ to go.” He glanced over his shoulder where his groom was just managing to head his team while his daughter Dawn struggled with four sets of reins. "Somebody was trying to drown me and my horses.”

"Like, who’d want to do that?” Troy whispered.

"Yeah, Raleigh, why would anybody want to drown you?” That came from one of the spectators who’d jumped in the water to cut the Halflingers free.

"Lucky it was the two Halflingers that went into the lake and not that team you’re been irritating to death all weekend,” Catherine said. "Out of my way. I’m driving out to check the barrels before anybody else starts.” She turned to her assistant. "Troy, you stay here and call the other course volunteers. Give them a heads-up to check for tricks. I’d be surprised if there are any. This is the best location to set up a trap like this—close to the trees and out of sight of the house. I’ll be right back.”

She floored the ATV, drove over the bridge and into the trees beyond. She hadn’t planned to drive over to check the barrels herself, so she must have decided it was a good excuse to get away from Raleigh before she decked him. I didn’t blame her.

Troy walked halfway down the bridge away from everyone else and keyed his walkie talkie to begin his round of warnings.

The woman who had given Peggy her driving apron stepped between Giles and Peggy. "We’d have rescued your horses, Giles. I’m not sure we’d have bothered with you.” She pointed up the hill. "Shouldn’t you get on back to your team before they run over somebody? That daughter of yours has her hands full hanging onto them.”

He glared, but turned on his heel and strode back up the hill to his carriage and team. "Dawn, goddammit,” he called to his daughter. "What the hell are you playing at?”

I winced. If my father had ever spoken to me the way he spoke to poor Dawn, I’d have taken my whip to him.

Dawn was actually doing a fine job keeping Raleigh’s big team from bulling their way down the hill, brake or no brake. His groom was having more difficulty heading them—that is, standing in front of them and hanging onto the leaders’ bridles. All four bounced on their front hooves and tossed their manes. They were raring to go and furious that the crowd at the bottom of the hill was holding them up. Raleigh climbed into the carriage, elbowed his daughter off the right-hand driver’s seat and took the reins from her. "Get on up here,” he shouted to his groom.

"Daddy,” Dawn said quietly. "We can’t start until Mrs. Harris says we can.”

"Hell, we’ll never make the course time,” Raleigh said and glared at Peggy.

She glared right back.

"Everybody’s times on course are screwed up,” Dick said. "If Catherine agrees, we might as well take a Mulligan, if we can get Raleigh turned around and back to the start.”

At that point Catherine roared back across the bridge on her ATV and stopped beside Troy. "Did you check with the volunteers?”

"Yes’m,” he said. "No trouble. Nothing suspicious. They’ve been out there since dawn.”

"I saw nothing at the barrels either. The rest of the course is pretty open.” She climbed down. "We’re good to go. Let’s get everyone moving.”

"Catherine, give us a break,” said the man who had unhooked Golden. I needed to find out his name and send him a bottle of Jack Daniels. "At least six people went into the water. We all need some dry clothes and a gallon of coffee.”

"Peggy’s obviously not driving, and none of the other carriages has started yet, so only Raleigh’s carriage will have go back up the hill and start down again,” Dick said. "We’ll run late, but not that late.”

Catherine nodded. "Agreed.” She turned to the spectators with their ATVs. "Y’all all back up and give Raleigh room to turn around and drive his horses back up the hill,” Catherine said. "Raleigh, come back down as soon as the starter says you can.” She turned to the spectators. "The next few carriages are already up at the top ready to start. Those of you who went in the lake should have enough time to get dry before you have to put to.”

Dick’s groom Ortega walked Ned and Golden onto the bridge so they’d be out of Raleigh’s way as well.

It was a tight turn for Raleigh’s big marathon carriage and foursome. I must admit Raleigh did it with dispatch and without running over spectators or ATVs. As soon as he started back up the hill, the damp spectators climbed on their ATVs and followed him. The dry ones hung around to watch.

Waiting on the bridge with Ortega, Ned and Golden had nearly dried. I doubted even a good bleaching with Silk and Silver would be enough to take the green out of their white blonde manes. "The sooner we get these horses on the wash rack,” Peggy said, "The sooner they’ll start looking like Halflingers again and not like green bullfrogs.”

Actually, both Peggy and I looked a little green around the gills as well.

Finally satisfied that the show was back under her tight control, Catherine came over to us. "Now. Tell me what happened.”

I pointed over her shoulder toward the turn onto the causeway. "Look back there. Close to the ground. See those two twigs? You can just see pieces of the trip wire that somebody strung between them.”

She leaned against the railing. "I can’t believe this was malicious. Maybe some teenager’s idea of a prank.”

"Big Jack Renfro spotted a bullhorn wired onto a limb over there,” Peggy said and pointed into the trees. "The first horse that broke the wire would snap the banner up over the bridge. Then came the voice. That’s no practical joke.”

Catherine considered, then said, "Y’all had any problems with animal activists in north Georgia?”

"They seem to think we’re not worth bothering with,” I answered.

"I’ve heard of a few incidents at the University,” Peggy continued, "But just lab rats and such. Nothing around here. Certainly no death threats.”

"You think it’s random nastiness?” Catherine asked. "Teenagers?”

I glanced at Peggy. "We agreed to go first this morning when Giles Raleigh was late. This really might have been meant for him.”

Peggy said, "My husband used to say, ‘Never volunteer.’ Now I know why.”

"Troy rode over the whole course at dusk last night with his girlfriend.” She lifted her lip slightly when she said ‘girlfriend.’ Catherine didn’t like her.

Maybe she and Troy weren’t sleeping together after all.

"If the wire had already been in place, Troy and Morgan would have set it off.” She glanced at her watch. "It’s only eight-thirty. Someone started early to mess up my show. As if Giles Raleigh weren’t enough trouble.” She sighed. "Why didn’t his mother do the world a favor and expose him on Grandfather Mountain at birth?”


 

Chapter 3

Merry

In the end Catherine decided not to call the cops. As she said, "Can you see them sending a team of CSIs up that tree to fingerprint a bullhorn and an oak tree? They’ll say it’s a prank that went too far. We’re behind schedule as it is.”

After we spoke to Catherine, Peggy and I walked along the causeway. Deep gouges in the mud bank alongside the causeway showed where Ned’s hooves had slid down followed by the four furrows of our cart wheels.

Peggy peered over into the murky water. "I can’t even see the cart. They’ll never get it out.”

"Sure we will,” Dick called cheerfully. "Y’all go on up to the stable, get you some coffee and a hot shower. He grinned at Peggy and pointed to the muddy trail. "If it were later in the year, I’d say one of the resident alligators had slipped down the bank.”

"Alligators?” Peggy yelped. "Nobody mentioned alligators.”

He patted her shoulder. "To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any.” He glanced behind him. "Not lately, at any rate.”

"Oh, you!” Peggy stalked off up the hill toward the starting line. I trudged after her as she whispered, "I can’t face those people. How embarrassing. I couldn’t control my horses.”

We stepped off the path to allow one of the last ATVs to drive past us with a wave.

"See?” I said. "Nobody gives a hoot. They’re just glad everyone’s all right.”

"Can we find out who went into the water to help? I want to do something for them.”

"Most would probably love a bottle of Jack Daniels. I’m sure the volunteers will know. Watch out!” I grabbed her arm, and we dove into the trees as Raleigh’s four Dutch warmbloods hurtled down the hill for the second time. His heavy carriage lurched from side to side and nearly sideswiped the pines. As he passed us, he swung his whip wide across his body to the left side. The movement of air actually lifted Dawn’s bangs. Raleigh grinned at me.

I felt the lash brush my shoulder. "Sorry,” he said, then over the rumble of the wheels and the thud of hooves I heard him laugh.

"I am going to kill that SOB,” I said. "He’s a menace to the gene pool.”

"Did he hurt you?” Peggy asked.

"Barely touched me. That’s not the point. He was marking his doggoned territory like a boy dog. He’s never forgiven me for not overruling the vet at Southern Pines who told him his horse was lame. As show manager that was not only my right but my duty. The Technical Delegate backed me up.”

"That wasn’t Catherine, by any chance?”

"Actually, it was.”

"You should tell Catherine how he’s behaved. She’d have a conniption.”

We’d reached the top of the hill out of the way of the drivers. Looking back, I could now see that there was a ton of room on either side of Raleigh’s carriage all the way down to the lake. Raleigh had flicked his whip at me on purpose, but there was no way to prove that.

I shook my head. "Poor Dawn. Did you see that apologetic look she threw me? I’d hate to have him for a father.”

"She seems like a nice woman,” Peggy said.

The show was being held on the Tollivers’ big farm an hour or so from Mossy Creek, where the training farm I inherited from my father, Hiram Lackland, is located. That’s why Peggy and I had chosen it for her first big show. We’d have to pay for only two nights in a cheap motel and could use the inside of our big trailer as stabling for Ned and Golden.

Many shows won’t allow that, but because this one was small and stabling was limited, Juanita and Harry Tolliver had decided on a case-by-case basis whether to allow the trailers as stalls. We had come in well within the parameters.

This also gave us an opportunity to promote my own first, small, fun show at my Lackland Farm, scheduled for next weekend. In the year I’d been running the facility, I’d never attempted a driving show, although I brought in professional trainers and well-regarded regional amateur drivers several weekends a year to train our local drivers.

This show should bring in drivers from farther away who had not yet seen Lackland Farms.

"After this morning, I’m beginning to wish we’d never advertised our show next weekend,” Peggy said.

A show is only fun for the attendees, not the hosts. Peggy and I were already nervous wrecks over what could and would go wrong. This morning’s incident underscored my worry.

"We have the food and the volunteers lined up. If there’s plenty of food, horse show people will put up with anything.”

"Even protestors?” Peggy asked.

"We won’t have protestors. Not at a little show like ours.”

She didn’t seem convinced.

Even a small carriage show is much more complicated than the average jumping or dressage show. First, there are carriages—something you don’t attach to the average jumping or racing thoroughbred unless you want to die an early death. Then, instead of a single rider on a single horse, carriages carry extra people.

Harness tack is complicated, and the complexity increases logarithmically with the number of horses put to a single carriage. A pair is more than twice as difficult to put to the carriage as a single horse and takes three times as long, and a four-in-hand is more than four times more complex.

Many people travel with several carriages ranging from two-wheeled runabouts to big four-wheeled coaches, so horse trailers are bigger, more unwieldy and need extra space to park. Some have eighteen-wheelers specifically built for driving equipment and teams.

Add the palatial living quarters in some of the ritzier trailers, and you can run out of parking space right quick, not to mention the pickups and Mercedeses and BMWs and Land Rovers parked around them like baby chicks snuggling up to their hens. Then there are the spectators and their cars and trucks. And the Porta Potties and the food stands and the people selling everything from horse portraits to jewelry to hats.

I know this because I am a horse show manager for hire. The headaches involved in running even a small show are the reason my hair might be snow white under the color rinse I’ll keep on it until I die.

Most of the carriage people are great.

Then there’s the teensy minority like Giles Raleigh. I considered suggesting he take up scuba diving in a tank filled with ravenous sharks and sea snakes. Or maybe nude rattlesnake wrangling. While bad temper flat wears me out, Giles seemed to thrive on it.

So far I hadn’t seen an application from Giles for our fun show. Please God that meant he considered us beneath his attention. If only.

He only bothered to turn on the charm when hitting on some unsuspecting woman, selling a piece of real estate for an inflated price or conning a mark into investing.

I had tried to find a parking place away from his eighteen wheeler horse and people palace at the Tollivers’ show. Unfortunately, I’d wound up right next door. Our tackroom door was right across from the door to his living quarters. I had avoided him successfully until this morning.

What really drove me nuts was that he said he intended to sleep with me. How’s that for a slick seduction technique? I’m a divorcee, so I should be grateful for his attentions, right? Wrong.

If I went to bed with him, he’d win. He could check me off his list and tack my pelt to his trophy wall. Raleigh will do anything—lie, cheat, and steal—to win. I suspect he’s dreadful in bed. Not that I want an up-close-and-personal, definitive answer to that question. Eeew. Not in this lifetime.

The last time he grabbed my tush at an exhibitors’ party, I warned him that the next time he touched me, I’d kill him.

He deserved it. If some seventyish gentlemen with bright blue eyes and a ravishing smile took me in his arms for a dance and whispered in my ear, "Dahlin’, you prettier than a newborn Angus calf,” then nuzzled my neck and suggested we repair to the nearest bedroom, I would smile and accept the compliment, knowing he didn’t mean the proposition, probably couldn’t perform, and had been married to an adored wife for forty years. That’s a good,good ole boy.

Nasty, southern good ole boys are like Giles. They are not gentleman, even if they came to Georgia with Oglethorpe. They mean that remark about going off to the nearest bedroom for what would undoubtedly be ‘wham-bam, thank-you ma’am.’ And expect you to be eternally grateful to them afterwards.

Neither Peggy nor I could conceive why Sarah Beth, Raleigh’s trophy wife, had married him. He was rich, but she’d had a successful career as an interior designer in Atlanta before she met Giles. I wondered if she’d ever been happy in the marriage. One hot afternoon beside the dressage arena, she whispered to me, "You know, Merry, I use to love horses. Giles has even taken that away from me.”

I could have cried. Horses have saved my life, my sanity, my bank balance, and my ability to love. I don’t have to ride them or drive them—just having them in the barn and in my life keeps my endorphins pumping.

My mother says that some people are born psychopaths, some choose psychopath and some have psychopath thrust upon them. I had no idea which category Giles fit into. Surely somebody loved him at some point. I used to think his daughter Dawn loved him, but although she was acting as his gator, she seemed to be ignoring him otherwise.

After we passed Raleigh, Peggy and I went to get dry clothes and towels out of our truck and hunt up the shower in the Tollivers’ stable.

"I hope they have a big water heater,” Peggy said. "I’ll flip you for who goes first.”

As I opened the door to our trailer, Sarah-Beth opened the door to theirtrailer and leaned out. "I’ve been watching for y’all. Get yourselves in here right this minute. Y’all need some coffee and a hot shower.”

"You’ve heard about our dunking?” Peggy asked.

"Who hasn’t? I want to apologize for Giles. He shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I know how he gets when he’s driving. Do you have dry clothes here or do you have to drive back to the motel?”

"We have several sets here, as a matter of fact,” I said. "It’s fifteen minutes back to the motel, so we came prepared.”

"We just didn’t expect to take a dive in the lake,” Peggy said. "But we’re covered in mud. We’ll mess everything up. We were planning to shower in the stable.”

"I’ve got more hot water, and I definitely have coffee. Get your fresh clothes while I heat up some hot chocolate. That’s even better. Our shower is more private than the shower in the barn. Where are your Halflingers?”

"Dick Fitzgibbons’ groom is looking after them.” I saw Peggy shiver. "Okay, Sarah-Beth. You have a deal.” I shoved Peggy forward. "Warm this one up while I get dry outfits.”

When I got inside Raleigh’s trailer, I heard the shower running. In most living quarters attached to horse trailers—even the big ones—the shower is barely large enough to raise your arms to wash your hair. Raleigh’s had a real bathroom. I shoved Peggy’s fresh clothes inside the bathroom door and took the mug of hot coffee Sarah-Beth handed me. "You’re a life-saver, but won’t Giles have a fit if he finds me here?”

"Screw Giles,” Sarah-Beth said. "Or not. Preferably not.”

Uh-oh.

Sarah Beth had been trophy wife thin since I’d known her, but now she looked positively cadaverous.

I don’t agree with the prevailing theory that you can’t be too thin or too rich, although some of the rich-rich folks I know would benefit from a hefty dose of penury. But there is a limit on thin and she’d gone way past it. Something was wrong.

If anyone could find out if Sara-Beth was having health problems, Peggy could. People confide in Peggy. Not because she looks nurturing and motherly. Believe me, she doesn’t. She’s nearly as tall as I am with muscles like tanned leather strips. She taught at the college level until she retired and moved to Mossy Creek, Georgia, and has not lost her ability to terrify the average liar into blabbing the truth.

Until my father, Hiram Lackland, discovered her aptitude for driving carriages, she seemed content to cosset her four cats, read tons of murder mysteries, enjoy the Mossy Creek, Georgia, Ladies Garden Club and her grandchild Josie.

Now, I couldn’t do without her as my second-in-command at the farm.

I stuck my nose into my coffee cup as though I hadn’t heard Sarah Beth’s comment about Giles. Peggy may invite confidences. I, on the other hand, generally run from them. Peggy saved me by coming out of the shower.

"Lord, I may live,” she said and accepted a mug of coffee. I slid out of the banquette, picked up my clothes, and left her to deal with Sarah Beth while I showered.

By the time I came out after my shower I felt human again, even though my short hair was still damp.

"Sit,” Sarah-Beth said. Something about her was different. She seemed to have undergone a backbone implant. I wondered what she had told Peggy.

"Sorry to scrub and run,” Peggy said and slid out of the banquette. "But we really need to check on the horses, and I want to find out if they’ve managed to winch Dick’s carriage out of the lake yet. Dick talks as though it’s a piece of cake, but someone’s going to have to dive in and attach a cable from the tractor to the rear axle. That lake is cold, not to mention murky.”

"Dick will handle everything. I suspect he’d rather you stayed out of the way,” Sarah Beth said. "He’s such a sweetie. He taught me the difference between a real southern gentleman and the man I married.” With no warning, she burst into tears.

Uh-oh again. I’m not insensitive. I’m simply incompetent when it comes to nurturing anything with fewer than four legs. I’m terrified I’ll make things worse. Thank God Peggy takes up the slack.

Peggy sat back down and stroked Sarah Beth’s shoulder. "Honey, can we help?”

Sarah-Beth shook her head without raising it from her hands. "Nobody can help me.”

"Did that man hit you?” Peggy asked.

Again the head shake. "He doesn’t have to hit me.”

"Divorce the bastard,” I said. See what I mean? No gray areas. Always cut to the chase. "God knows he’s committed adultery enough times.”

Peggy rolled her eyes at me. Surely Sarah-Beth knew about her husband’s serial infidelities.

"I can’t.”

Peggy mouthed, "Drop it” at me. I would have divorced him long since. I divorced Vic, after all. Okay, so maybe I took my time about it, but I eventually did it.

"Sometimes I think the only pleasure he gets in life is hurting other people,” Sarah Beth pulled a paper napkin out of the holder on the pop-up banquette where we sat. She wiped under her eyes carefully so as not to smear her mascara. "You know what I’m talking about. What on earth does he have against you?” she asked me.

Peggy gave the kindest of the answers I could have given. "Uh, remember last year when one of the vets at Southern Pines called his black gelding lame and wouldn’t let him compete?”

"Oh, Lord, yes. I thought he’d have a coronary right there.”

"Since I was show manager,” I said, "Giles thought I should overrule him.”

"You can’t do that,” Sarah-Beth said. "Can you?”

"No, I can’t, but even if I could, I wouldn’t have. The gelding was moving short on his off hind leg. A full day of showing and racing around a marathon course could have done real damage. Giles swore he was being discriminated against to give the other competitors an unfair advantage. I told him to take the horse back to his stall. When the gelding went sound the next morning, he called me everything except a child of God.”

"Why you and not the vet?”

"Giles had a few choice remarks for the vet as well, but you can’t ball out a vet with impunity. That can get you set down and fined. Anyway, Giles said I was incompetent and couldn’t manage my way out of a paper sack.”

Sarah-Beth nodded absently. "So that’s why.”

"Why what?” Peggy asked.

Sarah-Beth slid out from behind the banquette and pulled a couple of sheets of paper out of a drawer under the computer desk. "I think you should read this,” she said and handed it to me.

The top sheet was a list of top rated shows in the United States for the next year, listing the names, telephone numbers, emails and mailing addresses of the committee heads for each. The second sheet was a letter set up to mail merge with the list on the first page.

My heart began to race after the first sentence. By the second paragraph I felt as though I had a fever, and by the end I was so stunned I simply sat down and gabbled.

"Give me that,” Peggy said and took it from me. "That bastard,” Peggy whispered. "This is libelous.”

"He’s telling everyone that you’re incompetent, that you’re responsible for the runaway last year at The Meadows that damaged all those trucks and trailers,” Sarah-Beth said. "I was there. I know you risked your life to save that stallion.”

"I thought a few of my show contracts for next year were slow in arriving,” I said. "A couple of people haven’t returned my calls.” I closed my eyes. The accident had been a bad one, but I had in no way been responsible, as the show committee judged at the time.

"It gets worse,” Sarah-Beth said. "He keeps making these snide little remarks to people about your father’s death. How convenient it was for you to inherit the farm free and clear...”

"How the hell does he know that?”

"If it has to do with real estate in the state of Georgia, Giles knows all about it. Particularly around Bigelow and Mossy Creek. He’s big pals with the governor and his cronies.”

Mossy Creek, Georgia, where the training farm I’d inherited when my father, Hiram Lackland, was murdered, has as its motto, "The town that ain’t goin’ nowhere and don’t want to.” A view not shared by Governor Bigelow, nephew and archenemy of Mossy Creek’s mayor, Ida. His country place is in Bigelow, most of his family lives in Bigelow, and he is definitely the big dog in the neighborhood.

Except in Mossy Creek, where he is either ignored or treated like a bad-tempered Yorkie.

Since moving to Mossy Creek to take over my father’s farm, I have come to share their view of the world. I suspect you have to be third or fourth generation Creekite to be considered a native, but they certainly try to make me feel at home.

I’ve never felt at home anywhere before. My mother and I dragged around with my father from training job to training job until they were divorced. By the time she remarried, I was incapable of putting down real roots. Then we moved around every time my husband—now my ex—Vic got a new job, but that’s the paradigm I grew up with. Whither thou goest, etc. It had been tough on my daughter Allie, but she learned to make friends fast, a trait that has stood her in good stead as a starting broker in New York

Even though I had no mortgage to pay on the property, horses and land cost a lot to maintain, plus I was building a log house on the farm so I didn’t have to live in Peggy’s basement apartment in Mossy Creek.

Training carriage horses and managing horse shows on the weekends kept me solvent. Giles Raleigh was damming up my income stream.

"Has he sent any of those letters out yet?” I asked.

"I’m not sure. He doesn’t use email, but he may have gotten one of his secretaries to email these people. Plus he talks to people when he shows, and he knows everybody.”

"Please try to find out if you can without bringing down his wrath on your head,” Peggy said. "May I keep this?”

Sarah-Beth nodded. "I’ll run off another copy before he comes back from the marathon. He won’t know I gave that one to you.”

Peggy nodded and stood up. "Come on, Merry. We need to get out of here before the Cyclops catches us in his cave.” She patted Sarah-Beth’s hand. "None of my business why you can’t leave him, but if you change your mind and need a place to stay, I have an extra bedroom. Don’t put it off too long. Men like that escalate to physical violence fast.”

I thought Sarah-Beth was going to burst into tears all over again, but she only hugged herself and nodded.

As we walked back to our trailer to drop off our soggy clothes, Peggy said, "It’s chilly today, but have you ever seen Sarah-Beth wear short sleeves, even in the Georgia heat?”

Actually, I hadn’t, but the only time I notice what people wear is when one of the carriage ladies comes up with a supremely outrageous driving hat.

Ladies’ driving hats are a cottage industry. They can cost hundreds of dollars, and are often trimmed with to bird feathers, multiple ribbons, silk flowers and tulle. The brims are usually moderate, however, so they can’t be caught by a sudden gust of wind. They are also generally pinned on with their grandmother’s antique hat pins. Even the calmest horse will rear and bolt if one of those creations lifts off for a test flight in front of him.

"What do you want to bet there are bruises on Sarah Beth’s arms?” Peggy continued.

I stopped dead and wheeled to go back to their trailer. "If he beats her, she has to leave him. Now. And call the sheriff.”

Peggy grabbed my arm. "You can’t force her.”

"Why doesn’t she just kill him? Beaten wife defenses work pretty well these days.”

"Not in Georgia they don’t. And not if you kill a man who pays off enough politicians and judges running for office to buy half the Georgia legislature.”

I opened the tack room of our horse trailer so hard the metal door slammed back with a clang that spooked a pair of VSE’s tied to the neighboring trailer. VSE stands for very small equines—miniature horses and such. "Then I’llkill him. After I remove his ability to procreate with a dull hoof knife.”

"Let’s pull his fangs before we remove his genitalia,” Peggy said. She stuffed our wet clothes into the laundry bag and hung it up in the corner of the trailer tack room.

"Nothing we can do about the rumors he’s spread about me, but maybe he hasn’t sent those letters out yet. Maybe we should let him go ahead, then nail him for libel.” I slammed the door shut. "Otherwise, he can always say he never intended to send them.”

"I think libel is written and slander is spoken,” Peggy said absently. "Whatever he’s implying about your father’s death is definitely slander. God, what a day.” She leaned against the saddle rack. She looked tired, but I’m sure I did as well. I, however, wasn’t on the edge of tears as she seemed to be. I’d never thought anything or anybody could embarrass Peggy, but driving into the lake had truly upset her.

She took a deep breath and shoved away from the saddle rack. "I want a hat. A honking great hat with ostrich plumes and cabbage roses and tulle all over it.”

This sounded more like the old Peggy. "Of course you do,” I said. "You’ll get over it.”

"I mean it, Merry. I drove my dressage test yesterday wearing a neat, unassuming black fedora from Stein Mart. After the disaster today, I deserve a real driving hat.”

"I don’t wear one.”

"I’m driving, you’re just the groom. You can wear your hard hat or your tweed cap. I’m the one people look at.”

After the accident this morning, she had that right. She’d started off the weekend knowing almost no one. Now everybody knew her. Even the grooms nodded and grinned as we passed. Obviously, news of our accident had made the rounds.

I caught the set of her chin. Uh-oh. Peggy in this mood would not deviate from her path if faced with a live brontosaurus. At the moment, that path led right past the stable to the area on the lawn where the tack vendors’ trailers were parked alongside the vendors who brought their own display tents. She jumped down from the trailer tack room and started up the hill at an extended walk.

I tried to head her off. "Peggy, be sensible. Why not buy yourself a nice pair of silver driving horse earrings?” I waved at the jewelry lady. I don’t generally wear jewelry, but I had several of her pieces. They were charming, and all horse and carriage themed. "At least take a look.”

"Maybe later. Right now, I deserve a hat.” She made a sharp right into the big tent under the banner that said, "Driving Divas.”

"Hey, Merry,” said Marguerite Valmont. Marguerite is her nom de plume—literally since she dealt in feathered hats. She was born Gertrude Gary from Indianapolis.

Before I could introduce them, Peggy said, "I want the biggest, craziest hat you’ve got.”

"Oooooh-kay.” Marguerite rolled her eyes at me, but smiled at Peggy and waved her hand at the twenty or so hat on stands around her. The showroom looked like an explosion at the 1910 Fifth Avenue Easter parade. Women today don’t get much chance to wear big, extravagant hats, so the driving ladies compensate by wearing fedoras, picture hats, cartwheels and toques in silk, velvet, or Panama straw in every color of the rainbow.

Not satisfied with the hats alone, the driving ladies prefer hats decorated with silk flowers and feathers and tulle—sometimes all at once. Many a pheasant or a peacock sacrificed plumage to them, as did a few herons and emus. Theoretically the hats were chosen to complement the driver’s formal ensemble. In reality the hat often came first. Then the outfit was chosen to fit in.

Marguerite’s hats were elegant, elaborate, and expensive. I hoped Peggy knew what she was doing.

"Sit down,” Marguerite said and sat Peggy in a tiny chair in front of a Baroque mirror. "Why don’t we try on a few? Let’s see. You have that wonderful silvery hair. What color is your driving jacket?”

"Blue,” I said.

"Greeny-blue,” Peggy added.

Marguerite reached around Peggy and lifted a teal blue picture hat from the hat stand. It was silk, nearly three feet in diameter, and sported peacock feathers nested in tulle along one side.

Peggy plopped it on her head.

"Hey! Not like that. Calm down. Take some deep breaths. I promise you we’ll find you the proper hat.”

"Oh, shoot, I’m sorry.” Peggy’s shoulders slumped. "This has not been the best day of my life.”

"I heard. Look at it this way. Nobody’s hurt, horses, people and harness are all in good shape.”

"I look like an incompetent lunatic.”

"If you promise to settle down, I’ll fit you with the right hat, show you how to wear it, and regale you with some of my worst driving moments. Deal?”

Peggy nodded. "Deal.”

"Merry,” Marguerite said, "Go away. Groom a horse or something. Don’t come back for at least an hour.”

"But...”

"Trust me.”

So I left them alone and went over to the refreshment tent, where I gorged myself on Diet Coke and sausage biscuits.

I wasn’t kidding about the prices of driving hats. Men generally wore tweed caps or bowlers in informal driving, top hats in formal classes and hard hats in marathons. Straightforward. Sort of. But as with most customs involved in carriage driving, top hats for gentlemen drivers differed from top hats worn by liveried grooms and coachmen.

Theoretically, both men and women could always wear hard hats in any class without penalty. In practice, except in marathons where both hard hats and body protectors were required, lady drivers tended to channel Queen Mary—not the bloody one, but the one who married George the Fifth. The fashion went back to the glory days where wealth and social standing were measured by the carriage and team.

A lady driver between classes might be wearing unzipped paddock boots with her driving apron stuffed into the waistband of her slacks, and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. But she’d also be wearing a hat for which a half dozen bantam roosters and at least one cock pheasant sacrificed tail feathers. I prayed Marguerite would somehow keep a lid on Peggy. A relatively simple lid.

Stuffed with sausage, I wandered back up the hill toward the tents and spent a few minutes lusting after the latest driving jewelry I wouldn’t wear and couldn’t afford, and looking at paintings of horses that would look wonderful in my new house if I could afford them. Which I couldn’t.

As I neared Marguerite’s tent, I heard her say, "Just like that. Perfect! That hat will stay on in a hurricane.” I closed my eyes and said a prayer to the hat god.

As I entered the tent, I saw it was a blue hat, but not the one she’d plumped on her head before I’d left. This one was a lighter teal with French ribbon that matched the colors in Peggy’s driving jacket, and only a few small feathers. No tulle.

"It’s wonderful,” I said. "Marguerite, I should have trusted you.”

"Apology accepted,” Marguerite said with a grin. "I was showing Peggy how to pin it on so it won’t go flying off in the dressage arena and scare the horses.” She pulled an elaborately painted hatbox from under the dressing table. "Remember, Peggy, remove the pin first, then lift the hat straight up—don’t go yanking.”

"I don’t want to be around for this part,” I said.

"What part?” Peggy asked.

"The credit card part.”

Once the hatbox was carefully stowed on the back seat of our truck, I could tell Peggy’s mood had definitely improved.

"My mother always said that having the proper clothes for a sporting event is half of winning it,” Peggy said with a satisfied grin.

"Then you’ll be a champion.”

 


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