Nine (1)

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The following two weeks went by without incident, fooling Vita into a false sense of normalcy and safety.

Every day in London tended to be the same. The girls would wake up late, go to Madame Vacani's curtseying lessons, have lunch with Lady Rhodes, shop for clothes and attend some social event before returning home at a suitable time for a debutante. It was all quite a bore, really, so when the day of the Derby arrived, Vita welcomed this change in routine with a sigh of relief.

On a rainy Wednesday at the beginning of June, the girls piled into the back of one of Archie's motorcars with a picnic hamper and a hidden stash of gin, sensible shoes and woollen coats, cloche hats and umbrellas. Mr. Lawrence sat at the front while Archie drove the black Sedan in the London traffic, Lady Rhodes following in her own chauffeured car with Tallulah and her mother.

Izzy was silent all the way to Surrey, glaring out of the car window. She had found out the previous day that Mr. Lang wouldn't attend the event, and she'd been surly ever since. Vita didn't mind. It was a cold and damp day, which made her hopeful she wouldn't suffer from a heatstroke. It also made it easier to hide her marked hands, which she hadn't managed to wash off despite her best efforts.

At Epsom Downs racecourse, the crowd was already huge when their party arrived at midday.

"I don't see why we have to come so early," Izzy said when she stepped out of the car. "The weather is dreadful, and the race isn't on until four o'clock anyway."

She opened her black umbrella and made a face as her shoes sank into the muddy field. Archie helped Vita out of the car, and she replied:

"Oh, come on, don't be sour. You know the day out is as much fun as the race itself."

"I don't even care about the stupid horses," Izzy mumbled.

Vita exchanged an amused glance with Archie, while Mr. Lawrence took their hamper out of the car.

"I can't believe how many people are here!" Tallulah said, when she reached them.

Lady Rhodes and her mother weren't far behind her. The girl looked around, wide-eyed, taking in the cars, coaches and buses lining the track in the open-air enclosures, and the carts and horse-drawn vehicles of the commoners packed at the centre of the course. Every corner of the place was crammed with people, a lot of them sat on the roof of their cars or eating at tables on board the top decks of buses.

"Where are we supposed to go?" she asked, bewildered.

Vita pointed at the stands, reserved for the High Society members. "Here."

They made their way through the crowd, feet squishing in the mud and shoulders bumping into strangers. Once in the stands, they settled down and ate their picnic, but Vita's skin tingled with restlessness: the best part of the Derby was the Fun Fair on the Hill at the centre of the course, where everything happened. She shot glances at Archie, who was as eager to leave the stands as she was, but for different reasons. Vita longed for the forbidden thrill of the fair, while he looked forward to winning a small fortune in bets.

At last, luncheon was over and Izzy, Tallulah and their respective mothers departed en masse for a trip to the ladies' room. Vita pretended she didn't need to go, and as soon as Archie and she were alone, they left the stands to find Mr. Lawrence smoking by the track in the drizzle.

"I'll meet you here in half an hour," Archie said.

He lit a cigarette and adjusted his hat in a familiar gesture that Vita loved. Then he kissed her on the cheek and turned to Mr. Lawrence, his expression hard.

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