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Authors: Carola Dunn

Damsel in Distress

BOOK: Damsel in Distress
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In memoriam
Margaret C. Brauer, 1917—1996, always encouraging, always sure my latest work was the best thing I'd ever written: Thanks, Mum.
P
hillip strained his ears. Yes, there it was, that sinister knocking noise again.
The aging engine of his Swift two-seater made a deuce of a racket going up the steepish hill, and odd squeaks and rattles from chassis and body were inevitable. He worked the old bus pretty hard. For every joint oiled, for every bolt tightened, another loosened. But the knocking was new, different, and bally sinister.
Safely over the crest of the Surrey Downs, he pulled off the “B” road into a convenient gateway. A cow looked at him over the five-barred gate and mooed.
“I'll be gone long before milking time,” he assured her, jumping out.
Taking off his blazer, he dropped it on the seat and rolled up his sleeves before he opened up the bonnet. As he peered into the oily depths, the hum of a well-tuned engine approached along the road. He glanced round to see a scarlet Aston Martin zip past, stop, reverse, and come to a halt beside him.
“Say, are you stuck?” enquired the girl behind the wheel, putting back her dust-veil to reveal a pretty face surrounded by blond curls. “Can I give you a ride?”
“Thanks awfully, but I'm not exactly stuck.”
“Oh.” The American girl—Phillip was sure she must be American—looked enquiringly at the Swift. “You have the hood up.”
“The hood?” He glanced at the hood, folded down on this mild, dry spring day. Ah, but she was American, she probably called it the roof. “You mean the bonnet? Something's knocking in the engine,” he explained, “but if a few minutes' tinkering with my own tools won't solve it, I'll drive on to the next garage and borrow their tools.”
“You fix your own automobile? Gee, that's real smart.”
“Nothing much to boast about,” Phillip said modestly. On a closer inspection those curls were gold, not mere blond, and her face was the prettiest he'd seen in years, not smothered in powder and paint, either, like most these days. “I like messing about with motor-cars,” he confessed, glad that he hadn't yet got around to crawling underneath and getting oil on his face. “Just wish I could spend more time at it.”
“I've always wanted to take a whack at it.” She was a girl in a million! “But Poppa won't let me. He says it's not ladylike. Real set on me acting ladylike, Poppa is. Why, it took me years to talk him into letting me drive. Now I test automobiles for him, just motoring around to check out how they feel to an amateur driver.”
“Is that what you're doing with this beauty? Don't see many of them on the roads.”
“It runs swell. Poppa's thinking of investing a few bucks so they can raise production. That's what we're doing in England, looking for up-and-coming auto manufacturers for Poppa to invest in. I guess you can tell I'm not English?” she asked wistfully.
“I think your accent's absolutely ripping.”
“Honest Injun? And there I was wanting to learn to talk like a proper English lady. I just love England, the quaint little villages and the history and flowers everywhere.”
She waved her hand at the verge and hedge-bank. Phillip suddenly noticed the April profusion of primroses, violets, celandines, and stitchwort, hitherto unobserved.
“But gee,” the girl continued, sounding quite regretful, “I mustn't keep you from your tinkering. The truth is, I'm kinda lost. The signposts all point to places I don't want to go. Can you direct me to the main London road?”
Phillip opened his mouth to say, “Second to the right and straight on till morning,” or whatever the directions were, when he was struck by a brain-wave. At least, he rather thought it might be a brain-wave. The Honourable Phillip Petrie was not sufficiently acquainted with the bally things to be quite sure at first sight. In fact, he was all too accustomed to being regarded by family and friends alike as a bit of a chump.
Still, it did look awfully like a brain-wave. “It's rather complicated,” he lied, “from here to the London road. If you're not in a frightful hurry, if you wouldn't mind waiting a few minutes, you could follow me.”
The girl's dazzling smile made him blink. “What a swell idea,” she exclaimed.
Much heartened, Phillip produced the second part of his inspiration. “I don't know about you,” he said recklessly, “but I'm getting jolly peckish. It's nearly tea-time and there's a frightfully good little tea-shop in Purley. Would you … Do you think you might consider joining me for tea?”
“Golly gee, I'd love to,” said the wonderful girl. “We don't have anything like the English afternoon tea, but when I get home I'm surely going to keep it up. I'm Gloria Arbuckle, by the way.” She held out her hand.
“Phillip Petrie.” Shaking hands, he frowned. “You shouldn't accept invitations from strangers, you know, Miss Arbuckle. Come to that, your father shouldn't let you drive around the countryside alone. What if you broke down?”
“I'm supposed to take Poppa's assistant with me,” she admitted,
“but he was busy, and on the first fine day in ages, I wanted to get out of that smoky city. As for the invitation, it's not like you asked me to go drinking and dancing in some speakeasy. You don't even have speakeasies over here.”
“No,” said Phillip, rocked by another brain-wave, “but we have jolly good dance floors, perfectly respectable, and I'd be most frightfully bucked if, one of these days, you'd go dancing with me?”
“We'll see,” she said, but she smiled.
 
“What-ho, old thing!”
At this unceremonious greeting, Daisy looked up in annoyance from her second-hand Underwood. She had assumed the footsteps in the hall were someone calling on Lucy, who shared the “bijou” residence with her.
“Oh, it's you, Phillip. What do you want? I told Mrs. Potter I can't see anyone. I'm busy.”
“She said you were just writing,” Phillip said defensively, dropping his grey Homburg hat on the desk.
“Just
writing! I'll have to have a word with her.”
“Well, perhaps I put the ‘just' in. No need to rag the poor old dear.”
“For heaven's sake, Phillip, writing is how I make my living and I've two articles due. I keep forgetting to allow for how long the post takes to New York. The American magazine pays jolly well and I don't want to risk losing the work by being late. So unless you've got something urgent to say …”
“Not exactly urgent, but it won't take a minute, honestly.” With a diffident gesture, Phillip smoothed his sleek, fair hair. His conventionally good-looking face bore such an appealing look that Daisy gave in.
“All right,” she sighed. “Let's hear it.”
Perching his loose-limbed frame on the corner of her desk,
he swung a long leg clad in pin-stripe trousering and contemplated the well-polished tip of his shoe. She swivelled her chair to face him.
“Well,” he said, a faint flush creeping up his cheeks, “it's like this. Er … .”
“Phillip, get a move on!”
“Yes, well, dash it, this is a bit difficult, old bean.”
“Is it
necessary?”
“I should ruddy well think so. A proper cad I'd look if I didn't … . You see, the thing is … . I say, Daisy, you know I've proposed to you once or twice?”
“At least half a dozen times.”
“That many?” he said, rather aghast.
“And I've turned you down just as many. I know you only ask because you feel Gervaise would expect you to take care of me.” Daisy's brother, killed in the Great War, had been Phillip's best pal since childhood, growing up on a neighboring estate. “Which is rubbish, so out with it. You've found someone else, haven't you? Someone you really want to marry?”
“By Jove, how did you guess?” Phillip's patent relief almost made Daisy laugh.
She managed to control herself. “Who is it? Someone I know? One of the latest crop of debs?”
“As a matter of fact, she's American. You like Americans, don't you?” he asked anxiously.
“I've met some charming Americans. The one who especially springs to mind is Mr. Thorwald, my editor.” Daisy looked longingly at the half-typed sheet of paper in the typewriter. “Tell me about her,” she said, resigned.
“Her name's Gloria—Gloria Arbuckle. She's a poppet.”
Daisy had expected a “stunner,” an “angel,” or a “jolly good sport.” The old-fashioned word Phillip chose to describe his beloved impressed her even more than the glow in his blue
eyes. Unlike others she could name, he wasn't given to falling for pretty girls, so perhaps he really had found his true love. She hoped so.
“Miss Arbuckle is here with her family?” she asked.
“Her father. Her mother died a couple of years ago, and she's an only child. Mr. Arbuckle's a millionaire. I know what people will think, Daisy,” he said earnestly, “but you don't believe I care about the shekels, do you?”
“Of course not, old dear, not when I haven't a bean and you've been proposing to me regularly once a month for ever. I take it Miss Arbuckle's convinced of your unmercenary nature, but what about her father?”
“He's a good sort and he seems to rather like me. In fact, Gloria says he's taken to me in a big way, but he doesn't know yet that I want to marry her.”
“Does he know your father's a lord?” Daisy asked. Republicans though they were, quite a lot of Americans seemed to consider a title for their daughters well worth the price of purchase.
“Yes, but I don't think he has a frightfully high opinion of the peerage. Besides, I've explained it all, that I'm a younger son with no chance of inheriting the title, and I'll never be more than an ‘Hon.' or have more than a small allowance.” He grimaced. “My people haven't met them yet.”
“Aha! You're expecting a ragging from … What is it, Mrs. Potter?”
Breathing heavily, the stout charwoman beamed as she set a tray of tea-things on the desk. “The kettle were just on the boil, miss, so I thought I'd bring up a nice cuppa for you and the gentleman. No biscuits,” she added regretfully. “We finished 'em up for elevenses, miss, remember?”
“Yes,” Daisy said guiltily. Though no slimming diet could possibly make her rounded figure fashionably boyish, she really ought to make an effort. At least, Lucy said so. Frequently. “Thank you, Mrs. Potter.”
“I'll pour,” Phillip offered, leaving his perch and pulling the other chair up to the desk. “The typewriter's in your way.”
“This is
not
turning into a tea-party! One cup, and off you go. Happy as I am to hear your news, I've work to do.”
“You'll be free this weekend, won't you?” he asked hopefully, passing her a steaming cup. “I want you to meet Gloria and Arbuckle, and … well, actually, I hoped you'd go with me when I take them to meet my people. Lend your support, and all that.”
“You're going to brace up and bite the bullet? I could spare a couple of hours, if you really think my presence would help. Are Lord and Lady Petrie coming up to town specially to meet them?”
“Lord no! The Arbuckles are staying in Great Malvern, at the Abbey Hotel. Gloria wanted to get out of town—she adores the English countryside—so I persuaded Arbuckle that Malvern's convenient for his business doings in Oxford and Coventry and Birmingham.”
“Hardly! And apart from the Malvern Hills, the countryside isn't anything special.”
“It's easy to drive to both the Cotswolds and the Welsh mountains,” Phillip argued, “and none of those cities is more than fifty miles away. Not to mention the concerts and tennis and golf … .”
“You needn't go on,” said Daisy, laughing. “I've read the adverts. ‘Healthiest of health resorts, lowest death rate in the kingdom, purest water in the world.'”
“I threw all that guff at him, but the clincher was the Morgan Motor Company being in the town. Arbuckle's looking to invest in British motor manufacturers to diversify his holdings. He made his packet by selling out his railway stocks—railroad, they call it—and going into automobiles, in America, at just the right moment.”
“Stocks and shares, just your line.”
Shaking his head, Phillip pulled a face. “I can't stand the perishing City much longer. I'm an absolute duffer at it. If Gloria will marry me, I hope her father will find me a job in the technical end of the motor-car business, but I'm going to tell the pater I'm getting out anyway.”
“You've always hated it,” Daisy sympathized. “Like me and stenography.”
“I'd rather be a common-or-garden hired motor mechanic, greasy overalls and all, and what's more, I'd make more money at it. I'd even rather sell second-hand cars. If that don't suit the pater's notions of consequence, he can jolly well cough up the ready to set up my own business. I know a fellow who's dying to go into partnership, and …”
BOOK: Damsel in Distress
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