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Authors: Rhys Bowen

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BOOK: Her Royal Spyness
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“So, tell me”—he looked at me with interest—“how many people actually stand between you and the throne?”

“I’m thirty-fourth in line, I believe,” I said. “Unless somebody’s had a baby in the meantime and pushed me further back.”

“Thirty-fourth, eh?”

“I hope you’re not thinking of marrying me in the hopes of gaining the crown of England one day!”

He laughed. “That would be a trump card for the Irish, wouldn’t it? King of England, or rather Prince Consort of England.”

I laughed too. “I used to do that when I was small—lie in bed and work out ways to kill off all those ahead of me in the line of succession. Now I’m grown up, you couldn’t pay me enough to be queen. Well, actually that’s a lie. If my cousin David proposed, I’d probably accept.”

“The Prince of Wales? You think he’s a good catch?”

I looked surprised. “Yes, don’t you?”

“He’s a mama’s boy,” Darcy said scornfully. “Haven’t you noticed? He’s looking for a mummy. He doesn’t want a wife.”

“I think you’re wrong. He’s just waiting to find a suitable one.”

“Well, this latest flame won’t be suitable,” Darcy said.

“Have you met her?”

“Oh, yes.”

“And?”

“Not suitable. Charming enough, but definitely an older woman and far too worldly-wise. They’d never let her be queen.”

“Do you think she wants to be?”

“Well, as of now she’s still married to someone else, so it’s probably a moot point,” he said. “But I shouldn’t keep your own hopes up. Your cousin David is never going to pick you as his consort. And frankly, you’d soon tire of him.”

“Why? I think he’s most amusing, and he’s a topping dancer.”

“He’s a lightweight,” Darcy said. “No substance to him. A moth flitting around, trying to find out what to do with himself. He’ll make a rotten king.”

“I think he’ll step up when the time comes,” I said huffily. “We have all been brought up with duty thrust down our throats. I’m sure David will do his one day.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Anyway,” I whispered confidentially, “I’ve been asked to spy on her.” I realized as I said it that too much champagne had loosened my tongue and I should not be confiding things like this to strangers, but by the time I had processed this information, it was too late.

“To spy on her? By whom?” Darcy was clearly interested.

“The queen. I’m supposed to attend a house party to which the prince and his lady friend have both been invited, then report back to HM.”

“You’ll probably have nothing good to say about her.” Darcy grinned. “Men universally find her delightful and women universally find something catty to say about her.”

“I’m sure I shall be very fair in my assessment,” I said. “I am not prone to cattiness.”

“That’s one of the things I think I might like about you,” Darcy said. “And there are others.” He looked around. The sun had gone down and it had become instantly chilly. “Best get you home before you freeze in your posh frock.”

I had to agree that I was now feeling the cold, especially since the champagne down my front hadn’t quite dried yet. And no maid to sponge away the stains. What was I going to do about that?

He took my hand and dragged me across the traffic at Hyde Park Corner.

“Well, here I am,” I said unnecessarily as I stood outside my front door and fumbled in my purse for the key. As usual in moments of stress, my fingers weren’t obeying very well. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon.”

“Don’t thank me, thank the Asquey d’Asqueys. They paid for it. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“I don’t think I’d better. I’m living alone, you see.”

“And you’re not even allowed to have a young man in for a cup of tea? I didn’t realize the royal rules were still so strict.”

“It’s not royal rules.” I laughed nervously. “It’s just that—I’m afraid none of the rooms fit for entertaining are open. And I have no servants yet. I’m just sort of camping out in one bedroom and the kitchen, where my culinary talents don’t stretch beyond baked beans and tea. I did take cooking classes at school, but all useless items like petit fours that I never could master.”

“I prefer petit fives myself,” he said, making me smile.

“I never learned to make those either.”

I glanced into the gloomy interior of the front hall and then back at Darcy. The thought of being alone with him was tempting. Twenty-one years of training won out. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon,” I said again, and held out my hand. “Good-bye then.”

“Good-bye then? ” He gave me the most appealing little lost boy look. I almost melted. But not quite. “Look, Darcy, I would love to invite you in, but it is getting late, and . . . you do understand, don’t you?”

“Turned out alone into the snow. How cruel.” He pulled a tragic face.

“You said five minutes ago that it was a lovely afternoon.”

“Ah well,” he said. “I can see you’re not going to be moved whatever I say. Twenty-one years of royal upbringing. Never mind, there will be other occasions.” He took my hand, brought it to his lips, and this time he kissed it, sending a shiver all the way up my arm.

“If you like, I’ll take you to a party at the Café de Paris next week,” he said casually, releasing my hand again.

“Are you crashing this one too?”

“Of course. It’s given by Americans. They just love British nobility. When they hear you are related to the royal family, they’ll be kissing your feet and plying you with cocktails and inviting you to stay on their ranches. Will you come?”

“I expect so.”

“I can’t remember which day, offhand. I’ll let you know.”

“All right,” I said. I lingered, feeling awkward. “Thank you again.

“The pleasure was all mine.” He made that somehow sound sinful. I fled into the house before he caught me blushing again. As I closed the door behind me and stood in that cold, dark front hall with its black and white checked floor and dark embossed walls, a disturbing thought came into my mind. It occurred to me that Darcy might now be using me to gate-crash even more events. Perhaps I was now a guaranteed entry ticket to places he had been barred from before.

Indignation rose up for a second. I didn’t like the thought of being flattered and used, or being flirted with as if he really meant it. But then I had to agree that it was more fun than the humdrum life I had been leading recently. Certainly better than doing crossword puzzles at Castle Rannoch or sitting in the subterranean kitchen eating baked beans. As I had said earlier, what had I got to lose?

Chapter 8

Rannoch House
Saturday, April 23, 1932

 

I was about to go upstairs to take off my posh frock, as Darcy called it, when I noticed some letters were stuck in the box. Hardly anybody knew I was in town yet so letters were a novelty. There were two of them. I recognized my sister-in-law’s writing on one of the envelopes, and the Glen Garry and Rannoch crest (two eagles, trying to disembowel each other over a craggy mountaintop), so I opened the other one first. It was the predicted invitation. Lady Mountjoy would be so delighted if Lady Georgiana could join them at their country estate for a house party and a masked fancy dress ball.

There were a couple of postscripts. The first a formal one:
Please bring fancy dress costumes with you as there is nowhere in the neighborhood that rents out such things
.

And the second, less formal:
Imogen will be so delighted to see you again
.

Imogen Mountjoy was among the dullest, stodgiest girls in the world. She and I had scarcely exchanged more than two words during our season, and those were both about hunting, so I truthfully couldn’t imagine her being delighted at the thought of seeing me, but it was a kind gesture and I resolved to RSVP as soon as I had read the missive from Fig.

Dear Georgiana,
Binky has just informed me that he has to pop up to town on Monday on a matter of urgent and unforeseen business. With the world in its current sorry state and everybody being asked to economize, I thought it seemed silly and wasteful to go to the expense of sending staff in an advance party to open up the house when you are already there. Since you are living “grace and favor” as it were, I hope it won’t be too much to ask to have Binky’s bedroom and study aired out for him, and maybe just the little morning room for him to read the newspapers. (You have ordered the
Times
, I hope.)
I’m sure he’ll be dining at his club so you don’t have to worry too much about the food side of things. I expect the house will be quite chilly. Maybe you could have a fire going in Binky’s bedroom on the day he arrives. Oh, and a hot water bottle in his bed too.
Your loving sister-in-law, Hilda

 

She always was known for her stuffy formality. Nobody ever called her by her real name. And I could see why. A more ridiculous name for a duchess I have never heard. If I had been called Hilda, I would have drowned myself in the nursery bathtub rather than grow up saddled with such a burden.

I stared at the letter for a moment. “What cheek,” I said out loud and it was echoed back from the high ceiling of the hallway.
Not only are they no longer supporting me, but now they’re treating me like a servant. Perhaps she forgets that I’m here all alone, without a maid, even. Does she want me to dust and make beds and light fires myself?
Then I realized that it probably had never occurred to Hilda that I was living here without servants. She obviously expected that I had hired a maid by now.

After I had calmed down, I supposed it wasn’t such an unreasonable request. I was able-bodied enough to take off a few dust sheets and even run a carpet sweeper over a floor or two, wasn’t I? I had grown up never having to make my own bed, never having got myself a glass of water until I went to school, but I was capable of doing both. I was making splendid progress really. I hadn’t actually attempted to light a fire yet, of course, even though Granddad had given me the most basic instruction the previous day. It was the thought of that coal’ole, as he called it—the dreaded coal cellar replete with spiders—that put me off. But it would have to be tackled sometime. With all those ancestors who fought at Bannock Burn and Waterloo and every battle in between, I should have inherited enough spunk to face a coal cellar. Tomorrow was Sunday, when I was expected for lunch with my grandfather. I’d have him take me through the complete fire-lighting experience. Never let it be said that a Rannoch was defeated by anything!

On Sunday morning I was up, bright and early, ready to tackle my task. I put on an apron I found hanging in a cupboard below stairs and I tied a scarf around my hair. It was actually quite fun to whip off dust sheets and shake them out of the window. I was dancing around with the feather duster when there was a knock at the front door. I didn’t stop to think about the way I was dressed as I opened it and found Belinda on the doorstep.

“Is her ladyship at home to callers?” she asked, then she started as she recognized me. “Georgie! What on earth? Are you auditioning for the role of Cinderella?”

“What? Oh, this.” I glanced down at the feather duster. “On the orders of my dear sister-in-law. She wants me to get the house ready for the arrival of my dear brother, the duke, tomorrow. Come on in.” I led her down the hallway and up the stairs to the morning room. The windows were open and a fresh breeze stirred the lace curtains.

“Do sit down,” I said. “The seat has been newly dusted.”

She looked at me as if I had turned into a new and dangerous creature. “Surely she didn’t mean that you were to take it upon yourself personally to clean the house?”

“I’m afraid that’s exactly what she did mean. Do take a seat.”

“What was she thinking?” Belinda sat.

“I think the word for my sister-in-law is frugal, at best. She didn’t want to pay for the extra train tickets to send down the servants ahead of Binky. She reminded me of my grace and favor status, thereby suggesting that I owed Her Grace a favor.”

“What nerve,” Belinda exclaimed.

“My own sentiments exactly, but she obviously assumes I’ve hired a maid by now. She gave me a long lecture on the untrustworthiness of Londoners and how I should check all references.”

“Why didn’t you bring a maid with you?”

“Fig wouldn’t release one of ours and frankly I couldn’t afford to pay her anyway. But, you know, it’s not too bad. In fact it’s been quite fun. I’m getting rather good at it. It must be that humble ancestry on my mother’s side coming out but one gets quite a satisfaction from polishing things.”

Then suddenly it was as if I was hit with a flash of divine inspiration. “Wait,” I said. “I’ve just had a marvelous idea—I wanted a paying job, didn’t I? I could do this for other people and be paid for it.”

“Georgie! I’m all for standing on your own feet, but there are limits. A member of the house of Windsor acting as a char lady? My dear, think of the stink there would be when it was found out.”

BOOK: Her Royal Spyness
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