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Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

The Orchid House (12 page)

BOOK: The Orchid House
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Harry had been ordered by his mother to go and keep the young ‘Indian’ girl company. Dutifully, he made his way towards her across the room. A few paces away from her, he saw her lips open wide as she smiled.

Her cool, blonde beauty was suddenly animated, filled with a radiance beneath her creamy skin. Harry, not usually particularly aware of the physical charms of women, realised she was what most of his fellow officers would term a ‘stunner’.

He approached her. She saw him and said, ‘You must be Harry, sent to make polite conversation with me by your mother.’ Her turquoise eyes were filled with amusement as she spoke.

‘Yes. But I assure you, it will be my pleasure.’ He glanced at her empty glass. ‘May I find you another drink, Miss Drew-Norris?’

‘That would be just the ticket, thank you.’

Harry summoned the butler, and as Olivia placed her empty glass on the tray and took a fresh one she said, ‘I do apologise if you think me forward. I don’t mean to be. I feel rather sorry for you, that’s all, having to speak to endless people you’ve never met before.’

Olivia was surprised at her boldness and blamed the particularly potent gin. She looked at Harry, ‘handsome’ Harry, as Elsie had described him and decided that Elsie was right. Harry had managed to garner the best physical qualities of both his parents; he had the height of his father and the fine bone structure and luminous brown eyes of his mother.

‘I can assure you, Miss Drew-Norris, coming to talk to you isn’t a chore. You are, at least, under the age of seventy, which always helps. And, to be frank, around these parts, pretty unusual.’

Olivia laughed as Harry responded to her glibness. ‘
Touché
, although wearing that dinner suit, you could be taken for your father.’

Harry shrugged good-naturedly. ‘Why, Miss Drew-Norris, I do believe you are making fun of me. Do you not realise that war is coming to these fair isles and we must all make some sacrifices? For me, that’s wearing my father’s hand-me-down suit, even if it is three sizes too big for me.’

Olivia’s face darkened. ‘Do you really believe there will be war?’

‘Without a doubt.’ Harry nodded.

‘I agree, but Daddy refuses to countenance it,’ she added.

‘I’m sure that after a day’s shooting with
my
father, he may well have begun to.’ Harry raised his eyebrows.

‘I very much doubt that Herr Hitler can be pacified,’ sighed Olivia. ‘He’s intent on world domination, and his youth movement seems to be as passionate as he is.’

Harry stared at her in surprise. ‘If I may say so, Miss Drew-Norris, you seem awfully well informed. Rather unusual in a young lady.’

‘Do you find it unbecoming, women discussing politics?’ she asked.

‘Not at all. As a matter of fact, I find it extremely refreshing. Most girls simply aren’t interested.’

‘Well, I was fortunate to be tutored in India by a man who believed women had as much right to an education as men.’ Olivia gazed past him, her eyes suddenly sad. ‘He brought the world alive for me and made me aware of my relevance in it.’

‘Gosh, your chap sounds wasted in Poona. Wish I’d had that kind of inspiration at Eton. Couldn’t wait to finish and get out of the damned place.’ Harry lit a cigarette, fascinated. ‘And will you be taking your education further?’

Olivia shook her head ruefully. ‘I can’t imagine what Mummy and Daddy would say if I suggested it. They would be horrified: “What! A
blue stocking
in the family?!” No, I’m to be married off, assuming someone will have me, that is.’

Harry looked at her with genuine admiration. ‘Miss Drew-Norris, I assure you that will present no problem at all.’

She glanced up at him. ‘Even if it’s not what I want?’

Harry sighed as he stubbed his cigarette out into a nearby ashtray. ‘It occurs to me that most of us don’t have what we want. But do try not to be too downhearted. I believe there are changes coming, especially for women. And perhaps the only advantage of the prospect of war, is that it will alter the status quo even further.’

‘I can only hope it does,’ agreed Olivia. ‘And what of you?’ she asked, suddenly remembering that the golden rule, taught from the cradle, was never to dominate the conversation, especially with a gentleman.

‘Me?’ Harry shrugged. ‘I’m a mere soldier, on leave at present, but I fear not for long. We’ve just received orders to double the numbers in my new battalion, recruiting through the Territorial Army.’

‘I find it quite impossible to understand how life here can go on as normal.’ Olivia indicated the other members of the drinks party, guffawing loudly at some joke.

‘Well, it’s the British spirit, isn’t it?’ Harry commented. ‘The world may be coming to an end, but in houses such as these, everything goes on as it always has done. And in some respects, I thank God for it.’

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.’

‘Well, Miss Drew-Norris,’ said Harry, ‘it’s been a pleasure. By the way, mind the shot in the pheasant. Cook’s not terribly careful.’ He winked at her. ‘Perhaps we’ll meet again before you leave.’

Olivia spent dinner responding to Lord Crawford’s dreadful jokes and behaving like the young lady she had been brought up to be. She risked the odd glance down the table at Harry, who she could see was doing his duty too, entertaining the wife of the Army Major. Later, as the men retired to the library and the women to the drawing room for coffee, Olivia feigned tiredness and excused herself.

Adrienne appeared by her side just as she was mounting the stairs. ‘
Ma chérie
, are you ill?’ she asked with concern.

Olivia shook her head. ‘No, just a headache, really.’

Adrienne held her by the shoulders and smiled. ‘It is this cold English weather that has chilled your tropical bones. I will ask Elsie to relight your fire and bring you some cocoa, and we will see you tomorrow. Perhaps you will take a walk with me in the garden and I can show you something that might remind you of home.’

Olivia nodded, appreciating Adrienne’s genuine concern. ‘Thank you.’


Je vous en prie.
You enjoyed speaking to my son, Harry?’ she asked.

‘I did, awfully, thank you.’ Olivia could feel the heat rising in her cheeks and hoped Adrienne hadn’t noticed.

Adrienne nodded approvingly. ‘I knew you would.
Bonne nuit, ma chérie
.’

Olivia climbed the stairs wearily. She genuinely had a headache, probably brought on by the fact she was still unused to alcohol, but more importantly, she wanted time alone to think back and relish her conversation with Harry.

She changed into her nightgown in double-quick time, an art she had perfected since arriving in the cold English climate. As she hopped into bed and snuggled under the covers, there was a knock on her door.

‘Come.’

Elsie’s bright face appeared round the door. She was holding a tray with a mug of cocoa on it. ‘Only me, Miss Olivia.’ She walked across the room and placed the tray on the night table next to Olivia. ‘Made to my ma’s special recipe,’ she smiled, ‘with a dash of brandy for the cold.’

‘Thank you, Elsie.’ Olivia picked up the warm cup and nursed it in her hands as she watched Elsie rekindle the fire.

‘So, did you have a good evening, Miss Olivia?’

‘Oh yes, Elsie, I did,’ she smiled.

Elsie turned from the fire and caught the smile. Her eyes twinkled. ‘And did you meet young Master Harry?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what did you think of him then?’ she probed.

Olivia knew that another golden rule was not to gossip with servants, especially when not one’s own, but the temptation of discussing Harry was just too great.

‘I think he was … a very unusual man.’

‘And as handsome as I said he was?’ questioned Elsie.

When Olivia didn’t answer, Elsie cast her eyes down. ‘Sorry, miss, I’m forgetting myself. I mustn’t ask personal questions.’

‘Elsie, I promise you’re doing marvellously well,’ Olivia reassured her. ‘And after tomorrow, we’ll probably never see each other again. And …’ she took a deep breath, ‘if you want to know the truth, I thought Harry was … a darling!’

Elsie clasped her hands together. ‘Oh, Miss Olivia! I just knew you would! I knew you’d like each other.’

Olivia took a sip of her drink. ‘Elsie, this is the finest cocoa I’ve ever tasted.’

‘Thank you, miss,’ replied Elsie as she headed for the door. ‘I’ll be here in the morning to draw back your curtains. Sleep tight.’

When Elsie had left the room, Olivia lay back on the soft pillows sipping the cocoa. Then she closed her eyes and began to relive her conversation with Harry from start to finish.

11

The following morning, Olivia took breakfast alone in the dining room as the shooting party had left early, and both her mother and Adrienne were taking breakfast in their rooms. Afterwards, for want of anything better to do, she made her way into the library to choose a book. With reading material in Poona a precious and rare commodity, Olivia was overcome by the supply on the floor-to-ceiling shelves.

She pulled off Virginia Woolf’s
To the Lighthouse
and settled down in a comfortable leather chair by the fire to read.

The sound of music, distant but audible, attracted her attention. Someone was playing the piano and, as she concentrated, Olivia realised she recognised Chopin’s ‘Grande Polonaise’. She stood up and left the library, following the direction of the music, letting her auditory senses lead her eventually to the doorway of the drawing room.

She stood where she was, listening to the exquisite rendition of one of her favourite pieces, closing her eyes as the sound emanated from the piano at the other end of the room. As the last notes drifted across to her, she opened her eyes and peeped round a tall Chinese vase filled with flowers, which had blocked her view of the player.

Olivia gasped in astonishment when she saw it was Harry. Feeling like an interloper, she watched him as he sat, hands in his lap, staring out of the window and on to the park beyond. Finally, he gave a sigh, stood up and saw her.

‘Golly, Miss Drew-Norris! I didn’t realise I had an audience.’ He walked towards her, embarrassed, hands in his pockets.

‘I was in the library and I heard the music and …’ she shrugged, ‘followed it.’

‘You’re fond of classical music?’

‘Oh gosh, yes. Especially when it’s played like that. You’re really terribly good,’ Olivia said, flushing slightly. ‘Where did you learn?’

‘My mother had me tutored when I was younger and I continued at school. But … rather like you and university, the old ivories can’t feature in my future plans. More’s the pity,’ he added morosely.

‘Well, they should,’ said Olivia stoutly. ‘I’m no expert, but you sound just as good as the recordings I listened to in India.’

‘It’s very kind of you to say so.’ He turned away and looked out of the window, then asked: ‘Fancy accompanying me on a walk? The sun seems to have managed to struggle out from behind the clouds today.’

‘I think I was supposed to be taking a walk with your mother, but I haven’t seen her so far this morning.’

‘No, and I doubt you will. She’s almost certainly in bed with a migraine. She suffers awfully from them, especially after late nights like last night. What say you, you find yourself a coat, and we’ll rendezvous outside on the terrace in five minutes?’

Olivia ran upstairs to find the only coat she had brought with her – far more suitable for the city than stomping across a country estate.

Harry was waiting for her, smoking a cigarette and leaning over the balustrade that led on to the gardens. She came to stand next to him shyly. He pointed to one of the trees. ‘Can you see underneath? There’s actually a sign of life: snowdrops.’ He indicated the steps. ‘Shall we?’

They walked down the wide stairs and into the garden.

‘How do you like our miniature Versailles?’ Harry indicated the immaculate and beautifully laid-out formal garden around them. Manicured topiary hedges surrounded the edges, and in the centre was an elegant fountain, topped with a statue of a young boy. ‘Mother wanted to create something of her French homeland. She’s done a marvellous job. You should see it in high summer when all the flowers are out. It’s a riot of colour.’

‘I can imagine,’ breathed Olivia as they walked towards the fountain.

‘You’ve just missed the mimosa by a few days,’ said Harry, pointing to the bushes which sat, protected, under the terrace. ‘It flowers any time between January and March, and really does smell heavenly. Our gardener doubted it could be grown here – it’s normally a plant that likes the temperate weather of the South of France but, sure enough, Mother won and it flourishes.’

‘She obviously has green fingers. And the garden design is simply perfect.’ Olivia turned around to take everything in, then followed Harry along one of the many paths that led away from the fountain.

‘Your mother told me that she might have something growing in the garden that would remind me of India,’ Olivia offered, breaking what seemed to her to have been rather a long silence.

‘Oh, she most certainly means the hothouse. Our gardener, Jack, who was more used to nurturing turnips than exotic blooms, has spent the past few years trying to grow the bulbs that Mother gets sent to her from Kew Gardens. We can take a look at it if you’d like to.’

‘Rather,’ Olivia accepted eagerly.

‘It’s a bit of a hike, but we’ll make it brisk. Sun might be out, but it’s jolly nippy. So you’re returning home tonight with your ma and pa?’ he asked her.

‘No, not directly. First, we’re off to London to discuss my Season with Grandmother. She’s rather keen to be involved and, as Mummy’s been out of the country so long, will be able to offer advice on the protocol.’

‘It may not be as bad as you think, you know, Miss Drew-Norris …’

‘Olivia, please,’ she insisted.

‘Olivia,’ Harry corrected. ‘I went to a few dances a couple of years back and they can be quite jolly.’

‘I do hope so, although I can’t say I’m very eager to go to London. There’s a horribly tense atmosphere there – everyone’s waiting for something awful to happen.’ She looked up at him for a reaction and saw he was nodding in agreement. ‘And you will have read about the unemployment and the unrest on the streets?’

BOOK: The Orchid House
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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