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Lydia Young was a fake from the tip of her shoes to the saucy froth of feathers on her hat but, as she held centre stage at a reception in a swanky London hotel, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she was the best there was.
Her suit, an interpretation of a designer original, had been run up at home by her mother, but her mother had once been a seamstress at a couturier house. And while her shoes, bag and wristwatch were knock-offs, they were the finest knock-offs that money could buy. The kind that only someone intimate with the real thing would clock without a very close look. But they were no more than the window dressing.
She'd once heard an actress describe how she built a character from the feet up and she had taken that lesson to heart.
Lydia had studied her character's walk, her gestures, a certain tilt of the head. She'd worked on the voice until it was her own and the world famous smile—a slightly toned down version of the mile-wide one that came as naturally as breathing—was, even if she said it herself, a work of art.
Her reward was that when she walked into a room full of people who knew that she was a lookalike, hired by the hour to lend glamour to the opening of a club or a restaurant or to appear at the launch of a new product, there was absolutely nothing in her appearance or manner to jar the fantasy and, as a result, she was treated with the same deference as the real thing.
She was smiling now as she mixed and mingled, posing for photographs with guests at a product launch being held at the kind of hotel that in her real life she would only glimpse from a passing bus.
Would the photographs be framed? she wondered. Placed on mantels,so that their neighbours, friends would believe that they'd actually met 'England's Sweetheart'?
Someone spoke to her and she offered her hand, the smile, asked all the right questions, chatting as naturally as if to the stately home born.
A dozen more handshakes, a few more photographs as the managing director of the company handed her a blush-pink rose that was as much a part of her character's image as the smile and then it was over. Time to go back to her real world. A hospital appointment for her mother, then an evening shift at the 24/7 supermarket where she might even be shelving the new brand of tea that was being launched today.
There was a certain irony in that, she thought as she approached the vast marble entrance lobby, heading for the cloakroom to transform herself back into plain Lydia Young for the bus ride home. Anticipating the head-turning ripple of awareness as she passed.
People had been turning to look, calling out 'Rose' to her in the street since she was a teen. The likeness had been striking, much more than the colour of her hair, the even features, vivid blue eyes that were eerily like those of the sixteen-year-old Lady Rose. And she had played up to it, copying her hairstyle, begging her mother to make her a copy of the little black velvet jacket Lady Rose had been wearing in the picture that had appeared on the front page of every newspaper the day after her sixteenth birthday. Copying her 'look', just as her mother's generation had slavishly followed another young princess.
Who wouldn't want to look like an icon?
A photograph taken by the local paper had brought her to the attention of the nation's biggest 'lookalike' agency and overnight being 'Lady Rose' had not only given her wheelchair-bound mother a new focus in life as she'd studied the clothes, hunted down fabrics to reproduce them, but had provided extra money to pay the bills, pay for her driving lessons. She'd even saved up enough to start looking for a car so that she could take her mum further than the local shops.
Lost in the joy of that thought, Lydia was halfway across the marble entrance before she realised that no one was looking at her. That someone else was the centre of attention.
Her stride faltered as that 'someone' turned and she came face to face with herself. Or, more accurately, the self she was pretending to be.
Lady Roseanne Napier.
From the tip of her mouth-wateringly elegant hat, to the toes of her matching to-die-for shoes.
And Lydia, whose heart had joined her legs in refusing to move, could do nothing but pray for the floor to open up and swallow her.
The angel in charge of rescuing fools from moments of supreme embarrassment clearly had something more pressing to attend to. The marble remained solid and it was Lady Rose, the corner of her mouth lifting in a wry little smile, who saved the day.
'I know the face,' she said, extending her hand, 'but I'm afraid the name escapes me.'
'Lydia, madam, Lydia Young' she stuttered as she grasped it, more for support than to shake hands.
Should she curtsy? Women frequently forgot themselves sufficiently to curtsy to her but she wasn't sure her knees, once down, would ever make it back up again and the situation was quite bad enough without turning it into a farce.
Then, realising that she was still clutching the slender hand much too tightly, she let go, stammered out an apology.
'I'm s-so sorry. I promise this wasn't planned. I had no idea you'd be here.'
'Please, it's not a problem,' Lady Rose replied sympathetically, kindness itself as she paused long enough to exchange a few words, ask her what she was doing at the hotel, put her at her ease. Then, on the point of rejoining the man waiting for her at the door—the one the newspapers were saying Lady Rose would marry—she looked back. 'As a matter of interest, Lydia, how much do you charge for being me? Just in case I ever decided to take a day off?'
'No charge for you, Lady Rose. Just give me a call. Any time.'
'I don't suppose you fancy three hours of Wagner this evening?' she asked, but before Lydia could reply, she shook her head. 'Just kidding. I wouldn't wish that on you.'
The smile was in place, the voice light with laughter, but for a moment her eyes betrayed her and Lydia saw beyond the fabulous clothes, the pearl choker at her throat. Lady Rose, she realised, was a woman in trouble and, taking a card from the small clutch bag she was holding, she offered it to her.
'I meant what I said. Call me,' Lydia urged. 'Any time.'
Three weeks later, when she answered her cellphone, a voice she knew as well as her own said, 'Did you mean it?'
Kalil al-Zaki stared down into the bare winter garden of his country's London Embassy, watching the Ambassador's children racing around in the care of their nanny.
He was only a couple of years younger than his cousin. By the time a man was in his thirties he should have a family, sons…
'I know how busy you are, but it's just for a week, Kal.'
'I don't understand the problem,' he said, clamping down on the bitterness, the anger that with every passing day came closer to spilling over, and turned from the children to their mother, his cousin's lovely wife, Princess Lucy al-Khatib. 'Nothing is going to happen to Lady Rose at Bab el Sama.'
As it was the personal holiday complex of the Ramal Hamrahn royal family, security would, he was certain, be state-of-the-art.
'Of course it isn't,' Lucy agreed, 'but her grandfather came to see me yesterday. Apparently there has been a threat against her.'
He frowned. 'A threat? What kind of threat?'
'He refused to go into specifics.'
'Well, that was helpful.' Then, 'So why did he come to you rather than Hanif?'
'I was the one who offered her the use of our Bab el Sama cottage whenever she needed to get away from it all.' She barely lifted her shoulders, but it was unmistakably a shrug. 'The Duke's line is that he doesn't want to alarm her.'
'He thought the simplest solution would be if I made some excuse and withdrew the invitation.'
The one thing that Kal could do was read women—with a mother, two stepmothers and more sisters than he could count, he'd had a lot of practise—and he recognised an as if shrug when he saw one.
'You believe he's making a fuss about nothing.'
'He lost his son and daughter-in-law in the most brutal manner and it's understandable that he's protective of his granddaughter. She wasn't even allowed to go to school…'
'Lucy!' he snapped. This all round the houses approach was unlike her. And why on earth she should think he'd want to babysit some spoiled celebrity 'princess', he couldn't imagine. But Lucy was not the enemy. On the contrary. 'I'm sorry.'
'I've no doubt there's been something,' she said, dismissing his apology with an elegant gesture. 'Everyone in the public eye gets their share of crank mail, but…' there it was, the but word '… I doubt it's more than some delusional creature getting hot under the collar over rumours that she's about to announce her engagement to Rupert Devenish.'
'You're suggesting that it's no more than a convenient excuse to apply pressure on you, keep her under the paternal eye?' He didn't believe it. The woman wasn't a child; she had to be in her mid-twenties.
'Maybe I'm being unjust.' She sighed. 'I might believe that the man is obsessively controlling, but I have no doubt that Rose is very precious to him.'
'And not just him.' He might suspect the public image of purity and goodness was no more than a well-managed PR exercise, but it was one the media were happy to buy into, at least until they had something more salacious to print on their front pages. 'You do realise that if anything were to happen to Lady Roseanne Napier while she's in Ramal Hamrah, the British press would be merciless?' And he would be the one held to blame.
'Meanwhile, they'll happily invade her privacy on a daily basis in the hope of getting intimate pictures of her for no better reason than to boost the circulation of their grubby little rags.'
'They can only take pictures of what she does,' he pointed out.
'So she does nothing.'
'Nothing?' He frowned. 'Really? She really is as pure, as angelic as the media would have us believe?'
'It's not something to be sneered at, Kalil.' Her turn to snap. 'She's been in the public eye since she was dubbed the "people's angel" on her sixteenth birthday. She hasn't been able to move a finger for the last ten years without someone taking a photograph of her.'
'Then she has my sympathy.'
'She doesn't need your sympathy, Kal. What she's desperate for is some privacy. Time on her own to sort out where she's going from here.'
'I thought you said she was getting married.'
'I said there were rumours to that effect, fuelled, I have no doubt, by the Duke,' she added, this time making no attempt to hide her disapproval. 'There comes a point at which a virginal image stops being charming, special and instead becomes the butt of cruel humour. Marriage, babies will keep the story moving forward and His Grace has lined up an Earl in waiting to fill this bill.'
'An arranged marriage?' It was his turn to shrug. 'Is that so bad?' In his experience, it beat the ramshackle alternative of love hands down. 'What does Hanif say?'
'In his opinion, if there had been a genuine threat the Duke would have made a formal approach through the Foreign Office instead of attempting to bully me into withdrawing my invitation.'
With considerably more success, Kal thought.
'Even so,' he replied, 'it might be wiser to do everyone a favour and tell Lady Rose that the roof has fallen in at your holiday cottage.'
'In other words, knuckle under, make life easy for ourselves? What about Rose? They give her no peace, Kal.'
'She's never appeared to want it,' he pointed out. Barely a week went by without her appearance on the front pages of the newspapers or some gossip magazine.
'Would it make any difference if she did?' She shook her head, not expecting an answer. 'Will you go with her, Kal? While I don't believe Rose is in any actual danger, I daren't risk leaving her without someone to watch her back and if I have to ask your uncle to detail an Emiri guard, she'll simply be exchanging one prison for another.'
'What would you call it?' She reached out, took his hand. 'I'm desperately worried about her. On the surface she's so serene, but underneath there's a desperation…' She shook her head. 'Distract her, Kal. Amuse her, make her laugh.'
'Do you want me to protect her or make love to her?' he asked, with just the slightest edge to his voice. He'd done his best to live down the playboy image that clung to the al-Zaki name, but he would always be the grandson of an exiled playboy prince, the son of a man whose pursuit of beautiful women had kept the gossip writers happily in business for forty years.
Building an international company from the floor up, supporting Princess Lucy's charities, didn't make the kind of stories that sold newspapers.
'Consider this as a diplomatic mission, Kal,' Lucy replied enigmatically, 'and a diplomat is a man who manages to give everyone what they want while serving the needs of his own country. You do want to serve your country?' she asked.
They both knew that he had no country, but clearly Lucy saw this as a way to promote his cause. The restoration of his family to their rightful place. His marriage to the precious daughter of one of the great Ramal Hamrahn families. And, most important of all, to take his dying grandfather home. For that, he would play nursemaid to an entire truckload of aristocratic virgins.
'Princess,' he responded with the slightest bow, 'rest assured that I will do everything in my power to ensure that Lady Roseanne Napier enjoys her visit to Ramal Hamrah.'
'Thank you, Kal. I can now assure the Duke that, since the Emir's nephew is to take personal care of her security, he can have no worries about her safety.'
Kal shook his head, smiling despite himself. 'You won't, I imagine, be telling him which nephew?'
'Of course I'll tell him,' she replied. 'How else will he be able to thank your uncle for the service you have rendered him?'
'You think he'll be grateful?'
'Honestly? I think he'll be chewing rocks, but he's not about to insult the Emir of Ramal Hamrah by casting doubt on the character of one of his family. Even one whose grandfather tried to start a revolution.'