The Washington Post
Little Lady, Big Appleby Hester Browne
Melissa Romney-Jones went from doormat to diva when she donned a blond wig, became Honey, a no-nonsense bombshell, and set up shop providing London's most clueless men with all the basic girlfriend services -- except, of course, for sex and laundry! Now, her business is booming, but when her flat-mate decides to renovate, she has to temporarily find a new place to… See more details below
Melissa Romney-Jones went from doormat to diva when she donned a blond wig, became Honey, a no-nonsense bombshell, and set up shop providing London's most clueless men with all the basic girlfriend services -- except, of course, for sex and laundry! Now, her business is booming, but when her flat-mate decides to renovate, she has to temporarily find a new place to live. Then Melissa's dashing American boyfriend (and former client) Jonathan Riley gets a promotion that takes him to New York. There's only one solution: an extended holiday for Melissa in the Big Apple.
Entrusting care of the Little Lady Agency to her tactless best friend and her melodramatic sister, Melissa crosses the pond and finds herself out of her depth among Jonathan's hard-charging friends and his interfering ex-wife. Although Jonathan works all the time, he asks Melissa not to take on any new clients while she's in his hometown. But when she's presented with a tempting new challenge, Melissa decides to put her expertise to use. Then her project lands her in the tabloids, which sets off a hilarious and heartbreaking chain of events that could force her to choose between the man she loves and the unique business into which she has poured her heart and soul.
Irresistibly funny and full of the magic of New York, Little Lady, Big Apple is another triumph that will have you rooting for Melissa all the way!
The Washington Post
Melissa Romney-Jones, alias Honey Blennerhesket, is back in Browne's second novel (after The Little Lady Agency). And this time she is in New York City, where she's taken refuge with her American boyfriend, Jonathan, while her apartment is being renovated. Melissa has left her business, a freelance girlfriend service she runs as Honey, in the unreliable hands of her best friend, Gaby, and newly divorced sister, Allegra. Jonathan is pleased to see brunette Melissa, but he's not as excited to have blond Honey meet any of his friends. When Melissa finds herself doing some agency work for an expatriate British actor, she is forced to choose between the career she loves and Jonathan. Meanwhile, Jonathan seems to be spending a lot of time with his ex-wife under the guise of selling their jointly owned co-op apartment, and Gaby and Allegra seem to be missing in action, all of which necessitates some transatlantic juggling. Chick-lit fans will enjoy this fast-paced and entertaining book.
Lisa O'Hara Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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My name is Melissa Romney-Jones, but between the hours of nine and five you can call me Honey.
That's when I'm at work, running the Little Lady Agency, London's premier freelance girlfriend service. During office hours, I'm Honey Blennerhesket, queen of scruffy bachelors and scourge of slacking domestics. The Little Lady Agency, my very own business, is the first port of call for hopeless single chaps who need to borrow a woman's expertise for the afternoon. You'd be astounded how many of them there are.
It's not, I should stress, as racy as it sounds, but it has completely changed my outlook on men, in more ways than one.
As it says on my business cards, I offer -- or, rather, Honey offers -- every girlfriend service a man could need, except sex and laundry. Aside from that, I'll tackle anything, no matter how random or daunting, and it certainly keeps me busy. In the last year, for instance, I've advised on the purchase of hundreds of suits; put a couple of would-be grannies right off the idea of grandchildren; helped break off five engagements and assisted nine marriage proposals; salvaged three flats after three wild parties; bought stacks of godparent gifts; sent thousands of roses to spouses, secretaries, sisters, and secret girlfriends; and generally acted as the invisible woman most men need to keep them on the straight and narrow.
You're probably wondering why I can't just do all this as Melissa. Well, there are several very good reasons for that.
First of all, if the name Romney-Jones seems familiar, it's because my father, Martin, is the only Member of Parliament to have survived no fewer than four separate political scandals (two tax, one sex, and something murky involving an EU cheese producer in Luxembourg that I've never quite gotten to the bottom of). When I started my business, I didn't want him to find out what I was up to, and now that things are working out rather well, I don't want him cashing in.
Secondly, if I'm being honest, in real life I'm a complete pushover, ground down by years of merciless advantage-taking by Daddy and the rest of my horrendously selfish family. So I found that creating bossy, supergroomed Honey sort of gives me permission to put my foot down where I'd normally fear to tread. Honey has much better shoes than I do, for a start. Most of them are stilettos, to go with the fitted pencil skirts and devastating bombshell sweaters I wear for work, and Honey's not afraid to stamp those stilettos when she needs to get results. Rather hard, too, if the situation demands. Sometimes I don't even notice the blisters till I get home.
Plus, to be honest, there's something kind of sexy about being Honey. She never rounds her shoulders to hide her ample cleavage or worries about how she looks from behind. And I never realized that wearing stockings for work would have such startling effects on my out-of-office life....
Thirdly? Well, everyone likes to be able to clock off at the end of the day, don't they? When you've spent hours ironing out endless male problems, it's nice to be able to walk away from them. And I do walk away. In dress-down Melissa's comfortable flats.
Quite apart from the delicious wardrobe, I absolutely love my work. No one can sack me, for one thing. Up until I started the agency, my CV comprised five personal assistant positions in five different estate agencies and one unfortunate spell working for my old home economics teacher, who, as I found out at my own expense, wasn't quite the lady I thought she was. Let's just say that when I escort a man to dinner, I don't expect to be the pudding course. But ironically enough, it was wearing Mrs. McKinnon's prescribed corset (and the blond wig I used as a disguise) that unleashed the straight-talking, wiggly walking force of nature that is Honey Blennerhesket, so I suppose I have something to thank Mrs. McKinnon for. I like to look on the bright side like that.
And, despite what my father might sneer about mummy's boys and hand-holding, I get a tremendous sense of job satisfaction from my work. There's something so gratifying about taking shambolic bachelors and revealing their inner foxes -- rather like tarting up derelict houses that no one can bear to move into, only to see them besieged with buyers the next week. Some of my clients do need an element of structural repair, as well as cosmetic improvement, but that's even more rewarding to sort out. Besides, Honey likes a challenge.
For a while I didn't think Melissa would ever be able to compete with Honey, who was just so much more...colorful than me. More confident, more dynamic, more everything, really.
But then the weirdest thing happened. We met -- I mean, I met -- someone: Jonathan Riley. He was tall, charming, courteous, with perfect teeth and a very handy fox-trot -- in short, a proper, old-fashioned gentleman. He was also running the Chelsea estate agency I used to work at and looking for a human shield to protect him from the London dating market while he got over the breakup of his marriage.
Posing as Jonathan's girlfriend in smart restaurants and glamorous cocktail bars all over London wasn't exactly what you'd call work. The hard part was trying to keep my professional distance at the end of each date. Well, that and keeping my wig straight. Just as I was miserably sure he was falling for Honey the blond bombshell, he told me he'd fallen for me -- frumpy old Melissa underneath! Only he didn't think I was frumpy. When I'd gotten over being amazed, I was very, very happy.
And I still am. Quite extraordinarily happy.
The three best things about Jonathan are that he's a real grown-up man: he has properly tailored suits; he can order food in three languages; he buys his own moisturizer without a shred of embarrassment; and he never, ever, leaves the bathroom door open when I stay over at his enormous house in Barnes.
He's also strong enough from all the squash and running that he does to sweep me into his arms and make me feel tiny and fragile. And once he's swept me into his arms, he's also very good on the, ah, follow-through, if you know what I mean.
And thirdly, Jonathan actually listens to me. We have lovely weekends away in the English countryside (he's been too busy for us to have a proper holiday), trailing round stately homes while I recycle all the useless facts about moats and knights from my history lessons and he nods in apparent interest. He asks me where I want to go for dinner, or how my day was, and then remembers what I said.
Bonus: he's not afraid of my ghastly father.
The only negatives about Jonathan are that he's very busy and doesn't always get my jokes. My best friend, Gabi, would add that he also has bright red hair, but frankly that's a positive for me, since we both have to keep out of the sun.
He is, in short, a complete dreamboat.
However, being practically perfect during working hours didn't mean I wasn't still prone to lateness and snagged tights in the mornings. I was already seventeen minutes behind schedule, and since Gabi was supposed to be helping me on my first job of the day, I had no doubt that those seventeen minutes were about to double.
I was running late because my flatmate, Nelson, had phoned our local radio station to add his considered opinion to a heated debate about recycling and had insisted on my hanging around to record his contribution on the kitchen radio.
Gabi was running late because there was a sample sale in Hampstead, for which the doors opened at 7:00 A.M.
At 8:33 A.M. we were both scuttling down the street toward the agency, knowing full well that Tristram Hart-Mossop would be waiting for us outside Selfridges at 9:00 A.M. on the dot, and I wasn't anywhere near ready for that.
"I don't see why we can't just go straight to Oxford Circus!" panted Gabi.
"Because I need to get changed! Come on, we're nearly there." I walked briskly down Ebury Street. My old boarding school was the type that encouraged brisk walking.
"Jesus, Mel, you move fast for a big girl. What kept you, anyway?" she gasped. "A morning quickie with Dr. No?"
"Certainly not!" I should explain that Gabi worked part-time in the estate agency that Jonathan managed, and she had great trouble seeing him in a nonmanagerial role. He had a rather "results-oriented" management style. While Nelson tended to refer to him sarcastically as Remington Steele on account of his all-American, clean-cut jawline, the girls in the office -- apparently -- liked to call him Dr. No.
Jonathan, I might add, rarely said no to me.
"He likes to get off quickly in the mornings," I added. "He's usually ready to go by seven."
Gabi snorted dirtily. "That's what I meant."
I looked at her, baffled. "No, I thought you were asking me if we'd -- "
"Forget it," she said. "Your kind of innocence should have a preservation order."
Gabi and Nelson were always baiting me with double entendres. I never got them. With a family like mine, one grows up habitually looking the other way.
"Nothing wrong with having an innocent mind," I said, unlocking the door and pushing it open.
There was the usual stack of interesting-looking mail, but I didn't have time to check through it. Instead, we bounded up the stairs two at a time, past the frightfully discreet beauty salon on the ground floor, where Chelsea wives snuck off for their Botox and electro-tweakage, and into my office.
I threw my huge handbag on the leather sofa and handed Gabi the bunch of ranunculus I'd bought on the way.
"Right," I said, peeling off my cardigan. "I'm going to get changed. Stick these flowers in water, would you?"
"Okay," said Gabi, looking round for a vase. "God, this place is comfy. I've seen less cozy houses."
"That's the point."
My office was a little second-floor flat: The main room was my lilac-walled, calming consultation space, with a tiny bathroom, an even tinier kitchen alcove, and a small second room, in which I kept spare clothes, supplies, and a fold-out bed in case of emergency.
Leaving the door open so I could chat to Gabi, I slipped out of my floaty summer skirt and hunted about for my garter belt. There weren't that many businesses where you could spend hundreds of pounds on Agent Provocateur underwear and charge it to office furniture. As I slid the first crisp new stocking over my toes and carefully smoothed it up and over my leg, I started to feel, as I always did, a little bit more confident. More put together. More in charge.
"Do you want coffee?" yelled Gabi.
"Please!" I fixed the stocking in place and quickly rolled on the other. I'd got quite adept at this. There was a knack to it, a little flick of the finger and thumb, which was really rather satisfying to acquire. I could imagine Jane Russell doing it. After my stockings came the black pencil skirt, which skimmed over the curve of my tummy. It was a high garter belt, with a decent flattening capacity, but it could only do so much.
Something about stockings made me stand up straighter. I hunted through the hangers to find a clean blouse.
"Biscuits?" yelled Gabi.
"In the barrel. Homemade. Nelson knocked some up for me."
Gabi let out a gusty sigh of admiration. Nelson made famously light shortbread.
I slipped into a fresh black shirt and buttoned it over my rose satin balconette bra. Not that clients ever got to see my spectacularly glam underpinnings, obviously, but it made me feel better, knowing they were there. My fingers hesitated over the third button, where my shirt parted precariously close to the delicate lace of my bra. I left it undone.
It promised to be a warm day, after all.
Finally, I wriggled my stockinged feet into a pair of high-heeled stilettos, pulled back my shoulders, and I was ready.
Honey Blennerhesket. Five feet eleven inches of woman.
Out of habit, my hand reached for the finishing touch, the final piece of the Melissa-to-Honey transformation: Honey's long blond wig, currently sitting on top of the filing cabinet like a religious icon, its caramel curls spooling lusciously around the antique porcelain head.
I stopped. No. That was the one thing that Jonathan had said no to. No more wearing the wig as part of the "stand-in girlfriend" service. I think he was worried that other men might fall under its spell as he had, but frankly, he had nothing to worry about on that score.
Still, it was so lovely. And it made me look so glamorous. The wig had only been a disguise, but somehow it had unleashed a whole side of me that I'd never really known was there.
I took a step nearer and stroked the real hair.
Not that I minded giving up something so small for Jonathan, but I'd never felt so gorgeous as I had when I'd been a slinky blond. Would it hurt just to try it on for a moment, just to get me in the...
"Here you go, milk, no sugar...Jesus Christ!" blurted Gabi as she stepped into the room with the coffees.
I sprang back from the wig guiltily.
"I never get used to how different you look in the whole Honey getup," she marveled. "Look at that tiny waist! You sexbomb, you."
I flapped away the compliment. "It's all tailoring. You should -- "
"Yeah, yeah." Gabi was more of a designer jeans girl. She nodded toward the wig. "So, you going to put that on?"
"No," I said firmly. "I don't wear that anymore."
"No. Jonathan and I agreed that I wouldn't."
"Not even in the privacy of...you know?" Gabi twinkled naughtily. She was shameless sometimes. If you asked me, she got away with a good deal under the guise of straight talking. "He doesn't ask you to do any...role playing?"
I blushed. "No."
Between you and me, I did still like to put it on now and again. When no one was around. Just swishing all that hair about was so sexy and confidence-inspiring. Nelson, who never tires of teasing me, claimed it had voodoo powers, like something out of a spooky novel. The Wig That Flounced on Its Own.
Actually, in my middle-of-the-night panic moments I sometimes wondered if Jonathan secretly preferred me when I was Honey the blond. He was a very successful estate agent. He drove a Mercedes that cost more than Nelson had paid for his flat. And his ex-wife, Cindy, was a real blond, unlike me. And again, unlike me, she probably hadn't been drummed out of the Pony Club for overfeeding her horse (out of love, not carelessness).
There was something about the thought of Cindy that put the fear of God in me, on many levels. I suppressed a shudder.
I hadn't actually met her, and so probably shouldn't be drawing unfair conclusions. Of course if I had met her, then maybe I wouldn't be haunted by my vivid imagination.
"No," I said more firmly. "He doesn't like me wearing it at all. Says he's had his fill of blonds for now."
"More fool him then," said Gabi, offering me the mug and gulping from her own. "Come on! We've got three minutes, and that's if we can find a black cab." She blew on her coffee, then added, "Mind, dressed like that, I doubt you'll have a problem on that front. Not that you ever do."
"Don't rush," I said. "No point in scalding yourself."
She thrust her watch in my face. "Look at the time!"
A strange calm had descended over me. "Tristram can just wait. We'll get there when we get there."
Gabi gazed at me with something approaching admiration. "Blimey. That's what I call power dressing."
"I think better in high heels," I replied. "You've got the camcorder?"
"Wonderful," I said serenely and sipped my coffee.
We made it to Selfridges by five minutes past. That was the beauty of Honey: She was never exactly late, but she knew the value of keeping men waiting for a minute or two.
Tristram Hart-Mossop looked less than thrilled to see us nonetheless, and I hurried him up to the menswear department as fast as possible, trying to keep Gabi away from the lure of the perfume hall. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized she might not have been the ideal choice of sidekick for this particular job.
When the three of us were safely upstairs, I took a deep breath, marshaled my thoughts like a midget gymnast about to perform a complicated series of flick-flacks and piked whatnots, and launched into full Honey mode.
"So, you see, Tristram," I trilled with an expansive wave of the hand, "you've got one thousand pounds to spend on clothes, and I'm going to help you spend it!"
Then I turned to Gabi, who was filming me on my office camcorder, and added, with a smile so broad it made my cheeks hurt, "Because I'm Honey Blennerhesket, and I'm 'Making You Over!'"
Gabi, to her credit, didn't laugh when I said this. Which was good of her, because I heard some passing shopper snigger behind me and someone else say, quite distinctly, "Who?"
"Tristram," hissed Gabi as the awkward pause stretched out, "say something!"
Tristram Hart-Mossop, the textbook illustration of "awkward teenager," shuffled self-consciously, shooting nervous glances in every direction. I couldn't decide whether he was terrified of being separated from his computer for an hour or just terrified of being seen out in the company of two women. He was hopping from foot to foot as if he was desperate for the loo, and I was already feeling more like a warder than a makeover queen.
Gabi coughed and pointed at the camera, which sent him into another spasm of twitching and glancing.
I prodded him discreetly and whispered, "Just pretend you're at home. On a family video!"
Tristram let out a strangled squawk of mortification that hinted at its own story, then managed to croak, "That's great! Um, yuh, cheers. Right."
I nudged him to look at the camera, and he managed to haul his eyes up for a second, before his gaze darted wildly first to a pyramid of socks, then over to the trousers, and then onto a man changing a shop-floor model.
"So," I finished with another chuckling smile, "without further ado, let's get on and make you over!"
"And cut!" said Gabi. "That was great. You're very good on camera, you know, Tristram."
I gave her a quick "don't build your part up" warning look, and she raised her eyebrows in fake innocence. It wasn't, I must say, very convincing. Innocence wasn't one of Gabi's natural expressions.
"Still don't remember entering this competition," Tristram mumbled poshly, shaking his head of shaggy brown hair as I hustled him toward the lambswool sweaters like a sheepdog, keeping my eyes fixed on possible escape routes. "And, y'know, I watch a lot of TV and I don't remember seeing this program on MTV, like you said -- "
"That's because your mum entered you, as a surprise!" I caroled gaily and slid my arm into his. "And you haven't seen it before because this is a pilot. Isn't that exciting? You're the first one! Now, let's go and find you some new clothes...."
We weren't really filming a makeover show for MTV, needless to say. I was using stealthy means to get the allegedly fashion-allergic Tristram into a new set of clothes that wouldn't make him look like he'd covered himself in glue and cartwheeled round the storeroom of a thrift shop. His mother, Olympia, had tottered up to my second-floor office in Pimlico in a state of utter despair, having heard about Honey from a friend of hers whose son I'd cured of nail-biting. (Seventeen surprise phone calls a day soon ambushed him out of it.)
"Tristram simply refuses to buy new clothes. Refuses!" she wailed. "He's so self-conscious about his height, but also, I think, it's because he has the oddest shaped knees." She stopped herself. "Not that I've ever told him that. But he takes any comment about his appearance as a personal criticism, for some reason, and just slobs around in the same two T-shirts all the time. He won't listen to a word I say. I mean, he's got university interviews coming up, and they're going to think he's some kind of drug addict!"
Looking at Tristram now, towering uncertainly over a display of boxer shorts as if he wasn't quite sure what his gangling limbs might do next, the only drug he seemed to be on was some kind of growth hormone.
I'd calmed down Mrs. Hart-Mossop as best I could with a plate of shortbread and promised to smarten Tristram up to the point where his own father wouldn't recognize him.
"You'll have a job," she'd said, forgetting herself sufficiently to start dunking her biscuit.
The one helpful thing Mrs. Hart-Mossop had been able to reveal was that Tristram was a rabid telly addict and absolutely loved reality television shows -- to the point where he rarely left his room to experience reality itself. And so here we were, in Selfridges, pandering sneakily to his secret (or so he thought) addiction to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and, in the process, introducing him to the world of linen.
Gabi really was filming too, even though I'd asked her to pretend and keep the camera turned off. I could already imagine the hilarity that would ensue when she played it back at home for Nelson, who never missed a chance to have a good laugh at my expense, particularly when it involved my having to fib. Given my family background, I am an incomprehensibly bad liar. Nelson has an annoying habit of shouting "Ding!" whenever he spots me, well, bending the truth, shall we say.
"Turn it off!" I hissed while Tristram toyed curiously with cuff links, as if he'd never seen them before, then shot a panicked glance over his shoulder at an invisible store detective.
Gabi shook her head and stepped out of my reach just as Tristram turned to me.
"Are these, like, fabric nose-studs?" he asked, holding up a cuff link to study it more closely.
"No." I took it from him and replaced it in the huge bowl. "That's advanced dressing. We'll get to that later." I upped my encouraging smile. "So, Tristram, where would you like to start?"
His face went dark with reluctance. "The computer department."
"No!" I laughed rather grimly, now that I could see what an uphill battle this would be. "I mean, shall we start with a smart suit, or with casual wear?"
He looked at me like a giraffe peering down on a broom-wielding zookeeper, then swung his gaze toward Gabi, who was zooming in lasciviously on a very lifelike dummy modeling tight jersey briefs.
"Is that thing off?" he demanded, biting a long finger.
"If you want it to be," I said soothingly. "Gabi? Could you give us a moment? Fingers out of your mouth, please, Tristram."
With the camera off, Tristram sounded dejected, and he started fiddling with the iPod in his pocket. At least, I hope it was an iPod. "Look, can't I just have the money? Nothing's going to fit. Nothing ever does. Even when Mum pretends it looks okay, I just look like a freak."
"No, you don't," I said bracingly. "You just need the right clothes!"
"I like the ones I've got." He shot another frantic series of looks around the menswear department, then bit his thumb. "Poppy Bridewell, um...This...girl I met at a party said I looked artistic in T-shirts."
There was a fine line between artistic and autistic. I wondered if it had been a loud party.
"Is she your girlfriend?"
He shook his head, scattering dandruff on the cashmere pullovers. "Don't have one. Never meet girls."
"Well, Tristram, just think how many girls will be watching this!" I said conspiratorially. "And when they see you looking great in new clothes, clothes that really make the most of those lovely shoulders you have..." I lifted my eyebrows. "I'm sure you'll soon be fighting them off!"
I could hear Nelson "ding"ing in my head, but I crossed my fingers. Nothing enhanced a man's confidence like knowing his shirt was working for him.
"You think?" grunted Tristram, but his face looked more hopeful, and he even managed a shy glance from under his eyelashes toward Gabi.
"Just come with me," I said and propelled him toward the changing rooms. I'd phoned ahead and asked the personal shopper to put aside some bits and pieces just to get us started. "You're already very good with layers, Tristram," I said, nudging him into a cubicle with some buttery-soft cotton T-shirts and a cashmere pullover. "You just need to upgrade them a little. Now pop these on, and let's see what they look like..."
Gabi reappeared, viewfinder to her eye, and Tristram shuffled compliantly behind the curtain, only hitting his head briefly on the rail.
"It's amazing what people'll do if they think they're going to be on telly, isn't it?" whispered Gabi, shaking her dark curls as if she herself wouldn't do exactly the same thing. "I was in Brent Cross shopping center this weekend, and this camera crew was there, and I...What?"
"You said you'd cut up your credit cards."
Gabi shrugged guiltily. "Yeah, well. You'll never understand about me and my credit cards. They're like you, and your...wig."
"Let's drop the wig, shall we?" I said breezily.
Her generous mouth twisted into a naughty grin. Gabi was petite, and cheeky, and had the sort of long, dark eyelashes that always looked as if she was wearing full liner and mascara, even when she wasn't. "You can't Honey me, Mel," she said. "I work with women much posher and much stroppier than you."
Technically, Gabi and I didn't have much in common, what with me being what she generically termed a "Chalet Girl Princess" and her being the Queen of the North London Shopping Centers, but since my first day at the Dean & Daniels estate agency, where she'd ripped her skirt doing a very cruel impression of our office manager, Carolyn, mounting her Vespa, and I'd stitched it back up for her with the sewing kit I always kept in my bag, we'd been bosom buddies. The best friendships are like mobile phones, I think -- you can't explain exactly how they work, but you're just relieved they do.
"Shh!" she said before I could say anything. She pointed at the cubicle. "Clothes are appearing!"
I looked over to the cubicle and saw reject clothes being tossed petulantly over the curtain. Oh, no. If Tristram thought he could just run through the lot in five minutes and pretend nothing fit, he was sadly mistaken. I glanced about for the tailoring man to pop in and get his measurements for a decent suit.
Tristram slunk out of the changing room, scratching his armpit and squinting in a frenzy of self-consciousness. The T-shirt was too short, and riding at half-mast, revealing some not-unattractive abs, and the sweater was shoved up around his elbows. The jeans, though, fit perfectly. He looked like the Incredible Hulk mid-transformation, but still about ten times better than when he'd gone in.
"Honey," he began in a cracked whine, but I cut him off before he could start.
"See?" I said to the camera. "Doesn't Tris look fabulous! Don't those colors bring out his huge brown eyes? Now, try on these jackets!" I pushed some jackets at him and made a mental note to find a sales assistant so that I could discreetly ask if they had some in longer lengths.
"Are you in for dinner tonight then?" asked Gabi dreamily. "Nelson says he's making something with fresh trout. He's a really excellent cook, you know."
I gave her a level look. I knew Nelson was an excellent cook. I'd known he was an excellent cook for the best part of the twenty-odd years I'd known him.
When I'd moved into Nelson's slightly shabby-chic flat behind Victoria Coach Station five years ago, it had just been me and him, and we'd been very cozy, in that way that only old, old friends can be. Our fathers were at school together, and Nelson and I had grown up fighting over who'd hidden Monopoly money under the board, and sending each other Valentine's cards to make sure we each got at least one. I'd rather gotten used to our unmarried, marital lifestyle -- him bossing me about, criticizing my parking but helping me with my accounts, while I generally added some female fragrance to his lifestyle. Nelson sailed a lot on weekends with his mate, Roger. Now that summer was in full swing, the flat was beginning to smell like a marina, but without the champagne and suntan lotion.
However, since my sister Emery's wedding at Christmas, Gabi had been sort of seeing Nelson, and much as I wanted both of them to be happy, I couldn't help feeling what Jonathan would call conflicted. Gabi was my best friend, and Nelson -- well, Nelson was like my brother. The first night Gabi stayed over without giving me time to make myself scarce, I gobbled three Nytol and slept with my head wrapped in the duvet, just in case I heard something I shouldn't.
"So, are you in tonight or what?" asked Gabi again.
"Um, yes," I stammered. "Actually, no. No. I'll..."
"You think Nelson would wear these?" she asked, holding up a pair of red silk shorts.
"Definitely not!" I said without thinking. "He's always going on about he hates that swinging free feeling and how he's constantly thinking he's about to catch himself on something..."
We stared at each other in mutual horror.
Fortunately, at that moment, there was a yelp, and Tristram's face reappeared round the curtain, looking both panicked and affronted. I snapped back into Honey mode without even thinking.
"This chap's just told me to take off my trousers!" he howled.
"He's only measuring you for a suit, Tristram," I said briskly. "Nothing to worry about. Let the nice man get the measurements, and then all you have to do is choose a color!"
Tristram opened his mouth to protest, saw the stern expression on my face, and withdrew his long neck.
"Blimey," said Gabi, impressed. "I've never really seen you doing this Honey thing before. It's quite scary, isn't it?"
"Is it?" I wasn't sure what to make of that.
"Are you wearing stockings?" Gabi did a suggestive shimmy, and I blanched. "Or did Jonathan knock that on the head too?" she enquired. "I know he's not happy about you carrying on with the agency, not now you're meant to be a respectable estate agent's girlfriend and all that."
I looked suspiciously at the camcorder. Did that red light mean it was on or off? Things had also gone very still inside the cubicle, so I dropped my voice discreetly. "Jonathan's fine about the agency, for your information. He just doesn't want me to pretend to be anyone's girlfriend anymore. What I do with the rest of my time is my own business. If you must know, he's very proud of me for being so entrepreneurial. End of topic."
"Oooooooh," said Gabi. "Touch-eeeee."
"Not in the least. I'm going to get Tristram into a suit," I announced, to change the subject.
As I said this, Tristram stepped out of the changing room in a black jacket and a really cool pair of dark jeans. He looked pretty good, if I said so myself.
"Oh, wow!" I swooned, clapping one hand to my bosom. "Tristram! Look at you! Don't you look gorgeous?"
The beginnings of a shy smile began to tug at the corners of Tristram's mouth, despite his best efforts to look cool and don't-care-ish. The clothes made a difference, but what really finished it off was a touch of confidence.
I went over and put my arm around him so we were both facing Gabi's camera. I hoped she had it on steadicam, because her shoulders were twitching with barely suppressed laughter.
I, on the other hand, was taking it very seriously, because Tristram obviously was. I felt him flinch, and his fingers went up to his mouth automatically. Discreetly, I placed one of his hands around my waist and hooked the other into his belt loop.
"So, how do you feel, Tristram?" I cooed. "That jacket fits you splendidly! You've got such lovely broad shoulders, you know!"
"Um, yeah, um, I...cool," he mumbled. That was about as articulate as most public schoolboys got, but from the way he was sufficiently emboldened to start some tentative groping, I chalked it up as a win and subtly removed his paw from my rear.
Tristram, Gabi, and I had a very nice cup of tea downstairs in Selfridges, next to the computer department, before Gabi and I sent him on his way, promising to let him know the moment we had a broadcast date. I thought I saw the salesgirl wink at him on the way out and realized that bribing the odd assistant might be a good confidence-boosting strategy to employ in the future.
"You realize that Tristram had his nose practically down your cleavage at the end?" said Gabi, peering at the flickering playback screen.
"Did he?" I blushed and poured myself some more tea.
"Any closer and he'd have been talking to your navel. You want to see?" she offered.
"God, no!" I shied away. I hated seeing myself in pictures. The images never quite matched the vision I had in my head. The vision that was usually played by a young Elizabeth Taylor.
"You know, we should send this tape to MTV," said Gabi through a mouthful of raspberry cheesecake. "You could get your own program. From Geek to Chic. You think?"
"No, I don't think." I looked on enviously. I only had to breathe near cheesecake and I put on about five pounds. I had that sort of figure. Gabi called it voluptuous, but Marks & Spencer's called it size 12. "Shouldn't you be saving yourself for supper?"
"Not a problem." She squished the last few crumbs down on the back of her fork and popped them in her mouth. "Got the fastest metabolism in London, me. 'Swhy I think me and Nelson are just fated to be together. Fast as he cooks it, I eat it!" she added with a cheeky wink.
Funny. Gabi's last boyfriend, Aaron, had barely had time to phone out for a pizza, but he'd made money as fast as she'd been able to spend it -- almost -- and she'd nearly married him.
I pushed aside these unworthy thoughts. It was the end of a very long week, and frankly I was looking forward to spending the rest of the evening in a soap-opera-related trance, ideally with Nelson rubbing my feet.
Then I remembered that it was dinner for two and gooseberries for one at our house that evening, and the blissful image abruptly shattered.
Oh, don't be so selfish, I told myself. Pull yourself together!
Gabi was a good friend, and I should have been thrilled she'd found someone as decent as Nelson. "Thanks for giving up your day off to help me out," I said. "It was really sweet of you."
"No problemo." Gabi finished off the last of the tea. "'Sides, it's not my day off. Carolyn thinks I'm having a root canal. She's not expecting me in till Monday at the earliest."
"Gabi...," I said reproachfully.
My phone started ringing in my bag. I have two: a normal one for myself, and a swanky black one for work.
But this was my own line, and the number displayed made my heart sink, right into the pit of my corseted stomach.
"Hello?" I said as brightly as I could nonetheless.
"Melissa!" barked Daddy. "Get yourself home at once. There's a family crisis. Your mother needs you."
Then he hung up.
Well, I thought, trying to look on the bright side, that sorted out one of my immediate problems, at least. There was little or no chance of having to avoid public displays of affection at my parents' house.
"Congratulations," I said to Gabi. "You and Nelson have got the place to yourselves this evening!"
"Thanks, Mel," she said with a wink, and I felt pleased, guilty, and slightly sick, all at the same time.
Copyright © 2006 by Hester Browne
Enjoy the following excerpt from Hester Browne's next novel, THE LITTLE LADY AND THE PRINCE - available from Pocket Books.
The Blue Bar in the Berkeley Hotel was one of those fashionable places where everyone's head swivels when you come in, in case you're Someone, then swivels back when they've established you're Not. The small room was packed, and I couldn't spot Granny anywhere. Cigar smoke and hedge fund discussion hung heavy in the air as I inched my way through the hair extensions and Prada bags, checking discreetly to see if Prince Alexander was already here. There were at least four possibles in my immediate line of sight - far too tanned, well-groomed and well-dressed to be English.
A skinny woman with furiously plucked eyebrows gave my Diane von Furstenberg knock-off dress a very obvious once-over, and I felt the first flickers of "what am I doing here?" start to attack my stomach. No, I reminded myself firmly, you've got just as much right to be here as she has. Her dress might be more Bond Street than yours, but you're having dinner with two princes.
I stared right back, focusing my eyes a foot to the left of her head, and smiled at the light fixture. Unnerved after a second or two, she turned round to see who I was looking at, and, feeling a bit better, I got an elbowhold on the crowded bar and leaned forward to order a drink.
Almost immediately the barman seemed to gravitate toward me. It was a knack I had: Wish really hard to get served while leaning forward, and somehow I do. Nelson and Gabi always make me order for them when we go to the pub.
"A bottle of sparkling mineral water, please," I said, just for something to sip while I waited. The man to my right departed and I slipped onto his stool.
"Would you do me a favor and help me finish this bottle of champagne?" drawled the middle-aged man pressed up against my left arm.
I tried not to scan his face too obviously for signs of possible prince-ness. Last time Alexander and I met, ten years ago, he'd been being terribly reasonable about my wrecking the car he'd given Granny, and I'd been overwhelmed with mortification and whiplash. He probably wouldn't recognize me either, since I'd lost the braces and the strange haircut my sister Allegra had performed on me that summer.
"Er, thank you," I stalled. The tie looked expensive enough, for a start. "How kind of you. I'm Melissa."
"Hello, Melissa." As if by magic a champagne flute had arrived, and he filled it and pushed it over to me.
I didn't like to say, "Are you Alexander?" straight out. He was already smiling in a manner that suggested we knew each other pretty well.
"So..." I said, searching desperately for something to say that wouldn't incriminate me one way or another. "Are you staying here?"
Was that a shadow of a wink? "Perhaps. It depends on the company."
Argh. What did that mean? Was it a business trip he was on? I didn't think princes worked for anyone.
"Are you?" he went on.
"No," I faltered. "I, er, live just down the road."
"How convenient." He smiled in a very intimate fashion, and I could feel myself being pushed nearer him by the crush of customers behind us. I resisted as best I could, but there was a very persistent banker shoving his way to the bar behind me.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name...?" I began, but my voice was swallowed up by the barman shaking a cocktail very loudly in front of me.
"Have you been in the roof top pool?" the man went on, as I began to panic. "The roof goes right back and you can swim beneath the stars - it's quite an experience."
"Oh," I said, with a little laugh. "Silly me! I forgot my swimsuit!"
"No need for that, necessarily...."
And that definitely was a wink.
Just as my mouth was opening and shutting in speechless surprise, I noticed heads turning back and forth toward the door, and I realized Granny had walked in - with a tall, elegant man who could only be Prince Alexander.
A strong gust of Givenchy Gentleman mixed with cigars hoved in from my left. It was hoving in very close. "What a pretty brooch. Does it come off?"
Aghast, I slapped my hand over my cleavage and leaned as far away as I could without falling off my stool, as Granny and Alexander glided across the bar like a pair of swans.
She was looking supremely gracious in the sort of understated shift only the seriously stylish or very tall can carry off, with a set of diamonds that definitely weren't paste. He was looking impeccable in a navy suit that set off his gray hair and dark eyes. Together, they radiated a warm glow of confidence that made everyone else in the room look desperately over-dressed. I noticed too that he had one hand just resting on the small of Granny's back to guide her into the room - a tiny, old-fashioned gesture that was simultaneously protective and proud.
I knew it well, since Jonathan did it to me.
When Granny saw me, she raised a hand in greeting while Alexander turned to murmur something to the waiter who'd materialized out of nowhere.
"Excuse me," I said apologetically to the champagne man. "My date has arrived."
He boggled at me.
"Thanks for the champagne," I added, slipping off the stool as fast as I could. "Terribly sweet of you."
Across the room, a party of Russians was being unceremoniously turfed out of their prime spot so Granny could arrange herself on an easy chair, which she did with an air of delight, as if the table had been free all the time. She beckoned me over and I inched my way through the crowds, feeling quite nervous and unsophisticated again.
"Darling!" said Granny, half-rising to give me a kiss. "You look absolutely gorgeous! I bet you can hardly recognize little Melissa, can you, Alex? Hasn't she grown up into a beautiful woman?"
Alexander turned to me, and to the fluttering of my heart, made a very tiny little bow of his head, then took my hand, and raised it to his lips.
To be honest, huge clichÈ or not, I could have swooned right then and there, even if he didn't look like Clark Gable. Which he did.
My father might have been a Premier League Silver Fox, but Alexander was World Cup standard. An international charmer with the sort of old-school manners that flirted with self-parody but only in such a way to make him even more attractive. His silvery hair was thick, and swept back off his high forehead, and his brown eyes hinted at how dark and pirate-y he must have been in his youth. Yes, he had some wrinkles, but they were wrinkles of distinguishment. Wrinkles that laughed at Botox or face lifts. Alexander was clearly one of those rare men, like Paul Newman, who just kept becoming more attractive the older he got.
Not that I could see Alexander bothering with salad dressing. Caviar spoons, maybe.
"Of course I remember Melissa," he said, as a kindly twinkle came into his hooded eyes. "She has always had her grandmother's lovely smile. And now I see she has her grandmother's wonderful style too." The twinkle turned into a little private joke sort of intimacy. "I hope there have been no more...driving incidents?"
"Gosh, no," I said, gasping a little. "I'm perfectly safe behind the wheel these days. Terribly reliable. You know, I'm still so sorry about..."
"Oh, these things happen," he said, as if one wrote off cars every day of the week. "There's nothing wrong with a lady who drives with a bit of elan, Melissa," he added gallantly. "It's rather exciting." He looked over my head and caught Granny's eye. "Your grandmother, for instance, was a terror behind the wheel."
"Not just behind the wheel, either," Granny murmured with an innocent look.
"Her navigation isn't up to much," I agreed. "She can only do directions via shops and people's houses."
"Quite," said Alexander. "These days, I find it much easier to let my driver worry about that sort of thing." He nodded at Granny, who gave him a little twinkly smile. "Much nicer to sit in the back and admire the view."
"Don't you find she's a bit of a back-seat driver, though?" I asked. "She's always..."
Was Alexander suppressing a snort?
"Melissa is by far my most charming grandchild," Granny interjected, taking a glass, "and has the sort of innocence that quite restores my faith in humanity. Anyway, cheers!" She lifted her glass. "To old friends!"
I raised my flute and looked around the room to see if the fourth member of our party was anywhere in sight. Granny and Alexander were already chinking their glasses and muttering some Greek cheers-type phrase at each other.
"Um, cheers, but shouldn't we wait for Nicolas?" I suggested politely.
Alexander shrugged his shoulders and shook his head as if it went without saying. "He will be late. And I wanted to enjoy the pleasure of a quiet drink with you two ladies before the circus arrived. Can you blame me for wanting a few minutes of you to myself? We have so much to catch up on."
I giggled and looked over at Granny. She was smiling like the cat who'd got the cream, the cow, and the farmhand.
We spent the next half hour or so having the sort of elegant, grown-up conversation I used to daydream about when I was at school: Alexander asked intelligent questions about my experiences in Paris and what I thought of London compared to New York, and gave every indication of actually listening to my replies, while our glasses were topped up invisibly and fresh nibbles appeared. We skirted a little around the topic of my Agency, sticking mainly to the makeover side of things, and it seemed that Granny had filled him in - how much, though, I couldn't quite work out.
"You know, if I eat any more of these I'll ruin my appetite for dinner," I said ruefully, scooping up another small handful of honey-roasted cashews.
"I like a lady with an appetite," said Alexander, causing Granny to smile Sphinx-ishly. Suddenly, a waiter appeared at his side and murmured something in his ear. Alexander frowned and murmured something back, and the man disappeared.
Granny checked her watch. "Alex, darling, I know you're being polite, but I simply don't think we can wait any longer for Nicolas." She gave him a private look. "In fact, I don't think we should. He needs to learn that you simply can't keep people waiting."
I popped a cashew in my mouth and was surprised to see a grim expression spread over Alexander's handsome face.
Oh no. Had there been some drama already?
"He's already here, Dilys," he said through clenched teeth. "He's been here for a good thirty minutes."
"Really?" I almost laughed with relief. "Don't tell me - he's sitting round the corner? Oh, gosh, I've done that myself, so many times..."
"He's in the pool." Alexander clenched even harder.
"Oh no!" said Granny. "How tiresome of him! He knew we had a dinner reservation..."
"In the roof-top pool?" I repeated. "Is he a keen swimmer?"
As if in answer to my question, a young man with the most outrageously room-stopping aura I've ever seen appeared with a man I took to be the manager. I wouldn't say the manager was manhandling him, but there did seem to be a certain tension between the two. Whatever it was, everyone's jaw dropped.
"Evening all," said Prince Nicolas of Hollenberg, with a wink in my direction. "Nice tits."
Instinctively, I clapped a hand to my cleavage, not wanting to meet the flirtatious gaze he was directing up and down between my face and my chest. Even my neck was blushing.
"Nicolas!" hissed Alexander, his voice turning all clipped, like Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. The man was a total film star. "Can you explain yourself?"
Nicolas paused, and pressed his lips together as if in thought. He dripped onto the floor. I must admit that I was staring at his feet because I didn't dare look any further up - whether for fear of encouraging him, or for fear of being hypnotized like a rabbit by his huge brown eyes, I didn't like to say.
Then he ran his hand through his wet hair. "Not really. Fancied a dip. Hopped in. With a couple of friends." He sounded a little drunk already.
"We do not allow swimming in outdoor clothes," said the manager, with an impressive note of apology in his voice. "So we were forced to remove the prince from the pool."
"I am at a loss for words," said Alexander. "I am aghast."
"I know!" said Nicolas. "I took my bloody shoes off."
Alexander shot Nicolas a look which would have reduced even Allegra to tears, but seemed to have little or no effect.
"I take it you won't be joining us for dinner?" enquired Granny, icily.
Nicolas shrugged. "No, that should be OK. I'm having some more clothes sent round on a bike."
"I'm pleased to hear that," said Granny, sounding anything but.
"What were you thinking?" demanded Alexander. He made a tiny gesture with his head toward me, and looked even more furious. "You knew we had guests for dinner. Nicolas, it's the height of rudeness..."
Nicolas rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. Rooftop swimming pool - has to be done."
"It does not 'have to be done'," snapped Alexander. "Why would it have to be done?"
"It's a phrase."
Nicolas turned to me, as if to say, "Huh! Old people! What do they know?" but I gave him the freeze. If he thought I was the kind of girl who would be happy to be tossed fully-clothed into a swimming pool, he was very wrong indeed.
Besides, from what I could see, he was a good ten years too old to be excited about that sort of thing.
"Does she speak?" he enquired of his grandfather, nodding at me. "Or is she just here for decoration?"
Up to that point, I'd been somewhat tongue-tied, not because Nicolas was technically royal, but because he was astonishingly good-looking. It pained me to admit it of a man so deeply in love with his own charms, but Nicolas was actually more gorgeous in the flesh than he was in the back of Tatler. Even in a bathrobe, with his black hair wet and slicked back, and five o'clock shadow tracing along his strong jaw, he managed to look as if he were en route to some A-list "come in your bathrobe" party.
However, equally obviously, he was also an arrogant, sexist, spoiled young man, and for me, that over-rode everything else, just like bad breath can ruin a fabulous outfit.
Even as I thought that, a little voice in my head was telling me not to be such a prig and to look at his fabulous swimmer's shoulders. Argh.
"Yes, she does speak," I said quickly, before Granny or Alexander could speak for me.
"And what does she say?" he drawled.
"She says, you're dripping onto my handbag."
He stared at me, and I stared back. If he'd been nice, I'd have been intimidated by his jet-set attitude, but being this uncouth didn't make him any different from the scores of surly blokes I dealt with on a daily basis. Nelson and Jonathan had raised my expectations, as far as manners went. Even Roger might smell weird but he was never rude.
Anyway, poor Alexander was now clearly mortified as well as angry. And it was a new Lulu Guinness evening bag that I'd brought out especially for the occasion.
"I do have that effect on girls," Nicolas drawled, raking his hair back.
"And what's that?" I said.
He winked at me. "Damp patches."
Granny took a sharp, disapproving breath.
I gave her a puzzled "What?" look.
"I know how to deal with drips," I said politely, moving my bag away from him. "They're quite easy to brush off."
"Book a room, wait there for your clothes and join us as soon as you can once you're decent," said Alexander in a low, dangerous tone.
"Oh, yeah, I booked a room already," Nicolas said, and turned his chocolate-brown eyes toward me again. "Room 202. Two-oh-two." The long lashes brushed his cheek as he winked slowly. "Shall I write it down on a napkin?"
"If you think you need help remembering it," I said politely.
"Go!" thundered Alexander, so forcefully that several heads turned and didn't turn back again.
There was a tense pause, then Nicolas shrugged, helped himself to my glass of champagne and swaggered off.
I watched him go, unable to take my eyes off his bathrobe. He didn't shuffle, or slouch, as most of my English clients did. He sauntered.
What an idiot, I reminded myself.
Granny, Alexander and I repaired to the luxurious dining room of Petrus next door, where Alexander wasted no time in ordering some wine for the three of us.
"I'm so sorry," he said, once our glasses were filled and the menus handed out. "He knew exactly what time we were meeting."
"I have no doubt," murmured Granny.
"Never mind," I said, trying to sound blasÈ. "It was lovely to have some time to chat on our own."
Alexander inclined his head graciously. "You're too sweet, Melissa. I can only apologize on his behalf."
Granny tutted to herself. "Well, as you can see, Alexander really needs some outside help," she said. "And, as I've told him, I don't know anyone who could do a better job of knocking some sense into Nicky than you." She took a large sip of wine. "Any sense at all would be a good start."
"Dilys," began Alexander, with a swift look over the table at me, "you know, perhaps it's a little unfair to Melissa to..."
Granny held up a hand. "Not at all. Melissa's dealt with much more awful types than Nicky, haven't you, darling? That dreadful actor boy in New York, for instance - tell Alexander about him."
"Well," I began, turning pink, "Godric wasn't so awful - he was just a fish out of water, and I helped him to-"
"He was an embarrassment," interrupted Granny. "Have you heard of him, Alex, darling? Ric Spencer? English actor, was in that film with the big plane crash? Anyway, he was upsetting people, sulking in interviews, no idea how to behave whatsoever. And Melissa stepped in and smoothed off his edges, and now he's meant to be the next Hugh Grant, isn't he? Did you tell me he's in the running for James Bond?"
I blushed. "Yes, well, that was meant to be confidential..."
Alexander sighed deeply. "Dilys, I don't doubt Melissa's...capabilities for a second. I just wonder if it's fair to land her with such an uphill task." He smiled sadly at me.
Granny flapped her hands.
"Just what exactly is this uphill task?" I asked sweetly. "If you would explain exactly what it is, I'll be able to tell you whether I'm up to it or not."
Alexander and Granny looked at each other.
"He's your grandson, Alex," said Granny encouragingly. "Better explain before he gets back, don't you think?"
Alexander hesitated, then looked me square in the eye.
I tried not to melt.
"My father was the last reigning prince-governor of a small province on the Montenegran coast," he said. "It wasn't large, but we had a beautiful, ancient castle, and a wonderful forest where we kept truffle hounds...Anyway, there was a revolution in the nineteen thirties, long before your time, of course..."
"And ours, darling," Granny reminded him.
Alexander allowed himself a little smile. "And ours. In any case, we were forced to abandon our family home in a great hurry, and move to France, but I have dreamed of returning ever since. And now, I am so pleased to say, there's a chance that we can."
"Oh, how lovely!" I exclaimed. "Just like a film!"
"Ah." He raised a finger. "As ever, there are conditions. The country is very poor, and we must maintain the castle ourselves, which is not a problem. It would be an honour to return it to the state I remember from my childhood. And we must allow people to look around some of it, and allow the BBC to film some drama there once a year, or somesuch. My lawyers are looking into that. But the main difficulty is that the government is very traditional. They want a family, a respectable family that they can show off to tourists." He shrugged his shoulders in a gorgeously European manner.
"Ah," I said, beginning to understand.
"My daughter, Oriane, is not..." He turned to Granny. "What is the best way to put this, Dilys?"
"Oriane reminds me very much of your mother," said Granny, looking at me meaningfully. "I think they have the same taste in spas. And detox centers. And kinesiologists."
"She is not the same after the last divorce," agreed Alexander.
"And Nicky's father?"
"We do not speak of him," he said gravely.
"Racing driver," murmured Granny under her breath.
"It has been made very clear to me that unless Nicky shows he can calm his behavior, take on some responsibility, the deal cannot go ahead. And my family will lose this last chance. I must confess, yes, I would like to see him settled down, and thinking of a family, instead of just his own pleasure. But not with someone who'll make the situation..." He paused. "Worse." Alexander looked up at me, concerned. "I'm afraid he won't meet the right girl, the way he is now. Or that she would be horrified by his selfish behavior. Would you want to marry him, Melissa?"
"Well..." I stammered, not sure what the polite response was.
"No, you wouldn't." Alexander shook his head. "And that makes all of us so unhappy. Ours isn't an illustrious family, but it's an old one, and our name has never, ever, been dragged through the tacky papers this way. We do not want Nicolas to end up with a trapeze artist, in and out of the divorce courts, children everywhere."
"But, if he wants to..." I began.
"Nicolas does exactly what he wants," said Granny tartly. "That's the point. But he wants all the fun of being a prince, and none of the responsibility that goes with it.'
Alexander raised his majestic, sad eyes to mine, with what I assumed was several hundred years' worth of dispossessed royalty. "What I would like to engage you to do, Melissa, is simply show him the right way to behave. For a few months."
"Improve his profile," added Granny. "Be seen with him at a few art galleries and museums, instead of the usual trampy masseurs he falls asleep on in that nightclub." Her brow furrowed. "What's it called? That one Prince Harry goes to."
"Boujis," I said automatically. But a dread thought was dawning on me. "Be seen with Nicky?" What exactly had Granny told Alexander about my Agency? "You don't want me to pretend to be his girlfriend, do you?" I looked at Alexander. "Perhaps I didn't mention it, but Jonathan is my fiancÈ. We were engaged at Christmas. He would..." I stopped myself saying "go nuclear if I did this again" and corrected it to, "be very reluctant to agree to my doing this."
Alexander opened his mouth, but Granny cut in. "Think of it more as image consulting," she said. "Like a PR expert."
Just as I was searching for the right way of pointing out that rebranding Prince Nicolas was more than most experienced PRs would take on, Alexander suddenly threw his napkin on the plate, got to his feet and excused himself.
Nicolas had appeared at the door, dressed in a tight shirt with three buttons undone, a pair of dark jeans, held up with a belt that screamed "this buckle is made from gold by Gucci!", and loafers.
I didn't need to inspect his feet to guess that he wouldn't have bothered with socks.
Granny and I watched as Alexander opened his arms wide, and escorted his grandson out of the dining room with all the appearance of warm family feeling. I knew enough about displays of warm family feeling to suspect it was anything but.
"Probably going to lend him a tie," I suggested, to break the silence.
Granny put out a bejewelled hand and grasped mine over the table. I braced myself for some serious persuasion. No one in my entire family could ask for anything normally. More worryingly from my point of view, none of them could take no for an answer either.
"Please, darling," she said in a low, impassioned voice. "You're the only person Alex can turn to! I have heard him dream about that castle for forty-five years!"
"Ladle on the emotional blackmail, why don't you?" I said faintly.
"Think of it as a challenge then!" She arched her eyebrow. "And what about the knock-on effect it'll have for the rest of your business?"
"But Jonathan would never agree to let me do something like this again," I insisted. "Not after Godric. He hates the idea of me getting emotionally entangled in other men's problems - and this is obviously a big family issue!"
"Well, isn't Jonathan in Paris these days?"
"There are newspapers in Paris," I reminded her.
She made a dismissive gesture and played what was obviously her trump card. "Anyway, we haven't even discussed terms yet. I know Alex is prepared to be very generous."
"That doesn't make the slightest difference," I said stoutly.
"What a shame. Never mind." Granny picked up a menu and began to study it.
We examined the entrees in strained silence.
The mental image of the letter from my landlord floated in front of the tempting list of goodies.
Exactly how generous was generous?
Generous enough for me to buy my office?
I bit my lip.
"Alexander is such a darling," mused Granny, as if apropos of nothing. "He was all for giving you a separate clothing allowance too, since you'd have to dress up for events and so on, and he doesn't want to put you to personal expense." She looked up. "Isn't that thoughtful?"
I narrowed my eyes. "Don't bother going down that road. You know I make most of my own clothes."
She smiled beatifically. "You've got so many talents, darling."
We went back to studying our menus.
"And then there's the car," added Granny without lifting her gaze from the card. "You'd have had to have a car and a driver. Wouldn't that be fun? No having to go mad finding a parking meter outside the shops! And did I ever tell you Alexander has the most gorgeous old yacht? He'd love to invite both of us out to the Med for a sail...What do you think about the quails' eggs here? Nice, or not?"
"Don't tell me - he has Harrods discount cards and his own vineyards!" I said, finally snapping. "And what's your cut in all this?"
Her head bounced up but I could see a triumphant sparkle in her pale blue eyes. "Melissa!" she exclaimed reproachfully. "I'm helping a dear old friend in a very trying time. I'm sure you'd do exactly the same." She paused. "If it was an old, dear friend of yours."
"Hmm," I said, trying to maintain my own stern expression. I knew what she was getting at. At least she hadn't stooped to mentioning Nelson by name, as Daddy would almost certainly have done. And she had a point: if Nelson's grandson turned out to be a notorious letdown, making Nelson miserable in the process, I'd be itching to sort him out by whatever means possible too.
Of course, first Nelson would have to get married and have children, which was hard enough to picture in itself.
Granny's radar must have picked up my weakening because she went in for the kill. "There's nothing wrong with cutting a good deal, darling," she said. "It's good business! I'm sure Jonathan would approve. And do I need to say that you would have my undying gratitude for ever and ever, amen? I mean," she added, as if it had just occurred to her, "I did help you out when you needed that money to start up your business in the first place, didn't I?"
Oh God. Granny really knew how to twang my heartstrings. And she was right about the loan: if she hadn't lent me the cash to start up the Little Lady Agency, there wouldn't be an Agency at all.
I turned my attention back to the menu, and let her stew while I chewed it over.
At the end of five minutes I said, distantly, "I'll have to ask Jonathan.'
"Thank you, darling," said Granny. "Oh, look! Here come the men!"
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