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August l892, Sandringham
Afterwards, Lady Dinah Grant was to think — no, to be sure — that all of the events of that eventful autumn and winter were set in motion during the week that she and her husband, Cobie, spent at the Prince of Wales's Norfolk home of Sandringham. After that, nothing was ever going to be the same.
At the time, though, they — or perhaps it might be more true to say that only of herself rather than of Cobie — were simply under the impression that they were going to take part in an ordinary country-house party. If, of course, any house party at the home of a member of the Royal Family could ever be called ordinary!
"We are going there to enjoy ourselves," Cobie told her in the train on their way there.
"Really?" said Dinah, in her best teasing mode. "Really, Cobie, just to enjoy ourselves? From all that I have experienced so far, pleasure seems to be something one has to work at. It could scarcely have been more difficult to have gone to Oxford and studied under my father than to survive the London Season successfully!"
"True," he conceded. "But better to succeed than to fail, do admit."
"Oh," she told him airily, in exactly the manner in which he usually spoke to her, "I certainly intend to succeed — for your sake, if for no one else's. It would hardly do for our marriage to be seen as a failure since you went to such pains to get me to the altar."
This sly reference to the way in which he had tricked her half-brother, Rainey, into allowing him to marry her, amused, rather than annoyed, her husband. It was proof, if proof were needed, of how far she had travelled since she had married him. The shy, defeated child he had rescued no longer existed. Instead he was the husband of a charming young woman with a delicate wit, which she exercised on him as well as others.
He might have been proud of his handiwork in transforming her, if he didn't also think that a lot of the credit was due to her own sterling character.
"I noticed that Giles packed your guitar," she said, looking at him over her cup of tea — they were travelling in luxury in the special coach provided by the Prince for his guests. "Was that done for me — or for HRH?"
"Both," said Cobie, giving her his best smile. "Someone apparently told the Prince that I am a reasonably proficient player on it, so I am to give a Royal Command performance — whenever, or if, he cares to command, that is. I gather from Beauchamp, who was the go-between in all the arrangements for this visit, that the Prince does not like to see any of his guests being idle. If they are, he thinks up occupations for them."
"Well, I dare say he won't need to do that for you, Cobie.
A less idle man I have never seen. Rainey told me recently that your industry made him feel quite faint."
"Oh," said Cobie, giving his wife his best grin, "anyone's industry would make Rainey feel faint." He had no illusions about his brother-in-law, even if Rainey had been trying to live a more sensible life since the setting up of the Trust to run what had been his estate before he lost it to Cobie at cards.
Dinah nodded amused agreement to this, settled back in her seat and decided to admire her husband rather than the scenery which seemed to grow flatter with each succeeding mile.
He was eminently worth admiring. His nickname in society was Apollo, and he certainly lived up to it. From the crown of his golden head to the tips of his well-polished shoes he was the model of a Greek god come down to earth, dressed in everything which the taste of the times dictated for a man who wished to be seen as a leading member of London society in the 1890s.
Like his looks, his athleticism was extraordinary — but not to Dinah, who had had the privilege of seeing him naked, and therefore of learning that he was a double of the nude Greek heroes whose statues filled the sculpture galleries of the British Museum.
Violet, Dinah's half-sister, once her tormentor but now her grudging admirer, was seated opposite to her. Her husband, Lord Kenilworth, had wandered up the coach to take his tea with Rainey, whose first visit this was. She was remarking acidly, "I heard that Cobie's hanger-on, Mr Van Deusen, is also a guest — he doesn't seem to be on this train."
"No," said Cobie, ignoring Violet's slighting comment on his friend. "I understand that he had some urgent business to take care of today and will be arriving after tea." 'Hmm!" said Violet: a remark which Dinah thought could mean anything — or nothing.
Cobie smiled to himself and wondered what Violet would think if she knew the truth about his friendship with Hendrick Van Deusen: that, ten years ago, under other names, they had been outlaws and gunmen in the American South West. Each of them owed their life to the other.
Now they were respectable businessmen, those days long behind them. Except that recently their old outlaw relationship had been renewed in London, Mr Van Deusen successfully playing back-up once more to his younger, wilder, friend.
Wolferton Station, when they reached it, was rather larger than most, and, instead of the dogcart which had greeted Dinah there, a fleet of horse-drawn carriages was waiting to take the Prince's guests to Sandringham House, which stood some little distance away. Behind the carriages was another fleet of carts and carriages, there to transport the servants and the possessions of their masters.
Dinah wondered — with some amusement — what Cobie thought of the House itself — it was such a mixture of architectural styles both inside and out. She was to wonder even more when they were shown into an oak-panelled entrance hall where they found a stuffed baboon waiting for them, holding out a silver salver for the cards of visitors. She thought of the perfect taste of the Marquise's Paris mansion which was reflected in her own Park Lane home where every piece of furniture, every ornament and every picture had been chosen by its owner for its beauty.
On the other hand, there was a charming informality in the very clutter which filled each room. Sandringham was a home, not a museum, and its owner's cheerful enjoyment of some of the more simple pleasures of his world meant that his guests found it easy to relax.
Their suite of rooms was cosy rather than grand, and Dinah began to think that this visit might not be an ordeal after all — except that, as she later discovered, she had to change her clothes several times each day. If she found this a bore she discovered that Hortense and Pearson, her two maids, were absolutely delighted.
Her first change was into a lilac and pale green cre˄pe de chine tea gown with matching green and lilac slippers; when she was ready, and Cobie reverently outfitted in a tweed suit useful for the country, they made their way down to the drawing room for five o'clock tea.
To her dismay, the first person she saw was Sir Ratcliffe Heneage, who was busy complaining to all and sundry that his wife, as usual, was late coming down. The sundry included Susanna Winthrop, his current mistress and Cobie's foster sister, who gave only a slightly defiant nod in the Grants' direction to acknowledge their arrival. She was looking particularly beautiful, Cobie noted, but had a strange wild air about her, quite different from her usual serene calm: Sir Ratcliffe's influence, he thought dismally.
Sir Ratcliffe, who was bending over her hand, appeared to be happy to see them. Perhaps it was pleasing him to demonstrate to that damned Yankee his hold over Susanna.
"Heard you were coming, Grant. Pity it's too early for shooting — you could have engaged in some useful practice."
Cobie remembered with some amusement that he had, wrongly, disclaimed any ability as a shot, and adopted a suitably mournful expression.
"Tum Tum'll probably invite you when the closed season's over, eh, Lady Dinah? You're one of his favourites these days, I hear." Sir Ratcliffe's smile for Dinah was an unctuous one, something which did not please Susanna.
She said to Cobie, "You are looking well, I see. Marriage suits you, I suppose."
Then in a voice which Cobie had never heard from her before, the kind of voice which Violet constantly used to cut down her rivals, she added, "It certainly seems to suit you, Lady Dinah!"
The tone prevented the words from being the compliment which they superficially sounded. Cobie remembered something which his mother had once said to him when he had been speaking of a friend whom he had lost for good after he had the beating of him at chess — or any other game he cared to play with him —"Jealousy is as cruel as the grave, Cobie."
After that he had always hidden his powers, so much so that he had almost come to forget that he possessed them, until he had need of them in Arizona Territory. He was aware that Dinah was speaking, telling Susanna and Sir Ratcliffe how kind her husband was, and how strange it seemed that she was the mistress of the house.
"It is almost as though I were still playing with dolls," she added, "which is nai¨ve of me, I know."
Sir Ratcliffe jammed his monocle in his eye, and stared at her. She was looking radiantly young in her beautiful tea gown which was cut with the utmost simplicity. Her hair was dressed simply, too, and he felt a dreadful spasm of desire — for Grant's wife, of all people!
Well, he had taken Susanna Winthrop away from the Yankee brute, and now the sight of Dinah's youthful beauty had him wishing that he had been the one to initiate her, to enjoy her, to teach her to please him...
Cobie, visited by the intuition which had plagued him — and blessed him — all his life, read the man before him. Something in his stance, the set of his mouth, in the answer he made to Dinah, innocent in itself, "You hardly look old enough to have left dolls behind, Lady Dinah, so not surprising, hey?" told him that he had been right to believe that the murdering swine was lusting after his innocent young wife.
He knew, which few did, that Sir Ratcliffe's taste for young girls had led him into perversion and murder, and he also knew that for some reason the authorities were protecting him, which was why he had made it his business to try to trap him and see that he was punished for what he had done.
He controlled himself with difficulty, and took Dinah's arm gently, saying, "We must move on, my dear," and led her away. He could hardly keep his hands off the man who had raped and killed poor Lizzie Steele and who was now laughing and talking with Susanna. He must try to warn her against him again, although he didn't think that the man was fool enough to treat her as he had treated his child-victims.
"You don't like him, do you?" asked Dinah, smiling and bowing at those whom she knew as they moved through the press of people.
"Who?" he asked, although he knew whom she meant, and was surprised by her acute understanding. He thought that, like himself, she probably possessed the uncomfortable gift of reading people accurately.
"Sir Ratcliffe. I don't like him. I didn't like the way he looked at me."
"I didn't like the way he looked at you, either," he told her frankly. "A man to avoid, my dear."
Dinah was equally frank. "He gives me goose-pimples. Oh, hello, Violet. How odd and time-wasting that we have to go through all this polite palaver with people with whom we have already spent the day, just as though we were meeting them for the first time after years apart."
Violet said briskly and nastily, "Don't waste your clever remarks on me, Dinah. Save them for others. Not the Prince, he doesn't like clever women."
"Fortunately I like clever women," Cobie murmured in Dinah's ear, in case she was overset, which she wasn't. He was bowing to Violet now, and saying all the right things. Reluctantly, Violet approved of him. He seemed to have an instinct which allowed him to be as exactly proper as the occasion demanded.
Kenilworth had once said that Grant was almost too good to be true. No one, and particularly no American, ought to be so civilised, so well seen, so athletic, so exactly everything a man ought to be. It was perhaps as well, Violet thought, that he couldn't know what a tiger Cobie Grant was in bed — and now Dinah was getting the benefit of that. But she didn't look particularly mauled, so perhaps she wasn't.