February, 1906. As the personal secretary of the recently departed Duke of Olympia—and a woman of scrupulous character—Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove never expected her duties to involve steaming through the Mediterranean on a private yacht, under the prodigal eye of one Lord Silverton, the most charmingly corrupt bachelor in London. But here they are, improperly bound on a quest to find the duke’s enigmatic heir, current whereabouts unknown.
An expert on anachronisms, Maximilian Haywood was last seen at an archaeological dig on the island of Crete. And from the moment Truelove and Silverton disembark, they are met with incidents of a suspicious nature: a ransacked flat, a murdered government employee, an assassination attempt. As they travel from port to port on Max’s trail, piecing together the strange events of the days before his disappearance, Truelove will discover the folly of her misconceptions—about the whims of the heart, the motives of men, and the nature of time itself…
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Juliana Gray
You might wonder why a man so distinguished as the Duke of Olympia chose to employ a humble female, not related to him by blood, as his personal secretary. I can only say that His Grace was a man of great loyalty, and his affection for my father must have guided his choice. In any case, from the moment he offered me the position, two days after my poor father’s funeral, I wrung my last nerve in an effort to prove—to the duke and to the world—that I was not a charitable endeavor.
The Duke of Olympia hadn’t wanted a grand state funeral. He had told me this five years ago, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s mortal dissolution, while we waited in the black-draped gloom of his London study to depart for the official solemnities at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor: a pageant in which England’s dukes and duchesses must necessarily play their role. I remember well how the two of them stood in the glorious ermine-trimmed robes due to their rank, dwarfing even the great scale of the room—His Grace stood nearly six and a half feet tall, and his wife, though more than a foot shorter, carried herself like a giant—and how the duke then asked for a glass of port. I poured one for each of them, and as the duke accepted the libation from my fingers, he said, “It’s a damned business. I suppose these rituals are good for the public, but I’m damned glad I shall be dead for the occasion of mine.”
The duchess had put her hand on his arm and said, in a voice of great emotion, “Not for many years.”
To which he had patted her affectionate fingers. “I trust, when the fateful hour arrives, you and Miss Truelove will ensure that as little fuss as possible is taken with my mortal remains. If I had wanted a cortege through the streets of London, I should have elected to become prime minister.”
So when His Grace expired without warning in the middle of his favorite trout stream—about a mile from the door of the stately pile that had served as the seat of the Dukes of Olympia since the Glorious Revolution first raised the family to the prominence it enjoys today—there was no magnificently solemn procession through the streets of Whitehall, attended by heads of state. The duke’s remains arrived at the nearby church of St. Crispin on a caisson pulled by a single horse, and were borne to the humble altar by his grieved grandsons, the Duke of Wallingford and Lord Roland Penhallow; his natural son, Sir Phineas Burke; and three nephews by marriage, His Highness the Prince of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof and the Dukes of Southam and Ashland. The county gentry were invited, of course—who could possibly deny them the pleasure?—along with a handpicked selection of friends and relations who might reasonably be expected to conduct themselves with the necessary gravity.
But while the church was filled, it was also small, and when we proceeded to the internment in the family plot, I observed that every last face among us hung with an oppressive weight of grief for this man—this colossus—we had known and admired and occasionally loved. Her Grace the dowager duchess stood veiled on the edge of the newly turned earth, supported by the Duke of Wallingford, the step-grandson to whom she had become especially close, and though her back remained straight, her shoulders curved slightly inward, as if they had begun to warp under the burden of her loss. They had married only twelve years ago, when the duke was already a widower of many decades, and while the marriage had come late in life, and occasioned much sniffing among the more narrow-minded of the duke’s contemporaries, it proved as intimate and loving a union as any I had ever witnessed. I shall never forget the sight of the duchess’s face when the unhappy news was brought to her at last, at the end of a frantic afternoon’s search for her missing husband: the slow way in which her mouth parted and her expression crumpled, as disbelief gave way to despair.
I remember thinking, at the time, that no one would ever mourn me so utterly.
The minister, an elderly man whose own father had first baptized an infant Olympia into the Church of England, wasted few words on the internment itself. It was February, and the wind was bitter with the promise of snow. The air smelled of loam and rot and annihilation, the extinction of a century that had begun with the bloody triumph of Waterloo and was now concluding with the burials of Victoria and Maestro Verdi and, in his turn, the grand old Duke of Olympia.
I watched the polished wood descend into the rough and barbaric earth, and a kind of panic swept over me: not of grief, exactly, but the sense that a candle was sputtering out, which could never be lit again.
By contrast, the reception afterward was almost jovial. I thought this was exactly as His Grace would have wanted it, and after all, only a natural reaction of the human spirit when it comes in from the cold to a brightly lit room, furnished amply with refreshment.
I flatter myself that we did the old lion proud. He had always appreciated the civilizing effect of good drink and fine food, and the dowager duchess and I, in consultation with Norton the butler and Mrs. Greenly the cook, had chosen the funeral meats with loving care. By the time the guests arrived in carriages and motorcars from the churchyard, the servants had laid everything out on an enormous trestle table along one side of the great hall, while the footmen circulated to ensure that nobody’s glass remained empty for long. Had everyone not worn an uncongenial black, it might have been a Christmas ball.
“Not quite the thing for a funeral, one imagines,” said my companion, as he surveyed the assembly. “I believe that’s Lady Roland by the punch bowl, squinting her disapproval.”
“We did not design the menu with Lady Roland’s opinions in mind,” I said.
“We?” His eyebrows lifted.
“I am—I was—the duke’s personal secretary.”
“Oh! My dear. What a dismal sort of job. I suppose you’re glad that’s over.”
“I quite liked my position, as a matter of fact. The duke was a generous employer, if exacting.”
“Exacting!” He laughed. “Yes, I daresay that’s the charitable way to put it. I’m Freddie, by the way.”
He leaned over my wine. “Frederick, if we must be proper about it. Have you really organized all of this?”
“With a great deal of advice, of course.”
“Oh, of course. One mustn’t allow anyone to know how capable we are. This wine is excellent, by the way. I applaud your taste. The last of His Grace’s seventy Lafite, is it?”
“Yes. You’re familiar with it?”
“I don’t know much,” he said, tapping his temple with one forefinger, “but I do know wine. One’s got to be an expert about something, and it might as well be something that gives one pleasure. I say, were you really Olympia’s secretary? You don’t look like a secretary.”
“How does a secretary look?”
“Certainly not like a charmingly constructed young female. Isn’t paid employment supposed to be improper and that sort of thing? Have you got to work one of those nasty typing machines?”
“On occasion, when His Grace’s personal business demanded it.”
Freddie—Frederick—I could hardly call him by either name, so I called him by none—looked at me keenly over the top of his wineglass, which had now fallen dangerously empty.
“I say, you do look dashed familiar, though. Have we perhaps met?”
“I don’t recall. Did you ever have personal business with the duke?”
“Personal business? Haven’t the foggiest. Probably not.”
“Then I imagine we haven’t met before.”
In truth, I would have remembered if we had. I shall not go to such lengths as to call this Freddie an Adonis—the term, I feel, is tossed about too carelessly these days—but in those early days of the century, he possessed the lucky beauty of youth in spades, beginning with a helmet of sleek gold hair and ending in a well-polished shoe, with all manner of blue eyes and straight noses and lantern jaws arranged at regular intervals in between. His shoulders extended sturdily from a somewhat disordered collar. He had a quick, lean way of moving himself about, which he disguised by his lazy expression. If anything, he stood a bit too tall for convenience, but perhaps I quibble; I sometimes suspect I am overparticular when presented with specimens like this self-professed Freddie. At any rate, as I regarded the radiant totality of him in the great hall of the Duke of Olympia’s country seat, I expected he was probably very good at the tennis, had left Oxford with a dismal Third in History, went down to Scotland every August to kill grouse in a Norfolk jacket and leather gaiters, was engaged to marry an earl’s daughter, and had a mistress waiting for him in a flat in Kensington, to which he motored back and forth in a two-seater automobile.
How this brainless, glamorous creature had come to rest in my proximity, I couldn’t imagine.
“And yet,” he said, “I can’t quite shake the feeling.”
“What feeling, sir?”
“That we’ve met before.” A footman passed; Freddie, still frowning, stretched out his glass for servicing. “Do you go to London?”
“Only when His Grace is—was—in town.”
“Belong to any clubs?”
“Not your sort of clubs.”
“I have generally preferred to remain at home when Their Graces are called away on social visits.”
“I say. How amazingly dull. Well, chin up. You’re free now, eh?” He nudged my upper arm with his wineglass, which was already half-empty again.
“Free? I’m in mourning.”
“Well, but after a decent interval, I mean. Surely the old chap’s left you a nice little remembrance, so you can run off and see the world and all that sort of thing. Smoke cigarettes and gad about in ocean liners, quaffing champagne by the bucketful.”
“I haven’t begun to think about it.”
“Oh, come now. Admit it, it’s been in the back of your mind, all this time. Why else do we put up with the old duffers, eh? The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” He leaned close again and winked, and in the copious candlelight—the duke had not yet begun the project of electrifying Aldermere Castle before he died, and perhaps five hundred fine beeswax candles illuminated the great hall this February night—his eyes looked a little too bright.
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly so. And if you’ll excuse me, sir, I’m afraid I must speak with the butler about the wine.”
“The wine? What’s wrong with the wine?”
“I suspect there’s too much of it.”
He laughed at me, and I was about to turn away, when his expression changed to one of recognition. He snapped his fingers. “Now I remember!”
“Remember meeting me?”
“No, alas. Remember that I was supposed to summon you to the library for a desperately important meeting.”
“A meeting? With whom?”
“With whom? Why, herself, of course. The dowager duchess. Wants a word with you, on the chivvy.” He shut one blue eye and stared through his wineglass at the ceiling, as if admiring the optical effect. “Better you than me, if you’re asking. But then, nobody ever does.”
A word about the dowager duchess.
Or perhaps you’ve already heard of her? I understand the marriage was something of a sensation, a dozen years ago, covered in breathless detail by all the newspapers, though little of that detail actually arose from the couple themselves. They are—were—private, by nature. Still, the editors turned somersaults at the news. If American Heiress Weds English Duke! never fails to set the blood racing in the veins, then Penniless American Nobody Weds English Duke! rings even better. Who was she? How had they met? What cunning American trap had she laid, in the manner of those infamous ladies of wild western frontier, to get her man and his coronet, too?
At the time I walked into the Aldermere library, on the evening of the Duke of Olympia’s funeral, I had few more answers to these burning questions than the general public. Her Grace was then about sixty years old: quiet, elegant, seemly. She had good bones and excellent skin—bones and skin go so far in a woman her age—and her hair, rich as treacle, had only recently begun to take on gray. I had never heard her raise her voice, not once. She read extensively, walked or rode every morning, nursed a small but loyal circle of friends, and took a keen enjoyment in travel. Of her previous life, I knew nothing, only that the couple had met on board an ocean liner and married shortly thereafter. The duke, insofar as he expressed any sentiment whatever, had worshiped the air that fell from her mouth.
She was not alone in the library. An unknown man occupied the enormous wing chair, upholstered in forest-green damask, in which the duke used to read during the winter evenings. His arms folded across his chest as he watched Her Grace arrange the coals with a long gold-handled poker, and I thought how odd that was, that he should be sitting while the duchess stood, until I realized that his hair was quite white, and his skin made one think of a piece of finely crumpled tissue, stretched back out over his bones. He turned a pair of rheumy eyes in my direction and said, as if I couldn’t hear him, “This is the girl?”
Nobody had called me a girl for many years. I pushed back my shoulders and looked at the duchess, who returned the poker to the stand and straightened to face me. “Miss Truelove. Thank you so much for attending us. May I present Sir John Worthington, a very old friend of the duke.”
I inclined my head. “Sir John.”
“How are you holding up, my dear?” she said. “Is everybody behaving themselves out there? Is the punch bowl empty yet?”
“Not yet, but I doubt it will hold out much longer.”
“Well, let them enjoy themselves. It’s how he would have wanted it. He always hated maudlin displays. Do sit down. You must be exhausted.”
No more than a trace of sadness darkened her words. She had gathered herself together with remarkable dignity, for an American. I lowered myself into the indicated armchair and sat at the very edge, back upright, ankles crossed, as I had been taught from childhood.
“No more than you, Duchess. I hope you are bearing up, under such a burden.”
“One hasn’t much choice, has one? Life marches on. I knew we hadn’t much time on this earth together, so I made sure to make the most of it. But one is never quite prepared when the ax falls.” She placed her hand on the mantel and attempted a smile. “Who would believe the vital spark could possibly be extinguished from such a man?”
“Indeed. I haven’t had the chance to think about it, really. I was gratified to see everyone so affected by the service. How comforted you must feel, to see how deeply His Grace was loved among all who knew him.”
She allowed a dry little laugh. “Oh, I’m sure that half of them were only there to make certain he was really dead.”
“But never mind. There was one rather glaring absence among the assembled mourners, which has happily given our guests a convenient subject for gossip to go along with their wine. No doubt you know what I mean.”
“Yes. Or the Duke of Olympia, as I suppose he’s properly styled now. Have you still heard nothing from our peripatetic heir?”
“No reply at all yet, I’m afraid, either to the telegram sent to his business office in London, or to the letter dispatched to his last known address.”
“In Crete, isn’t that right?”
“To the best of my understanding, he was investigating the lost maze of the Minotaur.”
“Very laudable. And when did you last hear from him?”
“A letter and parcel arrived just before Christmas.” I folded my hands in my lap and glanced at Sir John, for whose benefit these details were no doubt being rehearsed. The duchess, after all, knew very well where her husband’s grandnephew was indulging his latest obsession, and when his last letter had arrived. She and her husband had pored over the missive inside the glow of this very fireplace, if my memory served, laughing and beaming and shaking their heads. The duke and duchess had been unaccountably proud of young Mr. Haywood and his dusty adventures, which took him so far from England that I doubted he even knew the names of half the estates he had just inherited, let alone the tenants and business managers for whose livelihoods he was now responsible. During the six years I had been employed by the duke, and the thirteen additional years I had lived beneath his roof, I had never once met Maximilian Haywood.
At least, so far as I remembered.
Her Grace turned to the man in the chair. “Well, John? What do you think?”
“What do I think? By God, I think someone had better head out there straightaway and sort this business out.” Sir John lifted the sherry glass resting on the table next to his elbow and drained it without a quiver.
“Head out there? Do you mean to Crete?” I said. “Now? In February?”
“Hmm. Yes.” The duchess was still watching Sir John, who returned her gaze with his watery own, as if communicating some important idea through the ether, quite outside the limit of my understanding.
Except that it wasn’t outside my understanding. Of course not. I hadn’t spent a lifetime balanced on the sharp outer edge of what we call Society, without developing a keen sense for the unspoken. For the current of a conversation, independent of the waves rippling its surface.
After all, it is not what’s actually said that matters. Heavens, no. What matters is what one means.
“There exist a number of private agencies specializing in the search for missing relatives,” I said desperately. “I should be pleased to find a suitable candidate. Though I understand there is often some difficulty at the Alps crossings at this time of—”
“My dear,” said the duchess, “that won’t be necessary. At least, I hope not.”
She wore a small suggestion of a smile as she took a seat on the sofa opposite, bringing her face exactly on the level of mine. Her eyes were dark blue, although you couldn’t properly see their color except in bright light, and quite large. The funerary black dress only encouraged the opalescent whiteness of her skin.
The smile, I realized, was not happy or even friendly, but expectant.
An imperious voice appeared in my head: You must refuse her.
“You wish me to go to Crete?”
“That is our hope.”
“But I’ve never traveled beyond Paris.”
She waved her hand. “It’s nothing, in this modern age. We’ll supply you with all the necessary letters of credit and introduction. You are a clever, capable young lady. And of course you shall have a companion to assist you.”
“But why is it necessary? Surely word will reach Mr. Haywood shortly, long before I can reach him myself. It’s only a matter of these inefficient Continental mails, or the poor state of the roads, or the lack of telegraph wire . . .”
The duchess was exchanging another of those telling glances with Sir John, and I allowed my words to trail away, waiting instead with an odd crawling sensation in my stomach—dread? anticipation?—for what was to come. The rising current that was about to engulf me.
It is only a simple journey, I told myself. After all, these were modern times. By train perhaps to Venice—first class, yes, I would insist on a first-class wagon-lit—and then by steamship to Athens, where Mr. Haywood kept a small flat, largely to collect his post and store his collections. Then, if absolutely necessary, the passage to Crete. A few days spent inconveniently on unpaved roads, eating unwholesome food, traveling perhaps by mule train—here I suppressed an inward shudder—and then I would enjoy the immense moral satisfaction of telling Mr. Haywood just how much trouble he had occasioned by his idiosyncratic habits.
A week or two, then, at the outmost, barring complication.
I looked back and forth between the duchess’s inquisitive eyebrows and the frown that deepened the lines of Sir John’s face, until Her Grace rose from her place on the sofa and walked to the graceful little cabinet by the window, where a multitude of crystal decanters reflected the light from the guttering candelabrum. She lifted one, removed the stopper, and returned to refill Sir John’s glass.
“We have a note,” she said.
“Not a note,” said Sir John.
She returned the decanter to its place. There was the clink of the base on the tray, the chime of the stopper. “A message, then. It arrived two days ago at the house in London, and reached me yesterday.”
“From Mr. Haywood?” I said.
“No. From an official in the Greek government, with whom my nephew has apparently had dealings. It seems he’s gone missing.”
“Missing? For how long?”
“Since Christmas, when he sent that letter. He had been sending regular updates of his progress to this man, and then he stopped.”
I looked at Sir John, whose frown remained exactly as it was, only parting long enough to take in another drink of sherry between his damp lips. He was dressed in an immaculate (if antiquated) black mourning suit, which he wore with such ease I supposed he required it frequently. His hand trembled a little as it balanced the sherry.
“Has this man gone in search of Mr. Haywood? Made any attempt to reach him?”
“No. And I doubt he will, which is why I feel it necessary to send someone myself.” The duchess returned to her seat on the sofa and threaded her fingers together on her lap. “Someone I trust, someone who is capable and exacting and has never yet failed us in any task.”
My throat had gone quite dry by now. “Madam, with great respect, this is not the sort of errand I am accustomed to performing. I write letters and take dictation and make trivial arrangements; I have never yet tracked down a missing man to the far corners of the world.”
“Crete isn’t that far.”
“It is well beyond the boundaries of my experience.”
Sir John made an elderly harrumphing noise over the top of his glass, starting the remaining sherry to shiver. “My point exactly,” he said to the duchess.
I turned to face him. “My good sir, I understand that eyesight is often weakened among the very old, but I beg leave to point out that I am actually sitting in this room, not five yards away, and demand the courtesy of being spoken to as if I were a living person, and not a cipher.”
A coal fell from the pile the duchess had earlier so neatly arranged, popping apart on impact against the grate in a starburst of sparks. From behind the massive library door came a roar of laughter, quickly hushed.
“Well,” said Sir John.
“Nicely said, Miss Truelove, and I believe he had it coming, as the saying goes. Sir John? Do you see what I mean?”
“She is not without defenses,” he said grudgingly, and finished off the sherry. A cane lay against the arm of his chair. He picked it up with his knobble-knuckled left hand and fondled the head, which was gold in color and shaped like a duck.
“You would do much better to send a professional,” I said. “In addition, there are so many letters of condolence to answer, to say nothing of the duke’s business correspondence—”
“Anyone can do that, Miss Truelove, though perhaps not with your efficiency and single-mindedness. But I would not under any circumstances send a mere stranger, however professional, into the middle of a delicate family matter such as this.”
“A delicate family matter?”
“Imagine the fuss, Miss Truelove, if word of this little trouble reached the newspapers,” she said quietly. The pads of her thumbs pressed together.
Sir John banged his cane against the floor. “The girl doesn’t want to do it, Penelope!”
“I am not a girl, Sir John.”
“Yes, quite right,” said Her Grace. “You are not a girl at all. Which is why I have asked you, of all people, Miss Truelove. You know our affairs intimately, and your discretion is above question.”
“And you are aware, no doubt, into whose lap the dukedom falls, should Mr. Haywood fail to appear and claim his birthright? Since my husband is survived by no legitimate heirs of his own body, alas.”
“Mr. Haywood’s younger brother, I believe.”
“Whose reputation for licentiousness and unrepentant irresponsibility is unmatched, even in London, and whose wit I sometimes doubt reaches even that of an average schoolboy.”
“The two brothers, I understand, could not be less alike.”
She rolled her eyes upward to study the neat geometry of the ceiling plasterwork. “I have often wondered whether they fully are. Brothers, I mean. Their parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and Cici never could keep her legs together when a cavalry officer walked past. You will pardon my frankness.”
“Naturally,” I lied.
“And to make the whole situation even more wretched, there is the matter of the institute.”
“You must be aware of it. Olympia’s latest obsession. Of course, it was Max’s idea to begin with, but they had been corresponding about it for years and—well, naturally you know all that.”
“I had the pleasure of transcribing a great deal of correspondence on the matter. It is, if you’ll allow me, a subject close to my heart.”
She gave me a wise look. “But you didn’t approve, did you?”
“It wasn’t my place to have an opinion on the subject.”
“Of course not. But you don’t believe in any of it, I expect. You think it’s all hokum. Anything that smacks of the extra-natural.”
“It’s His Grace’s fortune. He has a right to do what he likes with it. The institute will provide employment for a number of eminent researchers, to say nothing of the staff and the upkeep. In such a small village as Rye, the economic advantages may be almost miraculous. I have already received many grateful messages from the local residents, on the duke’s behalf. The mayor’s letter in particular was most touching.”
“Damned risky business, if you ask me,” said Sir John.
“But that’s your trouble in a nutshell, John. We can’t sit grumbling in the old century, pushing back progress with both hands, or it will end up engulfing us, and then what?” The duchess spread her palms in a remarkable parody of helplessness.
“I don’t say I don’t support the damned institute,” he said. “But only with the gravest of reservations.”
“Duly noted, my dear fellow. In any case, it will all come to nothing, and very soon, if Max doesn’t turn up. The project represents an enormous investment, even for an estate so large as ours. Naturally the wretched bloodsuckers at the underwriting bank have already asked me about its continuation—in the letter of condolence itself, if you will!—and I have no doubt they will withdraw their support at once if my nephew doesn’t appear soon, all capable and businesslike and ducal.”
“But that would be disastrous!” I cried. “The structure is already half-built, and they have begun hiring permanent staff. There is such hope.”
Her face turned grim. “Yes, it would be disastrous indeed. And only the nose of the locomotive, were that dolt Marcus to get wind of his brother’s disappearance and start causing trouble. They will give us a decent interval, but legally I have no control over the estate, my dear, no control at all. I am only the dowager now, and everything belongs to the new Duke of Olympia. Progress, you know,” she said, and I thought her voice broke at last, a small quaver in the center of the word progress, quickly recovered.
Sir John, who by now was watching my face with almost unnatural keenness, leaned forward over the top of his walking cane. “Miss—”
“Truelove,” I said.
“Miss Truelove. Why this passionate interest in the welfare of a single coastal village?”
My palms hurt, and I realized that I had been digging my nails into the creases just below the finger joints. I opened each damp hand and clasped them around each other with deliberate looseness, so that the tension might drain away. In the past, I had found this an effective means of resolving these irksome knots of anxiety that formed in the various points of one’s body, from time to time: one’s stomach, one’s neck, one’s back, one’s clenched hands. To concentrate on the physical loosening; the mental always followed the physical, in my experience.
“I was born in Rye, sir,” I said. “My earliest memories lie there.”
“I see,” he said, and I wanted to laugh, suddenly and absurdly, because I couldn’t imagine Sir John could see anything behind those clouded eyes, which might once have been blue.
But of course I didn’t laugh. I had learned long ago how to manage these inconvenient impulses.
Sir John turned a close and scientific gaze to the duck at the end of his walking stick. “A nice coincidence,” he added.
“It was not a coincidence at all, When His Grace first began to investigate the project, several years ago, my father suggested Rye as an ideal location: remote in character, yet within easy distance of both London and the Continent, via the Channel ports.”
“I see,” he said again.
The dowager duchess drew in a great sigh, as if gathering herself for the final stretch of a racecourse. “All very interesting,” she said, turning her thumbs in a windmill, “but I’m afraid we must return to the vital point. Time is short, you know.”
Her eyes leveled upon mine, and for an instant I had the unsettling sense that she was not the dowager duchess at all, but someone else. Someone familiar, and yet unrecognizable in her present form, such that I might spend days clawing back the layers of her disguise and come no closer to the stranger within.
Then I blinked, and the illusion disappeared.
“Very well,” I said. “Since the errand is of such an urgent nature, and discretion so essential. I shall, of course, need a few days to put everything in order, and to obtain the necessary—”
The duchess was shaking her head. “Oh, dear me. No, no. A few days? Gracious me. The motorcar is already waiting outside.”
I startled in my seat and turned my attention to the window overlooking the grand oval drive. An indigo twilight had already settled behind the glass, rendering invisible the landscape beyond, though I knew every tree and stone and stable of it, like a map in my brain. “The motorcar?”
“Yes. Our driver will take you straight down to Southampton docks, where the duke’s yacht has just completed a thorough refitting. You will then—”
“His yacht?” I said faintly.
“The Isolde. We took our honeymoon tour in her,” the duchess said, and an expression of joy came to light across her face, faded, and was gone. “She is now bang up to date, as they say, and is already taking on coal and supplies for the voyage.”
“But I can’t possibly—an entire steamship, all to myself—what about the train?”
“The train is too public, my dear, and you yourself mentioned the difficulty with the Alpine passes this year. Besides, you would only have to find a steamer in Venice anyway. You will lose no time and much inconvenience by taking the Isolde.”
“I shall need to pack.” I don’t remember thinking the words; I existed by then in a kind of dream state, acting and responding as if I were quite human and sentient, instead of the stunned animal I had actually become. I added, “I have no passport, however.”
“Oh, that’s all been taken care of.” She rose from the sofa and went to the door behind me. Her skirts rustled stiffly against the rug. I glanced at Sir John, who was still staring at the duck, eyeball to eyeball. “Freddie!” called Her Grace, in a voice that echoed sweetly down the hallway, encouraging no refusal.
“Freddie?” I whispered.
A brisk pair of shoes shook the floorboards, and then a gust of new air invaded the old library, whistling among the leather and the plaster, smelling of tobacco and spirits and modern frivolity.
“We’re all set, Freddie. She’s agreed.”
The wind began to whir in my ears. I set one hand on the sofa arm and rose. From this height, the view of the drive appeared in shadow through the window glass, and I could just make out the black shadow of the duke’s custom Burke open-drive limousine hovering near the front steps.
An unmistakable voice broke out cheerfully behind my head. “Oh, splendid! Was just beginning to lose hope, to say nothing of my virtue, which has been threatened at least a dozen times by your licentious old friends, Penelope. All true what they say about widows, what?” The voice paused. “I say. Are you quite convinced? She looks a trifle blanched, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you, darling, and she’s quite all right. She’s just a bit stunned by the suddenness of it all. Aren’t you, Miss Truelove?”
Freddie’s voice again, like the bark of a young and deep-throated puppy. “What’s this, Miss Truelove? Haven’t you ever just set out on a lark, that very day, tally-ho and all that, never mind the toothbrush and the hair oil?”
“Ah, well. As the weasel said to the frog—or was it the other way round?—better to hop—”
I turned at last to face them, shielding my eyes so as not to be blinded by the reckless optimism shining forth from the doorway. “Duchess, is this some sort of joke?”
“Joke, my dear?”
I pointed to Freddie’s collar, from which the funerary black neckcloth had somehow come askew. “You’re sending me off to Crete with this millstone hanging from my neck? I am not a nursemaid, madam, nor yet a chaperone.”
The duchess wore a beatific smile. “Miss Truelove, may I present Frederick, the Marquess of Silverton, heir to the Duke of Ashland, who is quite thirty, I believe, and in no need whatever of either nursemaid or chaperone.”
“I’m afraid I had the opposite impression.”
“Well, I’m dashed,” said Lord Silverton.
“Now, Miss Truelove. Freddie’s an experienced traveler and very good company, and what’s more, he went to university with Max and knows him very well. No one could be more suitable to accompany you.”
“It’s improper,” I said desperately.
“It is not improper at all. These are modern times, Miss Truelove, and an independent woman of good character may safely have intercourse with a gentleman—you are a gentleman, aren’t you, Freddie?—without any sort of impropriety attached to the affair at all. Isn’t that right? Freddie?”
Lord Silverton placed his palms together and genuflected. “You are as a goddess to me, Miss Truelove. Our intercourse shall be of the most sacred kind, I solemnly vow.”
Behind me, Sir John erupted into a fit of coughing.
“You see?” said Her Grace. “Not even the strictest mind could possibly disapprove.”
“Ha!” someone said, over the top of Lord Silverton’s left shoulder, and my heart dropped like a piece of coal into my belly.
Go away, I thought.
“I suspect the strictest mind could well disapprove, madam,” I said. “In fact, I’m certain of it, but given the gravity of the task before me, I see no choice but to—”
“Refuse!” The Queen’s head appeared around the corner of Lord Silverton’s elbow. Her pale eyes nearly bulged from their sockets. “Refuse!”
“Be quiet!” I hissed.
His lordship blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“That is, I see no choice but to do what is required of me, whatever my personal objections to the haste and the unsuitable company.”
“Very good,” said the duchess.
“Fool,” said the Queen.
“Right-ho,” said Lord Silverton. “That’s settled. Let’s push off, shall we?”