If only Darcy and I had eloped! What I thought would be a simple wedding has been transformed into a grand affair, thanks to the attendance of the queen, who has offered up the princesses as bridesmaids. Silly me! I thought that withdrawing from the royal line of succession would simplify my life. But before Darcy and I tie the knot in front of queen and country, we have to find a place to live as man and wife...
House hunting turns out to be a pretty grim affair. Just as we start to lose hope, my globetrotting godfather offers us his fully staffed country estate. Mistress of Eynsleigh I shall be! With Darcy off in parts unknown, I head to Eynsleigh alone, only to have my hopes dashed. The grounds are in disarray and the small staff is suspiciously incompetent. Not to mention the gas tap leak in my bedroom, which I can only imagine was an attempt on my life. Something rotten is afoot--and bringing the place up to snuff may put me six feet under before I even get a chance to walk down the aisle...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Rhys Bowen
Wednesday, June 12, 1935
16 Eaton Square, London, S.W.1
Things are actually going smoothly for once. I can’t believe it. Here I am, staying at the house of Polish princess Zamanska (known to her friends as Zou Zou) while Darcy is away and I prepare for my wedding. I didn’t think I’d ever write those words, certainly not about someone as wonderful as Darcy. It seems only yesterday that I fled from Castle Rannoch and arrived alone in London, penniless and without a friend in the world. But it’s actually going to happen in a few weeks’ time. Golly. Mrs. Darcy O’Mara. As Jane Bennet would say, “How shall I bear so much happiness?”
I was standing at my window on the top floor of Princess Zamanska’s lovely Georgian house on Eaton Square (which, in case you don’t know, is one of the poshest addresses in London). It was another glorious summer day. We had been blessed with a long dry spell, so unusual in English summers. In fact my whole spring so far had been a delight, ever since I returned from lending support to my friend Belinda in Italy. In May there had been the king’s Silver Jubilee, with a triumphant procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the king and queen riding in an open landau. I had been part of the congregation at St. Paul’s and it was a moving experience.
This afternoon I had been going through my clothes and seeing which ones might be good enough to take into my future life as Mrs. Darcy O’Mara. Yes, I know, I’m going to be an ordinary missus, rather a step down for a cousin to the king, but Darcy is actually an honorable, the son of a lord, and because I’m the daughter of a duke people will still have to address me as Lady Georgiana—unless they habitually forget like my maid, Queenie!
I stared at the items hanging in a rather grand French wardrobe and winced. Aging tweed skirt, a couple of white blouses, cotton frocks made for me by the gamekeeper’s wife at home in Scotland. Hardly haute couture! Actually it wasn’t as if we were going to live anywhere grand. Darcy’s father, Lord Kilhenny, had made it clear he wanted us to consider Kilhenny Castle our home, and that was very nice, but it wasn’t the sort of place you’d want to spend the whole year. (Too cold and dreary, like Castle Rannoch, for my taste!) Also there were times when Darcy needed to be in London for his work—which is rather hush-hush.
But occasionally we did move in quite grand circles, ranging from an invitation to Buckingham Palace to Princess Zou Zou’s international playboy set (which included my cousin the Prince of Wales and his lady friend from America). I was constantly reminded that my wardrobe was sadly lacking when compared to every other lady’s Paris models. Still there was hope on the horizon in that department too. My mother, the former duchess and now about to marry a very rich German, had promised that she would come to London and we’d shop for a trousseau. She was very grateful to me for saving her from an embarrassing situation in Italy. I didn’t dare count on this, as my mother was the most fickle of creatures and I hadn’t been able to count on her since she bolted from my father and me when I was only two. Still, this time I really had saved her bacon, so she jolly well should be grateful enough to pay for some decent clothes for me!
I decided that if Mummy came through, I might abandon most of my schoolgirlish and boring wardrobe and become a new and fashionable woman. I’d certainly turned some heads in a borrowed backless dress in Italy. Svelte and sexy, that’s what I would become. My picture in the Tatler: Lady Georgiana, dressed in Chanel at Ascot . . . Lady Georgiana, looking rakish at opening day at Cowes . . . I broke off, grinning at this absurdity. My husband-to-be was as penniless as I was.
The square below basked in afternoon quiet. The breeze that came in through the window was warm and scented with the sweet smell of honeysuckle and roses. A thrush was singing madly in the garden at the center of the square. A nanny in a smart uniform was pushing a very grand pram. Next year, I thought . . . but I’d want to push my own pram. In any case we probably couldn’t afford a nanny.
I had just turned away from the window when I heard the doorbell jangle below. Zou Zou wasn’t actually in residence at the moment, having flown over to Paris in her little two-seater plane to do some shopping. I leaned out as far as I dared but there was a porch over the front door and I could see nothing. I stood, listening and wondering who might have come to call. Obviously someone who didn’t know Zou Zou was away. Then I heard the light tap of feet coming up the stairs, a knock on my door. I opened it to see Clotilde, the princess’s maid.
“My lady, zere is a visitor for you,” she said. (Her French accent was still rather strong.)
“Who is it?” I asked. For a moment I had a wild hope that Darcy had returned earlier than expected. But then he wouldn’t be a nameless visitor. He’d have bounded straight in past Clotilde and up the stairs.
“A lady,” Clotilde said. “She did not ’and me ’er card. She merely says, ‘I understand you ’ave Lady Georgiana Rannoch staying ’ere at zee moment. I wish to speak wiz ’er.’”
Oh dear. That sounded serious. I glanced in the mirror to see if I looked presentable. Not very. It was a hot day and my cotton frock was crumpled. Clotilde must have noticed this because she said, “I recently washed and pressed your green silk, my lady. I will tell zee visitor zat you will be down shortly.”
“Thank you, Clotilde,” I said. “And please see that my visitor is offered tea or lemonade or whatever she wishes.”
“Of course, my lady.” Clotilde was a perfect maid: she always knew the right thing to do on any occasion, from turning a blind eye when the princess invited a male friend up to see her etchings to invisibly mending holes in velvet burned by my maid, Queenie, who was about as un-perfect as one could imagine. But Queenie, the disaster-maid, was not with me at the moment. She was still with Darcy’s relatives in Ireland, where she was learning to be an assistant cook. I couldn’t decide whether I should summon her back when we moved into a place of our own. The problem was that efficient maids cost money and of that we had little. Maybe I could ask Mummy to supply me with a maid as a wedding present. But as we had both found out, too-perfect maids aren’t always desirable!
Hastily I scrambled into my green silk dress, brushed my hair and went downstairs trying to look cool, calm and collected.
“Zee visitor is in zee small sitting room, my lady,” Clotilde said. I pushed open the door. My visitor was sitting in a chair by the window with a cup of tea in her hand. She looked up, frowning, as I entered.
“Ah, there you are, Georgiana. I wondered where on earth you had got to,” she said. “We hadn’t heard from you in ages. We thought you might still be in Switzerland but Binky suggested you might be staying with that foreign princess woman, and he was right, clever old thing.”
My heart sank. It was my sister-in-law Hilda, Duchess of Rannoch, usually known as Fig.
“Hello, Fig,” I said as pleasantly as I could as I pulled up a chair beside her. “What a surprise. How lovely to see you. I thought you’d be up in Scotland for the summer. That’s why I didn’t come to call.”
Her scowl deepened. “We were but we came down for a doctor’s appointment. It makes a change from bloody Scotland, where it has rained incessantly this spring. And Binky has taken up golf. Does nothing but hit a stupid little ball over miles of heather into little holes. What a waste of time.”
“A doctor’s appointment?” I said the words cautiously. “You’re both in good health, I hope? Oh, don’t tell me it’s another baby on the way?”
“God forbid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “No, I told Binky we have the heir and he can do without the spare. As if anyone would want to inherit that cold and drafty white elephant that is Castle Rannoch.”
“So it’s just a routine check?” I asked.
“Actually it’s Binky’s toenails,” she said, with supreme distaste in her voice. “He has ingrown toenails and they are spoiling his golf game. Apparently it requires a small operation to make them right again and he thought it had better be done in London, just to be on the safe side. And I said if I was being dragged to London for his toenails the very least he could do was to take me to Ascot for once. We have so little opportunity to dress up at home. I might buy a new hat.”
“How jolly,” I said. “Shall you be going on opening day? I might see you there.”
“You are going to Ascot?” She sounded quite vexed, as if I’d arranged this deliberately to spite her. “On opening day?”
“Yes, the queen invited me to join her party.”
“You’re going on opening day with the queen?” Fig really did wince now. She had never forgiven me that Queen Mary had actually become quite fond of me and invited me regularly to the palace—also that I was of royal blood and she wasn’t. To smooth this over I added, “I’m going to borrow one of Zou Zou’s hats. She has some quite outrageous ones.”
Fig frowned as she looked at the silk dress. “That dress you are wearing looks rather chic. Did you borrow that from your foreign princess?”
I was dying to say, “What? This old thing?” but I couldn’t pull it off without grinning. “It came from my mother,” I said. “It was one of her few castoffs that actually fit me. On her it came to her ankles and just hung loosely. On me it’s short and formfitting, but at least it’s silk.”
“One thing I can say for your mother, she does have good taste in clothes.”
She took a sip of tea before adding, “Of course the same thing can’t be said for men. Who is her particular beau at the moment, dare one ask? A polo player? A racing driver? A Texas oilman?”
“They are all in the past,” I said. “It’s still Max von Strohheim, the German industrialist. I think you’ve met him. He’s nice. She’s been with him for a couple of years now, and what’s more, they are planning to marry next month. Big wedding in Berlin. I’m going to be a maid of honor.”
“Good God,” Fig said. “It seems that everybody in the world is getting married this summer, including you, one gathers. One saw the engagement announcement in the Times. So it’s actually about this wedding that I am here. We haven’t yet received an invitation. . . .”
“That’s because the final details have not been put into place yet, Fig. We only just heard that I had been given permission to withdraw from the royal line of succession. Until that we couldn’t go ahead. We’ve chosen the date, July 27, and we just have to have invitations printed and mailed.”
“That was a big step to take, Georgiana,” Fig said. “One does not reject one’s place in society and one’s obligations lightly. I’m sure Binky would never have renounced his place in the line of succession to marry me.”
I tried to keep a straight face. I didn’t think that any man in his right mind would have renounced anything to marry Fig. I’m not normally so uncharitable, but Fig has been utterly beastly to me since she came to live at Castle Rannoch, making it plain that I was no longer welcome at my childhood home.
“I was only thirty-fifth in line, Fig. Your children would be on the throne before me if a meteor strike or plague wiped out the rest of the royal family.”
“That’s true, but all the same . . .” Fig took another sip of her tea, then put down the cup and saucer with a clatter on the little glass-topped table.
“I intended to marry Darcy whatever happened,” I said. “I would have run off to Argentina if Parliament had said no.”
“So are we to expect that you will be married from the family seat in Scotland?”
“Castle Rannoch? Good heavens no,” I said, rather more emphatically than I had meant. Then I remembered it was her home and she was stuck there for most of the year, so I added, “I do want my friends to attend my wedding, and Castle Rannoch is in the middle of nowhere, isn’t it? Besides, they’d all have to stay at the castle. You’d have to entertain them, Fig. And think of all the Rannoch family members—those hairy cousins with the big appetites. It would cost a pretty penny.”
I knew I had hit a nerve there. Fig is the stingiest person I have ever met. I saw her face twitch. “Of course you are not wrong there,” she said. Then she paused. “I mean, how would they all get to Castle Rannoch? There is no bus or train.”
“My point exactly,” I said. “And of course there is no Catholic church within miles.”
Her eyes blinked up and down rapidly now. “A Catholic church? You are planning to marry in a Catholic church?”
“That’s because I’m marrying a Catholic, Fig.”
“You’re not planning to convert, are you?” She sounded as if I’d just said that I was planning to marry a pygmy and become a cannibal.
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m supposed to be taking instruction from a priest in London—to let me know what I’m getting into. I have to promise to bring up the children as Catholics.”
She actually reached out a hand and laid it over mine. “Oh, Georgie. Are you sure you want to go through with this? I mean . . .”
“Fig, let’s get this straight,” I said, still trying to remain calm. “I love Darcy. I want to marry him. His religion means something to him, whereas mine means going to church occasionally because it is expected of me.”
“You couldn’t have a proper Church of England ceremony and just a Catholic blessing at the end?” she suggested.
“Then it wouldn’t be a sacrament.”
“A holy wedding in the eyes of the church. I wouldn’t be considered properly married. But I really don’t mind where we marry as long as we do marry.”
“So where is this ceremony to take place? In London?”
“Yes, I think so. That way it’s easy for Mummy and Max and other friends to come from the Continent. Darcy worships at something called the Farm Street Church when he’s in town, so I wouldn’t mind holding it there.”
“The Farm Street?” Fig’s eyebrows rose in astonishment. “Where in heaven’s name is that?”
I did smile now. “On Farm Street in Mayfair, actually. That’s how they always refer to it. Its real name is the Church of the Immaculate Conception or something terribly Roman like that. It’s where posh Catholics attend church in London.”
“Are there any posh Catholics?” she demanded, looking down her nose at me.
“Well, yes. There’s the pope for one. And the Duke of Norfolk. The premier duke in the peerage of England, therefore one rung above you, Fig. His family is Catholic. And of course Princess Zou Zou. You can’t get much posher than a princess.”
“A Polish princess, Georgie. In countries like that they hand out titles like certificates on sports day at school. And she is only a princess because one presumes she married a prince.”
“You’re right. She was a mere countess before.” I grinned. “Anyway, take it from me that there are enough posh Catholics to fill a church.”
“And you will be staying with this princess until your wedding? You will be married from her house? What about the reception?”
I took a deep breath. “Actually, Fig, I’d really like to be married from our London house, if you and Binky would be willing to come down for the wedding. And I’d like Binky to give me away.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know what he’ll say about walking you down the aisle in a Roman Catholic place of worship, Georgiana. But he is very fond of you and we know how softhearted he is, so I expect he’ll agree.” She paused, then could hardly bring herself to say, “And I suppose you expect us to fund the wedding?”
“Mummy is providing my trousseau and Belinda is making my wedding dress,” I said. “I’m sure Zou Zou would be happy to provide the wedding breakfast here, but it would be nice if it could be at my family’s London house. Nothing too fancy, of course. Champagne, a cake and a few nibbles. You and Binky could manage that, couldn’t you?”
She had gone quite pink. “Yes, I suppose we could,” she agreed. Then she wagged a finger at me, looking almost animated. “Binky can wear his kilt and Podge can be a page boy and I wonder if Addy is old enough to be a little bridesmaid?”
I could see her warming to it by the minute.
“Binky looks spiffing in his kilt,” I said, encouraging her.
“And bagpipes,” she added. “You know how Binky loves his bagpipes. We’ll bring down old Mr. McTavish.”
“Oh golly,” I said. I know the sound of bagpipes should be in my blood, but I can’t stand them, having been woken by them at dawn on regular occasions. “Do we really have to have bagpipes?”
“A Rannoch wedding with no bagpipes?” She sounded shocked. “It simply isn’t done, Georgiana. Binky would insist if you want him to give you away.”
I decided that bagpipes for five minutes at the end of my wedding ceremony was a small price to pay for keeping my brother and his wife happy.
“Of course,” I said, giving her a winning smile. “Definitely bagpipes.”