Caught between her high birth and empty purse, Georgie is relieved to receive a new assignment from the Queen. The King’s youngest son, George, is to wed Princess Marina of Greece, and the Queen wants Georgie to be her companion: showing her the best of London—and dispelling any rumors about George’s libertine history.
The prince is known for his many affairs with women as well as men—including the great songwriter Noel Coward. But things truly get complicated when one of his supposed mistresses is murdered.
The Queen wants the whole matter hushed. But as the case unfolds—and Georgie's beau Darcy, as always, turns up in the most unlikely of places—their investigation brings them precariously close to the prince himself.
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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28, 1934
CLABON MEWS, LONDON S.W.7.
Weather outside: utterly bloody! Weather inside: cozy and warm.
Enjoying life for once, or would be if Darcy hadn’t gone off somewhere secret again . . .
Why must he be so annoying!
By London standards, it was a dark and stormy night. Nothing like the wild gales that battered our castle in the Scottish Highlands, of course, but violent enough to make me glad I was safely indoors. Rain peppered the windows and drummed on the slates on the roof while a wild wind howled down the chimney. If I’d been at Castle Rannoch, where I grew up, the wind would also have sent icy drafts rushing down the corridors, making tapestries flap and billow out so that it was almost as unpleasant indoors as it was out. But on this particular night I lay listening to the storm feeling snug, warm, comfortable and very thankful that I wasn’t at Castle Rannoch. I was instead in my friend Belinda’s mews cottage in Knightsbridge and enjoying every moment of it.
When I returned from America at the end of August—having been dragged there by my mother who was seeking a quickie divorce from one of her husbands—Mummy had immediately flitted away with the very briefest of good-byes as usual. She had abandoned her only child with monotonous regularity and barely a backward glance since that first time she bolted when I was two. But on this occasion she had actually demonstrated a spark of maternal feeling I hadn’t known she possessed. As she left Brown’s hotel she handed me a generous check. “Georgie, darling, I want you to know that I think you behaved splendidly in Hollywood,” she said. “I simply couldn’t have survived without you in that savage place.”
I went pink and didn’t quite know what to say as this was so out of character. “Golly, thanks awfully,” I managed to mumble.
“I have to go back to Max in Germany, darling,” she said, kissing me on the cheek, “but I don’t want you to think I’m running out on you. You do know you are very welcome to come and stay whenever you want to.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think Berlin would be to my liking,” I said. “Not since that horrible little Hitler chappie came into power. Too much shouting and strutting.”
She gave that tinkling laugh that had delighted audiences across the world. “Oh, darling. Nobody takes him seriously. I mean, who could with a mustache like that. He once kissed my hand and it was like an encounter with a hedgehog. Max says he’s good for German morale at the moment but he can’t last.”
“All the same, I’d rather stay in good old England for a while,” I said. “That time in America was quite enough excitement for me.”
“You don’t mean to go home to Scotland?” she asked.
“Actually no,” I said. “I’m not exactly welcome at Castle Rannoch these days, and Belinda told me I could use her London house while she stays on in Hollywood.” I added, “And now you’ve given me this check, I can actually afford to eat for a while.”
A frown crossed that lovely face. “Darling, have there been times when you couldn’t afford to eat?”
“Oodles of them. I once survived for a month on tea and baked beans.”
“How disgusting. Really, Georgie, if you need something just ask. Max is revoltingly rich, you know. I could get him to make you an allowance, I’m sure.”
“I can’t live off Max’s money, Mummy. Granddad wouldn’t approve, for one thing. Not German money. You know how Granddad would hate that after your brother was killed in the war.”
“One must learn to forgive and forget, as I keep telling your grandfather. And once we’re married—well, it will be my money too, won’t it?” She raised her hands excitedly. “You must come over for the wedding! You can be my maid of honor.”
“Do you really intend to marry him?” I couldn’t bring myself to look at her.
“It’s what he wants, so I suppose the answer is yes. We’ll just have to see, won’t we? Well, I must be toddling off, darling, if I’m to catch the boat train. Take care of yourself and for God’s sake let that gorgeous Darcy take you to bed as soon as possible. Virginity simply isn’t fashionable or even acceptable after twenty.”
And with that she was gone. I had moved into Belinda’s lovely little London mews home and had enjoyed playing a lady of leisure for a while. The one aspect of my happiness that was lacking was that Darcy was off on another secret assignment and I had no idea when he’d return to London or how I could contact him. Really, he was the most infuriating man. I knew he did things that were often hush-hush (I suspected he might even occasionally work undercover for MI5) but an occasional postcard from Buenos Aires or Calcutta would have been nice.
A particularly violent gust of wind made the window frame rattle. I pulled the blankets up and curled into a little ball, enjoying the knowledge that I was safe and warm. The money that Mummy had given me wouldn’t last forever, but I hoped at least I could stretch it out until after Christmas. If only I could find some kind of job, I could go on living here until Belinda came home—and who knew when that would be if she became a successful costume designer in Hollywood. But jobs didn’t seem to exist for young women like me, trained only to snare a husband. I was even toying with the idea of applying for a temporary Christmas job at one of the department stores, if I didn’t think that the news might leak back to my relatives and cause a stink.
And in case you’re wondering why my relatives should care if I worked behind the counter in Selfridges or Gamages I should point out that they were not exactly your run-of-the-mill, ordinary people—they were the king and queen. My great-grandmother was Queen Victoria so I was half royal, expected to behave in a way that befitted my station without being given the means to do so. Jolly unfair, actually.
I pushed worrying thoughts aside. For the moment all was well. It had been remarkably peaceful, since my maid, Queenie, had been absent for the last few weeks. She had gone home to look after her mother, who had been hit by a tram while crossing Walthamtow High Street and broken her leg. But the leg had healed and Queenie was due to return to me any day now. I was anticipating it with mixed emotions since Queenie was the most utterly hopeless maid in the history of the universe. In fact I rather suspected that her family was urging her to hurry back to me, not because of any sense of duty but because they couldn’t wait to get rid of her. I sighed, settled down and let my mind drift to more pleasant subjects. I was half asleep when I heard a noise that jerked me instantly awake again.
Over the noise of the wind and rain I had heard the distinct metallic click of a latch, followed by the sound of a door being opened. Somebody was coming into the house. I wondered if I had forgotten to lock the door before I went to bed, but I definitely remembered doing so. I was out of bed in a flash. Belinda’s cottage was really tiny, with a flight of stairs leading up to the bedroom I was occupying, a bathroom and a minute maid’s room. I looked around desperately. There was nowhere to hide if burglars had broken in. I examined the bed, but Belinda had piled boxes and trunks under it. The wardrobe was still full of her clothes. I wondered if perhaps I could tiptoe across the hall to the box room, or better yet the bathroom. Surely no burglar would think of looking in the bath?
I opened the door cautiously and was about to peer around it when I heard the sound of low voices in the hallway down below. Golly. More than one of them. I glanced back into the room to see if there was anything I might use as a weapon—but I didn’t think the frail china table lamp would be much good, even if I could unplug it in time. Then I heard a laugh that I recognized. Belinda’s laugh. She had come home unexpectedly and she was probably talking to the taxi driver who was carrying in her luggage. I was about to step out to greet her when I heard her say, “Toby, you are so naughty. Now stop that, at least until I have my gloves off.”
“Can’t wait, you delectable creature,” said a deep man’s voice. “I’m going to rip off all your clothes, throw you down on that bed and give you one hell of a good ravishing.”
“You are certainly not going to rip anything,” Belinda said, laughing again. “I happen to like my clothes. But you may undress me as quickly as you like.”
“Good show,” he said. “I’ve been dying to bed you since we first danced together on the ship. But too many watchful eyes. It was dashed clever of you to suggest coming back here rather than a hotel. A man in my position can’t be too careful, don’t you know.”
Toby? I thought. Sir Toby Blenchley, cabinet minister? I had no time to consider this as they were now heading for the stairs. I stood behind that door in an agony of embarrassment and indecision. Surely she couldn’t have forgotten that I was occupying her house, and thus her bedroom, could she? Did she really think it would be acceptable to roll in the hay with a cabinet minister while I was there? Where did she expect me to go while they were thus engaged? I sighed in exasperation. How typically Belinda.
I heard her giggle and say, “My, but you are impatient, aren’t you?” as they came up the stairs. What on earth was I to do? Leap out on them and say, “Welcome home, Belinda, darling. Perhaps you had forgotten that you’d lent your house to your best friend?” Sir Toby wasn’t in the first flush of youth. What if the surprise brought on a heart attack? On the other hand, there was now no way I could cross the upstairs landing to the maid’s room, and I certainly didn’t want to be trapped in there listening to their hijinks.
Then it was decided for me. Belinda ran up the rest of the stairs calling, “Come on then, last one into bed is a sissy!” She pushed open the bedroom door with full force, trapping me behind it. She had several robes hanging from the back of that door and these were now in my face. I heard the sounds of two people undressing hurriedly. Maybe if I kept quiet and didn’t move he’d have his way with her and then go, I decided. Better still, maybe they’d both fall asleep and I could creep out and take refuge in the box room.
“God, you really are delectable,” I heard him say. “Those neat little breasts. Enough to drive a man wild. Come here.”
I heard bedsprings creak, a grunt, a sigh. Then something terrible happened. One of Belinda’s robes was trimmed with feathers. And one of these feathers was now tickling my nose. To my horror I realized I was going to sneeze. I was pinned so tightly behind the door that it was hard for me to get my hand up to my nose. I managed it just in time and clamped my fingers over my nose and mouth. The noises on the bed were getting more violent and urgent. The sneeze was still lingering, waiting to come out the moment I let go. I willed it to go away but I had to breathe. And then, in spite of everything, it came out, a great big “A—choo,” just at the moment when Belinda was moaning “Oh yes, oh yes.”
It was amazing how quickly the room fell silent.
“What the devil was that?” Sir Toby asked.
“Someone’s in the house.” I heard the bed creak as Belinda got up.
“I thought you said there’d be nobody here.”
“It must be my maid, although I didn’t tell her I was coming home,” Belinda said. “How could she have known? I’ll go and see if she’s sleeping in her room.” Then she lowered her voice. “Don’t go away, you big brute. I’ll be back and we can continue from where we left off.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Not if your maid’s in the house. Is she likely to gossip?”
“My maid is paid very well to close her eyes to anything that goes on in my bedroom,” Belinda said. “You don’t have to worry, Toby, I promise you. I’ll just get my robe. . . .”
And she swung the door open. . . .
It was fortunate that the storm outside was making such a racket or her scream would have been heard all the way to Victoria Station and maybe even across the Thames.
“Belinda, it’s all right,” I said, reaching out to touch her. “It’s me. Georgie.”
“Oh God.” She was gasping now, her hand over her naked heart. “Georgie. Have you gone mad? What on earth are you doing hiding in my bedroom?”
“I’m sorry if I scared you, Belinda,” I said. “I didn’t intend to hide, but by the time I’d woken up and heard you coming up the stairs it was too late to do anything sensible. And you were the one who pushed the door open so hard, trapping me behind it.”
Sir Toby was standing up beside the bed and had obviously just realized he was naked in the presence of a strange female. He grabbed a lace-trimmed, heart-shaped pillow and attempted to hold it over the important parts. He looked old and ridiculous and quite unlike the masterful, dapper man whose picture I had seen on newsreels and in magazines. “You know this person, Belinda?” he demanded. “Should we call the police?”
“Oh no, of course not,” Belinda said. “She’s my best friend—Georgiana Rannoch.”
“Lady Georgiana, sister of the Duke of Rannoch?” Sir Toby said. “Good God. But what’s she doing in your house? In your bedroom, for God’s sake?”
“I’ve no idea, Toby.”
I’d had enough. They were both looking at me with horror and suspicion as if I were a dangerous cornered animal. “Perhaps in the heat of passion you forgot that you invited me to stay in your house while you were away, Belinda,” I said. “And you might have given me advance warning that you were coming back.”
Belinda had taken down one of the robes and was in the process of trying to put it on. I noticed that her body was curvier than when we had shared a room as teenagers at a finishing school in Switzerland. No wonder men were so attracted to her.
“I remember mentioning that you could use my house,” Belinda said as she successfully pulled on the robe and tied it at her waist, “but I’d no idea that you’d taken me up on it. You might have dropped me a note to tell me.”
“Dropped you a note?” I was fully indignant now. “Belinda, I wrote you two letters. And since I didn’t know where you’d be staying, I addressed one to you, care of Golden Pictures, and one, care of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Do you mean to tell me you didn’t receive either of them?”
“Of course I didn’t receive them. I never went back to Golden Pictures. It’s been virtually shut down by Mr. Goldman’s widow; at least all work is halted for now. And my budget certainly didn’t run to the Beverly Hills Hotel.”
Sir Toby cleared his throat. “Given the circumstances, Belinda, I think I should depart as rapidly as possible. So if you young ladies don’t mind stepping outside while I get dressed . . .”
Belinda followed me out onto the landing. “Honestly, Georgie. You’ve spoiled everything.”
She stood there, glaring at me while I squirmed in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, but you did offer and I did write to tell you. And I’m not about to walk out into the storm at this hour so that you can finish your little tryst with a cabinet minister.”
Sir Toby emerged, now looking more like himself in dark suit and old school tie. “I’ll just be toddling off home then, Belinda,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll pick up a cab on Knightsbridge. I’ll see myself out.”
Belinda followed him down the stairs. “Will I see you again soon?”
He cleared his throat in that annoying way that some men have. “I don’t really think that would be wise . . . much as I’d like to. Can’t afford to risk bringing scandal to the party, you know. Let’s just put tonight behind us. Forget all about it.”
And with that he grabbed his overcoat, opened the front door and stepped out into the storm.
I stood there at the top of the stairs, then came down slowly. We looked at each other in tense silence.
“Oh well, that’s that, I suppose,” Belinda said. “Is there anything to drink in the house?”
“I could make you a cup of tea, or I believe there is cocoa,” I replied.
This made her burst into laughter. “God, Georgie, why do you have to be so damned pure and naïve all the time? When are you going to grow up and realize what life is all about and when people say they need a drink they mean a large whiskey, not bloody cocoa.”
“I think you have Scotch in your drinks cabinet,” I said. “And my life is very different from yours, Belinda. I don’t bring cabinet ministers home for sex. As a matter of fact I don’t bring anybody home for sex.”
Belinda sighed. “You really are a cocoa type of person, Georgie. God, and I was looking forward to that. There is something about powerful men that really attracts me. And he was obviously good at it too. And now I’ll never know. . . .”
Another awkward silence. “I’ve said I was sorry,” I repeated. “I don’t know what else to say. And you’ve used me often enough, including turning up out of the blue in Hollywood, so I do think you owe me the odd favor.”
There was a long silence as she went down the stairs and over to the cabinet in the corner. I heard liquor slosh into a glass. Or rather two glasses. She came back up the stairs, holding out a half tumbler of whiskey for me. “Here, drink this. You need it as much as I do. And you’re right. I did offer you my house and I have used you shamelessly on many occasions. Go on. Down the hatch.”
I did as she commanded, feeling the fiery liquid going down my throat and spreading warmth throughout my body. I coughed and wiped my eyes. She laughed. “You must be the only Scot who can’t take her whiskey,” she said.
“I’m only a quarter Scottish,” I said, managing a weak smile. “And I’ve never developed a taste for it.”
“You and your bloody cocoa,” she said, and she started to laugh again. “Oh well, I don’t suppose it would have led anywhere. It was just one of those shipboard flings. And now he’s gone home.”
“Back to his wife, if I remember correctly,” I said. “And wasn’t he the one who gave that speech about the sanctity of the family and every proud Englishman being king of his own castle with his wife and children around him?”
She nodded. “He’s a politician, Georgie. They say what people want to hear.”
“Belinda, I think I did you a favor. You could have caused real trouble. You could have brought down the government.”
“That might have been interesting,” she said. “At last people would know who I was then. I’d be a celebrity.”
“Of the wrong sort,” I said. “No respectable household would invite you for dinner, in case you seduced their husbands.”
“I suppose you’re right as usual,” she said. “It did cross my mind that it might be nice to be someone’s mistress, taken care of, set up in a swank flat somewhere.”
“With no security whatever, Belinda. Why not someone’s wife? Your pedigree is as good as mine—well, almost.”
“But I’m soiled goods, darling. No top-drawer family wants their son to get hitched to someone like me. I’m clearly not a virgin, like you. I’ve a reputation now, and no fortune to go with it. And I’m stony-broke at the moment—no idea how I’m going to pay my maid and put food on the table, unless something good turns up.”
“So Hollywood didn’t work out for you, then?” I said. “You said that Mrs. Goldman shut down Golden Pictures, but what about all the other studios? Didn’t any of them want a talented costume designer? You had terrific contacts, after all—you swam nude with Craig Hart.”
Belinda frowned. “It seems there are too many talented people in Hollywood, fighting for too little work. And I didn’t really feel comfortable over there. That sort of lifestyle wasn’t for me. Too brash. Too artificial. Nobody means what they say. They talk big, make big promises and it’s all fabrication.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I bet you’d have made a brilliant costume designer. You are very talented.”
“Kind of you to say so, darling.” She managed a weak smile.
“You have trained with Chanel, Belinda. And you’re really good. You could easily start your own line over here. I know you could.”
“I know I could too,” she said, “except that it all takes money. I’d need premises, seamstresses, fabric . . . and remember what I found out before? Those who can afford good clothes want everything on credit. It’s a constant fight to make them pay up.”
I sighed this time. “It’s not easy, is it? My mother gave me a nice check when she went back to Germany but it won’t last forever. And now that you’re home I’m not even sure where I’ll go. Back to Scotland, with my sister-in-law telling me what a burden I am, I suppose.”
Belinda put a hand on my shoulder. “I’d let you stay on here, but there’s nowhere for you to sleep when my maid comes back. And it does rather cramp one’s style having a friend asleep on a downstairs sofa.”
“Of course I realize I can’t stay on here,” I said.
“But you have the family home on Belgrave Square,” she said. “Oodles of bedrooms. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, except that Fig made it quite clear they couldn’t afford to open it up just for me. Apparently even the small amount of coal I’d use to heat one bedroom is beyond their means.”
“Your brother is really as hard up as that?” Belinda asked.
“His wife claims he is. Actually I think she’s just naturally stingy, and she doesn’t want any of their money spent on me. She’s told me over and over that Binky’s responsibility for me ended when I had my season. It’s my fault that I haven’t married well.”
“Speaking of marriage . . .” She paused. “What news of Darcy? He’s still in the picture, isn’t he?”
“When he’s around,” I said. I stared out past her, at the white painted front door. “I haven’t seen him in a while. You know Darcy. He shows up, it’s heaven and then he goes again and I never know where he is or when he’ll come back. He’s the most infuriating man, Belinda. He doesn’t even have a proper London address. He borrows friends’ houses when they are out of town, sleeps on their couches. And half the time he can’t tell me where he’s going.”
“Georgie, who does he actually work for when he takes these little jobs—do you know? Do you think it’s something frightfully illegal, like drug running for gangsters?”
“Golly, I don’t think so,” I replied. “Some of the things he does do tend to be remarkably hush-hush. I think he takes almost any assignment he’s offered, but mostly on the right side of the law.” I looked around and lowered my voice, even though we were alone and the storm was raging. “In fact sometimes I think he might be employed as a spy by the government on occasion. He doesn’t say and I don’t ask. I know he’s trying to make enough money so that we can get married. . . .”
“You’re engaged, darling?” She grabbed my hands.
I felt my cheeks going red. “Well, sort of secretly. We can’t announce an engagement until Darcy feels he can support me, and heaven knows when that might be. I’ve told him I wouldn’t mind living in a little flat, but he’s determined to do the thing properly.”
“Of course he is.” She was looking at me wistfully. “You’re so lucky, Georgie. You’ve a wonderful future to look forward to with a terrific man who loves you.”
This was so unlike Belinda that I turned to look at her. “Belinda—you’ll meet the right chap, I know you will. You’ve got a brighter future than I because you’re so talented.”
“Dear Georgie.” She reached out to hug me. “You’re so nice. You deserve to be happy.”
“Cheer up, Belinda. Everything will work out splendidly,” I said. “You’ll find a job, or your father will relent and give you some money . . . and aren’t you set to inherit something from your grandmother?”
She made a face. “My grandmother will live to a hundred. She still walks three miles every morning and takes cold baths. And I’ll get no money from my father as long as my evil stepmother is in the picture. No, darling, I’m afraid it’s back to Crockford’s for me if I’m to survive.”
“Crockford’s? The club, you mean? Do you really expect to make money gambling?”
“Actually I do rather well, darling,” she said. “I play up the helpless and innocent young girl act—you know—first time at the tables and it’s all so terribly confusing. Kind men usually put in my stake for me. So I never actually lose my own money and I win remarkably often. Of course, some of the men expect something in return. . . .” She managed a bright smile. “But enough gloom and doom. There is room enough in my bed for two and in the morning we’ll make plans.”
MONDAY, OCTOBER 29
CLABON MEWS AND THEN RANNOCH HOUSE, BELGRAVE SQUARE
Dear Diary: Belinda came home unexpectedly last night. Rather embarrassing, actually. Now I have no idea where I’m going to go. I hate living like this, relying on the kindness or pity or duty of others to take me in. When will I ever have a place of my own?
In the morning the storm had blown itself out. The world was bathed in bright sunshine. I got out of bed and went over to the window, savoring the morning quiet. The pavement below was littered with swaths of sodden leaves and even small branches, bearing testimony to the violence of the night’s storm. Belinda sighed and muttered something and I turned to look back at her. She was still sleeping blissfully, looking remarkably innocent and angelic in sleep. I stood there, staring down at her. Belinda was usually the optimistic, opportunistic one, living rather well by her wits. She’d had affairs with glamorous Italian counts and Bulgarian royals. So it was quite unlike her to reveal a vulnerable side. I wondered if something had happened in Hollywood. . . .
Then I decided I should be more concerned about me. At least she had a place of her own to live. At least she didn’t have royal family connections to live up to. I wondered where I’d go now. Would she expect me to move out immediately? In which case I’d have no choice but to take the next train back to Scotland. Oh golly, I thought. Castle Rannoch with winter coming, lashed by gales, gloomy beyond belief. I’d have to write to Fig to see if they’d have me, since it was now no longer my home. And if she said no . . . I turned away from the window, trying not to think about it. Mummy said I was welcome to stay in Germany, but I didn’t fancy that either—not the way things seemed to be going there these days.
Either way, I’d have to start packing up my things. I’d need to collect Queenie from her parents’ house, which would mean an excuse to visit Granddad. That thought made me smile. I’d been visiting my grandfather on a regular basis while I’d been in London. I suppose I should add that I’m talking about my mother’s father, the retired Cockney policeman who lived in a semidetached with gnomes in the front garden, not the fierce Scottish duke who married a princess. The Scottish grandfather died before I was born, thank goodness, and it’s said that his ghost still haunts the battlements of Castle Rannoch.
But my living grandfather was one of my favorite people. He always made me welcome, even though he had very little himself. Another thought crossed my mind: wouldn’t it be lovely if I could stay with him for a while? I pictured waking to the smell of bacon cooking, sitting drinking tea in his tiny kitchen, chatting with him by the fire. I sighed. Unfortunately I knew this would be frowned upon. It had been made quite clear to me that it would create great embarrassment to the family if the newspapers got wind of it. Royal in Reduced Circumstances. Her Highness Eats Down the Fish-and-Chip Shop. I could see the left-wing newspapers would have a field day.
Really my family was too tiresome. I couldn’t take a job that might embarrass them. I couldn’t stay with the one person who wanted my company. And yet they offered me no financial support. How on earth did they expect me to live? I knew the answer to that one immediately: I was expected to make the right sort of marriage to some half-mad, chinless European princeling—the sort who get assassinated with monotonous frequency. They had introduced me to a couple of candidates and I had turned them down, much to everyone’s annoyance. But there are some lengths a girl won’t go to to put a roof over her head.
There must be something I can do, I thought as I tiptoed downstairs and filled the kettle for tea. The trouble was that I wasn’t trained for anything except how to behave in the correct social circles. And in these days of depression there were people with real qualifications who were lining up for jobs. I sighed as I made the tea. If only I’d inherited my mother’s stunning looks, I could have followed her onto the stage. But alas I took after my father—tall, lanky, healthy Scottish outdoor looks.
I cheered myself with the thought of going to see Granddad and made boiled eggs and toast before I went to wake Belinda. She looked rather the worse for wear as she sat at the dining table, sipping her tea and nibbling on a piece of toast.
“I feel terrible turning you out now, darling,” she said. “If only I had a spare room . . .”
“I know. It’s quite all right,” I said. “Don’t worry, something will turn up. I’ll go and retrieve Queenie and she can pack up my things and if worse comes to worst I can stay with my grandfather for a few days.”
“I thought that was frowned upon by the family,” Belinda said.
“It is, but they aren’t exactly offering me an alternative, are they? I’ll pick up a copy of The Lady when I go out. There must be some job I could do.”
“Georgie, don’t be silly. The Lady has advertisements for governesses and ladies’ maids.”
“And things like companions and social secretaries. Anything’s better than Castle Rannoch.”
“I agree with that. But feel free to sleep on my sofa until you find something. I don’t want to turn you out into the storm.”
I smiled. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a lovely sunny morning.”
She glared blearily at the window. “Is it? I hadn’t noticed.” Then she turned back to me and smiled. “Sorry. You should know by now that I’m not at my best in the morning. I’ll cheer up as the day goes on. And I’ll be in top form by the time I go to Crockford’s.”
I thought about Belinda as I went upstairs to wash and dress. I had always envied her her confident worldliness, her savoir faire, her elegance and style. I had always thought if anyone knew how to survive, it was she. I put on my cashmere jumper—one of my mother’s castoffs—and tartan skirt, topped it with my old Harris tweed overcoat, and out I went into the cold, crisp morning. I loved walking on days like this. At home in Scotland it would have been a perfect day for a ride through the heather, with my horse’s breath coming like dragon’s fire and the sound of his hooves echoing from the crags.
As I walked I began to feel more optimistic. Maybe Castle Rannoch wouldn’t be that bad. I could go out riding and walking and play with my adorable nephew and niece. And even Fig couldn’t object to my visiting for a week or so—long enough to scan the Lady and send out letters of application. After all, I had helped out at a house party last Christmas. Maybe I could do the same sort of thing this year. Lady Hawse-Gorzley would give me a good reference. Or I could perhaps be someone’s social secretary. I might not be able to type properly but I could write a good letter and I did know the rules of polite society. Maybe someone newly rich would be tickled to have a secretary with royal connections who knew the ropes. And the family couldn’t frown at that sort of job, out of London, away from the prying eyes of the press.
Then I had another encouraging thought. I could always go to stay with the Dowager Duchess of Eynsford. I had been a sort of companion cum social secretary to her, hadn’t I? She had been grateful for my company earlier in the year and I was sure she’d welcome me back. Perhaps the young duke and his cousin had returned from Switzerland, in which case it might even be quite jolly. I strode out with renewed vigor along Pont Street. My head was so buzzing with ideas that I hardly noticed where I was walking. By the time I had to stop to cross Sloane Street, I realized I was in Belgravia, very close to our London home in Belgrave Square. I couldn’t resist taking a look at it, although I had hardly ever stayed there as a child and it had never felt like home to me. I crossed and entered the quiet of Belgrave Square with its elegant white-fronted houses and the gardens in the middle, with trees standing stark and bare behind their iron railings.
Two nannies were walking their charges, talking together as they pushed prams. A maid was scrubbing a front step. A milkman was making a delivery, the bottles rattling as he carried them down to a service entrance. It was all so peaceful and domestic that I found myself staring up at Rannoch House with longing. It was in the middle of the north side of the square—the biggest and most imposing of the houses.
“I wish . . .” I heard myself saying out loud, but when I analyzed it, I didn’t quite know what I wished. Probably that I had a place where I still belonged in the world. I was just about to walk past when the front door opened and none other than my brother, Binky, current Duke of Rannoch, came down the steps, adjusting the scarf at his neck as he came. He was about to walk past without noticing me but I stepped out in front of him.
“Hello, Binky,” I said.
He stopped, startled, then blinked as if he thought he was seeing a mirage. “Georgie. It’s you. Blow me down. What a lovely surprise. We didn’t know you were in town.”
“I didn’t expect you to be in town either,” I said.
“We came down a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “Fig’s aunt just died and left her a nice little legacy, so we decided to have a central heating system put into Castle Rannoch. It can be beastly cold in winter, can’t it? And little Adelaide gets such nasty croup. So while they’re putting in boilers and pipes and things we decided to come down to London. We have to look for a governess for Podge anyway so it was really killing two birds with one stone. But enough of our boring lives—how about you? What have you been doing? The last we heard you were staying with the Duchess of Eynsford.”
“A lot has happened since then,” I said. A spasm of guilt passed through me that I should have written to my brother more often. Then I told myself that Fig would probably have burned the letters anyway. “But are you on your way to an appointment? I could come to visit when you have time and give you all my news, rather than standing here in the street freezing.”
“Come in now, if you’re not too busy,” he said. “I was only going down to my club to read the morning papers and Fig would love to see you.”
This later was completely untrue, I was sure, but I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation. “I’d love to see everyone,” I said. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen Podge and Adelaide. Are you still calling her that, by the way? It doesn’t seem the right sort of thing to call a baby.”
“I call her Dumpling, because she has round chubby cheeks,” Binky said, “but Fig doesn’t like that and Nanny insists on calling children by their proper names. No baby talk and no nonsense.”
“You have a new nanny?”
“Yes. Fig’s idea, actually. She felt that our nanny was too old and too indulgent. So she pensioned her off. Must say I don’t quite take to the new one. Too modern and efficient and worries about germs.”
As we talked Binky went back up the steps and opened the front door. “Come in, Georgie.”
I followed him into the foyer. Binky had hardly had time to close the door behind us when our butler, Hamilton, appeared with that uncanny sense that butlers have when someone is going in or out.
“Back so soon, Your Grace? I hope there is nothing amiss,” he began, then he saw me and his face lit up in a most satisfying way. “Why, Lady Georgiana. What a pleasant surprise. It’s been so long.”
“How are you, Hamilton?” I said as he helped me out of my coat.
“As well as can be expected, my lady. Rheumatics, you know, and a lot of stairs in this house. Should I serve coffee in the morning room, Your Grace, or would her ladyship prefer a proper breakfast in the dining room? It hasn’t been cleared away yet although I believe Her Grace had a tray sent up this morning.”
“Jolly good kidneys this morning, Georgie. And you know what damn fine kedgeree Cook makes.”
“Sounds lovely,” I said. In an attempt to make my mother’s check last as long as possible I had been living quite simply, apart from the occasional splurge of ready-made food from Harrods. And I didn’t know how to cook kidneys.
“Go and help yourself,” Binky said. “I’ll let Fig know you’re here and then I might join you for another round, although Fig complains I’m putting on a bit of weight around the middle.” He patted his stomach, which was becoming a little like Father Christmas’s.
“Should I have fresh coffee sent to the dining room, my lady?” Hamilton asked, hovering at the baize door that led down to the kitchen.
“That would be lovely, thank you, Hamilton,” I said. “I’m sure I haven’t forgotten my way to the dining room.”
I started for the back of the house while Binky went up the stairs. I hadn’t quite reached the dining room door when I heard a shrill voice say, “Here? Now? What does she want?”
“I don’t think she wants anything, Fig,” Binky’s voice answered. “We met on the pavement quite by chance and I invited her to come in, of course.”
“Really, Binky, you are too tiresome,” Fig’s voice went on. “You don’t think, do you? I am not even up and dressed. You should have told her to come back at a more suitable hour.”
“Dash it all, Fig, she is my sister,” Binky said. “This is her home.”
“This is our home now, Binky. Your sister has been off for months, God knows where, making her own life—as well she should, since she’s no longer your responsibility.” A heavy sigh followed. “Well, go downstairs and entertain her and I suppose I’ll have to get up. I was looking forward to a long lie-in with Country Life this morning too.”
I tiptoed through to the dining room as Binky came down the stairs again.
“Fig will join us in a minute,” he said, managing a bright smile. “Slept in late today, don’t you know. But do go ahead and tuck in. I’m sure it’s all still hot.”
I did as I was told and sat down with a plate piled with kedgeree, kidneys, scrambled egg and bacon. It was a feast such as I hadn’t had in a while and it made me wonder whether Fig’s legacy had been big enough to have improved their standard of living. When I had last been at home at Castle Rannoch, Fig’s catering had been decidedly on the mean side, to the point of replacing the Cooper’s Oxford marmalade with Golden Shred.
Coffee was brought and I had almost cleaned my plate when I heard footsteps tapping down the hall and Fig came in. “Georgiana,” she said in a clipped voice, “what a surprise. How lovely to see you.” She looked older than when I had seen her last and permanent frown lines were beginning to show on her forehead. She’d never been a beauty but had once had that healthy if horsey look of country women, with a perfect complexion. Now she looked decidedly pasty faced and I felt renewed pity for Binky that he was stuck with someone like this for the rest of his life. If things went as planned I would have Darcy to look at across the breakfast table every morning—a far more desirable prospect.
Fig poured herself a cup of coffee then sat down across the table from me. “We didn’t even know you were in town or we would have had you over for a meal. In fact we had no idea where you were, had we, Binky? Your brother was quite worried that he hadn’t heard from you.”
“The last we heard was when you went to stay with the Eynsfords,” Binky said, “and there was that spot of bother, wasn’t there? That unpleasant business with poor old Cedric.”
“Georgiana does seem to attract unpleasant business,” Fig said. “You’ve been abroad since you left the Eynsfords? We met the dowager duchess at Balmoral and she mentioned something along those lines.”
“I went to America with my mother,” I said.
“What on earth for? Is she looking for a rich American husband now?” Fig stirred her coffee fiercely.
“Oh I say, Fig, that’s really a bit much,” Binky interrupted.
“On the contrary. She went there to divorce one.” I smiled at her sweetly. “She is planning to marry the industrialist Max von Strohheim.”
“A German?” Fig frowned at my brother. “You hear that, Binky? Georgie’s mother is going to marry a German. How people can forget the Great War so quickly I just do not understand.”
“I don’t suppose Georgie’s mum’s beau had much to do with the Great War,” Binky said in his usual affable manner. I didn’t like to say that I thought he had probably made a fortune in supplying arms. His industrial empire was certainly wide reaching. “So did you have a good time in America, Georgie? Were you there long?”
“Parts of it were lovely, thank you,” I said. “The crossing on the Berengaria—”
“You hear that, Binky?” Fig interrupted. “She sailed on the Berengaria—the millionaires’ ship, they call her. Something I’ll never be able to do. Obviously I went wrong in life. I should have become an actress and had dalliances with all kinds of men, like Georgie’s mother.”
“You don’t have the looks, old thing,” Binky said kindly. “You have to admit that Georgie’s mum is an absolute corker.”
Fig went rather red and I tried not to choke on my coffee.
“She is little better than a high-class tart,” Fig snapped.
“Steady on, old thing,” Binky said. “Georgie’s mum may have led a somewhat colorful life but she’s a thoroughly decent sort. Really kind to me when she married Father. She was the only one who could see I was miserable at boarding school.”
Fig saw that this battle wasn’t going her way. “You were missed at Balmoral, Georgiana,” she said. “The king and queen both commented on your absence. Quite put out that you weren’t there.”
“Oh, I’m sure my presence hardly made a difference,” I said, secretly pleased that they even noticed I hadn’t joined the house party this year.
“Quite put out,” Fig repeated. “The king actually said to me, ‘Where’s young Georgiana then? Had enough of putting up with us old fogies? Rather spend time with the bright young things, what?’”
“And the little princesses missed you too, Georgie,” Binky said. “That Elizabeth is turning into a damned fine horsewoman. She said she was sorry you weren’t there to go riding with her.”
“It’s probably not the wisest thing to snub the king and queen, Georgie,” Fig said. “They are the heads of the family, after all. And you know how the queen absolutely expects one to show up at Balmoral.”
That was true enough. It was hard to find any excuse good enough to get out of it. It was even reported that a certain member of the royal clan timed her pregnancies so that she could miss Balmoral biennially. Actually we Rannochs didn’t mind it. We were used to freezing cold rooms and the piper waking everyone at dawn, not to mention the tartan wallpaper in the loo.
“We had a lovely time there this year, didn’t we, Binky?” Fig drained her coffee and got up to help herself to a piece of toast.
“Oh rather,” he agreed. “Of course, the weather wasn’t too kind. Rained every bally day, actually. Missed every bird I shot at. Apart from that it was quite jolly. They’ve a new piper who plays at dawn.”
“I’m sorry I had to miss it,” I said with a straight face. I turned back to Fig. “So I hear you’ve come into a legacy, Fig, and you’re having central heating put in.”
“Only a small legacy,” Fig said hurriedly. “My aunt lived very simply. No luxuries. She was very active in the Girl Guides until she died.”
“And you’re just down here until the new boiler is put in?”
“Actually we thought we might as well keep on here until the wedding,” Binky said and got a warning frown from Fig.
“The wedding?” I asked.
“The royal wedding,” Binky said.
“The Prince of Wales is finally going to buckle down and get married?” I asked in surprise.
“Not the Prince of Wales, although it’s certainly taking long enough for him to select someone suitable to be a future queen,” Fig said. “It’s the younger son, Prince George, who is to marry next month.”
I couldn’t have been more surprised. “George?” It came out as a squeak. Prince George, the king’s fourth son, was utterly charming and delightful and fun, but from all I’d heard (and seen on occasion) he had been rather a naughty boy. “So the king and queen are trying to rein him in.”
“What do you mean, rein him in?” Fig asked.
“One has heard rumors . . .” I glanced at Binky but got no reaction, so I supposed that news didn’t travel as far as Scotland or my relatives were so naïve that they weren’t aware that behavior like George’s went on.
“Come now, Georgiana. Even princes of the realm are allowed to have a little fun in their youth,” Fig said. “As long as they do the right thing and marry well.”
Personally I thought that posing naked wearing nothing but a Guardsman’s bearskin and having an affair with Noel Coward were slightly more than “having a little fun.” I’d once spotted him at a party where cocaine was being snorted. There were rumors also of affairs with highly unsuitable women.
“Who is he marrying?” I asked.
“Princess Marina of Greece,” Binky said. “Danish royal family, you know. You’ve met her cousin Philip, haven’t you? Very handsome. Nice boy. Good sportsman.”
“And of course we’ve been invited to the wedding,” Fig added with satisfaction. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, would we, Binky?”
“Oh no,” Binky said. “Ripping good fun.”
“I wonder if I’m invited,” I said. “Is it to be a big affair?”
“Westminster Abbey,” Fig said. “I wouldn’t know if you’ve been included in the guest list. They have to draw the line somewhere.”
Binky pulled up his chair a little closer to me. “So, Georgie, what are your plans now you’ve returned from America? Are you staying in London?”
“I was borrowing a friend’s mews cottage,” I said, “but she has returned home unexpectedly so I’m having to move out. I was thinking of coming up to Castle Rannoch while I look for a suitable job, but of course that’s now out of the question. There is always my grandfather. . . .”
“The one in Essex?” Fig made it sound as if it were one of the outer circles of hell.
“Since the other one has been dead for many years the answer to that would be yes,” I replied. “He’s a perfectly charming person, just not—”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Royal Spyness Mysteries
“Wonderful characters…A delight.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels and Midnight Crossing
“Georgie’s high spirits and the author’s frothy prose are utterly captivating.”—The Denver Post
“The perfect fix between seasons for Downton Abbey addicts.”—Deborah Crombie, New York Times bestselling author of The Sound of Broken Glass
“A smashing romp.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Delightfully naïve, charming and quite smart, Georgie is a breath of fresh air.”—Library Journal
“Brilliant…So much more than a murder mystery. It’s part love story, part social commentary, part fun and part downright terrifying. And completely riveting. I adore this book.” —Louise Penny, author of How the Light Gets In
“With a witty and clever plot, it’s clear that Agatha Christie is alive and kicking, and what’s more, she’s funny!”—Hannah Dennison, author of Thieves! a Vicky Hill Exclusive! Mystery
“Charming and lighthearted as ever.”—Kirkus Reviews