Elsie nodded. “I’m warning you, it might take me some time to remember, but—well now, I suppose this story starts with me, when I was learning to be a lady’s maid in 1939, up at the Big House. You wouldn’t have recognized Wharton Park, Julia. The whole place was so alive, buzzing with the Crawford family and their friends. They had house parties almost every week in the shooting season. And one weekend, some friends of theirs came up from London, and I was put in charge of looking after their eighteen-year-old daughter, one Olivia Drew-Norris. She was my first ‘lady.’ ” Elsie’s eyes brightened with the memories. “Oh, Julia, I’ll never forget until my dying day, the moment I walked into that Magnolia bedroom and saw her for the first time. . . .”
As Olivia entered the drawing room, she had the new and not unpleasant feeling of her arrival being noted approvingly. Lord Crawford was the first over to her.
“Olivia, isn’t it? My, my, how that Indian sun nurtures buds into full bloom. Snifter?”
“Thanks awfully,” she replied as she took a gin from the tray proffered by the hovering butler.
“Rather glad you’re my neighbor at table tonight, my dear,” Lord Crawford commented, throwing a discreet nod in the butler’s direction. He answered with an equally discreet nod back. Even if Olivia hadn’t been beside him for dinner, she was now.
“So, how are you finding Blighty?” he asked.
“It’s thrilling to see the country I’ve heard so much about,” Olivia lied smoothly.
“My dear, I’m delighted that you should take the time to visit us in our rural Norfolk backwater. You’re doing the Season, so your papa tells me?”
“Yes.” Olivia nodded.
“Jolly good show,” Christopher chuckled. “One of the best times of my life. Now, let me introduce you to my wife. She was indisposed this afternoon, but seems to have recovered for this evening.” He guided Olivia over to a slim, elegant woman. “Adrienne, do meet Olivia Drew-Norris, whom I’m sure is going to break many chaps’ hearts this Season, just like you did years ago.”
Adrienne, Lady Crawford, turned toward Olivia and extended her delicate white hand, and in a parody of the male handshake, their fingers touched.
“Enchantée,” said Adrienne, smiling at her approvingly. “You are indeed a heartbreaker.”
“It’s awfully kind of you to say so, Lady Crawford.” Olivia was beginning to feel like a prize heifer being paraded around a showground, waiting to be judged. She hoped this wasn’t a precursor of the Season to come.
“Please, you must call me Adrienne. I am sure we will be great friends, n’est-ce pas?”
Lord Crawford looked down fondly at his wife. “Good show, good show. I’ll leave Olivia in your capable hands, my dear. Perhaps you can give her a few tips.” He strode off to welcome two new arrivals.
Olivia took the moment to enjoy Adrienne’s own beauty. Although mature, in her early forties at least, Adrienne had the body of a slim young girl. And a beautifully sculpted face, with high, chiseled cheekbones underneath a flawless, ivory skin. Her quintessential femininity reminded Olivia more of a delicate Indian maharani, rather than the usual female English aristocrat, built as they were to withstand the harshness of the British weather, with wide hips to engender the brood of children they needed to continue the family line.
Adrienne was so elegant, so fragile, Olivia felt she would be more suited to a salon in Paris than a drafty English country house. Indeed, Olivia’s mother had told her that Adrienne was French. Judging by the way she wore what was a simple black cocktail dress, adorned only with a string of creamy pearls, she had the effortless chic of her native land.
“So, Olivia, you are back in this dreadful country, with its filthy weather and its lack of natural sunlight, n’est-ce pas?”
Adrienne stated this as a matter of fact and Olivia was taken aback by her bluntness. “I am certainly finding the change is taking rather a lot of getting used to,” she answered as diplomatically as she could.
Adrienne’s tiny hand rested on hers. “Ma chérie, I too was brought up in a place full of warmth and light. When I left our château in the South of France to come here to England, I did not think I could bear it. You are the same. I can read how much you miss India in your eyes.”
“I do,” Olivia whispered.
“Well, I can only promise you it will get easier.” Adrienne gave an elegant shrug. “Now, I must introduce you to my son, Harry. He is of your age and will keep you company while I play the hostess parfaite. Pardon, chérie, I will go find him and bring him to you.”
As she watched her hostess glide across the room, Olivia felt disarmed by Adrienne’s empathetic assessment. She was, on such occasions, used to only making small talk, never delving below the surface to discover more. Any form of inner thoughts—or worse, emotions—was frowned upon by British society. That much she had learned from the club in Poona. Her conversation with Adrienne, albeit short, had comforted her. She allowed herself a secret smile.
Harry had been ordered by his mother to go and keep the young “Indian” girl company. Dutifully, he made his way toward her across the room. A few paces away from her, he saw her lips open wide as she smiled.
Her cool, blonde beauty was suddenly animated, filled with a radiance beneath her creamy skin. Harry, not usually particularly aware of the physical charms of women, realized she was what most of his fellow officers would term a stunner.
He approached her. She saw him and said, “You must be Harry, sent to make polite conversation with me by your mother.” Her turquoise eyes were filled with amusement as she spoke.
“Yes. But I assure you, it will be my pleasure.” He glanced at her empty glass. “May I find you another drink, Miss Drew-Norris?”
“That would be just the ticket, thank you.”
Harry summoned the butler, and as Olivia placed her empty glass on the tray and took a fresh one, she said, “I do apologize if you think me forward. I don’t mean to be. I feel rather sorry for you, that’s all, having to speak to endless people you’ve never met before.”
Olivia was surprised at her boldness and blamed the particularly potent gin. She looked at Harry, “handsome” Harry, as Elsie had described him, and decided that Elsie was right. Harry had garnered the best physical qualities of both his parents; he had the height of his father and the fine bone structure and luminous brown eyes of his mother.
“I can assure you, Miss Drew-Norris, coming to talk to you isn’t a chore. You are, at least, under the age of seventy, which always helps. And, to be frank, around these parts, pretty unusual.”
Olivia laughed as Harry responded to her glibness. “Touché, although wearing that dinner suit, you could be taken for your father.”
Harry shrugged good-naturedly. “Why, Miss Drew-Norris, I do believe you are making fun of me. Do you not realize that war is coming to these fair isles and we must all make some sacrifices? For me, that’s wearing my father’s hand-me-down suit, even if it is three sizes too big for me.”
Olivia’s face darkened. “Do you really believe there will be war?”
“Without a doubt.” Harry nodded.
“I agree, but Daddy refuses to countenance it.”
“I’m sure that after a day’s shooting with my father, he may well have begun to.” Harry raised his eyebrows.
“I very much doubt that Herr Hitler can be pacified,” sighed Olivia. “He’s intent on world domination, and his youth movement seems to be as passionate as he is.”
Harry stared at her in surprise. “If I may say so, Miss Drew-Norris, you seem awfully well informed. Rather unusual in a young lady.”
“Do you find it unbecoming, women discussing politics?”
“Not at all. As a matter of fact, I find it extremely refreshing. Most girls simply aren’t interested.”
“Well, I was fortunate to be tutored in India by a man who believed women had as much right to an education as men.” Olivia gazed past him, her eyes suddenly sad. “He brought the world alive for me and made me aware of my relevance in it.”
“Gosh, your chap sounds wasted in Poona. Wish I’d had that kind of inspiration at Eton. Couldn’t wait to finish and get out of the damned place.” Harry lit a cigarette, fascinated. “And will you be taking your education further?”
Olivia shook her head ruefully. “I can’t imagine what Mummy and Daddy would say if I suggested it. They would be horrified: ‘What! A bluestocking in the family?!’ No, I’m to be married off, assuming someone will have me, that is.”
Harry looked at her with genuine admiration. “Miss Drew-Norris, I assure you that will present no problem at all.”
She glanced up at him. “Even if it’s not what I want?”
Harry sighed as he stubbed his cigarette out into a nearby ashtray. “It occurs to me that most of us don’t have what we want. But do try not to be too downhearted. I believe there are changes coming, especially for women. And perhaps the only advantage of the prospect of war is that it will alter the status quo even further.”
“I can only hope it does. And what of you?” Olivia asked, suddenly remembering that the golden rule, taught from the cradle, was never to dominate the conversation, especially with a gentleman.
“Me?” Harry shrugged. “I’m a mere soldier, on leave at present, but I fear not for long. We’ve just received orders to double the numbers in my new battalion, recruiting through the Territorial Army.”
“I find it quite impossible to understand how life here can go on as normal.” Olivia indicated the other members of the drinks party, guffawing loudly at some joke.
“Well, it’s the British spirit, isn’t it? The world may be coming to an end, but in houses such as these, everything goes on as it always has done. And in some respects, I thank God for it.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.”
“Well, Miss Drew-Norris,” said Harry, “it’s been a pleasure. By the way, mind the shot in the pheasant. Cook’s not terribly careful.” He winked at her. “Perhaps we’ll meet again before you leave.”
Olivia spent dinner responding to Lord Crawford’s dreadful jokes and behaving like the young lady she had been brought up to be. She risked the odd glance down the table at Harry, who she could see was doing his duty too, entertaining the wife of the army major. Later, as the men retired to the library and the women to the drawing room for coffee, Olivia feigned tiredness and excused herself.
Adrienne appeared by her side just as she was mounting the stairs. “Ma chérie, are you ill?” she asked with concern.
Olivia shook her head. “No, just a headache, really.”
Adrienne held her by the shoulders and smiled. “It is this cold English weather that has chilled your tropical bones. I will ask Elsie to relight your fire and bring you some cocoa, and we will see you tomorrow. Perhaps you will take a walk with me in the garden and I can show you something that might remind you of home.”
Olivia nodded, appreciating Adrienne’s genuine concern. “Thank you.”
“Je vous en prie. You enjoyed speaking to my son, Harry?”
“I did, awfully, thank you.” Olivia could feel the heat rising in her cheeks and hoped Adrienne hadn’t noticed.
Adrienne nodded approvingly. “I knew you would. Bonne nuit, ma chérie.”
Olivia climbed the stairs wearily. She genuinely had a headache, probably brought on by her still being unused to alcohol, but more important, she wanted time alone to think back and relish her conversation with Harry.
She changed into her nightgown in double-quick time, an art she had perfected since arriving in the cold English climate. As she hopped into bed and snuggled under the covers, there was a knock on her door.
Elsie’s bright face appeared round the door. She was holding a tray with a mug of cocoa on it. “Only me, Miss Olivia.” She walked across the room and placed the tray on the night table next to Olivia. “Made to my ma’s special recipe”—she smiled—“with a dash of brandy for the cold.”
“Thank you, Elsie.” Olivia picked up the warm cup and nursed it in her hands as she watched Elsie rekindle the fire.
“So, did you have a good evening, Miss Olivia?”
“Oh, yes, Elsie, I did.” She smiled.
Elsie turned from the fire and caught the smile. Her eyes twinkled. “And did you meet young Master Harry?”
“And what did you think of him, then?”
Olivia knew that another golden rule was not to gossip with servants, especially when not one’s own, but the temptation of discussing Harry was just too great.
“I think he was . . . a very unusual man.”
“And as handsome as I said he was?”
When Olivia didn’t answer, Elsie cast her eyes down. “Sorry, miss, I’m forgetting myself. I mustn’t ask personal questions.”
“Elsie, I promise you’re doing marvelously well. And after tomorrow, we’ll probably never see each other again. And”—Olivia took a deep breath—“if you want to know the truth, I thought Harry was . . . a darling!”
Elsie clasped her hands together. “Oh, Miss Olivia! I just knew you would! I knew you’d like each other.”
Olivia took a sip of her drink. “Elsie, this is the finest cocoa I’ve ever tasted.”
“Thank you, miss.” Elsie headed for the door. “I’ll be here in the morning to draw back your curtains. Sleep tight.”
When Elsie had left the room, Olivia lay back on the soft pillows sipping the cocoa. Then she closed her eyes and began to relive her conversation with Harry from start to finish.
© 2011 Lucinda riley