"Single ladies should not discuss eligible gentlemen so . . . intimately," Sibyl Smiles told her sister Meg.
Seated on the very shabby rose-colored chaise in the parlor at 7B Mayfair Square, Meg rearranged the black lace mantilla with which she’d draped her head and face and said, "Who should discuss them intimately, then? Married ladies?"
"Oh, fiddlesticks," Sibyl said. "I think you want to shock me and it’s really too bad of you."
"I want to say whatever I’m thinking–when I’m thinking about it. That is whenever I’m forced to abandon my meditation for matters of the mundane world. And it isn’t as if I were discussing an actual man, for goodness sake. Simply men in general and why one might or might not find one man in particular more attractive than another man in particular. "These are things I must be clear about, and very soon."
"Why?" Blonde and ethereal, lovely Sibyl fluttered over Meg.
This was where caution became imperative. "Don’t worry so, Sibyl. There is no absolutely clear direction for all this. I’m gathering, simply gathering to broaden my understanding." Slight understatements, or even fabrications could occasionally be justified. "I should think a man’s hands would be most important, shouldn’t you?"
"But why do you think, so, Sibyl?"
"I . . . Well, if you must know, I do not at all care for men with soft hands. There, now you know. They are not manly to me. And I do not like small hands. That is more difficult to explain except to say that I should prefer a man’s hands–if I were interested in him at all–that is, if I noticed him at all–I should prefer a man’s hands to be larger than mine. Much larger. There is something inside me that insists this is important, yet I don’t know why. Yes, large, strong, well-shaped, long-fingered–perhaps blunt at the nail–yes, yes, that is what I prefer."
Meg watched her sister’s deep concentration and smiled. "Hm. I agree." And all this from dear Sibyl who didn’t think they should as much as have an opinion on a gentleman’s person.
"I also dislike those small, neat feet some gentlemen seem to take pride in. But again, the reason is beyond my reach. It’s just that I know it could be important."
"Height is not of such great importance. But a good carriage is essential, and fine, strong-looking shoulders–legs that look well without padding, particularly when the gentleman is on horseback and the muscle is flexed. Yes, very pleasant. One doesn’t, of course, tend to see a gentleman’s chest other than when he adjusts his waistcoat, but there are those moments. A solid-looking chest. Firm with good muscles again. Oh, yes, that is quite the thing. And I do warm to a charming smile. I shouldn’t care for a man who smiled all the time since I prefer a serious side in all acquaintances, but a charming smile so becomes a handsome gentleman’s face, don’t you think? And dimples here?" She touched her own face just below each cheekbone.
Meg scarcely dared move one of her own muscles, or take the smallest breath for fear of diverting Sibyl from this absolutely wonderful revelation. Sibyl was human. Sibyl had longings. Sibyl was no different from Meg in reacting to certain qualities in the male.
"Meg?" Sibyl said. "Do you agree?"
"Oh, I do, I most definitely do. Oh, very much so, I assure you. But do go on."
"Go on? What do you mean?"
Fiddledeedee, the spell was broken. "Nothing. I didn’t want to interrupt if you you had more to say. I thought you might have an opinion on, um, well, a gentleman’s . . . derrière?"
Aghast came close to describing Sibyl’s expression.
"No," Meg said rapidly, "I see you don’t. But I do. Muscle is important there, too–only to ensure the fit of the trouser, of course. But, moving on to another subject, I’m going to make certain our affairs turn out well. It’s just that I have things to learn, and quickly. Because I do have a plan."
Sibyl’s blue eyes sharpened with worry. "Oh, no, no, Meggie. I don’t know what you intend, but already you frighten me. This is all part of this, this"–she waved a hand at Meg–"this new preoccupation with strange, foreign notions. Oh, do take that thing off your head, Meggie. I can’t think what’s come over you of late. You are quite changed."
"A grateful parishioner brought the mantilla back for Papa," she said, still hoping to deflect any alarm. "From a long sea journey. It never had any purpose before. But it does now. It calms my inner self and helps me achieve a serene state. Familiar objects can do that, Sibyl. And if I am changed it’s because the world has changed me–for the better, I prefer to think. I am a woman of spirit, a woman with a backbone. I am a woman who will not sit with her hands crossed, waiting for disaster–waiting to become destitute. I am." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"You are what?" Sibyl whispered.
Meg breathed in again, long and deep through her nose and repeated, "I am, that’s all. One day, when you are ready and no longer frightened of anything you don’t understand, one day I shall begin your instruction in abstraction."
"I cannot bear it," Sibyl said pacing the drab floral carpet. "If Papa were alive he would put a stop to it. This is what comes of women attending lectures by foreigners. They get foreign ideas. I’m not at all certain all this abstracted thinking, and muttering of mantram, or whatever you call these meaningless words you chant, isn’t, well . . . I’m just not sure, that’s all. I thought you only chanted when you assumed you were alone, but now you are perfectly content to worry me with your muttering and humming, and with assuming such completely unladylike poses at any moment at all. They just–"
"Are," Meg finished for her sister.
"There, you see?" Sibyl planted her feet and pointed at Meg. "You do it all the time. Dear, dear. I’m just not sure what to do about you. We won’t discuss the subject further at this time."
"Good for you," Meg said. "Now do sit, Sibyl. I have something wonderful to tell you. I was going to wait, but perhaps it will cheer you, and since I am expecting a message on the subject, we might as well get the explanation out of the way."
Sibyl shook her head. Her serviceable gray morning gown became her, but then, anything became Sibyl "You are afraid," she said. "No, don’t interrupt me please. You were experimenting with this strangeness before, but now–since the, you know what–you’ve only become so, so obvious since that."
Since she had been pushed into the path of coach near the Burlington Arcade. "I will not lie to you," she said. "There are moments when I want to make my mind so busy there is no room in there for being frightened."
"If we only think good thoughts," Sibyl said, "then we cannot possibly be frightened."
With a great deal of effort, Meg held back a retort that would upset dear, good, Sibyl.
"There, you see now?" Sibyl sounded triumphant. "You can’t argue with the truth. Papa–God rest his soul–would be so pleased and proud of you that you are willing to examine your motives in this."
"I wish Papa were here now," Meg said.
"Oh, so do I."
"If he were," Meg continued, "I should give him a piece of my mind and he would not be at all pleased with that."
"Meggie, you are disrespectful."
"I am practical. If Papa had been sensible enough to find a way around leaving our home to a wretched male relation, we should not be in our current dilemma. My current dilemma. We should be safe in dear little Puckly Hinton, not in rented rooms in London, trying to support ourselves while someone tries to . . . kill me." The time had passed for mincing words.
Sibyl halted her agitated pacing. Sun through the window shimmered on her hair. Her soft mouth trembled. "You cannot be certain someone pushed you. It’s perfectly possible that in such a crush, you tripped, or imagined you were pushed. After all, you do have an active mind, Meggie."
"We won’t pursue the subject farther at this time" Meg said. "My plan is the result of a letter I received from Finch in Scotland."
"You heard from Finch?" Sibyl was instantly distracted. She plopped down beside Meg on the chaise. "You didn’t say she’d written. How is she, and His Lordship? How is Hayden faring–and dear little Oswin?"
Finch had been Finch More when they’d all met. Her brother, Latimer More, still lived in the rooms beneath Meg and Sibyl’s. Latimer was at 7A Mayfair Square whereas the Smiles lived at 7B. Above them were Lady Hester Bingham, owner of the house, and her nephew Hunter Lloyd, Barrister at Law. Adam Chillworth, artist and Meg’s friend, lived in the attic. That was 7C. Lady Hester might be on the third floor but her address was 7, since it was her house. Finch had married Ross, Viscount Kilrood, who owned Number 8 and they were currently at their Scottish estates.
"Meggie? Do tell."
"Sorry. I’ve rather a lot on my mind. They are all well. Finch mentions Hayden often and is glad His Lordship took him in." Hayden had come to Viscount Kilrood as a street urchin paid to carry a message. And he’d stayed, together with his dog Oswin. "I miss them all. But I’ve no doubt they’ll be back in London sometime during the Season." The Season which was all but upon them, and which Meg intended to exploit in order to provide the Smiles sisters with the opportunity they urgently needed.
"It will be lovely to see them," Sibyl said. "Meggie, forgive me if I am sometimes sharp. You know, the mantilla becomes you. Your eyes sparkle most mysteriously through the lace."
Meg said, "Thank you," and reached to embrace her sister.
"Your hair!" Sibyl’s mouth opened and remained so.
This had been inevitable. "Let me tell you what is about to happen," Meg said.
"What have you done to your hair?" Sibyl was not to be diverted. She peered through the mantilla. "Why didn’t I notice it before. Meggie, it’s turned red."
"Don’t be silly, it’s brown." Meg swallowed. "Finch’s letter arrived yesterday. She knows of the people who have moved into Number 17–across the square. They are from a small country on the border between, er, France and Italy, I think. Mont Nuages."
"Your hair is red," Sibyl announced. "The sun is shining on it and it glows red."
"The man’s name is Count Etranger and he has brought his young sister to make a London Season. Anyway, he is not well equipped to guide her in preparing for the whirl to come and is in need of assistance. A companion for the girl, someone who can instruct her in matters of fashion and deportment. She is also–although I cannot imagine why–but she is not accomplished at the pianoforte, nor does she sing appealingly although she has a pleasant enough voice."
"You sew brilliantly," Sibyl said, distracted. "And no one has better sense of style or is more informed of current styles." Meg’s girlhood skills as a seamstress had provided them with some meager wages since they came to Town. However, she was not well known (did not wish to be), and the ladies she sewed for took advantage by paying her very meager compensation for excellent work.
"And you play brilliantly," she told Sibyl, "and sing brilliantly. What could be more perfect?"
"Please tell me what has happened to your hair."
"Ooh, you are not to be silenced on the matter, are you?" Meg said. "Very well. I shall tell you and then I wish to hear not another word on the subject. There is a certain small shop behind a milliner’s establishment on Bond Street. It is known to young ladies–and certain others–as a discreet place from which to obtain advice on matters of personal delicacy. At Mme. Suzanne’s one need never fear saying, or asking anything. So, when I went to seek that lady’s assistance she was most helpful. As you have said, my hair is brown, the dull brown of a dull brown mouse. Not good enough. I need excitement, Sibyl. I need that mystery you mentioned. Red hair is mysterious."
Sibyl fell back on a cushion. "But–but ladies do not do whatever you have done to achieve such a thing. And why do you need it, Meggie, why?"
"I have told you what I’ve done to my hair. Now I must move on to more important things. Before someone comes with a message."
"Before who comes with a message?" Sibyl moaned. "What are you talking about? What is wrong with you? What is to become of us?"
She would remain calm, Meg told herself. "Early this morning I had a letter delivered to Count Etranger at Number 17 Mayfair Square. I informed him that I had heard through a mutual friend, Viscountess Kilrood, that he was in need of a companion for his sister. I offered my services in that capacity and assured him that with my help he need have no further concern about the Princess’s wardrobe, deportment, or her understanding of the social intricacies she will meet while she is in London."
"You didn’t." Sibyl’s voice was faint.
"Buck up, Sibyl. I most certainly did. We are all but penniless and I will not remain in this house for one moment longer than we can afford to pay rent."
"Lady Hester would never make us leave."
"No, she would not. And I know it pleases her to insist to her friends that all of her lodgers are her protogées, but it isn’t true. She must need the money, and we understand such situations, don’t we? Of course we do. So, I have decided to find employment."
"You will also teach . . . Princess? Did you mention a princess?"
Meg composed herself and sat absolutely still. "Princess Désirée of Mont Nuages. The Crown Prince’s daughter."
"And you have put yourself forward to be her companion?"
"They will find none better."
Sibyl covered her face. "You applied for work. Oh, what have we come to? What will become of us? Perhaps we should go to Cousin William and ask for–"
"We will ask William Godly-Smythe for nothing. We are going to become advisers to Count Etranger, for which he will compensate us out of gratitude."
"We?" Sibyl squeaked.
"Well, you are the pianoforte and voice teacher, not I. So the Count will be doubly fortunate. Between the two of us, we will turn his drab, graceless, bad-tempered sister into a charming creature."
Sibyl stared, but then she smiled, smiled more widely, chuckled, laughed more loudly that Meg ever recalled her laughing before. When Sibyl was at last in control of herself again, she dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief and said, "You are incorrigible. You frighten me with your wild words. Undoubtedly your abstracted thinking is responsible, it causes you to imagine your dreamings to be true. How foolish of me to believe you even for a moment."
"Yes, yes, of course. You wrote to someone you do not know, a count from Mont Nuages, and offered to become his sister’s–his sister, the princess, that is–you offered to become her companion, her ultimate adviser in making a successful Season. Certainly, you did. And I suppose your decision to do whatever you did to make your hair red has something to do with this plan."
"It does now."
"I see." Sibyl giggled afresh.
"No, you don’t." Meg had not meant to sound so cross. "I intend to use this wonderful opportunity to our own ends. In order to do that, I must make the best of my less plain attributes. I have been told I have good skin–so I shall take special care of it. And, so I understand, I have fine eyes. I am deciding how to use them well. I’m pleased to hear my mantilla may be useful on occasion. My hair is thick and shiny, but it is brown. As I have already told you, I’ve done something about that. And then"–she looked at the floor and felt her face grow hot–"then I have, well I might as well get it said. After all, we’re both women, and sisters, we should be able to say anything to each other. I have a passable figure. Rather a lot of bosom, I always thought, but, since I’m told many gentlemen are extremely attracted to such things, well then, I intend to flatter that aspect of my person."
"Oh, don’t swoon, dear. Not now when there is so much to consider."
"You are not yourself. You can’t be. So much worry has turned your mind. Where shall I go for help?"
"Help will be here at any moment," Meg said, matter-of fact. "I expect a prompt response to my letter. After all, I wrote to the Count that I am a friend of Finch who is the wife of his long acquaintance, Viscount Kilrood. It was the Viscount who helped the Count’s father locate a suitable establishment from which to launch his sister, you know."
"You mean Finch suggested you approach the Count?"
"Well, no, not exactly."
"So you fabricated in your letter? You implied that had been the case?"
Sibyl was too intelligent to be deceived by any effort of Meg’s to cover the truth. "I did. Just a little. But only out of desperation."
"Nothing will come of it." There was more hope than certainty in Sibyl’s voice. She got up and took a poker to the small fire that burned in the grate. March, always an uncertain month, was proving pretty but cold. "I am hopeful of finding new students, soon. Lady Chattam is so pleased with her Teddy’s progress. She has said she will recommend me to others of her friends who are having difficulty with their children’s music lessons."
Poor Sibyl. So talented, yet reduced to spending tiresome hours with the untalented and spoiled offspring of the wealthy.
"It will not be necessary for you to take on more nasty Teddy Chattams. I will make sure of that."
Sibyl dropped the poker. It clanged on the green stone hearth. "Meg." She spun about. "Oh, no, you cannot possibly be planning such a thing. Say it isn’t true."
Meg frowned at her sister through the mantilla. "What isn’t true?"
"You haven’t spun some fantasy in which you will . . ." She tottered back to sit by Meg. "You haven’t–aren’t–won’t pursue any notion of getting this Count to, to, to marry you?"
Now it was Meg who laughed loud and long. When she could speak again, she said, "You silly goose. We both know a man like that would never consider marrying the daughter of an English country clergyman. No, nothing of the kind."
Sibyl let out a breath. "That’s good then. But . . . Meg, you wouldn’t. You couldn’t. Could you?"
"Speak plain, Sibyl. I am tired by my abstractions, and more tired by the matters of this world that interfere with my inner improvement. Do not speak in riddles."
"Very well." When pushed, Sibyl could become quite the rigid little tyrant. She sat straight and drew her lips in tight and pale. "Do you seek to become Count Etranger’s ladybird."
There had been few occasions when Sibyl had shocked Meg, but this was one of them. She pulled up her slippered feet and crossed her legs beneath the loose, scarlet robe she had sewn to wear during abstraction sessions. "Mystery," she said, "that is the answer." And she rested her upturned hands on her knees, in the manner illustrated in the book she has secretly obtained and which she kept hidden.
"So, you do not deny it?"
A rap on the door preceded the slow entry of Old Coot, Lady Hester’s aged butler. He fixed his bulbous eyes on Meg and shook his head. "Unsuitable behavior," he said, as certain as always of his place in the world and his right to say whatever came to mind. "Can’t imagine what things are coming to. A person to see you, Miss Meg. Are you receivin’?"
"Of course," Meg said promptly.
"Then I’ll send M. Verbeux up."Old Coot withdrew to be quickly replaced by a slender, dark-haired man with a black mustache that curved downward at either side of his mouth. He wore spectacles with small, round frames that barely revealed all of his brooding dark eyes. M. Verbeux was . . . compelling.
"Oh, Meggie," Sibyl muttered.
M. Verbeux did not as much as glance at Sibyl. "Miss Meg Smiles," the man said to Meg, with only the faintest trace of a French accent.
Meg managed to stop herself from shooting her feet back to the floor. "I am Miss Meg Smiles, If that is who you seek."
M. Verbeux studied a thick piece of paper in his hand and grunted. "He’ll see you. Now. Accompany me, please."
"The Count?" Meg said, scarcely able to breath at all.
"Answers only. No questions. He tolerates nothing more." M. Verbeux turned his handsome back and retreated.
"Help me change," Meg said the instant the door closed again. She worked to unhook the satin frogs on her robe. "I must be quick."
"Quick to run to a rude man, with a rude man who does not know you but who orders you about as if you were a servant?"
"I am prepared to be a servant," Meg said, tossing aside the robe as she entered the bedroom she and Sibyl shared. "I am prepared to become the Count’s most pleasing servant for which I shall be well compensated."
Number 17 was not at all like Number 7. In fact, whereas Number 7 was a single terraced house, albeit of shabby but grand proportions, Number 17 consisted of two houses made into one. There was no longer a Number 16 Mayfair Square.
Grand, hardly did justice to Number 17.
Meg sat where M. Verbeux had indicated she should. The dimensions of the brown, brass studded leather chair she used were enormous. If she were a considerably taller person, tall enough for her head to reach the chair’s wings, she doubted she could see to either side. As it was she perched, stiff-backed, at the very edge of the seat, surrounded by the lustrous dark panelling of a galleried library and study. Four narrow windows, curtained with fringed green velvet, soared at the opposite side of the room from where Meg waited. Indeed, the windows were so far away as to cast slim oblongs of sunlight that didn’t reach her toes.
Her toes barely made contact with the green and gold Aubusson carpet.
Perhaps she had been hasty in approaching the Count.
Footsteps rang from the stone-tiled foyer outside the room, from behind Meg. Measured footsteps. A man’s measured footsteps–no doubt made by his boots. They paused somewhere out there. She could not risk peering around the side of the chair in search of a person.
The footsteps continued, drew closer, changed in tenor as heel left stone and descended on wood, then thudded on carpet.
Meg sat as straight and tall as she could.
Perhaps she should stand. Yes, that’s what she should do.
With as much grace as possible, she slid even farther forward and, using a slight but embarrassing jump, made audibly solid contact with the floor. She prepared to curtsey.
"Sit, if you please," a man’s voice ordered. A deep voice with the faintest of French accents.
Meg worked her way back onto the seat of the chair in time to look up at a person who would undoubtedly fit Sibyl’s list of desirable male attributes–only this man wasn’t smiling so Meg couldn’t say whether or not his smile might be charming, or produce fascinating dimples somewhere.
He clasped his hands behind his back. "Miss Smiles, I presume?"
This was no time or place for the faint hearted. "I am Meg Smiles."
"But of course you are." He bowed very slightly and reached for her hand. When she thought to raise it, he took her fingers in his and passed his mouth within a breath’s distance of her skin. "Charmed," he said.
His hands must be the actual hands Sibyl had described. Meg raised her eyes to his and felt hot and cold at the exact same time. His eyes were as dark as his hair–which was very dark. He had an exceedingly handsome face, in a commanding way.
"Count Etranger," he said, and released her hand.
Meg didn’t recall her hand being kissed–in a manner of speaking–by a count before. Meg didn’t recall her hand being kissed by anyone before.
She remembered to return both hands to her lap and tried not to stare at this tall, imposing, somberly dressed man who would render Sibyl in an ecstacy. He had absolutely no effect on Meg. Well, almost no effect.
He put some small distance between them. But his regard didn’t waver.
Miss Meg Smiles conducted herself well, Jean-Marc decided, but the effort cost her considerably. Given her unorthodox and impertinent approach, he had expected someone different, someone more . . . bold. In fact, despite her mention of his old friend, Kilrood, he would have ignored her letter had she not offered exactly the type of services he urgently needed, including some he hadn’t even identified before she mentioned them.
He propped an elbow on the opposite forearm and tapped his chin. The question was; could she really accomplish what her proposal had promised? And would she command the respect she must command in order to relieve him of the onerous duty of spending too much time on Désirée’s debut? Naturally, he would assume the essential responsibilities, but what did he know of bringing out a seventeen-year-old girl?
Miss Smiles was not remarkable, other than for what he could see of her thick, red hair beneath the brim of a fashionable bonnet the color of lemons. Now that was startling, in fact–the contrasts. She achieved a sort of brilliance with her choice of bright colors against that very fascinating hair. He strolled to view her from the opposite side. Only once had she looked at him direct. Memorable eyes of a light brown, perhaps the brown of good cognac. Nice mouth. Full, but not too full. And she had good skin, pale but with color high on the cheek, and a bloom of health. That was appealing–important. It was important that she be healthy. Her yellow pelisse had a stand-up collar faced with satin. Jean-Marc rarely took overmuch notice of such things, but the impression she would give was of the utmost importance.
Her clothes seemed to him to be highly fashionable, if devoid of excessive ornament, and of fine quality. For the first time since his arrival in London he felt a lightening of the heart.
Only with extreme difficulty did Meg sit still and endure the count’s examination, his rather rude examination in her estimation. He strolled to look at her from first one, then another direction. Meg felt when his regard was on her face, and when it progressed to other parts of her person. She had only recently finished the outfit she wore. The pattern she had made herself, using French fashion plates as her guide. The ensemble might be a trifle girlish, and somewhat too noticeable, but it was in the latest style and the Count might want to feel confident that she could manage the acquisition of a most up-to-date wardrobe for his sister. The Princess could, in fact, already have most items she would need, but there must always be additional purchases at such a time.
Count Etranger assumed yet another angle on her person. Meg reached into her beaded reticule for a handkerchief and touched it to her nose. Sitting just so while he observed her with such . . . His regard was rude.
Her half boots had caught his attention. Meg blushed. They were not new, a fact that the small, yellow satin roses she’d sewn at the ankles would not hide from a sharp eye. And he couldn’t fail to note that even though she pointed her toes, she could scarcely reach the floor. Hardly a dignified situation.
Miss Smiles was short.
In other circumstances that would be of no importance. As it was, it could present a problem. She would have to have presence. "Kindly stand, Miss Smiles. If you don’t mind."
The manner in which she moved her nether regions to the edge of the chair before launching into a jump that landed her on the carpet, was unfortunate. Particularly unfortunate since the combination of that jump, and the concentration that knitted her brow, might cause a less composed man to laugh.
She did look at him direct then, and said, "The chair is sized for a much larger person, Your Lordship. I fear it makes a spectacle of me," and she smiled just a little–and he liked her smile. With the explanation, and that smile, she regained her dignity, a feat he admired. Evidently there was some shortage of blunt, though. Something would have to be done about the worn boots–if he decided she was worth a trial.
"I should like you to walk, Miss Smiles. Perhaps toward the desk, then around the desk to the windows. You might move a curtain to look down upon the street."
Meg wasn’t certain she could move her legs at all. The reason for all this observation, which required that she endure his scrutiny, eluded her. Never had she suffered such acute awkwardness, such stinging of the skin all over her person, such heat in her face, such lack of feeling in her hands and feet.
However, she had a plan, and that plan could very well benefit from practice such as this. She must become accustomed not only to enduring the attention of gentlemen, but to seeking it out. The thought brought a painful glow to her already over-warm face.
Collecting herself, she inclined her head at the count, stiffened her spine yet again, and progressed, eyes high, toward the desk. And promptly tripped.
In one stride the count was at her side, catching her about the waist as she would have fallen. "You might want to have the bottoms of your boots inspected," he said. "Possibly a seam has become unstitched." He released her at once.
He had noticed they were old. "Thank you," she said, breathless. And he had held her about the waist. "I shall take your advice." Lifting each foot in a manner that felt ridiculous, she continued her progress toward the desk, and around the desk to the windows, where she pulled a heavy, looped drapery aside and looked down upon the shiny, black metal railings fronting the flagway. A gate in the railings led to steps descending to the basement and the servants’ domain.
Meg waited to be told to return. The count made no such request. Rather he came to stand some feet distant, his arms crossed, his dark, arched brows pulled down in a frown. She inclined her head as if to took toward the gardens in the middle of the square. "A lovely time of year," she remarked while the pulse in her throat felt painful. "Crocus and primrose, and so much budding. Spring can be so delightful."
"You speak well," he said.
"So do you." The instant the words left her lips she looked at him, aghast.
He actually smiled, and he did have a dimple beneath each cheekbone.
"I apologize," she said. Oh, would she never learn to curb her careless retorts?
"You are perhaps overly outspoken, but I accept your apology."
Such generosity of spirit, Meg thought. Would she actually manage to navigate her way through this difficult interview, obtain the position, and turn it into the result she and Sibyl needed if they were to survive with any degree of dignity?
"I am half-English," the count said, surprising Meg. "Which may account for my command of the language. I was educated in England, and I have property here–on the Thames at Windsor. It has always been my delight to spend as much time as possible there."
She nodded with genuine interest and smiled. "My travels have only been within this country, and those over short distances, but my love for England is a deep thing that brightens my heart."
The Count look a long time to respond, and while he was silent he concentrated on Meg in a most disconcerting manner. "I think you may do quite well as my sister’s companion," he said at last. "At least from the manner in which you present yourself. Tell me about your accomplishments."
These had been glossed over in her letter, Meg thought. How paltry they were bound to seem when explored. "I, er, have a flair for design. Of ladies clothing. I am self-taught–to pretend otherwise would be foolish. But I am always informed of the latest fashions and I am adept at making patterns from fashion plates and producing wardrobes that bring great pleasure to my small number of clients."
"But you are not well known?"
She looked away. "No. My father is dead, but he was a minister and did not approve of drawing attention to oneself. He would have been embarrassed that Sibyl–my sister–and I are forced to work." She regarded him. "We are forced to work, Count Etranger. And we work hard. We were brought up as ladies, but that is not enough to guarantee that one may placidly expect to be taken care of. We are understated women, but accomplished in our own small way."
His expression didn’t change from one of mild interest.
He was not touched by her description of herself. Tension mounted for Meg. She needed this position–needed this position as a stepping stone to something more, or she and Sibyl would surely descend into poverty.
"I will do my utmost for the Princess," she said, hearing how hurried she sounded, and how eager–too eager. "I believe I will be able to win her confidence and help her enter what must be a disconcertingly demanding time in her life, with a sense of assurance."
"A commendable speech," he said, but he was frowning again.
"After our father died, Sibyl and I decided to come to London. This sounds somewhat silly, but we no longer had a home and we came to seek our fortune. We intended to make the best of the talents we have. Sibyl is a most accomplished musician, an excellent teacher of the pianoforte, and also a voice teacher. I’m sure your sister needs little help in these areas, but my sister is available and she works well with young people."
"Yellow becomes you, Miss Smiles."
Meg forgot whatever else she had intended to say. She glanced down at her pelisse and said, when she could gather her wits, "Thank you."
This was a pretty muddle, Jean-Marc thought. The girl was a minister’s daughter, probably from some insignificant place where society consisted of the odd musicale in less than elegant surroundings. Yet she had courage and style and she might just do.
It wasn’t as if he’d had any luck finding someone more qualified who was at all interested in the post.
"You also walk exceedingly well. Do you feel qualified to, to ensure that the Princess’s deportment is without flaw?"
"I do indeed," Meg said. She would approach Lady Hester Bingham for any extra advice she needed. "Oh absolutely." She wondered how often she would see Count Etranger–if he retained her. Often, she hoped–although she shouldn’t hope for any such thing.
"In matters concerning toilette. Coiffeur and so on. What of those?"
"Kindly remove your bonnet."
Meg swallowed, but she slowly untied the ribbons beneath her chin and slid off the bonnet. Sibyl had been right when she’d said Meg’s experiments with Mme. Suzanne’s product had produced a startling result. What if the Count found the color garish?
Count Etranger came toward her and bowed his head to regard her at a singularly discomforting proximity. "Yes, indeed, your own hair is most fetching. Do you dress it yourself?"
"I do," Meg said. Did he think she’d be looking for employment as a companion if she could afford her own maid?
Etranger made one of his slow progressions around her, studying her hair from all sides. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen hair of a brighter red hue. Extraordinary."
Artificial. "Thank you."
"How well it sets off your white skin."
Yet again her white skin felt scorched. "Thank you."
"Think nothing of it." He stood inches from her right shoulder and she would have to be blind not to note that his attention rested where she’d made the rash decision to follow the fashion plate to its most extreme feature by including a keyhole cutout that revealed her decolletage. After all, she had decided not to disguise the full bosom with which she had been endowed.
Jean-Marc realized he had contemplated Miss Smiles interesting–or rather, her somewhat arousing display of bosom for too long. It wasn’t as if it was obviously presented. Oh, no, the girl had merely created a wicked little peephole beneath the collar of her pelisse, a peephole just large enough to give a glimpse of the way her plump breasts pressed together above the neck of her gown.
"Very white," he murmured. "And you have a few freckles." He shifted his gaze to her nose. "Yes, I do think you may be what I need–for my sister."
If Miss Smiles noted his correction, there was no change in her expression. She appeared vaguely bemused.
"Very well, my dear," he said, deliberately hearty. "We shall discuss what I require of you, shall we?"
Meg said, "Yes," and enjoyed his hand beneath her elbow, and the manner in which he guided her to a chair facing the huge expanse of an ebony desk, the legs of which ended in gold claws. The Count settled himself on the opposite side of the desk and pulled clean paper before him. The silver lid of his crystal inkwell clicked open beneath his fingers and he dipped his pen.
"Sibyl–my sister–is very musically gifted and–"
"So you have said. I will consider giving her a trial. But first we must be clear on what I expect you to accomplish, and plan how you will set about following my instructions."
He absolutely had to agree to take Sibyl, too. Not only did Meg need her sister’s support, but she had vowed to remove her from the odious business of teaching badly behaved children.
Jean-Marc reached into a drawer in the desk and produced Meg Smiles’ letter–her well-composed letter written in a strong, beautifully formed hand and with evident understanding of such matters as appropriate forms of address and so on. "Now," he said, tossing the two sheets of good quality paper on his blotter, "let us dispose of the details. Princess Désirée is barely seventeen and brilliant. Her knowledge of world affairs is probably more developed that many men, even men of her class and position."
Meg was sure to murmur appreciatively. Surely Finch’s letter had hinted that the Princess’s disposition was other than pleasing?
"Princess Désirée is very quiet by nature," Jean-Marc said, deliberately nonchalant. "But she is charming nevertheless, and ready to learn those graces she will need. Not, of course, that she lacks grace, but she has had little need to use it in social situations. Mont Nuages–our home–is a small country. Our intimate circle is also small."
Miss Smiles murmured again.
"Princess Désirée is witty. In fact, when she is in one of her ebullient moods, it may be necessary for you to subdue her tendency to become over-excited and to laugh too often and too loudly."
Miss Smiles said, "I see."
"Of course we must understand her enthusiasm at the prospect of making her debut. And she loves clothes. She has so many. However nothing will suit her but that she acquire a completely new wardrobe. You are confident you can supervise such an extensive undertaking?"
"Yes, yes. It will be my pleasure."
"Good." Very good, Jean-Marc thought. The idea of having to take part in any of this foolishness had all but undone him. "Spare no expense. Princess Désirée learns quickly, so, if you should see some area of her development that appears to need considerable attention, do not panic–she will understand your concerns and set about fulfilling your instructions at once."
"I am not given to panic," Miss Smiles said.
"Good. Princess Désirée is malleable. She wants to please. She will want to please you. But you are to do whatever you think necessary to make her the success of the Season."
Meg smiled. "I will," she said. Evidently she had misunderstood Finch. She began to look forward to the prospect of working with a high-spirited person. "And, if I may say so, your admiration for your sister is a heart-warming thing to see."
He raised his eyes from the notes he was making. "I’m glad." One moment he smiled and looked approachable, the next he became forbiddingly cool. "Family loyalty is expected, isn’t it?"
He was putting her in her place. "My father taught us that love of family should be second only to love of God."
Apparently Count Etranger found her comment noteworthy. He wrote for quite some time. Meg liked the sharp bones in his face, and the manner in which his eyebrows flared upward at the ends. His white neckcloth was simply tied and stark against an unrelieved black coat and waistcoat.
She must not be caught watching him. "How fortunate that you found such a lovely house to rent," she said, admiring the shimmer on dark wood, the acres of leatherbound books, the elegant furnishings, most of them French and old.
"I understand it was not so lovely when it had no furniture. But you are right, it is quite fine now."
"It . . . Yes, indeed." So, what she saw belonged to him, not that she should be surprised that he would choose to go to such lengths for a stay of a few months.
"I take it you understand who we are?" he said, still writing. He allowed a few seconds to pass before continuing, "Our father, Prince Georges, rules Mont Nuages. Do you know where that is?"
"Yes," Meg said.
"Good. Princess Désirée and I are his only children. It is at my father’s request that I am here to attend to bring my sister out."
The manner in which he informed her of these did not invite a response.
"Very well." He pushed back his chair and rose. "I shall send Princess Désirée to you so the two of you may become acquainted."
Meg became anxious all over again. "You will be with her, Your Lordship? To make sure she is comfortable with me?" There had been entirely too many strangers for one day.
"No. You must exert authority, you understand? Not without respect for my sister’s status, but authority indeed. I shall hope for a suitable degree of friendship between you, but, as with any undertaking where one must follow the instruction of another without question–absolutely without question–rank must be established."
Meg wasn’t at all certain how she felt about that. "Surely–"
He wagged a finger to silence her. "Think of battle, dear girl. How would it be if a soldier were to challenge his commanding officer at the height of battle? Tell me that, hm?"
"It would be disastrous." Without so much as glancing in her direction again, the Count went toward the foyer. "Deferentially in command, that will be the nature of your position with Désirée. Oh, do you speak French?"
Praying he wouldn’t change his mind, Meg said, "As well as a person taught by her English father can. A person who has never spoken French with a French person. Schoolroom French, I suppose I should say."
"Ah." He turned back. "Then I should remind you that the purpose of your position here is not to improve your command of French. Under no circumstances will you speak French in this house. Is that understood?"
What a vexing man. A contrary man. A confusing man. "I hadn’t thought–"
"Well, think of it now, Miss Smiles and all will be well. Désirée’s English is perfect. Almost perfect. If she becomes uncertain about something, she may stumble a little. But she will be anxious to practice, and she must. She must practice a great deal. So"–he inclined his head and smiled–"not a word of French. We are agreed?"
"Agreed," Meg said, hoping he wouldn’t hear her relief.
The Count’s purposeful footsteps departed across the stone floor in the foyer once more and Meg heard a door open, not too distant a door, and the sound of muffled conversation.
A longcase clock ticked loudly. Meg remained facing the door, a pleasant smile in place. A princess was bound to be sure of herself, but still it was always nice to be welcoming.
The ticking seemed to grow even louder. Meg could barely hear the voices now.
More minutes passed, and more. She took a few steps while humming notes from a waltz Sibyl had played. It might be a good idea to improve her own dancing skills, Meg thought, just in case. Of course, the waltz was very new and daring and she doubted she would ever have an opportunity to enjoy it herself.
She held her arms as if she were dancing with a gentleman and whirled around, and whirled around again. Really, she might become skilled at this. "Thank you," she said to her imaginary partner, and laughed. "You are too kind. Why yes, it is warm. You think so, too?" Meg laughed again. "Of course, you are right."
Her next twirl took her past the oversized leather chair, then around it. She had always loved music.
Count Etranger stood near the door, at the edge of the carpet.
Puffing a little, Meg stood still. There was nothing she could do about either her blushes, or the erratic beating of her heart. Oh, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, the mortification of it. "Practicing," she said in a silly little voice that shamed her.
"So I see," the Count said, and there was no doubt that the corners of his mouth twitched. "Very industrious of you. I thought better of what you said and decided to bring Princess Désirée to you myself. Come along, Désirée."
He leaned outside the library wall, then left the room entirely, to reappear holding a girl by the wrist. "Désirée, this is Miss Smiles. Miss Smiles, Her Royal Highness, Princess Désirée of Mont Nuages. Please remember everything I’ve told you, particularly the part about rank, and battle."
This time he closed the door behind him when he left, closed Meg and his sister inside the room together.
Meg dropped into a deep curtsey and wondered how one gave orders from such a position. When the princess failed to make any comment at all, Meg straightened, and re-applied her smile. "I am honored to meet you, Princess Désirée. Your brother has told me so much about you. He has said you are very excited by all you are to experience here in London. We shall work only as hard as we must to make you ready for all the wonderful parties and balls, and so on. The Count said you are to have an entire new wardrobe and I shall be thrilled to help you with your selections."
Princess Désirée watched Meg, appeared to listen, but showed no sign of the exhilaration her brother had insisted she felt.
An unpleasant premonition assailed Meg. She might fail here. If she did, and that failure was noted too soon, she would have no time to take even a small advantage of her hard won opportunity.
"Deportment will be simple, of course. And most of the so called required graces. You must already know a great deal about those."
Not a word.
Before Meg stood a thin girl, a thin girl who must be at least six inches taller than her new ranking officer. Princess Désirée’s hair was not exactly brown, but neither was it blond. Light brown, perhaps, and straight. Probably straight. Parted at one side and pulled flat over her ears, it was plaited. Two long plaits fell forward over the girl’s narrow shoulders. Not a hint of color brightened her features. Sallow might be the description employed by someone less charitable than Meg.
"Do you enjoy music?" she asked.
The princess looked at her feet.
Meg cast about for some means to ease the girl’s obvious shyness. How could such a plain, gangly duck be turned into a swan–in so short a time? That was an unpleasant description even to think. But the princess was gangly, pallid, rather plain, dressed completely in gray–apart from a white chemisette–and resembled a schoolgirl recently soaked in a storm and dried out with her clothes on. And she drooped. Everything about her drooped. No spark showed in her. If she had any figure at all, the walking dress–which was indeed much too large–did a fine job of disguising the fact.
Even if she hadn’t been pleased by Meg’s plan, poor dear Sibyl’s only hope was for this seemingly impossible venture to be a success. Persistence would be the key.
"Come here, please," Meg said, summoning a little of the authority she’d been told she must employ. Rather than wait for her wish to be obeyed–and it showed no sign of any such thing–she went to the princess and looked up into her face. "What beautiful eyes you have. Grey. A fine color. We must experiment with your hair. It’s time for it to be put up. Some favor a great many curls. I do not care for that myself, and I think we will see how we do with a smooth coiffeur for you. Your hair is fine, but"–and limp–"but there is plenty of it. We shall see. Perhaps we might begin getting to know each today? I should like to spend our first hours together in conversation. If you would prefer a smaller, more intimate room, I’m sure the Count would be more than agreeable. I want you to talk to me about your expectations. About your hopes. The things you like about London so far, or don’t like about London. Most of all, we must deal with those things you do not understand. Once those are cleared away, the rest will be simple." Meg widened her smile, although the princess wasn’t actually looking at her. "Shall we summon your brother?"
Princess Désirée lowered her eyelids.
"Come, come, now," Meg said. Her stomach felt so unpleasant. "I will make the decision for both of us. A more intimate room. I’ll ring for someone."
"Qu’est-ce que vous pouvez bien faire ici? Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?"
With one hand on the satin bell pull, Meg froze. She worked her way slowly through what she’d just heard. What on earth was she doing there, and what did–she–want? Not a word of French, the Count had instructed her. He had also assured her that the princess’s English was excellent. "We must speak English," Meg said. "Your brother insisted."
The thin face rose and Meg was given the questionable honor of a flat stare from her so-called charge’s light eyes. "Je n’y comprends absollument rien."
Nothing? Surely that was wrong. Princess Désirée could not mean she didn’t understand any English at all.
The door opened again and the Count strode in. His smile was brilliant, but did not allay Meg’s horror at the certain failure that confronted her.
"You are getting along," he said. "Good, good. I have always found that I can trust my instincts in such things. Are you available to start at once, Miss Smiles? This afternoon?"
Meg looked at the Princess, then at the Count. "If you think that’s a good idea."
"Of course it is." He bent to bestow a kiss on his sister’s cheek. "Remember what I have told you, Miss Smiles. My sister can be very quiet, but she will soon come to trust you–as I already do. The sooner she will chatter away, the better. I am most concerned that her English be as perfect as I know it can be. And I should like to see a pretty new coiffeur when I return home this evening. You shall show it off at dinner, Désirée. Miss Smiles is to retain a modiste for you–an army of modistes. She is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and will supervise all decisions. Yes, I shall look forward to dinner. You shall join us–"
"Jean–Marc, Je suis–"
"English," the Count thundered at his sister. "I thought we both understood that was to be your language until I say otherwise."
"I must go to Windsor," he said to Meg. "But only for the briefest of visits. The ride both ways will be hard in such a short time, but I’ll expect to see you at dinner. We did not discuss all our arrangements. Remuneration. You will leave that matter to me. I assure you it will be adequate. And your sister will receive the same sum."
"Thank you, Your Lordship." Meg hovered between ecstacy and doom. He would employ them both, and pay them both. They would manage again–as long as she didn’t weaken.
"The other Miss Smiles may remain where she is, at Number 7, is it?"
"Just so. And you will decide appropriate times for Désirée’s musical instruction. You, of course, as Désirée’s companion, her right hand, my right hand, her teacher, her confidante, her mother while she is without her own, you will share her suite and be with her at all times. All times. You live with us."