Harlequin MIRA | $15.95
(April 30, 2013)
Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking. And I never meant to go to Africa. I blame it on the weather. It was a wretched day in Paris, grey and gloomy and spitting with rain, when I was summoned to my mother’s suite at the Hotel de Crillon. I had dressed carefully for the occasion, not because Mossy would care—my mother is curiously unfussy about such things. But I knew wearing something chic would make me feel a little better about the ordeal to come. So I put on a divine little Molyneux dress in scarlet silk with a matching cloche, topped it with a clever chinchilla stole and left my suite, boarded the lift and rode up two floors to her rooms.
My mother’s Swedish maid answered the door with a scowl.
"Good afternoon, Ingeborg. I hope you’ve been well?"
The scowl deepened. "Your mother is worried about you," she informed me coldly. "And I am worried about your mother." Ingeborg had been worrying about my mother since before I was born. The fact that I had been a breech baby was enough to put me in her black books forever.
"Oh, don’t fuss, Ingeborg. Mossy is strong as an ox. All her people live to be a hundred or more."
Ingeborg gave me another scowl and ushered me into the main room of the suite. Mossy was there, of course, holding court in the centre of a group of gentlemen. This was nothing new. Since her debut in New Orleans some thirty years before she had never been at a loss for masculine attention. She was standing at the fireplace, one elbow propped on the marble mantelpiece, dressed for riding and exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke as she talked.
"But that’s just not possible, Nigel. I’m afraid it simply won’t do." She was arguing with her ex-husband, but you’d have to know her well to realise it. Mossy never raised her voice.
"What won’t do? Did Nigel propose something scandalous?" I asked hopefully. The men turned as one to look at me, and Mossy’s lips curved into a wide grin.
"Hello, darling. Come and kiss me." I did as she told me to, swiftly dropping a kiss to one powdered cheek. But not swiftly enough. She nipped me sharply with her fingertips as I edged away. "You’ve been naughty, Delilah. Time to pay the piper, darling."
I looked around the room, smiling at each of the gentlemen in turn. Nigel, my former stepfather, was a rotund Englishman with a florid complexion and a heart condition, and at the moment he looked about ten minutes past death. Quentin Harkness was there too, I was happy to see, and I stood on tiptoe to kiss him. Like Mossy, I’ve had my share of matrimonial mishaps. Quentin was the second. He was a terrible husband, but he’s a divine ex and an even better solicitor.
"How is Cornelia?" I asked him. "And the twins? Walking yet?"
"Last month actually. And Cornelia is fine, thanks," he said blandly. I only asked to be polite and he knew it. Cornelia had been engaged to him before our marriage, and she had snapped him back up before the ink was dry on our divorce papers. But the children were sweet, and I was glad he seemed happy. Of course, Quentin was English. It was difficult to tell how he felt about most things.
I leaned closer. "How much trouble am I in?" I whispered. He bent down, his mouth just grazing the edge of my bob.
"Rather a lot."
I pulled a face at him and took a seat on one of the fragile little sofas scattered about, crossing my legs neatly at the ankle just as my deportment teacher had taught me.
"Really, Miss Drummond, I do not think you comprehend the gravity of the situation at all," Mossy’s English solicitor began. I struggled to remember his name. Weatherby? Enderby? Endicott?
I smiled widely, showing off Mossy’s rather considerable investment in my orthodontia.
"I assure you I do, Mr.—" I broke off and caught a flicker of a smile on Quentin’s face. Drat him. I carried on as smoothly as I could manage. "That is to say, I am quite sure things will come right in the end. I have every intention of taking your excellent advice." I had learned that particular soothing tone from Mossy. She usually used it on horses, but I found it worked equally well with men. Maybe better.
"I am not at all certain of that," replied Mr. Weatherby. Or perhaps Mr. Endicott. "You do realise that the late prince’s family are threatening legal action to secure the return of the Volkonsky jewels?"
I sighed and rummaged in my bag for a Sobranie. By the time I had fixed the cigarette into the long ebony holder, Quentin and Nigel were at my side, offering a light. I let them both light it—it doesn’t do to play favourites—and blew out a cunning little smoke ring.
"Oh, that is clever," Mossy said. "You must teach me how to do it."
"It’s all in the tongue," I told her. Quentin choked a little, but I turned wide-eyed to Mr. Enderby. "Misha didn’t have family," I explained. "His mother and sisters came out of Russia with him during the Revolution, but his father and brother were with the White Army. They were killed in Siberia along with every other male member of his family. Misha only got out because he was too young to fight."
"There is the Countess Borghaliev," he began, but I waved a hand.
"Feathers! The countess was Misha’s governess. She might be related, but she’s only a cousin, and a very distant one at that. She is certainly not entitled to the Volkonsky jewels." And even if she were, I had no intention of giving them up. The original collection had been assembled over the better part of three centuries and it was all the Volkonskys had taken with them as they fled. Misha’s mother and sisters had smuggled them out of Russia by sewing them into their clothes, all except the biggest of them. The Kokotchny emerald had been stuffed into an unmentionable spot by Misha’s mother before she left the mother country, and nobody ever said, but I bet she left it walking a little funny. She had assumed—and rightly as it turned out—that officials would be squeamish about searching such a place, and with a good washing it had shone as brightly as ever, all eighty carats of it. At least, that was the official story of the jewels. I knew a few things that hadn’t made the papers, things Misha had entrusted to me as his wife. I would sooner set my own hair on fire than see that vicious old Borghaliev cow discover the truth.
"Perhaps that is so," Mr. Endicott said, his expression severe, "but she is speaking to the press. Coming on the heels of the prince’s suicide and your own rather cavalier attitude towards mourning, the whole picture is a rather unsavoury one."
I looked at Quentin, but he was studying his nails, an old trick that meant he wasn’t going to speak until he was good and ready. And poor Nigel just looked as if his stomach hurt. Only Mossy seemed indignant, and I smiled a little to show her I appreciated her support.
"You needn’t smile about it, pet," she said, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting a fresh one. "Weatherby’s right. It is a pickle. I don’t need your name dragged through the mud just now. And Quentin’s practice is doing very well. Do you think he appreciates his ex-wife cooking up a scandal?"
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Darling, what do you mean you don’t need my name dragged through the mud just now? What do you have going?"
Mossy looked to Nigel who shifted a little in his chair. "Mossy has been invited to the wedding of the Duke of York to the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon this month."
I blinked. The wedding of the second in line to the throne was the social event of the year and one that ought to have been entirely beyond the pale for Mossy. "The queen doesn’t receive divorced women. How on earth did you manage that?"
Mossy’s lips thinned. "It’s a private occasion, not Court," she corrected. "Besides, you know how devoted I have always been to the Strathmores. The countess is one of my very dearest friends. It’s terribly gracious of them to invite me to their daughter’s big day, and it would not do to embarrass them with any sort of talk."
Ah, talk. The euphemism I had heard since childhood, the bane of my existence. I thought of how many times we had moved, from England to Spain to Argentina to Paris, and every time it was with the spectre of talk snapping at our heels. Mossy’s love affairs and business ventures were legendary. She could create more scandal by breakfast than most women would in an entire lifetime. She was larger than life, my Mossy, and in living that very large life she had accidentally crushed quite a few people under her dainty size-five shoe. She never understood that, not even now. She was standing in a hotel suite that cost more for a single night than most folks made in a year, and she could pay for it with the spare change she had in her pockets, but she would never understand that she had damaged people to get there.
Of course, she noticed it at once if I did anything amiss, I thought irritably. Let one of her marriages fail and it was entirely beyond her control, but if I got divorced it was because I didn’t try hard enough or didn’t understand how to be a wife.
"Don’t sulk, Delilah," she ordered. "You are far too old to pout."
"I am not pouting," I retorted, sounding about fourteen as I said it. I sighed and turned back to the solicitor. "You see, Mr. Weatherby, people just don’t understand my relationship with Misha. Our marriage was over long before he put that bullet into his head." Mr. Weatherby winced visibly. I tried again. "It was no surprise to Misha that I wanted a divorce. And the fact that he killed himself immediately after he received the divorce papers is not my fault. I even saw Misha that morning and stressed to him I wanted things to be very civil. I am friends with all of my husbands."
"I’m the only one still living," Quentin put in, rather unhelpfully, I thought.
I stuck out my tongue at him again and turned back to Mr. Weatherby. "As to the jewels, Misha’s mother and both sisters died in the Spanish flu outbreak in ’19. He inherited the jewels outright, and he gave them to me as a wedding gift."
"They would have been returned as part of the divorce settlement," Weatherby reminded me.
"There was no divorce," I said, trumping him neatly. "Misha did not sign the papers before he died. I am therefore technically a widow and entitled to my husband’s estate as he died with neither a will nor issue."
Mr. Weatherby took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "Be that as it may, Miss Drummond, the whole affair is playing out quite badly in the press. If you could only be more discreet about the matter, perhaps put on proper mourning or use your rightful name."
"Delilah Drummond is my rightful name. I have never taken a husband’s name or title, and I never will. Frankly, I think it’s a little late in the day to start calling myself Princess Volkonsky." Quentin twitched a little, but I ignored him. The truth was I had seen Mossy change her name more times than I could count on one hand, and it was hell on the linen and the silver. Far more sensible to keep a single monogram. "It’s a silly, antiquated custom," I went on. "You men have been forcing us to change our names for the last four thousand years. Why don’t we switch it up? You lot can take our names for the next few millennia and see how you like it."
"Stop her before she builds up a head of steam," Mossy instructed Nigel. She hated it when I talked about women’s rights.
Nigel sat forward in his chair, a kindly smile wreathing his gentle features. "My dear, you know you have always held a special place in my affections. You are the nearest thing to a daughter I have known."
I smiled back. Nigel had always been my favourite stepfather. His first wife had given him a pair of dull sons, and they had already been away at school when he married Mossy and we had gone to live at his country estate. He had enjoyed the novelty of having a girl about the place and never made himself a nuisance like some of the other stepfathers did. A few of them had actually tried on fatherhood for size, meddling in my schooling, torturing the governesses with questions about what I ate and how my French was coming along. Nigel just got on with things, letting me have the run of the library and kitchens as I pleased. Whenever he saw me, he always patted my head affectionately and asked how I was before pottering off to tend to his orchids. He taught me to shoot and to ride and how to back a winner at the races. I rather regretted it when Mossy left him, but it was typical of Nigel that he let her go without a fight. I was fifteen when we packed up, and on our last morning, when the cases were locked and stacked up in the hall and the house had already started to echo in a way I knew only too well, I asked him how he could just let her leave. He gave me his sad smile and told me they had struck a bargain when he proposed. He promised her that if she married him and later changed her mind, he wouldn’t stand in her way. He’d kept her for four years—two more than any of the others. I hoped that comforted him.
Nigel continued. "We have discussed the matter at length, Delilah, and we all agree that it is best for you if you retire from public life for a bit. You’re looking thin and pale, my dear. I know that is the fashion for society beauties these days," he added with a melancholy little twinkle, "but I should so like to see you with roses in your cheeks again."
To my horror, I felt tears prickling the backs of my eyes. I wondered if I was starting a cold. I blinked hard and looked away.
"That’s very kind of you, Nigel." It was kind, but that didn’t mean I was convinced. I turned back, stiffening my resolve.
"Look, I’ve read the newspapers. The Borghaliev woman has done her worst already. She’s a petty, nasty creature and she is spreading petty, nasty gossip which only petty, nasty people will listen to."
"You’ve just described all of Paris society, dear," Mossy put in. "And London. And New York."
I shrugged. "Other people’s opinions of me are none of my business."
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