I was so close, only another 2,000 or so words to go, the cover commissioned and all systems go. Then we got one of those 3 am calls from America. Mother-in-law had a bad fall and is not doing too well. My husband feels he must support his sister in all the arrangements for her care that have to be made, and we can’t do that from Germany.
So publication will be delayed, I hope for not more than a month or so.
In the meantime, this is the first chapter. I think it’s fun.
The Lady Elizabeth Marlowe, mounted on her pretty chestnut mare, trotted into the stable yard at Tatton Castle, flushed and weary from a day’s hard riding. Her hazel eyes sparkled with exercise and the joy of cantering around the countryside on her half-broken horse. Lady Elizabeth had been out, not with the hunt, but ahead of it, laying false trails to distract and confuse the hounds. For it was her oft stated opinion that fox hunting was cruel and stupid and she would not allow it on the Ridgeway lands.
Shooting, on the other hand, she permitted, for one must eat and she was herself particularly partial to a young pheasant.
‘But Milady how are we to preserve yer coverts if you dunna allow fox ‘unting?’ had pleaded her gamekeeper, almost tearfully.
‘Humane traps,’ responded Elizabeth. ‘See, I have drawn a diagram of how it might be done. Try it and see. But no must be no metal teeth; upon that I insist.’
Much to her gamekeeper’s surprise the traps did work, and her coverts suffered rather less depredations that other local landowners.
The coverts, the castle and indeed the entire estate were, in fact, not her property but that of her younger brother, the eleventh earl, currently enlivening the university with his volatile presence. However, since she was her brother’s guardian and trustee, and he took no interest in the estate, the country people treated Elizabeth as the Squire, and her word was law.
Now, after healthful exercise, Elizabeth was looking forward to a quiet evening working on her great history of the Dumnonii, a tribe of Britons who had inhabited Devonshire until the early Saxon period and had obligingly left remnants of a settlement on the Ridgeway lands. A short extract of this work, now in the hands of her publishers, was expected it to be released later that month.
Her aunt, Lady Timperley had been aghast when she heard of this latest project. ‘Do not, my dear Elizabeth, mention the matter to a soul. They will think you the bluest of blue stockings!’
Elizabeth had given her aunt an engagingly mischievous smile. ‘But that is what I am,’ she pointed out.
Her aunt merely sighed. She had given up arguing with her niece after the never to be forgotten day when she had visited Tatton Castle and found the, then nineteen-year-old, Elizabeth about to ride out wearing breeches. The poor lady had been obliged to take a dose of sal volatile as her niece calmly pointed out that breeches were actually much more proper attire for a lady to wear in the saddle as there was no possibility that, when she took a toss, her skirts would fly up around her head.
‘Moreover, do you not think, Ma’am, the side-saddle is a ridiculous contrivance for a lady’s use? In fact, all things considered I think it is gentlemen who ought to ride side-saddle. It would be more comfortable for them.’
Her aunt had fainted dead away at this and had to be carried to her room. Elizabeth was a kind-hearted girl, and when she saw how distressed her conduct had made her aunt she was truly penitent. In this mood Lady Timperley was able to wring from her a promise that she would never venture to ride outside the grounds of Tatton Castle unless properly clad in a riding habit, and never, ever to do so in London. To this promise, although it had been extracted ten years earlier, Elizabeth still scrupulously adhered.
As she brought the mare to a standstill at the stable door and swung her leg over the pommel, her groom came running out to take the mare’s head.
Elizabeth slid to the ground without his assistance and looped the long skirt of her severe, black, riding habit over her arm. ‘Thank you, Hutchins. Give her a good rub down won’t you.’
The elderly groom gave her a straight look. ‘Is it likely I need you to tell me that, Milady?’
She laughed. ‘No—I know you do not. Odious old man.’
He grinned, not at all offended. ‘Mrs Trundle’s been looking for you. The Grand Duke has just arrived.’
‘Grandfather? And I not here to welcome him! I must go to him at once.’
‘You’ll change your habit first,’ remonstrated the doughty groom. ‘His Highness won’t be pleased to see you with your hair all whipped about your face and mud on your boots.’
She looked down at her boots ruefully. ‘Very true.’ She crossed the yard with her rather mannish stride and entered the house through a side door. As she ran up the stairs an elderly woman poked her head out from behind a green baize door.
‘There you are, Milady. I’ve sent Mary up to your room with hot water. Best be quick for his Highness is mighty impatient, though I’ve given him a glass of the good Madeira and a plate of the drop cakes that he likes.’
Elizabeth thanked her and hurried on up a flight of stairs, along a series of draughty galleries, negotiated another flight of rather less grand stairs and eventually reached her bedchamber. Once there she stripped off her muddy habit, allowed Mary to relieve her of her boots, and prepared to make herself respectable enough to greet her formidable grandsire.
When, after about half-an-hour, she entered the drawing room, she was attired in a plain round gown of grey cambric, without trimmings, ribbons or flounces. This was partly due to the fact that she was still in mourning for her father, the tenth Earl of Ridgeway, who had passed away as the result of an apoplexy only six months earlier, and partly because of her own predilection for sensible dress. Lady Elizabeth despised fashionable fripperies. She wore her very pretty brunette curls brushed back in a severe chignon and disdained to wear so much as a locket around her throat or a ring on her finger.
Nothing she could do, however, served to disguise the allure of her slightly almond shaped eyes, the high cheekbones and lovely line of her jaw for these she had inherited from her mama, the Duchess Jelena Mihaela of Catamanthia.
This lady had, sadly, died giving birth to Elizabeth’s younger brother, leaving her ten-year-old daughter and baby son to the care of her heart-broken husband. The Earl had sought solace in scholarship, becoming yearly more reclusive and inclined to leave the management of his estate to his highly capable daughter.
When she entered the room she found her maternal grandfather, His Highness the Grand Duke Frederick of Catamanthia, pacing up and down with his pocket watch in his hand. He was a very upright old gentleman of about five-and-seventy, with a full head of thick, white hair, and very piercing grey eyes which looked at her with some severity.
This look softened a little however as Elizabeth swept a respectful curtsey and then came towards him with her hands outstretched. ‘Grandfather! This is a delightful surprise.’
‘Lisel, my dear.’ He allowed her to kiss his cheek and patted her hand. ‘How are you, child?’
‘Very well, I thank you, Sir.’
He said, as he had said many times, ‘It is lonely for you here with none but servants. You should have a companion.’
‘I cannot think of one that would not drive me distracted. I am very happy alone, I assure you. Besides, Anthony will be down for the Long Vacation at the end of June.’
‘That young scapegrace! Much company he will be to you.’ He glared at her. ‘What do you mean you are happy alone? No one should be happy alone. It is not natural in a young woman.’
‘Not so young, Grandfather.’
‘Pooh! Not yet thirty are you? You need a husband, my dear.’
‘Yes, Sir. So you have often told me.’ She laughed. ‘I do have one suitor you will be pleased to hear.’
He looked suspicious. ‘Oh yes?’
‘Yes indeed. He has purchased Haddington Hall and thinks that I would be an admirable chatelaine.’
The Grand Duke snorted. In his world land was inherited, never purchased.
‘Not at all. He is a nabob and vastly wealthy, though a little sallow from his years in the East.’
‘I believe so.’
‘You could do worse.’
‘I think not. He simply wants to be accepted by the Ton and thinks marriage with me would be the quickest route to attaining it. If he but knew how little of an asset I would be to him in that regard.’
‘It is your own doing. You could take your place in Society if you chose.’
‘But I do not choose. Besides, when I want society I will go to Catamanthia which is far more amusing.’
He made no answer beyond a ‘humph’ signifying agreement and turned to stare, unseeing, at the pleasant vista of new grass and spring flowers outside the drawing room window.
She was watching him in some concern and suddenly said, ‘What is wrong, Grandfather?’
He did not pretend to misunderstand her. ‘Natalija!’ he answered shortly.
‘Oh dear, what has she done now?’
‘She has run away.’
The old duke sat down and rested his forehead upon his hand. ‘Yes, and at this important time. I do not know what is to be done.’
‘Can you not set it about that she is indisposed?’
‘Certainly; I have done so. If only I knew that she would be back in a day, or a week that would serve. But the Grand Duchess of Catamanthia cannot be absent from Princess Charlotte’s wedding celebrations for an entire month or more. Our negotiations with the British government are at a most critical stage. If she does not appear it will be an insult to our hosts. Only very serious illness could excuse it, and if we set such a tale about, that could, in and of itself, constitute a ruinous diplomatic crisis.’
‘True, Lord Liverpool might rather wish to conduct negotiations with the heir. Where is he by-the-by?’
‘Rupert is in Paris, but never doubt it, he will be here in a flash if he gets wind of her disappearance.’
‘Do you have any idea where she has gone this time?’
‘You know your cousin. She could be gallivanting with gypsy horse-traders or rubbing shoulders with artists in Montmartre.’
‘Gallivanting? What a lovely word. It describes Talia perfectly. She gallivants!’
He regarded her under beetling brows. ‘You find this amusing?’
‘Well, let us say it is not unexpected. Talia considers that, since she did her duty by marrying that very unpleasant Russian prince you thrust upon her, she is entitled to do as she pleases now that he has left her a widow.’
‘A royal widow.’
‘You must know that no one in Catamanthia is in the least shocked by her escapades.’
‘We are not in Catamanthia! What if she is found to be engaged in some disgraceful adventure here, in England?’
‘I really do not see that it is any of their business if the Catamanthians don’t mind.’
‘I had hopes of finding another husband for her, here. A close relative of the Regent has been, discreetly, approached.’
‘What? Not one of the royal brothers?’
Her grandfather laid a finger to his lips. ‘Hush, not a word.’
‘I see. I think I should forget about that if I were you, Grandfather. Talia married once for the good of her duchy. You will never get her to agree to it again.’ She pondered a moment. ‘Unless this gentleman is very handsome and—er—energetic, of course. But I do not think there is such a brother. Not one under fifty I believe.’
Amusement gleamed in the fierce old eyes. ‘What do you know about it, eh? Energetic indeed! An unmarried female should know nothing of such things.’
‘Well,’ she said, considering, ‘I don’t know very much. Only what I have read and what Talia confided in me. Her Russian prince was neither handsome nor—er—uxorious, apparently.’
The amusement died in the old man’s eyes. ‘That is neither here nor there. There is only one thing to be done. That is why I am here. I want you to come back with me to London and take Natalija’s place at the wedding.’
‘Ah, I thought that this was where we were heading. No, Grandfather.’
‘You dare say no to me? A Grand Duke of Catamanthia!’
‘We are in England now, Sir.’ She took his dry old hand which shook slightly. ‘It can’t be done. I am known in London, and besides, Natalija and I are not so much alike.’
‘If you were dressed like her and wore your hair the same way, there is enough of a family resemblance.’
‘Not enough to deceive her entourage.’
‘We have only the Countess of Trbovlje with us as lady-in-waiting, I packed the rest of them back to Catamanthia before I came down here.’
‘But, what explanation did you give?’
He looked at her, puzzled. ‘Explanation?’
‘For sending them away.’
‘They did as they were told. Explanation? Bah!’
Elizabeth looked at him affectionately, ‘What an old tyrant you are, Grandfather. What about the servants at the hotel? They may notice something and talk.’
‘Let them. Will they be believed?’ He was silent for a moment and then said, ‘There may be rumours, I allow, but better that than a diplomatic crisis that might ruin all.’
‘You are being very vague, Sir. Ruin what? What is so important?’
‘My child, I cannot tell you all, but believe me, the very future of Catamanthia as a separate Duchy is at stake.’
She was silent for a moment, looking out over the park to where the trees were just coming into bud in the home-wood. She had been looking forward to a quiet spring with her books and her writing. The fuss and botheration of a Royal Wedding was the last thing she desired. But her cousin Natalija was her only friend, and she had a deep love of the pretty alpine Duchy where much of her childhood had been spent.
She took a deep breath, resolutely turned her back on the peace and tranquillity out of doors and said, ‘Very well, Sir. I will do it.’