“What are we doing here again?” I overheard Beatrice “Tiggy” Andrews, the newest student and only boarder so far at my school Finishing Touches, ask the other girls who were clustering nervously on the balcony overlooking the ballroom at Bellingham Manor as the birthday celebration for Lord Pelham Phillimore got underway below.
I was wondering that myself, and had been ever since the pile of neat vellum envelopes with invitations to every student, teacher, and employee in the school had turned up in the post two days ago. They had occasioned a positive flurry of RSVPs and party dress shopping, and a veritable parade of vehicles from Halfmoon Street in London up to the Phillimore estate in Blankshire. Twelve girls, the youngest seventeen and the oldest not quite twenty, were in my charge for the day as a result, and I admit I was curious enough about their theories to stay back in the shadows of the stairwell instead of going out to herd them down to join the festivities.
“Observing the native adults in their natural habitat?” suggested Clementine “Clemmy” Worthington drily. She’d had three full terms at the Phillimore Academy for Young Ladies before I had transformed it into its present incarnation, and even I had to admit that the traditional (if antiquated) curriculum which I had by-and-large discarded had made a noticeable improvement to her posture. It didn’t hurt that she had also abandoned her usual black for a frock of navy blue that complimented her eyes and set off her classic peaches and cream complexion.
“Discovering alternate uses for a fish fork?” Divinity Hogg, the second of my trio of “old” students, chimed in. She looked positively splendid in a designer dress woven of broad deep crimson straps, her dark skin peeking through in unexpected places to prove that she had inherited her father’s athleticism as well as the prospect of fame and money. She’d forgone her gum, but her shades were still perched on her nose at an insouciant angle.
“No, no,” said tiny Anastasia Petranova decisively, making up in confidence what she lacked in inches. She was the last of the three, and resplendent in gold lamé. Her father was reputed to be in the Russian Mafia, and considering her tendency to suggest drastic measures for awkward social interactions I was careful not to speculate whether the rumors were true. (Especially not when he’d undertaken to pay for a new term for her at the school after a raft of bad publicity had nearly sunk us into oblivion.) “I think ve are here to keep Betsy from strangling Miss Buchanan.”
“Sounds right to me, Betsy,” whispered my boyfriend, Jamie O’Hare, as he wrapped his arms around me from behind.
I leaned back, both for the kiss he gave my cheek and for the chance to whisper back, “Did you send the invitations?” There was little chance of our being overheard, since the girls were busy debating whether a fish fork could be used to carry out Anastasia’s suggestion or if an oyster fork might be more subtle a deterrent. Jamie’s company Party Animals was in charge of the festivities. His partner had accepted the commission from the notorious Miss Buchanan weeks ago. But at least that had given him the chance to rein in some of her more outrageous ideas.
He made an odd motion with his head that was neither confirmation nor denial. “Sent, yes; thought to do, no. It was Lord P’s idea. Said it would be a nice way for the ‘young ladies’ to get some practice dancing before the ballroom at the school is back in order.”
“I still don’t understand,” Tiggy said plaintively. “Why would Miss Phillimore want to strangle anyone?”
“Because Miss Buchanan’s trying to replace Betsy’s mother,” Clementine said indignantly. “And that’s not fair.”
I think I made a noise, because Jamie hugged me all the harder. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, and I still didn’t know what to do about it. Adele Buchanan wasn’t going to give up chasing after Lord P, not if having nearly wrecked my mother’s finishing school by encouraging a scandal hadn’t made her ashamed to show her face.
“But I thought Miss Howard was Miss Phillimore’s mother,” Tiggy said. Which I tried to take as a positive development, because it was the first evidence I had that Tiggy had noticed something outside her books. There was a reason her parents had insisted that she board instead of trying to navigate London on her own.
“Honestly, didn’t you google anything?” piped up Gianna Doremus, another new student whose father and mother were hoping she might learn when to bite her tongue. “Rosie had Betsy illegitimately, and because it was the dark ages she put her in a box on the steps of the school for Lady Frances Phillimore to find because she knew that Lady Frances and Lord Phillimore would adopt her.”
“Which they did,” Divinity put in.
“Which they did,” Gianna agreed. “But Lady Frances died and now Miss Buchanan -- who really ought to be calling herself Mrs. Wardraw, because she’s the Dowager Duchess of Pertonshire -- anyway, she’s out to marry Lord Pelham, and my mother says that would be awful because Lady Frances was a real lady and Adele Buchanan is...”
I thought it best to interrupt at that point, despite the accuracy of Gianna’s assessment. Rosalind Howard had left me on the doorstep of the Phillimore Academy in a marmalade box when I was still a tiny baby, and had only come back into my life recently. She was reasonably nice, but I still thought of Franny as my “real” mother. Luckily, Rosie was of the same opinion. She’d confided over that first perilous cup of tea that once she was certain I would be taken in by the Phillimores, giving me up had been pure relief.
“I hadn’t the first notion of how to take care of a baby,” she’d said. “I barely knew how to take care of myself.” And I’d nodded and added “Unexpected Babies” to my notes for the future syllabus, before doing my level best to convince Rosie to teach it. She hadn’t agreed to yet, but given that I’d hired her as a teacher (and Matron, if only for Tiggy), it was only a matter of time. We hadn’t made a secret of our relationship, though, figuring that one bad example was worth a thousand admonitions when it came to young girls.
Whom I really needed to be minding. I had Rosie and Miss McGregor (our two full time teachers) here to help me herd cats, but they were both downstairs, being air-kissed by a baker’s dozen of Phillimore Academy’s past students, so it was up to me to bring the current crop down into the fray.
“Hello ladies!” I chirped, pulling free of Jamie’s arm, but catching his hand and pulling him up the last few stairs as if we had both just arrived. “Did anyone have any trouble on the drive up?”
An hour later I was beginning to think that Anastasia had mesmeric powers. Every single time I’d started to go pry my adoptive father free of the limpet-like grasp of Adele Buchanan, at least one of the girls had started flirting with disaster. Or flirting with one of the guests, which was sufficiently close to disaster that it required a modicum of my attention.
Either that, or Adele had convinced Lord P to invite them all, knowing I’d spend more time chasing after students than enjoying myself. Although that might not have been the fault of my students. I’d been to dozens of parties here -- there was nothing Franny had liked better than to throw a good party -- and this one felt different. There were more clumps of guests, and fewer people circulating from one group to another. Fewer dancers, too, despite the best efforts of the DJ who had hauled along everything from “Blame it on the Bossa Nova” to “Dance, Dance” by Fall Out Boy.
Of course, at every other party, Franny had been there, moving from guest to guest, starting conversations or making introductions. She would have begun the dancing by taking Lord P out for a birthday waltz too, and however much I resented Adele’s clinging refusal to allow him to do much more than stand near the door greeting the late arrivals, I was glad she hadn’t thought to try that one.
Jamie and I had tried to springboard the dancing ourselves without much success. His company's reputation was on the line, even though they had arranged the party to Adele’s specifications, and I could see by the thin flat line of his lips as he conferred with the caterer that he knew perfectly well that it wasn’t going the way it should. Which meant I’d spent my time between disasters doing my best to fill in the gaps, even if it would have made me happy to have Adele’s plans for the evening turn into glorious failure.
Olivia O’Hare, Jamie’s sister and my best friend, had dragged her date (and my part-time bursar) Mark Montgomery onto the floor for a few dances, but now they were lurking near the french doors that led onto the terrace scarfing canapes. I steered an ancient earl into a gaggle of slightly younger ladies who were having a conversation about Monte Carlo before heading over to join them. Liv was having a wonderful time, at least. Parties were her natural habitat. And Mark had turned out to be a much better dancer than his usual tweedy practicality suggested.
Halfway there I happened to glance over and meet my adoptive father’s gaze. Lord P had a frozen expression, but when he saw that I was looking he very deliberately reached into his pocket and pulled out his spectacles to place on his nose. Adele, still hanging from his arm, barely noticed. She was busy being vivacious at one of the guests. But I felt a little superior thrill. He’d told me at the memorial service that his spectacles were the signal he’d used to Franny when he needed a break from socializing. And he hadn’t told Adele.
I nodded to let him him know I’d seen the signal, and took the few extra steps to reach my friends. “Quick,” I said in a low voice. “I need an excuse to pull Lord P away from the party. Preferably alone.”
“Maybe you can ask him if there’s a crowbar in the garage,” Liv said. “Because you’re going to need one to get Adele to let go.”
I had to put on my best “don’t give your feelings away” smile. “I wish I knew what he sees in her.”
“Can’t you tell?” Mark asked, with an ironic twist to his smile. “She takes the time to make certain he isn’t lonely.”
“By smothering him?” Liv retorted, but I felt my heart sink. It was true. Ever since Franny died, Adele had been taking Lord Pelham places, keeping him busy and active. I’d noticed when she’d pushed her way into going along with him to the places he would have gone anyway -- I’d even noticed that he was looking better than he had at the funeral -- but I hadn’t paid attention to the rest because I didn’t like her.
Mark must have seen my expression slip, because he patted my arm. “That doesn’t mean I think she’s got good intentions, Betsy. And it does mean that it’s going to be hard to get her away from Lord P right now.”
“There must be some way,” Liv protested. “Maybe we can tell him that the dogs are loose? He wouldn’t want to drag her along to take care of that.”
“She’d come anyway,” I sighed. “Adele likes dogs. And besides, I’ve never been able to lie to Lord P.”
“I tell you what,” Liz said. “I bet Jamie can distract her. He can tell her there’s something wrong in the kitchen or something.”
“And I can go turn the dogs loose, so it won’t be a lie,” Mark offered with a smile, his brown eyes mischievous. For a moment I felt really jealous of Liv for getting to him first. Smart, practical, cleans up well. But it’s not like we can swap. Jamie’s her brother...
And he cleans up nicely too.
Although I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of disaster Jamie would concoct to distract Adele, I had to admit that at least we had a plan. Or part of one. “What about the girls?” I dreaded to think what they might do once I was out of eyeshot.
“Don’t worry,” Mark said. “The rest of the staff can keep an eye on them. Besides, everyone here knows that they’re not ‘finished’ yet.” He ducked out the door, after giving Liv a gentle nudge in Jamie’s direction. Leaving me to catch my breath, gather my nerves, and think about what I was going to say when I made it across the room to the reception line.
In the event, I only had to wave at the windows saying, “The dogs...” and Lord P gratefully extricated himself from Adele’s grasp. It helped that Jamie was on the other side of her, murmuring disaster about the cake to Adele, with a wink over her head to me. Hopefully he had nixed the dancing girl that she wanted to pop out of the middle and Adele would have to crawl into the cake herself.
As soon as we were clear of the house, Lord P took his spectacles off and looked at me with a small smile. “The dogs aren’t really loose, are they?” he asked.
“Well, they are by now,” I said. “Mark was going down to the kennels.”
“That could be tricky,” Lord P said. “I’m not sure the dogs know him well enough not to...”
A yelp of dismay down by the kennels, followed by some delighted barking set us both to laughing. I wasn’t worried. Mark was fast and the dogs weren’t likely to take a bite out of anything worse than his trousers, even if they caught up to him. Being tackled and slobbered all over was a much greater likelihood. “Shall we go to the rescue?”
Mark wasn’t the only one who had taken refuge in the hayloft that connects the kennels to the stables. Tiggy was up there too, the most genuine smile I had ever seen on her face. “Hi, Miss Phillimore!” she called. “Are those your dogs?”
“Only by adoption,” I called back. “They’re really my father’s.”
“They’re beautiful,” she averred, scrambling down the ladder with a complete disregard for her dress.
Lord P whistled before the dogs could take advantage of the opportunity. “Caesar, Brutus, Madeline! Heel! Sit!”
“Madeline?” Mark echoed, following with more admirable caution. Tiggy was already coming over to fuzzle at Caesar’s ears. Caesar, the big softy, was accepting the adulation gladly, while Madeline and Brutus wriggled impatiently where they sat waiting for their turns.
I reached over to give Madeline some attention. “She’s a different generation. Their aunty, as it happens. France instead of Italy.”
“Oh, I see.” Mark said, offering a hand for Madeline to sniff. “Working your way south from Denmark?”
“Literary travels,” Lord P said. “My wife... well, Franny would always pick names for the puppies from whatever book she was reading at the time, and by coincidence we seem to have stumbled onto the Grand Tour.” He was tucking his spectacles into his pocket again, I was relieved to see, and though his voice had faltered a bit when he mentioned Franny, his smile never did.
“Tiggy,” I chided, when that frustrating child plumped herself down to get into better position for petting Brutus and Caesar simultaneously. “You’ll get grass stains on your dress.”
“I don’t mind,” she said blithely. “Means I can stay down here and look at the horses instead of making an idiot of myself in front of all those people.”
I was still marshalling a courteous response to that when Lord P brightened and went down on one knee beside her (much to the delight of the dogs.) “Do you like horses, Miss Andrews?” he asked.
“And dogs,” she said firmly. “And I hate being stuck in London just when it’s finally got warm enough to go riding.”
“You could go riding on the ‘Row,” I said. “It’s only a few minutes walk to Hyde Park from the school.”
“In fact I used to teach riding there,” Lord P said, reminiscently. “Back before I met Franny, actually. I wasn’t much older than you are now. My father thought it would be a good way to learn about girls.”
“But where did you keep your horse?” Tiggy asked and then almost immediately to me, “Do you mean Rotten Row? I thought that was a long time ago! Do people still ride horses there? Where do they keep them? And how can I go riding if I have to be in classes?”
“Maybe we could have a class about riding again,” I said, feeling a flash of brilliance trying to sort itself into a practical plan in my head. “I know Divinity’s father wrangled an invitation to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot this year, and I doubt Divinity’s had much experience with horses.” Divinity in the Royal Enclosure was one of my ongoing nightmares, but at least the impending event had led her parents to have her re-enroll.
“She doesn’t know a hock from a wither,” Tiggy said scornfully. “Although to be fair I’m pretty sure she knows which end is the tail. And if she tried to place a bet it would probably be on the horse with the most outrageous name.”
“I thought she had a llama,” I said. “And chickens. Or her grandmother does.”
Tiggy blushed. “Well, I don’t know if she knows anything about horses, really. But she doesn’t talk like someone who does. And it’s important.”
I wasn’t sure it was, really, not in the twenty first century, but Lord P was nodding agreement. “Given the kind of people Miss Hogg’s father wishes to impress, I must agree. A basic knowledge of horsemanship could save her a good deal of embarrassment.”
“We should have a class then,” I said, trying to be casual about it. “And you could come down to London and teach it.” And with Adele persona non grata at the school, he’d spend hours away from her too.
He blinked up at me. “Me?”
“It’s not the Phillimore Academy any more,” he reminded me, and I wondered if he resented my changing the name, just a little. I hadn’t asked him, and I should have.
“Well, it could be “Finishing Touches at the Phillimore Academy,” I said, thinking about Gianna’s all too accurate recitation of past scandals. “I mean, I was thinking about Google searches when I changed the name, but it’s pretty clear that that didn’t work. And there’s something to be said for brand loyalty.” I offered him a hand and he accepted it, coming upright with only a slight huff of air to acknowledge his age. “C’mon, Daddy, think about it at least? You could stay at your club and then take on the girls a few at a time -- and Tiggy could help you. Couldn’t you, Tiggy?”
“I’d love to!” Tiggy bounced with enthusiasm. Mark was smiling too, over her head.
Lord P laid his free hand atop the two hands we still clasped. It was as close to a hug as he was likely to get with an audience and I knew it -- and yet I could hardly miss the warmth and love in his eyes.. “Well, if it means so much to you, I can certainly give it a try.”
Later -- much later -- when the party was winding down and nearly all of the guests (including my students) had departed, we were all sitting up on the balcony the girls had been hiding on at the beginning of the day. Well, when I say all, I mean Mark and Liv and me and Jamie. Jamie was ostensibly observing the cleaners as they cleared away the debris from the party, and squabbling desultorarily with Liv while she and Mark polished off the last of the hors d’oeuvres. I was sitting by the balcony railing, the way I had when I was little, watching Lord P shuffle the last of the guests out the door. Including Adele, whose expectation of a goodbye kiss was obvious to everyone but the birthday boy. He thanked her and gave her a handshake instead and a pat on the shoulder, before turning to do much the same to the Honorable Ignatius Fortescue with slightly more emphasis on the shoulder contact. Which wasn’t surprising, as he and the Honorable Ig had been exchanging reminiscences with the other members of the local hunt ever since Tiggy had been hauled back up to the party on Lord P’s arm. And they’d gone on talking horses even after Tiggy had been packed off back to London in the care of Kathleen and Nancy (who had effectively come out of retirement for the sake of keeping her fed).
Adele -- who had declared at eighteen that she wasn’t “horsey”-- had never quite managed to monopolize him again. You can pretend to be enthusiastic about walking along the ground and taking potshots at partridges, but that won’t work when you’re hunting on a horse. The horse will see right through you. And so will the horsey people, if you’re fool enough to open your mouth.
I smiled to myself, remembering Franny, who would ride to the hounds with the best of them, but hadn’t even tried to be enthusiastic about sitting around on a cold heath waiting for the chance to put inedible pellets into a bird she wasn’t all that fond of eating. She’d never pretended to share all of Lord P’s interests, the way Adele did, so she’d never had to linger at the edges of a conversation she didn’t dare contribute to.
I was still gloating over the way Adele’s perfection had begun to blur along the edges when Mark came over to sit beside me. “So,” he said, looking over the grand hallway. “Someday this will all be yours.”
“Don’t think I missed the way you’ve put a horse-shaped spike into Adele’s plans for Lord P,” he said.
“Yeah,” Liv agreed, coming over to wrap herself around Mark’s arm. “Did you see her face when he took Tiggy out for a dance?”
“Or during dinner, when he spent half a second on the birthday cake erupting with go go dancers and went back to talking horses?”
“I noticed,” Jamie said. “I worked hard to get a cake that size, after all.” He didn’t look nearly as put out as his words seemed. “At least the other guests appreciated it.”
“He was enjoying himself though,” I said, “Really enjoying himself. And he said he’s looking forward to helping out at the school.” I looked up at Jamie. “It was a good party. And the go go dancers weren’t nearly as silly as I thought they would be.”
“You must have thought they would be incredibly silly then,” Jamie sighed. “But it’s over. And I’ve had Douglas promise not to confirm any parties from Adele without checking with me from here on out, so your birthday is safe.”
I shuddered. Just the thought of what Adele might think would be appropriate for my birthday was enough to make visions of orphans singing “Tomorrow” start dancing between my ears. I shook my head to rid myself of the earworm. “Anyway,” I said, harkening back to Mark’s earlier comment. “This won’t all be mine someday. As long as Lord P doesn’t marry again, Hector’s next in line to inherit the manor. I’m pretty sure it’s entailed.”
“And then Adele will chase after him,” Mark said sourly. “She’s persistent, if nothing else.”
“Adele in Argentina would at least mean I didn’t have to be nice to her,” I admitted.
“Can Hector even inherit if he doesn’t come back to live here?” Liv asked. “He didn’t come back for Franny’s funeral.”
“Maybe he couldn’t,” I said, trying to be generous to the brother I’d never met. Hector’s disappearance, the year I was found, had left me thinking for years that he was my father. He wasn’t, which was both sad because it meant I didn’t have a blood tie to Franny and Lord P, but a relief too, because Hector was, even in his father’s eyes, a ‘bounder’. “Maybe he’s spent all the money he took with him to Argentina.”
“On what? A sex change operation?” Jamie asked with a wicked grin. “I mean, if he’s Harriet now, he’d be too embarrassed to come back. Or she would.”
“That’d keep him safe from Adele, anyway,” I giggled. “Imagine her swooping in to Hector’s life and then backing away hastily when confronted by lipstick and a feather boa.” I knew it was ridiculous, but I’d had enough champagne to make the gestures, and set Liv to snorgling. We were both still laughing when I realized that Lord P had quietly come up the stairs to join us.
“May I play too?” he asked, reaching out a hand to me, and I got up to take it, and then hugged him impulsively. He made a small surprised sound, but his arms went around me and he didn’t let go, even when I looked up into his eyes.
“You can if you want to,” I said, vowing not to waste whatever time I had left with him on keeping secrets that didn’t need keeping. I’d spent seven years not telling him and Franny how I felt and all it had ever done was make us all more miserable than we needed to be. “But we’re making fun of Adele.”
“Oh.” He blinked at me, stunned for a moment, but then his smile snuck back onto his face. “Well, perhaps I shouldn’t then. It will make it difficult for me to keep a straight face whilst I’m trying to find out how much money she and Geraldine Thorne embezzled from the school.”
I gaped at him. “What?”
He nodded to Mark. “Well, the expenses for the school did go mysteriously down once they’d left, and I don’t think it’s only because you’ve been enlisting all your friends and relations into serving as instructors. Including me, now.”
I straightened up and tried to look indignant. “I’ll have you know that we pay a very reasonable hourly rate to our instructors.” I turned my head to address the other three. “Right?”
“Well, if you add in the hugs,” Jamie said, smugly.
“The hugs,” Lord P agreed, to my surprise, “are a definite perk of the position.” I suspected that he had consumed a good bit of bubbly himself, but I wasn’t going to argue about it. People need hugs, even English Gentlemen of a Certain Generation, and I could tell that he was glad to get one.
I hugged him harder, and grinned up at his smile. “I think so too. And honestly, if I never get a dime back from Adele or Miss Thorne it doesn’t matter to me.”
“No.” It was true. I had enough money to get along with, and that would do. “I get to carry on Franny’s legacy, and I get to do it in the way I think she’d want it to be done. And on top of that now that I have you lot rooked in, I get to see everyone I love almost every day. What could be better than that?”
Lord P tapped me on the nose, the way he’d done when I was very small and being impertinent, but he hadn’t stopped smiling. “I can’t think of a single thing.”