It’s 8am on a Sunday morning and Mary Challoner is desperately afraid her sister is going to make a fool of herself. It’s not as though Mary hasn’t noticed that her sister has made it her life’s work to find a way in with the idle rich, but it’s still an unpleasant surprise when she turns the page of her paper and finds Sophia clutched in the loose embrace of Lord Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal and son and heir of the Duke of Avon.
Nobody else in the house is awake yet, of course—Mum still in bed because Sundays are the only time she lets herself get enough sleep, and Sophia still snoring off her hangover—but Mary has been up since 6, trying to force herself further through her Behavioural Economics notes. And here’s Sophia in all her admittedly beautiful glory, holding a martini glass as she laughs into the camera, wearing a little black dress and what looks suspiciously to be Mary’s only pair of indulgent heels—red, glittery, pointed.
Mary’s coffee has grown lukewarm during her break to read the newspaper. It’s enough to make a girl swear.
Mary’s still sitting at the table—now clear of anything other than a pot of tea and her notes—3 hours later when Sophia finally rises from her nest of crumpled bedsheets to stumble downstairs in a dressing gown and panda eyes.
“Where’d you put the paper?” is the first thing out of her mouth.
“Do I not even merit a good morning?” Mary retorts.
Sophia snorts. “It’s not a good morning. Christ, my head.”
Mary sighs. “Paper’s by the kettle, paracetamol next to the sink.”
“You’re a star,” Sophia replies. “I feel awful, bloody hell.”
Mary goes back to her notes while Sophia bustles round the kitchen, noisy as always, and is maybe 4 more points and 1 more highlighter away from finishing her Econ and moving on to the much more pleasant Revolutions and World Politics when Sophia next pipes up. “Oooh, look, Mary, that’s a great shot of me.”
“I saw,” Mary says. “You nicked my shoes.”
“It’s not like you ever wear them,” Sophia answers. “Besides, I look better in them.”
“Piss off,” Mary suggests.
“No, but honestly, worth the night out—God, Dominic’s such a—” Sophia sighs.
Mary stares at her. “You know he’s just fucking with you, right? And such a what? Such a prick? Do tell.”
“Well, obviously,” Sophia says, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a fling. Don’t be such a prude.” Sophia’s fingernails are sharp, fake, painted a subtle pink and kept pristine via her earnings from a boutique in Covent Garden; Sophia uses them to tap on things when she’s annoyed. She’s tapping the table now.
“Why on earth would you want a fling with him?”
“Jesus, Mary, do you honestly not have any room in your head left for anything except economics?” Sophia demands. “Do you understand nothing?”
“What?” Mary retorts, harsh.
“I’m not clever like you,” Sophia explains. “I have to find other ways to get ahead. I don’t want a career—I want babies and a husband rich enough so that I don’t have to work.”
“He’s never going to marry you,” Mary says flatly.
Sophia’s laughter is fierce and sharp and goes on for so long that Mary flushes, embarrassed.
Dominic doesn’t believe that the social hierarchy defines anyone, which is why he’s always careful to smile and say thanks whenever someone does anything for him: sell him shoes, cook him dinner, park his car.
The people Clarissa has hired to look after her guests as they arrive are useless, though. “I drove into someone’s front gate on the way here,” he tells the woman for the third time, who stares at him blankly; maybe his hair isn’t just fashionably messy anymore, he doesn’t know. “I need you to sort it out for me,” he adds, passing her a roll of banknotes with a grin.
“Um,” the woman says, staring down at the money in her hand. “I don’t think this is really—do you know the address? How long ago this happened? Anything?”
“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” Dominic replies breezily.
Clarissa strides over from where she’d been greeting some chap Dominic doesn’t know. “You’re not bothering my staff, are you, darling?” she asks Dominic as they exchange air-kisses.
“Not at all,” Dominic says. “I just had a small mishap on the way here—knocked into some dreadfully gauche gatepost while misjudging a corner and toppled the bloody thing. I was just sending Miss—”
“Chen,” the woman allows.
“Miss Chen, here, down to explain things to the owner and offer my profuse apologies.”
“Not Tilly Helman’s stone gargoyle, Dominic,” Clarissa asks anxiously. “He loves that thing.”
Dominic shrugs. “It’s dark, darling, I didn’t see.”
Clarissa offers a single, breathy laugh. “Well, I’m sure Miss Chen will right things with the dear Colonel,” she says. “Welcome—you’re not completely sloshed are you?”
“As sober as a judge,” Dominic replies. “Soberer than most, I expect.”
“We’ll soon fix that,” Clarissa laughs, and they walk—finally!—towards the front door. Behind them, Miss Chen is saying something that sounds suspiciously like a hissed “rich tosser.” Dominic doesn’t turn around; people have a right to their opinion, after all.
Clarissa’s known for her parties, of course: exclusive, discreet, and very, very debauched. Dominic doesn’t necessarily go in for all that—or, at least, not all at once—but many of his friends do, and life without friends would hardly be worth living. He might have to move back in with his parents.
It’s his friends—in particular, Mr Charles Fox, scholar, sophisticate, and all-around cricket player—who lead him into staying until dawn playing 500 and poker and blackjack and whatever else they can remember the rules to. He thinks they play a game of snap around 4 in the morning—that would explain his very red hands—but maybe that’s the brandy talking.
“Leave your car here,” Charles tells him. “I’ve called a cab. We’re all far too drunk to drive, and the party isn’t over yet.”
“It isn’t?” Dominic asks.
Charles grins. “No, my dear. I’ve called the Savoy, we’re taking tea there this afternoon. It’ll be hilarious!”
Dominic winces. “My mother takes tea at the Savoy. Third Thursday of each month with my grandmothers.”
“Darling,” Charles replies. “It’s Monday. We’ll stop off at Alexa’s boutique, you can flirt with that charming Sophia girl.”
“She is lovely,” Dominic agrees. “And she knows the game so well.”
Mary’s last exam—hopefully ever—falls on a Monday morning, and she strides out of it confident that she’s done well and thrilled at the prospect of a whole six and a half days before she starts her summer clerkship at one of the big City firms.
There are three texts from Sophia waiting for her when she remembers to turn her phone back on, thankfully before she gets far. Work’s boring is the first, followed by hope your exam’s going well, superstar, and come hang out, I’m bored!, and, well, Mary’s got nothing planned for the afternoon; if she goes to Sophia’s work she’ll get to try on pretty dresses and take her sister out for gelato mid-afternoon.
It takes her barely half an hour to get there, meandering past a couple of her favourite window displays and stopping for a coffee on the way. Mary stands outside for a couple of minutes, finishing the dregs of her cappuccino and checking her email, before wandering in. “You took long enough,” Sophia says in greeting, and Mary grins at her.
“It went okay, then?” Sophia asks, grinning back.
Mary shrugs. “I won’t know for sure until results are out, of course, but I think I’m done.”
“I’d take you out for a drink—”
“But you’re at work,” Sophia’s manager, Toni, interjects. “Congratulations, Mary; I remember what a relief it was.”
“I’m on holiday,” Mary says, hushed with surprise.
“We’ve got a bunch of stuff just in—I put some things aside for you to try on,” Sophia says enthusiastically.
Mary blinks and tilts her head towards Toni. Toni rolls her eyes in response. “Don’t be silly, Mary, I’m not going to kick up a fuss about it.”
Mary’s standing braless in the fitting room when she hears a couple of masculine voices. The dress she’s about to try on is almost backless and doesn’t contain much front either, but Toni had talked her into trying it on using phrases like “the embroidery matches your eyes, babe,” and “look, just try the bloody thing on,” and she’d caved like a failed souffle.
She’s just doing up what she hopes to God is the last hook when there’s a dull thud and a voice exclaiming “Dominic!” in a laughing, easy sort of way: and she knows that voice, it’s Charles Fox, which means the Dominic in question is the worst of all Dominics.
When she pushes the curtains aside, everyone turns to look at her, and, seriously, this is not where she’d expected her day to go. “I knew it!” Toni exclaims. “That dress was made for you!”
Mary looks down at the sage-green folds of linen and thinks of the ironing. “I have no idea where I’d wear it, though,” she says.
“Everywhere,” her sister hisses. “I’m buying it for you.”
“Sophia!” Mary says reprovingly. “I don’t need it.”
“Nonsense, you’re getting it. Toni’s a genius and I’m wonderful, so shove it.” Sophia, Mary reflects, has always been brilliant at knowing just what she can get away with—and at least there are no actual customers in the shop at the moment.
Charles Fox just looks bored, but Dominic Alastair has been watching the whole exchange with a lazily-calculating eye. When he fixes his eyes upon her, he looks appraising, like he’s trying to calculate the worth of girl plus dress.
Mary shivers; he really is terrifically good-looking. She’s also never wanted to punch another human being so much in all of her life.
“I see you’re fully occupied,” Dominic says to Sophia, twisting a long finger in the drop of one of her dark curls.
Sophia grins at him. “Well, I am at work.”
“I see that,” he says gravely. “Charles and I will be off to lunch, I think—but I’ll text you?”
“I look forward to it,” Sophia replies, mock-formally, and the men depart while Mary stands shoeless in a terribly expensive dress.
“Take that off so I can get the tags,” Sophia demands, rounding on her, and it turns out Mary still has some fight in her after all.
Dominic’s least-favourite club this season is Weatherby’s, a horror of a pastiche of the sort of club his great-grandfather would have belonged to: overpopulated with Oxbridge graduates and young stockbrokers in expensive suiting, all drinking the same cocktail and laughing the same pretentious laugh while talking about their Rolex.
Dominic has never, not even during the worst excesses of his undergraduate years, discussed his watch with anyone. It was his maternal grandfather’s, and her grace took it off the corpse, which is just the sort of thing his mother would do, probably in front of scandalised relatives while cursing.
They’re only at Weatherby’s because Charles has taken a liking for a sharp-cheeked, doe-eyed model named Ralph and, as he’d himself put it on the cab ride to the club, faint heart never won fair gentleman. Dominic has largely been sulking over his whiskey since they arrived, while Charles sent sultry looks and top-shelf vodka over to Ralph’s table.
“You’re smiling,” Charles announces. “You look like a fool. Thinking of the fair Sophia?”
“My mother,” Dominic retorts.
Charles’ face contorts. “Dear God,” he says, and sighs. “Well, it’s your round. And, don’t turn, but Jack Westruther has just arrived.”
“This place is going to the dogs,” Dominic says. “Same again?”
It’s a number of rounds later before Jack Westruther, famed prop at Eton, marketing scholar, junior executive, and casual racist, summons the Dutch courage to approach them.
“Still hanging around with this prick, Vidal?” Westruther asks, because he’s a pretentious twat.
Dominic sighs—a little loudly, perhaps, but not so loud as to be embarrassing—and pushes his glass away with one finger. “Don’t step any closer, Jack,” he retorts. “I hear you have crabs.”
“Get fucked,” Westruther replies. “Poker?”
Dominic must be drunker than he thought, because he accepts.
The fight, while a bad idea even in the moment, is probably inevitable: Dominic hasn’t liked Jack Westruther since the school sports day in year four, and while they’d formed a loose alliance on the field, Dominic has not forgiven him for the things he said about Dominic’s mother, and he certainly has not forgotten.
“Raise or fold,” Dominic says.
“But you keep winning,” Westruther complains. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
Charles gasps. Charles has always appreciated a good melodrama. Charles has always hated Jack Westruther. Charles is Dominic’s best friend and—“Charles?” Dominic asks. “You’d be my second in a duel, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” Charles says. “Of course I would.”
“Duel?” Westruther asks. “Who said anything about a duel?”
Dominic shakes his head at him; the room spins a little, and his neck feels loose, sloppy. “As you accused me of cheating,” he explains. “A duel!”
“A duel!” a crowd of faces cry; Dominic is certain he could recognise many of them, if only he were in the mood to. Unfortunately he is not: he has been accused of cheating, and this must not stand, especially not from Jack Westruther.
“If I were wearing gloves, I would take one off and slap you,” he informs Westruther.
Westruther scoffs. “As if you could,” he sneers, and after that—some things a man must not take.
A man must, however, take being escorted out of the premises by two burly employees. Dominic blinks blearily into the flashing lights and attempts a dashing smirk.
Dominic is not usually summoned to breakfast with his parents—nor does his grace usually communicate via text message—and when he gets downstairs he realises he’s locked himself out of the flat, he doesn’t have his car keys, and it’s raining. The townhouse is a good 20 minute walk away, and Dominic spends every last second of it cursing the British spring, Jack Westruther, the game of poker, and every liquor manufacturer he can think of.
Gaston opens the front door with his usual stern unflappability, but Dominic is unsurprised to discover when he looks in the mirror that he looks like a drowned rat, curls saturated with water and every item of clothing he’s wearing completely soaked. Gaston, efficient as always, passes him a towel and informs him that his parents will see him in 10 minutes in the breakfast room.
His old room is possessed only of an old pair of track pants, an ill-fitting and misshapen jersey his mother knitted for him while he was up at Oxford, and a pair of novelty Christmas boxers. Dominic would not have put it past her grace to have stripped the wardrobe of everything else, simply to make whatever this is about more uncomfortable.
His grace, when Dominic makes it downstairs, is reading the Daily Mail. This is not a good sign.
“Dominic, my darling,” her grace says, as she stands to kiss him on the cheeks. He grasps her hands before sitting down across from them both, and snags the coffeepot and a slice of toast to have something to do with his hands.
The Duke is still reading the paper. He hasn’t turned the page yet. “Good morning,” Dominic offers.
At that, his grace puts down the paper. He looks slightly amused, but that has to be a trap: his parents have never invited him to breakfast for a laugh. “Good morning, Dominic,” he says. Dominic winces.
“Does your head hurt very badly this morning?” her grace asks. “Gaston can bring you some pills.”
“I took some before I left,” Dominic replies. “What’s this about?”
His grace turns the paper around and lifts it so that Dominic can see the headline: DEVIL’S CUB CAUGHT IN SHOCK BRAWL WITH SCHOOLBOY RIVAL, because the Daily Mail never uses one word when some alliteration and a reference to his grace’s own infamous youth will do. “We’re not angry,” his grace says. “We’re concerned.”
“Oh god,” Dominic says, with feeling.
What follows isn’t pleasant. The youthful exploits of Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon may be the subject of three unauthorised biographies and counting—and Léonie herself has not led a life free of scandal—but one, apparently, does not do as one’s parents did.
“Darling,” her grace says soothingly, after he’s shouted himself almost hoarse and is reduced to an adolescent combination of scowls, glares, and the odd grunt of acquiescence. “You just seem so—adrift, lately.”
“So you’re tossing me out of the country?” Dominic demands. “Because of a few silly incidents?”
“Hush, Dominic, Tilly Helman was really quite upset,” her grace says, though the twist of her mouth betrays a certain amusement, and he cracks a small smile for almost the first time in this whole depressive exercise.
“Furthermore,” his grace adds, every inch almost regal, “whilst I might, in my youth, have spent a good amount of time playing silly buggers with certain gentlemen of my acquaintance, I was never so indiscreet as to be caught by a pack of scandalmongers after getting into a drunken brawl in front of my cousin.”
“That weasel,” Dominic hisses. “He must have gone straight to Aunt Fanny.”
“Your cousin John displays many troubling habits,” his grace agrees. “But he has not yet dangled upon the precipice of ridicule.”
“So this is to save my pride?” Dominic asks.
“Not in the slightest,” his grace says. “It is because you have made your mother cry.”
With that, Dominic stares. He can count the number of times he has seen his mother cry in front of him with one finger. “I was very angry,” her grace admits.
“I’ll pack at once,” Dominic concedes.
“Naturally, I have arranged for all of the houses to be open to you,” his grace replies, serene in victory as always.
Dominic gets a ride home from his mother, who parks illegally in front of his building and comes up to let him in with her spare key. “You’ll have a wonderful time on the Continent,” she informs him. “You can go fishing!”
“I’m really tremendously hungover, you do understand this?” he asks, and she bursts out laughing, low and fond.
“You take after me far too much for your own good, my darling boy,” she tells him. “Now pack—and do call us when you land safely.” She whisks out of the flat all enthusiasm and purpose, but not before kissing him on the cheek and reminding him she has a conference in Germany in July.
Packing takes all afternoon: it’s not as though he couldn’t buy anything he needed wherever he happens to need it, but that seems a little conspicuous given that his parents seem to want him to spend the whole summer rusticating like they’re all out of an Oscar Wilde play.
Eventually he thinks he’s sorted, though, and once he’s checked that he’s got all his various cables and chargers and he’s instagrammed a shot of his packed luggage and a selfie there’s not much call to delay any further. Besides, he’s getting hungry, and God knows he’s got no actual food in his kitchen.
A thought flickers through his mind and he lets out a rueful snort and picks up his phone to text Sophia Challoner. Run away to Europe with me [smily face] [aubergine], he types, following with directions to the private airstrip, before double-checking that he has his passport and his keys, and stepping out the front door of his flat. It wouldn’t do to break a promise to a lady, after all, plus Mary Challoner looked like she’d wanted to slap him that day they met up in her sister’s shop.
Mary’s on the couch with a pack of crisps and a bottle of cider, watching Jeremy Kyle reruns and regretting all her choices on this day, when Sophia’s phone beeps. Sophia herself has draped herself in the armchair, her fingers and toes neatly splayed out while her nailpolish dries, and her eyes covered with cucumber slices, so Mary has reluctantly been playing messenger for the last hour.
“Well, check it, then,” Sophia says, while Jeremy blathers on like an idiot at some poor woman.
Mary huffs. “I’m doing you the favour here, you could stand to be nicer about it.”
“Whatever,” Sophia says. “It’s my day off.”
Mary, just to be a cow, feigns absolute interest in the woman’s story of betrayal and petty theft, and waits until the ads are on to unlock Sophia’s phone without looking properly, and then she blinks.
Run away to Europe with me the message says, with a fucking aubergine emoji and a winking face, and of course it’s from the bloody Marquis of Vidal, who’s probably just taking the piss, but fuck him. Mary hits delete aggressively and the phone beeps.
“What is it?” Sophia demands.
“Spam—someone telling you about their penis enlargement technique,” Mary says shortly.
“Yeah, delete it,” Sophia says.
The phone beeps again, another text from the prick, and Mary stares at it, thinking, because it appears to be directions to an airstrip, and the Marquis can go fuck himself if he thinks he’ll persuade her sister to quit her job and run away to be his mistress for the summer. Mary takes another swill of her cider and forwards the text to her own phone.
“What are you doing with my phone?” Sophia demands, plucking the cucumber off her face. “Mary!”
“Nothing,” Mary lies blatantly, quickly deleting the evidence just before Sophia can grab her phone back. “I’m tired, I think I’ll take a nap.”
Sophia eyes her suspiciously. “Yeah, I bet.”
It takes her less than 5 minutes after getting to her room to decide that texting Dominic demands that he leave her baby sister alone are probably not going to cut it, mostly because he’d probably just laugh at her and then start texting her aubergine emojis. After that, it strikes her that she really has no option but to go over to wherever it is that rich people keep their private planes and yell at him, because he needs to know that he is wrong.
In preparation for battle, Mary puts on jeans and brushes her hair, tying it up in a messy bun and throwing a big cotton skull scarf around her neck. She grabs her bag and heads downstairs, stopping at the door to the living room to let Sophia know she’s off.
“I thought you were going to take a nap?” Sophia asks, still obviously suspicious.
Mary thinks quickly. “Juliana texted, I’m meeting her for dinner.” Sophia knows Juliana, it’s sure to work.
Sophia stares at her. “Yeah, okay,” she says. “Bring me back a bag of crisps, you’ve eaten almost all of these.”
Mary nods. “Sure.”
The cab ride, Mary reflects when she’s about halfway there, is going to be expensive. The cabbie’s name is Joe and he’s from Ipswich, and he natters away about his grandchildren and his dog as they drive. “You’re off on holiday, then?”
Mary shakes her head. “No, I just need to talk to someone.” She doesn’t know how he’d got the impression that she was going away: all she’s got on her is a small handbag containing the basics. Then again, she is going to a private airstrip; maybe rich people don’t take luggage, just buy what they need on holiday.
Maybe she drank too much cider while watching Jeremy Kyle. Jeremy Kyle is the kind of television experience which requires a drink, but that’s not exactly conducive towards doing anything else with her day beyond her original plans, which had included wandering up to the chippie later, and maybe convincing Sophia to do her nails.
“Weird place to talk to someone,” Joe comments.
Mary shrugs. “Friend of my sister’s, you know. I have to catch him before he goes away.”
Joe nods. “Fair enough. We’re about 5 minutes away now.”
Mary spends the rest of the journey steeling herself to go in there, let Dominic know that he needs to leave her sister alone, and hopefully not throw anything at his head or make too much of a dick of herself. When the car stops, they’re at a tiny airstrip with a single small jet on it, steps leading up to the open door and a man in a suit waiting at the bottom. Mary pays the cab fare, managing not to wince too much and reminding herself that no price is too large to pay for her sister’s reputation, and gets out.
“Miss Challoner?” the man asks. “Go on up. The Marquis is waiting for you.”
Mary blinks. “He is?”
The man smiles. “He wasn’t sure you’d come, but he asked us to wait just in case.”
“Right,” Mary says, and stomps up the stairs.
Dominic is sprawled in an armchair, long legs stretched out in front of him as he pokes at his phone. He looks up when she steps in though, a grin freezing on his face as he realises that she is quite obviously not her sister. “Mary,” he says flatly.
“You need to leave my sister alone,” she says.
He stares at her. “Are you—drunk?” he demands.
Mary sighs. “I think I’ve almost sobered up now,” she admits. “I had been drinking on the couch.”
“I see,” he says. “Lovely shoes, by the way.”
Mary looks down at her feet. She appears to be wearing her bright pink-and-purple running shoes, which have different coloured laces and are visibly wearing through at the toes. “Piss off,” she says.
“I don’t think I will, actually,” Dominic retorts. “Good of you to drop by—I assume your sister isn’t coming?”
“She was doing her nails,” Mary says.
Dominic snorts. “Nice to know where I stand.”
Mary rolls her eyes and takes a seat across from him. It feels like this could take a while. “Please,” she scoffs. “You didn’t really expect her to drop everything and come do your bidding, did you?”
“So she sent you in her stead? Very kind,” Dominic replies.
Mary crosses her ankles. “Not precisely,” she admits. “She doesn’t exactly know that I’m here. Or that you invited her.”
“Should I text her, then?” he asks. “Let her know?”
Mary freezes. “No,” she says.
Dominic’s mouth curves up into a smile she can only describe as cutting. “I should probably turn my phone off now anyway. Safety first, you know.”
Mary stares at him. “What are you talking about?”
Dominic laughs at her. “Put your seatbelt on, there’s a good girl.”
Mary turns around. The plane door is closed, and the man from the stairs is sitting impassively on a tiny seat next to it. “Are we—taking off?”
“We are indeed,” Dominic says. “I was so hoping someone would come on this trip with me!”
“You bastard,” Mary hisses. “Stop this plane! Tell them to stop the plane!”
Dominic negligently lifts a finger and the man gets up. “A drink for the lady, please, Travis,” he says. “Miss Challoner’s nerves are playing up.”
“I don’t need a fucking drink!” Mary exclaims. “I need for this plane to stop—we’re lifting off!” She fumbles to put the seatbelt on, and Dominic smiles at her, satisfied.
“Cancel that, Travis,” Dominic says. “Don’t worry, Mary,” he adds. “You can come straight back to London after we’ve landed if you like.”
Mary looks fixedly out the window and fumes.
Mary wakes up to a hand shaking her and she jerks upright, banging her head against a wall. “We’ve arrived,” Dominic says. She turns to glare at him. “Don’t look at me like that,” he laughs. “How’s your head?”
“It’s fine,” she says, confused.
“I think I’ve some paracetamol somewhere if you need it,” he adds.
Mary shakes her head. “No, it’s fine, really,” she says.
“Come on, then,” he says, and Mary gathers up her scarf and handbag. “There’s a customs official waiting—I don’t suppose you happen to have your passport?”
“I do, actually,” Mary says absently, inching her way down the stairs. “Forgot to take it out of my bag from last time I went out.”
Dominic hums agreeably. “Of course,” he says.
“What, you don’t believe me?” Mary demands,
“I said no such thing,” he answers.
Mary huffs. “Right. Right, hang on, is this another private airstrip? Where’s the airport?”
“Oh, about 50 miles away if you want to fly commercially,” Dominic says negligently. “I can run you over in the morning if you want, of course.”
“I start my new job in the morning,” Mary says blankly. “I have to be there! Fuck, are there any taxis? I have to get back immediately.”
Dominic stares at her. “Wait, what?”
“You’ve played your little joke,” Mary says. “But seriously, some of us work, and I start my brand new job in, Christ, 7 hours. I need to get back to England.”
“But your passport is in your purse,” Dominic says.
“I don’t have my driver’s licence,” she says. “What of it?”
“You’re the one who got on my plane,” he shoots back. “With your passport. After stealing the directions off your sister’s phone. Naturally I thought—” but Mary never does find out precisely what it is that he thought, because she swings her handbag at his head and he drops like a stone.
She waits for him to sit up, clutching his wrist and bleeding at the lip, before she leans down and hisses at him. “All I wanted was for you to leave my sister alone! My entire family! That’s all I wanted! And you thought I was coming to, what, be your summer affair? Fuck you!”
He stares up at her, mouth open, blood dripping down his face and wrist visibly swelling. “Fuck,” she sighs. “I think I have a handkerchief. Let’s get you up—that’s your car waiting, isn’t it?”
“Thank you,” he says as she hauls him up, and she’ll give him this much: someone did raise him to have beautiful manners.
It’s just going dark as they drive, the last hints of twilight fading. Travis is driving, and Mary and Dominic are in the back, not speaking. Dominic’s still holding on to his wrist, but at least his lip has stopped bleeding. “Do you think it’s broken?” she asks him quietly.
“Not at all,” he says. “I can open and close all my fingers—just sprained, I think.”
She sighs. “Look, I didn’t mean—”
“That was a very good swing,” he interjects, and she sighs again, staring out the window at the gloom.
The villa appears to be occupied when they arrive, a low, wide, stone structure surrounded by trees, with lights on at several windows. “Whose house is this?” Mary asks.
“Ours,” Dominic says, sounding slightly mystified. “The caretakers are here, of course; my mother rang to say I’d be arriving.”
“Oh,” Mary says quietly.
“I think we’ve got some spare clothes here,” Dominic offers. “And Madame Chateau-Morny will make sure a room is ready for you.”
“Oh,” she says again.
“I’m sure this will all look better in the morning,” he adds, which is patently ridiculous because she’s meant to be in the City at the moment, and this is very distinctly not London.
She gets upstairs to find that Madame Chateau-Morny has laid out a rather delicate silk nightie for her to sleep in, to match the piles of pillows and soft cotton blankets of the four-poster in her room. It’s the opposite end of the hallway to Dominic’s room, at least; that, Madame Chateau-Morny had whispered to her quietly as she was setting down her bag and looking vainly for a charger for her phone.
She wakes up to sunlight and the smell of hot coffee and fresh bread; Madame Chateau-Morny has brought her in a breakfast tray. “I’ve had your clothes washed, Miss,” she says, and Mary doesn’t even know what to do with that; she’s several hours late for work and in the wrong country, besides.
“Thank you,” Mary says, after a pause. “I truly do appreciate it.”
“You’re very welcome,” Madame Chateau-Morny replies, before leaving the room and Mary to pick at her bread and sip at her coffee.
She gets dressed into her clothes; her jeans and top have been ironed, and her bra smells of lavender. She found a new pair of knickers in her size tucked in between her own clothing, which is—who even are these people? Her phone has been discreetly plugged in to a charger on the room’s desk and has been silently blowing up while she’s been dozing away the morning. There are fifteen increasingly worried texts from Sophia and even one from her mother: please do let us know if you’ve run away from your responsibilities, sweetheart, because her mother had done almost exactly the same after getting a degree in organic chemistry and turned out all the better for it.
More worryingly, there are four missed calls from Mary’s new boss. As soon as she’s finished her coffee, she guesses, it will be time to face the music.
The phone conversation with her boss does not go well. David Chakraborty had been enthusiastic about Mary throughout the arduous interview process, and had been the one to call her and let her know she had the job. He’s palpably disappointed to learn she’s in France and even more disappointed at what she has to concede is a pretty poor excuse for the whole thing.
“This isn’t really very acceptable, Mary,” he sighs.
“I know,” she pleads. “Just—I’ll try to get home today, I can make it in tomorrow.”
There’s a long silence. “The thing is, Mary,” David says slowly, “this was a particularly competitive year. I took you over dozens of similarly-qualified applicants because I thought you were reliable and the best fit for the position. This is really—”
“I am reliable!” Mary cries.
“I’m truly sorry, Mary,” David replies. “I wish you all the best for your future, but I’m afraid that won’t be found with us. Good luck.”
The phone disconnects before she can get in another word.
After that, she can’t bring herself to call Sophia, just sends her a text saying Alive and in France and turns her phone off before going downstairs.
Dominic’s in what Madame Chateau-Morny refers to as the breakfast room, a sunny room with yellow floral wallpaper and a round wooden table that looks as though it has stood there for centuries. He’s eating one-handed, his other hand sitting on a pillow on top of the table. It still looks swollen, so why he hasn’t got an ice pack in sight she doesn’t know: and it’s this kind of thought, the eminently-sensible part of her that never really shuts up and that her mother and sister tease her constantly about that makes her—
“I’ve been fired,” she says, without further ado, and bursts into tears, before sinking into one of the chairs.
She gives her feelings full reign for a little while; she thinks she’s entitled, having been abducted and taken to France against her will. When eventually her tears slow and she sniffles, a cloth is pressed into her hand, and she blows into it without thinking before looking at it and realising that Dominic has handed her a green-and-white chequered teatowel. “It’s what I had to hand,” he mutters.
“Thanks,” she says into the cloth, sipping at the glass of water he presses into her hand.
“You’re welcome,” he replies. “Er, fired, you said?”
“I’ve just—yes,” she says. “My first proper job. I was meant to start today, with Lloyds.”
“Oh,” he says, and when he tucks a lock of her lank, possibly snotty hair behind her ear, she’s actually touched.
“Your wrist is very swollen,” she says, because that’s quite enough of her indulging herself—besides, she’ll feel better if she focuses on someone else’s problems. “And bruised.”
“Yeah,” he says, looking at it. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, though.”
Mary shakes her head and dries her face off. “We should have it looked at. Um. Before you take me to the airport, I mean. Or. You can’t really drive like that. Before I go to the airport.”
Dominic shoots her a look. “I said it’s fine.”
“Yes, but you’re clearly wrong,” Mary retorts. “I’ll arrange for you to see a doctor.” He sighs, but doesn’t argue.
Dominic’s wrist is badly sprained. “Try not to use it too much for at least a week,” the doctor says. “Even then, take it easy and don’t try to lift things.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dominic retorts, and Mary doesn’t know why he’s insisted that she stay in the room or why she didn’t tell him to shove off regardless, but he did and she didn’t, and that means—
“He’ll be very careful,” she promises.
Dominic glares at her. “Will I now?” he asks.
“You will,” she says, glaring back. The doctor chuckles.
After the doctor, they go to the pharmacy, where Dominic stands restlessly near the counter and Mary absently looks at the hairbrushes before remembering she has no Euros on her. “You’ll need a few things, won’t you,” Dominic says, catching her looking.
“Why?” she asks.
Dominic grins. “Because you’re going to stay with me until I can use my wrist again properly, aren’t you?”
“What?” she demands.
“Ow,” he says, shamelessly. “I hope these painkillers I’ve been prescribed suffice. It’s not like you have anything to hurry back for, is it?”
Mary sees red. “Fuck you,” she hisses. The man is impossible.
“Well, what else are you going to do?” he says, sounding almost reasonable. “Go back to London and intercept more of your sister’s messages?”
Mary stares at him. “Have you even called your sister yet?” he continues.
“No,” she admits.
“There you go, then,” he says. “Stay with me; I’ll show you around the vineyard, we’ll drink last years’ vintage and eat Madame Chateau-Morny’s bread.”
“I’m not—” she starts.
“I got that, thanks,” he says stiffly. “I’d just—wanted the company, I suppose. I do actually like your sister, you know.”
“Fine,” she says. “Fine, okay.”
Dinner that night is a long platter of finger food: delicate slices of prosciutto, tiny bread rolls, cheeses, olives, sundried tomatoes, salami, walnuts. It’s not what Mary has ever thought of when she’s thought of French food, but she supposes the world is far larger and more complicated than she knows about, anyway.
Dominic very diligently has his bad wrist resting on yet another tasselled, velvet cushion, this time one stolen from the library he’d shown her when they’d gotten back from the village, and is eating one-handed. He does it with the same grace he does everything, and the day has gone badly enough that she’s fiercely annoyed by it.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he says, over a bowl of the lightest lemon sorbet Mary has had in her life.
“Um,” she replies.
“I knew you were strait-laced,” he continues. “Sophia told me. So I should have known—”
“And if I’d slept with half your friends already?” she demands, icily.
He sighs. “Give me some credit,” he says.
“When you deserve it,” she retorts, and feels a little bad at the way his face drops. She supposes he’s not evil incarnate, just young, rich, and a bit useless. “Look, alright, maybe—”
“Marry me,” he cuts her off, hushed and fervent.
“What,” she says blankly.
“Marry me,” he says again, more insistently.
“That’s not an explanation,” Mary says slowly. “What pills have you taken?”
“I’m perfectly sane and reasonable and haven’t taken anything I shouldn’t,” he says. “Just—you’d make an excellent duchess.”
“Dear God in heaven,” Mary exclaims, and gets up to take herself off to bed.
Dominic spends the whole of the next day in his room, apparently—according to Madame Chateau-Morny, who has decided that Mary is a sensible Englishwoman who can be trusted with the only child of her beloved duchess—sulking over something, taking photographs of the view outside his window, playing on his phone, and watching TV.
Mary spends the day wandering around the garden and reading in the library, and when he eventually comes downstairs for dinner she has mostly reconciled herself to being unemployed and having caused her younger sister to presumably hate her.
It is a surprise, then, when dinner turns out to be enjoyable. Dominic’s day of pajama-clad indulgence seems to have done him some good, and he’s full of embarrassing and marginally-legal stories of him and his friends and their lives and times. She ends up almost snorting wine through her nose, and he throws a napkin at her face and grins at her glare.
Two days later, she’s wearing a pair of capris and a thin cotton cardigan that Madame Chateau-Morny had supplied from parts unknown, and listening to Dominic complain about how terrible all the cars in the garage are and how he needs to get them to a dealership immediately so he can show Mary the sights of southern France in a vehicle appropriate to her dignity, or some such nonsense.
“Is that an Aston Martin?” Mary asks, trying to distract him from whatever whimsy has overtaken whatever good sense he may possess.
“Yes,” Dominic says, waving his hand. “It’s a DB6; my father bought four after Goldfinger came out.”
Mary has no real reply to that, except: “It’s the James Bond car?”
“Yes,” Dominic says patiently.
“I want to drive in the Aston Martin,” Mary states.
Dominic remains unenthused. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather a new Ferrari, Mary?”
“I am certain,” Mary says emphatically. “Besides, you can’t drive at the moment.”
“I’m sure I can,” Dominic says.
“I’m sure you can’t,” Mary insists.
Dominic sighs. “Very well,” he says, and gives her the keys off a rack on the wall.
“You know I can’t drive either?” she asks him, and he stares at her blankly.
“I thought you could do everything,” he says. She’s not sure if he’s joking or not.
Dominic ends up being driven by Travis to the nearest village in a black town car that he apparently remembers from his childhood. Mary goes along, and buys a week’s supply of clothing and toiletries in the time it takes Dominic to deliberate over a single hat.
Three days after that, after he’s exhausted the village shops and she’s spent long, blissful hours in the library uninterrupted, Dominic announces that he’s perfectly fit to drive as long as they take regular breaks, and that he wishes to go to Milan. Mary squints at him and then looks up the Milanese airport on her phone; she’s pretty sure there’ll be direct flights to London, but doesn’t know how much they’ll be.
The answer is: more than ideal, but probably worth it. “I’ll book a flight, then,” she tells him. “If you don’t mind dropping me off at the airport.”
“Nonsense,” he tells her. “You can’t possibly go back to London yet. And aren’t you having a lovely time? I bet it’s been ages since you took a proper holiday.”
“You know these are really obvious tactics, don’t you?” she informs him, frustrated.
“Yes,” he says, unrepentant. “But what are you going to do once you get there?”
“Look for another job,” she says. “Apologise to my sister. Figure out what I’m going to do next with my life.”
“You can do all that from Italy,” Dominic says. “We’re living in a digital age.”
Mary sighs. It’s time to call her mother for advice.
The thing about Mary’s mum is this: she’s always lived life on precisely her own terms. She decided she wanted children, and had them; she decided she wanted to be a working mother, and was; she decided she wanted to be a photographer, and she bought a camera and practiced.
Mary loves her dearly, but by God it makes talking to her difficult sometimes. “Well, of course you shouldn’t come home, Mary!” her mother says.
“Mum,” Mary pleads.
Clara Challoner makes the sound she makes when she thinks she’s accidentally raised a fool. “Mary. You’re 21! Live a little!”
“Live a little?” Mary demands. “I’ve ruined everything.”
Clara laughs. “Darling. You haven’t ruined anything. I promise you, a year from now you’ll be glad you spent the summer having fun.”
Mary snorts. “I’m unemployed and travelling round Europe with a man I barely know, who used to flirt with my little sister, who probably hates me now.”
“That’s another reason to stay away a little longer,” Clara adds, laughing.
“She’s really upset?” Mary asks.
“Well,” Clara replies, consideringly. “She’s not happy with you. Look,” she adds, more seriously. “You sound more relaxed than you have in a while, and I swear that London will still be here when you want to come home.”
“I guess,” Mary says.
“And if you need anything—anything at all—if you need me to get on a plane and come to get you, or you need money, or you just need to chat—give me a ring and I’ll be right there.”
“I know,” Mary says. She does.
“Then have fun!” Clara says. “Relax! Have adventures! Enjoy your youth, darling, it won’t last forever.”
“Thanks, mum,” Mary says drily. “Love you too.”
The DB6 doesn’t exactly have the largest boot in the world, but Mary still only has enough to fit one small suitcase dragged down from the attics by Madame Chateau-Morny’s surly gardener husband, and Dominic takes up the rest of the space with a series of bags and a hatbox.
The tiny back seat has a woollen blanket on it, which surprises Mary so much as she’s stashing her handbag there that she asks Dominic about it. Dominic shrugs. “My parents used to take me on picnics in the summer, and you can’t very well picnic without a blanket, can you?”
Mary grins to think of the Duke and Duchess of Avon taking a very young Dominic on picnics. “Did they take bread so you could feed the ducks?”
Dominic raises an eyebrow. “Of course! We’re not savages.”
It startles Mary into a laugh. “I would never—” she says, teasingly stern, and Dominic laughs too.
Madame Chateau-Morny dashes out with a basket when they’re just about ready to leave, and presses it into Mary’s hand. “Food for the journey,” she explains.
“Thank you!” Mary replies, surprised. “You shouldn’t have—”
“Nonsense,” Dominic interjects. “You absolutely should have, Madame. You’re a gem!” Madame C brushes it off with a wave and bustles back inside.
Mary peeks inside the basket. There looks to be about half a ham in there, plus bread, cheese, and a thermos of what Mary devoutly hopes is tea but which is probably black coffee. “An entire picnic? That was kind of her.”
Dominic shrugs. “Madame Chateau-Morny always packs something.”
Mary spends most of the drive controlling the music from behind her over-large sunglasses (purchased from the first service station they passed). Dominic’s good about stopping whenever she wants to stretch her legs, and she makes him pull over on the D1091 so she can take a bunch of photos of the road, lake on one side and steep, steep hills on the other. She gets a shot of him in there by accident, his profile looking up at a road that seems to consist mostly of razorback turns and luck. It’s a good photo.
They stop near Turin for lunch, sandwiches made out of Madame Chateau-Morny’s kindness. Dominic uncovers a bottle of wine from somewhere and pours her a glass of what turns out to be an absolutely delicious German riesling. He sticks to coffee, and they carefully stash the rest of the bottle in amongst the scraps of bread and the rest of the cheese.
“Admit it,” he demands once they’re back on the road. “You wanted to keep sitting there.”
“It’s a lovely day,” Mary concedes. “And that was very nice wine.”
Dominic snorts. “It’s the only thing my Uncle Rupert has going for him, my father says—his ability to pick a wine, I mean. We own the vineyard.”
“Oh,” Mary says.
“I’ll have them send a case of it to the Milan apartment,” he adds, which is—which is both sweet and incredibly disconcerting, really.
“Oh no,” she says. “I’m quite alright.”
That, for some impenetrable reason, makes him smile. The road winds on.
Milan, Mary finds out very quickly, is an amazing place from which to have a gloves-off, knock-down fight with your sister.
“You what?” Sophia demands, after Mary’s finished stuttering out a hasty and regretful confession.
“No, I heard you,” Sophia says. “I just can’t bloody believe it—Mary—you ran away to Europe with Dominic Alastair—after stealing a text meant for me!”
“I. Yes,” Mary confirms.
“Why would you do that?” Sophia asks. Her voice is low, hissing, wrathful; Mary can’t recall the last time she heard Sophia like this. Maybe on the phone to her ex who cheated on her, right before she sent a box of trinkets to his mother’s house with her compliments and an explanation.
Mary shrugs into the phone. “I—I didn’t think he was good for you,” she explains helplessly.
“So you stole my text and went to yell at him and he let the plane take off with you—that much, I believe—but then you just decided to stay for a while, chuck in your job and, what? Yeah, Mary, whatever.”
“I’m—” Mary starts, before Sophia hangs up on her. “Sorry,” she finishes, uselessly.
Mary picks at her breakfast roll. The family apartment in Milan, apparently, isn’t so much an apartment as a suite in a hotel that becomes mysteriously available whenever the Duchess should take it upon herself to go shopping. Her grace, Dominic explains, either travels with a small van of possessions behind her, or picks up a cheap ticket on easyJet and calls Dominic from lands afar to complain that she’s forgotten so much as a change of clothes.
Her grace apparently likes this hotel because the kitchen is exceptional and the continental breakfast reminds her particularly of her childhood. “Yes,” Mary says agreeably, trying to focus.
“You seem upset,” Dominic observes.
Mary shakes her head. “I didn’t sleep well—I called Sophia last night.”
“Ah,” Dominic says. “You know there was never anything between she and I?”
Mary stares at him. “What?”
“A light flirtation, perhaps, but—I would’ve been shocked if she’d turned up on that plane, Mary.”
That’s—far too much for this morning, and Mary turns her head away so that he can’t see that she has, stupidly, started crying.
Unfortunately, the sniffles are a little more obvious. “Um,” he says awkwardly. “Are you—”
“I’m an absolute idiot,” Mary exclaims, turning back to glare at him. If he’s going to say stupid things, he deserves to be glared at. “I thought—you—she—I threw away my entire reputation and you two were just dicking around!”
“Your reputation?” he asks. “In this day and age?”
“My professional reputation,” Mary retorts. “You know, for my actual career?”
“And Sophia is upset?” he asks. It’s very strange, how genuinely concerned he appears to be.
Mary sniffs. “Sophia is probably burning my belongings in effigy as we speak.”
“In central London? Really?” Dominic asks, sounding dubious, and she doesn’t know whether it’s the sympathy or the devil in him, but she bursts out laughing, snotty and gross.
Once she’s calmed herself down, he informs her that it’s time for them to go shopping.
It turns out that the skillset Mary has carefully developed through a lifetime of having to watch her bank account is not the same skillset required to shop with someone who appears to have unlimited funds. Mary knows what she likes: sensible, practical clothes in block colours and hard-wearing materials, the sort of thing that’s always appropriate for her life of studying and the occasional night out.
The shops Dominic takes her to don’t seem to possess anything of the sort. Oh, the fabrics are lovely: lush velvets, rich silks, cool linens, the sort of things that are meant to be handwashed or dry-cleaned only, the sort of thing that she’d never buy for herself. She does pick out a glorious pashmina for herself, in moody blues and vibrant greens, but the rest of the day is an exercise in talking Dominic out of his apparent determination to see her in velvet ballgowns and impractical heels.
She permits him to pick out a number of little black dresses for her to try on, along with a whirlwind of the kind of casual wear that can’t actually be worn anywhere casual, swimsuits and blouses and, once, a terrifyingly ornate hat that he said brought out the glare in her eyes beautifully. It’s a much more physical activity, shopping this way, than Mary is quite used to, and she makes them stop after every few shops to sit down and drink coffee, eat gelato, look at a flock of ducks—anything to keep her off her feet for longer than 5 minutes at a time.
“You’re really not buying a lot,” Dominic says, after they’ve stopped for yet another glass of water and a small cake. He sounds disapproving.
Mary stares at him. “I’m not buying anything at all—and I don’t know why you want to buy me clothes.”
“It’s fun,” Dominic says. “Women’s fashion is much more interesting than men’s—I just go to my tailor and order another suit or three. Terribly boring.”
That—makes the whole thing easier to bear, strangely. “So—you’re not looking at me as some kind of—Eliza Doolittle, then?”
Dominic bursts out laughing. “Mary, you’re far too posh for that. Your grandfather went to Eton with my father!”
Mary flushes. Her relationship with her grandfather is uncomfortable, sometimes; he’d almost disowned his only child for being an unwed mother, and although Mary’s mother has exceeded his expectations and gone on to have a brilliant photography career, the relationship has remained strained. “Yes, well,” she says repressively.
“And, anyway,” Dominic continues. “You have to allow me a little fun—and I’m taking you out to dinner tonight. You can’t go dressed in the clothes you have.”
That’s not a little patronising. “I think you’ll find that, in fact, I can,” Mary says calmly. “I think you’ll find that I can go to dinner in whatever I bloody well please!”
“Oh, of course,” Dominic says, sounding agreeable enough, but she can tell by the look on his face that he’s not. “But you wouldn’t want to, not where we’re going.”
Mary frowns. “And why’s that?”
Dominic shrugs. “You like to fit in, Mary,” he says, simply, and—damn him, he’s right.
“One dress,” Mary concedes.
She ends up getting four, along with two skirts, three blouses, a pair of trousers, and underwear to match it all from a terrifying boutique staffed with the kind of long-legged beauties that always intimidate her a little. The underwear she’d paid for herself, and he’d glared at her when he’d gone to settle the bill and found that she’d already handled it.
Dominic starts dressing for dinner while Mary’s curled up on the couch reading a book about traditional Spanish architecture. It has a lot of florid text and self-consciously artistic photography, and she’s enjoying it immensely as a sop to a hard day’s work. Dominic keeps walking past her though, back and forth in ever-more-elaborate costume: trousers and shirt, tie, waistcoat, jacket, cufflinks, spit-polished Oxfords. He doesn’t say anything, though, until she’s flicking back and forth between 2 pictures of the same house a century apart, and then she looks up to find him standing there, elegant and tall in a perfectly-cut suit. “How long until we need to leave?” she asks.
“Half an hour,” he replies, sounding slightly frustrated.
“I’d better get changed, then,” she says, and hurries to her room to put on a dress and heels, brush her hair back into a loose bun, and put on the mascara and lipstick she’d found lingering in the bottom of her handbag. She’s done with fifteen minutes to spare, and it only took that long because she’d spent a good three minutes wondering if she should position the bun low or high.
He stares at her when she gets back into the living room, and she does a twirl, mockingly. “That was fast,” he comments.
She rolls her eyes. “I’ve got time to finish the chapter, yes?” she asks, and sits back down to continue reading about Catalan Modernisme while he fidgets impatiently. She doesn’t learn a lot, too focused on him obviously fighting not to say anything, and it’s worth it.
In what is an obvious revenge tactic, he walks her to their table with a hand on the small of her back and then orders the third-most-expensive bottle of wine on the list. “Not the most expensive?” she asks him snottily.
“Overpriced,” he retorts.
Her mouth twists. “And this isn’t?” she demands, incredulous.
Dominic shrugs. “It’s a good vintage, you’ll like it.” He’s right.
The food is a blur of tiny courses: a single scallop on a plate with some oil and a string of saffron; 2 tiny mouthfuls of venison in a dark chocolate sauce; a bowl of hand-made gnocchi in pesto; a shot-glass of tiramisu. Every bite is delicious, a revelation, and the conversation flows, surprisingly, almost as smoothly as the wine.
“You’re a delight,” he informs her, midway through her explanation of how, exactly, she’d come to make all three members of the Oxford debate team cry during her second year at LSE. She glares at him and keeps talking.
They end up going on to cocktails after dinner, because Mary’s heels are sensible enough for her to keep walking, and Dominic evinces a hankering for some bar snacks and rum. The place they end up is noisy and crowded, not the sort of establishment Mary normally frequents at all—she’s a philosophising drunk, as her pub receipts will attest—but it’s fun anyway, talking about nothing of note while Dominic leans into her.
She makes him walk back to the hotel with her, which takes longer than either of them were really prepared for, but it’s a lovely night anyway, and by the time they get up to their suite, Mary feels that the worst of the wine has worn off. All she wants to do is sleep.
Unfortunately, she can’t. One of the secrets to her success at getting ready so quickly is that the room she inhabits is always messy, including, to her great dismay on this night, her bed. All her lovely new clothes are scattered on top of it, and obviously they need hanging up before she can go to sleep.
Dominic bursts in as she’s about to put away the last of it. “I don’t understand why you don’t want to sleep with me!” he says. “I mean, you’re perfectly entitled not to—I’m not—”
“What in God’s name are you talking about?” Mary demands.
“It’s just very confusing,” he explains. “You don’t seem to want to sleep with me at all.”
Mary stares at him over her pile of lingerie. “I just don’t particularly want to,” she says. “I mean, you’re very good-looking, obviously—”
“Thank you,” he demurs.
She shakes her head. “And you have a lot of money, and you’re funny and clever, but—”
“But?” he asks, sounding genuinely curious. That’s the strangest thing about him bursting in here, that she doesn’t feel afraid of him at all.
“But I’ve always preferred it when there are feelings involved,” she tells him gently.
He stares at her for a very long moment. “You’re not a virgin, then?” he asks her tentatively.
“—No,” she says.
“I’ll kill them all,” Dominic announces.
Dominic, Mary reflects, is a very strange man. “Do you just bounce from one impulsive feeling to another?” she asks him, and without waiting for an answer, firmly leads him out of her room and to his own, so he can settle down and, “For the love of God, go to sleep, Dominic,” she says.
Dominic is full of regret the next morning, and it’s never what she would have expect of him a fortnight ago, and yet so entirely characteristic of him that she’s charmed. “It wasn’t very gentlemanly of me at all,” he says.
She laughs. “Well, you are a nobleman, after all,” she retorts.
He winces. “A palpable hit, my dear girl,” he says. “God, I wish there was more coffee.”
“So make more,” she says. “This is lovely bread.”
He stares at her. “Make more?” he asks, and that’s how Mary finds out that he doesn’t actually know how to use the moka pot.
It turns out that there had been a number of paparazzi at the restaurant last night, not because of Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal, but because of some American actress and her rumoured fling with a costar. In the absence of the actress, who had apparently escaped the scene through the kitchen window, they’d recognised Dominic and had sold the pictures of him and his new lady-friend to the Daily Mail.
The Daily Mail had connected her to her sister, connected Sophia to Dominic through their own archives, and turned the whole thing into an expose featured in their sidebar of shame online. Mary finds out about this through 9 notifications on Facebook and a text from Sophia consisting only of cry-laughing emoji and a link.
“Those bastards,” she hisses at her phone. “They called my grandfather for a quote, as though he has anything to do with it.”
“What did he tell them?” Dominic asks, curious.
“They say his words could not be repeated in print,” Mary says, and Dominic laughs while she glares down at the screen some more.
“I do look good in that dress, though,” Mary concedes upon reflection.
Dominic comes to peer over her shoulder. “You look fabulous,” he confirms. “Utterly delectable.”
“Don’t push it,” she says.
“No, but really,” she says later that afternoon, having been reminded of her appearance in the Daily Mail by an email from her mother. “The whole thing is ridiculous.”
“It’s a scandal,” Dominic explains, as though she’s some kind of idiotic child. “The Daily Mail loves anything that looks as though it contains a hint of drama.”
“I don’t know what to do about it, though,” she says.
Dominic grins at her. “There’s only one thing for it: you’ll have to marry me.”
“I really don’t know how you’re coming up with this,” Mary tells him, repressively, but she thinks her grin gives her away somewhat as a person who enjoys his penchant for bullshit.
The emoji text from Sophia seems to have reopened the dam of communication between them, and it’s not long before Mary finds herself texting her sister to complain about Dominic’s habit of imperiously demanding that they change cities according to his whim.
She gets a phone call from Sophia not ten minutes later. “I forgive you,” Sophia says, as soon as Mary answers the call. “It will be enormously helpful to me when you marry a future Duke.”
“Oh my god,” Mary says flatly. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“That’s not exactly clear to me, either,” Sophia retorts. “And mum keeps going around telling everyone she knows that you’re a chip off the old block, after all.”
“Oh my god,” Mary repeats.
“You looked lovely in the photos,” Sophia adds. “He has such wonderful taste.”
Mary makes a shocked noise. “How did you know he bought it for me?” she demands.
Sophia cackles. “Please, as if you’d ever choose anything that pretty for yourself. You’re not bad-looking, you know.”
“Thanks,” Mary says drily.
“So I guess it’s okay that you stole my European holiday away from me,” Sophia says.
Mary thinks about that. “Sophia?” she asks. “He told me that he didn’t think you’d actually turn up.”
Sophia sighs. “Honestly? Probably not, but I guess we’ll never know now. Leave it, would you?”
“Yeah,” Mary agrees, and they talk for a little while longer about, of all things, the weather they are respectively experiencing.
Dominic appears at breakfast one morning with 2 laptops, and hands her one with a vague line about having found it on sale the day before and noticing that she was having a hard time doing everything she needed to do on her phone.
“You’re ridiculous,” she tells him. “You don’t need to buy me everything.”
He stares at her. “A thank you would be appreciated,” he says, somewhat stiffly.
She shakes her head. “Of course I’m grateful, just—” she starts.
He snorts. “Mary, I am buying you everything,” he says, and she puts down her coffee with a thunk.
He’s right. The only thing she’s wearing that he didn’t pay for is her watch and her knickers, and she’s sitting in his family’s hotel suite, eating food he’s bought off plates he pays for. “Oh my god,” she says, horrified. “I’m so—oh my god.” This is the sort of moment that running to your bedroom was made for, only Mary doesn’t, she realises, have a bedroom here—there’s the room she’s staying in, but that rather proves his point.
Dominic sighs. “I’m not saying—look, it isn’t a problem, and I mean that. But, just—”
“I’m such a hypocrite,” Mary wails.
“My father gave me a vineyard for my 18th birthday,” Dominic says flatly. “I’m a very wealthy man.”
“You’re not helping,” Mary accuses.
Dominic stares at her. “I didn’t mean to make you feel—it really is okay; this is something I can do. And I know you don’t—”
Mary stares back at him, profoundly uncomfortable and, she thinks, obvious about it. “I don’t want to—I don’t expect—”
“I want you to rely on me,” he replies. “Or, I want you to be able to rely on me, even if you don’t—I don’t know, Mary, I just thought you’d like a bloody laptop, so I bought you one. Aren’t we having a lovely time?”
“Um,” Mary says, and bites her lip. He isn’t wrong. “I don’t—”
“I don’t think of you as a bloody gold digger or whatever terrible thing you’re thinking,” he adds.
She feels like crying. “I—are you sure, though?” and she isn’t—isn’t going to worry about what he thinks of anyone else, even if it’s marginally disturbing.
“I think we should go to Spain,” he replies. “We can look at the buildings.”
The house near Barcelona, perhaps surprisingly, belongs not to Dominic or his parents but to a friend of his mother’s, who uses it as her winter base in the years she doesn’t feel like skiing. Dominic acquires temporary possession of it via a single phone call, and he arranges a flight there in the family plane with the same ease. Mary could very quickly grow used to this style of travelling, she thinks.
Mary’s room looks out over the Mediterranean, and the view distracts her as she’s meant to be looking through job listings. She’s always hated job hunting—everyone does—and this time is particularly egregious, as she’d thought for months that she had things sorted.
She finds her CV saved in the sent folder of her email, and she reluctantly updates it to reflect that she’s done nothing in the weeks since she finished uni. Luckily, her results from her last term are excellent, good enough for anyone—not that she’d expected anything less, but it’s always nice to have it confirmed. And she supposes that graduates have done much worse than spend a summer running around Europe; she can always sell it as having desperately needed a break after many years of challenging study.
Dominic knocks on her door as she’s got down to 7 jobs, each in a tab, for which she must write a cover letter. “Shall we go to dinner?” he asks. “There’s a place down the road Aunt Bernadette recommends.”
“Alright,” she says, closing the laptop. “Just let me get a few things.”
The walk is, as promised, short, and it isn’t long before they’re seated at a tiny table in an equally tiny restaurant. Mary’s Spanish is almost non-existent, but Dominic comes through with perfect fluency which switches with ease to German when it turns out their waitress is from Bern.
Conversation mostly centres on Mary’s search for gainful employment and how utterly terrible it is. “I thought I was done with this, at least for a little while,” she says. “The whole thing is horrifying.”
“Hmm,” Dominic says. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
“You’ve never thought job hunting was horrible?” she asks, curious, dubious.
Dominic shakes his head and takes a sip of wine. “I’ve never done it,” he explains. “My father just upped my allowance and told me I had to learn the family business when I finished university.”
“Oh,” Mary says. There really isn’t anything to say to that. “Well, it’s terrible.”
Dominic grins at her. “I’m getting that,” he says. “Would you like another glass of wine?”
“God, yes,” Mary replies. “I sent off my CV to 5 different companies this afternoon, I deserve a break.”
Mary likes Barcelona. Dominic takes her on a tour of its architectural highlights on their third day there, and they walk around for hours while she takes an interminable number of photos and wishes, briefly, for slightly more sensible shoes. “We should go out dancing,” he says, immediately upon getting back to the house.
“My feet are killing me,” she replies.
He sighs. “The romance is dead,” he announces, before wandering off somewhere into the bowels of the property and returning a few minutes later with a portable foot spa.
He takes very little convincing to wander off the next morning. She’s vaguely concerned that he might arrive back with a car or, worse, a puppy, but supposes that he’s an adult with his own source of income who can do with it as he likes. Left to entirely her own devices, she settles down on one of the chaise lounges by the pool to read.
Dominic arrives back as she’s finishing off a gin and tonic. He’s wearing a light blue, pinstriped linen suit that she hasn’t seen before and a boater. “This house is very dull,” he announces imperiously.
Mary has, in fact, been enjoying her morning immensely. “I’m not bored,” she says.
“Fine,” Dominic says, flopping down on the lounge beside her. “What are you reading? Read to me.”
“It’s a history of double-entry bookkeeping,” Mary says. “I found it in the study.”
Dominic looks horrified. “Dear god, woman!” he exclaims.
Mary sighs and puts her book down. “It’s wonderful,” she insists.
“Very well,” Dominic sighs. “This house remains terribly dull, though. I think I shall take you to Greece next.”
“If you must,” Mary says. “Could you go and put the kettle on?”
“What?” Dominic asks.
“Oh, do you not know how, then?” Mary asks him, sweetly. “Come along, I’ll show you. It’s a basic life skill! Don’t you want to learn new things?”
“I know how to make a cup of tea,” Dominic says sullenly, but he follows her inside anyway.
The first several responses to her job applications are all rejections; a flurry of them that leave her feeling a bit shaken and glum, even as she tells herself not to take it personally: she has an excellent resume and academic transcript, but so do many other people.
“Why won’t you employ me?” she growls at yet another letter of sympathetic rejection, and Dominic looks up from where he’s reading yet another book of beat poetry.
“Bad news?” he asks.
She sighs. “Just—job hunting is awful. Sorry.”
“No, no,” he says. “I know just the thing to cheer you up!” This, from a man who thinks that travelling around Europe in private planes and luxury sportscars is an ordinary thing to do, is surprisingly comforting.
Still. “Er, what is it?”
“Pack your things,” Dominic says. “We’re going to Amsterdam!”
“But I like Spain,” Mary says. She really does: it’s sunny and this house is nice and she’s had a good time exploring Barcelona.
Dominic sighs. “Well, alright, Madrid,” he says.
Mary stares at him. “Alright, if you really think—”
“A change is as good as a rest,” Dominic intones.
Their place in Madrid is an apartment hastily borrowed from yet another friend of Dominic’s mother—Mary is astonished at how many people Dominic knows who appear to have spare houses—and consists of the top 2 floors of an old townhouse, converted into the most modern of living spaces circa 1974 and apparently not redecorated since. “I don’t think Hetta spends much time here anymore,” Dominic says somewhat regretfully, his feet sinking into the shag carpet.
Mary is entranced by 2 things at once: one, the orange-and-brown floral foil wallpaper, and the glitter in the stuccoed ceiling. “This place is amazing,” she says, turning around in glee. “Oh my god, the kitchen sink is blue!”
“It was the height of fashion,” Dominic says.
Mary stares at him. “I know,” she says. “It’s wonderful! My grandfather’s house is like this, and Uncle Ravi—Sophia’s dad—his parent’s house in Bristol was like this until, oh, 7 years ago?”
“You like it?” Dominic asks, obviously taken aback.
“I really do,” she replies. “I think it’s fantastic.”
“I think you’re fantastic,” Dominic says, going red high on his admittedly fantastic cheekbones.
“Um,” Mary says. “Shall I put the kettle on?”
There’s a shop two streets away from the apartment that sells nothing but entirely ridiculous hats. Ostensibly, Dominic has taken Mary shopping so that she can buy another pair of practical sandals and possibly a sunhat, but she ends up standing transfixed at the window display of the hat shop until he takes her elbow and leads her inside.
The shopkeeper does not speak more than broken English, of course, but again Dominic produces what sounds to Mary perfectly fluent Spanish, gestures emphatically at what Mary can only describe as a thing with feathers, and shows Mary into an armchair standing in front of a mirror.
The thing with feathers sits neatly on the side of Mary’s head and makes her look fierce. It also, suspiciously, does not have a price tag on it. She reluctantly reaches up to take it off when she notices Dominic looking at her in the mirror. “You like it?” he asks.
“Um,” she says, in lieu of admitting to wanting to mortgage her future home and children on what is essentially three pieces of netting, a square of felt, some sequins, and two feathers positioned so perfectly she could weep.
“You look amazing,” he offers quietly.
“I have no idea where I’d wear it,” she retorts—and he makes it so very difficult at times to be practical.
“I’ll find something,” he promises, and she believes him.
“Maybe I could become a milliner,” Mary muses that night at dinner. “I like hats.”
Dominic is in the middle of some story of rugby glory, expounding on the greatness of some man’s ability to convert tries and thus lead his team to fame and advertising sponsorships. It would be interesting except that she’s grown up in a household of non-sporty women, and both her grandfather and the only vaguely father-like figure in her life are cricket fans. “I don’t know why I even bother talking at times,” Dominic says, sounding mostly amused with a trace of real irritation.
That cannot be borne. Mary has gone on enough dates in her life where her partner has droned on about something boring while expecting her to nod and smile. “I don’t know why you do, either, my dear Marquis,” she retorts.
Dominic blinks. “You’re—not a rugby fan?” he hazards.
“I am not,” Mary confirms. “Cricket, and sometimes football.”
“Chelsea?” Dominic asks.
“Arsenal,” Mary replies. “My mother is very fond of the Colin Firth film.”
“Dear god,” Dominic says. “I don’t know if this relationship can go on.”
“Oh, shut up,” Mary says scornfully, and he bursts out laughing and orders another bottle of wine.
Juliana turns up in a cherry-red BMW convertible with her boyfriend Comyn, four days after Mary has forced herself to send out yet another round of job applications. “I’ve been talking to Sophia,” she says, upon Dominic opening the apartment door to her. “You’re an asshole, Dominic, and you’re ruining Mary’s life.”
Mary looks up from her book. It’s about the history of mapmaking, and it’s fascinatingly delightful. Dominic’s looking at her. “Mary’s life seems to me to be decidedly unruined,” Dominic says in a drawl.
“She worked so hard to get that job, and you stole her away to Europe and got her fired! I’ll never forgive you!” Juliana continues, looking at Dominic as though he’s the scum of the earth. Mary thinks it’s lovely; she and Juliana haven’t had much to do with each other since they finished school, but they were the best of friends at Cheltenham and they cross paths on Facebook all the time.
Nevertheless, Mary feels compelled to intercede. “Um,” she says.
Juliana looks between them both. “Really, Mary?” she demands. “Him?”
“He’s growing on me,” Mary says. “Like a fungus.”
“I knew you couldn’t resist me forever, dear girl,” Dominic says.
Mary presses her lips together and fights down a smile.
“England will still be there in the autumn,” Dominic claims, upon informing Mary that it’s time for them to leave Hetta’s apartment for Lisbon.
“Well, yes, but what if I get an interview?” Mary asks. There’s been nothing, and she’s slumped into the kind of job-hunting haze where it feels like there’ll never been anything, but she has to be practical. If nothing else, going to England would mean she could pick up something casual to get by; maybe Sophia knows someone who needs someone.
Dominic sighs. “I can have you back in England within 6 hours if need be,” he explains slowly, as though he’s talking to a particularly stupid child.
That does change things, to be fair, but it’s not as though Mary has never had reservations about this summer. “I’ve been travelling with you for almost a month, Dominic,” she says. “I was trying to be polite, in case you wanted me to go home.”
“Mary,” Dominic says, even slower. “I am confident that I am never going to want you to go home.”
“That is far less comforting than you think it is,” Mary replies, but she goes and sorts out her luggage for Portugal anyway.
Up until now, Mary hasn’t been exactly surprised at Dominic’s ability to make himself understood in whatever location he has taken her to. It’s Lisbon, though, where she finally thinks that it’s odd that he can speak the language of wherever they are. “How many languages do you speak?” she demands, after he’s navigated a tense moment on the Metro with a German tourist wearing socks and Birkenstocks.
“Oh, eight,” he replies, as though he can’t imagine why anyone would think it impressive.
“Eight?” she exclaims. “How?”
He shrugs. “I find it easy; I grew up trilingual, you know. I used to think I’d like to be an interpreter.”
“Why aren’t you?” she asks, curious.
He shrugs again. “It’s not really in keeping with the dukedom,” he says, simply. “I probably could, but—there’s a lot to learn, and my father’s not a young man anymore.”
Mary thinks about that for a little while. “Well,” she says, practical as always. “At least you can always travel.”
“You have a very peculiar way of cheering me up,” he retorts drily.
She grins at him. “I do try.”
Mary’s grandfather calls her on a Sunday afternoon, presumably after he’s finished terrorising the local vicar and had his ritual stout with the local farmers. “What on earth are you doing?” he demands, after the usual greetings.
“I’m sorry?” she asks. He’ll have to be more specific if he wants her to bite.
“I met Justin Alastair at my club last weekend,” he says sternly. “I didn’t send you to LSE to run off with his dilettante fool of a son.”
Mary scoffs. “I sent myself to LSE, thank you very much,” she retorts.
“Hmph,” he says. “Be as that may—”
“—and I’m thinking of learning to make hats,” Mary interjects.
“You’ve never wanted to make a hat in your life,” her grandfather says. “And no granddaughter of mine—”
“Shhh, granddad,” Mary says. “Your heart. You know your doctor told you that you have to remain calm.”
“Calm, my ruddy ass,” the General says. “You’ve thrown in your job to cavort across Europe with a playboy.”
“Is that the Duke’s opinion?” Mary asks, very gently, in the sort of tone she hopes her grandfather will recognise carries a knife.
He snorts through his nose again. “Just promise me you won’t become an unwed mother like your own mum,” he says.
“It’s 2015, granddad,” Mary says in reply.
Mary picks out their lunch restaurant by simply wandering into it and letting a tiny, birdlike old woman show her to a table. Dominic sits down, seemingly bemused, and stares at her. “Is it lunchtime, then?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Obviously.” He laughs.
The menu is written in a mix of Portuguese and broken, tourist-driven English and only has 3 items on it. Mary orders the fish and does not regret it when a huge bowl of stew comes out with fragrant, fresh bread on the side and a bottle of local wine to wash it all down with.
Their table looks out upon the road, and Mary people-watches as she eats, absently listening to Dominic ramble about a nearby cobbler his father has recommended. “I’m going to need new dress shoes soon,” Dominic says in what she supposes passes for a recommendation, and she makes an agreeable noise and continues watching a small child bounce from cobblestone to cobblestone.
“Hold still for a moment,” he says, suddenly authoritative, and she freezes. Maybe there’s a wasp about. But then there’s a camera-click, and she moves quickly enough to catch him tapping away at his phone.
“What are you doing?” she demands.
“Instagram,” he replies, unapologetic and still staring down at his phone.
Mary puts down her fork. “You have an instagram?” she asks.
Dominic shrugs and puts his phone away. “Yes,” he says. “I’ve been taking photos this whole trip—haven’t you noticed?”
Mary chokes on air and takes a long sip of wine to recover. “You’ve been instagramming this?”
“Many people have agreed that I’m a very lucky man,” Dominic says. “And that I’m perfectly correct in wanting to put a ring on it.”
“Oh god,” Mary says, rolling her eyes. “You’re completely shameless.”
His grin is wide and cheeky. “Oh, darling, I know,” he says, and she takes a mouthful of stew to hide her smile.
Their hotel suite has its own bar full of liquor, a small wine cellar, and a fridge full of beer because hotel management apparently understands its English-speaking clientele. They’ve spent the day wandering around, Mary even consenting to pose in front of a fountain while holding an umbrella, her hair up in a messy bun and her sandals bright green leather, so that Dominic can take photos and share them with the world.
Now she’s sprawled on the couch watching BBC World and drinking a very strong gin and tonic. The presenters are talking about George Clooney’s house in Berkshire, which is frankly an embarrassment to the entire programming schedule and the world at large, but Mary’s tipsy enough to add her own commentary. “That house is ridiculously big,” she says. “Who could possibly need a house that big?”
Dominic glances at the screen. “Avon Court is bigger,” he shrugs.
“Yeah,” Mary says, polishing off her drink. “But you—you didn’t build it. Some old ancestor did.”
“Very true,” Dominic says agreeably. “Would you like another?”
Mary’s rule about drinking has always been that if she’s not physically capable of making the beverage, she shouldn’t consume it. So she heads towards the bar and starts pulling down bottles, peering at the labels and trying to decide if she wants to stick with gin or head into the dangerous territories of rum or tequila. Or. “Long Island iced tea?” she asks.
“As the lady wants,” Dominic says. It turns out that cocktail-making is another one of his skills, and she ends up leaning on the bar, giggling, while he does things with measures and stirring sticks.
It’s delicious, so she has another, and drifts over to the couch again while he drinks copious amounts of port from a tiny glass. “Why don’t you just drink it from the bottle?” she asks him once, curious, and he glares lopsidedly at her.
“Please, Mary,” he says. “I would never be so undignified!”
She laughs. “Really? Not ever?”
He shrugs, all long limbs and loose muscles. “Well, I suppose in some circumstances,” he concedes.
“I’d like to see that,” she retorts, and is proud that her drunken flush probably hides her sudden blush.
“Would you now?” he asks.
She kicks her legs out in his vague direction—nothing connects, because he’s halfway across the room, but it’s the thought that counts. “Not now,” she says. “Bring me another!”
His laughter pleases her. She doesn’t think she says that out loud.
Later, he leads her to her bed and takes off her sandals, gentle with her even in clumsiness. “You’re the loveliest woman I’ve ever met,” he murmurs, as she flops sideways onto the mattress and grasps at the pillow. “You’re so beautiful, you’re perfect,” he continues in a ramble. She bats at his hands as they try to move her under the blanket.
“I just want to follow you everywhere and carry your things,” he confesses, as he tenderly tucks her in, and she’s not ashamed—she’s not—to let out a sleepy faux snore in lieu of an answer. But she’s pretty sure he knows she’d be okay with that, anyway.
Dominic, of course, has a number of friends who also appear to spend their summers wandering around Europe aimlessly, partying in hired clubs and hosting ornate dinner parties on yachts. Some chap in Lisbon actually walks into a room wearing an apricot silk neckscarf with his suit, which Mary stares at for a full five seconds before Dominic hisses “Carly Simon reference, the pseudo-ironic twat” in her ear. It transpires later that he’s a model for Calvin Klein and this is his first set of industry parties: or, at least, that’s what the man tells Mary as she’s nibbling on caviar while Dominic fetches her another glass of wine.
“And who are you here with?” the model, whose name is either Trey or Troy, asks.
“Dominic Alastair,” Mary replies, pointing him out. He’s always easy to spot in a crowd, tall and impeccably dressed as he is.
Trent squints at her. “Oh, yes, I recognise you from his twitter!” he says.
“He has a twitter account too?” Mary asks, incredulous. She shouldn’t be: she knows him.
“Oh, yes,” Trev says. “And you look gorgeous in it, of course—always so simply dressed, so elegant. You’ll restart the fashion for solid colours!”
“Um,” Mary replies. Across the room, Dominic is leaning over a very short, slender woman dressed in black silk cut—and it’s been an education shopping with Dominic this summer—on the bias, holding her hands and smiling softly down at her. Mary thinks she could quite cheerfully choke the both of them. “I’m glad to help,” she says to Travie vaguely. “If you’ll excuse me?”
By the time Mary has made it through the milling crowd, the woman has tucked her hand confidingly into Dominic’s elbow and is telling him some story about a guesthouse she stayed at on Elba. “Ahh, Mary,” Dominic says as she arrives.
“Hi,” Mary says brightly. “Who have you found?”
Dominic gives her an odd look. “This is Alexandrina,” he says. “She’s the daughter of my mother’s friend, the Duchess of Sale. Alexandrina, this is Mary Challoner.”
“Ahh,” Mary says. “I’m very pleased to meet you!”
Alexandrina smiles tightly. “And you,” she says. “I recognise you from Dominic’s adventures, of course, but it’s delightful to meet you in the flesh.”
“Quite,” Mary retorts. She knows she’s being rude and should care, but she wasn’t raised by a fiercely feminist single mother for nothing, and she’s fully prepared to fight someone for her man.
Dominic is still looking at her strangely, a fierce gleam in his eyes. “If you’ll excuse us, Alex,” he says, slinging a long arm over Mary’s shoulders. She feels oddly protected, even as she suspects he’s about to take her out onto a balcony to yell at her disapprovingly for being mean to his friends.
That. That isn’t what happens, although they do indeed end up on a balcony.
“Mary?” he asks, sounding hesitant. “Were you jealous in there?”
Mary frowns and then bites the bullet. “Maybe,” she says, begrudgingly, and then steels herself. “Yes,” she says, more firmly. “She was hanging all over you!”
“She’s one of my oldest friends,” Dominic says, and now his mild disapproval is clear. “But,” he adds. “I’ll never let her touch me again, if you don’t want me to.” It has all the force of a vow, and—it seems only fair, considering—for once she lets herself believe it.
“Nobody but me,” she says in return, and when he kisses her it’s not a surprise at all.
The drive back to the hotel is spent silently in the back seat of a taxi, staring out of opposite windows, their hands inches apart on the middle seat. Mary is half a breath away from throwing herself on Dominic and begging him to take her like some pulp-ish romance novel heroine when the car stops and he hands several bills to the driver before pushing open his door.
She kisses him again in the lift, leaning up onto the toes of her too-high heels and holding onto his shoulders for stability. He’s spinning her around to press her against a wall when the lift stops and the doors open with a chime. There’s nobody in the hallway and she takes a second to be grateful for it before they make it to the suite door and Dominic fumbles it open with his keycard.
“Are you sure?” he asks, looking down at her once she’s kicked the door closed. In answer, she pulls him down by the collar and kisses him again.
“Never surer,” she says. There are many things she could add, but nothing seems more important right now than beginning to unbutton Dominic’s shirt. “Are you?” she asks, because one should be sure of these things.
He laughs incredulously. “Mary, I’ve been saying I wanted to marry you for weeks. What did you think?”
“That you were joking?” she replies, uncertain. This is not the jealous, wild, mildly angry sex she’d been hoping for.
He closes his eyes. “Mary,” he says eventually, slowly, “I’ve never said that to another woman in my life.”
It’s only by the grace of God that she doesn’t inform him that there’s still time, and kisses him again instead, biting at his lower lip until his mouth opens and she can kiss him properly. “Well,” she says, drawing back. “Take me to bed, then.”
It’s evident by the way he draws down her knickers that he knows what he’s doing, confident in a way he hasn’t shown for a while. He doesn’t even fumble when she flings her bra off to land on top of some piece of soft furnishing, just grins charmingly from where he’s poised over her and proceeds to blow air over her clit while pushing two fingers inside her, no preamble.
She arches up into his hand and he grins into the join of her thigh and hip. “You’re really wet,” he says, clearly proud of himself, and it’s so inane she’s forced to kick him in the ass.
“Get on with it,” she demands.
“Whatever you want, darling girl,” he says, uncomfortably sincere even though she suspects he’s smirking, and does.
Her first orgasm takes her by surprise—sharp and fast, as he’s edging a fourth finger deep inside her and flicking her clit with his tongue, the other hand pinching her right nipple. “Fuck,” she groans, all of the tension in her body dissipating at once, and she expects him to pull back, move up her body so he can fuck her, but he just keeps going, slowing the movement of his fingers inside her.
“Can you go again?” he asks, fingers coming to a halt, and she’s so sensitive that his breath over her clit makes her moan.
“I don’t—” she says, helpless. She can’t even think.
“Hmm,” he muses, looking consideringly at her. “I think you can.” He might just be right.
She comes for the second time on his tongue, his hands spreading her wide and her hands tugging on his curls. “Enough,” she says, when he looks as though he’s going to try for a third. “I want to ride you like a pony now.” The words just burst out of her in a rush, and she’d be horribly embarrassed except that she feels like she could take a nap and then conquer the world.
“Excuse me,” he says, clearly amused. The skin around his mouth is shiny and it’s very distracting; she wants to lick it. “Mary?” he asks.
“Hmm?” she says.
The grin on his face is incredibly smug. “I’m a thoroughbred stallion, thank you very much.”
For a long moment, she doesn’t know what he’s talking about; and then it clicks, and she pushes him off her. It’s a surprise to discover that he’s still wearing his suit pants.
His gingham boxers have no obvious branding, but Mary is willing to bet they’re designer and cost an outrageous amount. She’d try to pull them off with her teeth—she picked up that skill a while ago—but she’s feeling far too lazy and has to save her energy for the fucking. Instead, she just waves her hand at him impatiently until he takes them off, glaring at her mockingly as he does so, and then pushes up onto her elbows so she can get a good look at his cock.
It’s nice. She wants it inside her. “Right,” she says, decisively, managing through pure willpower to lever herself off the bed so he can lie down. “Let’s do this.”
He bites his lip and does what she tells him. “Christ, you’re fit,” he says, which then dissolves into a choked moan as she climbs on top of him and holds his cock so she can put the condom on and lower herself onto it.
“You were saying?” she asks, sweetly. She doesn’t expect to come from this, not really, but god it feels good; he’s hard and hot inside her, and totally in her control. He reaches down towards her clit and she slaps his hand away, pinning his wrist down at his side.
“Holy fuck,” he hisses, surprised, and the fact that she’s heavy enough to prevent him from fucking up into her very hard is so, so unexpectedly hot and amazing that she thinks maybe she was wrong about coming again.
She grins down at him. “I think,” she says, panting a little. “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
“Oh my god,” he replies. “You—fuck.”
The only possible response to that is to reach down and begin playing with her own clit, fucking him harder as she goes. He’s clearly close, abdomen flexing as he breathes heavily, and she wants to get off again before he does; and then she’s there, all of a sudden, loose and fizzing and letting herself flop down onto his chest with a sigh so he can finish.
He tangles a hand into her hair and rolls them over, still inside her, and she’s faintly amazed that he’s still so coordinated. “Do you want me to pull out, darling?” he asks, concerned. She wraps her legs around his waist in answer; it’s an effort, but worth it, she feels, because he presses his face, open-mouthed, into the curve of her neck and thrusts all of five times before coming with a groan and a shudder.
They go to sleep like that, dirty and fucked-out, and Mary wakes up in the very early morning feeling faintly sticky and very hungry. When she lifts her head from the pillow and squints blearily into the gloom, she finds Dominic looking back at her. He smiles at her, teeth white and breath stale, and she nudges her nose into his shoulder.
“I could eat a horse,” she announces in greeting.
“God, you’re fantastic,” he replies. “I’ll call room service—I don’t promise a horse, though.”
“Well, in that case,” she says, sitting up and rolling her shoulders back. “I don’t know how I shall manage.”
He runs a finger down the length of her spine. “I’m sure I can be of assistance,” he murmurs, and it’s so cheesy for ass o’clock—for any time, really—that he doesn’t even fake surprise when she bursts out laughing.
They catch the train to Paris on a whim; Dominic says something about it being the City of Romance at lunch, and the next thing Mary knows she’s on a train with nothing but her handbag. “Don’t panic,” Dominic informs her. “The hotel will forward our things to the apartment.”
“Apartment?” Mary asks.
“Yes,” he replies. “It’s belonged to the estate for a century or so, I think. My mother redecorated it a couple of years ago, though, so no shag carpeting.”
“Alas,” she says, in want of anything better, and leans into his side. He kisses the top of her head absently, and the train rolls on.
Their luggage is at the apartment before them, all packaged neatly in the foyer; the hotel had apparently put it on the first flight available, and the courier through some web of transactions had gotten hold of Dominic’s father’s butler, who had arranged for the doorman at the Paris building to let them in. Even in a summer that has been filled with the strange habits of the rich and famous, this stands out.
“Someone folded my socks,” Mary says, looking blankly down at her suitcase.
“Yes,” Dominic says agreeably. “You’re a bloody awful packer.”
Mary scoffs. Dominic tugs the socks out of her hand gently and sets them back in her suitcase, and then leans down and kisses her; nothing gets unpacked for a while.
Dominic, for once, seems to have no inclination to leave the city he’s in, and settles into Paris as though he was raised there; which, Mary reasons, is probably at least partially true. He knows all the local shops, leaving the bed early each morning and returning with fresh bread and coffee, and seems to have an endless supply of places to take her and sights she absolutely has to see. Mary, who has been to Paris all of twice before in her life, is delighted that none of them are touristy in the slightest; it seems such a waste of an afternoon, queueing for some museum.
“My mother’s coming in a few days,” Dominic announces, one Thursday morning. “She rang me last night.”
“Oh,” Mary says. “Do you want me to—” She has no idea what she’s asking, really.
Dominic frowns at her. “I thought you two could go shopping. Have brunch. Maybe we could go out to dinner?”
“I—” Mary says, feeling decidedly put on the spot.
“You don’t want to meet my mother?” Dominic asks.
“No, not at all!” Mary says in a rush: he sounds uncharacteristically tense, and she doesn’t know what’s behind it. She doesn’t know to explain that the thought of meeting the formidable Duchess of Avon, Olympic fencing medalist and international champion of women’s reproductive health, when she’s spent the summer travelling around Europe on the woman’s son’s arm, is a little terrifying. “Just—”
It must show on her face, because Dominic sighs, and his shoulders relax. “She’ll love you, Mary,” he says.
“If you say so,” Mary says, weakly. She thinks of her own mother, always blunt and inclined to think of men as something of a waste of space (apart from Ravi, who wears the other half of a Best Friends Forever necklace they bought at H. Samuel after Sophia was born), and continues to worry.
The champagne at the party is insufficiently chilled, and it goes down Mary’s throat uneasily. She’s been feeling slightly off for a couple of days, uneasy ever since she got wind of the Duchess of Avon’s impending visit, and had come very close to insisting that Dominic come without her tonight. He’d looked so unhappy at the prospect, though, that she’d given in and put on a little black dress and a pair of heels. She wishes devoutly that she hadn’t.
“Are you alright, darling?” Dominic asks her, all noble concern.
She shakes her head. “I’m just tired, I think. And possibly a little hungry—it’s been a long time since lunch.” It’s not entirely untrue: it has been a long time since lunch. But she couldn’t eat anything much then, and the prospect of food now isn’t something that fills her with joy.
He takes the bait. “I’ll find you some canapes,” he murmurs, stalking off in search of the kitchens.
Mary’s left at the side of the room, watching a number of very elegant people in very elegant clothing talk to one another in a range of accents and languages. It’s almost relaxing, not having to talk to anyone: nobody seems to be paying any attention to her at all, and she can sink into her seat and not worry too much about whether she’s making a good impression.
A lanky woman in silk and pearls wanders over a few minutes later. “You’re here with the Marquis of Vidal, I hear?” she asks, sitting down beside Mary.
“Yes,” Mary says simply. “I’m Mary Challoner.”
“Hmm,” the woman says. “I’m Caroline Wagner.”
“Lovely to meet you,” Mary says by rote, and Caroline’s lips curve up in a faint, cool smile.
“Delighted,” she replies.
They sit in silence for a minute, Mary slightly confused as to why Caroline has bothered if she’s not even going to make conversation.
“You’re never going to be good enough for him, you know,” Caroline says eventually, hushed and firm. “Some little nobody? His parents will never accept you.”
Mary stares across the room, to where Dominic has gotten held up in a group of men. He’s taller than most of them, slender and beautiful even though he needs a haircut and his bowtie is a frankly hideous paisley. He’s laughing at something a short, redhaired man is saying, his neck arched back and his eyes half-closed, amused, and she feels fierce with want for him.
“How do you know they haven’t?” Mary demands, as cold as ice. She’ll never let herself be publicly beaten by a blond woman in Jimmy Choos.
Caroline looks flustered, but quickly recovers. “This has been a lovely chat,” she says, standing up and waving a hand at someone who is, presumably, a friend. “But I must go and chat with Maxwell.”
Mary does not like this crowd at all. There’s nothing for it but to join Dominic, standing amongst a group of his friends, and let him drape an arm over her shoulders while she laughs at the unfunny jokes of other men.
It’s a relief when they head back to the apartment, but Mary takes an age to go to sleep, thinking about whether this thing between her and Dominic can possibly work, when they have nothing and nobody in common.
Her Grace the Duchess of Avon arrives in Paris in a flurry of retainers, dear friends, and half the contents of a reasonably-sized family home. “Hello, mother,” Dominic says, real fondness in his voice when he greets her in the foyer of the flat; they’re surrounded by piles of luggage as well as a small dog her grace refers to as Monseigneur VI.
She’s absolutely gorgeous, of course, dark skin contrasting with her bright yellow suit, with hair cut even shorter than her son’s. Mary has met many intimidating people in her life, not all while travelling with Dominic, but this is the most nervous Mary’s felt in years. “Hello, my darling,” her grace replies. “This must be your Miss Challoner.”
“Yes,” Dominic says. “Mama, this is Mary.” Mary manages, with great force of effort, to make herself take two or three steps forward and offer her hand—for what, precisely, she doesn’t know, but she’s English and the impulse is there.
They shake hands, Mary and the Duchess, and then kiss each other’s cheeks perfunctorily. “I’m delighted to meet the young woman who has captivated my son,” her grace says. Mary can’t make out whether it’s a threat or not.
Late that afternoon, Mary offers to run out and pick up things for dinner—just simple food, bread and cheese and meats—so Dominic and her grace can catch up without an interloper. She lingers outside for a while, taking herself to the nearest park to look at the ducklings in the lake, and then takes a circuitous route back to the apartment via three cobbled alleys and a patisserie which puts everything on sale at 4pm.
She’s quiet letting herself into the apartment, and stills the moment she gets inside: Dominic and his mother are talking, voices raised, and what they are saying is—“You barely know her!”
“I know her enough!” Dominic retorts. “She’s wonderful!”
“I never said otherwise,” the duchess says. “Just remember who you are!.”
“I’ve never forgotten!” Dominic says, loud and fierce, and Mary doesn’t need to hear any more. She thinks she could fight the world, with Dominic on her side; but only if he wants to be there.
She slowly puts down her packages and, equally slowly, lets herself back out of the apartment.
Her handbag, as always, still has her passport in it; she has her wallet and is wearing sensible shoes; and Dominic is upstairs apparently telling his mother that she’s just a fling and nothing to worry about. Mary has no idea what she’s been thinking all these weeks: she should have returned to England at the first opportunity and started job hunting immediately, instead of letting Dominic convince her that she had time to be young and fancy-free.
The nearest Metro station is close, and from there it’s just a few stops to the Gare du Nord; but when she gets there, she can’t stand the thought of facing Sophia or her mother when she’s feeling so at sea, and so books a ticket to Brussels instead.
The train trip takes less than an hour and a half, and Mary spends the whole time sipping coffee out of a takeaway cup and regretting all of her decisions in life thus far. She can admit, however begrudgingly, that she loves Dominic; she can also admit, much less begrudgingly, that love is not the only thing that makes a relationship, and the prospect of having one with someone whose parents think she’s not good enough is not attractive.
Brussels, when she arrives, is yet another city full of English-speaking tourists, and she stops at the railway station Starbucks before heading out to find a hotel for the night.
The first hotel she happens across is the Royal Windsor, which normally is the sort of place she’d walk right past on her search for an economical hostel; but it’s late and she’s tired and unbelievably upset, and just this once her credit card can take the hit.
The clerk at the check-in desk is happy enough to take her money, but he does look incredibly dubious at her tale of spontaneity and lack of possessions. “Are you sure you want this room?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says firmly, taking the key and heading towards the lifts.
There’s a man, almost elderly, in her way, wearing a well-cut suit and navy dress shoes. His hair is entirely white. “Excuse me,” she says, politely, and then takes a second look: he looks vaguely familiar, though she doesn’t know where from.
“You look as though you have a story to tell,” the man says, looking slightly sardonic.
“It’s been a long day,” she confesses.
“Why don’t you tell me over a drink and some food?” he asks.
She stares at him. She’s not in the habit of accepting drinks from strange old men. He lifts an eyebrow. “My dear, you could be my daughter,” he says, and although that shouldn’t be a comfort, it is. Something about the way he hasn’t tried to step closer, and the way he reminds her of her grandfather.
They’re shown into a private room, which raises her hackles a little, but it has its own bar staffed by two young women, and he waves a hand at her urbanely. “I’m a regular guest here,” he explains. “The management is very kind.”
“Oh,” she says, and he ushers her smoothly into an armchair, one of a pair, and takes the other. She has a Tom Collins in her hand and a plate of tiny pastries, some savoury, some sweet, in front of her almost before she knows it.
“Take another pastry, dear, and tell me your story,” he tells her, as she licks the remnants of something gamey and chocolatey off her fingers, and she does. This one is pear-flavoured, sweet and spiced and entirely delicious.
“Well,” she starts. He leans forward ever-so-slightly in his chair.
He’s all questions, which she didn’t expect. “He... got you a foot massager out of storage?” he asks, sounding incredibly dubious.
“Dominic’s amazing at that sort of thing, though,” Mary insists passionately. “He’s always so attentive!”
“Really?” the man says, sounding doubtful, before sighing. “No doubt you’re perfectly correct—I just wouldn’t have suspected it. Do go on.”
“Forgive me,” he says, when she stops talking. “But I don’t immediately understand what brings you to Brussels.”
“His mother hated me,” Mary says. “And—okay, this isn’t the dark ages anymore, but he’s going to be a duke one day! I don’t even know where to start with that.”
“If I may tell you a secret,” the man says. Mary nods. “Nobody ever does.”
“Even so,” Mary says, not knowing quite what the purpose of that was, but willing to run with it. “His world and mine are so, so different—and I could handle that, I could handle him, but not if his parents are going to hate me the whole time.”
“I sincerely doubt that could ever be the case, Miss Challoner,” the man says.
Mary’s eyes widen, and she gapes. “How do you know my name?” she demands.
“I’m a friend of your grandfather,” he says. “You distinctly have his nose.”
“Oh,” Mary says, not entirely convinced. “Alright, then. But—”
There’s a commotion outside, a voice raised in outrage and another voice raised imperiously. The imperious voice sounds distinctly familiar. “Oh God, I think that’s Dominic,” Mary says.
“Hmm,” the man murmurs, and waves his hand at the bartender. “Another round, please,” he says to her.
“He sounds like he’s in a right mood,” Mary adds. “I should go out there.”
“Nonsense,” he retorts. “You should stay right there. No doubt the young man will make himself known soon enough.”
The voices get louder and then stop suddenly. Mary hopes Dominic’s seen reason and has taken himself out into the night.
Then the door opens, and there he is, standing in the doorway with his hair in wild chunks like he’s been pulling on it. For a second, he looks like he’s about to start shouting, and then he looks at who Mary’s with and blanches. “You—Dad?”
“Hello, Dominic,” the man—bloody hell, the goddamned Duke of Avon, and worse, Dominic’s father—says.
“Yes, indeed I am,” his grace says. “Do sit down, Dominic. Have a pastry! I’ve been talking to Miss Challoner.”
Dominic sits down. He does not touch the food. “My mother thinks she might have upset you, Mary,” he says, almost a question.
Mary shakes her head. “She didn’t say anything I hadn’t thought.”
“But that’s ridiculous,” Dominic says insistently. “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met—Dad, you agree with me, right?”
His grace presses his lips together, possibly fighting down a laugh. “Miss Challoner does appear rather singular to me, and seems to have had a wonderful influence upon your behaviour.”
“No, but can’t you see that she’s completely out of my league?” Dominic demands.
“But of course,” his grace says seriously. “For her to join our family could only be to our benefit.”
Mary snorts. A piece of pastry lands on her boobs, and she flicks it off and looks up. “You disagree?” his grace asks politely.
“Um,” Mary says. Dominic is glaring at her in a way that she suspects means he wants to take her upstairs and aggressively spoon her to sleep while telling her she’s beautiful. She’s very tired and it’s a lot. “No,” she says eventually.
Dominic’s grin is blinding. “Let’s fly to Las Vegas immediately!” he says.
“Nonsense,” his grace says. “Your mother will no doubt wish involve herself in the planning of your wedding, and I believe Miss Challoner is tiring. She will go to her room now, and you will come and sleep in our usual suite.”
“Father,” Dominic says pleadingly.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Dominic,” Mary says, and his shoulders slump. “It was—pleased to meet you, your grace.”
“A pleasure indeed,” his grace replies. He looks very, very amused.
Upstairs, she’s asleep almost as soon as her head hits the pillow.
Mary wakes up the following morning to a knock on her door. She checks her phone for the time and fumbles her way out of bed, grumpy because it’s barely 7am. If it’s Dominic, she may kill him.
It isn’t. Instead, it’s a soberly-dressed man with a cup of steaming coffee and a luggage trolley that appears to contain everything she left in Paris. “Um, good morning?” she manages.
“Good morning, Miss Challoner,” the man says, passing the cup of coffee to her. “I am Gaston, his grace the Duke of Avon’s valet.”
“Thank you; it’s nice to meet you,” Mary replies automatically. “You—have my things?”
“I travelled to Paris last night to assist her grace in her travels. Naturally, I brought your belongings to you.” He’s got a look about him that suggests that these kind of shenanigans form a large part of his day-to-day working life.
“Um, thank you,” Mary says. “And—the coffee—”
“You are very welcome,” Gaston replies. “Their graces wish you to breakfast with them at 9am. I will come to escort you to their suite at 8.55.”
Mary stares at him. “Er, alright,” she says. “Should I—” She shakes her head. “Nevermind. 8.55. I look forward to it.”
Mary doesn’t linger in the shower, and dresses carefully in the plainest trousers and blouse she can easily find. While someone appears to have taken care in packing her belongings, they haven’t organised things quite how she would have, and she doesn’t think she should really be wasting time unpacking and repacking everything when she’s possibly about to face her doom.
In the event, she’s dressed and made-up in careful eyeliner and neutral lipstick by 8.15, and has nothing to do except watch BBC Europe and grow steadily more nervous.
She jumps when there’s a knock on her door, and takes a second to take a deep breath and compose herself before she opens it. Instead of Gaston, though, there’s Dominic, holding a bunch of peonies and looking sheepish. “I’ve rather dropped you in it, haven’t I?”
“Oh my god,” she sighs. “You really have.” He’s wearing jeans and a white shirt—about as casual as she’s ever seen him—and she’d quite like to throw herself on him, just a little, and tell him to fix everything. She doesn’t: meeting his parents is hardly something she should balk at, and besides, she’s quite capable of organising her own life as well as his.
They stare at each other for a little while. He doesn’t try to touch her. “Shit,” she says, remembering the flowers in her hand. “I’ll find—a glass, something.”
“Doesn’t this room come with vases?” he demands, sounding disapproving, and it’s so typically Dominic of him that she bursts out laughing and some of the hideous tension she’s feeling relaxes.
“I don’t think so,” she replies, but checks just in case. She’s right, it doesn’t, and she gets the flowers split between 3 tall glasses and a coffee mug in the end, delicately balanced so hopefully nothing will fall over and break while she’s away.
The ride in the lift is fast, up to the very top floor, and she steps out onto very plush carpet and very expensive artwork along a wide corridor with a single set of double doors at the end. The doors open almost silently just before she and Dominic reach them, and they walk through them and along another hallway, which opens out into a small dining room with a round table.
Her grace is on her feet at once. “Darling!” she exclaims, rushing towards Mary to clasp her hands and look at her. “Dominic told me everything—I’m delighted to see you again—do sit down! What would you like to eat? Your blouse—so chic!”
“Um,” Mary says, taking the seat Gaston is holding out for her. “Good morning?” There’s a plate containing two slices of toast, ham, and warm eggs in front of her, along with another cup of coffee. Dominic’s father is eating his own breakfast to her right, so she picks up her cutlery and takes a bite.
“We’ll hold the wedding at St Paul’s,” her grace announces a few minutes later, just as Mary is finishing off her second egg. Mary drops her fork.
“What wedding?” she demands.
“Yours and Dominic’s, of course,” her grace says, implacable. “My son has explained all.”
“Don’t you want to marry me after all?” Dominic says. He sounds wounded, but there’s a glint in his eye that makes her think he’s not quite as driven to get her up the aisle immediately as he sounds.
Outraged, she glares at him. “I want to date you first, you wanker!” she retorts, and the glint in his eyes softens.
“That will do to start with, I suppose,” he concedes, and she sniffs, satisfied, and gets up to get herself another cup of coffee. She’ll need it.