Elsie nodded. “I’m warning you, it might take me some time to remember, but—well now, I suppose this story starts with me, when I was learning to be a lady’s maid in 1939, up at the Big House. You wouldn’t have recognized Wharton Park, Julia. The whole place was so alive, buzzing with the Crawford family and their friends. They had house parties almost every week in the shooting season. And one weekend, some friends of theirs came up from London, and I was put in charge of looking after their eighteen-year-old daughter, one Olivia Drew-Norris. She was my first ‘lady.’ ” Elsie’s eyes brightened with the memories. “Oh, Julia, I’ll never forget until my dying day, the moment I walked into that Magnolia bedroom and saw her for the first time. . . .”
As Olivia entered the drawing room, she had the new and not unpleasant feeling of her arrival being noted approvingly. Lord Crawford was the first over to her.
“Olivia, isn’t it? My, my, how that Indian sun nurtures buds into full bloom. Snifter?”
“Thanks awfully,” she replied as she took a gin from the tray proffered by the hovering butler.
“Rather glad you’re my neighbor at table tonight, my dear,” Lord Crawford commented, throwing a discreet nod in the butler’s direction. He answered with an equally discreet nod back. Even if Olivia hadn’t been beside him for dinner, she was now.
“So, how are you finding Blighty?” he asked.
“It’s thrilling to see the country I’ve heard so much about,” Olivia lied smoothly.
“My dear, I’m delighted that you should take the time to visit us in our rural Norfolk backwater. You’re doing the Season, so your papa tells me?”
“Yes.” Olivia nodded.
“Jolly good show,” Christopher chuckled. “One of the best times of my life. Now, let me introduce you to my wife. She was indisposed this afternoon, but seems to have recovered for this evening.” He guided Olivia over to a slim, elegant woman. “Adrienne, do meet Olivia Drew-Norris, whom I’m sure is going to break many chaps’ hearts this Season, just like you did years ago.”
Adrienne, Lady Crawford, turned toward Olivia and extended her delicate white hand, and in a parody of the male handshake, their fingers touched.
“Enchantée,” said Adrienne, smiling at her approvingly. “You are indeed a heartbreaker.”
“It’s awfully kind of you to say so, Lady Crawford.” Olivia was beginning to feel like a prize heifer being paraded around a showground, waiting to be judged. She hoped this wasn’t a precursor of the Season to come.
“Please, you must call me Adrienne. I am sure we will be great friends, n’est-ce pas?”
Lord Crawford looked down fondly at his wife. “Good show, good show. I’ll leave Olivia in your capable hands, my dear. Perhaps you can give her a few tips.” He strode off to welcome two new arrivals.
Olivia took the moment to enjoy Adrienne’s own beauty. Although mature, in her early forties at least, Adrienne had the body of a slim young girl. And a beautifully sculpted face, with high, chiseled cheekbones underneath a flawless, ivory skin. Her quintessential femininity reminded Olivia more of a delicate Indian maharani, rather than the usual female English aristocrat, built as they were to withstand the harshness of the British weather, with wide hips to engender the brood of children they needed to continue the family line.
Adrienne was so elegant, so fragile, Olivia felt she would be more suited to a salon in Paris than a drafty English country house. Indeed, Olivia’s mother had told her that Adrienne was French. Judging by the way she wore what was a simple black cocktail dress, adorned only with a string of creamy pearls, she had the effortless chic of her native land.
“So, Olivia, you are back in this dreadful country, with its filthy weather and its lack of natural sunlight, n’est-ce pas?”
Adrienne stated this as a matter of fact and Olivia was taken aback by her bluntness. “I am certainly finding the change is taking rather a lot of getting used to,” she answered as diplomatically as she could.
Adrienne’s tiny hand rested on hers. “Ma chérie, I too was brought up in a place full of warmth and light. When I left our château in the South of France to come here to England, I did not think I could bear it. You are the same. I can read how much you miss India in your eyes.”
“I do,” Olivia whispered.
“Well, I can only promise you it will get easier.” Adrienne gave an elegant shrug. “Now, I must introduce you to my son, Harry. He is of your age and will keep you company while I play the hostess parfaite. Pardon, chérie, I will go find him and bring him to you.”
As she watched her hostess glide across the room, Olivia felt disarmed by Adrienne’s empathetic assessment. She was, on such occasions, used to only making small talk, never delving below the surface to discover more. Any form of inner thoughts—or worse, emotions—was frowned upon by British society. That much she had learned from the club in Poona. Her conversation with Adrienne, albeit short, had comforted her. She allowed herself a secret smile.
Harry had been ordered by his mother to go and keep the young “Indian” girl company. Dutifully, he made his way toward her across the room. A few paces away from her, he saw her lips open wide as she smiled.
Her cool, blonde beauty was suddenly animated, filled with a radiance beneath her creamy skin. Harry, not usually particularly aware of the physical charms of women, realized she was what most of his fellow officers would term a stunner.
He approached her. She saw him and said, “You must be Harry, sent to make polite conversation with me by your mother.” Her turquoise eyes were filled with amusement as she spoke.
“Yes. But I assure you, it will be my pleasure.” He glanced at her empty glass. “May I find you another drink, Miss Drew-Norris?”
“That would be just the ticket, thank you.”
Harry summoned the butler, and as Olivia placed her empty glass on the tray and took a fresh one, she said, “I do apologize if you think me forward. I don’t mean to be. I feel rather sorry for you, that’s all, having to speak to endless people you’ve never met before.”
Olivia was surprised at her boldness and blamed the particularly potent gin. She looked at Harry, “handsome” Harry, as Elsie had described him, and decided that Elsie was right. Harry had garnered the best physical qualities of both his parents; he had the height of his father and the fine bone structure and luminous brown eyes of his mother.
“I can assure you, Miss Drew-Norris, coming to talk to you isn’t a chore. You are, at least, under the age of seventy, which always helps. And, to be frank, around these parts, pretty unusual.”
Olivia laughed as Harry responded to her glibness. “Touché, although wearing that dinner suit, you could be taken for your father.”
Harry shrugged good-naturedly. “Why, Miss Drew-Norris, I do believe you are making fun of me. Do you not realize that war is coming to these fair isles and we must all make some sacrifices? For me, that’s wearing my father’s hand-me-down suit, even if it is three sizes too big for me.”
Olivia’s face darkened. “Do you really believe there will be war?”
“Without a doubt.” Harry...