Sun shone down on us as Charlotte's butler opened the black, brightly lacquered door.
Before he could get a word out I said, "I know she's still asleep, but you've got three people on the doorstep wanting a room for the night and three empty guest rooms. However shall you solve that one, Preston?"
The butler, a splendid sight in collar and tails and with a middle part so sharp you could cut yourself on it, stepped back and allowed us to enter the vestibule, a smile broadening his face.
I'd known Preston for years and he had a heart of gold.
During the war when heating fuel couldn't be acquired for love or money and duchesses were wearing their furs to the dinner table simply to keep warm, I'd had a few trees on the estate felled and hauled all the way up to Charlotte's cellar in the dead of night in a military ambulance.
Dear Preston had had tears in his eyes as he'd helped stow the logs in the empty coal bin, and to this day he was prepared to bend over backwards to help us wherever he could. I was just glad it was him who'd answered the door and not Charlotte's maid, Clara. She might just have had the cheek to make Brooks and Morris use the tradesman's entrance.
We were shown into the visitor's lounge, and as I explained the situation, Morris and Brooks gawked like visitors in a zoo at the fashionable green-and-blue wallpaper, the paintings and the tasteful decorative items along the chimneypiece as if they'd never seen the inside of an aristocratic house before.
Although Brooks had stuffed his jacket under his head and gone back to sleep on our journey up to Town, he still looked tired and said he'd be happy to be shown to his room. Morris was eager to see as much of London as he could, and wanted to come with me as I ran the errands and called in on customers and suppliers.
I didn't see why he shouldn't come along. On the train, he'd been as merry as a grig, nose pressed against the window, commenting every hillock we passed. He was desperate to get back on the Underground train for another ride, and I was slowly becoming infected with his enthusiasm. And it might be helpful to have him along to carry somethings.
"Before you embark, Miss Altringham," said Preston, as he lifted my case to carry it up to my room, "allow me to inquire if Miss Wynthorpe will see you? That would permit you to communicate your plans directly to her and make any necessary arrangements between yourselves. "
"How very kind of you, Preston, thank you."
After a few minutes I was called upstairs.
Charlotte was awake. Barely.
"Olivia? Do open the curtains a crack, but not too much."
I did as I was asked, pulling back the curtains to allow only a sliver of light to fall into the darkened room.
Charlotte sat up, her satin nightgown like a wash of aquamarine water in the dimness, and reached for her bedside clock.
"Nine in the morning? I'd forgotten such an hour existed. God is terribly cruel." She flopped back into the pillows and moaned.
I sat on the edge of the bed, pushing a few pillows and a half-read paperback aside to make room.
"I've got loads to talk to you about, so I thought --"
Charlotte held up a thin, elegant hand.
"First things first." She tilted her face towards me, closing one eye and squinting with the other. "Have you slept with him?"
"James? No. Well, almost. But, in the end, no."
"No, almost, in the end, no. Sounds remarkably uneventful."
"There's loads more. Most of it colossally boring but important nonetheless."
"Doesn't have anything to do with growing cabbages, does it? Oh no!" She dropped her hand and it landed with a thud on the blankets. "You mentioned some new details about your mother having crawled their way out into to the light of day, didn't you? Is that the colossally boring but still important part? If it is, I shall bravely suffer through it. You know how I feel about family."
I certainly did. Charlotte was the least family-oriented woman I knew and barely spoke to her own parents beyond what what socially required. Intimate family history was of no interest to her unless it was somehow connected to society gossip.
"No, that part you'll definitely enjoy. Look, Charlotte, two of my men are here with me, Brooks you know and --"
"Two men in my house? Good Lord, why am I still in bed?'
"--and the other is one of my wounded, as you refer to them. I've requisitioned your guest rooms for them, but no worry, they'll be gone in the morning and won't be underfoot."
"Brooks, you say? I don't mind Brooks. He's too old for me, of course." Charlotte sat up and fluffed the pillows so that she could lean back against them comfortably. Her dark hair was tousled from sleep, but still looked a sight better than mine did, of that I was certain.
Perhaps I should get one of those short, modern hairstyles, as well, so that I could look so deliciously presentable first thing in the morning? I ushered an image of James appraising at me from the next pillow with sleepy-hazy eyes out of my mind almost as quickly as it appeared.
"What about the other one? Is he handsome?" She giggled. "No, don't say a word. We've got George D'Arby and Carlton Lyons on deck and ready for inspection this afternoon. Carlton's mine, by the by. I'm slowly wrenching him away from Celia Paggett, that hippopotamus in stockings, just so you're in the know. It's George you'll be sliding all over this evening if things go well."
"I'm looking forward to flirting with this George, whoever he is, but I'm afraid I'll have to take myself off the market until further notice."
Charlotte stared flatly at me, all gaiety dropping away in an instant. "It's serious with this James, then?"
"Until further notice."
"Be careful, Olivia. He's only been back in your life, what, a fortnight?" There was that look of concern again. Why was everyone suddenly concerned about the state of my emotions?
"There's so much I simply must talk to you about, Charlotte, and all of it important. Carlton and George will just have to understand."
"Well, if that's how it is, they most certainly will have to, won't they?" Charlotte sighed. "Right-ho. Then do be a dear and draw the curtains on your way out, I can feel a delightful dream coming on as we speak."
YOU ARE READING
England 1921. For fifty handicapped veterans left without home or job after WW1, the only person standing between them and utter destitution is Olivia Altringham. Lacking sufficient funds and a support network, Olivia has managed to keep her vetera...