The Fracking Queen commands, and we obey, Edmund St Aubrey, Earl of Respers, thought with amusement as he contemplated the duck-egg blue Tiffany box on his dressing table. Inside it was a four-carat pink diamond engagement ring, the central stone encircled by smaller, no less bright white diamonds; the whole thing had cost over forty thousand pounds.
It was a sum which Edmund would have been quite incapable of affording himself. And even if he had had a spare five figures kicking around – an unimaginable amount! - he would have poured it into some much more pressing need: urgent repairs to the roof of Stanclere Hall, his ancestral home. Or the almost-equally vital task of replumbing the Hall and installing a new boiler: the clunks and creaks whenever someone tried to run a bath were frankly terrifying, as if a gremlins inside the ancient pipes were hitting them with tiny hammers. Or buying desperately-needed new farm equipment. Edmund winced, thinking about his ancient John Deere tractors, so corroded by now that the workers joked that the rust was all that was holding them together –
But you don’t need to worry about the roof or the boiler or the tractors now! he told himself, taking a deep breath, fighting back the panic that wrapped around him every time he thought about how much money he needed to keep Stanclere Hall running. All the jobs in the house and on the estate are safe now, thank God. Edmund could not separate the interests of Stanclere Hall, its landscaped gardens, its arable land, and its loyal staff; they were all essential parts of a whole without which he would never be complete. The Earls of Respers had always lived at Stanclere Hall, and with that privilege came huge responsibility. Edmund did not own the Hall; he held it in trust for the future generations of Respers and also for all the people to whom it provided jobs and a roof over their head, in the form not only of the Hall itself but all its tied cottages. Some of the families had worked for the Respers as long as the latter had been in residence.
So no pressure, Edmund, as the Fracking Queen would say, he thought, smiling. No pressure at all. Just the wages bill every month, the soaring costs of electricity and gas, a crumbling ancient stately home to maintain, an ornamental lake covered in algae …
Mercifully, inside the small square Tiffany box was the solution to all his problems. It might be unorthodox for the mother of his future fiancée to have bought her own daughter’s engagement ring, but the Fracking Queen had been insistent, and she always got her way. She had insisted that Brianna Jade, Edmund’s heiress bride-to-be, was not to be proposed to with some old ring from the Respers family jewels. Edmund had argued that there were some very good pieces of jewellery in the safe: being part of the entail, Edmund couldn’t sell them to raise money to maintain the estate. Edmund, who disliked to see so much money thrown away on what he privately considered a bit of shiny carbon, had tried to tell the Fracking Queen that it was much more ‘English aristocracy’ to bestow a family heirloom on one’s bride. But the Fracking Queen had triumphantly countered with the fact that when Prince Oliver, the heir to the throne, had proposed to his late bride, Princess Belinda, he had done so with a ring bought from Garrard’s jewellers, and what was good enough for the royal family was damn well good enough for Brianna Jade.
There was really no arguing with the Queen when she was set on something; she would pull out her tablet thingy, whizz around it, tracing a perfectly manicured finger on the screen, and come up with a devastating fact that would stop you in your tracks. And since she hadn’t insisted that Edmund purchase the pink diamond ring himself, or even pick it out, but had done that all herself, there was also no denying that she played fair. The box had been produced triumphantly today when she arrived from London. She and Edmund had drunk sherry in the library while Brianna Jade supervised the unpacking of her and her mother’s weekend wardrobes.
Edmund had blinked at how very bright the ring was. It looked as if it had been cut specifically to refract the maximum light possible, as if you could, in a pinch, use it to spark a fire by channelling sunlight through it, as they did with mirrors in the Boy Scouts. But the Fracking Queen had smiled complacently at the sparkling diamonds she had produced, sculled her sherry in one swift gulp – my God, she can hold her spirits, he thought respectfully; he’d seen her drink glasses of good single malt as if they were spritzers – and stood up, announcing that she would send Brianna Jade downstairs in an hour or so and that she expected Edmund to have ‘sealed the deal’, as she put it, in time for champagne before dinner.
The champagne which she had sent from Harrod’s, of course, because Edmund couldn’t possibly afford her favourite, Cristal. Cases of it had arrived the day before, together with hampers of foie gras, caviare, and vast quantities of bresaola, some sort of Italian beef slices on which the Queen mainly existed for diet purposes. Cook was fascinated.
He raised his eyes from the little blue box and looked at himself in the mirror of his dressing table. Being born an Earl had not made Edmund arrogant in any way. If anything, it had humbled him, the knowledge that he had so much responsibility but lacked the business skill to run his estates profitably. Nor was he arrogant about his looks.
I’m just an average sort of chap, he thought, considering his reflection. He was tall enough – six feet – with nice regular features. At least I have a decent jawline. It might be a cliché that many of the British aristocracy were chinless wonders, but it didn’t make it any less true. His light brown hair, his grey eyes, his square forehead and straight mouth were all Respers features, seen in many of the family portraits. The men were attractive in a traditionally manly way, but the solid features, wide shoulders and strong jawlines were harder on the women. Respers females tended to be described, charitably, as ‘a little on the masculine side’.
Well, Brianna Jade will definitely raise the Respers aesthetics considerably, Edmund thought, picking up the tie that was draped over his valet stand and placing it around his upturned shirt collar. He had never really believed that women as beautiful as her existed outside films and magazines. Or that, even if they did, one of them would conceivably want to marry him. He was the envy of the entire county. Brianna Jade looked like the model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, she was the sweetest-natured girl Edmund had ever met, and she was bringing him a dowry that would literally transform Stanclere.
And what did he have to give her in return? A title, a big crumbling house and – he looked at himself again in the mirror as he straightened his tie – an average-looking man who just happened to be an Earl.
He really was the luckiest man in the world.
* * *
As Edmund contemplated his good luck, Brianna Jade Maloney sat demurely in the corner of one of the tatty chintz sofas in the morning room of Stanclere Hall, waiting for its owner to come with his sure light tread down the creaky central oak staircase and stride across the tatty old rugs in the Great Hall: Tamra, Brianna Jade’s mom, said that as soon as Edmund and her daughter were officially engaged, there would be major, major renovations on the Hall, and you’d better believe all the ancient rugs would be the first thing to go, before the moths got to her Italian cashmere.
Brianna Jade’s hands were folded in her lap, her expression perfectly composed as she pictured Edmund appearing in the doorway of the morning room, smiling at her with his polite, English-gentleman smile, about to say –
But Brianna Jade made herself stop right there, before she actually heard the words in her head. She wanted them to be lovely and new when Edmund said them to her, to have her own reaction be completely spontaneous. This was a luxury she had barely ever enjoyed in her adult life to date: from the age of fifteen, she had competed in one pageant after another for four straight years, and pageant competitors were programmed like computers. Even though those days were behind her, had ended when the Fracking Queen married vast amounts of money in the shape of Ken Maloney, the Fracking King of America, Brianna Jade had still needed to learn how to behave in her new life, to follow another set of rules. She was very much looking forward to a marriage in which her vast dowry would allow her, hopefully, just to be herself.
It’s the start of a new life now, she thought with great relief. I’m settling down. Finally, she knew where she belonged: in this lovely house in the country with farmland all around it. She had always wanted to live on a farm. And England was so pretty and green, so much prettier than Illinois. Brianna Jade loved it here.
And she had totally earned this. All those years walking onto pageant stages, smiling till her mouth cramped and saying what the judges wanted to hear, without any idea of what she actually thought about the questions they were asking. And then, after her mother had married Ken, catapulting them into the lap of luxury, they both swiftly realised that they had to learn how to talk right and know how to act classy enough for Florida high society, which had turned out to be just as exhausting.
Being the Countess of Respers, by contrast, seemed like it would be a walk in the park. The London upper crust had been hugely welcoming to the Fracking Queen and Princess: no one in the UK cared about what kind of an American accent you had. US class distinctions were meaningless over here.
Brianna Jade might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier intellectually, but she was richly gifted with common sense. She was perfectly aware that almost everyone in London society had been so very friendly because she and her mother Tamra had swept in on a glittering tide of money, as if their dollars had been golden coins that her mother scattered from her carriage, like she pictured people doing in the olden days. Of course some of the younger women hadn’t been quite so nice to her, but that was only to be expected. Brianna Jade had moved schools plenty of times during Tamra’s quest to better both of their fortunes, way enough to know all about mean-girl cliques and how they didn’t like a new arrival at the best of times, let alone one who was pretty enough to be on the pageant circuit.
And the rich, titled, twenty-something women, led by some girl called The Honorable Araminta, were complete pushovers compared to the hardcore bitches from back home in Illinois, all scrabbling to win the titles of Kewanee Pork Queen or Watseka Corn Queen. Those were girls who’d rub baby oil into your false lashes so they wouldn’t stick on, doctor your shampoo with Kool-Aid to streak your hair, glue up the nozzle of your hairspray can and refuse to let you use theirs, even push you into a stinging nettle patch or rub poison ivy into the inside of your dress,.
The Honorable Araminta, aka ‘Minty’, and her girlfriends had no idea how to cat-fight as dirty as the Kendras, Taylors and Kymbers on the pageant circuit. In the US Tamra had done plenty of battling for her daughter, but here Brianna Jade was more than equal to the task. What had these Honorables and Ladies ever lacked in their life? Had they ever had to shop at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, make a packet of ready-made grits last a couple of days between two of them, or hitch to school because they had two tyres bald as eagles and no money for petrol? No way.
Brianna Jade didn’t understand half of what they said, anyway, because of their sharp clipped accents which made their words like stabby little knives thrown too short to reach the target. And she wouldn’t have answered even if she had, because she’d figured out early on that what drove them really crazy was if she just smiled back at them with her perfect teeth, her best ‘I’m a Christian and I forgive you’ pageant smile. For some reason she couldn’t work out, they hated that smile. They actually recoiled when they saw it, like she had a full water pitcher in her hand and they were the Wicked Witches from every compass point going.
The Honorable Minty and her crew did have one thing in common with the girls back home, though: they were equally wary of Brianna Jade’s mom. Tamra provoked that reaction in women. It wasn’t her fault; her God-given looks meant that she was catnip to every dad, male teacher and, frankly, a lot of those girls’ teenage boyfriends. That had been Tamra’s ultimate threat to the really bad mean girls, that she’d flirt with their boyfriends and turn their heads around so they literally couldn’t even see their girlfriends any more, they were too dazzled by Tamra Krantz.
Because Tamra was the ultimate MILF. She’d had her only daughter at sixteen: when, at fifteen years old, Brianna Jade won the title of Pork Queen of Kewanee (a fact Tamra never wanted mentioned in later life), Tamra was thirty-one then and looked twenty-four. She was the perfected version of what Brianna Jade would hopefully become, with her thick mane of strawberry blonde hair, her hazel eyes, her skin lightly tanned and so smooth and even that even the haters couldn’t help calling her ‘Barbie’ as a grudging compliment.
Brianna Jade regularly heard girls at school bitching that Tamra had better legs than they did, a flatter stomach, and, for a while, bigger boobs: however, on marrying Ken, which took them up in the world like an express penthouse elevator to Classy Town, Tamra had taken a good look around her, realised that D cups didn’t fit into the Armani or Carolina Herrera dresses worn to fundraising Florida balls, and had the implants removed. Ken had bitched and moaned about it, but, as always, he went along with what Tamra wanted.
Like we all do, Brianna Jade thought now, smoothing down the pleated silk skirt of her Balenciaga dress with its exquisite chiffon pintucked sleeves. It was totally gorgeous, but she still couldn’t pronounce most designer names right. She suspected Minty of guessing that fact and trying to catch out Brianna Jade by repeatedly asking her who had made her clothes, but Brianna Jade just smiled seraphically in return, flicked her glossy, perfectly blow-dried hair from one shoulder to the other, and said:
“Oh, I couldn’t tell you. Mom and I have so many pretty things.”
Foiled, Minty had sneered again, tossed her own hair – the British society girls were all proud of their hair, though Brianna Jade’s was lusher than any of theirs - and slinked away. Brianna Jade had heard that Minty had nicknamed her BJ, but that was water off Brianna Jade’s back, rain off her bouncing, lacquered, hairsprayed locks. It sure wasn’t the first time she’d been teased about that. Tamra had apologised years ago for not realising the consequences of naming her daughter after Brianna Jade’s dead father – Brian Schladdenhouffer, who had done the decent thing and proposed when Tamra got knocked up, only to die in a combine-harvester accident before he could either get married or see his daughter born – plus the stone in the engagement ring, a jade he’d given Tamra till he could afford a Kay’s diamond from the local mall. (“Every kiss begins with Kay!”)
Tamra had suggested that Brianna Jade change her name: Brianna Jade had promptly burst into tears, said that she wouldn’t dream of it, that her name had not one, but two lovely references to her dad, and that her mom should never raise the idea again. Being called BJ really wasn’t such a big deal, she had insisted bravely. Tamra had burst into tears as well, and they’d hugged and cried for a long time before deciding to hitch into Kewanee and go spend some money they didn’t really have on Bananas Foster ice-cream sundaes at Carvel, their favourite treat.
And look at me now! I’m going to be Brianna Jade, Countess of Respers, with the Honorable Araminta and her friends dancing at my wedding!
An ecstaticsmile spread over Brianna Jade’s face at the thought of their sour expressions as they saw her walking up the aisle of the Respers family chapel in a couture gown, her train a mile long, her diamonds sparkling and her head held high and triumphant. Edmund walked into the morning room to see her big hazel eyes sparkling, her glossed lips curving ecstatically, her strawberry-blonde hair, curled on heated rollers, tumbling around her face, and her cheeks a little pink with sheer pleasure at her imminent engagement: she looked so stunning that he almost dropped to one knee there and then.
‘You look like a Sienese icon,’ he blurted out, unable to take his eyes off her.
‘I do?’ Brianna Jade directed the full wattage of her smile at him. ‘That’s a good thing, right?’
Brianna Jade was quite unfazed by her lack of cultural knowledge. Rich, upper-crust people didn’t talk about opera or ballet or paintings, not back in Florida and not here in the UK either. When she and Tamra were invited to the Royal Opera House, no one in the private box they sat in would ever say a word about the singing or dancing: they just gossiped about whose husband was looking to upgrade to a trophy wife, or whose wife was taking ‘extra sessions’ with her personal trainer. She’d worked out long ago that, for these people, culture was either an excuse to dress up, go out and spend money, or a stick to beat the peasants with because they didn’t know about… well, that Siamese icon thing Edmund had just mentioned.
Her eyes softened even more sweetly as she gazed at him. He’d meant to be nice, and now he was going to explain to her what he’d been talking about. Plus, it was sweet of him to assume that she might know what the Siamese thing was…
‘Icons are paintings of saints,’ Edmund said. ‘Mostly done on a gold background, because they were so special – they were supposed to be worshipped. The ones from the Siena school are all pale-skinned like you, with hazel eyes and blonde curls. I’ll find some to show you.’
‘I’d love to see them,’ Brianna Jade said politely.
‘So, um, anyway - ’ Edmund had planned out where he thought the proposal should take place – ‘I was wondering if you’d like to go for a stroll with me in the grounds before dinner? The lake always looks lovely at this time of day.’
Brianna Jade was already rising to her feet, which she had sensibly clad in two-inch Lanvin slingbacks with a square heel. She and Tamra had learned early that British aristocrats thought it was really ‘common’ for women to wear high heels when any kind of walking on lawns was involved: that was for what they called ‘plebs’, which seemed to mean anyone but them. Brianna Jade remembered polo matches where Minty and her crew had audibly mocked young women digging divots in the grass with the heels of their Jimmy Choos. Instead, the posh girls (although Tamra and Brianna Jade avoided saying that word, as posh people loathed it) showed off their skinny bare legs in Le Chameau or Hunter ‘wellies’ and miniskirts that barely covered their tiny bottoms.
As Edmund held his hand out to her, Brianna Jade noticed his eyes flickering down for a second to assess her footwear, and his almost imperceptible nod of approval that she wasn’t wearing stilettos.
Hey, I may not be Ivy League material, but I’m a quick learner, she thought proudly. I’ll do fine as a Countess. He’ll never have to be embarrassed by me.
‘Shall we?’ he said, the little phrase that posh men used to mean ‘Let’s go’, and he tucked her arm through his so that she was resting on him just a tad. It was very gentlemanly; she loved it. They proceeded out through the French windows, onto the terrace, and down the stone steps to the gravel path that looped scenically around the gardens. They had been designed by someone with the weird name of Capability Brown, who Tamra assured Brianna Jade was like the biggest deal ever in gardening, and they needed a whole lot of maintenance. Edmund had apologised on their first visit what he called the ‘vistas’ weren’t what they should be, because trees and bushes needed to be pruned away so that you could really see the views.
Well, that’s what he’s got me for, isn’t it? she thought now, tripping along happily next to Edmund; after years of stepping elegantly up and down pageant stairs in killer heels, a stroll along a gravel path in two-inch slingbacks was nothing. Gardeners cost money, and that’s what she was bringing to the table. Soon this place would have vistas up the wazoo. Stanclere would be vista heaven. They could invite magazines just to take photos of the vistas…
She giggled a little at her own silliness, and Edmund, looking down at her pretty face for a moment, smiled at how charming she was. They rounded some overgrown shrubbery and the lake appeared, a soft green grassy slope dropping away to the oval expanse of water below, which shimmered gently in the gentle light of the setting sun.
‘It’s supposed to be much more dramatic a sight,’ Edmund said apologetically. ‘The rhododendrons should really frame the first approach to the lake, and the stand of silver birches have been awfully neglected… ’
‘It’s a great vista,’ Brianna Jade reassured him, and he burst out laughing.
‘You have truly lovely manners,’ he said, patting her hand.
‘Let’s walk over the bridge,’ she said eagerly, looking at the low pale stone bridge that arched so elegantly over the water. Secretly she was thinking how very romantic it would be to be proposed to there, the sun behind her making her hair glow rosy with its golden light, Edmund on one knee…
‘Ah, I’m so sorry,’ Edmund said, grimacing, ‘but the groundskeeper told me this morning that he’s worried about the foundations. It needs shoring up, apparently. He was supposed to put a plank across each side to stop people walking over it, just in case, but he clearly hasn’t got round to it yet. I’ll have to have a word with him tomorrow. Can’t blame him too much though, I suppose – there’s just so much to do around here… ’
I am totally getting that fixed first thing! Brianna Jade thought, staring at the beautiful picture – vista – before her, the white bridge standing out in front of a background of soft greens, a gentle slope rising beyond, planted with foliage in which mauve and white flowers flashed out here and there in the emerald bushes, the pewter lake like the base of a bowl. Now I’m seeing myself in my wedding dress standing there, Edmund beside me, with flowers floating in the lake… white roses… and white ribbons all wrapped around the bridge, maybe some lavender ones too…
‘I thought we might walk up to the gazebo?’ Edmund was saying. He led her up the short stretch of path to the open stone building that looked like a small temple, with pillars in front of lots of statues of Greek gods and goddesses in stone drapery.
‘I love the statues,’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Mom does too.’
One thing Brianna Jade had determined upon was not to call Tamra ‘Mummy’, like the British people did. (‘Mum’, apparently, was ‘common’.) She got that she needed to copy the correct English words so people didn’t sneer at her, but when there was a good American alternative, she’d always pick that. She wasn’t planning to change her accent, or pretend she was some British snob: she was proud to be American.
‘Who are these guys?’ Brianna Jade pointed to a couple of statues, a man reaching out for a woman who was turning away from him, hand to her face as if she didn’t want to look at him, what looked like ivy leaves twining up her legs, almost to her waist. ‘Mom and I were wondering. Is she stuck in a bush or something and he’s trying to help her?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Edmund said. ‘That would be a much nicer interpretation. No, this is the god Apollo, who was famously quite a womaniser. He fell in love, or in lust, with a nymph called Daphne, who didn’t return his feelings, and ran away from him. He chased after her – not the behaviour of a gentleman – and she couldn’t get away, so she prayed for help and the gods turned her into a laurel tree so that Apollo couldn’t, erm - ’
‘Rape her,’ Brianna Jade finished, a frown on her lovely face. ‘What the hell? So some guy’s trying to rape her and all the gods can do is turn her into a tree? That’s beyond unfair! Jeez, make him into a damn tree!’
‘Well,’ Edmund said, smiling at her reaction, ‘he was a god, you see, so that wouldn’t have worked - ’
‘So pick her up and put her down somewhere else, give him a chance to cool off!’ Brianna Jade rolled her eyes. ‘You know what? I bet they blamed her for just wearing a little bitty sheet and told her that it was her own fault for not covering up.’
Edmund’s smile deepened.
‘Actually, you’re fairly on the money,’ he told her. ‘Daphne didn’t want to get married and her own father told her that she was too pretty to be able to avoid it.’
Edmund had worked marriage into the conversation! That was surely a start. He reached for the Tiffany box in his pocket. He’d need to steer the conversation firmly away from Apollo’s appalling behaviour first, however…
‘Ugh!’ Brianna Jade was still staring at Apollo and Daphne, not yet connecting with the significance of the direction the conversation had taken. ‘Her own dad said that? Like, if you were ugly you could do what you wanted, but if you’re pretty, some god’s going to come along and try to feel you up? That sucks. Where are they from?’
‘The statues or the gods?’ Edmund had extracted the Tiffany box and was holding it behind his back now. ‘All from Greece. An Earl of Respers brought the stauary back after his Grand Tour in the late eighteenth century.’ He coughed. ‘Not that the Greek government knows they’re here. I’m afraid he bribed a lot of people to be able to take them out of the country. We should probably give them back.’
‘Hell, no!’ Brianna Jade shook her head decisively. ‘That was ages ago, and they look great here. Finders keepers. Plus,’ she added, ‘I saw on the news that Greece is totally bankrupt, so they’d just sell them to someone else anyway, and they could never look as nice as they do right here.’
‘I’m very glad you’ve taken that position,’ Edmund said. ‘Because I’m hoping, more than I can say, that you will agree to, um, take up a permanent position - ’
Oh God, he thought, you sound like you’re making a speech in the House of Lords! For God’s sake, Edmund, there’s a beautiful young woman looking up at you, waiting for you to propose to her – try to sound like a man and not a stuffed shirt!
He cleared his throat.
‘What I mean to say,’ he continued, ‘in the time that we’ve spent getting to know each other, I’ve come to appreciate you more than I can say. You are a truly lovely, sweet girl who would adorn any position into which she was placed - ’
Position! Why on earth do I keep saying that?
But mercifully, as he seemed to be irredeemably tangled up in unnecessarily pompous verbiage, understanding was dawning on Brianna Jade’s face.
‘Oh!’ she exclaimed. ‘I get it now.’ She shook back her cascades of hair . ‘Take your time,’ she added reassuringly,. ‘It’s not like we’re in any rush. And I want this to be special.’
This helped considerably. I really am hugely lucky, Edmund thought. When Lady Margaret Mcardle told me about the most beautiful American heiress London had seen for donkey’s years, what were the odds that she’d also turn out to have a lovely temperament and a sensible head on her shoulders?
‘Brianna Jade,’ he found himself saying very simply, ‘I honestly don’t even feel I deserve to ask you to marry me. And I want very much for us to be able to be honest with each other, which is why I’m not going to tell you that I’m madly in love with you, and I certainly don’t expect you to tell me the same – not right now, anyway. We’re both aware that in some aspects this is an arrangement. I’m very happy about with it, and I do hope you are too.’
It was formal, he knew, and it was not the romantic declaration that a young twenty-four year-old woman might want to hear. But it was the truth, and he had resolved beforehand that she - and he – deserved nothing less. It was common knowledge in his circle that Prince Oliver, heir to the throne, had proposed to Lady Belinda Lindsey-Crofter under entirely false pretences, basically tricking a young woman who was genuinely in love with him into thinking that her sentiments were fully returned, that it was a love match; when the truth had eventually dawned on Belinda, she was trapped, not only married but pregnant with the heir to the throne. The general view was that Oliver had behaved very badly by deceiving her. After all, many aristocratic young women would have been more than happy with the bargain he had to offer, a complaisant husband and a royal crown awaiting them.
But that was not how Edmund intended to treat Brianna Jade. No deception, no trickery. They were both going into this with their eyes open.
Hers were indeed wide as he gazed down at her, but not with surprise or indignation. She was listening intently to every word he said, hands clasped in front of her, lips slightly parted to show her extraordinarily perfect American teeth, a string of pearls behind her velvety pink lips.
‘I honestly think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,’ Edmund said. ‘But you’re also very quick, and curious, and spirited, and funny, and I truly enjoy spending time with you. Goodness knows if you feel the same about me - ’ he grinned self-deprecatingly – ‘I know I can’t possibly be the most handsome man you’ve ever met! But I do have all this to offer you.’
He gestured around him, encompassing not just the gazebo and the illegally-looted Greek statuary but the entire sweep of Stanclere Hall.
‘You would make a wonderful mistress of the Hall,’ he said. ‘And of course, a wonderful Countess of Respers. But you’ve got to decide if this really is what you want.’
Her smooth tanned forehead crinkled into the faintest of lines as she looked up at him: clearly, she was baffled by this suggestion. Of course I want it! her expression said. I’m standing here waiting for you to propose, aren’t I?
‘I know this is what the Fra – your mother wants for you,’ he clarified. ‘But I do think it’s crucial that you’re free to make your own decision. Your mother can be very - um, err… your mother has a wonderfully vibrant and decisive personality, and of course she only wants the best for you - ’
Brianna Jade wasn’t frowning any more; in fact her lips had parted further into a lovely smile, her teeth flashing in a ray of late afternoon sun.
‘You can call Mom bossy if you want!’ she said cheerfully. ‘She is! But she loves me way too much to push me into something that would make me unhappy.’
It wasn’t exactly a passionate declaration of love, but neither was his, and it certainly told Edmund that Thunderbirds were Go. He sank to one knee, simultaneously bringing his right arm round in front of him, so that it ended up just above his eye level. Should he have opened the box first? Probably, but then the ring might have fallen out. He really should have rehearsed this; but then, he’d wanted to be authentic, honest, not over-polished. Luckily, regular winter skiing meant that he had decent enough balance to stay on one knee without wobbling while he held up the box with his right hand and opened it with his left.
‘Wow,’ Brianna Jade breathed out, a long, slow exhalation of sheer delight.
‘Brianna Jade,’ Edmund said, ‘will you do me the very great honour of becoming my wife?’
‘I will!’ she said, her eyes sparkling now as brightly as the enormous pink diamond. ‘I definitely will!’
Should he stand up first? No, she was already holding out her left hand, each finger tipped with pale pink nails whose own tips each had a white crescent painted onto them, so perfectly-executed that they were like miniature works of art. She had slightly separated the fourth finger from the others to make it easy for him; in a moment, he had detached the ring from its velvet slot and slid it onto its allotted place. He came to his feet as she turned her hand from side to side in the approved brand-new-fiancée fashion, marvelling at its lavishness.
‘You carry that off wonderfully,’ he said with complete sincerity. ‘It looks superb on you.’
She beamed up at him and raised her arms to wrap around his neck, the ring flashing streaks of colour across the stone pillar next to them; he encircled her waist and bent to kiss her for the first time. His cock stiffened almost immediately. She felt delicious in his arms, her body taut and toned from the runs she took every morning, but her breasts were soft against him, pressing seductively against his chest, her lips equally soft and pillowy beneath his, parting to let his tongue slip in, kissing him back with not a shred of false modesty. His hands tightened around her slim waist, pulling her closer, and she tilted her head up more and slid her hands down his back.
Her breath was fresh and pepperminty; she must have not only brushed her teeth before this crucial encounter, as he had done, but surreptitiously sucked on some sort of mint as well. Neither she nor her mother did anything as vulgar as chew gum, thank goodness. His cock was fully hard now, pressing against her lower body, and he was both mortified – they had barely got engaged and here he was, acting like a bull in heat! - and relieved that the attraction was fully there, that he had committed himself to a woman to whom it would be a positive pleasure to remain faithful. He shifted back fractionally, but she followed him with a lean of her body so his cock was still sandwiched between them, showing him that she, too, was relishing the proof of his instant reaction to her. When he eventually raised his head, they were both breathing fast, pink-cheeked, and smiling rather goofily at each other. Edmund dropped a kiss on her forehead and took a step back, clearing his throat.
‘Well,’ he said idiotically, ‘um, that was very nice indeed.’
Brianna Jade burst out laughing.
‘You’re not kidding!’ she said. ‘Wow, what a relief! I mean, I think you’re really cute – Mom promised me she’d Googled you and you were a hottie before she set us up to meet – but you know, you don’t know until you know, if you see what I mean.’
‘I do see what you mean,’ Edmund said, grinning and telling his erection firmly to go down. ‘Firmly’ perhaps wasn’t the right way for him to think of that, dammit…
‘Let’s go back to the house and tell Mom we’re all done and dusted,’ Brianna Jade said, winding her left arm through his and admiring her ring once more. ‘She’ll be dying to know it’s all okay.’
‘She loves you very much,’ Edmund observed.
‘Yeah, but don’t worry. She’s going to be fine letting me go,’ his fiancée said with that quick perceptiveness of hers, combined with her American frankness: he was deeply grateful for both qualities. ‘Mom’s had to look after me since she was just a kid herself, you know? She’s due a whole lot of “me” time, and now she’s gonna take it. She won’t be hovering around here, checking that you’re treating me okay or any shit like that.’
‘Don’t mince your words on my account!’ Edmund said, laughing. ‘Do feel free to express yourself!’
‘Oh yeah, British humour, I get it,’ Brianna Jade said cheerfully. ‘You say the opposite to what you mean. Anyway, Mom isn’t going to be a hover mother. She said last night she’d been running my life for far too long and she just wants to see me happy and settled. And don’t worry - she wouldn’t want to move in here or anything. Mom loves London. She wants to buy the house we’re renting there.’
Edmund briefly tried to compute what Tamra’s Chelsea mansion, complete with a ballroom whose floor slid back to reveal a swimming pool, a climate-controlled wine cellar, four underground parking spaces accessed through a private tunnel, billiard room, climate-controlled cigar storage room, cinema and fully-equipped gym, might cost on the open market, and shook his head in disbelief at how much money there obviously was in fracking. It certainly made spending forty thousand pounds on Brianna Jade’s ring look like a mere bagatelle. Tamra had actually wanted to go even bigger, but Edmund had told her that Countesses did not wear engagement rings that looked as if they belonged to pop stars, and she had reluctantly yielded.
He was looking at the ring as they strolled arm in arm out of the gazebo, and his fiancée followed suit.
‘I didn’t - ’ he started, wanting to be honest about everything, but again, she knew what he was thinking.
‘I know Mom picked it out and bought it,’ she said simply. ‘That’s totally cool. Men aren’t as good as this kind of thing, and Mom knows just what I like.’
‘I wanted you to have an heirloom,’ he said. ‘We do have some fairly decent family jewels. I was thinking about getting my mother’s engagement ring reset.’
‘Aww, that would have been lovely!’ Brianna Jade said sympathetically. ‘Let me guess – Mom nixed that idea?’
Edmund nodded, amused.
‘Hah! I know – it wasn’t big enough for her, I bet,’ Brianna Jade said, grinning. ‘Look, I get how things work here. People don’t buy stuff, cause their families have loads of antiques and they pass them on. But there’s no way Mom could give up the idea of me having a big shiny ring.’
She squeezed his arm empathetically.
‘I’m sorry, Edmund. I hope you’re not offended. I’d love to wear your mom’s ring, if you’d like. Would that be okay? It would mean a lot to me. And I’m sorry you’re an orphan, too. I can’t imagine what I’d do without Mom in my life. I know you don’t like to talk about it much – the whole British stiff upper lip thing – but I’m here if you ever want to.’
Her sincerity was so evident that Edmund, very touched, stopped for a moment, reached for her other hand and pressed a kiss onto it.
‘I really am so lucky to have met you,’ he said with equal sincerity. ‘And I would be honoured for you to wear my mother’s ring. I’ll make sure to pull it out of the safe as soon as we get back to the Hall, and if it needs resizing we can easily organise that.’
‘That’s lovely,’ Brianna Jade said happily. ‘I’d really like that. Thank you.’
They fell into an easy, companionable silence as they rounded the overgrown shrubbery and started up the path that led back to Stanclere Hall. Edmund, who had been mulling something over, decided that he and Brianna Jade seemed able to talk things over so comfortably that he should raise a nagging concern he had about how their marriage would work.
‘I’m wondering though – you must have thought this through already, but you know that I’m basically a farmer, don’t you?’ he started. ‘I spend most of the year here, at the Hall. Not, you know, jetting off to Venice for the weekend or anything like that. I’m very fond of London, and I go to the races, of course, but really, my place is here. And we’re in Rutland, not Sussex – you can’t just pop up to London for a day.’
‘Well, you can if you hire a helicopter,’ his fiancée said simply.
‘Yes! Yes, I suppose so!’ It was an entirely new concept for Edmund. ‘Frankly, I’m surprised the Fr – your mother hasn’t done that already, instead of driving from London.’
‘She loves the countryside here,’ her daughter explained. ‘She’s really into looking at it. We get the chauffeur to take the back roads to see little villages and stuff like that.’
‘I had no idea… ’
‘But Edmund - ’ it was the first time that Brianna Jade had said his name, now that they were engaged, and it made her feel happily cosy and intimate. ‘You don’t need to worry about me being bored here. I love the countryside even more than Mom! I like London, but I’m not a city girl. They’re crowded and dirty and after a few days shopping I want to get out and breathe some fresh air. Remember, I grew up in pig and corn country! I’d’ve been a farmer’s wife back home, probably.’
She sighed in nostalgia.
‘Do you miss Illinois?’ Edmund asked understandingly. ‘I’d miss Rutland more than I can say if I had to leave.’
‘I do,’ she said frankly. ‘Feeding the pigs and chickens, running round finding where they’d laid their eggs… I really loved it. But it’s much prettier in England! Where I come from, it’s wide-open country, and here all the little fields are so green, with the hedges and the trees… I’m going to love seeing the seasons change, I know.’
‘And we have pigs and chickens here too,’ Edmund teased her. ‘Plenty of both. You’re welcome to help with either any time you like.’
‘I might just do that,’ she said. ‘Seriously, no kidding. I’d really like it. That would make me feel more at home than almost anything.’
‘Well!’ He grinned. ‘I see I didn’t have to worry about you minding the prospect of being a farmer’s wife! We should probably have talked about all this before – actually, we should definitely have talked about this before. I suppose I took a lot for granted. But things were moving so fast… ’
‘That’s Mom,’ his fiancée said reassuringly. ‘It’s not your fault. She kind of only has one setting, and it’s hyperspeed.’
She squeezed his arm again, this time in reassurance.
‘Don’t worry – I haven’t inherited that from her! I’m much more laid-back. I’m not going to shoot round Stanclere Hall on hyperspeed, driving everyone crazy.’
‘Oh, she doesn’t drive everyone crazy…’ Edmund demurred politely, but he couldn’t help but be grateful for Brianna Jade’s assuring him that his married life would be what she called ‘laid-back’ and he would describe as restful.
They had fallen into a pleasantly even pace, their steps nicely synchronised, as they crested a rise in the gravel path and Stanclere Hall appeared before them. The view of the house was partly obscured by overgrowth and trees that needed pollarding, another of Capability Brown’s vistas which needed to be regularly maintained for their full, stunning effect. Still, the Hall, its soft golden stone glowing at sunset, its two wings stretching out nobly from the central edifice with its double flight of steps leading up to the massive front door, was still a sight so beautiful that, despite its familiarity, Edmund caught his breath.
‘You really love it,’ Brianna Jade said, a comment, not a question. The breeze caught the pleated skirt of her dress, lifting the chiffon slightly; she lowered one hand to hold the folds down, her other still linked through Edmund’s as they strolled down the path to the Hall, lush green swards spreading out on either side. Like the rest of the gardens, the grass needed urgent attention; the croquet lawn was pocked with mole holes and had gone to seed years ago. But from a distance it was serene, beautiful, the perfect setting for a perfect English stately home.
‘I do,’ Edmund said, his voice quiet as he let his breath out. ‘But I’m not a monomaniac.’
‘Uh - ’
‘I’m not someone who’s mad about only one thing,’ he elaborated quickly for her benefit. ‘I really do hope that you and I will come to love each other too, Brianna Jade.’
‘Oh, go ahead and drop the Jade!’ she said easily. ‘It’s way too long for every day use! Brianna or Bri is just fine.’
‘Phew,’ he said, grinning at her. ‘It is a bit of a mouthful.’
‘Edmund - ’ she felt the same frisson using his name as before, which was really nice – ‘talking about names, now that we’re engaged, do I get a title? I was wondering. Do I get to be a Lady? Or an Honourable, like Minty?’
This is why it’s such a good thing that we were honest and direct with each other, Edmund told himself. We haven’t pretended that part of her appeal for me is her money, nor that mine for her is my title. So no one needs to be embarrassed by this at all. Not in the least.
‘I’m afraid not,’ he said regretfully.‘You have to be born into the peerage to have a title like that. On our marriage, you become the Countess of Respers, and people will call you Lady Respers. Except, I think, on legal documents, where you’re the Right Honourable Brianna Jade, Countess of Respers. But the lawyers deal with all that sort of thing, so you don’t need to worry about it.’
‘Oh! I don’t get to be Lady Brianna Jade?’ she asked naively. ‘I was sort of hoping I would.’
‘Sorry,’ Edmund said, charmed despite himself at her lack of pretence. ‘It isn’t in my power to give you that. Not even King Stephen could. You have to be born into the peerage, you see.’
(Clare – um, ALL the royals in the book are the ones from KILLER QUEENS – leading characters in it!! Rats, I’d hope my books would be even a little bit memorable… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen,_King_of_England)
‘Ooh! So our kids - ’
‘If we have a son, he’ll be Lord and then his name,’ Edmund informed her. ‘More than one son, they’re Honourables. And daughters are Lady, and then their name.’
‘Aww, how lovely – my kids being Lords and Ladies! I can’t wait!’ Brianna Jade said blissfully. ‘And Edmund, don’t worry – I won’t make a fuss about calling the kids dumb American names like Presley or Kaylee or – ‘ she giggled - ‘Latisha. We’ll pick proper British ones. I don’t want them embarrassed.’
‘Good to know,’ Edmund managed to mumble: the prospect of the heir to the Respers estates and Stanclere Hall being called Lord Presley had never even occurred to him.
‘And I don’t want to start having kids straight away, either,’ she assured him. ‘I think we should take some time to settle down with each other, don’t you? Properly get to know each other. Like you said, fall in love.’
There was a shyness in her voice as she said the last words, a shyness that was, however, combined with confidence. Brianna Jade had no real doubts that she and Edmund would have any problems learning to love each other. He was a truly great guy, and they had so much in common already; she felt that they were halfway there already. And she had healthy self-esteem: adored all her life by Tamra, Brianna Jade had no trouble believing that even an Earl would find her as loveable as her mother did – hell, she’d happily settle for him finding her almost as loveable.
They had crossed the lawns and were heading up the stone steps of the terrace now, and he stopped for a moment to kiss her on the lips.
‘Taking our time sounds absolutely fine to me,’ he said. ‘An excellent plan.’
‘And Mom won’t be in any hurry to be a grandma, trust me on that,’ her daughter commented. ‘Not with already having me so young.’
‘Not even to a sweet little daughter called Latisha?’ Edmund asked. ‘You know, that name is rather growing on me. I think Lady Latisha sounds rather elegant.’
‘Edmund! No!’ his fiancée shrieked, slapping his arm before realising that he was joking.
‘Oh haha! Very funny!’ she said, giggling, and Edmund was laughing too as they reached the top of the terrace to see Tamra, a champagne flute in her hand, standing by a table covered in a white cloth which bore not only a bottle of Cristal in a large silver wine cooler, but two more flutes awaiting the engaged couple. Seeing that her daughter’s future as the Countess of Respers was not only assured, but that she and Edmund were getting on well enough to laugh together, the mother of the bride’s full lips curved into a smile that bordered on a positive smirk of satisfaction. With her slightly slanting dark eyes and mane of red-gold hair, at that moment Tamra Maloney resembled a beautiful jungle cat; she could almost have been a lioness after a successful hunt, stretched out along a tree branch, purring with pleasure after having eaten her fill.
Even with his beautiful twenty-four year-old fiancée on his arm, Edmund could not help the instinctive reaction he always had at the sight of her mother. Tamra Maloney simply took your breath away. She wasn’t just beautiful, she had a quality of barely leashed sensuality, a gleam in her dark brown eyes, that had several of Edmund’s friends eagerly comparing her to a young Sharon Stone. Dominic, with whom Edmund had roomed at college, was already insisting on being Edmund’s best man purely to give him enough status to hit on Tamra at the wedding.
‘Sod bridesmaids,’ Dominic had leered enthusiastically, ‘I want the mother of the bride! Talk about hot cougar action! That woman could fuck me into pieces and I’d die with a smile on my face!’
‘Dom,’ Edmund had said crossly, ‘that’s the grandmother of my future children you’re talking about! Please!’
But looking at Tamra now, in a fitted silk wrap Givenchy dress that was perfectly decent but still clung to every lush curve of her body, at her flawless, lightly tanned skin, her strawberry-blonde hair held back with Michael Kors sunglasses, and around the long stem of her neck a di Grisogno rose gold necklace set with diamonds , so elaborate and heavily worked that only a woman with her height and confidence could have carried off, Edmund couldn’t actually blame Dominic for lusting after the former’s mother-in-law to be. She and Brianna Jade could have been sisters, could almost have been twins from a distance, until you saw that Tamra’s eyes were bigger, darker, and gleaming with a lust for life and a wealth of experience that Brianna Jade, simpler, sweeter, happy to settle down into country life at twenty-four, would never acquire.
Brianna Jade’s a Sienese icon, Edmund reflected, but Tamra’s a Titian; that colouring - the red lights in the hair, the golden skin, the deep brown eyes, she’s a classic Titian beauty. I must tell her - I think she’d rather like that. Shame we had to sell our own Titian in the 1950s…
Tamra’s wide brown eyes, framed in ridiculously thick dark-brown lashes, not all of which she had been born with, glanced swiftly towards her daughter, taking in the ring on her finger, the smile on her face, the snug link of her arm through Edmund’s, and Edmund’s own contented expression. Tamra had had the most discreet plastic surgery money could buy; her features moved so easily that it was clear she hadn’t had Botox; but Botox, now, was for amateurs, as were fillers, short-term fixes that messed with one’s face disastrously in the long run. Casting directors in Hollywood were increasingly refusing to even see actors whom their agents couldn’t guarantee were free of both.
The really clever men and women were taking a much more measured approach, one which required no riskily invasive procedures at all: a double blast of microdermabrasion followed by gel lathered on the face and a cold laser, like a little flashlight, trained on the skin for at least forty-five minutes to stimulate collagen production. As Tamra smiled triumphantly, there was barely a single line creasing the smooth high forehead or fanning out from those marvellously compelling dark eyes. Her lips, infinitesimally plumped by the discreetest of collagen injections – the only injectable Tamra permitted herself, and only because her doctor performed them behind the lip, rather than into it, giving a tiny extra fullness without changing the shape at all – parted as she breathed out a long, utterly complacent sigh of relief and triumph in equal measure.
She’d done it. Her baby was going to be a Countess. All Tamra’s hard work, the struggle and graft and frustration and tears and picking herself up off the damn floor every time she fell down, starting all over again, time after time – everything had been worth it to see Brianna Jade like this, marrying a really good guy who would take care of her and just so happened – hello! - to be a damn Earl! Her grandchildren were going to be Lords and Ladies! Pretty good for Tamra Jean Krantz from Kewanee County, Illinois!
She wanted to run towards Brianna Jade and Edmund, to burst into much-needed tears of sheer happiness, but over here people seemed to be more stick-up-their-ass, and while she and Bri were determined not to have their moxy ground out of them by stuck-up Brits, Tamra was okay toning it down a little to fit in. Go along to get along, as she’d always said. So Tamra put down her glass and walked quickly halfway across the terrace, met there by her daughter, who had moved just as fast; they didn’t cry, but they fell into each other’s arms, hugging so tightly that Brianna’s four-carat diamond engagement ring left a dent in her mother’s firm, tanned bare back below the halterneck tie of her dress when they finally released each other. They looked into each other’s eyes, light hazel into dark brown, as they had so many times when they were the only other person in the world the other one had; and as so many times before, mother and daughter exchanged a unspoken message.
Don’t cry. No tears. We’re on top of the world, you and I.
A pageant competitor and her stage mother had no problem at all either crying on demand or controlling the impulse. Both of the women swallowed in unison, took deep breaths and broke into smiles so joyful that Edmund, who, in true gentlemanly fashion, had crossed to the table to pour drinks (by his code, ladies should never have to fill or top up their own glasses when a gentleman was present) was so dazzled by their sheer wattage that he spilled some Cristal on the tablecloth.
‘All my dreams for you have come true, honey,’ Tamra said to Brianna Jade, reaching out to stroke her hair. ‘I got there in the end, didn’t I?’
‘You did, Mom,’ Brianna Jade said happily. ‘You really did.’
Clasping her daughter’s hand, Tamra turned to Edmund, who had managed to fill the champagne flutes without any more spillage and was waiting politely for his fiancée and future mother-in-law to finish their women’s moment.
‘Edmund, I know you’ll make my little girl a wonderful husband,’ she said contentedly.
‘I’d better, Tamra!’ Edmund said with an amused twist of his lips. ‘Or I rather think you’ll make my life a living hell.’
Tamra burst out laughing. ‘I will, damnit!’ she admitted. ‘You’re damn right! Jeez, Bri, I found you a British Earl who tells it like it is and has a sense of humour! I never thought I’d manage that…’
‘And he’s very good at serving drinks, too,’ Brianna Jade said as Edmund handed them flutes filled with pale straw-coloured Cristal, studded enticingly with tiny bubbles. The three of them clinked glasses. Edmund and Brianna Jade sipped the champagne; Tamra, however, sank the contents of her glass in a single, effortless drag.
‘I’d have killed at the keggers if I ever went to college,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Jeez, I needed that. This has been a long time coming.’
She put down her glass on the stone balustrade and took in the scene before her. The sun had almost set now, and dark rose streaks were reaching across the lawns, darkening the leaves of the ancient oaks in the woodland beyond. Those trees had been planted by the first Earl of Respers, centuries ago, a fact that never ceased to make Tamra marvel. She had come from nothing, dirt-poor German immigrant farming stock with no roots to the land in which she had grown up that went back any time at all; now her daughter was marrying into a family that had pretty much ruled this part of England, and her children would be Lords and Ladies, would inherit this beautiful stately home, climb the historic trees, play on the lawns, slide, screaming with happiness, down the banisters of the staircase which had been carved with acanthus flowers by Grinling Gibbons himself in 1640 (apparently that was a huge deal as Edmnd mentioned it constantly – she’d have to look it up).
Tamra turned to lean against the balcony, looking up at the golden stone expanse of Stanclere Hall. Edmund and Brianna Jade were finishing their champagne, talking quietly but happily. Tamra’s eyes rested on her daughter’s fiancé for a moment.
He’s a good-looking, well set-up guy. Nice shoulders, good bone structure, tight abs. That’s all the farm work, I guess – he seems pretty into all of that. Pretty funny that we came from a farm and that’s where Bri’s ended up. He’s not handsome, but he has a real nice face; better that way. Gorgeous guys are nothing but trouble. Yeah, Edmund’s one of the good guys. And hell, I should know! The amount of men I’ve had to size up instantly in my time…
She noticed with pleasure that Edmund was actually listening to what her daughter was saying. A man who actually listened to you was worth his weight in gold. Tamra had seriously never thought that she’d hit the jackpot like this. To nail, for her daughter an Earl who was thirty-four – the perfect marrying age for a guy – and didn’t just have his own hair and teeth but was actually pretty hot in a low-key British way – no denying that was like the relentless ring of a casino slot machine flashing a golden horseshoe triple bonus on the screen as coins flooded out into the trough below
But, she conceded, Edmund had hit the jackpot too. Tamra had more money than God and she was no tightwad about spending it.
She gazed up at the expanse of the Hall, a smile of wry amusement on her perfect lips. Mentally, she listed all the things that urgently needed fixing, of course: the roof, the dry rot, the plumbing, the electrics, pretty much every damn thing. Like the lawns, the Hall looked great from a distance; close up, Tamra could see a whole lot of crumbling windowframes, perilously-bent guttering and stone that needed repointing – apparently the whole Hall needed repointing, a job that would literally take years. But Tamra was fine with that. It was the deal. And the Hall, after all, was held in trust for her grandkids; it wasn’t like she’d plough money into this only to have Edmund sell it out from under her. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. Doing up Stanclere Hall was an investment in the future of her family.
Plus, she got to put in ensuites all over, with underfloor heating and proper American power showers. Oh my God, I can’t wait! That trickle that comes out of the taps and shower heads here… not just a trickle, but kinda yellow too, it’s like washing your hands in pee! The plumbing’s going to be the first thing I tackle…
‘Tamra? May I?’
Edmund was courteously proffering the Cristal bottle, and Tamra never said no to a drink.
‘You know,’ she said, flashing him her best teasing smile as she held out her glass, ‘you should really call me Mom now, Edmund, like Bri does.’
This time Edmund spilled some champagne over his tie as Tamra and Brianna Jade giggled in unison at the appalled expression on his face.
‘It’s okay, son, I was just messing with you,’ Tamra said, sending her and Brianna Jade off into even more giggles as Edmund’s eyes widened in horror at the prospect of Tamra calling him ‘son’ from now on.
‘Don’t worry, Mom’s just playing,’ Brianna Jade said, taking the bottle from her fiancé before he accidentally poured the rest of the contents over his handmade Lobb shoes.
‘Honestly, Tamra, it’s odd enough calling my future mother-in-law by her first name,’ Edmund admitted, pink-cheeked now. ‘Let alone… ’
He simply couldn’t look at the stunning woman in front of him – she was forty-two, he knew, but she looked ten years younger – and remotely connect the word ‘Mom’, or even ‘Mummy’, with her in any way. His own mother, who had died with his father in a small plane crash on a bird-watching safari in Botswana seven years ago (ironically, it had been a cormorant flying into one of the engines that had caused the disaster) had been a considerably more – well, motherly figure, with her sensible tweeds and greying hair. Picturing Mummy clad in Tamra’s silk wrap halterneck dress, her hair held back with Tamra’s designer sunglasses and her liver-spotted arms bared… the image was so surreal, and Edmund had such a flash of sadness for his parents in that moment, that he couldn’t speak another word.
‘It’s hard that you don’t have your own folks still here with you,’ Tamra said, reading his mind with disconcerting acuteness. She reached out to pat his arm sympathetically. ‘I’m so sorry. They were too young to go.’
Edmund nodded in thanks, took the glass Brianna Jade was handing him and drank some more; he appreciated her words very much, but was too British to be able to respond to them. Tamra understood this too.
‘I love the taste of champagne,’ she observed, deliberately lightening the mood, ‘but those damn bubbles can get up my nose sometimes.’
‘You can stir them out,’ Edmund said, clearing his throat, glad to have the conversation changed. ‘With a champagne whisk. My grandmother had some – they’re rather lovely old things. She had one she wore around her neck in a little silver case – you pull it out and all these sort of filaments pop out and you put it in your glass to whisk the bubbles away.’
‘Cool,’ Tamra said appreciatively.
‘I’ll make sure we fish them out for you and give them a good polish,’ Edmund said, smiling at her. ‘The silver here’s been awfully neglected, and we don’t want give you a tarnished whisk! We’ll have it all ready for you in time for cocktail hour tomorrow.’
‘Edmund, I would love that, and you’re really sweet to make the offer,’ Tamra said – she had got the hang of saying ‘really’ instead of ‘real’ faster than her daughter – ‘but I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m heading off back to London now. Time to leave the newly engaged couple in peace and quiet.’ She winked at them, a perfectly executed gesture, one set of enviably thick eyelashes fluttering for a moment on her smooth cheek. ‘Last thing you guys want is Mom hanging around! So
I’m going to love you and leave you. I got the maid to finish my packing while you guys were sorting yourselves out. I mean, if you turned Edmund down, we’d be leaving anyway, and if you said “yes”, I needed to get the hell out of Dodge. So either way it was a no-brainer.’
‘But Tamra, it’s getting dark now!’ Edmund protested politely, though inwardly he was full of admiration for her skill and excellent manners: leaving the newly-engaged couple alone together displayed a sensitivity he hadn’t expected from her. ‘Why not at least stay till morning – you’ll want your dinner - ’
She laughed in his face in the nicest possible way, her teeth just as mother-of-pearl and perfectly aligned as her daughter’s.
‘Oh Edmund, honey, you know I barely eat at the best of times,’ she said fondly, patting his arm again. ‘I have a hamper ready to be loaded into the car - smoked salmon and bresaola and Cristal all waiting for me on ice. I’ll just pick at some protein and drink all the way home.’
‘But - ’ Brianna Jade began, only to be interrupted by her mother.
‘Ssh, honey,’ Tamra said with huge affection, enfolding her daughter in another tight hug. ‘You’ll be fine. You and Edmund have way more interesting things to do than sit around and make conversation with your mom, for God’s sake! Right, Edmund?’
She winked at him again, a devastatingly appealing wink that said that she knew that he and Brianna Jade hadn’t even kissed before today, and that she imagined he had plenty of ground to cover now. Edmund’s shirt collar was suddenly tight and damp with sweat; he ran a finger inside it to loosen it up.
‘See you very soon,’ Tamra said, kissing him lightly on the cheek, her very expensive perfume enfolding him for a moment. ‘And don’t worry about me being bored in London on my lonesome! I’m seeing Lady Margaret tomorrow for a boozy lunch – Jeez, that woman can drink like me, it’s a real pleasure hanging out with her – and I’ve got a meeting with the publicist to talk about the first set of engagement pictures in Hello!’
She beamed. ‘Won’t take more than a couple of weeks to set that up. Did you propose on the bridge, Edmund? Over the lake? That would look gorgeous if we wanna recreate it.’
‘No, it needs some shoring up,’ Brianna Jade said, distracted by the shock of Tamra’s sudden departure, as her mother had known she would be, by the prospect of the engagement photos. ‘He did it in the gazebo instead.’
‘Lovely!’ Tamra said. ‘Get the bridge fixed first thing, though, ASAP. They might want to use it too. And, I’ve got really exciting news – Style magazine is going to run its first-ever Brides issue next June, and guess who’s going to be on the cover if I have anything to say about it?’
Brianna Jade actually clasped her hands at her breast in excitement. She hadn’t done that since her pageant years, and this was the first time ever that she had made the gesture quite spontaneously.
‘No way, Mom!’ she gasped.
‘Way, honey! I swear, you guys are going to be Style’s first ever Wedding of the Year! You have everything – class, title, a good-looking groom - ’
‘Um, thanks,’ Edmund murmured, adjusting his collar again.
‘ – and the most beautiful bride ever! I swear, Princess Chloe is a
lovely girl, and looked real nice on her special day - ’ Tamra had actually forgotten to say ‘really’, such was her level of excitement – ‘but you’re going to blow her out of the water, Bri, honey! Style Bride of the Year!’
Her dark eyes gleamed not only with anticipation, but with infinite menace; woe betide any other bride who might try to snag that coveted title for herself, when Tamra Maloney was going to take the prize for her beloved daughter.
‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s a done deal already,’ she told the Earl and Countess-to-be. ‘I swear, if anyone tries to stand in my way – ‘ her eyes flashed dark flame – ‘they’ll regret it for the rest of their lives.’