A Lady of Integrity: Excerpt #2
Continued from my post of December 4 … the second half of Chapter 1 …
“I hope Claude is all right.” Lizzie looked up from the crossword. “He’s still in Venice, you know, so I wrote after we heard from Alice. All I got back was a postcard from that big exhibition they’re all attending. He sounded his usual self … though there’s not much room to say much else than ‘Having a grand rumble’ on those little bits of cardboard. The picture was lovely, though.”
“I’m glad he is out of France for the time being, at any rate, and unlikely to be used any further as a means of blackmail,” Andrew said. “It has been a number of weeks, and yet I am still wondering if it is safe to assume that Gerald Meriwether-Astor perished in the Channel when Maggie scuttled his great undersea dirigible.”
Maggie abandoned the crossword altogether and stood in front of the fire, as though she had suddenly become chilled. “I hope so,” she said fiercely. “I hope he got exactly what he deserved for trying to mount an invasion and make himself a king–killing all those poor bathynauts in the process.”
“Maggie,” Claire said softly. “Do not make yourself distressed. You have just managed to sleep through the night without nightmares, and neither Polgarth nor I wish you to lose the ground you have gained.”
At the mention of her grandfather’s name, some of the tension eased out of Maggie’s lovely young face. “Must I go back to Bavaria?” she pleaded, flinging herself on the rug at Claire’s feet. “Can’t I go down to Gwynn Place and stay with him and Michael and my aunts while you and Lizzie are gone?”
“And not finish your education?” Lewis looked up from his spreads in astonishment. “If I had half your advantages, Mags, you can bet I wouldn’t be throwing them away.”
“You’ve done pretty well for yourself under your own steam, I’d say,” Snouts told him, “but it’s different for girls. Don’t you think about quitting, Mags,” he told her, a hint of their old gang leader’s authority flashing through the façade of the fashionable young businessman. “We see a job through, and always have, isn’t that right?”
Claire fought the temptation to marshal her arguments, and let the boys do the job she hadn’t exactly been prepared for. Was this how Maggie really felt? That she didn’t want to finish her studies and graduate? The prospect horrified Claire–but at the same time, Maggie had always been of a gentler persuasion than her cousin Lizzie, more inclined to value home and hearth than either Lizzie or Claire herself.
Not that Claire didn’t value her home. She did, deeply–both here at Carrick House in Belgravia, and the little cottage in Vauxhall Gardens where they had created their first refuge. But her deep-seated need to secure her own engineering degree had driven her actions since the age of fifteen–and led her into such adventures that she had been changed forever.
She passed an affectionate hand over Maggie’s hair–put up now that she was a young lady, and her hems lowered in equal measure. “I will not say whether you must go or not,” she told her. “But I would be saddened indeed if all your work were left unfinished and you did not get the credit for it.”
“You can’t stay here,” Lizzie said firmly. “What would I do with myself all alone at school?”
“Become better friends with the other girls?” Maggie suggested.
“I’m as friendly with them as I intend to be.”
“Wait about for Tigg to get leave?”
“Oh, yes,” Lizzie nodded. “I shall run to meet the post every single day and weep all night when there’s no letter.” Her mouth pursed up in disdain at such missish behavior. “Tigg would wash his hands of me if I did such things. No, Mags. You’re coming back with me and that’s that. Nothing is going to hurt either of us, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I never said so.” Maggie traced the rose design in the carpet by her knee with one finger.
“But I know you. You like things peaceful-like. The thing is, trouble found you as easily in Cornwall as it did me in the Cotswolds and the Lady in the Canadas. We can’t hide from adventures–they find us whether we want them to or not.”
“They don’t seem to find me,” Lewis pointed out, clearly somewhat disappointed.
“Give them time,” Andrew advised him.
Since in her mind the matter was closed, Lizzie returned to the crossword. “What’s a nine-letter word for ‘young lady of marriageable age’?”
“Elizabeth,” teased Snouts.
Lizzie swiped the box of toothpicks and threw it at him. Since she very rarely missed, Snouts exclaimed in chagrin and returned it to the mantel where it belonged, rubbing his shoulder.
“Lizzie, really, where are your manners?” Claire wondered aloud.
“Debutante, you gumpy,” Maggie told her cousin. “Even Willie might have got that one.”
Happily, Lizzie filled in the last space and closed the paper. “Speaking of Willie, has the invitation come for his birthday party? It’s bound to be a–”
Someone pounded on the street door, sounding as though they meant the lion’s-head knocker to break right through the panel.
“I’ll get it.” Snouts went out of the family parlour and into the hall, moving on the balls of his feet in a way that told the observant eye he believed trouble lurked even behind the laurel hedges and glossy iron railings of Belgravia.
Claire put her notebook aside and stood, Andrew beside her.
“Snouts,” they heard a familiar voice say, “is Claire here?”
“A pleasure to see you, too, Miss—”
“Oh, don’t give me that—your brother doesn’t have time. Is she here? And Mr. Malvern?”
Claire started forward, but before she could even reach the door, a blond, disheveled wreck of a young woman fell through it, the tracks of tears cutting lines through the dirt on her face.
“Claire–Andrew–thank God,” Alice Chalmers said breathlessly, pulling the flight goggles off her unruly hair. “You’ve got to come with me to Venice and get Jake out of that underwater prison before he dies in there.”
To be continued in A Lady of Integrity, coming at Christmas from your favorite retailer!