Tea with Prue Virtue

Today’s post is an excerpt from my latest novel, Revealed in Mist. (Click on the link to read the blurb and find buy links.)

Prue hesitated in the street outside her next destination. Callers needed to present their card at the gate, be escorted to the front door and delivered to the butler, then wait to be announced. On most days of the week, uninvited guests below a certain rank in society would have difficulty making it past the first obstacle, but on Thursday afternoons, the Duchess of Haverford was ‘at home’ to petitioners.

Past encounters had always been initiated by Her Grace. A scented note would arrive by footman, and Prue would obey the summons and receive the duchess’s commission. Though she was always gracious, never, by word or deed, had Her Grace indicated that she and Prue had any closer relationship than employer and agent.

The entrance and public rooms of Haverford House were designed to impress lesser mortals with the greatness of the family—and their own lesser status. Prue was ushered to a room just off the lofty entrance hall. Small by Haverford standards, this waiting area nonetheless dwarfed the people waiting to see the duchess.

Two women, one middle-aged and the other a copy some twenty years younger, nervously perched on two of the ladder-backed chairs lining one wall. Next to them, but several chairs along, a lean young man with an anxious frown pretended to read some papers, shuffling them frequently, peering over the tops of his spectacles at the door to the next room. Two men strolled slowly along the wall, examining the large paintings and conversing in low whispers. A lone woman walked back and forth before the small window, hushing the baby fretting on her shoulder.

Prue took a seat and prepared for a wait. She would not tremble. She had nothing to fear. Both Tolliver and David said so, and Aldridge, too. But how she wished the waiting was over.

It seemed a long time but was only a few minutes, before a servant hurried in and approached her.

“Miss Virtue? Her Grace will see you now.”

Prue gave the other occupants an apologetic nod and followed the servant.

The duchess received her in a pretty parlour, somehow cosy despite its grand scale. Prue curtseyed to her and the woman with her. Were all petitioners waved to a seat on an elegant sofa facing Her Grace? Addressed as ‘my dear’? Asked if they should care for a cup of tea?

“Miss Virtue takes her tea black, with a slice of lemon,” the duchess told her companion. Or was the woman her secretary?

“Miss Virtue, my companion, Miss Grant. Miss Grant, Miss Virtue has been of great service to me and to those I love. I am always at home to her.”

Was Miss Grant one of the army of relatives for whom Her Grace had found employment, or perhaps one of the dozens of noble godchildren she sponsored? The young woman did not have the look of either Aldridge or his brother, nor of their parents. Prue murmured a greeting.

“I was not expecting you, Miss Virtue, was I? Is anything wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong, Your Grace. I just… I have some questions, Ma’am.”

“You should have sent a note, my dear. I will always take time to see you. I was happy to give a good report of you to my friend Lady Georgiana, of course.” As she spoke, the duchess took the tea cup from Miss Grant and passed it to her.

“Your Grace, I would like to speak with you alone, if I may. I beg your pardon, Miss Grant. I do not mean to be discourteous.”

The duchess stopped her own cup partway to her lips and put it carefully back into the saucer, examining Prue’s face carefully.

When she spoke, it was to Miss Grant. “Celia, my dear, will you let those waiting know that I will be delayed…” she consulted her lapel watch, “…thirty-five minutes, but I will see them all today? Perhaps you could arrange refreshments for them? Return on the half hour, please. That is all the time I can spare, Miss Virtue. If you need longer, I will ask you to wait or return another day.”

Prue shook her head. “The time will be ample, Ma’am. Thank you.”

As Miss Grant left the room, Prue was silent, collecting her thoughts. The duchess waited.

“You knew. You have known all along.” Prue shifted uneasily. She had not intended to sound accusing.

The duchess inclined her head in agreement, her face showing nothing but calm.

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