The London Season has been the focus of all well-connected and ambitious British Mamas—as well as rather less well-connected but even more ambitious British Mamas—of hopeful daughters since the Eighteenth Century. Some say its history is even older, dating back to the century before, when that Merry Monarch, Charles II, was restored to the throne after the dismal years of the Protectorate, when no one danced or sang, and fashionable modistes went hungry or found other occupation.
However it was, the Season—sometimes cynically known as the marriage mart, though mainly by the wealthy and titled young gentlemen who were the chosen quarries of those determined matriarchal huntresses—flourished through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Commencing around March, when Parliament resumed after Christmas, the Season was an endless round of balls and rout parties, dinners and musicales, morning calls and visits to the theatre, all designed with an eye to the one purpose of bringing young ladies of the upper ten thousand to the notice of eligible young men—or eligible not-so-young men, so long as they were well-off enough to keep a wife in style and comfort, and, even better, possessed of a title.
The Great War saw the annual Season falter, but it did not die out—unlike the better part of a whole generation of eligible young men. Even then, the pinnacle of the Season went ahead, year after year throughout the 1920s, for those lucky young ladies sufficiently well-connected as to be sponsored by some well-born or well-married older lady: a formal presentation to the King and Queen at Court.
Unlike almost every other titled lady in England, Viscountess Byrne had not planned her stepdaughter's London Season from the cradle. Indeed, for several of the early years of the Honourable Olive's existence, no one had been certain that she would have a life, let alone a Season in which to live it.
But Ollie had not only survived, despite the occasional setback beyond the powers of even the most loving mother to guard against, she had thrived. She was a child with a knack for making friends—or perhaps something that went deeper than that, a quality that drew people to her and won their hearts. She was also an intelligent girl, with a bright and enquiring mind that needed just as much exercise, in its own way, as the parts of Ollie's body that worked less easily thanks to those early illnesses that had left her with a permanent limp. With that in mind, when Ollie was nine, Lady Byrne had persuaded Miss Pinfold, the former governess of Anna, the new Countess of Westerholme, to serve for a time in that capacity for Ollie.
Anna was by birth a Russian countess who had been a housemaid at Mersham, the Westerholme ancestral seat when Ollie—not to mention Rupert Frayne, the Earl of Westerholme—first met her. This was a circumstance that Ollie had accepted unblinkingly at the time, but which became more and more remarkable to her with hindsight as she grew older.
Ollie had always spent time at Mersham, even before the arrival of Pinny had added another thread to the ties that drew the two families together. The Byrnes and the Fraynes had been on visiting terms for generations, quite apart from the fact that Rupert and Tom, Ollie's eldest brother, were lifelong friends. After the earl's marriage, and Miss Pinfold's arrival at Heslop—the seat of the viscounts Byrne since almost time immemorial—it was no real surprise to anyone that the visits between the two families increased. So Ollie was often to be found at Mersham, not just at age nine, but at ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen as well. And often during those visits, at least during the school holidays, Anna's younger brother, Count Petya Grazinsky—known to almost everyone as Peter since his arrival in England—was also to be found at Mersham. He was almost five years older than Ollie, and the same age as her youngest brother, Hugh, who was his best friend at school.
Petya—for Ollie, hearing how his family addressed him, had always named him so—was almost like another brother to Ollie. Almost. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he should have been like another brother to Ollie, if he hadn't been so… so different not just from her brothers but from every other boy Ollie had met. Petya was 'like a brother, only better', Ollie had decided within two days of their first meeting, when Petya had come down to Heslop for the fancy dress ball Lady Byrne was holding for… Well, it didn't matter who that ball had been for, except that Petya had kept Ollie company in the minstrel's gallery as they watched the guests arrive in their many and varied costumes, and then later had slipped upstairs with a small hoard of treats from the supper table for her to try. None of Ollie's brothers had ever thought to do that before, though they had performed a great many other small services for her, her bright, happy smile being the only—but deeply treasured—reward.
Petya excelled at riding and boxing and fencing, and many of the other athletic pursuits expected of a young man of his class and circumstances, but he enjoyed poetry and philosophy as well, and wasn't afraid to quote either poets or philosophers—sometimes both together without pausing for breath. He appreciated music, which was probably just as well, since, with a sister like Anna, he would have had little choice but to possess an excellent knowledge of and appreciation for the ballet at the very least. But beyond all that—and this was the aspect of him that endeared him to Ollie faster than almost anything else could have—he liked animals. All animals. All living things. He rode but did not hunt; he was skilled at archery but did not shoot. And he smiled on her and waited for her when, sometimes, Hugh raced ahead, forgetful that Ollie's limping gait kept her from moving as fast as she would have wished.
And that was how it was for the years of their growing up together until, one day, Petya returned from school for the final time. Fourteen-year-old Ollie was ensconced in her favourite nook by the window in the great library at Heslop, deeply engrossed in Charles Darwin's 'The Origin of Species', when a familiar voice softly called her name from somewhere nearby. She looked up, and in that moment she saw Petya for what felt like the very first time.
It had been more than six months since last Ollie had seen him, and those months had wrought changes in him—or maybe just made more obvious some qualities that had always been a part of him. Tall, he was, even though she'd always known that he was tall. And fair-haired, though she'd always known that, too. But he'd never seemed quite this tall before, and his hair was a shade of deep gold that was surely nothing like it had appeared the last time she'd seen him. Perhaps it was just the afternoon sunlight shining in through the window? But it wasn't just the colour of his hair that seemed different now. His eyes were blue, just as they'd always been—and yet not. If they'd always been that particular deep blue of the midday sky at the height of summer, Ollie had somehow failed to notice until this moment.
"Petya," Ollie said, and then to her astonishment realised that she had no idea what to say next—to Petya, the person out of everyone in the world to whom she'd always had something more to say.
"Little Ollie," Petya said, smiling, but somehow the words hurt her, and so did the smile.
Did Petya see her still as the little girl she'd been the first time he'd come to Heslop? He was tall and handsome and strong now, almost a man—but to him, she was still a child. The thought stung, like that time at a picnic that she'd leaned on her hand getting to her feet and squashed a poor worker bee beneath her palm—except this time the hurt was inside. Some part of her was swelling up with pain, just like her hand had. She was glad that Petya couldn't see it.
Ollie got up. She wasn't tall, and never would be, but she was taller now than she had been when she was eight, of that there could be no doubt. Her clothing didn't help, though. She was wearing a simple muslin dress, with a huge bow in matching white tying back her shoulder-length red hair. Last time Ollie had had her hair cut, Mother had suggested that this time the hairdresser style her hair in a smart and fashionable bob. But Ollie liked her long curls. She liked absently twining a lock of hair around her finger as she curled up in a chair with a book. She liked the feel of her hair flying out behind her as she rode across the fields in the mornings. So 'Not this time,' she had said in reply to her mother. She wished now that Mother had insisted. Maybe if Ollie had short, stylish hair, Petya would look at her as if… As if what, exactly? Why should he look at her in any way other than the way he always had?
There was no reason why he should, no reason at all. And besides, her hair would never be straight and dark like Louise Brooks's, no matter what length it was. Marigold curls, regardless of how they were styled, would never lend her an air of mystery and feminine mystique. She would always be Ollie Byrne, and nothing could change that.
Until this very moment, she had been quite content to be Ollie Byrne. She—almost—always had been. There'd only been that other occasion, when she had made Ollie painfully, despairingly aware of the way in which she would always be different…
"Is Hugh here as well?" she asked, only seconds later becoming appallingly aware of how curt and even rude she sounded.
"Yes, we came down together on the train," Petya said, his manner as easy as always.
"That's… nice," Ollie said. Should she smile at him or not? Maybe she should, as a sort of apology for the harshness of her question. But Petya had shown no sign that he'd noticed there was anything amiss. Would a smile be too much? She'd never had to think about it before. She'd just smiled, or not smiled, as the situation required. But now… She didn't know.
"You've grown," Petya observed. He smiled, a fond smile, the sort that one would bestow on a cherished younger sibling, or perhaps a beloved pet.
"So have you," Ollie said. She tried a smile in return. It felt forced and strange on her lips.
Petya laughed. "You still have some way to go, though. I think I'm finished. Or at least, my mother hopes so. She complains that it's a long way up when she wants to kiss my cheek. "
At the word 'kiss', Ollie felt the heat rush into her cheeks. Why was she so, so...conscious, not just of Petya but of herself, too? She felt as if a small, separate part of her was standing some little distance away, watching and finding fault. Once again, she didn't know what to say. She'd completely run out of words, but luckily Petya didn't notice, or was too well-mannered to betray that he had.
"You must come around to the stables with me and introduce me to your latest animal friends," he said, when Ollie remained silent. "I'm sure you've discovered more in need of rescue since the last time I was here."
"Yes," Ollie said. This, at least was easy to talk about. "A dear little liver spotted puppy that a couple of the village boys had put in a sack with some rocks and were trying to drown in a pond."
Petya frowned, though not at her. "A rescue indeed. If I'd been there, they wouldn't have known what hit them."
"I hit them, with my saddlebag. Well, one of them. I yelled at all of them, though. I was out exercising Artemis when I saw what they were doing. They ran away, even before my groom caught up with me," Ollie said, with remembered satisfaction.
"I should dearly have liked to have seen that," Petya said, with a nod of approval. Their eyes met, and just for that moment they were exactly as they'd so often been in the past, both of them on the side of some fellow creature in need of help. "You were always the bravest of the brave," he added.
And with those few words, the moment was broken. Ollie flushed even hotter than before. She didn't know where to look, her eyes darting this way and that before they settled on her feet. She was aware of Petya stepping closer, but she still jumped at the touch of his finger beneath her chin. She didn't try to resist the gentle pressure, though, and let him tilt her face up until she was looking him in the eyes again.
"What's wrong, doushenka?" he asked softly, staring down at her. He really had grown almost impossibly tall.
"Nothing," Ollie said, conscious of how her throat moved as she swallowed. "Why would anything be wrong?"
Petya's expression was serious, his eyes somehow a darker, more sombre blue than before. "If there were anything wrong, you would tell me, would you not?"
"Of course, but nothing's wrong," Ollie said, but she turned her head away so that she no longer had to meet his eyes.
Petya let his hand drop, but he said, "Come and introduce me to the puppy, if you've finished with that book for the moment."
"He's more of a dog now."
"All the more reason to make his acquaintance," Petya insisted, but gently, in that way that belonged to him alone. "What's his name?"
"Peter," she said, and for some reason she wished that the floor would open beneath her feet like some great, gaping maw, and swallow her whole.
Petya smiled at that. "Then I must meet my namesake," he said, holding out his arm for her to take.
Ollie really had no choice but to mark her place and set the book down. She placed her hand on Petya's arm, and they left the library together, like a young lady and her gentleman. And if that illusion only lasted as long as it took for them to get halfway to the great entrance hall, where they ran into Hugh, well… Ollie would still remember the feeling of Petya’s arm, steady beneath her fingers, in the months and years ahead.
Two agonising days later—well, they were agonising for Ollie if for no one else—Hugh and Petya left for a walking tour of Switzerland, after which they were to go on to stay with various old Grazinsky family friends in Berlin and Paris, and who knew where else, before eventually returning to England in time to start their studies at Oxford at the beginning of the Michaelmas term in October. Ollie didn't care greatly about the details of their trip, though. All that really mattered to her was that Petya would not be there at Heslop, or at Mersham, for the entire summer and beyond. She missed him to a degree that she never had before, but as the days turned into weeks, she realised, with some surprise, that Petya's absence also came as a relief. Her thoughts and feelings were a tangled mess. Their friendship was no longer the familiar thing it had once been, as comfortable and dependable as a well-worn pair of slippers. Ollie didn't know quite what lay between them now, at least on her side, but whatever it was, she was sure that it wasn't comfortable. There was nothing she could do about it, either, except to wait and see what happened the next time they met.
As the summer progressed, however, Ollie realised that she didn't want to sit about and wait. Heslop and Mersham were no longer the full and satisfying world that they had always been. In some strange way, everything around her appeared faded and slower, somehow. She was still surrounded by people she loved and who loved her, of course, and the number of people dear to her had only increased as the years went by. First Tom and Susie gave Ollie a niece—named Clarissa Olive, no less!— and then a nephew, and Rupert and Anna over at Mersham were not far behind producing their two boys. Ollie watched the proud grins that the new fathers exchanged, and couldn't help wondering if there was some sort of competition going on. She wondered even more that summer, when both Susie and Anna announced that they each were in expectation of a happy event for the third time.
But as more weeks passed, Ollie became increasingly sure that life at Heslop was no longer enough. "Mother, I'd like to go to school," she said to Lady Byrne without preamble over the breakfast things one day in late June.
To her credit, Lady Byrne, who had been in the act of pouring a cup of tea, did not turn a hair, or look the least bit surprised. She had, in fact, been planning for just such a day. "Did you have any schools in mind?" she asked, setting the teapot back on its trivet.
Ollie, preparing to argue her case and not having thought further than that she wanted to attend a school, shook her head. "No."
"It will be fine, Ollie," Lady Byrne said. "I have several schools in mind that might do very well for you."
After some careful thought—not to mention several motoring expeditions to far flung corners of England—Minna settled on a famous and progressive school for young ladies just outside Bristol. All of the headmistresses of the schools on Minna's list had been happy—or at least happy enough—to provide Lady Byrne with a tour of inspection, but only Miss Hart, the headmistress of Minter Grove College, had invited her in afterwards for tea and cake and a lively discussion about the merits of an academic education for girls.
Minna had liked her on the spot. Miss Pinfold, happily retiring to Mersham to help Lady Westerholme with her growing brood, admitted to Lady Byrne that while there was still more she could teach when it came to literature, music, art and languages, Ollie was already outstripping her when it came to the sciences—particularly the biological sciences. In her opinion, Lady Byrne could not have chosen a school better suited to encouraging and nurturing Ollie's talents. They had agreed that Ollie would thrive at Minter Grove under the watchful gaze of Miss Hart and her staff.
And thrive she did, after a slightly shaky start.
Ollie's first day at Minter Grove was not auspicious. Or, at least, it didn't start that way. Ollie had felt sick when Mother had driven her in through the school gates, sick with nervousness and homesickness, but excitement as well. It was only as Mother had hugged her hard in farewell, and then driven away and left her there, that it had finally seemed real. Suddenly, the school seemed very big and very intimidating, and Ollie felt very small and alone. But this was what she had wanted, she reminded herself. This place held the key. Here, she would learn. Here she would try her wings outside the safe nest of Heslop. The bravest of the brave, that's what Petya had called her. Her mouth set in a determined line, she went to face the unknown; to face it and conquer it.
But when she limped up onto the stage in the assembly hall to be introduced to the entire school, Ollie couldn't help feeling the tiniest bit daunted. A vicious little titter, running through the ranks of the assembled girls like a stiff breeze, didn't help matters. Ollie knew very well that some people in the world could be less than kind, that there were even some who delighted in making others unhappy. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing that she'd noticed. She held her head high, chin up and shoulders back, just as Pinny had taught her, and looked straight back down at her would-be tormentors. They were just a sea of dark grey uniforms. She took off her glasses, and they were nothing but a grey blur, a smudge in the background of a picture. A smudge couldn't hurt her.
Still, it was lucky—or maybe something more than luck was at work—that there was another new girl starting in the fourth form that day. Miss Hart introduced Ollie, and then Louise Devine, before smilingly indicating that they should leave the stage and join the rest of the school below. To Ollie's surprise, once she had slowly descended the stairs, she found Louise waiting for her at the bottom. The look Louise shot her was speculative but not unfriendly as together they walked over to stand with the fourth form.
Ollie didn't usually spend much time standing in one place—Mother had always made very sure of that, she realised—but now she had no choice, and by the time the assembly came to an end her hip was aching fiercely. Things didn't improve when she turned to leave and someone pushed into her—it felt almost like a shove—from behind. Ollie stumbled, and she reached out in panic for something solid to hold on to, even while she knew there was nothing nearby but other girls, and that she was about to fall flat on her face. But, miraculously, she felt a hand gripping her elbow, holding her steady until she regained her balance. Someone nearby muttered, "Stupid cripple," but Ollie didn't bother to look to see who it was. She was much more interested in the identity of her… rescuer, yes, that could not be denied, but more than that: her ally.
Ollie wasn't all that surprised when she looked around to find Louise standing there.
"They're probably not going to like you very much," Louise said, matter-of-factly as they made their way to the main doors of the assembly hall, amidst the seething mass of schoolgirls. "They never like anyone different."
"How do you know that? I thought this was your first day," Ollie said.
"It is, but I've been at other schools. It always works like this."
"But Miss Hart…"
"Is an excellent headmistress, or at least that's what my grandmother says. But even she can't change the fundamental nature of some of the girls who come here."
Ollie considered this for a moment, and nodded. Even sheltered and cosseted as she'd been at Heslop, she knew very well that there were people in the world who rejected anything and anyone that they considered less than perfect—or even just anyone or anything they considered weaker than themselves, and therefore vulnerable. People like those boys who'd tried to drown Peter the dog. People like... her. But Ollie wasn't going to think about her. She was not going to let in thoughts of her. Not today, of all days. "Why did you help me just now?" she asked, instead.
Louise shrugged. "It wasn't very sporting, was it? What they did. Besides, they're not going to like me very much, anyway, so in for a penny, in for a pound," she said cheerfully.
"Why aren't they going to like you?" Ollie asked, wondering what there could be about Louise that would make her stand out in the wrong way. Unlike that other Louise, the famous and beautiful film actress, Louise Devine was not possessed of raven locks and come hither eyes dark with promise, but her blonde hair was just as enviably straight, and her figure almost as tall and slender. She was pretty now, and some instinct told Ollie that she would be considered beautiful before too many more years had passed. The two of them must make quite the contrast, standing side by side, and yet there was something about Louise, something beyond looks, that seemed somehow familiar to Ollie.
It took her barely more than a moment to realise that that quality was kindness to a fellow creature simply because that creature—or person in this case—was in need.
"I'm not the right sort," Louise explained. "I had the wrong father, and so they think they're better than I am."
"How can you have the wrong father?" Ollie asked. A father was a father, wasn't he? Her father certainly was, for all that he was a viscount, too.
"My father was Irish and Catholic, and didn't have money or connections," Louise said. "That sort of thing matters to some people."
"That's silly," Ollie said. "What does that have to do with anything important? It's how you treat other people that counts, not who your parents are."
"That's easy for a viscount's daughter to say," Louise pointed out.
"It's still true," Ollie said, and perhaps a little of the famous Byrne fiery stubbornness showed itself in her eyes then, because Louise didn't attempt to contradict her this time.
They'd reached the doors by then, and as they stepped out under the overcast sky, Louise smiled. "Do you like mints?" she asked. She didn't wait for an answer but pressed one into Ollie's hands.
Ollie smiled back, and in that moment a friendship was born.
Ollie soon discovered that Louise was the granddaughter of old Lady Shuttleford, whose only daughter had made what was politely described as an unfortunate marriage. Louise had been born a scandalous six months later. When both parents were taken in a rail accident barely three months after her birth, Louise had gone to live with her maternal grandmother and uncle, the current Lord Shuttleford.
While Louise might have lived almost all her life at Milbury Court, home of the Shuttlefords for the past three centuries, there could be no denying that she was a Devine and not a Shuttleford. Certain of the other young ladies at the school, most notably Isobel Singleton-Forbes, the unofficial queen of the fourth form, took great delight in reminding Louise of this fact as often as possible—when she wasn't making unsubtle remarks about subjects such as what her father had done when his chestnut hunter had gone lame. "Better to put it out of its misery than let it live," she'd remarked with a sniff and a sidelong glance at Ollie.
Ollie and Louise found it easy enough to ignore Isobel and her cronies for the most part, though Louise, especially, was aware that it would probably have been a very different story if they hadn't had each other to talk and laugh with, to study and discuss with, and to keep each other company through each interminable meal in the school dining hall. Neither had ever had a girl friend before. Of the many friends, relations and well-wishers that Ollie had had at Heslop and Mersham and the Towers—the home of her sister-in-law Susie's parents, the Rabinovitches—not one had been a girl her own age. As Ollie soon discovered, Louise's homelife had been even more lacking in female companionship. Ollie, at least, had had Mother and Susie, as well as Pinny for a time at Heslop. Growing up at Milbury Court, Louise's only female company had been her grandmother, and a succession of unremarkable and largely interchangeable governesses. Things had not improved much even when Louise was sent away to school. She'd quickly discovered what it was to be alone when surrounded by dozens of girls her own age. This was the third school for young ladies that Louise had attended, but it was the first in which she'd made a true friend.
The school year flew by, punctuated at Christmas and end of term by brief visits home to Ollie's loving family. She rarely saw Petya during these visits, though. Minter Grove's calendar was not quite the same as Oxford's, and Ollie would invariably arrive home just after Petya and Hugh had returned to university, or return to school just before they arrived home. In fact, Ollie saw Petya only once during that entire academic year, and it was on her first visit home, at Christmas.
Her heart almost burst out of her chest with joy as the car turned into the long driveway at Heslop the day before Christmas Eve. Mother had driven all the way to Minter Grove to collect her, so they'd already had a reunion that they'd both striven to ensure was not tearful. (Possibly they had both failed, just a little bit, in this endeavour.) But when the Bentley came to a stop outside Heslop's front doors, a stream of people emerged. There was Father, and Tom and Susie and the children, and Hawkins, the butler, and Mr and Mrs Rabinovitch, and Rupert and Anna and their children, and Hugh, of course, and… Petya.
He was even taller than she remembered, which didn't seem possible. And yet, taller he was.
Then her attention was claimed by the children, demanding hugs and kisses from her, as the adults started gently herding them inside while Hawkins held the door open, before the chill December wind had the chance to turn them all into so many human icicles.
Once inside the great hall, more hugs and kisses were exchanged. No one seemed to think that simple words of welcome were enough. Ollie felt a little like a pass-the-parcel being handed from one person to another and then another, until at last she found herself looking up—so very far up now—into a pair of merry blue eyes.
"Welcome home, Miss Byrne," Petya said gravely, before taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips.
The feel of Petya's lips against her bare skin made Ollie's stomach flop right over inside. She looked up at him, not knowing what to say, forgetting that a response was even expected, until he let go of her hand with a smile.
"Thank you, Count Grazinsky," she said, just at the exact moment that the silence between them crossed the line into awkwardness.
But Petya just smiled, and offered her his arm, just as he'd done once before. She took it, and, just as that other time, she was aware of hardly anything except the feel of his arm beneath her hand as they made their way up the grand staircase.
Many other things happened over the next few days, including all the eating and drinking and singing and exchanging of presents that anyone could wish for. Ollie was sure that all of that happened, but afterwards her only vivid memory of that Christmas was the feel of Petya's lips on the back of her hand and then walking on his arm up the stairs.
Ollie came home for the summer at the end of her first year at Minter Grove, with a hundred stories about Life At School, and about a thousand new ideas ranging from international politics and Romantic poetry to the latest fashions and botanical discoveries. She also brought Louise. They spent the first three weeks of the holidays at Heslop—the same three weeks that Hugh and Petya were on a fishing trip in the Scottish highlands—after which Lady Byrne accepted Lady Shuttleford's gracious invitation for Ollie to stay a while at Milbury Court.
Ollie was more than happy to spend most of the summer in Louise's company, but she did begin to wonder if she would ever see Petya or Hugh again before she finished school.
Ollie and Louise's second year at Minter Grove progressed much as the first had, though they were two young ladies of the fifth form now, and so much more grown up and dignified—except when one set off the other in a fit of giggles. Ollie had made other friends by then, an entire small group who were interested in what the mistresses had to teach—at least some of the time—and didn’t care overly much for the snobbery and pettiness of the girls who tried to set themselves above the others. Louise remained Ollie’s best and dearest friend, however, and at the end of the year she accompanied Ollie back to Heslop for a long stay over the summer once again. Everything was much as it had been the year before—except that this time Petya and Hugh were spending at least the first half of the summer at Mersham and Heslop, respectively.
Louise had heard of Petya from Ollie many times before, of course, and if she was still not entirely prepared for the sight of him, or the effect of his clicking his heels and bowing over her hand when first they met, she did not betray it by as much as the flicker of an eye. Hugh, red-haired and only a fraction shorter than Petya, didn't bother with bows or hands or courtly gestures. He simply seized Ollie and hugged her so hard that the air left her lungs in an 'oof!' before he placed her on the ground again and turned an enquiring eye to her friend.
"Louise, may I present my brother, Hugh Byrne. Hugh, Miss Louise Devine, the niece of Lord Shuttleford," Ollie said. She knew how to be well-mannered, even if her brother seemed to have forgotten everything he'd ever been taught about how to go on in polite company.
To Ollie's surprise, Hugh's demeanour changed immediately. "A pleasure, Miss Devine," he said, taking her hand.
"Mr Byrne." To Ollie's even greater surprise, Louise, who had survived a first meeting with Petya apparently quite unruffled, had now gone quite pink.
Ollie didn't know what any of it meant. Maybe it was just that she and Louise were both approaching the age of sixteen now. They were no longer children, but almost young ladies.
If her eyes then left the sight of Louise and Hugh and sought out Petya, no one noticed.
Once the four young people had settled in for the summer, it didn't take long for Anna to issue an invitation for dinner and an informal dance at Mersham.
The party from Heslop arrived in a small convoy: Lord and Lady Byrne, together with the two girls, in the Bentley, followed by Hugh in his new Morgan Aero two-seater—a twenty-first birthday present from his parents—with Tom and Susie in the Crossley bringing up the rear.
Proom, Mersham's majestic butler, led them up to the gold salon and announced them, and then Anna was coming to meet them, wreathed in smiles of welcome.
If one did not know that Petya and Anna were brother and sister, it would be easy to believe that they were not related at all. Where Petya was tall, fair and blue-eyed, Anna was small and slight, with dark hair and eyes. And yet there was something about them both that was a little out of the ordinary, somehow—and not just that they were Russian. A room was somehow brighter and more cheerful, more alive, when either one of them was in it, and when they were both in a room together…
It was a memorable evening, in more ways than one. The dinner was sumptuous, as one would expect of any meal that came from the hands of Mersham's famous (throughout the district, at least) cook, the sweet and self-effacing Mrs Park, who had always made the kitchen a place of welcome when Ollie visited as a child. At least, Ollie was vaguely aware that the food was as good as ever. For once, her attention was not on her plate. She was seated between Hugh and Tom, and across the table from Louise and Petya. All through the meal, she couldn't help wondering just what Petya was saying to make her friend smile and chatter so brightly. She was glad that Louise was enjoying herself, of course she was. But still, Ollie wondered.
After dinner, the footmen came in to roll up the carpets in the drawing room, and the room was prepared for the dancing. This was no ball, of course, where one went to see and be seen as much as to dance, but just a jolly family party. Anna offered to play the piano, but was just as quickly declined by her husband, who quietly asked if he might have her hand for the first dance. So then there was nothing for it but to crank up the gramophone, and let Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang lead them through the Lindy hop and the foxtrot and other dances both old and new.
Ollie did not dance. Even the slower dances were taxing on her hip, though she had learned the waltz and could dance it, if not entirely gracefully, then at least more than well enough to get by. However, she had no hope of ever doing anything but fall right over if she were to attempt, for example, the jitterbug, whether she was wearing her shoe with the special built-up sole and heel or not. Instead, she sat by the sidelines and watched the others dance. She was not alone in this, for the Rabinovitches and the earl's mother, the dowager Lady Westerholme, all declaring themselves far too old for any sort of dancing, sat with her, and at times both of Ollie's brothers sat out as well, chatting and joking and doing their very best to make her smile.
And smile she did. Her smile only grew broader when Petya left the dancefloor, panting a little from his exertions demonstrating the Charleston to the rest of the company, and came to sit out the next dance with her.
"You've grown, doushenka," he said by way of greeting, as he took the seat beside hers.
"I haven't," Ollie said. "I think this is as tall as I'm going to get."
Petya didn't say anything for a moment, and Ollie was left with the strangest feeling that he hadn't been talking about her height. But, "Tell me what you've learnt at school this year," was all he said in response, so Ollie told him:
"I've learnt that it's not a good idea to try to sneak a bottle of gin into the dormitory, even if one is the daughter of an earl."
Petya laughed at that. "Daughters of viscounts have more sense, clearly."
"Or we know to hide things in plain sight," she said with a grin, remembering with pleasure the form mistress's wrath coming down on the head of the odious Isobel Singleton-Forbes. It was possible that that memory wasn't the only thing making her grin right at that moment, though.
Petya shook his head at her. "Miss Byrne, I feel I should be quite shocked. Does your mother know of this?"
"Of what, Count Grazinsky? I didn't say that I'd hidden anything that I shouldn't in the dormitory, but just that I'd know how to go about it if I ever did." She was trying hard to bite down on her smile, but she could feel her lips curving up as it threatened to break free.
"I've missed you, little Ollie," Petya said. His eyes were so very blue right then, as he smiled on her, that Ollie could forgive him anything—even being called 'little'. "Have you been learning anything academic at that school of yours, in addition to the oh-so-important life lessons of the dormitory?"
"Of course," she said. "This year I've learned about Gregor Mendel and his experiments on pea plants, and the composition of the Deutches Reich, and Miss Simmons has been teaching us some of Shakespeare's sonnets."
Petya's eyes lit up at that. "Ah, now let me see if I remember." He looked thoughtful for a moment, though Ollie knew very well that Petya never forgot any poem that he liked enough to learn by heart. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments," he quoted softly.
"Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove," Ollie continued.
"O no! it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken," they finished together.
It felt like the sort of moment that should have ended with shared laughter, but neither of them laughed. Petya's eyes were on hers, as if searching for something. Ollie didn't know if he found what he sought in the depths of her eyes. All she knew was that the silence between them was stretching, and that she needed to fill it.
"What's life like at Oxford?" she asked quickly. "Hugh hardly tells me anything about what it's like there."
"It's much like life at any other university, I imagine," Petya said, his tone politely conversational, but he was still looking at her in a way that made Ollie feel oddly uncomfortable. "There are my studies, of course."
"Of course," Ollie said. "And maybe some parties, when you're not studying." And girls, she thought. Grown up girls Petya's own age. None of them a schoolgirl who was not yet out in society, and therefore regarded by the world as hardly more than a child.
"Maybe," Petya agreed, and there was a sudden twinkle in his eye. "At university one has the advantage of not being required to sneak alcohol into one's room." He hesitated, his look of amusement gone, and appeared to be on the verge of saying something else. But the record ended then, and Hugh called over to Petya to come and help him choose the next one. "It seems I am needed elsewhere, Miss Byrne," Petya said with a smile as he got up.
"I won't keep you, then," Ollie said. She watched as he walked away, not sure what she felt, and only realised that there must be still a vestige of a smile on her face when her father took the seat beside her and remarked how much he liked to see his girl happy.
The only time Ollie didn't smile was when Rupert stopped to change the record for the last dance of the evening, and the strident strains of the jazz cornet were replaced by softly gliding strings, as an orchestra started up a waltz. Rupert, of course, claimed Anna for the waltz, and Tom came over to bow before Susie, who had sat out the previous dance, fanning her pink face vigorously.
Petya had already asked Louise for the next dance, so it was not as if he could have known that he would be waltzing with her—the waltz, the one dance that was Ollie's. She watched Petya lead Louise out onto the floor, but then Hugh was bowing before her and Ollie got up to dance at last. There was something terribly intimate about the waltz. Not when one was dancing it with one's brother, obviously, but Ollie knew there was a reason why the married couples present had chosen to dance this dance with each other. Even Father, who rarely danced, took Mother out onto the floor. Ollie watched surreptitiously, whenever the steps of the dance brought them near, as her best friend and her… Petya slowly circled the room, talking softly and smiling, just as they had all through dinner, and Ollie felt… she felt…
She was quiet on the way home, and quieter still as she and Louise made their way up the stairs to bed.
"Good night," Ollie told Louise in what she thought was her normal voice, even though she felt strange and not like herself at all, as they reached the door to Louise's bedroom.
Apparently, Ollie must not have sounded quite like herself after all, or maybe there was something about the look on her face, because Louise didn't say good night. "Ollie," she said instead, shaking her head, but the smile on her lips was amused.
"What?" Ollie said. It wasn't polite, but sometimes a short, blunt question was what the moment called for.
"You've been watching me with Peter all through the evening. Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
"I haven't…" Ollie stopped. There was no use denying it. Louise knew her too well. But then, everyone else in that room knew her well, too. Had they all noticed? Had Petya noticed? Oh, God. She felt her face flush and right then she felt like the absolute embodiment of her surname.
"What do you think Peter and I spoke of all through dinner and when we danced?" Louise asked gently.
"I don't know," Ollie said, staring at her in consternation. How should she have any idea?
"The only thing we have in common," Louise said, and then laughed as Ollie continued to stare at her in puzzlement. "You, you silly thing. We spoke about you. And Hugh, a little, but mostly about you."
Ollie blinked, and blinked again.
"You're the sister I never had," Louise said, smiling fondly. "Surely you know that by now."
Ollie let Louise hug her, and hugged back just as tightly. "Of course I do," she said. "You're the sister I never had, too." She felt terribly foolish, and yet she couldn't stop the voice in her head that asked: And Petya, am I also just another sister he never had?
It was another year before Ollie and Louise were back at Heslop again, but this time neither Hugh nor Petya were present. They had completed their degrees, Hugh in the physical sciences and Petya in classics, and then, like so many young men before them, they and their classmates had dispersed to the four winds. With the—somewhat resigned—blessing of Lord and Lady Byrne, Hugh had taken rooms in London while he spent some time deciding what he wanted to do with his life. Ollie had an inkling that his method of decision-making involved living the high life and drinking lots of champagne with pretty girls at parties, but she didn't think it would help anyone—most particularly Hugh—to voice this suspicion, so she kept it to herself.
Petya, meanwhile, had decided to travel. And travel he did. The first postcard came from Paris, then, somewhat surprisingly, there was one from Copenhagen, followed by Berlin, Prague and Vienna. By the time the girls returned to school for their final year at Minter Grove, Petya had reached Greece.
Ollie wondered about everything beyond the few lines scrawled on the back of a postcard and the picture on the front: all the sights and sounds and smells of foreign climes, of which she could, as yet, only imagine. She wondered what he was doing in those places, and who he might be doing it with. It seemed to her that the more postcards they—and Anna and his mother, Countess Grazinsky—received from Petya, the less distinct he and his surroundings became to her. Important things might be happening to him, or maybe nothing much at all. Maybe he was attending as many parties as Hugh, but just doing so in many more different places. There was no way to know.
Petya had still not returned home when Ollie came back from Minter Grove the final time, a young lady on the verge of turning eighteen. Now it was her turn to decide what to do with her life, the same question that Hugh and Petya had grappled with the year before. The only real difference was that there was only one future that was deemed acceptable for a well-born young lady in 1929, and that was marriage and children. Of course, there was the alternative of spinsterhood, if one so chose, or if the option of marriage—an offer of marriage—did not present itself, but that was really no alternative at all. Mother never said as much, but Ollie had spent four years at school surrounded by girls who thought of little else but planning for their official come-outs into society, their London Seasons, their presentation at court and, of course, all the many and varied garments that would be required for each one of these important feminine milestones. She knew what the world expected.
She just wasn't sure if it was what she expected of herself.
Inevitably, the question of a London Season for Ollie at last reared its head. It seemed as if the answer to that question should be an obvious one. For one thing, Louise was already experiencing the delights of the Season. Almost the minute she had walked out of the gates of Minter Grove for the last time, old Lady Shuttleford had taken her down to London to view the collections of the great design houses, and to consult with her ladyship’s favourite smart London modiste.
Ollie, however, had no intention of joining Louise and her grandmother in London. “I can’t dance,” she said flatly, when her mother carefully broached the topic of a Season.
"Not every dance, but you can waltz," Lady Byrne reminded her gently.
"I don't want to dance," Ollie said, though of course that wasn't quite the truth. It wasn't that she didn't want to dance; she didn't want to sit out each dance and watch as everyone else danced. It was one thing to do so at family parties, where everyone made a point of coming to sit with her in lieu of a dance; a ball or dance where she was surrounded by strangers was something else entirely.
“I know, honey, but we don’t have to go to any of the balls or dance parties. We could attend the theatre and the opera, and the ballet of course, and there are musical evenings and cocktail parties and dinners and luncheons, and… oh, so many amusements that I’m sure you’d enjoy."
But Ollie remained obstinately against the idea. Lady Byrne was wise enough to know not to press the issue. She'd seen just such a stubborn light in other pairs of blue Byrne eyes too many times to count, and if she did not know exactly the best way to deal with the present situation, she also knew what was precisely the wrong way to go about it.
In the end, it was a telephone call from Louise that decided the issue. She missed Ollie, she said, and the moment Ollie heard her voice crackling down the line, she was painfully aware of just how much she'd missed her friend's company in return. By the time that telephone conversation had concluded, Louise had exacted a promise from Ollie: they would be presented together to their Majesties the King and Queen at court the following month.
Minna said very little when Ollie informed her of the change of plan. "You know that you'll have to curtsey to the King and Queen?" was the main thing she asked, her brow creased in a slight, concerned frown.
"I know," Ollie said, chin coming up as a familiar look of determination settled on her face.
So Minna smiled, and remarked that they had better motor up to London tomorrow to make a start on the planning for Ollie's court gown. This was one dress whose creation could not be left to the tender—though well-intentioned—mercies of Mrs Bunford, the village dressmaker.
Ollie submitted to these plans if not with enthusiasm then at least with acquiescence. She endured the many measurings and fittings with fortitude, even if being in the fitting room of a fashionable London dressmaker reminded her a bit too clearly of the very first time she'd done that. There would be no pink satin at court, at least. Tradition—and the rules laid down by the Palace—demanded a dress with a train in some shade of white worn with matching long, white gloves, together with a headdress of three ostrich feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume, and a white veil trailing down the back.
It was far fussier than Ollie's usual taste, but then, court dress was in a class of its own. In fact, the dress itself proved less problematic than the other major preparation for Ollie's presentation: the curtsey.
The curtsey that each debutante was required to make before the King—before taking three steps to the side and making it again before the Queen—was not an ordinary curtsey. It was so dissimilar as to be almost a different species from the quick bob the housemaids at Heslop would make if summoned by a member of the Family. The court curtsey was a low and sweeping thing that required a lady to lock her left knee behind her right before descending gracefully, head erect and hands by her sides, to the floor in a gesture of complete obeisance.
If dancing proved a challenge for Ollie, with her troublesome hip and uneven legs, then the demands of performing a curtsey of such depth should have been on another plane entirely. And yet Ollie took her place beside Louise in the class run by the famous former dancer, Madame Cordonnier, and she tried.
Her first attempt was a complete disaster. While all the other young ladies in the room sank—or at least wobbled—to the floor, Ollie tumbled right over, her glasses flying off her nose to land she knew not where. Louise retrieved them for her, and held out a hand for Ollie to take—or not—as she righted herself and tried not to listen to the other girls' titters. By the time she was on her feet again, Madame was standing in front of her, watching her with a thoughtful eye.
"The trick of mastering the curtsey is not in the 'ip but in the knees, Mademoiselle Byrne," she said, and without waiting for Ollie to reply, she turned and went back to the front of the room.
Knees, knees, knees, knees, knees, Ollie thought as Madame directed them all to try again. It still wasn't anything like easy, but at least she didn't fall this time, though her legs trembled rather violently as she neared the floor.
By the time the lesson was over, Ollie was sinking to the floor and rising again with some proficiency—or so Louise said, anyway. Ollie herself said nothing about it, but she couldn't help wondering what Petya would think, if he were to see her curtsey like that.
Of course, that was assuming that he ever returned from his travels.
Ollie, together with Lord and Lady Byrne, drove down to London the afternoon before she was due to be presented at court. Anna and Rupert, who were in town to attend a few of the quieter of the Season's events, had suggested that they all go to see the new production of Giselle that night. They all knew that of course the idea had originated with Anna, for no one loved the ballet more than she, but Rupert was the one who first brought it up, with the smile that was never very far from his lips at any mention of his wife, when he chanced to meet Lord Byrne in the high street of Maidens Over one afternoon a week or so before. Anna had followed up that initial conversation with a rather more detailed discussion over tea and scones, and that had been that.
Louise and her grandmother were not in attendance at the ballet, having already accepted an invitation to an event that involved a very different sort of dancing. Hugh, also, had cried off, citing a previous engagement. And Petya… Petya had still not returned home.
"Have you had any word from Petya lately?" Lady Byrne asked Countess Grazinsky as the Byrnes and the Westerholmes took their seats in the box that the earl rented at Covent Garden during the Season.
"Not for more than a month!" the countess said, with an air of tragedy common to mothers of absent young men the world over. "Not since the postcard from… somewhere in India. Do you remember where was it, Anna?"
"Goa," Anna replied. "It sounded most beautiful."
"A month, an entire month, and nothing since. Not a word! He could be lying dead in a ditch, or injured in hospital or… anything!"
"I'm sure he's fine, Mama," Anna said soothingly, in a way that strongly suggested that this was not the first time they had had this conversation. "His letters and postcards must have been lost, or most likely delayed."
"Yes, indeed," Rupert said from his seat beside Anna. "Why he may yet get back to London before his correspondence arrives. I wouldn't be at all surprised."
The earl's words were hopeful, and yet even as he was speaking, a tiny ember of hope, no brighter than the flame of a single candle, flickered and died inside Ollie. She had come to the ballet hoping that perhaps the number of gentlemen in their party would turn out to be three and not just two. When Anna had invited them to the ballet, she had sounded hopeful that Petya would be back in London in plenty of time before Ollie's presentation. But now Ollie realised that hope was all it had ever been.
Tonight Ollie was wearing a new evening dress of silk georgette crepe in a soft shade of blue. A tiered, picot-edged skirt hung below the fashionable drop waist, and the entire dress was covered all over in a delicate pattern of beads, which shimmered and softly clinked as she moved. On her head was a matching beaded bandeau, and around her neck gently glimmered the string of pearls that Mr Rabinovitch had gifted her, one pearl at a time every Friday evening, when she had been the Rabinovitches' Shabbat Goi as a little girl.
Ollie hadn't been able to do anything but grin at her reflection as she'd surveyed the complete ensemble in her room at the Byrnes' London apartment before they left for the ballet. Now, though, she was all out of smiles. She stared at her programme almost unseeingly as she waited for the house lights to go down and the ballet to start. The lead role of Giselle was to be danced by Alicia Markova.
"Markova was until lately a member of the Ballets Russes," Anna said, noting the page of the programme that Ollie was half-reading. "Diaghilev himself noticed her and took her into the company at a very young age."
"Another fascinating Russian," Ollie said, smiling slightly at Anna as she said it.
Anna laughed. "Oh, no, Alicia Markova is not Russian. She has never been to Russia."
Ollie stared at Anna in surprise. She could feel a crease forming in that spot just above her nose. "Then where is she from?" she asked.
"Finsbury Park," Anna said, dimpling.
Ollie discovered then that her lips had not forgotten how to smile after all. "Really?" she said, incredulous.
"Really. She was born Lilian Marks and is as English as you are."
"But why is she known as Alicia Markova, then?" Ollie said.
"It is a great silliness, I think, but Diaghilev once put it to me like this: who ever heard of a great ballerina with an English name?"
Ollie shook her head and looked down at the stage for a moment, and then back at Anna. "Do you remember that day that Tom drove us up to London, not long after you'd first arrived at Mersham, Anna? And… things didn't work out as planned, so you took me to the Russian Club."
"Of course," Anna said.
"I'll never forget it. I'd never experienced anything like it—before or since. For years after, when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always told them: 'A Russian.'"
Anna laughed softly. "That is a great compliment, indeed."
"After I grew older, I realised that it wasn't possible to just become Russian. Or so I thought, but now here I am…"
"...waiting to watch an English dancer with a Russian name performing in one of the great French ballets," Anna finished for her.
"I can't help wondering, after all, if it really is just simple as… as deciding to be what one wants to be, and pursuing it until it's true."
"Perhaps," Anna said, and her gaze slid to her husband, sitting on her other side. Ollie noticed then that they were holding hands. They weren't obvious about it. They were nothing if not discreet. And yet since they'd sat down, Anna's left hand had slipped down into the gap between the two chairs and had been enfolded in the earl's right. Nothing had been said. They weren't even looking at each other, and yet Ollie saw then that they were together, just the two of them, in a way that excluded everyone else in the box—everyone else in the concert hall.
Ollie wondered what that must be like, to be so completely in accord with someone else that there was no need for words, or even looks.
The lights dimmed, then, and the orchestra in the pit below struck up the overture, and there was no further opportunity for conversation.
Giselle was a famous ballet, of course, and Ollie had one of the very best seats in the house, and yet the action on stage did not hold her attention for more than a minute or two at a time. So distracted was she, or perhaps just lacking in the ability to concentrate, that she didn't notice Alicia Markova dying oh-so-gracefully on the stage below until Giselle breathed her last.
Ollie remained distracted throughout the rest of the evening, though no one could fault her behaviour. She did everything just as she should. During the interval, she drank the single glass of champagne that Mother allowed her, and made appropriate responses whenever anyone engaged her in conversation. However, she did not initiate a single conversation, or prolong far beyond the opening remarks any of those that others started with her. She resumed her seat afterwards, and stared down rather blindly at the stage through the entire second act, right up until the dancers made their bows. It was only when Markova sank to the ground in a curtsey very like the one that Ollie had been practising so diligently for weeks that she really took notice of what was going on below. But still she said nothing, and once the lights came up, she rose from her seat and prepared to depart.
If her parents exchanged worried glances as she followed them rather listlessly out of the theatre, Ollie didn't notice—or, at least, she pretended not to.
The following evening turned out to be one that Ollie would always remember, though meeting their Majesties the King and Queen proved to be far down the list of memorable events.
Ollie was quiet throughout the day, even when she and Mother lunched at the Ritz with Louise and Lady Shuttleford. Louise talked enough for both of them, though, and when they parted she hugged Ollie and whispered, "Only a few hours to go!" Ollie had little choice but to hug her back and whisper, "Only a few hours!" in return.
As the afternoon gave way to evening, Ollie dressed in the gown that had been made to be worn on this one single, special occasion. It was like a wedding dress in that respect, and it looked more than a little like one, too, she thought, as she stared at her reflection in the mirror once Mother had carefully arranged the three ostrich feathers in her headdress. It wasn't the sort of wedding dress that Ollie would choose, if she were ever to find herself in the position of requiring one. However, the colour of the dress—pure white silk, setting in vivid relief Ollie's still longer than was strictly fashionable copper curls—the length of it, and the matching veil, not to mention the bouquet of lilies that she carried, could not help but put one in mind of a wedding dress.
"You look beautiful, Ollie," Mother said quietly, and Ollie was surprised to see the hint of tears glistening in her mother's eyes.
"So do you, Mummy," she said, and it was true. Lady Byrne was also dressed up to the nines, her outfit similar to Ollie's, right down to the prescribed ostrich feathers and the veil. However, Lady Byrne's dress was of silver grey silk, and set off by the famous Byrne diamond tiara, which only came out of the bank vault to be worn on those rare occasions when Lady Byrne was required to play the part of the Viscountess Byrne, and not simply to be her.
All too soon the car arrived below, and Ollie and her mother descended in the lift to find Louise and Lady Shuttleford waiting for them inside. Father and Lord Shuttleford were already at the palace, having attended the levee that His Majesty had presided over some hours earlier.
Louise was excited, naturally, and her eagerness was contagious. By the time their car turned into the Mall, both girls were chattering together and bursting into occasional bouts of nervous giggles.
Lady Byrne and Lady Shuttleford exchanged a long look, but said nothing.
The car came to a stop as it joined the long line of identical cars queued up along the Mall. Now they were obliged to wait their turn to drive in through the palace gates, and in some ways this was the hardest part. A goodly sized crowd of spectators had gathered along the pavement, and it was more than a little unnerving to see the faces of strangers staring in through the window of the car, as if taking mental inventory of every detail of what they wore and how they looked—or perhaps viewing them as if looking at some rare species in a cage at the zoo.
At last it was their turn. Their driver started the engine and they drove the short distance along the Mall and in through the gates to Buckingham Palace. In almost no time at all they had stepped out of the car and liveried footmen were directing them inside. Ollie stopped stock still just inside the main doors and gazed around her in awe. Somehow, the fact that she was going to be presented to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace had not seemed entirely real until now. She, Ollie Byrne, was a guest at Buckingham Palace, at the invitation of His Majesty the King and Queen Mary. She didn't have much time to take in many of the details, except that it seemed to her slightly dazed eyes that almost everything—the walls, the floor, the ceiling, even the ornate balusters on the staircase—was some shade of red or gold, before she felt Mother's gentle touch at her back, and then a series of ever more splendidly dressed footmen was directing them up the grand staircase to the ante-chamber. There, what seemed like scores of other young ladies, all clad in the regulation gown in some shade of white with matching gloves, veil and ostrich feathers, waited their turn to be called into the sovereign's presence.
Unlike when they were in the car outside, they did not have long to wait. The queue of ladies moved swiftly—clearly, their majesties were not much interested in stopping to chat with the debutantes today—and in what seemed like almost no time at all, Mother was handing their invitation card to the—footman? Steward? Majordomo?—at the door.
Louise gave Ollie one last, excited hug—"You'll be absolutely brill," she said—and then:
"The Viscountess Byrne, presenting the Honourable Olive Byrne," the man announced in stentorian tones, and they were ushered into the presence of the King and Queen.
Everything went very smoothly, just as Ollie had practised. At least, it did at first. Mother waited a few steps behind as Ollie came forward and made her curtsey to His Majesty. It went off without a hitch. There wasn't so much as the hint of a wobble. She took the required three steps to the side, and made her second curtsey before Her Majesty—and that was where things came unstuck. Or, rather, where they became stuck. Ollie managed the first half the the curtsey—the sinking to the floor part—almost as smoothly as Markova had executed her bow at the ballet the night before. However, once down, Ollie's left knee locked in place behind her right at just the wrong angle, and sent a sharp pain shooting up her leg to her hip. It was so sudden and shocking that it was all Ollie could do not to cry out. She trembled, just a little, as the seconds ticked by, each one seeming like another toll from a bell sounding a death knell. She could hear the whispers starting up behind her. It was just like the first day of school, only a hundred times worse—a thousand times worse.
"Are you quite all right, Miss Byrne?" And oh heavens, that was the Queen, talking to her. Ollie wasn't supposed to say anything unless asked a direct question, and only then after she'd risen to her feet—but that was the one thing that she was quite incapable of doing.
And then she felt a hand, closing over her own, firm and steady. The only person present who might have come to her aid was Mother, and yet Ollie knew that it wasn't Mother's hand that was holding hers, without even having to look. She grasped the hand, putting her full weight on it and… she rose. The hand did not waver, and it stayed where it was when at last Ollie stood up straight on her own two feet and said:
"I'm fine, Your Majesty. Thank you."
The Queen nodded, but a small, amused smile hovered around her mouth as she glanced at the person by Ollie's side.
"Lady Byrne," the King said. It was a clear dismissal. Mother stepped forward and executed a perfect curtsey, even though as far as Ollie knew she hadn't been practising. Mother possessed some unexpected talents, it appeared. "Miss Byrne." Ollie let go of the hand, and curtseyed one last time. It felt as if her hip was on fire, and yet she made it almost to the floor and then up again without assistance. "Count Grazinsky," the King added, and Petya made a deep a formal bow before turning and offering his arm to Ollie.
Ollie took it, and smiled, and it seemed to her that the sun came out, there in the great state room in Buckingham Palace on a summer's evening—the most memorable evening of her life.
Queen Charlotte's Ball has been one of the highlights of the Season since King George III first held a birthday ball for his wife in 1780. The annual ball continued after the queen's death in 1818, but even more than one hundred years later it remained ostensibly a birthday ball. And so it happened, later that evening, once the debutantes had made their way in a shining white, glittering herd four abreast down the grand staircase at Grosvenor House, that Ollie and Louise made their final formal curtseys to the King and Queen—and to the giant, many-tiered white birthday cake towering over their Majesties on the table beside them.
The King and Queen opened the ball with the traditional waltz, and then couple after couple joined them on the dancefloor. Louise, of course, was besieged with requests for her hand. What seemed like half the young gentlemen present vied with each other for the honour of engaging 'the Divine Louise' for this first dance. Ollie grinned, pleased, but not surprised, to discover that her friend appeared to be well on the way to becoming the hit of the Season.
However, she was surprised when a very familiar, tall red-haired figure bowed over Louise's hand and led her, smiling, onto the floor. As they went past her, Ollie mouthed Hugh? at her friend. Louise just smiled, a little mischievously, and continued on her way. There would be time to talk, later, and there would be a great deal of talking if Ollie had any say in the matter, but as she sat there and watched her best friend dance with her brother, she realised she already had the answer as to why both Louise and Hugh had had prior engagements the evening before. She couldn't help but smile.
She was still smiling when a very familiar hand laid itself gently over hers. She turned and, with no surprise at all, found Petya standing beside her.
"May I have the honour of this first dance, Miss Byrne?" he asked, so very formally, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
Ollie could have pretended to think over her answer, but the music was playing and people were dancing and she wanted to join them, so, without a moment's hesitation, she replied, "Oh, yes, Petya. Please."
Petya had told her of the first waltz that Anna had danced with Rupert. It had taken place at the ball that Lady Byrne had given in honour of her, of… Muriel Hardwicke, to whom Rupert had then been engaged. Rupert and Anna had both known that it was a moment out of time, and that it would be not just their first but their only dance. As everything had later turned out, they had been wrong in thinking that, but at the time they danced in graceful, terrible silence, and it had been—according to her Mother's account, many years later—a heartrending scene to witness. By then it had been obvious to everyone that she... that Muriel had been so very wrong for Rupert, and Anna so very, very right.
Petya and Ollie's first waltz was not particularly graceful, and it was also very far from silent, but long before it was over Ollie knew that this, herself in Petya's arms, was just as right.
"Where have you been all this time?" Ollie wanted to know as they glided past the cake.
"Almost everywhere," Petya replied, smiling down at her. "But surely you know this. You have seen the postcards I sent you, and Anna must have shown you the ones I sent her."
"No one's received a postcard from you in more than a month!" Ollie exclaimed as they circled near the edge of the dancefloor, so loudly that a couple of matrons sitting on the sidelines in gilt-edged chairs raised their eyebrows.
"Really?" Petya said. "I certainly sent them, right up until last week. They must have been lost, or delayed. They'll probably all turn up at once."
"But how is it that you're here, now?" Ollie persisted.
"I travelled in the usual sorts of ways: mostly by car and ship and train, and a very little by aeroplane."
"Aeroplane!" Ollie said. "Oh, I should very much like to fly in an aeroplane."
"I'm sure you will, Ollie. I'm sure you'll do whatever you want." Suddenly Petya looked and sounded very serious. "Your life is all before you. Choose what makes you happy. I couldn't bear it if you weren't."
Ollie could hear her heart beating madly in her ears, and when she looked into Petya's eyes, he looked right back. There was none of the usual amusement lurking in the depths of his eyes, and nothing of the older almost-brother looking down at his friend's little sister. He looked at her with an honesty that she was helpless to do anything but return in full. Their gazes locked, as the rest of the room receded until there was only each other, yet somehow they managed to continue dancing without crashing into any of the other waltzing couples. Perhaps the rest of their first dance would have been as silent as—though very much less terrible than—Rupert and Anna's first dance, had not the music come to an end at that moment. Petya let his right hand slip from where it had been lying at Ollie's back—she felt a tiny pang at the loss of it—but his left hand kept a tight hold on her right as he led her off the dance floor, across the room and out the door onto the balcony.
It was a warm night, and even warmer in the ballroom, with the hundreds of guests all packed into one single—if enormous—room together. The cooler outside air was a relief, and all was quiet about them, apart from the muted sounds of conversation and laughter coming from the ballroom, and the buzz of London traffic in the distance.
"You came to my rescue tonight, Petya," Ollie said quietly, as they looked out over the edge of the balcony to the courtyard below. "I might have been stuck there in front of the King and Queen for who knows how long if you hadn't helped me."
"Sometimes everyone needs a hand to help them—even the brave and beautiful Miss Byrne," Petya said.
Ollie's face flamed at that, and she didn't know where to look—so she just kept looking out over the balcony. "I wouldn't have accepted it from anyone but you," she said, only realising it was true as she said the words.
"Then I am truly glad that I made it back to London in time to be on hand—and to provide a hand."
They were silent again for a moment, and then Ollie asked, "How long will you be in London?" just as Petya said, "And have you decided what you will do next?"
They laughed together, and all the tension went out of Ollie. "I… I don't want a Season. I was nearly sure before tonight, though I'm glad I had the chance to dress up and come to the Palace and be presented with Louise, but…"
"But," Petya prompted when she paused.
"But I don't want to be squashed into ballrooms almost every night and paraded like a piece of prize horseflesh for prospective buyers. Louise doesn't see it that way, she enjoys all the attention and I'd never take that away from her, but… it's not for me."
"So, what will you do, doushenka?" Petya asked.
"I want… I want to study," Ollie said in a rush. "I want to go to university and find out about science or poetry or languages or literature—any of it! All of it! I don't know, but that's where I need to go next."
"You may be forced to attend some parties if you go to university," Petya pointed out. His words were teasing, but the hand that closed over hers where it lay on the top of the parapet felt very serious indeed.
"I like parties," Ollie said, a trifle indignantly. "But I like going to parties where I know people, and the main aim is to enjoy oneself. What I don't like is being told exactly what I must wear, exactly how I must behave, and all the silly rituals that go with it."
"Like curtseying to a cake?" Petya suggested.
"Yes, like curtseying to a stupid cake!" Ollie said, half-laughing. She turned to look at him then, still very conscious of the warmth of his hand covering hers. "What will you do next? Will you be in London long before you leave for… wherever you're going next?"
"I will be in London for a day or two," Petya said. "There are some business matters that I need to take care of. After that, Anna has invited me to stay at Mersham for a while."
"I'm so glad," Ollie said. "I shouldn't have liked to say goodbye to you again so soon. But have you planned where you will be going after that?" She swallowed, fairly sure that the answer to this question would go some way towards breaking her heart.
"I will be going away in the Autumn," Petya said. "To Oxford. I've decided to take an MA."
Ollie blinked. "Oxford," she said after a long moment. "So, if I were to go to Oxford…"
"You would have no choice but to see a great deal of me, I'm afraid," Petya said. "Perhaps I could even escort you to a few parties."
He smiled down at her, and Ollie looked up, her lips curving into an answering smile. Then, with what felt like great daring, she carefully removed her right glove and lifted her bare hand to cup the side of his face. Petya's skin was warm beneath her palm, the skin smooth with just the tiniest hint of roughness—it must have been hours and hours since he'd last shaved.
But then Petya was bending down to her and there was no time for thinking about shaving or anything else but the soft touch of his lips on her own. It was a question, that kiss, and Ollie was already answering before she had time to think about it even for a moment.
By the time they parted, gasping a little and not just because they were both in need of air, Ollie knew that it had all been leading here, to this moment, since the day ten years ago when Petya was first introduced to her as Hugh's friend from school. She just hadn't known it until now.
Ollie remembered her childhood wish to be a Russian, and her conversation with Anna last night about Alicia Markova, the English girl who had decided to become a Russian prima ballerina—and had done so. Of course, Markova was still the person she had always been. All she had done in order to become Russian was change her name, but there were ways and ways of doing that.
Looking up into Petya's eyes again, for it seemed that it was impossible not to do so for long, Ollie couldn't help but think that maybe, one day, when her studies at Oxford were behind her, she might become a Russian after all.