London - April 1910
The bell above the office door jangled harshly as Maite whirled in from the hall in her usual state of enthusiasm.
“Is it still raining?” asked Alicia, glancing up from her copy of The Times.
“Nothing too bad–it will stop soon,” said Maite with a shrug, dropping her dripping umbrella into the metal urn with a clang.
“Any other noises?” asked Alicia dryly.
Maite smirked and leaned over to rap her knuckles on the polished hardwood of Alicia’s desk.
“A job,” she said, handing over the opened envelope. While some clients contacted them directly from their newspaper advertisements–“Discreet inquiries made by genteel ladies into personal and urgent matters, with full knowledge of English law & statutes. All cases considered.”–those more desirous of secrecy (and therefore more lucrative) knew to write to Maite privately–Miss ‘May’ Ribelles, as she was known among her mother’s people–that is, the genteel upper-class Anglicans of England. The dreadful inflections with which they would pronounce Maite’s surname led her to universally insist upon the less-offensive and easily managed alias of 'May’, lest they likewise mangle her Christian name.
While Miranda Hawksley had scarce been talked of in anything above a guarded whisper since her elopement and subsequent conversion and marriage with a Spanish gentleman considered altogether too charming, upon her early death there had been some familial talk of their 'duty’ to Poor Miranda’s only child. As Ribelles seemed content to remain abroad, so too did their good intentions hesitate to set out upon their road to reconciliation. Though the present Queen of Spain was herself a princess of English birth, that had been no elopement, and there was certainly more choice for a baronet’s pretty daughter among the gentleman of the British Isles than for a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. That it should come to running away with a foreigner was a slight against the sphere of Miranda’s birth which her former circles found more difficult to forgive in her lifetime, even if the chill of the grave seemed to cool their collective fury.
The olive branch was Maite’s to surprise them with, when she appeared in London two years before, with every intention, it seemed, of staying…and setting up a business! While tongues might wag, at least she was not alone in this singular sort of endeavour–she had brought with her her greatest friend, the gentle and ladylike Mrs. 'Alice Elton’… (Alicia having been drilled so rigorously by her friend in the English language that she now mimicked the native accent of Maite’s mother flawlessly–and if she happened to be at a loss for a certain word or phrase, often an enigmatic smile would be quite sufficient.) Perhaps it was this mysteriousness which left some not entirely inclined to open their hearts to Alicia, though her quiet manners were, at first glance, much more agreeable than her friend’s incisive frankness.
But where Miss May would go, her friend must be allowed, as well, and so all invitations and inquiries which wanted any hope of acceptance would, perforce, include 'Mrs. Elton’. She was widely understood to be a widow of gentle breeding, with a kind nature, who had been a great friend to Miss May since their days at a finishing school in Switzerland.
“A garden party, to start with,” said Maite, not waiting for Alicia to skim the letter before launching into her summation. “As far as anyone but the lady of the house is concerned, we are merely guests, like anyone else.”
“And where the lady IS concerned?” Maite contented herself with raising an eyebrow as her only reply, and Alicia threw her an incredulous look over the top of the sheet of paper. “…another philanderer?”
“There’s endless money to be made in faithless cads!”
“I don’t understand the eagerness of some women to know things they later realise they would rather not.”
“Divorce is easier to come by in England, and with good proof, a woman can be free and rich, if she plays her cards right and resists the urge to poison the scoundrel. The worst men always seem to live to be a hundred.” Another look. “Diego was the exception which proves the rule!” Maite insisted.
“The weather hardly makes me inclined to accept an invitation to a garden party,” grumbled Alicia, shying away from one of several subjects which still rubbed against the raw sores upon her soul, though it had been years since the end of her own marriage, such as it had been.
“The weather is always bound to change pretty soon,” chirped Maite, dropping the final piece of mail onto the desk: a letter–still sealed–addressed only to Alicia, and in a hand she knew well.
“Madre…” said Alicia, snatching it up and running her letter-knife beneath the seal.
Maite took up the letter of inquiry and retreated to her own desk opposite, which sat facing Alicia’s across the small space of their rented first-floor office, pencilling the engagement into their mutual diary despite her friend’s misgivings about the climate. Work was work, and Maite was determined to see their business flourish, despite the somewhat seedy side to the seemingly endless parade of disappointing husbands. They weren’t out to gain reputations as angels or saints, but as competent and trustworthy private investigators.
After a few minutes’ silence, (or what was left of silence after Maite fell to tapping the end of her pencil against the pages of her diary–tacktacktacktacktack–and the little clock on the mantlepiece kept its time–tickticktickticktick–) Maite dared to look up at her friend.
As if she felt Maite’s eyes on her, Alicia tossed aside the letter with a sigh.
“She still insists she wants to send me money,” she said, rubbing wearily at her forehead. “The hotel is doing so well, now…she says it’s my portion, that I deserve it…” Alicia shook her head. Reconciliation with her mother had not been the easiest of undertakings, and though time and the relief of freedom had eased them back into something like the bond they had once shared before secrets and lies had thrown them into opposition, Alicia had pinned a great many hopes on this new life she had found in England as something apart from her past, a fresh beginning she sorely needed. It was one thing to keep up a friendly correspondence with Doña Teresa. It was another thing entirely to take money from her. Money was a thing of contracts, of buying and selling. Who knew but that Teresa might later call upon it as a debt owed, when it suited her and she needed a favour, or to bring Alicia back into line with her schemes? Alicia loved her mother, yes, and had forgiven her as much as she could bear to forgive…but her trust had not yet wholly returned, and Alicia began to doubt if it ever would.
“You do deserve it,” said Maite. “All the money in the world couldn’t begin to make up for what’s happened to you–she knows that.”
Still Alicia shook her head, frowning at the letter and beginning to chew on her thumbnail–an old, anxious habit that Maite could recall even from their schooldays.
“Saying yes could mean so many things…”
“We won’t let it mean any more than it is–family money, from a family business. Don’t imagine Javier and Sofía don’t get their own share.” Maite leaned back in her chair, folding her hands across her stomach. “I know I don’t need to work unless I want to–and I want to. And you know you shouldn’t have to work unless you want to, either. You have that choice.”
“It’s not so simple.”
“Make it simple! Alicia…” Maite pushed herself out of her chair and went to lean over Alicia’s desk. “If you won’t accept it for yourself, take it for Agatha’s sake.”
Alicia’s swift glance was sharp and a little angry as she waved a dismissive hand.
“I can look after my own child by myself,” she snapped.
“I know you can–Alicia, I know that–no one doubts it. Your daughter doesn’t lack for any love or care or material things…but think of her future. If you put by the money Doña Teresa sends you, think what it could mean when she’s old enough to go to school…it’s not far off, now…it will all happen sooner than you think. Those things always do–think about it: just last week she cut her first tooth, right? And overnight she’s turned two years old!” Maite’s teasing smile was infectious, and Alicia could not help but feel the gloom beginning to lift.
A letter from her mother was not, after all, the same as having her mother hovering over her in that very room, demanding an answer or shoving the money into her hand. Maite was right–it could make some difference in Agatha’s life in the years to come. For all that the child was undeniably Diego’s daughter, Alicia loved her little girl with a fierce tenderness which sometimes frightened her in its intensity, and she knew there was nothing she would not do for her…even taking Doña Teresa’s money, whatever strings might come attached to it.
Alicia and Maite lived modestly enough in a sweet little brick house they rented in Chelsea, along with supporting a housekeeper, a cook, and a nursery-maid to help look after little Agatha during the day. Maite took pleasure in organising their social calendar, such as it was, as well as supplying what was necessary to these outings by way of fripperies, though neither young woman was particularly extravagant. Their clothes were modish and well-made, Alicia’s savouring more of understated elegance, suiting her character and position as a widow, while Maite chose touches of her usual flair, ever-ready to throw off conventions if she found they did not suit her tastes.
So, as far as Alicia was concerned, they did not need anything from her mother…but if she had learned anything by harsh lessons, it was the certain uncertainty of the future and whatever it might hold.
“I’ll think about it,” she finally said. “For Agatha.”