It was a warm, late May afternoon when Petra Rutherford crossed Parliament Square and approached St. Stephen’s Porch at the Palace of Westminster. The police officer on duty in front of the great oak door regarded her with a suspicious frown.
“Can I help you, madam?”
Petra’s smile was bland. She was well aware that it was her purple, green and white silk scarf that drew the man’s frown. “I have an appointment to take tea on the terrace with the Right Honorable Mr. Rutherford.” She handed the officer her engraved card.
He took it and silently opened the door for her. The Sergeant at Arms stepped forward instantly to take the card handed to him by the policeman. “If you would care to follow me, madam.”
Petra knew the way well enough but she also understand the rigid, frequently arcane rules and rituals that informed all activities in the Houses of Parliament. She followed the man through St. Stephen’s Hall and into the ornate Central Lobby situated half way between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
“If you’ll take a seat, Miss Rutherford, I will send a card messenger to inform the Honorable Member of your arrival.” He gestured to the padded benches around the hall.
“Thank you.” Petra glanced around the crowded lobby, looking for anyone she might know. It wouldn’t be unusual for a friend or acquaintance to be visiting a member of Parliament at tea time.
“Petra…” She turned at her brother’s voice. Jonathan hurried across the marble floor towards her. “I was waiting for you on the Terrace.” His smile became a frown as he reached her. “Did you have to wear the scarf, Petra? It’s a red rag to a bull in here.”
“I did have to wear it, Joth, for that very reason. I’m sorry if it sullies the sanctity of these hallowed halls, but you support the cause so you should be proud to acknowledge your sister’s participation.”
He shook his head. “I don’t not support women’s suffrage, but I dislike drawing attention and making a fuss, and there’s someone I most particularly want you to meet and be nice to this afternoon.”
“Oh?” She looked at him curiously. “Someone I don’t know?”
“Well, I believe you did know him slightly, but a long time ago,” her brother said with a vaguely dismissive wave of his hand. “I want to persuade him to support a bill that I’m presenting to Parliament and I need reinforcements. Just offer your sweetest smile and be as charming as you possibly can.”
“You mean use my feminine wiles on him, flutter my eyelashes and blind him with flattery?” she asked, half laughing.
“I know better than to expect that from my sister, however helpful it would be. Just be pleasant and charming, I know you can do that much for all your radical inclinations,” Jonathan stated. “Let’s go for tea. I don’t want him to be waiting for us.” He offered his arm and Petra allowed him to escort her out of the hall and onto the long terrace overlooking the river.
“Your table is over here, Mr. Rutherford. Good afternoon, madam. How nice to see you again.” The rotund figure of the head waiter barreled up to them as soon as they stepped onto the terrace. His eyes flicked to Petra’s scarf and then turned aside, his smile of greeting fixed upon his round countenance.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Jackson.” Petra greeted him with a warm smile of her own as if she had not noticed that discreetly averted glance. She had known what she was doing, wearing the colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union so blatantly in this bastion of male power and privilege, but she was not about to make a scene, her protest was silent and polite. It would still ruffle feathers, though.
She followed the waiter and her brother through the tables where conversation was low-voiced and whose occupants concentrated on the matter in hand, showing no interest in those around them. The table was set for three, she noticed, as she took her seat facing the Thames. Jonathan took the seat opposite leaving the one next to her free.
“So who is your mysterious guest, Joth?” she inquired, shaking out her napkin and laying it across her lap.
“He’s a member of the House of Lords…” He broke off as a waiter set a teapot, milk jug, a saucer of sliced lemons and a sugar bowl on the table, followed by a tray of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, and a cloth covered basket of warm scones. A dish of clotted cream and a cut glass jar of raspberry jam followed them.
Petra waited until tea was poured. She reached for the sugar tongues and dropped a lump into her bone china teacup blazoned with the arms of Westminster. “I’m intrigued, Joth.” She stirred the sugar into her tea, regarding her brother with an inquiring smile.
Her brother frowned, glanced anxiously around. “Couldn’t you put the scarf in your handbag?”
Petra’s gaze followed his. “No one seems interested in us, let alone bothered.”
“You know full well everyone will have remarked it. Please take it off, Petra.” His hazel eyes, mirror images of his sister’s, pleaded. “This afternoon is important to me.”
Petra shrugged and untied the scarf, folding it carefully before sliding it into her handbag.
“Oh, don’t take it off on my account.” Petra hadn’t heard that voice in almost ten years.
She turned her head to the side, feeling the old dislike rising from a deeply mortifying past.
“Lord Ashton,” she said distantly, staring at the man who had been her nemesis since the days when she was just trying her wings in the adult world. He looked older, which was only to be expected, at least ten years older, and there was a hint of silver at his temples. His black hair was as thick as ever, though, and carefully styled, brushed off his broad forehead. His eyebrows, black as pitch, arched above dark brown eyes that if Petra didn’t know better could be described as soulful and empathetic . But she did know better. The aquiline nose and well shaped mouth would to most eyes qualify Guy Granville, Lord Ashton as a handsome man. But Petra’s eyes in this instance were not most people’s.
“Lord Ashton, I’m so happy you could join us,” Jonathan said, half rising from his chair as he indicated the seat next to his sister. “I think you may have met my sister, Petra.”
“ I have indeed. Although I must say you’ve grown some, Miss Rutherford, since last we met.” His smile, showing even white teeth, was both warm and almost complicit, as if he was sharing an old and happy memory.
Petra met the smile with stony indifference. “It would be strange if I had not, Lord Ashton. Ten years is a long time.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Particularly the ten between fourteen and twenty-four. So, tell me what the grown-up Miss Rutherford is doing with her time these days, apart, of course, from making noise with the suffragists.”
Petra swallowed hard. Her mind was working furiously. She had never expected to meet this man again in the usual course of everyday life, oh, maybe a fleeting glimpse across a drawing room at a route party or some such, but Guy Granville moved in a very different social set from her own. He was ten years older for one thing. But that distance had not prevented her from knowing a great deal about the man. His fierce opposition to women’s suffrage was well known, he had written articles against it in the Times, and his name frequently appeared in the gossip columns as an unrepentant philanderer. She took a sip of tea and reached for a scone.
“Cat got your tongue, Miss Rutherford?” His tone was gently mocking, his amused gaze watching as she deliberately split the scone and spread clotted cream and raspberry jam on both halves.
Oh, how that tone made her toes curl, that gleam of mockery in his eyes turned her stomach. But she was no longer the naïve unsophisticated girl who had inadvertently given him so much sport ten years ago. Jonathan wanted her to charm Guy Granville, Baron Ashton. She could do that, and she would relish every minute until the moment came to put in the knife.
Petra took a bite of her scone, slowly licking a speck of cream from her lips as she met the baron’s gaze. “How wonderful that our paths have crossed again, Lord Ashton. Perhaps we can dispense with such formality, though. After all, we were once so very well acquainted.” She picked up the platter of sandwiches, the smile of an attentive hostess on her lips. “Do you care for one, Guy. The smoked salmon are particularly good.”
She caught the flicker of surprise in his eyes, the instant of quick calculation as he took in her smile and tone, then he reached out an elegant white hand to take a sandwich and she remembered with a jolt those long slender fingers, the beautifully manicured nails.
“Thank you, Petra,” he said, his smile neutral although his eyes were sharply assessing as she held his gaze, a faint smile on her own lips and her head tilted at an angle that was distinctly challenging. Little Petra Rutherford had most definitely grown up, Guy thought. Meeting that challenge from those clear hazel eyes could be very interesting. He inclined his head as if confirming something and turned to her brother.
“So, Rutherford, you have something you wish to discuss with me?” He sipped his tea.
“Yes, yes, I do. Thank you so much for coming, Lord Ashton,” Joth began, then stopped as the baron raised an arresting hand.
“Let’s dispense with the formalities, Rutherford. Just Granville will do.”
Jonathan nodded and caught his sister’s eye. She gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m guessing that my brother has Parliamentary business that concerns his Somersetshire constituents. You do, after all, represent the county in the Lords.”
“That’s certainly true, to a certain extent. But I’m not dependent on the voters of Somerset for my seat in the House of Lords.”
“Of course you’re not,” Petra returned sharply. “But you have an ethical and moral obligation to work on their behalf.”
Jonathan was beginning to wish he’d left his sister out of this meeting. She was supposed to be flattering Lord Ashton, not putting his back up. “To get back to the point,” he said firmly, a little louder than he’d intended.
“Yes, please do.” His lordship waved an inviting hand.
Jonathan took a breath. “I want to present a Bill to the Commons that will set up a unified authority to develop a pumping system for draining all the Somerset Levels. There are so many different areas of the moors, all with different systems, most of which have failed miserably and the soil in most cases in no longer fit for arable use. It can’t be planted for cattle to graze because it’s too soft and waterlogged, a cow would sink…”
“Some farmers have planted clover though and sheep have managed to graze, they’re too light to sink,” Petra put in, helping herself to a cucumber sandwich.
“True, but that doesn’t deal with the problem of winter flooding. It’s so bad sometimes that people have to evacuate their houses and farms and head for the hills,” her brother stated. “It’s not safe to live in some of the areas along the rivers, King’s Sedgemoor is particularly vulnerable. An efficient, unified drainage system across the whole area would have tremendous benefits. And I was, hoping, Granville, that I could count on your support in the House of Lords.”
Guy leaned back in his chair, casually crossing his legs, letting the afternoon sun fall on his upturned face. “Somerset folk don’t respond too well to government authorities,” he observed. “I can hear the objections now to the idea of some amorphous single authority with the power to mess with their lands, even if it is for their own benefit.”
Jonathan flushed. “I have traveled around the county seeking the opinion of eligible voters. There’s some resistance, I agree, but when it’s explained carefully exactly what will be the result of decent drainage most of them seem willing to accept the idea.”
Guy sat up straight. “In that case, dear boy, I suggest you go ahead and see how your parliamentary colleagues react. I won’t say anything against your bill in the Lords.” He stood up. “Thank you for the tea.” He turned slightly towards Petra. “Miss Rutherford, Petra, it was delightful to renew our acquaintance. I trust I may call upon you in Brook Street sometime.” He lifted a questioning brow but the accompanying smile showed that he was in no doubt as to her answer.
“How delightful,” she returned with a responding smile, extending her hand in farewell.
Guy lifted it to his lips without actually touching her skin, offering a gallant bow before striding towards the doors leading back to the Central Lobby, pausing now and again to exchange a word of greeting with various tea takers on the terrace.
“Odious man,” Petra declared in a fierce undertone. “Oh, how I detest him.”
“Why?” Her brother looked at her astonishment. “You barely know him.” A smile tugged at his lips. “I know he does have something of a reputation with the ladies.” He tone was faintly admiring.
“You think playing fast and loose with some poor woman’s feelings is to be smiled at?” Petra demanded. “How could you, Joth?”
He looked somewhat abashed but said defensively, “Well, as far as I hear, the women flock to him.”
“More fool them,” his sister said. She glanced at her watch. “Joth, I have to go. I have a dress fitting at five o’clock, and then I’m going to dinner at the Criterion.”
“Who with? Can I come?”
“Diana and Fenella, and their other halves. Of course you can come, Joth. I would have said earlier but I thought you’d probably be engaged with friends, or at your club.”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t sure how the meeting with Granville would go, so I didn’t make any arrangements in case he suggested…oh, well, I thought maybe he might wish to talk more about the Bill.”
“I don’t get the impression he takes such matters seriously,” Petra said, getting to her feet. “Never mind. He did say he wouldn’t stand in your way, at least.” She bent to kiss his brow. “His loss is my gain. I’m delighted to have your escort. We should leave by seven thirty.”
“I’ll be ready.” He raised a hand in farewell as his sister threaded her way through the tables.
Petra was more than happy to have her brother’s company that evening. Although she was as close as ever to her two dearest friends, they’d known each other since they were schoolgirls, these days she sometimes felt a bit like an outsider when Fenella and Diana were with their husbands. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Rupert or Edward, quite the opposite, in fact, and they were clearly just right for Diana and Fenella, but once in a while she wondered if perhaps they felt she was a bit de trop. Not that any of them ever gave her that impression.
But still it would be good to have a partner of her own at dinner, even if it was her brother. She stepped out onto St. Stephen’s porch and hailed a cab coming around Parliament Square.
“Are you ready, Joth?” Petra entered the drawing room of the Rutherford town house on Brook Street just after seven o’clock that evening.
“Ready to go whenever you are. Sherry, first?” Her brother lifted the cut glass decanter in invitation.
“Oh, yes, please. We have plenty of time.” She took the glass and said with a smile, “You look very elegant, brother. Evening dress suits you.”
“Why, thank you.” Her brother swept her a flourishing bow. “And may I return the compliment. That green silk…what do they call it? Apple?…well, whatever they call it, it’s a wonderful color for you.”
Petra laughed and curtsied. “Flattery has never been your forte, Joth, so I’ll accept the compliment with gratitude.” She sipped her sherry, wandering to the windows looking over the street below. “It’s a lovely evening. D’you think it’s too far to walk?”
Jonathan ran a speculative glance over her. “Definitely in those shoes.”
She lifted a foot clad in cream satin embroidered with glass beads. “I have to have the heel otherwise I’m so short people don’t even know I’m here.”
Jonathan laughed. “My dear girl, no one could ever miss you. You may be small but you’re completely unignorable. You always wear something distinctive. That tangerine shawl, for instance. I don’t know why it goes with that apple green but it does. And it draws the eye. People can’t help noticing you.”
“I think you will make some lucky woman a very satisfactory husband,” Petra declared with a chuckle. “You always know exactly what to say.”
Jonathan shook his head and refilled his whisky glass. “Talking of knowing what to say, what was going on between you and Granville this afternoon? I didn’t think you knew each other beyond a passing acquaintance but you both gave the impression that you had some history between you. I was hoping you’d be all sweetness and light but you were as scratchy as a cross cat.”
Petra hesitated. She’d never talked of that summer with anyone, but it was far enough in the past now, surely, for the memory to be no longer so painful.
“I’m sorry. I was taken by surprise,” she said. “It was one summer, ten years ago. I was fourteen and had just put up my hair and started to go out into county society. Ma thought it would be good practice for when I had my come-out.” She looked into her glass for a moment as if conjuring her past self in its pale gold depths. “You weren’t around…I think you’d gone to Italy with a school friend’s family. Anyway, Guy Granville was at Ashton Court with some of his London friends, having a summer house party, and we met.” She looked up with a half smile. “To cut a long story short, he decided to cultivate me, escorting me at parties, dancing, playing croquet, making me feel so grown-up with all the attention. I was so young, Joth. Utterly naïve. I couldn’t see then that he was just amusing himself.”
Jonathan looked outraged. “He didn’t try to seduce you, or anything like that, did he?”
Petra shook her head. “Not really…he kissed me once or twice.” She turned back to the window, remembering how those kisses had made her feel. The memory was still painful and she put it from her. “He left Somerset without a word. One evening he was dancing with me, walking in the moonlight around the lake… all very romantic, and the next morning he’d gone…to the Riviera apparently where the company would be more stimulating.” She turned back to him with a rueful smile.
“My pride was hurt, as you might imagine, so I really didn’t want to see him again.”
“But you said he could call upon you here.”
“Yes…I don’t know what I was thinking. I had some idea of…Oh, never mind. It was foolish. ” She set down her empty glass. “We should go.”
Her brother inclined his head in acknowledgment. He knew better than to press his sister when she made it clear she didn’t want to talk anymore. He was intrigued, however. He draped her light evening cloak around her shoulders and held the door for her, following her down the stairs to the hall.
“Do you think Ma and Pa are enjoying themselves in Baden Baden?” Petra asked as they stepped out into the warm evening. “I can’t see Pa taking the waters, can you?”
“Only if it’s liberally diluted with whisky,” her brother returned with a chuckle. He waved down a passing hackney. “But you know our mother, she’ll be perfectly happy gossiping with her friends and complaining about how foul the water tastes.”
“And making up for it with lavish dinners,” Petra said with an affectionate smile. Sir Percy Rutherford and his wife, Lady Cecilia, were fond but benignly neglectful parents, happy to leave the upbringing of their children to nannies, governesses and boarding schools. Once they no longer required that supervision, their offspring were encouraged to pursue their own lives as they wished, never deprived of anything except timely advice. It had occurred to Petra with hindsight that her mother could probably have saved her from the dreadful mortification of her girlish infatuation with Lord Ashton if she’d troubled to take an interest in what her daughter was doing during that summer in the country.
The hackney turned onto Piccadilly, the pavements crowded with people from all walks of life taking the early summer air on a beautiful evening, shop girls, maids on their evening off, barrow boys and street vendors, jostling for space. The strains of a harmonica from a busker on the pavement filled the air as Jonathan and Petra stepped down from the cab outside the grand entrance to the Criterion. Jonathan dropped a coin into the musician’s upturned cloth cap before ushering his sister through the Criterion’s ornate doors into the marble entrance hall. Voices rose and fell from the Long Bar at the rear of the hall.
They climbed the wide staircase to the first floor dining room where they were greeted by a frock-coated major domo. “Colonel Lacy’s party is already here, sir. May I take your cloak, Miss Rutherford?” He gestured to a liveried attendant who immediately took Petra’s cloak and her brother’s hat, evening gloves and white scarf.
The major domo led them across the marbled dining room to a table beside one of the long windows overlooking the bustle of Piccadilly.
“Forgive the gatecrasher?” Jonathan said in smiling greeting as he brushed a kiss on the cheeks of the two women sitting at the table. “Rupert…Edward…”He held out his hand in greeting to the two men who had risen at the Rutherfords’ approach.
“Delighted you could join us, Jonathan,” Colonel Rupert Lacey said, before turning to greet Petra, who was embracing her friends. He kissed her and pulled out her chair for her.
“Champagne, Petra?” Edward Tremayne gestured to a waiter to fill her glass.
“Yes, lovely, Edward, thank you.” Petra looked around the table. “I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“Only two weeks, dearest,” Diana corrected. “Rupert and I were in Hampshire talking with Kimberley Diamond’s trainer.” Her eyes shone as she looked around the table. “He thinks she’s ready for a big race. He’s been trying her out on some local courses at very minor events, keeping her out of the public eye while she trained. He thinks we should spring her on the public at Ascot. Isn’t that exciting?”
“Which race?” Fenella inquired, taking a sip of her champagne.
“The Queen Anne Stakes,” Rupert replied.
“Yes, and we’re going to have a big party in the Royal Enclosure,” Diana said eagerly. “You’ll all be there, of course.”
“Of course we will.” Petra and Fenella assured her almost in unison.
Fenella picked up her menu. “What do we usually eat here?”
Her husband glanced at his menu before regarding his wife with a half smile. “If I tell you what you usually eat you’ll accuse me of telling you what to order,” he said.
Fenella laughed. “He’s only saying that because once I said how nice it was to dine with a man who didn’t tell me what I wanted to eat.”
“Oh, Rupert does that all the time,” Diana declared. “I’m quite used to it now.”
“In that case,” her husband said, “You’ll be having the fois gras and coq au vin.”
“Impossible man,” Diana said. “As it happens it’s exactly what I’d like.”
Petra joined in the general amusement but once again she felt that stab of aloneness, of being an outsider in this circle. It was different when it was just herself and Diana and Fenella, then it was like the old days. But was it? Even as she asked herself the question she knew the answer. It wasn’t quite the same. Marriage had added another dimension to her friends’ lives, a different prism through which they viewed life. And Petra didn’t have that dimension, or that prism.
Diana said suddenly, “I have to visit the Ladies’ room.”
“Me too.” Fenella pushed back her chair. “They’re so splendidly luxurious here. Coming, Petra?”
Petra pushed back her own chair. “Yes, I’m coming.”
Rupert watched the three of them weave their way through the tables. “Why do they always do that?” he asked.
“It’s almost tribal,” Edward said. “A kind of pack response.”
“All for one and one for all.” Jonathan added his pennyworth. “But I think Diana had something on her mind that she wanted to talk about with the other two.”
“It was a rather sudden departure,” Rupert agreed.
Edward shrugged. “Individually I understand them, but collectively…”He shook his head. “A very different matter.”
The men had not seen what Diana had, attuned as she was to both her friends’ moods. She had noticed the flash of sadness in Petra’s hazel eyes, the sudden loss of vivacity on her mobile countenance. And she had responded automatically. If something was upsetting her friend, then something had to be done about it.
The opulence of the Criterion itself was carried into the Ladies Room, where jugs of iris perfumed the air and plush couches, gleaming vanities and gilded mirrors, offered a cushioned sanctuary for its clients. An attendant in a black dress and crisply starched apron stood ready to repair a torn flounce, sew a loose button, hand out softly scented towels.
Diana cast a quick glance around and said, “Good, we’re alone for a moment.” She sat down on one of the deeply cushioned couches and gestured to her friends to join her. “What’s troubling you, Petra? You looked stricken suddenly.”
“Yes, I noticed it too,” Fenella said. “Has something happened, darling?” She put a comforting hand over Petra’s.
Petra had always been cursed with a too expressive countenance. She had never been able to keep her emotions from showing on her face, or in her eyes. But she had no intention of telling her friends the real reason for that moment of sadness. However she had an alternative account on offer.
“Have you come across Guy Granville?”
“Lord Ashton…only by repute,” Fenella said with a slight frown. “He’s something of a philanderer, isn’t he?”
“According to the scandal sheets,” Diana said. “I’ve seen him around, but he’s not a regular on the society circuit. According to Rupert, he has his own exclusive circle who consider themselves too important to enjoy society’s frivolity.”
“He doesn’t make any secret of his opposition to women’s suffrage,” Fenella said, still frowning. “He’s always writing about it, and sending letters to the Times.”
“All true,” Petra responded. “Once upon a time I thought I was in love with him.”
“What?” her friends demanded in unison.
She gave them a lighthearted account of the summer of Guy Granville, giving little indication of the depth of her hurt and mortification, before saying, “Anyway, I met him again this afternoon at Westminster. Joth invited him to tea because he wants his help with some legislation about draining the Levels, and he wanted me to turn on the charm, soften him up, as it were. Of course, he didn’t know that I was probably the last person willing to do that.”
“So what did you do?”
“I wasn’t very friendly,” Petra told them with a laugh. She was already feeling much better. “But then I had a vague idea that I might lead him on a little. Get him interested and then…”
“Drop him,” Diana finished for her. “Sauce for the gander, as it were.”
“Precisely,” Petra declared. She stood up. “We really should go back to the table, the men will be wondering what we’re doing.”
“They’ll probably have ordered for us,” Fenella said with a laugh. “And perfectly entitled to do so in the circumstances.”
She went to the mirror to adjust a hair pin in the thick chignon on her neck. Petra examined her complexion for flaws, dusting a little powder on her small nose, lamenting, “I wish I could get rid of those freckles.”
“Nonsense,” Diana said. “They’re part of you. It’s just a scattering on your nose. They go with your hair.”
Petra was actually rather proud of her hair. It was thick, straight and a rich chestnut brown with streaks of a darker red. She wore it this evening in two plaits looped around her ears, beautifully set off by emerald ear drops and a necklace of the same.
“Come on, we must get back,” Fenella urged, dropping a coin into a saucer for the attendant on her way to the door.
“Yes, we’ll talk about revenge on the baron when we have time to discuss it properly,” Diana stated, hurrying after her. “Shall we have coffee tomorrow?”
“Come to Brook Street,” Petra invited, now totally restored to her usual lively humor. “We’ll plan a strategy.”
They returned to the table, where their escorts were visibly impatient and, having finished the champagne, most of the way through a bottle of Bordeaux. “We’d about given you up,” Rupert said, standing up to pull back his wife’s chair.
“Apologies,” Fenella said, offering Edward a guilty smile as she took the chair he held for her. “We started talking about something and the time just ran away with us.”
“Nothing new about that,” Rupert said dryly. “If you’re now here to stay perhaps we could order?”
“I really am sorry. It was my fault,” Petra said without offering any further explanation. She picked up her menu again, glancing up at the attentive waiter. “I think I’d like the asparagus soup and then the rack of lamb, please.”