Aboard the Simplon Orient Express on the way to Paris
IT WAS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED that an unmarried, young woman in expectation of a great dowry had to be in want of a titled husband. Or so Mother believed. I, however, being of a more modern bent, desired no such thing.
But here lay the problem. After failing to secure a successful marriage for any of my older siblings, Mother had pinned all her hopes on me. It’s not that they refused to marry. They just had more interesting things to do.
Ned, who’d been reading The Financial Times since he emerged from the womb, had followed in our father’s footsteps and become a successful business mogul. Next oldest Richard took a quite different route to excellence by decamping to Egypt to become an archeologist. Or as Mother put it, to play in the sand and rob the graves of ancient pharaohs. Not my cup of tea, but it made him happy. And then there was my sister Margaret. Yes, you must absolutely call her that. No sobriquet like Meg or Maggie for her. Well, she ran off to Oxford to earn a degree, now that that august university deemed women worthy enough to get one. So it had sadly fallen to me to grant Mother’s most fervent wish. That one of her children married into the aristocracy.
Alas, I was bound to disappoint her for I had no desire to marry. At the moment, at least. The question had now become how to go about it without hurting her feelings. I’d devised a plan to do just that. But would it work?
I’d been so consumed with that question after boarding the Orient Express past midnight that I’d tossed and turned in bed all night. Anyone with a working brain would have foreseen the disaster.
The sleeping berth beneath me jolted, waking me from a deep sleep. Only then did I hear the frantic pounding.
“Kitty. Are you awake?” My brother Ned. Outside my train compartment.
Heavens! In a panic, I gazed bleary-eyed at the traitorous clock that was supposed to wake me at five. It was now past six.
Scrambling to my feet, I dived for the door and thrust it open to find my brother on the other side. He was immaculately attired in a tailored, three-piece business suit, not a hair out of place.
I, on the other hand, was a rumpled mess in disheveled bedclothes and flyaway mane.
“We’re due in Paris in an hour, and you’re not dressed!”
“Did you forget to set your alarm?”
“Of course not. I would never do that.” Not when I knew he worshiped the god of punctuality.
“It didn’t go off?” he sounded incredulous.
I’d be as well. After all, my Jaeger-LeCoultre travel clock was one of the best in the world, so the fault could not lie with the timepiece, but with me. “I probably slept through it.” There was no probably about it. I had. But was it really my fault? On a night when I hadn’t dropped on the berth ‘til after midnight, there was no hope I’d awaken on time.
“Kitty.” Disappointment laced the word.
Only one way out of this sticky wicket. To dress as quickly as I could. “It won’t take me but a tick to get ready.” Thankfully, I’d set out my traveling clothes last night. “I won’t take long. I promise.”
All I got in return was a highly disapproving frown. It did not display him to advantage.
With no time to waste, I fetched my sage and lavender frock, silk stockings and undergarments—all in the height of fashion, of course—and stumbled past him in nothing but my nightgown and slippers.
Praying that the lavatory was unoccupied, I dashed toward it, earning only one disapproving ‘harumph’ from a passing matron. I had to admit. I’d earned that. After all, a lady doesn’t dash about in her undergarments in a public setting. Or so A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Deportment declared.
After dressing as quickly as I could, I rushed back to the compartment. Magically, it had been put to rights, and our petit déjeuner had been served. Coffee and tea carafes, along with butter, marmalade, and a basket of croissants were set out on the minuscule table that dropped down from the wall. But then one would expect nothing less. The Orient Express service was par to none.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me it needed to be fed. It’d been hours since dinner, after all. Eager to enjoy the continental breakfast, I made quick work of stashing my nightclothes and clock in the traveling satchel and slipping into my t-strap shoes before attending to our breakfast. “Shall I pour?” I smiled, hoping the peace offering would soothe the savage beast in Ned.
A terse, “Yes. Thank you,” said otherwise.
Undaunted, I made a show of preparing his cup of tea the way he liked it and handing it to him, along with two croissants, properly plated of course.
Once he was settled, I helped myself to my own breakfast—coffee and a croissant. Famished, I lathered on the creamy butter and sweet marmalade over the flaky pastry and took a bite. With Ned seemingly being of like mind, conversation lagged while we satiated our hunger.
But once he was done, he returned to his favorite activity of the moment—harping. “Punctuality is vital when traveling, Kitty.”
“I agree. It won’t happen again.” Heavens knew he had cause for his low spirits after traveling from London to Lausanne in the space of two days to retrieve me from a Swiss finishing school. He should have taken a day off to rest, but he’d decided to return to Paris on the next northbound train. He had to be exhausted.
I put on my brightest smile to try and cheer him up. “But everything’s right now, isn’t it? I’m dressed. We’ve enjoyed our breakfast.” I glanced at my wrist watch. “And we won’t arrive in Paris for another half hour.”
He took in a breath and released it slowly, allowing the tension to seep slowly from him. “You do have a point.”
“Would you like more tea or another croissant?” I asked, happy to see him relaxed. Well, as relaxed as he ever allowed himself to be. He was wound up tighter than a wind-up toy.
“Not just yet. I’d like to discuss your education first. Did you enjoy school?” he asked in a much mellower tone. Food and a hot cup of tea had apparently tamed the wild beast, indeed.
“I did.” I hadn’t thought I would. After all, I’d perceived my enrollment at a private girls’ school as punishment for a transgression, not as something to be enjoyed. But I’d been wrong. “We were taught etiquette and deportment, along with piano, needlework and drawing. The piano teacher was passable, but they had an excellent drawing master.”
“How did you perform in those subjects?”
“I now know the difference between a fish fork and a salad one and how to create a seating chart when both a duke and an earl are present at a dinner table.”
For the first time, he grinned. “I trust there was more to it than that.”
“There was. Not to worry, Ned. I was a model student.”
He arched a brow as if he somehow doubted it.
“Nothing I can’t accomplish when I set my mind to it,” I insisted.
“I don’t doubt that, Kitty.” He helped himself to another croissant. “What about recreational activities?”
“Horseback riding, which you know I abhor.” I’d been thrown from a pony at an early age and had avoided all equine endeavors ever since. “Archery, tennis, other ladylike pursuits.” And a course on self-defense. Being of a progressive bent, the Swiss finishing school firmly believed their young ladies should know how to protect themselves against untoward advances. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the class, but Ned would think it inappropriate to have learned such skills. So, I decided to keep my participation in that course to myself. “And then there was skiing.”
His voice rose. “You learned to ski?”
I laughed. “I was in Switzerland, Ned. Of course, there was skiing. The school sponsored field trips to the nearest slopes. I didn’t become proficient, but I did enjoy the thrill of a downhill run.”
“What about dancing? I can’t imagine that was not taught.”
“Of course. The quadrille, the waltz . . . the Charleston.”
His brows took a hike. “They taught the Charleston?”
“It wasn’t part of the curriculum. We learned it at night, in the privacy of our rooms.”
A small grin lifted a corner of his lips. He was absolutely stunning when he smiled. A shame he didn’t do it more often. “And what else did you learn at night in the privacy of your rooms?”
I’d learned to mix a mean cocktail. Daiquiris. Bee’s Knees. Gin fizzes. Strangely enough it was the American girls who were most knowledgeable about alcohol. But then maybe not so strange. We often want that which is forbidden.
But that was not the only taboo subject we discussed. Some of the young women obtained quite an education from the ski instructors which knowledge they were happy to share. Although invited to participate, I refused to join their midnight escapades. I was in enough trouble as it was. But I couldn’t tell Ned about those conversations, not if I wished for some sort of freedom during my upcoming debut. “My lips are sealed, dear brother. I shall never tell.”
To my surprise he didn’t pursue the subject but turned to something else. “You’ve set aside your hoydenish ways, I hope.”
“Most of them.” I grinned.
“Kitty.” A gentle warning tinged his voice. He was a dear, truly, but he could be such a stick-in-the-mud. That’s what came from working so hard. He never took time to enjoy life.
I lost the smile. “Yes, I have.”
I had to admit he had good cause to be concerned. A year ago, he’d escorted a hoyden to the finishing school. One who’d been caught in the dark with a man. Having never been kissed, I’d been eager to experience that sweet meeting of the lips and eagerly followed Lord Browning into the confines of a garden. But before the deed could be accomplished, we’d been discovered by Ned who’d sent off the noble lord with a flea in his ear.
Within a fortnight, I’d been shipped off to Switzerland with the hope I would curtail my wilder impulses. Lord Browning, on the other hand, had suffered no consequences. On the contrary, he continued frolicking about in London. But then he was a man, and they operated under a different set of rules. Unfair, to say the least. At least he’d kept silent about our escapade, no doubt in large part due to my father’s management of his family’s finances, which meant my reputation had remained intact.
“Do not worry, dear brother. I aim to follow Margaret’s example.” During her debut, my older sister had complied with Mother’s every wish, attended every ball and al fresco picnic, accepted every invitation to the theater and the opera. But at balls, she hid among the chaperones. At the entertainment venues, she refused all conversations, claiming the stage needed her attention. She spent most of her time at picnics reading obscure tomes. If a potential suitor dared approach her, he was rebuffed by a cutting glance that spoke volumes about his lack of worth.
Her brilliant strategy paid off. At the end of her season, not one proposal of marriage was issued, and Mother was forced to accept that Margaret did not ‘take.’ So my cunning sister was granted her fondest wish—to enroll at Oxford and earn a degree.
“Mother will be pleased. She’s been planning your debut for a year.”
And more than likely planning my wedding as well.
Thing was I had no wish to marry. At soon-to-be one and twenty, I was determined to have a rippin’ good time. Dance the Charleston at hot jazz clubs. Drink exotic cocktails. Live life to the fullest! Last thing I wanted was to wed some chinless wonder who spent his days exclaiming ‘pip pip and all that’ and you hadn’t the foggiest what he was talking about.
So I’d devised a plan which would meet with Mother’s approval but would not end up with wedding bells being rung for me. In short, I would be the perfect debutante. Prim and demure as they came, I would attend every fitting and dull morning call, dance every waltz and staid quadrille at each ball. I would listen spellbound to countless gentlemen expound about their motorcars, their horses, their estates, and their favorite subject—themselves. By the end of the season, I would probably receive several offers of marriage, no doubt in large part to my sizable dowry. Plenty of noble lords out there with pockets to let. Sad to say, I would turn them all down because I was holding out for a love match. Mother wouldn’t be able to object. After all, she and Father married for love.
“So what would you like to do today?” Ned asked.
“Do?” His question took me by surprise. He didn’t often ask about my preferences. “Wouldn’t you rather rest at the hotel? You’ve been traveling for three straight days.”
He shrugged off my comment. “I slept last night.”
“Five hours at the most.” If that.
“More than enough, dear sister. I’m used to going without much sleep.” He brushed an imaginary dust mote from his trousers.
Ever since he was little, he’d been driven to prove himself to Father. He’d succeeded, but at what cost? “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Well, in that case, I would love to visit the Louvre.” I loved art and everything that went along with it, whether paintings, drawings, or sculptures. After I’d learned to draw at an early age, Mother hired an instructor who nurtured my talent, and an artist had been born.
“We could do that. And after the Louvre, we could stroll through the Tuileries Gardens, visit the Palace,” he said.
“And Montmartre?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“But that’s where all the artists live. I’d love to absorb that rare atmosphere and be inspired by them.” Heavens! That bit of fancy sounded excessive even to me.
“There won’t be enough time, Kitty.” He glanced at his pocket watch. “We’ll need to check into the Ritz before we head out to explore Paris which means we’ll have but a few hours before we must return to dress for dinner.”
“But surely dressing won’t take long.” I’d done it just now in less than fifteen minutes’ time.
“I’m also scheduled to meet with a prospective client, and he hasn’t confirmed a time. He’s a recluse of sorts and difficult to pin down. Hopefully, a message will be waiting for me at the Ritz. But if there isn’t, I must remain available.”
“I see.” So there was a business reason for not taking the time to visit Montmartre. I was disappointed, but at least I would get to see the Louvre. “So this prospective client would like to invest his funds with Father?”
“He hasn’t made up his mind. Thus, the meeting. I have to reassure him his money will be safe and will grow under our management.”
Our Father was a very sought after financier who handled the fortunes of many, nobles and captains of industry alike. He’d been quite successful. But maybe that had changed in the last year?
“Our business isn’t suffering, is it?” Some of the families of the students at school had experienced financial setbacks. They’d sent their daughters to Switzerland, hoping the extra polish would help them snag rich husbands. At least, I would not be sold to the highest bidder. My family was wealthy enough on its own.
He shook his head. “Just the contrary. We’ve had to turn away many a potential investor.”
“Then why is Father eager to obtain the business of this particular one?”
“Disgustingly so, I imagine.”
His lips twitched, but he didn’t say a word. But then he didn’t have to. The prospective client was probably richer than King Midas.
The train lurched and signs of civilization—buildings, houses, people—drifted by outside our window. “We should arrive soon.”
“Yes.” He leaned forward. “There’s one more thing I wished to discuss, Kitty. Your settlement.”
“Oh?” Father settled funds on my siblings when they turned one and twenty. Since I would celebrate that august birthday in a matter of weeks, the expectation was not foreign to me. Still, I was half afraid of what Ned would say. I hadn’t exactly been a model young woman. Maybe Father thought to withhold the money until he felt I’d matured.
“You’ll have access to your funds, at least some of them, on your birthday.”
I silently breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good to know.”
He cleared his throat. “But Father won’t be managing them. I will.”
“You?” When Margaret turned one and twenty, it was Father she’d dealt with.
He reclined against the seat. “I asked Father if I could take on that responsibility, and he agreed.”
“Why would you want to?”
“The business has grown, especially this last year. We have clients not only from Britain, but France, Germany, the United States. It would be one less thing for him to worry about.”
I had a million questions about my settlement, but before I had a chance to ask them, the conductor knocked on our door. “Madame, Monsieur. We’re pulling into the gare de Lyon à Paris. Gather your items, s’il vous plaît.”
“Thank you,” Ned said before turning to me. “I’ve organized a car and a chauffeur to meet us outside the station. He’ll be at our disposal for the next two days.”
Clearly, questions about my settlement would have to wait until a more propitious time. “That’s good to know.”
He came to his feet. “I’ll fetch my bags. Stay here until I return.”
Ever the protector. Something for which I was grateful, even if he went a little overboard at times. “I will. Thank you, Ned.”
His brow scrunched. “Whatever for?”
“For taking such good care of me. I do appreciate it.”
“Anytime, minx. What are brothers for?” he said, before stepping into the corridor.
Once more alone, I gazed out the window at the passing vista. Before long, we entered the station and the compartment grew dark. What would Paris bring? Plenty, as it turned out.Return to Murder on the Golden Arrow