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Forged in Blood
by Joyce Christmas
Fawcett Books, 2002

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The flight from New York's Kennedy Airport to Gatwick Airport in England gave Margaret time to confide to Betty her concerns about her brother's upcoming wedding.

"The only matter that troubles me is my brother's choice of a bride. David is a good catch for any young woman of his class, but he looked elsewhere. He's not rich. The upkeep of large estates like the Priory costs a good deal, and money isn't exactly flooding in from agricultural activities. He's detailed losses due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The Priory's dairy herd had to be destroyed; the sheep met a similar end. Fortunately mad cow disease never appeared, so the Priam cows remained sane even as they were sent to their execution."

"How sad," Betty said, wondering only briefly why she had suddenly become Margaret's confidante. Perhaps she imagined that Betty was a mother figure. Well, she'd been mistaken for a countess in the past. Perhaps Margaret had no one else to whom she could express her worries.

"The village of Upper Rime is in bad shape economically, so David insisted that the villagers send no wedding gifts. But apparently gifts have come pouring in, to the delight of his affianced, who loves to open them and carefully record who sent what. Still, he might have chosen someone to wed other than the daughter of the local pub owner.

"He might have found a wealthy wife, even a wealthy American, the way Prince Aldo did, although girls with the financial clout of Carolyn Sue don't often pass through the doors of Priam's Priory. If our mother had lived longer, she would certainly have arranged for David to meet someone more suitable than Alice Grant. They call her Lys. Pleasant as she is, Lys is not someone trained to run the Priory. It's a big Tudor house built on the ruins of an old religious establishment closed down by Henry the Eighth.

"But she does have an Oxford degree, and seems capable of producing a baby viscount to keep the title of Earl of Brayfield alive and in the family. Perhaps that is all that is necessary--an heir. And she'll manage the house to the best of her ability. My mother established a pattern that continues still, years after her death."

"It will turn out all right, I'm sure," Betty said sleepily.

While Betty dozed in her seat, Margaret reviewed the upcoming ceremony. The idea of a wedding at the Priory--at the village church, performed by dotty old Uncle Herbert, now a rather distinguished Anglican bishop--appealed to Margaret's sense of romance and tradition. There would be flowers from the Priory's gardens, and a hundred people up from London as well as from even grander country houses across England. The servants would be there in their best clothes, along with the regular patrons of The Riming Man, the leading--indeed only--pub in the village of Upper Rime.

She tried to imagine Jimmy Grant, Lys's father, in a proper gray morning suit guiding his daughter down the aisle. Stop worrying, she told herself. Jimmy will do right by Lys. After all, he had managed to provide the funds for a university education. Then she tried not to imagine what sort of dresses Lys had chosen for her attendants, but surely modern English girls watched the telly and read fashion magazines, and so had some sense of what was proper.

As for food and drink, David would see that there was plenty of good champagne for the reception. Mrs. Domby, the Priory cook and housekeeper for more than three decades, would outdo herself with canapes, and Margaret hoped that David had insisted that she bring in a caterer for the sit-down dinner for a chosen few, which would be held later, after the photographers had done their job. Undoubtedly a photographer from The Tatler would be there, since David was a titled and personable young man with many friends. Chloe Waters of Figge Hall, Warwickshire, David's one-time girlfriend, would not miss the wedding, and she alone would attract the press, as she'd been doing for the past few years.

It was just as well that David had not selected Chloe as his bride. She was a social climber of the sort Margaret knew well from New York society. Chloe was perfectly well bred; her father had plenty of money--acquired in trade, alas--and he expected to be knighted in the near future. While Chloe was pretty enough, she was bland and brainless, with a knack for scandalous behavior that made snickering headlines in the tabloids. Marrying David would have been a distinct leap upward on the social scale. Even now, she would certainly have wangled an invitation to the wedding, if only because there would surely be other titled marital prospects among the guests. With a sinking feeling, Margaret realized that it was conceivable that a member of the Royal family would be in attendance. Her father and mother had known quite a few of the Royals, as did David. Margaret winced at the thought of managing a pack of Your Highnesses and Your Graces.

Harbert, the Priory's well-trained butler, was long gone, and she had no knowledge of the man who had taken his place. She hoped he could handle the intricacies of a Royal family appearance. At least disreputable cousin Nigel Priam would not appear, being untimely deceased. But the ugly Americans Phyllis and Lester Flood, who had purchased Rime Manor from David, would be there and would behave inappropriately. She imagined Phyllis attempting to curtsey to, say, one of Princess Margaret's offspring. David was acquainted with Viscount Linley and had even bought a piece of expensive furniture Linley crafted for his own special hideaway, the white room with arches that had been the dining hall for the original Priory inhabitants. One could only hope that Linley's mother, Princess Margaret, had more important duties to tend to. Margaret was only grateful that Princes William and Harry were too young to be friends of her brother's. Even Prince Charles was no more than a passing acquaintance.

Betty appeared to be soundly asleep, so Margaret found the crumpled list she'd made back in New York, listing the items that she wasn't sure Lys would remember. Of course, in her experience, Oxford-educated young women believed they knew everything that needed knowing. Still, it couldn't hurt to remind Lys of matters such as:

Flowers (Priory gardens, and Lady What's-it for the bouquet, the one who does everybody's)

Bridal dress (she must have ordered it by now)

Attendants' dresses

Hair (she must have someone who does her)

Attendants (Need four children besides her girlfriends. Whose?)

Music: service and dancing (discourage latter)

Food instructions for Mrs. Domby

Display of gifts--Great Hall, someone to stand guard

Family tiara--where is it kept? (Upstairs safe?)

Bridesmaids' gifts

The first order of business upon arriving in London was to find a hat for herself. Harrods and Harvey Nichols were both close to the flat where they would spend their first night. Since old Potts was to drive them to the Priory tomorrow, the day before the ceremony, she would have a little time to look. If those two shops didn't have a proper hat, she wouldn't set foot in London again.

Lost in her thoughts, Margaret, too, began to doze off to the hum of the jet's engines, then sat up abruptly. The only thing she hadn't worried about was the weather. It would be a disaster if it rained on the wedding party.

Margaret mentioned her weather worries to Betty as she tried on a pile of hats at Harvey Nichols. "The clouds I see are ominous," she said. "Ah, this one's rather nice."

"Very pretty," Betty said. The hat was lace-trimmed. "I thought women at English weddings wore great beehives of hats or floppy garden party things. I remember pictures."

"This one will do," Margaret said. "I hope the Priory is still well-supplied with umbrellas."

"It won't rain," Betty said. "My arthritis kicks in when rain is coming. I feel perfectly fine."

"You never know in England," Margaret said.

The next morning, a pink-cheeked old man whom Margaret introduced to Betty as Potts appeared in a Land Rover and drove them through the countryside to the impressive pile of stone called Priam's Priory.

Betty had been granted a bedchamber once slept in by the first Queen Elizabeth, and the next day, while Margaret fussed about the arrangements for the wedding, Betty strolled about the estate, trailed by a friendly golden retriever. A groom showed her the barn and the horses, including one old fellow that was to draw the carriage that would take the bride to the church.

There was no sign of rain clouds as the wedding day dawned. The servants, commanded by Mrs. Domby, were scurrying about making final preparations. Early-arriving guests had to be soothed with food and drink and shown to rooms where the ladies could primp before making their appearance. Potts supervised the parking of vehicles from grand Bentleys to sporty little cars, and guided the guests who chose to walk down the hill to the Romanesque stone church, now fragrant and colorful with flowers gleaned from the Priory's gardens. The bride and her attendants glided down the aisle, the groom looked poised, and Uncle Herbert, distinguished in his vestments, performed the ceremony almost without a hitch, although he did stumble briefly over "Alice Susanna Annabel, do you take . . ." And then they were released into the sunshine.

"It's a perfect June day, and everyone looks lovely, especially Lys. Very pretty girl, thank goodness," Margaret said to Betty after the ceremony, away from the clot of guests surrounding the newly married Earl and Countess of Brayfield.

"I told you it wouldn't rain," Betty said. "Oh, look. That couple looks very familiar."

"The Kents," Margaret said. "The Duke and Duchess of Kent knew my mother well, and me as a child. I'll introduce you. So nice that they appeared for the ceremony, and they even seem to be staying for a bit for the champagne. The photographers are delighted and Lys turned pink at the excitement of having royals at her wedding, and she curtseyed ever so nicely."

Margaret went on to say that she noticed that David wasn't the least impressed, having known the Kents for ages.

When Margaret introduced Betty to the ducal couple, she seemed flustered but then she chatted up the duke and duchess for quite a time.

"I feared I might faint from the excitement," Betty said. "I actually met a duchess. Wait till I tell Ted."

"You handled yourself very well," Margaret said. "Everything is going well, I think. And isn't it nice that we don't have to worry about a murderer in our midst. I seem to have a gift for attracting dead bodies at lovely affairs like this one."

"As do I," Betty said, and looked around nervously.

"Everyone here looks quite benign. I hope our luck holds through the entire trip."

Betty frowned. "I can't help thinking of those Borgias and the Mafia in Italy."

"Don't worry," Margaret said. "The Mafia certainly doesn't murder harmless tourists, and I believe the Borgias are pretty much extinct."

Betty said, "I don't often have the opportunity to meet a duchess. A lovely woman. And the duke! He had some interesting things to say about the obligations of his position, even the dangers posed by being a public figure, although he did mention that he found the wedding most relaxing. Everyone treats me as though I were important."

"You are important."

During the post-wedding champagne toasts, while the guests mingled and lavished praise on the well-organized ceremony, Margaret joined her brother, who was accepting congratulations with his bride at his side.

"Lys has done a marvelous job of putting together the event. The bridal attendants look lovely," Margaret whispered to David.

Lys, overhearing, said, "I asked them to choose their own dresses, the only stipulation being that the gowns be a pastel shade with a flower print." She was distracted briefly by her junior attendants, two little boys and two little girls in tiny gray morning suits and frilly pink gowns respectively. They had behaved admirably.

One of the girls confessed to Margaret that this was her fifth wedding, so she knew the drill very well indeed. Even Margaret felt comfortable in her finery, a pale turquoise dress from Bendel's and the broad-brimmed white straw hat with a sprinkling of lace that she'd found at Harvey Nichols.

Miss Trenka had come up with a rose-colored chiffon dress and a little pink hat that looked quite charming perched atop her pile of heavy hair. Everyone, in fact, looked very nice, and no one turned up dressed defiantly in white, not even the dangerous Chloe, although a couple of David's other spurned romantic interests made statements by wearing chic black. David did not notice.

But Margaret did notice that a burly, bearded young man unknown to her had struck up an earnest conversation with Miss Trenka. Margaret thought Betty looked a bit uncomfortable and wondered if she was in need of rescue.

"David, who is that young man talking to Miss Trenka?" She described him gently lest he be a close friend of David's or a very distinguished gentleman who should not be offended.

"Benedict Howe, a friend of Lys's. She met him up at Oxford, some kind of clever fellow." David looked grim. "Never cared for the chap. He claims to be an artist. Lys insisted on inviting him and one or two other Oxford chums."

Margaret suspected that David was jealous of someone who might have been a beau of Lys's. Still, despite Betty's wary expression, the young man seemed well behaved.

"I wonder what they could be talking about," Margaret said. "Not art, certainly. Whilst British Airways was serving us our fourth round of crumpets, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, Miss Trenka admitted that she's fairly ignorant about art." Margaret couldn't decide if she liked Benedict Howe's looks--the slightly unruly hair, a hint of dark stubble as though he hadn't bothered to shave, the vaguely rumpled jacket and trousers. At least he was wearing decent shoes, and he wasn't paint-spattered. His eyes shifted constantly as though he was sizing up which guests to approach when his conversation with Elizabeth wore thin.

"Himself, most certainly. He has quite an ego."

"A successful artist, then?"

"I think not. Lys has brought him to the Priory once or twice. He wanted to have a look at our pictures." The Priams had collected a number of old or possibly just middle-aged masters over the centuries, some of them interesting but only moderately valuable. There was a good Holbein portrait, a second-rate Rembrandt, some Indian miniatures, and lots of old books, but nothing, Margaret believed, worth making a special effort to view.

"I believe he is more or less a fraud," David went on sullenly. "Talks a mighty tale about his art and his career, but I've never seen his work or heard his name mentioned or read about any of his exhibitions. I can't imagine what he read at Oxford--art history, perhaps, if they teach such a thing--but he claims to have studied at some art school in London and at the feet of another self-styled genius as a private student. And, yes, he spent a year or two painting in Rome. He must be telling your Miss Trenka how to enjoy the city, although I imagine his Roman adventures would not be suitable for an elderly spinster to replicate."

Excerpted from Forged in Blood by Joyce Christmas. Copyright © 2002 by Joyce Christmas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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