The secret smile that Amanda flashed at me over breakfast was enough to melt a prison matron’s heart. Still, it barely made a dent in my confusion. I was supposed to be a lady’s maid and I was corrupting her. But that only bothered me for scant seconds.
Vastly more importantly, I was supposed to be a normal, healthy woman, and this girl was corrupting me. I needed a man to set me straight. My problem was just that it had been so long I couldn’t remember what it was like.
Except I could quite clearly imagine what it would be like with that Greek prince, that lithe, graceful icon of manliness. But thoughts like that made me light-headed, so I had to push them away, and in their place spilled images of sweet, bubbling Amanda.
Today she bubbled more than seemed possible. After lunch she ransacked the mailbag and came up victorious. She tore open the fancy envelope in her hand with ferocity, an arch reminder that my golden kitten was in fact a grown woman, even if she did not know it yet.
“Grandma,” she sang out, barely reading the card. “Grandma, I must ask your leave.”
“What are you going on about, you foolish girl?” snapped the old lioness, suspiciousness flooding her face instantly. I could see how Amanda had remained so sheltered, the Dame was as paranoid as a police detective and twice as perceptive.
“Petros has given me a birthday present. Do you remember, last month, at dinner, he said he would have a surprise for me soon?”
The Dame glared, but saved her ammunition ’til the battle was truly joined.
“He says the weather is perfect, now, and the boat is repaired.”
Still the old lady did not bite. Silently I urged Amanda to proceed cautiously, to try to trap the old woman, but her girlish enthusiasm swept her away.
“He has invited me on a cruise! On his own yacht, the Argo. For two weeks!” She read from the card, enraptured with the words, “I long to see your glow by moonlight on the waters of my people. The Aegean sea will think Helen come again, to steal the hearts of men.”
“Mon Dieu!” The old lady gasped for breath. So did I—that sugary prose was enough to choke anyone. I would have laughed in his face if a man had said that to me.
But delivered in Amanda’s guileless voice, sweetness was the only aftertaste.
“Absolutely not,” said the Dame. “You can’t spend two weeks at sea with him.” I had to silently agree with her. Put Amanda within reach of a tongue that honeyed and there wouldn’t be any need of a doctor’s report. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, my dear,” she said, and clearly meant it. It was Petros she didn’t trust, any further than she could throw a Grecian pillar, and neither did I. “But it would not be seemly for an unmarried girl to be alone with a man of his, ah, stature.”
“But I won’t be alone,” countered Amanda triumphantly. “I’ll have my maid with me!”
My jaw dropped in time with the Dame’s. Neither of us had expected that.
“That is one of her functions, is it not?” Amanda pressed. “To provide an assurance of propriety?”
Amanda had run her grandmother up a tree. A tree she had obviously been planning since the moment she saw me and hatched the sudden desire for a personal attendant. I was pretty sure I would get the blame for it, though.
“I do not think a single maid is enough for propriety’s sake,” the Dame countered weakly, and I had to suppress a laugh. A hundred maids would not be enough.
“Then we should begin interviewing additions to the staff immediately,” Amanda said coolly. “The Argo sails next week, and I intend to be on it. I am eighteen now, and you cannot keep me from my betrothed.” She swept out of the room with such dignity that, for a moment, I thought she had become the Dame.
Glaring futilely at the departing princess, the old woman growled at me. “Perhaps not quite that much starch.”
Could it be true? Could my indiscretions have given Amanda that imperial confidence? The concept left me tongue-tied with amazement.
“No matter,” said the Dame when it was clear I had nothing to say. “Let us discuss the next phase of your employment.”
The menace in her voice was naked. So much for dignity. The old woman was about to threaten me with as much ferocity as a lioness protecting her cub.
“Since you’ve put this spine into Amanda’s back, you’ll have to see it through. Has anyone explained the facts of the matter to you?”
I could guess well enough what she was getting at. Amanda had to come back from that voyage intact.
“Yes, ma’am,” I admitted
“Not sufficiently, I warrant. So allow me to detail how they affect you personally. You still have three months left on your halfway house sentence. Should you skip out on those months, you’ll be sent to a real prison.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agreed, “but I’m serving them here. There was paperwork.”
“Paperwork,” she said carefully, “can be lost.”
I gasped, drawing my breath in shock. The Dame played for keeps.
“Your recommendation came from a police detective known to be a good and honest man. But he is of Cheroigne descent. Recommendations also can be lost.”
She leaned forward and grabbed the apron of my uniform. Such intimacy from this distant and formal old woman made my blood run cold.
“You are, like all young women, a foolish girl. You do not understand how important these things are. But they are important to me and to others, men and women you will never meet, but whose whims and attitudes can make or break your life. Bring my granddaughter back a virgin. Do not even contemplate the alternative.”
“How?” I choked, more out of a desire to buy time to think than in expectation of an answer.
“How else?” she all but snarled. “He is a man. You are a woman with nothing to lose. The rest you should be able to figure out on your own. But remember—Amanda has much to lose, and if you let her lose it, my wrath will have no ending.”
It would seem that I had just been ordered to place myself at the sexual disposal of my lady’s fiancé. I would have been outraged, except that it was the fantastic Petros, and I would not be able to keep a straight face while objecting.
But what it would do to Amanda began to worry me. Our friendship, as fast as it had grown, would never survive such a treacherous strain.
The old lady must have seen this fear on my face, for she said in a far gentler tone, “Do what is best for Amanda, in the long run. Do you care enough for her to do what must be done now, for the sake of her future?”
I nodded. Barely, but I did nod.
“Then see to it,” she finished coldly. “And I will see that you are amply rewarded. House Cheroigne does not forget its enemies, but neither does it forget its loyal servants.”
And that was what I was, of course. A servant. A few weeks ago I would have been violently angry at such oppression. But I had seen how the house ran, like a Swiss watch, every person in their appointed place. And I had seen the cost that the ladies paid for their privilege, in Amanda’s isolation and perhaps even now in the Dame’s coldness. I was not sure I wanted to switch places, frankly.
But I did not want to leave, not yet. If I could, I would see Amanda safely married to her prince. That would be the one good thing I gave away in my life, to balance all the selfish pleasures I had stolen. For now, at least, I would serve the will of House Cheroigne, and the future interest of my lady, even if she would never understand.