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Authors: Hester Browne

The Finishing Touches

BOOK: The Finishing Touches
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The Finishing Touches

The Little Lady Agency

Little Lady, Big Apple

The Little Lady Agency and the Prince

Pocket Books
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2009 by Hester Browne

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Browne, Hester.
The finishing touches / Hester Browne—1st Pocket Books hardcover ed.
p. cm.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4391-6346-7
ISBN-10: 1-4391-6346-4
1. Young women—England—London—Fiction. 2. Birthparents—Identification—Fiction. 3. London (England)—Fiction. 4. Chick lit. I. Title.
PR6102.R695F56 2009
823'.92—dc22         2009000256

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29th July, 1981

Mayfair, W1

Deep in the discreet matronly
bosom of Mayfair, Halfmoon Street hid the last remaining secret of London society. Between buzzy, chaotic Soho on one side and the discreet gentlemen’s clubs of St. James on the other, the elegant Georgian town houses rose behind curled iron railings, while high above the pavement, pigeons perched on tight-packed rows of red chimney pots. Four stories below, at Number 34, was the only surviving finishing school in London.

The Phillimore Academy for Young Ladies had occupied the same double-fronted town house since 1880. It had once been
place for England’s oldest families to send their daughters for a year of pre-marriage-market polishing: Phillimore girls had a reputation for never letting a conversation die over dinner, no matter how grumpy or drunken the guests, and maintaining a cheerful attitude and ramrod deportment well into old age.

Now, more than one hundred years later, enrollment was well down from the Academy’s postwar heyday, but a steady trickle of jolly blond girls still enrolled for the year’s course in minding one’s house, family, and manners. Lately the trickle had become a stream, thanks to Lady Diana Spencer, the most famously finished girl in England, and the Phillimore Academy was enjoying something of a mini-revival.

Although the boarding girls didn’t stumble down for their full English breakfast till eight, every morning at twenty to seven, Kathleen Connor, the cook, opened the front door to collect the half-dozen bottles of milk. This morning—29th July, 1981—was no different, except Kathleen discovered, to her annoyance, that the milkman had ignored her note requesting orange juice and left a box of Cooper’s Fine Cut Marmalade instead.

“Fine cut? I’ll give him fine cut,” she grumbled to no one in particular, and started to scoop up the milk bottles, stuffing them in the ample crook of her arm, when a distinct cough from the box almost made her drop them.

Kathleen stared into the marmalade box, uncharacteristically dumbstruck. One of her most secret, heartfelt prayers seemed to have been answered, in the oddest fashion.

She looked up and down the street, in search of the box’s owner, but the pavement was deserted, the only sound a distant rattle of traffic on Piccadilly.

Meanwhile, the box coughed again.

“Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all the saints!” she whispered, crossing herself as she bent to pick it up.


Upstairs in the morning room, Lady Frances Phillimore was tapping her red lips with a silver fountain pen.

How best to comfort a girl suffering an unfortunate eye
brow wax? So far, all she’d come up with was a photograph of Marlene Dietrich and a vague memory that a drop of castor oil speeded up regrowth. Or was that eyelashes? Frances made a note to check with Nancy, the Academy’s matron. Nancy knew all sorts of useful little nuggets, most involving malt vinegar.

The finishing school had been in her husband Pelham’s family for generations—ironic, really, since Pelham himself was as socially awkward as every other Englishman she knew. Miss Vanderbilt, the headmistress since before color television, knew more about the right way to eat scones than most minor royals, but Frances had been eager to pass on some of the mysteries of modern life that her own finishing school had failed to explain, like how to extricate yourself from a blind date. Or make an instant supper from five eggs and a kipper.

Although Frances always said that she pitched in for the sake of the family business, she loved the giggling atmosphere that fifteen or so teenage girls carried round like a cloud. The Phillimores had one child—a son, Hector—and Frances would dearly have loved a daughter, but to her great sorrow, she and Pelham couldn’t have more children. She was pragmatic, though, and her silver lining now was to be a sort of wise aunt who could offer some proper advice to the rich but neglected teenagers who were dispatched to Halfmoon Street for finishing off.

There was a knock on the door, and Kathleen appeared, as she always did at nine o’clock sharp. Frances noted that she wasn’t bearing the usual tray of morning coffee but was clutching a box of marmalade.

Behind her, bobbing up and down nervously, was Nancy. From the anxious way she kept glancing into the box, Frances assumed, with a sinking heart, that either Harrods’s delivery system had broken down badly or else one of the girls had let her cat have kittens again.

Kathleen seemed flustered, chewing her lip and flushing pink to the roots of her jet-black hair. “Sorry to interrupt, but I think you ought to see this, Lady Frances. I found it on the doorstep.”

Kathleen placed the box on her desk, and Frances found herself looking into the round, green eyes of the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. She knew at once she was a little girl, just a few days old: the pink mouth was curled up at the edges, and her eyes were thickly fringed with pale golden lashes. Before Frances knew what she was doing, she had lifted the baby out of the box and was cradling the warm weight in her arms, marveling at the peach-down softness of her pearly skin.

The baby didn’t make a sound but gazed up with serious eyes, the color of moss. Frances felt her own eyes brim with tears, and her heart flooded with a fierce, protective yearning. The baby was dressed in a clean cotton romper suit, her fragile fingers opening and closing like anemones underwater. Frances was relieved to see the baby’s feet were covered with pink cashmere socks, and from her heavy contentedness, she’d obviously just been fed.

“Hello,” she murmured, stroking the porcelain cheek with the back of her finger. “Where’s your mummy, darling?”

Frances cupped a tiny foot in her hand and squeezed, transfixed, as the baby sent invisible tentacles of love into her heart, wrapping round so tightly she could hardly breathe.

“We’ve called the police!” wailed Nancy. She flapped across the room and hovered over the box like a mother hen. “But it’s dreadful! Poor wee mite! Just that blanket, in this weather, with those filthy pigeons everywhere! I don’t know what sort of irresponsible—”

“It’s good cashmere, that scarf. And there was a note,” said Kathleen, more matter-of-fact. “Whoever left her isn’t coming back, if you ask me.”

But Frances was only half-listening. The scarf had fallen back to reveal a fine covering of red-gold hair curling around the baby’s delicate ears, and she knew she was absolutely lost. This tiny vulnerable scrap needed her, and she wasn’t going to let her down! Not like whoever had left her there, helpless and alone on the stone step of a strange house.

Kathleen was speaking again. “Tried to find Lord Phillimore, but the man at his club says he’s not there. I gave a message to telephone at his earliest opportunity.”

Nancy stepped forward to take the baby from her arms, but Frances turned slightly, unwilling to break the spell. “Pelham’s busy this morning,” she said.

Kathleen and Nancy exchanged a look, and Frances knew they knew exactly where Pelham was: trying to find Hector. They’d been part of her family for too long not to read between the lines. When it came to Hector, the lines were pretty far apart, just to fit everything in.

Even Frances had to admit that Hector was getting to be the sort of junior cad she warned the girls to avoid like the plague. Handsome, charming, utterly irresponsible, and not to be trusted in moonlit gardens. It didn’t help that they already had wild crushes on him and his ghastly circle of young earls and millionaires’ sons who fell in and out of the gossip columns as often as they were in and out of the casinos and cocktail bars of Mayfair. They were getting to be quite notorious, and it gave Frances insomnia. It
how he’d been brought up. It
what she wanted for him. And yet she still hoped he’d grow out of it.

Or find a girl who’d make him grow out of it.

“I’m expecting Lord Phillimore back this afternoon, with Hector,” she added, sounding more confident than she felt. Hector had been AWOL for a week now, and so had his two best friends, Rory and Simon. Last time he’d gone missing,
Pelham had had to spring him from a police cell in Venice. The
Daily Mail
was delighted to print that the Hon. Hector Phillimore had been in full dinner dress, plus a tutu.

“What will Lord Phillimore say?” wailed Nancy. “What will it look like, abandoned babies on the step! They’ll think it’s one of the…”

“Nonsense,” said Frances briskly. “The poor soul who left this baby knew this was a place where young women are well looked after, and she was quite right. Nancy, we’re going to need some supplies, so perhaps you’d be so good as to pop to Harrods for the necessaries? Did you say there was a note, Kathleen?”

Kathleen fished a folded piece of writing paper out of her apron pocket and handed it over.

“Well, the mother had a fountain pen, at least,” Frances observed. “
‘Please look after my baby. I want her to grow up to be a proper lady. Thank you.’
Polite and to the point.”

“The bee, Kathleen,” whispered Nancy urgently. “Show her the bee!”

“The note was fastened on with this.” Kathleen produced a kilt pin from her apron. “I took it off for her own safety.”

“Poor wee mite could have had her eye out!” exclaimed Nancy, then clamped her mouth shut under Kathleen’s glare.

Frances frowned as she examined it. It was an ordinary kilt pin, and attached to it was a gold charm in the shape of a diamond-studded bee. An expensive one, definitely.

“No name?” she said, turning the paper over. “That’s very odd. You’d think a mother would want her little girl to have a name, at least.” She looked down at the baby, who was making the occasional mewing noise. “We can’t have an angel like you without a name, now can we?” she said softly, tracing the faint golden eyebrows with her fingertip. “What will we call you?”

The smell of lavender, bleach, and shortbread was getting
stronger. Frances looked up at the two middle-aged spinsters, hovering closer, as they’d hovered for most of her life, and knew their arms were yearning to cuddle the baby too.

They were the two kindest women Frances knew. Between us, she thought wryly, the poor desperate mother couldn’t have picked three women keener to love an unwanted baby.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Something royal? After Lady Diana, maybe? With the Royal Wedding in the morning, after all!”

“No. Elizabeth,” said Kathleen at once. “After our own dear queen.”

“I don’t know if she’s quite an Elizabeth,” mused Frances, unable to tear her eyes away from the baby’s face for more than a moment. “She’s too pretty for such a long name. She’s…”

Not Lizzy, or Bessie. Or Beth.

“Betsy?” suggested Nancy.

“Betsy,” Frances repeated in a whisper. “Yes, I think she is. Bee for Betsy.”

The baby blinked her green eyes, and for a fleeting moment Frances thought she opened her mouth into a smile. Frances didn’t know who’d brought Betsy to the Phillimore Academy, but she made a silent promise that from now on, even if someone came to take her away, it would be her home.

BOOK: The Finishing Touches
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