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Murder at the Court of St James - an extract

Once the bustle of receiving guests and making introductions was over, however, Persephone found herself seated at dinner between an elderly peer of the realm who had escorted her into the dining room, grimaced, and embarked on the noisy slurping of his soup, and a young man with a confident air and red curly hair who was busy exchanging hilarious insults with a heavily made-up young woman on his other side and had not noticed her yet.

Across the table sat her grandmother – but Lady Balinburgh was engaged in explaining the finer points of dog breeding to the owner of the most renowned pedigree kennels in Surrey, and had no attention to spare for her granddaughter. To the left of the dog breeder sat an elderly colonel who was dutifully trying to find conversational common ground with the earnest bluestocking on his left, and to the right of her grandmother sat a married couple, the husband of which was leaning across his new wife to flirt with the dashing young Italian count on her far side. Persephone dabbled her spoon in her soup and tried to make it look as if she was eating, and that she didn’t care if anyone spoke to her or not. To actually eat was impossible.

Her situation, she felt, could hardly be more mortifying. But the moment she had framed the thought, of course, the situation did get worse. Lady Balinburgh had apparently noticed the breach of etiquette being committed by the Italian count (who should of course have been attending to the lady on his right), and with stately deliberation she turned her attention away from the dog breeder and claimed the attention of the flirtatious young man, who looked none too pleased to be dragged away from the fascinating continental nobleman. Obediently the rest of the table turned, as one, to their previously neglected neighbors.  The red-haired young man turned his head and looked at Persephone. “Oh I say!” he cried.

Persephone flinched, expecting the worst. Was this young man going to turn out to be the kind of person who treated her like a freak show exhibit? Would he, like so many others, want to touch her hair and exclaim at the paleness of her palms, and value her only as an objet d’art to be collected?

But the young man was continuing to speak. “Ma Balinburgh must like me or something. Not only has she gone and sat me next to the guest of honor, but she’s also the prettiest girl in the room.”

Persephone’s deportment training had not prepared her for the possibility of anyone referring to her Ladyship the Dowager Countess of Balinburgh as “Ma Balinburgh,” and for a moment her confusion was such that she almost failed to notice that she had been called the prettiest girl in the room. Her hand trembled so violently that she spilled soup on the tablecloth.

The red-headed young man struck himself theatrically on the forehead. “And now I’ve gone and made you jump,” he said. “Me an’ my big mouth. I say, I really am most dreadfully sorry. Let me help you mop that up.” True to his word, he took his napkin from his lap and dabbed at the offending stain. “Lucky it wasn’t your dress, what? Then I really would have been in the soup. Unlike you, of course, who’d have been dressed in the soup, eh?”