“No, My Lady. The young woman says her name is Nancy Herald. She apologized for not making an appointment and provided her card. It seems to be a business proposition.”
My mother makes a sweeping motion with the back of her hand.
“I have no interest or time for business propositions. Send her on her way, please.”
Stanhope places a business card on the table, bows, and leaves the room.
Penny picks it up as she sips her drink, looks it over—and then spits her brandy all over the carpet.
“Penelope!” mother yells.
My sister stands up, waving the card over her head like Veruca Salt after she got her hands on the golden ticket to the chocolate factory.
“Stanhope!” she screams. “Don’t let her leave! She a television producer!”
Penny turns to me and in a quieter but urgent voice says, “She’s a television producer.”
As if I didn’t hear her the first time.
Then she sprints from the room. Or . . . tries to. Halfway to the door, her heel catches on the carpet and she falls flat on her face with an “Ooof.”
“Are you all right, Pen?”
She pulls herself up, waving her hands. “I’m fine! Or I will be, as long as she doesn’t leave!”
The second try’s the charm, and Penelope scurries out of the room as fast as her four-inch heels will take her.
My mother shakes her head at my sister’s retreating form.
“Too much sugar, that one.”
Then she drains her glass.
“The producer is most likely interested in filming on the property,” my mother adds. “It seems like every few months I get an inquiry.”
A few moments later, there’s the echo of Penelope’s quick, high-pitched chatter from the foyer and, shortly after, she walks back into the parlor. Her arm is linked with a petite, dark-haired woman in a drenched trench coat. Stanhope follows behind them like a frowning shadow.
Penelope introduces her like they’re old schoolmates, stealing Stanhope’s thunder.
“Mother, Sarah, this is Nancy Herald. She’s a television producer.”
I stand and offer my hand. “Hello, Miss Herald. Tell me, are you a television producer? I wasn’t sure.”
I wink at my sister. She sneers back.
“Assistant producer, actually,” she replies, shaking my hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Stanhope sniffs. “May I take your coat, Miss Herald? And offer you a hot beverage?”
“Thank you.” She hands over the dripping garment. “Coffee would be awesome, if you have it.”
Without rising, my mother motions for her to sit. “What brings you out in such terrible weather, Miss Herald?”
She smiles, sits, and pulls out a folder from the briefcase in her hand. “Before I explain, I’m going to have to ask you each to sign a nondisclosure agreement. And I realize that’s very odd, but I have a special opportunity for . . .” she checks her paperwork, “Sarah and Penelope Von Titebottum.” She glances at my sister and me. “For both of you, but it’s a matter of national security, so I need evidence of your confidentiality in writing. You’re under no obligation, except to keep my offer to yourselves.”
Penelope begs with her eyes . . . and her mouth.
“Please, Mummy! Sarah, please, please, pretty-pretty please?”
My mother huffs and rolls her eyes. “Very well, give it here.”
We each sign the short, one-paragraph document. And Stanhope sets a cup and saucer on the table for Miss Herald. She files the form away, takes a sip of the steaming liquid, and after our butler has left the room, closing the door behind him, she leans forward.
“Have you heard of the television series Matched?”
“Out of the question,” my mother declares the moment Miss Herald finishes telling us about the royally themed reality-TV dating show.
“No!” Penny squeaks. “It most certainly still is in question.”
“Not for me.” I shake my head. “Thank you for the offer, Miss Herald, but I don’t even like having my photo taken. I have no interest in being on a television show.”
“What about being queen?” she prods.
“I have no interest in that either.”
Penny raises her hand. “But I do! I could still join up, right? Even if Sarah doesn’t?”
“Absolutely not,” Mother says firmly.
Penelope is offended. “Mother, you’re acting like you don’t trust me at all.”
“I don’t.” She shrugs. “And with good reason. There are plentiful examples of your lack of judgment, darling. Let’s see . . . there was the tattoo artist.”
“It was a phase.”
“The circus performer.”
“He was interesting!”
Penny squirms. “Being on the lam wasn’t as romantic as I’d thought.”
She falls to her knees beside my mother’s chair. “But this is different. It’s not about a boy . . .”
Penny rolls her eyes. “Henry’s a lot of fun and he’s fantastic to look at, but he’s a playboy—everyone knows that. When he marries he won’t have just a mistress; he’ll have a whole harem. We would never work.”
Then she resorts back to pleading. “But you know how I love to perform. This could open up doors for me, Mother. For a real career in the industry.”