With six days to go until 2011, here’s a blast from the past, an excerpt from The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which made its debut back in the snowy early days of 2005.
This is my favorite bit from Pink, but please feel free to chime in with your own!
It’s very hard being a dashing spy when your entire family descends on your secret lair and insists on interfering with your love-life.
The Purple Gentian, blissfully unaware of the creation of a rival flower, bounded joyously up the steps of his townhouse, flinging open the front door without waiting for Stiles to get there first. All the way home, he had savored the memory of Amy’s face as he had kissed her hand goodbye. He had lingered happily over the confused pleasure in her eyes as he whistled through the Tuilleries garden, and he had grinned over her slightly parted lips as he evaded the slops a brawny maid was tossing from an upper window. Operation Charm Amy was going splendidly, he gloated to himself as he strode into his front hall and tossed his hat onto the front hall table.
There was only one slight problem.
The front hall table wasn’t there. Or if it was, he couldn’t see it. His foyer was entirely filled with piles of bandboxes and his….
Richard blinked once, then twice. His mother was still there.
“Oh, hello, darling.” His mother waved a hand at him in greeting before returning to harassing his butler. “Now let’s get this straight. Those two hatboxes go in the front bedroom, and the large trunk goes in—“
Stiles emitted one of his theatrical groans. Richard envied him that.
“Yes, dear?” His mother thrust another hatbox on the pile Stiles was already holding. “Oh do stop whining! You have the build of a man half your age.”
“He is half his age,” Richard said drily. “Mother, what are you doing here?”
He’d meant the question to come out calmly, but his voice reverted to somewhere pre-adolescence on the last word.
“Oh, how silly of me!” Stiles took advantage of Lady Uppington’s momentary distraction to scuttle crablike behind the pile of luggage. The marchioness beamed at her son. “We came to help you, of course!”
Richard’s head reeled, and he sat down rather abruptly on a huge trunk, into which, by the size of it, his mother had packed a full silver service, two wardrobes, and perhaps a footman or two. Or at least her shoe collection.
Richard tackled the most pressing question first. “What do you mean by we?”
“They were here a moment ago….” His mother peered at the mountain of baggage as though expecting half of Debrett’s peerage to pop out. If his mother had brought along the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, Richard resolved, he was heading straight back out the door and not stopping till he hit either Calais or the nearest open tavern. The woman made Miss Gwen look like a fluttering milksop.
“I suppose Geoff must have taken them into the drawing room,” his mother concluded after a foray around the trunks and bandboxes. “Your father is here, of course. It’s been so long since he and I have been to Paris together.” The marchioness smiled mistily. “You came along after our last trip to Paris, dear.”
“Mother!” Richard yelped. “I didn’t need to hear that!”
What deity had he offended? Maybe there was something to all of those rumors about curses on those who profaned the tombs of the pharaohs.
Taking pity on her son, who had gone red straight up to the tips of his ears, Lady Uppington informed him, “Henrietta’s here too. A little continental polish will be just the thing to set her off for her next season.”
Lady Uppington might have said more, but her words were abruptly truncated by the cacophony of several loud thumps, an ear curdling shriek of rage (which Richard was able to identify as part of Stiles’ King Lear impersonation), and a hearty masculine yelp.
Richard frowned. “That does not sound like Henrietta.”
“Well, no. We also brought along—“
“Hullo, Richard!” Miles bounded around the pile of boxes, pushing a floppy lock of blond hair out of his eyes. “Why does your butler hate me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. He hates everyone.” Richard turned to look at his mother. “Is there anyone else you brought who you’d like to warn me about? Penelope? Great-Aunt Hyacinth? Cousin Jared? The under footman from Uppington House?”
“Always happy to see you, too, old chap.” Miles whacked Richard on the shoulder. “Stop grousing and come along. Geoff’s got tea and crumpets for all of us in the drawing room.”
Richard fumed silently as Miles pushed him along into his own drawing room. Miles should have known better than to be a party to this invasion. Whose best friend was he, anyway? Richard scowled at the back of Miles’ head as he followed him into the drawing room. Such a pity they weren’t ten anymore, and he couldn’t just settle the score with a bucketful of toads emptied into Miles’ bed.
Henrietta stood on tiptoe to press a quick kiss to Richard’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Richard,” she whispered. “I know I should have tried to stop them….”
“Thanks, Hen.” Richard squeezed his sister’s shoulders.
“But, well, I rather wanted to see Paris, so….” Henrietta shrugged apologetically.
“Thanks,” Richard repeated dourly. “Thanks a lot.”
Hen covered her hand with her mouth and retreated to her chair. “Sorry.”
“Is that picture crooked?” Lady Uppington bounced into the room behind Richard and moved the simpering Watteau shepherdess above the settee a fraction to the left. “Really, Richard, I don’t understand how you young men manage to live in such a state of chaos. Dirty cravats under the settee, empty brandy glasses on the table… and is that a piece of cheese under Henrietta’s chair?”
With a swish of petticoats, Henrietta expeditiously relocated to the settee.
Lady Uppington shook her head and straightened another picture. “I’ll talk to the maids after we’ve had our tea.”
“I’m assuming you haven’t come all this way to supervise my housekeeping.”
“That would be silly, wouldn’t it?” replied Lady Uppington tartly. “Oh, do sit down, Richard. You’re making me dizzy prowling about in circles like that. It’s like watching one of the lions in the Tower.”
Richard felt a great deal of sympathy for the Tower menagerie as he flung himself into a chair, which, of course, promptly skidded back a good six inches. His mother watched him indulgently. Empathy for the animals in the Tower might be more like it. Richard loved his mother; he would be the last to deny that. She was a very paragon of a mother, and he was awfully glad he had been born to her and not some other woman and so on and so on and so on. But at the age of twenty-seven, you would think one deserved a certain amount of privacy, wouldn’t you? He was sure he had to be the only agent operating in France—or England or Russia or the farthest wilds of the Americas—whose mother showed up at random on his doorstep. It just wasn’t right.
“As soon as you left, I started thinking….” began Lady Uppington, straightening yet another picture, this time a small Dutch seascape.
“They do that, you know,” Richard’s father commented from the safety of his chair in the corner.
Lady Uppington swatted him, a gesture more symbolic than practical, as the marquess was seated a good three feet out of range. “As I was saying,” she continued, with a pointed look at her spouse, “after some thought, your father and I decided that your mission would go much faster if we came over and helped you.”
Richard swung around to glare at his father. Making little pointing gestures at his wife, Lord Uppington affected an expression of innocence. Richard wasn’t fooled. His father had been angling to be involved in his missions for years. Hell, he was worse than his mother. Richard looked hard at Lord Uppington. Being a peer of the realm, a man of dignity and substance, master of four estates and hundreds of dependants, Lord Uppington did not blush or squirm. He did, however, discover a sudden deep interest in the folds of his cravat.
“Help me.” Richard repeated. “Mother—”
Just when he thought nothing worse could happen, just as he was about to tackle the catastrophe at hand, another disaster erupted.
Miles leaped up from his chair next to Geoff and hooted, “Richard’s in love!”
All activity in the room drew to an abrupt close. Geoff’s teacup halted guiltily in between the table and his mouth. Henrietta dropped her biscuit. His mother stopped straightening the pictures on the walls. His father looked up from his cravat.
“In love!” Lady Uppington opened her mouth in a delighted O. “Oh, Richard!”
“Miles, blast you! I am not in—urgh!” Richard emitted a strangled noise,
His mother tugged at his arm. “Darling, how wonderful! Who is she?”
Richard shrugged away. “But I just said—argh!”
Miles nodded sagely, a great big, infuriating grin spreading across his face. “Yes. Clearly a victim of Cupid’s amorous dar—oof! You know, throwing that cushion at me just proves my point. What do you say, Henrietta?”
“Henrietta,” Richard pronounced chillingly, “is not going to say anything at all. Not if she doesn’t want to be bodily lifted to the next packet for Dover.”
Henrietta’s mouth snapped shut.
Miles, too large to lift, was less easily silenced.
“I, for one, want to meet this paragon,” Miles announced. He struck a lovesick pose and strummed a chord on an invisible lute. “Does she have a balcony under which we might stand and call for her? Oh Amy, Amy, wherefore art thou—“
“Not long for this earth,” Richard uttered through clenched teeth.
Miles retrieved his hand from its languishing position on his brow. “Is that any way to speak of your beloved?” he clucked reprovingly.
“I was speaking of you.”
“Why, Richard, I never knew you cared.”
“Do be quiet, Miles.” Henrietta ‘accidentally’ stepped on Miles’ foot in passing with a force that ensured that the only noises emerging from his mouth were inarticulate ones indicating pain. “We’ll never get anything sensible out of Richard if you don’t stop provoking him.”
His large hands closing around Henrietta’s waist, Miles lifted her off his foot and set her down firmly on an ottoman. “But what’s the fun of sensible?”
“Miles does have a point,” mused Lady Uppington.
Five heads twisted sharply her way. Or, rather, six heads, if one counted Stiles, who was listening outside the half-open door.
“My dear,” remarked the marquess mildly, “I have known you longer than anyone else in this room, and I must say that you have always struck me as a supremely sensible woman. I would rather object to your altering your character at this late date.”
“Thank you, darling.” Lady Uppington blew a kiss to her husband. “I’m rather fond of your character, too. But I was referring to Miles’ suggestion that we meet this Amy. If we were to call on her after dinner….”
“It will be too late to call,” Richard put in dampeningly, before the marchioness could develop that dangerous idea any further.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” his mother replied blithely. “We’re in France. They don’t keep proper hours here.”
Richard turned in silent appeal to Lord Uppington.
“Don’t look at me,” his father said, stretching out his legs. “I’ve learned when not to get in the way of your mother.”
“Thank you, darling,” Lady Uppington beamed. “That’s one of the things I love about you.”
Henrietta rolled her eyes at Richard, who normally would have been somewhat more amused. He was even less amused two moments later.
“I’ll accompany you, Lady Uppington,” Miles offered angelically.
“Nobody asked you,” snapped Richard. Richard’s brow darkened visibly as ominous images of Miles meeting Amy careened through his head. There was no telling what Miles might do or say.
“Is that any way to treat your oldest friend?”
“Don’t you mean my former oldest friend?”
“Don’t yell at me; yell at Geoff. He’s the one who told me about Amy.”
“If Miles gets to go, I get to go, too!” put in Henrietta, looking mutinous. “After all, he’s not even family. If Amy’s going to be my sister, I ought to get first crack at meeting her.”
“Before you reserve the chapel,” Richard drawled, in his most obnoxious London man about town voice, “there are a few things that ought to be made clear.”
“Darling, you aren’t afraid we’ll embarrass you, are you? I promise, we’ll be on our best behavior, even your father.” The marchioness wrinkled her nose playfully at the marquess.
“Mother, would you stop flirting with Father for a moment and listen?”
“I never stop flirting with your father,” said Lady Uppington complacently. “That’s why we have such a happy marriage. And I hope that all of you find spouses with whom you can happily flirt for the rest of your lives.” She and Lord Uppington exchanged a look that Richard could only label “gooey.”
“It’s a wonder that we’ve turned out as normal as we have, isn’t it?” whispered Henrietta, coming up behind Richard’s chair.
“I still haven’t forgiven you yet,” Richard cautioned her.
“Oh, but you will,” Henrietta said blithely, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “I’m your favorite sister, remember? Besides,” she added, casting a glance around the room, “you know you’ll need my help keeping them in line tonight.”
“That assumes we’re going somewhere.”
Henrietta gave Richard a pitying look that said, louder than words, you can delude yourself if you like.
Henrietta knew too damn much for a nineteen year old.