Their Foreign Affair – Tracy Cooper-Posey

Ann could not seem to draw a full breath. She sipped gasps of air, her throat aching along with her chest and her head. “Nearly there,” her father murmured. He did not have to bend to peer through a small window to see where they were, for the entire top half of the carriage was made of windows. Each pane was polished to a crystal gleam. All the better to see the fate which laid before her. “What are those white things everyone is throwing at us?” Her father added as he tugged on the sleeve of his full military uniform. The tunic bore a startling number of ribbons and awards on the chest. Gold piping swirled over the fine red serge. Ann thought her father cut a handsome figure, even at his age. The grey flecks in his hair merely enhanced the effect of solid strength. No, it was not her father who was making her feel this way. She glanced outside once more, trying desperately to draw a full, even breath. “The people are throwing daisy petals,” she whispered. “What’s that?” Her father glanced at her, startled.

“Petals?” He gave a small, constrained smile. “I suppose this is a royal wedding, isn’t it?” Pride showed in his eyes. Ann squeezed the silver posy holder. It held fifteen white roses, which cascaded between baby’s breath. “You may carry roses to the cathedral,” Harry Dahl, the Duke’s secretary, had explained in his dry, didactic voice. “After you are married, though, you must carry a bouquet of marguerites and purple heather, for they are the flowers of Denmark and Norway.” A royal wedding. The back of her neck and her throat prickled. She felt far too hot, all at once. How had events arranged themselves to deliver her to this moment? She was on her way to be married to Filip Sørensen, Duke av Slåssørn of Hamar, a Norwegian noble who could trace his ancestors back to the thirteenth century.

His family was sword nobility, not merely robe nobility, for the title had remained with them since the seventeenth century. How had this happened? The last few months were a blur to her. Everything was a blur, imparting a sense of speed which far surpassed the dignified pace of the horse pulling the glass coach in which she sat. Everything had happened so quickly. Ann had arrived in Silkeborg shortly before Christmas, last year. That was when it had begun. Her father’s arrangements had allowed Ann to spend Christmas with Bronwen and her family. Bronwen was either Ann’s aunt or second cousin—neither of them had been certain of the exact relationship. “Although you are family,” Bronwen had declared after giving her a long embrace, then stepping back to inspect her. “I spent far too many years tromping about Northallerton myself, so we are both northern girls.

” The bewigged footmen standing on either side of the tall double doors to the grand drawing room Ann had been led to didn’t twitch at their Grand Duchess’s outrageous declaration. Quite likely, they didn’t speak English. Although Ann had discovered in her few hours in Silkeborg so far that everyone seemed to know a little English—enough to make themselves understood. “Should I call you Aunt Bronwen, then?” Ann asked the older lady. “Or should it be Your Highness?” “Oh, she would like that,” said the man standing behind the sofa, his hand very casually pushed into the pocket of his trousers. Ann wasn’t certain if she had ever seen a man stand in such a way. It certainly gave him a relaxed air, which was astonishing, given that this was Archeduke Edvard Christoffer. Bronwen scowled at her husband. “I am simply Bronwen,” she told Ann firmly. “And this is Tor,” she added, waving toward her husband.

“At least when it is just us in the room. I’m afraid it must be Your Grace when anyone else might hear.” Ann glanced at the footmen. “Oh, these men are most loyal and discreet,” Bronwen added quickly. “They are Tor’s personal guards.” “Oh,” Ann said inadequately. She had never met anyone who had their own guards. Queen Victoria had guards, she supposed, especially since the Anarchists had assassinated her cousin, Alexander, in Russia a few years ago. Ann leaned toward Bronwen and lowered her voice. “I thought they were footmen.

” “They are.” Bronwen’s eyes twinkled. “They are well-trained footmen with special responsibilities. You may speak freely in front of them. Nothing will be repeated by them.” Ann wasn’t sure if she could speak with complete freedom in front of them. She would be far too self-conscious. “You may also be completely informal with Filip, too,” Tor added. “You will meet him tonight. He is my cousin.

From Norway.” “I didn’t realize you had guests.” Ann prickled with discomfort. “I don’t want to upset anything —” Bronwen rested her hand on Ann’s sleeve. “Filip has been here for months. The palace is large enough that we can host any number of guests for as long as we want, and not find it the slightest bit inconvenient. I’ll have you shown to your suite, Ann. Then you can rest and prepare for dinner tonight. Did you bring evening gowns? I’m afraid we’re a teeny bit formal in the evenings.” Ann’s mother had prepared her for this as she helped pack her trunk with formal dresses and ball gowns which hadn’t been worn for well over a year.

“I do have a suitable gown,” Ann said, sending silent thanks to her mother. When she descended from her bedroom suite to the second floor—for the first floor contained all the public rooms and public assembly areas—and was escorted to the evening drawing room that night, Ann was even more grateful for her mother’s foresight. The evening drawing room was even grander than the afternoon drawing room where Tor and Bronwen had greeted her. Gilded flourishes and curlicues bordered the robin’s egg blue walls, gold and white sconces flickered in the center of every wall panel, four chandeliers gleamed overhead, and a half-dozen footmen moved around the room with trays and decanters. There were also more than a few diners standing in clumps, their evening finery and jewels glittering in the light of the chandeliers. Several of the women wore tiaras. Many people wore regal sashes over one shoulder. Everyone clutched champagne glasses or sherry glasses in their gloved hands. Ann came to a halt a few steps inside the door, her heart sinking. She smoothed her bare hands over the pale green satin of her evening dress.

She wore no tiara, no sash, no glittering diamonds. She wore no jewelry at all and only now felt the lack. This drawing room was a very long way from the comfortable drawing room at Northallerton, where toys peeped from beneath sofas, newspapers were spread across tabletops and family pictures cluttered the mantelshelf. It was even further removed from the shabby public rooms of Great Aunt Annalies’ boarding house for young ladies. Ann suddenly wished she was back at the big white house, completing her duties as butler, serving the sherry instead of drinking it, while laughing and talking with anyone in the room she felt moved to converse with. A man with a thick thatch of golden white hair and high cheekbones stood beside Tor. He was staring at Ann. He was as regally dressed as anyone in the room, although his tuxedo had a very modern cut, with thin lapels. The man leaned toward the Archeduke and murmured something. The Archeduke, Tor, glanced at Ann and gave her a small smile, while murmuring back to the man.

Then Tor beckoned. It was a friendly gesture, not a royal command. Mildly reassured, Ann moved over to the pair. At the last second, she remembered to curtsey, as they were not alone. “Your Grace,” she murmured. Tor’s eyes twinkled. “Miss Thompsett,” he said gravely. “My cousin wanted to know who the fresh young thing by the door might be.” He glanced around. “The Duchess is paying no attention to me tonight, so I must introduce you myself.

Let me see if I can get this right.” He put the glass he had been holding upon a small table at the back of the nearest sofa and tugged his jacket sleeve back into place. While he was doing that, Ann grew aware of the steady regard of the other man—Tor’s cousin, clearly. The man from Norway. Ann dared let her gaze flick toward him and away. He had very pale blue eyes, which were steady upon her. From this distance, she could see he was older than she had first thought. He looked to be in his late thirties, perhaps even his forties, although his eyes seemed younger. “Filip…I mean…wait…” Tor paused, frowned. “Yes, I have it.

” He clicked his fingers. “Duke av Slåssørn of Hamar, I present to you my niece-by-marriage, Miss Ann Louise Thomsett of Northallerton and London. I commend her to you as a fine young English lady. Ann, you are in the presence of Filip Sørensen, Twenty-fifth Duke av Slåssørn of Hamar, and my cousin.” Tor cleared his throat. “Did I cover everything?” “Adequately,” Filip Sørensen said. His voice was a pleasant tenor, with a strong accent. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Ann.” “Miss Thomsett,” Tor corrected. “Ann has an elder sister.

” Ann nearly winced at the reminder. She kept her pleasant smile in place. A footman cleared his throat softly beside her and when she looked, held out a tray of champagne glasses. “Oh, no, thank you,” Ann said quickly. The footman bowed and moved away. “You do not drink, Miss Ann?” Sørensen asked, his tone curious. A polite prevarication was in order. Ann cast about for an explanation which would be socially acceptable and not leave the Duke with the impression she did not wish to drink with him. She realized she had let the silence stretch too long, so settled for the blunt truth, which was far easier to deal with. “I am afraid that if I take a glass, I will spill it all over my dress.

As I am already the least formal lady in the room, a wet stain would be a disaster.” Sørensen laughed, then caught it back and pressed his lips together. He could not prevent himself from smiling, though. He held out his own glass, which was neither champagne nor sherry. It looked like brandy in color. “Perhaps sipping from another’s glass would be safer?” Ann’s cheeks grew very warm. “I…um…thank you, but no.” “Now you’ve flustered her, Filip.” Tor shook his head. “He has a habit of disconcerting ladies, Ann.

Although you should be grateful—if I told you what he asked me before you came over, you would be even more unsettled.” Ann gripped her hands together and wish she’d brought her gloves down with her. “Then it is as well I could not hear you.” Sørensen considered her, his amusement fading. His gaze was steady. “I asked my cousin to introduce us immediately. I also said that if I was not seated beside you at the dinner table tonight, I would return to Norway at once, for there would be no point in suffering through a future without you in it.” Ann’s lips parted, but no words came to her. “See?” A resigned note sounded in Tor’s voice. Sørensen’s expression was merely polite, as if he was not aware of the shocking implications of his declaration.

Ann considered him. “You do not know me, Your Grace. You would not care to sit beside me if you knew I had been employed as a butler only a short while ago.” Sørensen’s brows lifted. His lips parted. Genuine surprise made his jaw sag. Tor laughed and thumped his chest with the side of his fist to recover from attempting to breathe in his sherry. Still Sørensen stared at Ann. Ann stared back, making herself look him in the eye. “A butler?” Sørensen repeated.

Ann nodded. “You did such…work?” “I did.” “Service is something of a family tradition,” Tor added. “My brother served as butler for a while, when he retired from the British Army.” Sørensen drained his glass, put it on the table where Tor had rested his sherry glass a short while ago, then tugged his gloves back into place and turned to Ann. “I am even more certain I must sit beside you. I would know everything about your employment and how you came to it.” The gong sounded for dinner and Sørensen raised his elbow to Ann. He had not been repulsed by menial paid work as she had expected him to be. Disconcerted, she made herself rest her fingertips on the inside of his elbow and let him lead her into the dining room.

Sørensen sat beside her at every dinner after that. He sought her out after breakfast each day, too. They walked the snowy trails through the forests around Silkeborg in the mornings and lingered in the town in the afternoon to drink schnapps and browse through the little stores, while shopkeepers bowed and curtsied and rushed to bring their Archduke’s cousin the best of their wares as possible Christmas gifts. Four days later, on Christmas Day morning, Sørensen seated Ann upon the window seat in the upstairs sitting room. Instead of giving her a Christmas gift, he offered her a sapphire and diamond ring which was, he told her, a family heirloom. He had carried it with him for years, for it had been his mother’s engagement ring. “I would be most pleased and proud if you accept my proposal,” Filip added. “We are not so unlike, you and I. We would make an excellent pair. Everyone in Norway would adore you, for they are honest folk, just as you are.

” Ann’s heart would not stop leaping about. “My family…” “Are of indisputable quality,” he replied firmly. “Are you aware of the scandal which stains my reputation?” Ann asked, her voice strained. The collapse of the Darnell & Sattler Banking Company of Bournemouth and London had sent tendrils of gossip around the world. “It is not you who stole the money,” Filip said, his tone dismissive. “To my mind, and I am sure to my family’s mind, it merely makes you more interesting. We are adventurers, Ann. A few centuries ago, we were Vikings, traveling the seas. We have not lost that taste for novelty.” In a voice without body, Ann said yes.


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