I CAUTIOUSLY STEERED the unfamiliar car through the massive stone gateposts, creeping along and hugging the left side of the road, as the rental agent had advised. “Stay to the left and you’ll mebbe come to no harm,” he had said dubiously, with an assessing glance at my uncombed hair and drooping eyes.
Well, you’d look tired, too! I wanted to snap. You try skipping out of New York just one step ahead of the sheriff and flying economy in the middle seat of a Turkish Airlines flight!
But by now the fight had left me, and I felt myself shrinking in my seat as the car jerked unsteadily up the winding, tree-shaded, mile-long drive. Finally, Bradgate Hall loomed ahead, just as it was pictured online: a massive, mellowed stone country house. Green ivy climbed lazily up the ancient walls, and wildflowers dotted the meadow in front of the house. It was centuries old, lovely, and utterly intimidating to an exhausted, air- and carsick American.
Renting a cottage from an English milord would be restful and relaxing compared to the past weeks, ducking subpoenas and fleeing the country. Reminding myself that this would be my refuge, I stopped the car in the middle of the forecourt and approached the house.
“Do come in,” invited Lord John Grey. He swung wide the massive iron-studded doors and I ventured inside, my heels clacking loudly on the stone-flagged floor. “Mr.—excuse me, Ms. Greene?” His moment of surprise, as he took in my tangled reddish-brown mass of hair and elegant red-soled Manolos, was almost palpable.
“Jordan Greene . . . uh . . .” Now I paused, feeling almost as uncomfortable as he looked. He was instantly recognizable from the photos I had studied online—but how exactly did one address a peer of the realm? My Internet surfing had suggested “Your Lordship,” but that seemed foolish now that I was faced with this tall, fortyish man in casual khakis and deplorably ratty sweater.
He laughed. “We seem to have gotten off to a rather rocky start. Let’s begin again, shall we? I am John Grey, and I presume you are my new tenant—Ms. Greene, rather than the Mr. Greene we expected. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Greene.”
“Yes, Mr.—er—” I stopped again, irritated by my fumbling. Back in Manhattan, there’d been nothing I couldn’t handle, from subway muggers to Urdu-spouting cabdrivers to maddened hordes of Wall Street traders. But battered by jet lag and the stressful wrong-side-of-the-road drive from Heathrow to rural England, I was feeling uncharacteristically vulnerable. And I hated it.
As usual, feeling defensive put me on the offensive. “Why on earth should you expect me to be Mr. Greene?” I asked a bit snappishly.
His smile faded, leaving a mask of upper-class cool courtesy behind. “Sorry; I’m afraid that Jordan and Leslie are men’s names here in England. So of course we assumed that Jordan Leslie Greene would be a— Well, at any rate, it couldn’t matter less. I hope you had a pleasant journey?”
“Seven hours on a plane trapped in a middle seat with a howling toddler on either side,” I told him. “And then I couldn’t get the car’s GPS to stop speaking French.”
He was working manfully to suppress a smile, which made me even more churlish.
“—so I came by way of Cornwall. I think. And going the wrong way around the rotaries, and the damn hedges grow so close to the road, and then the stone walls . . . !”
Gravely, he said, “It must have been perfectly frightful. I am so sorry, Ms. Greene.”
Our eyes met, and suddenly, I was smiling, too. “Please, call me Jordy,” I offered.
“And I’m John. Shall we sit in the morning room?” he suggested. “It’s warmer there.”
Warmer would be wonderful; I never would have thought that September, even in the wilds of Leicestershire, could be so cold. I rubbed my icy hands together and nodded eagerly.
John—I would have to get used to thinking of him that way after reading so many Internet entries on “Lord Grey” — preceded me with a murmured apology, and I looked about with interest as we walked solemnly down the corridor. The front hall, or “great” hall, was indeed great: a massive space dominated by a sweeping double staircase, carpeted in softly faded Oriental runners, and adorned by a Volkswagen-size chandelier dripping with crescent-shaped crystals over our heads.
I was way out of my element.
“In here,” John said, gesturing toward a huge arched doorway on the right. “Cook will be right in with tea.”
Of course she would.
Aloud, I said, “This is a lovely room.” The “morning room” was octagonal, with sparkling diamond-paned windows set into deep bays on seven sides. Each bay held an inviting window seat and commanded lush views of the rolling green meadows, ancient oak trees, and blue-glinting river in the distance. Someone had invested a great deal of loving care into this room.
Not John, apparently. He looked about absently and said, “I suppose so.”
I sank gratefully into an overstuffed sofa and rubbed my hands together once more. A lifetime spent in the overheated homes and apartments of “The City”—the only city in the world that merited the title—dotted by winters in Florida and summers in the Hamptons, had not prepared me for real country life. What had ever made me think that the Cotswolds would be the perfect place for my escape?
But I knew why—romantic memories of a high school trip to London and beyond, led by a history teacher with a gift for gab and a treasure trove of legends. She brought Blenheim Palace, with its cool, impersonal expanses, alive to us by pointing out the portrait of the ninth Duke of Marlborough and his hapless American wife (who later left him for a handsome footman after dutifully producing the “heir and the spare”). My teacher spun stories about Richard III, unjustly accused of murdering his little nephews in the dark, dank dungeons of the Tower.
And she told us about Lady Jane Grey. Queen for just nine days in the sixteenth century, poor Jane was beheaded on Tower Green when she was barely sixteen. The teacher made a fine story of the girl’s final moments, alone and frightened with only her prayer book and the executioner for company; I dreamed of it for weeks.
Then, as the subpoenas had swirled and the lawyers circled in New York, I’d felt myself to be the pawn of powerful men, like Jane. So it had seemed like a miracle when I’d seen the online ad: “Cottage to let, Bradgate House,” and my tired mind flickered with the distant memory of that trip to England. Bradgate House . . . Lady Jane Grey’s childhood home. I had picked up the phone and dialed immediately, before I had time to think.
All at once, the cool silence between me and the present-day Lord John Grey was broken by the high pitch of quarreling girls’ voices. “I told you she was a girl,” one insisted. “And she’s wearing all black!”
“She’s not a girl! His name is Jordan. That’s not a girl’s name.”
“Well, maybe in America it is,” the first one argued.
John looked rueful. “Those are my daughters,” he explained. “For my sins.” He raised his voice. “Jane! Katherine! Come in here and meet Ms. Greene.”
Two heads peered around the corner and two girls proceeded into the room, one nearly prancing in her excitement and the other lagging cautiously.
“Jordan, may I present Lady Jane Grey and Lady Katherine Grey,” John said formally. “Girls, please welcome Ms. Greene. She’ll be letting the gatekeeper’s cottage through June.”
“Ms. Greene!” exclaimed the younger one, Katherine. “I told you she’s a girl! But why on earth would a girl be named Jordan?”
John sighed. “Katherine, please limit your rude remarks in the presence of company, all right? I do apologize, Jordan.”
“It’s Jordy,” I reminded him. “And no need to apologize.” I smiled tentatively at the girl, who beamed back at me. She was a lovely child, around thirteen years old, perhaps? I knew nothing of children.
“I know,” the girl said confidingly. “It’s just that Daddy always has to be so proper. It’s dead boring.”
Noticing her muddy brown paddock boots, I asked, “Do you like to ride?”
“Oh, yes! I’m a great rider, right, Daddy? I can jump three-foot fences on Posie, and I could jump even higher if old Daddy would just let me ride—”
“Katherine!” her father said sternly. “That’s quite enough.” But even he couldn’t resist a slight smile; I imagined that with her deep blue, almost purple eyes, silky blond hair, and already lissome figure, Katherine would be able to charm just about anyone.
Recollecting myself, I glanced over at the older daughter for the first time. I knew from my Internet research that there were four children: three girls and a little boy. Jane, apparently, was the eldest, but she seemed to fade into the background behind her sister. Jane’s reddish-brown hair was long, too, but straight and lank; her eyes were almost hidden by too-long bangs that fell across her pale face. “So you’re Lady Jane Grey,” I said, impressed in spite of myself. “It must be so special to be named after a queen.”
“Yeah,” said Katherine, snickering. “Queen for nine days, and then she got her head chopped off.”
“Katherine,” murmured her father.
“I hate Lady Jane Grey,” hissed Lady Jane Grey.
I looked at the young girl with sudden interest; her spark of rebellious temper reminded me of mine at that age. “Why?”
“Because she was stupid and annoying, and everyone either laughs or suddenly gets really interested when they hear my name.”
I flushed guiltily.
“Well,” John drawled, “thank you, girls, for that lovely display of good manners. You may go now.”
“Oh, but Cook just baked currant scones,” Katherine protested, but John waved her away.
“Go,” he commanded. They went. I imagined that most people would obey him when he spoke in that tone. Tall and fair, with an indefinable air of elegance and privilege despite the casual clothes, he looked every inch the English noble and Member of Parliament that he was.
My own elite schooling at Brearley and Columbia had prepared me for a lot of challenges, but not this one. I knew precisely how to dress for a literary-themed gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (black Dior, of course), and how to behave at a lawn production of Shakespeare in the Park. Here, I felt gauche and American and very, very cold.
Then I stiffened my spine. I could earn hundreds of millions of dollars on a single trade; I could barrel my way through the heaving gridlock of bewildered tourists, panhandlers, and naked painted girls to negotiate Times Square in under a minute; and I could soar atop a powerful horse over a close-set series of tall fences.
Surely this would be child’s play.
John leaned back and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “Please excuse Jane; she is a bit . . . sensitive about her namesake.”
“Oh, but why?” I leaned forward eagerly. “Being the namesake of a famous queen—and one who was famous for her intellect and her learning—why, she was fluent in four languages by the time she was your Jane’s age!” I couldn’t help showing off my newfound Internet-gained knowledge; I prided myself on never entering a situation without the proper briefing materials.
“Yes,” Jane’s father said. “A bit of a burden. And whom are you named for, Jordan?”
“It’s Jordy, please. I’m not named for anyone; my parents were expecting me to be a boy, so I guess they gave me the same name they would have given him.”
Once again, he smiled; even through my exhaustion, I recognized the irony.
“But as you can see, I turned out to be a girl,” I finished.
“Yes, indeed.” His blue eyes were cool and amused as they examined me, and I was painfully aware of how very lacking in feminine allure I must appear after the endless flight and the harrowing drive from Heathrow to the back of nowhere. By the time I had clipped the third hedge with the bumper of my rented car, Manhattan seemed much too far away.
But I had fled Manhattan for a very good reason. A vision of Lucian, his face red with rage, flashed through my mind, and I shuddered.
John cleared his throat. “Would you care to pour the tea?”
I took in the massive silver tea service that the nearly invisible “Cook” had unobtrusively placed on the oak table between our couches, and I shook my head vigorously. Perhaps I should have taken those deportment classes after all. “No. Thank you.”
“Of course.” His smile widened, and I registered with some dismay the practiced charm of the man. A charm that was much more subtle than Katherine’s but no less appealing. Of their own accord, my eyes drifted from his fair hair to his blue eyes to the collar of his sweater, noting a slight glimpse of chest hair next to his collarbone, and continued drifting down to—Stop!
Another messy relationship was the very last thing I wanted, and I had no doubt that any relationship with Lord John Henry Brandon Grey, Member of Parliament, widowed father of four, would be messy.
I cleared my throat. “If you’ll just show me to my cottage, I won’t bother you again.”
He rose with unflattering alacrity and held out a hand to help me to my feet. “Somehow,” he said, “I doubt that very much.”