As soon as Adrik said the name "Lady Whistledown", Elizabeth stopped in her tracks.
So...that's how he intends to avoid the swarm.
It was a very simple yet effective way to divert attention from himself. Even at thirty-five, Adrik was quite desirable by the ton's standards. He was still handsome, with all his teeth and hair; he was both wealthy and mysteriously foreign in all the ways the idiots of the ton liked to fantasize. But by naming someone else as his heir, that person automatically become more desirable, especially if they were young, unwed, and childless...like Iakov.
He's going to be all the rage with the debutantes, Elizabeth smirked.
However...if Adrik thought this was enough to escape the ton's attention entirely, he was fooling himself. He might no longer be the first choice among the younger crowd, but there were many a spinster and widow who would gladly have him.
Elizabeth turned to go, leaving Adrik alone in the study. She was halfway down the hall when she crossed paths with a flushed and breathless Allegra, who brandished a sealed letter.
"How marvelous," Elizabeth mumbled. "Yet another invitation."
They'd been pouring in since the night at the opera, made worse by Lady Whistledown. Teas, dinners, recitals, balls.... When Elizabeth first returned to England, she'd intended to be social, but this was just too much. It was bringing up uncomfortable memories of her life with Andrei, when he paraded her through all of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and even as far as Odessa.
See my wife? he'd smugly ask his friends and fellow nobles. See her dark, rare beauty? Not even the Tsar could hope to acquire such a wife.
For that was how Andrei viewed people like Elizabeth and Iakov, as "acquisitions".
"It's from the Queen, madam," Allegra grasped, brown eyes alight.
Elizabeth felt her heart stop as she reached out took the letter. Working to keep her hands steady, she broke the royal seal and skimmed the page.
"It's an invitation to tea," she murmured, "the day after tomorrow...just before the Trowbridge ball."
"Do you intend to reply?"
"Can't very well refuse Her Majesty," Elizabeth handed the letter back to Allegra. She headed back to the study where Adrik was still toiling over many documents.
"The Queen has invited us to tea," she informed him from the doorway. "I would have gladly gone alone, but suffice to say, any absence will not be tolerated."
"Of course, of course," Adrik grumbled.
Elizabeth was about to speak again, but hesitated first. "She's going to have questions."
"I know," he murmured absently.
"She's going to have questions, Adrik," Elizabeth reiterated, entering the study fully and closing the door behind her. "About us."
He finally looked up from his desk. "Questions?" he echoed. "About us?"
In case anyone might be eavesdropping, Elizabeth switch languages. "The ton has an overactive imagination, especially when they're all trapped in winter. By now our servants have gossiped and the rumors have reached Her Majesty's ears."
Adrik shrugged. "We'll just tell her the truth."
"Which part?" she blinked.
"The part where you are my father's widow, and when he died, we all needed some time away from Russia. We will do as we always have, Veta: let them ask the questions and simply volunteer no additional information."
"She'll ask why you never married," Elizabeth stated pointedly. "And why you came here when you could have gone anywhere. Do we tell her the rest of the truth then? Because if we evade or, worse, lie to the Queen of England--"
"I never married because I never married," Adrik cut her off. "In a city full of rakes, do you actually believe she'll press the issue?"
"Perhaps not," she conceded tentatively.
"You are a widow, and I'm in the process of establishing my heir. We've committed no crimes and we have no debts. Our house is orderly and free of scandal. So what exactly have we done wrong?"
Clementine's eyes were wide. "The Queen?"
She casually slid off the kitchen counter and came over to where Allegra was working by the stove.
"My, my cousin," she smirked. "Seems we chose the right house after all."
Allegra shot her a look. "And to think you doubted me."
"To be fair, when we first heard the description of the Dowager, we were both skeptical," Clementine reminded her. "Even more so after we met her. As I recall, you weren't particularly thrilled by all Russian."
"In either case, we've finally found a house worthy of royal attention," Allegra redirected, indulging a small, self-satisfied smile. "We've been serving baronesses, viscountesses, and countesses for decades and finally, we get to go to the palace and stand watch while our mistress sips tea with the Queen."
Clementine plucked a leftover biscuit from a nearby plate and nibbled in silence for a moment, before asking, "What shall we wear?"
"The usual, cousin; you know that."
"Do you really want to go to the palace dressed as common maids?"
"We are common maids," Allegra blinked. "If you're thinking about attracting the attentions of some highborn man, put it from your thoughts. The best you could hope for at this point is a footman."
Clementine nodded. "I'll take a royal footman. Next to the ladies-in-waiting, they've got all the best gossip."
The day of the tea finally arrived, with the Mironovs taking two carriages. Elizabeth rode in one with her maids while Adrik and Iakov rode in another. Iakov's new wardrobe wasn't complete, but he did get a couple of new suits in time. He and Adrik wore matching suits of black, while Elizabeth chose her most lavish sarafan of pink and lilac, and her kokoshnik with the longest streams of pearls. The headpiece was lilac and set with amethysts, and her shoulders were draped in opulent white fur.
Elizabeth and her small company drew gasps and triggered murmurs from both servants and guards upon arriving at the palace. And yet despite being the grand Dowager Countess newly arrived from abroad, she suddenly felt little Beth Worthington from Somerset, who could only dream of one day meeting the Queen.
They were escorted to a sparsely furnished sitting room to await Her Majesty. The floors were marble and the ceilings astonishingly high. The men and the maids stood while Elizabeth sat on a chaise, trying not to panic.
She had met with Dukes and Kings and Tsars, but Andrei wasn't here to do all the talking for her. She suddenly realized she had no idea what to say to the Queen of England, and it appeared she wasn't the only nervous one.
Iakov, visibly uncomfortable in his new clothes, had moved to the stare out the only window, as though he longed to jump. Elizabeth internally laughed at the horrid thought, for she was of the same mind.
As the waiting dragged, the room was so silent, all she could hear was the pounding of her own heart. Suddenly, as though from a distance, she heard a low sound, like a persistent murmuring of sorts. The sound continued and grew slightly louder, until Elizabeth realized it was a human voice. Specifically, it was Iakov humming to himself, no doubt to calm himself.
Music always was his solace, Elizabeth gazed at him sympathetically. His first real outing in society and it's with a Queen, the poor boy.
But then, to both Iakov's and Elizabeth's surprise, Adrik began humming with him, a broad smile forming on his face. Iakov was taken aback briefly, but kept going, until their combined humming turned to singing. Elizabeth recognized the tune at once, it was the "Song of the Volga Boatmen." Iakov took over the angelic tenor, while Adrik shocked everyone with his rich baritone effortlessly descending into unfathomable bass.
Elizabeth couldn't help but be charmed. The room's acoustics lent its grace to their voices, lifting them ever higher as they held the women entranced. Iakov's nervousness soon turned to joy as Adrik encouragingly sang with him, extoling the Volga River. For a moment, just a fleeting moment, they looked like a very proud father and son.
Elizabeth's heart swelled for them both, watching Adrik finally get to show Iakov the affection he'd always held for him.
After all, Elizabeth mused, members of Andrei's "collection" were never meant to bond.
The song ended only too soon, to be immediately followed by enthusiastic applause. The clapping came from neither Elizabeth nor maids, but instead the Queen of England herself, flanked by her manservant Brimsley and the infamous Lady Danbury.
Next: The Worthington Girl