The Prodigal Daughter
Elizabeth was immediately on her feet, curtseying as low as possible in her dress while her company bowed to the Queen.
"Enchanting," the Queen lauded the men. "Simply enchanting."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Adrik replied, still bowing low.
"Rise," Queen Charlotte gestured. "All of you rise."
Brimsley gestured for Clementine and Allegra to join the Queen's other staff against the wall while Her Majesty and Lady Danbury both came to take their seats.
"And who might you all be?" the amused monarch beamed. "Let's see, I'd recognize the famed Lady Mironova anywhere. And you...Mr. Tall, Dark, and Russian--you must be the Count a certain writer can't stop writing about. So that just leaves...?" She trailed off on purpose, giving Adrik opportunity to answer.
"Aleksandr Iakov Mironov," Adrik introduced. "My heir."
"Oh?" the Queen's eyes widened. "You are the future Count Mironov, young man?"
Iakov anxiously glanced at Adrik, who slightly nodded at him to answer.
"Yes...Your Majesty," Iakov said haltingly, as though he were about to faint.
Queen Charlotte's glowed like hot coals. "How intriguing." She relaxed into her chair, taking them, as to trying to decide whether they lived up to the hype or not. "Lady Danbury here is also a Dowager Countess," she eventually stated. "We both remember your parents, Lady Mironova. The late Baron Worthington and his wife didn't spend much time in Mayfair, but when they did, they made quite the impression."
I'm sure they did, Elizabeth blinked.
"You may all sit," the Queen gestured. "My condolences on your loss," she told them when they obeyed. "I understand the last Count Mironov passed quite recently."
"He did, Your Majesty," Elizabeth said, noticing how meek and soft her voice suddenly was, as though she'd gone back to being the Baron's youngest daughter. "Just this past spring."
"A loss like that can bring out the vultures," Lady Danbury noted, eyebrow raised. Her voice was deep and throaty, with just a touch of the dramatic. "Is that, perhaps, why you left home so soon?"
Elizabeth's voice was tight. "Russia was never really my home, Lady Danbury."
"And you stated, funerals invite parasites," Adrik smoothly added after her. "My cousins in particular were becoming most insufferable."
"Do you intend to return to Russia, Lord Mironov?" the Queen asked.
He hesitated before answering, and Elizabeth winced on the inside. "In the spring, Your Majesty. When it's safer to travel."
Queen Charlotte's eyes lit up. "So you are staying for the social season." She cast her eyes towards Iakov. "How fortunate for you. A young lord such as yourself will no doubt find himself besieged by the most handsome of debutantes." Iakov blushed deeper than Elizabeth had ever seen.
"I trust you were invited to the dance at the Trowbridge estate?" Lady Danbury asked.
"Yes, Lady Danbury," Elizabeth replied, still not recognizing her own voice. Indeed, she was back to being little Beth Worthington, pinned beneath her elders' judging eyes. "We will all attend."
"And we will see you there," the aged widow assured her. "Lady Trowbridge is a woman of most unconventional taste. I expect it to be a most entertaining evening."
Eventually the servants brought tea, along with tula gingerbread, tvorozhniki, and pastila, instead of the usual cakes and biscuits. Iakov gasped, his eyes wide with surprised delight, while Elizabeth's whole body stiffened.
"No doubt you've noticed your arrival in Mayfair has granted us the opportunity to broaden our palates," Her Majesty beamed proudly. "My cooks have enjoyed experimenting these past few days." She paused long enough for them to each taste something. "How did they do?"
"Exceptionally well, Your Majesty," Adrik admitted with a nod. "Your cooks rival even those of the Tsar's."
Elizabeth said nothing. The tula melted in her mouth and filled her with more joy and comfort than she cared to admit.
"And it's not just cuisine," Lady Danbury pointed out, turning to Elizabeth. "It seems your...sartorial choices have captivated all the women of the ton."
"Yes, yes," the Queen nodded. "Is that the famous sarafan I keep hearing about?"
"As modified by the French, Your Majesty," Elizabeth replied, irked that she still couldn't find her real voice."
"Oh, it does evoke their exquisite taste," the Queen blissfully sighed. "And the headpiece?"
"Kokoshnik, Your Majesty."
"Utterly enchanting," the monarch swooned. "I dare say, Lady Mironova...it seems your family did well sending you off to Russia after all."
The first thing the Mironovs did upon returning home was pour themselves a round of brandy.
Elizabeth sank onto the nearest chair while Iakov immediately drained his glass and Adrik rubbed his temples.
"That was most exhausting two hours of my life," he sighed wearily.
"And we get dress up tomorrow night and do it all over again," Elizabeth groaned.
"Speaking of dress," Adrik pointed, "what's wrong with the Queen? Why does she not dress like other women of the ton?"
"Clearly Queen Charlotte is trapped in the previous century," Elizabeth yawned. "Also...she's said to be the type who likes to get attention."
"Do I have to marry an English girl?"
Adrik and Elizabeth turned to see Iakov, looking dazed. With the days getting dark so much sooner, the servants had lit the candles already. Still, the drawing room was dark, making Iakov seem all the more lost and forlorn.
He tried to explain. "It's just, England is fine and all, but today...when I tasted the tvorozhniki...." He shook his head as if to clear it. "Am I to remain here?"
"Of course not," Adrik assured him. "As soon as you are able, you will return home. There are plenty of perfectly eligible girls waiting for you." He went to take a seat opposite Elizabeth.
His response seemed to relax Iakov, while Elizabeth remained troubled. "And you?" she asked Adrik. "You hesitated when the Queen asked you if you were leaving."
Adrik was too tired for this. "I told her I was."
Her eyes narrowed, unyielding. "You hesitated."
"Can we not do this?" He tossed Iakov a fleeting glance, reminding her of his presence.
Elizabeth didn't care. "By all means, let him stay," she snapped. "Let him learn. Lesson the first, Aleksandr: do not upset society. Do not offend the ton. You may be a lord someday, but you may never be royalty, and only they can go unscathed in the face of scandal. Anybody else? Ruined."
Adrik sighed loudly. "Veta--"
"Iakov is not an idiot, Adrik," Elizabeth impatiently barked. "Your father may have collected me for my beauty, but Andrei collected him for his mind!" She turned back to Iakov, whose eyes were now wide with confusion and tension. "You already know how things are in this family. You've always known."
Iakov simply wanted out. "It is not my place--"
"It is now," she interrupted. "You're a Mironov, are you not?"
"But I'm not really Adrik's son!" Iakov protested.
"Nor was I Andrei's!" Adrik growled, exasperated.
The revelation stunned both Elizabeth and Iakov into silence. Adrik finished his drink, wearily sighing as he set the empty glass down nearby. When he spoke again, his voice was low, straddling exhaustion and disbelief.
"Did you people seriously never wonder why I didn't look like that man?" he asked them, snorting softly as he did. "You cry about the pain of being in his collection, but he collected me long before he met either of you," Adrik scoffed. "God gave my father wealth, a title, and a noble bloodline, but he was never a handsome man, never a charming or talented man, and he wasn't even good at business. He married my mother for her beauty, but did not trust that any child of his would also be good-looking. So he whored her out to men he wished he resembled. Because that's how Andrei handled all of his problems--if he didn't have it, he could just buy it--buy a son, buy a prodigy, buy a new wife when the old one drank heavily and died."
The silence in the drawing room was deafening in the wake of Adrik's horror story. They watched him rise to refill his glass, then return to his seat.
"That's why my father never slept with you, Elizaveta," he told her finally. "Not because he was old or lacked desire, but because he feared creating a child in his likeness. Yes," Adrik nodded, when Elizabeth stared at him incredulously. "His self-hatred ran that deep, so deep that not only could not love himself, but he could never truly love anyone else.
"So I shared your bed, Veta. I loved you as he never could. Now he is dead, and we are all finally free."
Elizabeth stared back at him in disbelief. "Do you actually expect the ton to believe any of that?"
Next: The Widow Mironova