Authors: Lauren Willig
Tags: #Historical Romance
A watched phone never rings.
At least, my phone wasn't ringing. The same, unfortunately, could not be fsaid of the man sitting in front of me, whose mobile kept shrieking with all the abandon of an inebriated teenager on a roller coaster. Each time his phone shrilled out "Danger Zone" from Top Gun, I lunged for my bag. After a mere ten minutes on the bus, my abs had gotten more of a workout than they had in months.
I hauled my computer bag up onto my lap for easier access and slid my hand into the front pocket, just to make sure that the phone was still there. It was. Further inspection revealed that the ringer was on, the volume turned up, and all the little bars indicating signal strength blinking merrily away. Damn.
Sticking the phone back in my bag, I listened to the man in front of me recite his weekend's activities for the fifth time. They seemed primarily to involve adventures in alcohol poisoning, and an encounter with a burly bouncer that grew more elaborate with each retelling. Craning my head toward the window, I checked the progress of the traffic ahead of us. It hadn't. Progressed, that was. The bus sat as steadily immovable as an island in a tropical sea, placidly parked behind a string of other, equally immobile buses. It didn't improve the situation that the light was green.
I knew I should have taken the tube.
There had been all sorts of good reasons to choose the bus that morning, as I set out from my Bayswater flat towards the British Library. After all, the tube always broke down, and it couldn't be healthy to spend that much time underground, and the fact that it was actually not raining in England in November needed to be celebrated . And the bus had cell reception while the Underground didn't. I glowered in the direction of my phone.
Life would be far more pleasant if I were better at fooling myself.
One day. It had only been one day by the calendar, two years in terms of agonized phone staring, and about half an hour in boy time. It is a truth universally acknowledged that time moves differently for men. There was, I reminded myself, no reason why Englishmen should differ from their American counterparts in this regard.
There was also the fact that Colin didn't have my phone number. But why let reality interfere with a good daydream? And my daydreams Well, they weren't really the sort of thing one could get into on a public bus, even if other peopleI scowled at the man in front of me, who had progressed from barhopping to amorous adventureshad no such scruples. Besides, if Colin wanted my phone number, he knew how to find it.
After a sleepless night alternating between daydream and denial, I had finally admitted to myself just how much I really hoped he wanted it. Colin was, not to put too fine a point on it, the first man who had made my pulse speed up since a breakup of massive proportions the previous winter.
Admittedly, when we'd first met, the emotion quickening in my veins hadn't been attraction. Irritation was more like it, and that sentiment, at least, had been entirely mutual. What it all boiled down to was that I was going through his family's archives and he didn't want me to.
It wasn't prurient interest that drove me to Colin's family papers, but academic desperation, the sort that sets in at some point after the third year of grad school, as the bills begin to mount, teaching bored undergrads loses its luster, and the coveted letters "Ph.D." continue to dance a mocking jig just out of reach. No dissertation, no degree. I had nightmares of becoming one of those attenuated grad students who lurk in the basement of the Harvard history department, surrounded by books so overdue that the library has long ago given up toting up the fines. Every now and again, you'll encounter one of them making the long trudge up the stairs to the first floor, and wonder who on earth they are, and how long they've been down there.
I refused to become one of the forgotten basement dwellers of Robinson Hall. Among other things, the vending machine down there had a very limited selection.
Unfortunately, the dissertation topic that I had chosen with such naive optimism at the end of my second year proved to be just like its subject: elusive. I was after a trio of spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, and the Pink Carnation, those daring men in knee breeches and black cloaks who twirled their quizzing glasses in the face of danger and never failed to confound the agents of the French Republic.
Unfortunately, they also confounded me. There was, I discovered, a reason that no one had written a book on the topic. The material just wasn't there. True, we knew who the Scarlet Pimpernel and Purple Gentian were, and even much of what they had done, but the Pink Carnation's identity remained shrouded in mystery, the only evidence of his existence a series of contemporary accounts in newsletters and diaries, each recorded exploit more improbable than the last. Some scholars, sitting in the security of their twentieth-century studies, had decreed that the dearth of corroboratory evidence could mean only one thing. The Pink Carnation was a creature of myth, a deliberate fabrication invented by the British government to buoy their beleaguered nation through a prolonged and desperate struggle.
They were wrong.
I enjoyed a good little gloat over that. There's nothing like a little "I told you so" to make one's day. On a rainy day the previous week, Mrs. Selwick-Alderly, an elderly descendant of the Purple Gentian, had admitted me to a virtual Ali Baba's cave of historical documents, the diaries and letters of the Purple Gentian and his half-French bride, Miss Amy Balcourt. Then there was Amy's clever cousin, Miss Jane Woolistonbetter known as the Pink Carnation. As a dashing spy, she was an unlikely choice. Whoever heard of a spy named Jane? Or Wooliston, for that matter? The very name suggested fleecy sweaters and woolly hats, a frizzy-haired Miss Marple puttering about the village green. It was the sort of discovery that had "tenure" written all over it.
Unfortunately, like Ali Baba's cave, this one came with a catch. Instead of forty thieves, my treasure trove came complete with one very irate Englishman. Mr. Colin Selwick didn't much like the idea of strangers rooting about in the family archives, and he became positively apoplectic at the prospect of the publication of his family's papers. He was also definitely, undeniably possessed of more than the ordinary measure of good looks. After a couple of late-night encounters, the sparks he was emitting weren't all of the negative variety.
Two nights ago, there had been a little incident involving a dark room, an arm above my head, and a deliberate movement forward that might have been about to turn into a kiss, when
Ringing! It was ringing! I lunged for the bag and snatched out the phone, hitting the green RECEIVE button before the caller could think better of the enterprise. "Hello?" I breathed.
"Eloise?" Instead of a masculine murmur, the voice had the crackly quality of old film.
Damn. I deflated against the nubby upholstery. Served me right for not checking the number before I hit RECEIVE.
I settled the phone more firmly against my ear. "Hello, Grandma."
Grandma wasted no time on trivialities. "I'm so glad I've caught you."
I stiffened. "Why? Is something wrong?"
"I've found you a man."
"I wasn't aware I had lost one," I muttered.
Of course, that wasn't entirely true. To say I'd lost him might be a bit extreme, though. In the first place, I wasn't sure that he was mine to lose. In the second place
In the second place, Grandma was still talking. With an effort, I dragged my attention back to the phone, just as the bus started to crawl slowly ahead. "in Birmingham," she was saying.
"What about Birmingham?" I asked belatedly.
Over the headrest, the man in front of me gave me a dirty look. "Would you mind?" he said, gesturing to his phone.
On the other end, Grandma was clamoring for attention. "Darling, have you been listening to a word I've said?"
"Sorry," I muttered, slinking down in my seat. "I'm on the bus. It's a bit noisy." As if in retaliation, the man in front of me upped the volume.
With a hint of a huff, Grandma started over. "As I was telling you, I was at the beauty parlor yesterday, and who should I see but Muffin Watkins."
"Really! Muffin!" I exclaimed with false enthusiasm, as though I had any idea who she was.
"And she was telling me all about her son"
"Dumpling?" I suggested. "Crumpet? Scone?"
"Andy," Grandma said pointedly. "He's a lovely boy."
"Have you met him?"
Grandma ignored that. "He just bought the loveliest new apartment. His mother was telling me all about it."
"I'm sure she was."
"Andy," declared Grandma, in the ringing tones of a CNN correspondent delivering election results, "works at Lehman Brothers."
"And Bingley has five thousand pounds a year," I murmured.
"Hmph." Grandma let it go. "He's very successful, you know; only thirty-five, and he already has his own boat."
"He sounds like a regular paragon."
"So I've given your number to his mother to give to his younger brother, Jay," Grandma concluded triumphantly.
I took the phone away from my ear and stared at it for a moment. It didn't help. I put the phone back to my ear. "I don't get it. You're setting me up with the inferior brother?"
"Well, Andy's mother tells me he's just started seeing someone," Grandma said, as though that explained everything. "And since Jay is in England, I don't see why you can't just meet for a nice little dinner."
"Jay is in Birmingham," I protested. "You did say Birmingham, right? I'm in London. Not exactly the same place."
"They're both in England," countered Grandma placidly. "How far away can it be?"
"I'm not going to Birmingham," I said flatly.
"Eloise," Grandma said reprovingly. "You have to learn how to be flexible in a relationship."
"And we're not having a relationship! I haven't even met him."
"That's because you won't go to Birmingham."
"Grandma, people don't go to Birmingham; they go away from Birmingham. It's like New Jersey."
The man in front of me let out an indignant "Oi!" but whether it was addressed to my rising volume level or the slur to the northern metropolis was unclear.
"I just want to see you married before I die."
"We'll just have to keep you around for a good long while then, won't we?" I said brightly.
Grandma changed tactics. "I met your grandfather when I was sixteen, you know."
I knew. Oh, how I knew.
"Not everyone is as special as you, Grandma," I said politely. "Oh, look, it's my stop. I have to go."
"Jay will call you!" trilled Grandma.
"I've heard that one before," I muttered, but Grandma had already rung off. Undoubtedly to phone Mitten, or Muffin, or whatever her name was, and break out the celebratory champagne.
Grandma had been trying to marry me off, by one means or another, since I'd hit puberty. I kept hoping that, eventually, she would give up on me and switch her attention to my little sister, who, at the age of nineteen, was dangerously close to spinster-hood by Grandma's standards. So far, though, Grandma stubbornly refused to be rerouted, much to Jillian's relief. I would have admired her tenacity if it hadn't been directed at me.
I hadn't been entirely lying about it being my stop; the bus, imitating the tortoise in the old fable, was slowly inching its way past Euston station, which meant that I would be the next stop up, across the street from one of the plethora of Pizza Expresses that dotted the London landscape like glass-fronted mushrooms.
I stuffed my phone back in my bag and began the torturous process of navigating the narrow stairs down from the upper level of the bus, consoling myself with the thought that with any luck, this Jay-from-Birmingham would be as reluctant as I was to go on a family-assisted setup. I could think of few things more ghastly than sitting across the table from someone with whom the only thing I had in common was that my grandmother shared a beauty parlor with his mother. Anyone who had seen Grandma's hair would agree.