From the kitchen, the music sounded plenty loud, though Mike Strong didn’t seem to notice. As the staff who actually worked at the club hurried around the kitchen preparing plates for cleaning, Elspeth Cornish was laughing and shaking her head.
“I swear they boiled a cat,” she sat sideways in her chair, coat unbuttoned and legs crossed so that one of her boots hung in the air, bobbing in time with the music. Her smile was much too bright, because she was recounting a horror story about dining with aristocrats during her time in London with Anneke Winter. “I didn’t know if that was normal, so I’m sitting there across from Anneke, and we’re looking at each other trying to figure out if we should ask anything… but then we look around the table and they’re all chewing away.”
Strong was grinning, whether he wanted to be or not, “That’s just what they’re used to? Cat meat?”
“They were all so pissed they couldn’t have told me what a cat was if I asked,” she chuckled in reply, then shook her head and leaned forward. “We dodged every single dining invitation after that. One time I was apparently in France, on a secret mission to investigate the u-boat pens.”
“Sounds like something you’d do,” Strong’s arms were folded, at least, so it didn’t seem like he was too open to this conversation.
Elspeth grinned, “I didn’t find out until after. That night I’d been out at a club… a club like this one, really… and a million people saw me. We came up with all these different stories about how I had a body double, so that spies wouldn’t realize I was out of the country… but no one ever asked.”
“Good thing, they’d never believe there were two like you,” Strong’s answer came out before he could stop himself, and Elspeth’s grin grew a little, before shrinking bashfully.
“Good thing was they didn’t really like inviting me round for dinner,” she shrugged a little. “I think it’s because I talk like a girl in a shop.”
The Colour still couldn’t help himself, “You could find some linguist to make a bet with an old Colonel that he can teach you to say, how do you do?”
He didn’t mean to reveal that he’d read George Bernard Shaw on occasion, but he couldn’t help himself, and unfortunately, Elspeth didn’t miss the reference, “Gawn, Henry Higgins.”
“Oh come off it,” the Colour shook his head, willing his grin to get no bigger than it already was… and failing. “I sound like an outport fisherman.”
“You don’t, actually,” Elspeth shook her head. “You’ve spent too much time away from home, you sound a little foreign now.”
Those words permitted Strong to lose his smile – but only for a mock-wounded gasp, “You’re cruel to me, Lady Cornish.”
“Just being honest. I’m no better – whenever I go back to Essex they think I sound posh,” she dipped her chin a little at the mention of that town, and Strong frowned.
“I thought you were from London,” he said, and it was her turn to look wounded.
“See? My parents started me in Essex, we moved after… and now I don’t sound posh enough for a palace, or common enough for home. Where’s that leave me?”
Inevitably, the words just fell out of Strong: “Right here, where you belong.”
As soon as he spoke, he regretted it – not because there wasn’t real worth to the sentiment, but because he had no place saying it, for so many different reasons. For a second he hoped it’d be taken in a paternal sense – the way Alex or Stephanie might have interpreted it.
It wasn’t. Elspeth didn’t make it obvious, but he could see the subtly-different glint in her eyes. As her head turned a little to the left, so she could give him a sideways look, he considered making an excuse and going out into the club, to see Daphne.
But he couldn’t do that, so instead he took a breath and shook his head.
“Don’t give me that stare, Lady Elspeth. It’s a waste of your good thoughts.”
“Confident, are you?” she asked with another smile, and Strong shook his head.
“Spoken for,” he tried, and her eyes narrowed a little before her smile grew.
“Gawn,” she said.