Isobel smiled sweetly at the maid holding her morning dress out for approval, “No.”
The maid darted a scared look between the princess and her disapproving governess.
“Your Highness, you must be suitably outfitted for your first meeting with your fiancé.”
“And I will be, but since he’s not arriving until mid-afternoon and I’m not to meet him until dinner. There is no point me flouncing about in a scratchy, over-decorated barrel of lace all morning when there’s no one to see the spectacle.”
She walked over to her wardrobe and pulled the doors open. The maid squawked and rushed over to save the dresses now being energetically rummaged through.
“This will do nicely, and will be simple to change out of come the afternoon, so we have plenty of time to spend on this evening’s outfit.”
The maid looked at the simple blue dress doubtfully but the governess gave her agreement, albeit reluctantly.
“Very well, it appears you have put some thought into this for a change, you may wear your preferred outfit for your morning walk.”
Isobel swallowed the sarcasm, managing to make her, “Thank you Mistress Goulsham” almost sound sincere.
Clothed, and with her hair put up in a simple style that would be easy to transform later, Isobel skipped down the stairs to breakfast, her governess trailing smoothly behind her like a grey, disapproving balloon on a string.
Her guardians looked up as she entered the room, “Good morning Your Highness.”
Lady Dryart frowned, “That’s not the dress I directed for wear this morning.”
“Oh Lady Dryart, it was such a lovely dress, I didn’t want to waste it on a morning alone. I’d far rather wear it when there’s someone to admire the intricate decoration.”
She caught Mistress Goulsham’s minute eye roll from the corner of hers and suppressed a smile. Her governess followed Her Ladyships orders but it didn’t mean she always agreed with them.
Isobel sat, and a footman served her preferred breakfast of porridge with honey and a cup of coffee.
“And what are your plans for this morning Your Highness?”
Lord Dryart gave her a kindly smile that didn’t reach past his lips.
“Some music practice, and then embroidery and a turn in the gardens. In fact, I may even take my embroidery out there. The flowers next to the folly are in full bloom and I’ll be able to copy them while keeping my complexion protected and out of the sun.”
Mistress Goulsham frowned. Isobel taking that for the warning it was, gave Lord Dryart her prettiest and most empty-headed smile.
“I’m sorry, I’m so excited about meeting my fiancé this evening, I want to be sure I’m looking my best.”
“Should you be out in the garden at all in that case?”
Isobel held her breath but her unlikely ally came to her rescue.
“Most assuredly Lord Dryart. Provided she doesn’t over exert herself, or catch the sun, Her Highness always looks her best after time outdoors and we all know how important it is for her to make a good impression this evening.”
Lord and Lady Dryart looked at each other, then away.
Lord Dryart returned to his paper with a muttered, “Just so.”
The remainder of breakfast was conducted in relative quiet and Isobel escaped on the excuse of the music room as quickly as she could.
Mistress Goulsham was not musically inclined, and left Isobel to practice as she saw fit. She forced herself to focus on scales, then suitably light, pretty pieces as may charm her erstwhile fiancé for an hour before shutting the lid of the pianoforte and calling for a maid.
“Could you please fetch my embroidery box from the blue parlour and my cloak? I want to sew in the folly. In fact, could you arrange for lunch to be sent out there as well?”
The maid glanced out of the window, assessing the weather, then curtsied and bustled off.
Isobel waited in the hallway, idly practicing dance steps until the maid returned and helped her on with the cloak.
“Thank you. Now I can take the box from you as well, or are you under orders to see me safely under shade?”
The maid gave her a reluctant smile, “Well I am under orders Your Highness, but if I accompany you as far as the turn past the kitchen garden, I’ll be able to see you properly underway.”
“And you can return by way of the kitchen gardens and your handsome gardener, very good thinking.”
The maid blushed, and smiled, then glanced around at the sound of a footstep, straightening and ushering Isobel out of the door to the formal gardens as the butler emerged from the kitchen area.
Once outside, the maid dropped back, to walk two steps behind the princess, embroidery box carefully held in front of her.
They walked slowly along the house frontage, then around the corner to where the kitchen gardens jutted out onto the side lawn. As they walked along the tall, vine-covered wall, the maid took a quick step forward.
“I forgot to mention Your Highness, the groundsmen have been working on the orchard for much of this week, so have been a mite neglectful of some of the gardens. Please do be careful of any overgrown shrubs or unattended doors.”
Isobel caught a breath, then schooled her face into her usual sweet smile, “Oh thank you, I will take the utmost care.”
“Maybe I should come all the way with you.”
“You think they’re watching from the back as well?”
“Almost certain on such an important day. I needn’t stay once you’re there and settled after all. You can always send me back in for tea.”
“You’re so sensible. This is why we need women in the army, they make the best strategists.”
The maid giggled, then stepped back to the appropriate distance and they continued their walk to the folly.
They entered the hedge garden with the folly – a pretty white summer house – at the centre and wound their way in towards it.
Tripping up the three short stairs to the sitting area inside, Isobel looked around, then took a seat with a small table next to it, and a conveniently clear view of the main entrance. The wisteria training up the sides of the folly meant she could see anyone coming or going but they would have considerably more trouble seeing her.
The maid placed the embroidery box on the table beside Isobel’s chair and made a quick tour of the area, tidying a couple of cushions and neatly snipping off some nearby blooms for Isobel’s reference.
“Now I think that’s been enough time for you to be gasping for a nice cup of tea, so I’ll be off and leave you to the little peace you’ll have today.”
“Thank you, and do make sure you go by way of the kitchen garden, I’m sure I want some freshly picked something.”
The maid gave her a mischievous wink and hurried off.
As soon as the girl had cleared the entrance to the garden, Isobel laid her embroidery to one side and stood, watching for any movement at the main entrance.
When no one appeared, she grabbed the box, spun and skipped down the stairs on the other side of the folly and near ran to the ancient wall on the other side of the garden. Near one end of it, deep in the shadow of an old oak, was a door and today, it was unlocked.
A quick glance back, a lift of the latch and the door creaked slowly open. She was through in a flash, and closed the door behind her.
Finally, she’d made it in. This was the reason she put up with her idiot guardians, the reason she sweetly agreed to being mired away on this estate and not permitted any visitors. This was her grandmother’s garden and now, she was learning how to use it.
The gardeners kept the plants and paths properly maintained, but had no idea of the significance of the plants themselves, or the pattern of the layout. Only the Head Gardener, a gruff soul who’d apprenticed there in her grandmother’s day, had some idea, and it was his influence that kept the garden away from the attention of Lady Dryart and her avid replanting schemes.
The need to keep the garden out of Her Ladyship’s grasp meant it usually stayed firmly closed to all but three of the gardening staff, but, as with today, once every week or so, there would be a message sent that the place was hers for a precious few hours.
Isobel trod the winding paths until she reached the pretty statue of a dancing girl, tucked on one side of the garden. She pulled out the ornate key she wore as a pendant and carefully unlocked the door in the base of the statue. Inside, was a cache of books. They changed on a regular basis, she wasn’t sure who was overseeing her less-than-standard education.
She opened her embroidery box and carefully pulled out the false bottom, returning two books on trade and botany to the collection in the statue and retrieving two more, these ones on international law and distillation of herbs.
She quickly repacked the box, and closed the door in the statue, stepping away from the statue to start picking some of the herbs from the botany book.
She’d just bent over a garden bed, embroidery scissors in hand when the door crashed open and Isobel whirled in alarm.
It was the maid, heaving for breath, “Come away quickly Your Highness, your fiance has arrived early and is even now preparing to leave the house in search of you.”
“Lady Dryart’s going to have a fit.”
“She already is miss, come quickly please.”
“There’s no need, I would be delighted for Her Highness to show me this rather unexpected garden.”
The deep voice from behind the maid startled her into a scream and she turned, then pushed herself back against the open door in terror.
A man, dressed for travel, strolled through the door and looked around.
Spotting Isobel, he moved through the paths towards her. Isobel looked past him to the frantic maid and nodded to her, “It’s perfectly alright, but I’m afraid you won’t be able to return to your duties just yet. I cannot be in company without a chaperone.”
“Not even the company of your betrothed?”
“Oh, is that who you are?”
He’d reached her by this stage and her words made him smile. A real one, nothing like those of Lord Dryart.
He gave a low, graceful bow, “Duncan Wintersmith, King of Ortak, at your service.”
Isobel looked him up and down, “I can see the resemblance to the miniature you sent, but that portrait in the hall is horribly inaccurate.”
She gave him an equally graceful curtsey in return, “Isobel Transome, your prisoner and future wife.”
They both ignored the strangled gasp from the maid as Duncan offered Isobel his arm and began to stroll around the garden.
Isobel stopped for a moment and called back to the maid, “Are we likely to be joined by Lord or Lady Dryart do you think?”
“Almost certainly Your Highness, I believe they were merely wanting to change their shoes.”
“In that case I’m afraid the tour of this garden will have to wait Your Majesty. I’m very fond of it in its current form and would prefer to keep it this way and not be subject to Her Ladyship’s zeal for replanting everything with roses.”
“I could order her not to.”
“Or we could not even need the conversation.”
Duncan looked at her, then nodded, “As you wish Princess, you can steer me around the hedges next door instead.”
Isobel smiled winningly and preceded him out of the garden, pausing only to hand her embroidery box to the maid and smiling at Duncan in thanks as he carefully closed the door behind the three of them before offering his arm again.