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Alfie turns toward the main house, shaking his head. I hear him say softly, “God knows someone has to treat you like one.”

Guthrie House, Palace of Wessco, 1953

The color of clothing is important. It’s the first thing people notice about you. Black is gloomy, white is sanctimonious, fuchsia too garish, pastels too girlish. Patterns are important too. Polka dots are too frivolous, florals too shallow, stripes and plaids can do nicely—but you mustn’t overdo them.

And for everyday-wear . . . gray.

According to my personal secretary, Miss Crabblesnitch, dove gray is the perfect color. Not too drab, not too bold, it’s soft but not weak, attractive but not superficial.

I’m probably going to die in a gray dress. And that will be my ghost outfit.


“That one today, Megan.” Miss Crabblesnitch points to the ensemble in the maid’s left hand—a tweed short-sleeved circle-dress with attached bouffant petticoats and matching jacket.

In gray. Of course.

After I’m dressed, I sit at the vanity table and Megan begins to arrange my long hair in its typical bun, leaving my bangs swept to the side and a few strands loose to soften the look.

“Good afternoon, ladies.” Mother sweeps into the room, elegant and smiling, wearing a willowy dark blue silk dress with a dainty white floral pattern. Miriam trails in behind her in pale green with a matching band in her curly, light brown hair.

“Thank you, Megan. I’ll finish up here,” Mother says, taking the maid’s place behind me. Miss Crabblesnitch and Megan curtsy and leave the room.

“Never cut you hair, Lenora,” Mother says as she pins it. “It’s so beautiful.”

Mother is the only one who calls me beautiful and sweet and a hundred other words that make me feel delightful inside. That make me feel . . . normal. Or what I imagine “normal” must be.

She finishes my hair and catches my eyes in the mirror, wrinkling her nose. “Miss Crabblesnitch chose gray again?”

I sigh dramatically. “Gray like the dreary Wessco sky . . . and my soul.”

“Cheeky girl.” Mother laughs. Then she turns and gazes at the sparkly, poofy gown hanging just outside my dressing room. “At least you’ll be able to mix it up tonight at your birthday ball.”

I stand up beside her. “Yes, because silver is so very different from gray.”

Mother presses her soft hand to my cheek. “It complements your eyes. You will be a vision.”

“I want to have a black-and-white ball for my birthday,” Miriam says. “And everyone will wear black and white—except I’ll be in electric blue. And I’ll meet the love of my life and we’ll dance and dance and dance. And no one will look at Lenora.”

My fourteen-year-old sister sticks her tongue out at me.


“You can have all the looks,” I tell her. “If no one ever turned my way again, I’d be perfectly happy.”

Mother checks her watch. “Come along, darlings. Your father is downstairs and you know he hates to be kept waiting.”

Father stands at the bottom of the steps, spine straight, hands folded behind his back. He’s many years older than Mother, with lines on his face and more white in his hair than brown. But together they’re an attractive couple, and as he gazes up at her, his gray-blue eyes are bright, like those of a much younger man.

We don’t wait for compliments from the King, and he gives us none. It’s never been his way. But he offers Mother his arm, and the four of us walk across the grand marble foyer toward the car that will take us to the Parliament luncheon to celebrate my birthday.

“Remember, Lenora—no dancing tonight,” my father says without turning around.

“Oh, Reggie. It’s her sixteenth birthday,” Mother complains.

“Precisely. I won’t have rumors spreading about her with this or that randy son of a lord because she was seen dancing too closely.”

Rumors are like a dent from a sledgehammer—you can repair it, but it will never be as it was before. The Archbishop of Dingleberry . . . don’t even get me started on his name . . . told Father that once. He has a puckered, bitter face like a piece of fruit that’s gone bad, and you can just tell his mother never let him have sweets as a child.

Mother tries again. “For goodness sakes, it’s not the eighteen hundreds.”

And my father says one of the truest things I’ll ever hear:

“Within these walls, it still is.”

The Parliament luncheon progresses just as I would expect from a room full of old men whose favorite sound in the world is their own droning voices. I look up to the ornate, mural-painted ceiling and pray for an act of God to save me from my boredom. Nothing flashy like an earthquake or a volcano, but perhaps a little plague? Frogs would be good. I’d settle for locusts at this point.

But God has forsaken me—because the afternoon drags on uninterrupted.


It’s funny how just when you think things can’t get any worse, they always do.


The Marquis of Munster’s beard is so overgrown, I can barely make out his mouth. But I can see the leftovers from his lunch—bits of ham and cheese dangle from the gray, wiry hair like horrific Christmas tree ornaments.

I don’t gag. Or grimace. My self-control is outstanding. I should give myself a medal.

“I used to be the best rider in Parliament,” he grumbles, “but I’ve had to cut back because of the warts on my feet. Springing up like weeds. There’s one on my large toe that’s as big as a juicy grape.”

And my gag reflex is put to the test.

“Would you like to see, Your Highness?”

“See?” I repeat, because . . . he didn’t really just say that, did he?

“It’s quite magnificent actually—medically speaking.”

And he reaches for his left boot.

“Uh, I—”

“Good afternoon, Lord Munster!”

Miriam, my favorite sister in the whole wide world, skips up beside me, threading her arm through mine. “I’m afraid I have to steal my sister. Woman talk. You understand.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” Munster bows. “A very happy birthday to you, Princess Lenora.”

“Thank you.”

Arms linked, Miriam and I slide away.

“You owe me,” she whispers. “I want to wear your sapphire necklace at the ball tonight.”

“You can have the necklace and the earrings too. You’ve earned them.”

“Was he trying to show you his magnificent wart?”

“How did you know?”

“He tried the same thing with Elizabeth Montgomery at her uncle’s knighting ceremony last month! I think it’s a bizarre mating-ritual kind of thing.”

“What does that even mean?” I snort.

“Well, first he shows you his toe, but that’s just the start. The next thing you know it’s ‘Come along now, dearie, and let me show you all my other parts that have warts!’” She wiggles her eyebrows and I cover my mouth, and we dissolve into a fizzy giggle fit.

Sometimes, when I let myself think about it, I almost can’t believe how incredibly strange this life is. And I look out at the city from the palace window and I wonder if it’s strange for everyone—maybe not in the same way it is for me, but odd, just the same.

A young man walks into the room then, and I’m sure I haven’t seen him before. He’s pale, with thick, dark, neatly trimmed hair and boyish features behind square, black-rimmed glasses. He moves through the room like an enthusiastic puppy in a new yard—all wide-eyed eagerness.