She turned away from the blue tiles and bronze taps of the bath, and laughed again. “Which of the two facts about me is your favourite? That I served as the First Lord’s leading mistress or that I was indirectly responsible for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s death by the removal of genitals?”
That roughly summarised the only two pieces of information I knew about Olivia, but hearing them from her own lips made me shudder in a way that neither David’s talk of mistresses nor Moreham’s warnings of what had happened to the man who’d attacked one of them had managed.
A few months ago, I posted Right-hand Man, a short story I’d written about Peter Delamare, one of the characters in The Dictator’s Wife, which took place in the five years dividing the two halves of the novel.
Quick summary of TDW for those who don’t know: The British Government has been overthrown by a military coup, led by Julien St John Helmsley. Julien runs the country as an autocratic dictator, revered by some and despised by others. The Dictator’s Wife is told from the point of view of Marianne Helmsley, Julien’s beloved wife. Half the chapters focus on how they met and their rise to power, culminating in Marianne seemingly faking her own death and fleeing to join the resistance. The other, alternating chapters focus on her return five years later, when she is torn between assassinating her husband and resuming her position of absolute power at his side.
Like Right-Hand Man, this short story takes place in the missing five years, in this case, immediately after Peter’s story ends. This time around, it’s from the POV of Olivia Livelton. In the “present day” sections of the novel, she’s a hyper-confident, scheming twenty-something, who, despite being a former mistress of the First Lord, manages to become his wife’s best friend and confidant on her return. But this story is set before all that, back when Olivia was a naive seventeen-year-old. And if Right-hand Man took you inside Peter’s head to suggest he wasn’t as bad as Marianne always seems to think, this one reverts to showing him at his manipulative worst.
As the title implies, I was hoping to cover both halves of Olivia’s story. In the end, I didn’t actually get as far as her first meeting with Julien. It’s fair to say I ship Julien and Marianne pretty hard as the perfect example of what TV Tropes calls “Unholy Matrimony“. As a result, I think my sub-conscious balked at writing any romantic or sexual Olivia/Julien scenes – but I’ll try my best to get part 2 done at some point. I’ve also got a third short story in the works, directly focussed on Julien, but it’s very weird to write from his POV, so I’ll see how that one goes…
THE TWO FACTS EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT ME – PART ONE
“Olivia, my darling. Could you come into my office for a moment?”
I uncoiled my legs and roused myself from the depths of the sofa. I’d been alternating between reading the most salacious novel I could get my hands on and staring out of the window at the sparkling sea. It was warm for March. Perhaps later I’d brave a dip.
I smiled at the thought of him permitting me into the inner sanctum. It’d been weeks. My father’s role of suppressing any hints of rebellion in the south-west kept him busy, and though we’d always been close, we spent less and less time together. When we did talk, he kept his innermost thoughts to himself in a way he never had before. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect me. Perhaps a growing lack of trust. After all, I was a citizen of the Regime as well as a daughter of the Livelton clan.
“Close the door behind you,” my father snapped, as soon as I entered the airy attic room that served as his centre of operations.
He stood behind his desk, pacing to and fro. He’d torn several documents into tiny strips – a nervous habit rather than a security precaution. He wouldn’t catch my eye.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Sit down.” He pointed to the battered old sofa in the far corner.
I did as he’d asked. Instead of joining me, he intensified his pacing.
“You’re to be sent to Somerset House.”
My hand flew to my mouth, disguising both my shock and my smile. I paused before answering. It wouldn’t do to sound too keen.
“Why? Why now? I’ve begged for years to be allowed to join the court. You’ve told me time and time again that it’s a den of danger and debauchery. That my place is here in the south west.” That I should marry someone suitable and consolidate the family’s power base.
My sister was eight years older than me. She’d gone off to university, taken a job as a management consultant, and married a fellow professional, all before the revolution. She made jokes about the Tudors, teased me about my expected dynastic marriage and my longing to be a lady-in-waiting. Things have changed, she’d say. Sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a haunted look in her eyes.
My father glanced around as though Regime spies were hiding behind the wallpaper. He’d said those things and more, a hundred and one times. He wasn’t disloyal, of course he wasn’t. He’d kill anyone for suggesting such a thing, with the First Lord’s blessing. He was simply forthright, a quality which had to be valuable amongst all the yes-men that made up the senior ranks of the army and the political class.
“For heaven’s sake don’t repeat that when you get there.” He laughed as though it was a hilarious joke, not a matter of life or death.
“I’m not an idiot, daddy. So come on. Why the change of heart?”
Daddy stopped his pacing then came and sat down beside me. “You’ve been invited by Peter Delamare.”
“The Head of Press? I didn’t know he even knew my name.” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice.
A few month ago, my father had hosted a grand gathering of south-western dignitaries, and the man that everyone understood to be the Regime’s second-in-command had been the guest of honour. I’d watched him from a distance, awed by his beauty and flamboyance, by the way everyone deferred to him. Daddy had welcomed him and shook his hand. My sister – on good behaviour for once and wearing the approved nineteen-twenties fashions instead of a trouser suit – had said hello with a curtsey and a smirk. I’d longed to introduce myself, but an uncharacteristic shyness had descended.
“Apparently you made an impression. Perhaps all that time you spend on your hair isn’t entirely wasted.”
I laughed and flicked the offending golden curls over my shoulder. The colour was natural, but I spent hours a week waving my poker straight locks.
It was good to spend a moment talking about something normal, to allow myself to be girlish and my father to gently tease me. But I was more than just a pretty face. I took a deep breath. “I was under the impression that the Head of Press doesn’t invite anyone anywhere. What would happen if I refused?”
My father closed his eyes. “Maybe nothing. Maybe a firmer summons. Maybe an FLA company to take you to London. Maybe my name ruled out next time there’s a promotion up for grabs. Maybe this house razed to the ground. Maybe the south west bombed like Nottingham. The worst case scenarios are a little far-fetched. But I wouldn’t stake everything on them not happening.
I swallowed. I wanted this more than anything, but I wanted it to feel like my choice. What would be expected of me? Did the Head of Press want me as a plaything? As an accessory to the court? As a way of controlling my father?
“I’ll go, of course I will. And I’ll make this family proud.”
“I know you will. You’ve always been the best of daughters. You’ll leave this evening. Say your goodbyes, and change into something more fitting. None of these black gowns.”
I frowned and ran my hands down the velvet bodice. “I’m wearing black in memory of the Eternal Blessed First Lady. It’s respectful.”
I’d cried and cried when she’d died. On the first day, my father had watched approvingly, like I was playing my part well. When the tears continued into a second and third day, he’d frowned, as if I was being far too serious about the whole thing.
“The official period of mourning is over. The other women at Somerset House don’t wear black out of respect. They wear their brightest colours and jockey for position.”
I fiddled with my long, dark sleeve. “I’m not those other woman. If I’m doing this, I’ll do it on my terms.”
Five hours of driving and an endless number of check points later, we drove over Waterloo Bride and arrived at Somerset House. It was just as impressive as it looked on the television broadcasts.
A guard admitted my chauffeur through a back gate. He checked my papers – including a letter of invitation from the Head of Press – once more and summoned another guard.
“I’m Daniel,” the newcomer announced, taking my arm. “I’ve been tasked with taking you to your room.”
His eyes ran over my face, my hair, the long black dress I’d insisted on wearing. His gaze wasn’t lustful. His eyes narrowed in puzzlement, and he seemed about to make some comment, before his military training kicked in.
The room he showed me to was smaller and less obviously opulent than the one I was used to at home, but the sense of age and majesty and the view of the river made up for it.
“Sit and rest, ma’am,” the guard ordered. “Make yourself comfortable. The Head of Press will be here shortly.” He gave me one last appraising gaze, then left.
I checked the door out of interest. Locked, as I’d assumed.
At the precise moment when I was starting to get nervous, the door opened without anyone knocking.
I dropped into a curtsey on autopilot, grateful that the etiquette training I’d received was enough to cut through my fascination and trepidation. From my crouched position, I glanced modestly up at the Head of Press. Both the good looks and the aura of power I’d sensed from a distance at father’s ball were magnified rather than diminished this close too.
He left me where I was a little longer than respect and politeness technically demanded, while his eyes swept over me with a smirk.
“The resemblance is quite uncanny – to the propaganda image at least, less so to reality. Though I’d have laughed to see the real Marianne show me such supplication.”
I blushed and broke eye-contact. The guard’s puzzled stares suddenly made sense. I’d modelled my image on the First Lady, but so had any number of women of my age and station. Few of them really pulled it off – and I hadn’t been convinced I’d managed to do so until confronted by the reaction of people who had actually know her. Hopefully they’d see it as respectful flattery, not mocking imitation.
“Get up,” the Head of Press ordered, just as my calf muscles were beginning to protest. “First impressions are perfect, just as I suspected, but let’s get a proper look at you.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, rising to my feet with practised elegance.
“Take your dress off,” he said, in the calm, impassive tone of someone giving an order on the battlefield, not someone making a sexual request. Even so, something in his voice made me shiver. If anyone asked, I’d have claimed the reaction was due to shame, but for all my attempts at modesty, that wasn’t the full story.
My hands fumbled on the delicate buttons of the dress, which opened down the back.
The Head of Press crossed the space between us, placed one hand firmly on my left shoulder, and with the other, began opening the buttons.
“Please don’t be so tense,” he drawled. “I’m not intending to do anything inappropriate – not yet, anyway. I simply want to ensure I’m able to present you in the most effective way. There’s really very little difference between this and practicing for a speech.”
The dress fell away, leaving me standing there in my respectable white cotton underwear.
My companion took a step back and stared at me as though debating a matter of international diplomacy.
“Turn around,” he said.
I did as he asked. The whole situation was too bizarre for any real nerves. Besides, there was something thrilling about one of the most powerful, eligible men in the country showing me such absolute, focussed attention by such absolute, focussed attention.
“Turn around again. Now bend over. Now stretch.”
I did as he requested. Mostly, I stared straight ahead, but once in a while, I glanced back at him. There was no sense of lust or twisted amusement in his expression, no indication of a horny man enjoying the sight of an attractive woman or a powerful leader exploiting his position.
“I’ve heard all about your legendary charm,” I whispered, after the bizarre game had dragged on a little too long. “Is this the approach you take with all the women? With the men? Because if it is, I’m amazed you have as much success as everyone claims.”
I tensed, waiting to see how the words would land. Foolish to speak to carelessly, to attempt to make a joke. I’d never been able to keep my mouth shut. In the safety of home, there was only so much damage my words could do, but here, they could mean death.
“Thank God. You may not have got the lingerie, but you’ve certainly got the attitude. I’m not sure meek and respectful would have quite got the job done, no matter how pretty your hair.”
He walked over to one of the antique wardrobes and withdrew a heavy silk dressing gown. He held it up and beckoned to me. I crossed the floor and let him help me into its luxurious embrace. I hadn’t realised how vulnerable my semi-naked state had left me until I was clothed again.
The Head of Press’ hands lingered on my arms for a moment, then he helped me into a over-stuffed chair.
“I’m usually a lot more charming than this, I promise. That’s because usually, the only thing at stake is my own lust and amusement. But this is a matter of state.”
I should have seen where all of this was leading. But I was young, unworldly, and in awe. Why would the truth even have crossed my mind? So I just smiled and bowed my head.
He pulled out a phone. “Get the Chief Beautician to Room 7, Upper Riverside Corridor. Tell her it’s my personal order, and ignore any of her attempts at cheek.”
“What now?” I murmured.
“Now, Cinderella, we get you ready for the ball. That underwear is a non-starter. I see where you’re coming from with the black dress and that’s a great concept, but we can do a better take on the same theme. And those lovely blonde curls and big blue eyes are perfect, but we can exaggerate them more. Would you like a drink while Chantelle works her magic? Champagne?”
I smiled. Despite his claims of this being a serious business, he seemed to be relaxing into the flirtatious mode I’d heard about in a dozen scandalised stories.
The door opened and a woman in her early thirties stormed inside, brandishing a make-up bag like a grenade. She wasn’t beautiful – far from it – but her hair and face were enough of a work of art to convince you otherwise on first and even second glance.
Her eyes alighted on me and she crossed her arms and turned her head to Peter.
“Who is this, Peter? What game are you playing now?” Her harsh Birmingham accent set my teeth on edge.
Peter (I could call him that. I could be part of the inner circle) smiled. “Never you mind, Chantelle. Just work your magic. She’s already beautiful. Make her irresistible.”
“Make her look more like Marianne, you mean? I don’t know whether this is for your own twisted amusement or some sort of plot, but I’m having no part in it.”
She glared at me like I was an accessory to evil. I flinched back.
Peter crossed the space between them and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You know I outrank you a thousand times over. You know that everything I do is to protect the Regime and make the First Lord happy. And you know that your little protectoress is dead. I suggest you show respect while it’s optional, before it ceases to be so.”
He released her and strode out of the room. I missed his presence immediately.
“So now Peter’s done with his grandstanding, are you going to tell me who the hell you are?”
I curtseyed. It seemed the safest bet. She may have been lower-ranked than Peter, but I had no idea where she stood in the hierarchy relative to me. “Olivia Livelton, ma’am. My father governs the South West. The Head of Press invited me to court.”
Chantelle sank into an armchair. “Did he, indeed? Why are you wearing black, Olivia? It’s not the fashion anymore.”
I ran my hands self-consciously over the velvet bodice. “I’m still in mourning for the Eternal Blessed First Lady. I hadn’t realised that would be such a controversial position, in Somerset House of all places.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Is this more of Peter’s scheming, or is this from the heart?”
“From the heart. I swear.”
Chantelle walked over to me. “Marianne Helmsley was no saint. No eternal blessed anything. In fact, she could be a real bitch. But she was always loyal to her friends. And I’m one of the oldest of them. If you’re truly loyal to the better half of the Regime, I’ll help you out.”
Before I could answer, she descended on me in a blur of powder and curlers and scent.
“Please tell me you understand what Peter is trying to do here?” she asked, after several minutes of silence and beautification.
I shook my head very lightly, careful not to dislodge my newly tightened curls. “I don’t think I understand anything. All I know is home and the south west. Court’s a blur.”
“The second most powerful man in the country has found someone with a vague resemblance to the dearly departed First Lady and groomed her to make the resemblance more uncanny. What do you think his game is?”
Before I could answer – or really let my mind engage with her question – Peter re-entered.
“I’ve got to hand it to you, Chantelle, you’ve achieved perfection. The perfect balance between saucy and demure. Sexy and sophisticated. Loyal to the memory of what’s gone before and eager for the future. The First Lady of the imagination, the Marianne of reality, and something all her own.”
He took a possessive hold of my arm.
“Let’s go to the ball.”