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4

Fleeced

Here we are, Princess of Love, Maldwin Feckles declared as he carried a tray with hot coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, and flakey croissants into his employers darkened bedroom. Time to rise and shine and fix people up. He placed the tray on a table next to the king-size bed and opened the drapes.

Lydia s eyes fluttered as she groaned. What time is it?

Its 8:00 A.M. The time you instructed me to serve you breakfast.

Was I dreaming, or did what happened last night really happen?

Maldwin sighed. He was a short man with rigid posture, tufts of dark hair that given half a chance would be sprouting willy-nilly from the sides of his head but were held in place by industrial-strength gel, and a face of baby-smooth white skin. Im afraid our neighbor Nat did in fact pass over.

Pass over isnt the word, Lydia said as she sat up. He departed this planet in a most dramatic fashion. Her mouth broke into a wide yawn as she reached for the pink feather bed jacket that went over the top of her pink silk nightgown. Ever since she inherited two million dollars from an elderly neighbor in Hoboken shed not only moved into a penthouse apartment in New York City, but shed also launched a full scale dating service, aptly named Meaningful Connections, with matchmaking parties held in her own elegant home. Shed also decided that she must always dress the part of the Princess of Love.

It was all so hard to believe.

At the ripe old age of thirty-eight, Lydia s wildest dreams had come true. Shed gone from living in a little studio apartment on the wrong side of the tracks to having a butler who was devoted to her. All because shed run some errands for Mrs. Cerencioni, who seemed as if she didnt have enough money to pay the light bill.

Of course, Lydia had unfortunately hooked up with a gold-digger who was her boyfriend for about five minutes before she managed to shake him loose. But he still left messages on her machine and sent love notes in the mail. It was wildly embarrassing.

But now things could get even worse. After all the money shed invested into fixing up the apartment and setting up her business, there was the danger that the club might have to close its doors and sell the building. Just when she and Maldwin were getting their respective businesses on track, shed have to find a new place to live and work. And to think the club could have been saved by the diamonds theyd heard all the gossip about last night and that now were among the missing.

All that confusion and death, Lydia said as she picked up her orange-juice glass and tapped it with her long red fingernails. Do you think people might be afraid to come to my parties now?

Maldwin fluffed the pillow behind her dyed blond hair. It was excitement that can only help. No one will ever accuse you of throwing parties that are dull. After all, matchmaking should have an air of mystery.

But what if the papers report that some of my guests were disturbed by the arrival of the police?

As long as they spell your name right. And the name of my butler school, Maldwin sniffed. Miss Lydia, remember what we decided when we joined forces.

Theres no such thing as bad publicity.

Exactly. Maldwin walked to the door of the bedroom.

But Maldwin, Im worried.

Maldwin waited.

If we have to find a new place to live, itll be very expensive. My stationery cost a fortune. And people get used to coming to a certain location for these parties. Being in Gramercy Park gave them a certain je ne sais quoi.

Maldwin flinched. He couldnt stand it when she threw in her schoolgirl French. Her accent was awful.

I know, Princess, he said. But we must go on. Tomorrow nights party should attract new members to the club. And hopefully, those diamonds will be recovered and we can continue on as we are now. He smoothed back his hair and adjusted his pinkie ring. My students are arriving soon. Were leaving for a field trip to a town full of antique shops in western New Jersey. I expect well be back later this afternoon.

Lydia grumbled. And Im going to exercise class. Dont forget. Tonight we have to go to Stanley s studio for the interview. He wants to air the special on the club and us this Sunday night. How many viewers does he have on that cable show?

Im afraid neighborhood free-access channels do not draw the masses, Princess of Love. But its a start.

Ive come a long way from my studio apartment with no closet space, Lydia mused. And Maldwin, I dont want to go back.

We will make our businesses flourish, Miss Lydia, Maldwin said formally, at any cost.

They laughed nervously together. He gave a short, courtly bow and shut the door.


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