The grand Summer Fashion Show, set in Hyde Park, was only one day away, and Feathers & Flair was abuzz with energy. In the back room of the Regent Street dress shop belonging to Mrs. Ginger Reed, last-minute details were being attended to. A red-velvet curtain hid the mayhem from the sophistication of the display room on the other side. Madame Roux, the shop manager, fussed and clicked her tongue, giving clipped French-accented instructions to Millie, the long and lithe model, to dress quickly and see to the customer standing by the tall windows awaiting a demonstration.
“A fashion show may be in our future, Miss Tatum,” Madame Roux said, “but we have customers today!”
Millie, dressed in a new, sparkling silk gown the colour of sea glass and as wispy as seaweed, passed through the velvet curtain to the vast display room with its shiny white-marble floors, high ceilings trimmed in gold, and lit with an electric chandelier. Dorothy West, the young shop attendant who lacked the model’s level of sophistication, assisted.
Ginger turned to her resident seamstress and designer, Emma Miller. A former student of fashion design, Miss Miller showed tremendous potential, and it was Ginger’s secret concern the girl would get a better offer and leave Feathers & Flair.
“They’re a whirlwind of excitement, aren’t they, Emma?” Ginger said.
For what seemed like the thousandth time, Emma scrutinised the rack of frocks—her own designs—ready for the fashion runway.
“Oh, madam, I don’t blame them. I’m quite flushed myself. Whenever I think of the show, and all the famous designers coming . . .” She ran a slender hand across her brow. “Especially Coco Chanel! Will she be there? Have you heard?”
Ginger bit her cheek to keep from grinning. Emma’s nerves shone through her uncharacteristic chattering.
“Mademoiselle Chanel isn’t one to make commitments, I’m afraid,” Ginger said. “Although, I’ve heard from the event organisers that her mannequins and designs are on their way if one can believe the French.”
Ginger often envied the joie de vivre of her French counterparts, their flair for life, and their little regard for rules or propriety. Being English could be rather dull in comparison.
Emma gasped. “Do you think we’ll see the little black dress?”
Coco Chanel had debuted the controversial frock that spring to the dismay of many and the delight of a few. Ginger counted herself among the latter.
“I certainly hope so,” Ginger replied. Her hand rounded her growing belly. The colour black created the illusion of slimness, though at the rate her little one inside was growing, she could hardly imagine that any colour could mask her condition in due time. She was thankful that the current trends were for straight lines that dropped from the shoulder. The earlier cinch-waisted gowns of the previous generation would be far less forgiving.
“I adore her, Mrs. Reed,” Emma said, her eyes glazed over as she placed her palms over her heart. “I shall simply die if she comes.”
This time, Ginger couldn’t hold back her laughter. “Well, that shall never do, Emma. We need you alive and well for this event. We have a lot of work to do.”
Ginger braced herself to face the small mountain of correspondence waiting for her on her desk in the back room’s tiny office. She held in a growing sense of frustration toward her former sister-in-law, Felicia Gold, who Ginger employed to help her in her investigative office around the corner. For this week, however, Ginger had asked for help in the dress shop, and Felicia had reassured her that she’d join in on the effort. But since she’d started stepping out with Lord Davenport-Witt, Felicia’s word had begun to mean nothing. Ginger understood the draw of new love, but that didn’t excuse one from keeping to one’s word and responsibilities.
Wanting to finish her desk work before the afternoon postal delivery and pickup, Ginger picked up her fountain pen and wrote several responses to letters waiting. By the time she’d finished her task, her hand was cramped.
Madame Roux stepped into the office, looking flushed.
“How is everything on the floor?” Ginger asked. “Is everything all right?”
“Oui, oui. It’s busy, and sales are brisk, but a new customer, one I’ve never seen before, has asked for you.” Madame Roux’s ski-jump nose pointed upwards. “She refused service from me. ‘Only the owner,’ she said.”
How odd, Ginger thought. She got to her feet, a little less gracefully than had come naturally before she was with child, and smoothed out her skirt. She wore a pretty powder-blue day frock with a floral pattern and pearl detailing, and when she walked through the velvet curtains to meet their demanding customer, she was glad she looked her best.
Before her stood a petite but formidable-looking lady in a summer hat with a narrow brim, wide ribbon, and an abundance of felt roses. A fringe of grey hair peeked out along her lined forehead. Despite her years, her posture was so straight that only a corset could be responsible. The lines on her face were plentiful and deep; however, it was clear by her high cheekbones and facial structure that she had been a beauty in her youth. And, unlike many women in their later years, this lady had a good grasp of fashion and was wearing a soft-grey silk frock with flaring, pleated leaves and a pleated, low-dropping skirt, tastefully highlighted with rose-coloured trim. Ginger recognised it as an Alice Bernard design she’d seen in a recent La Femme Chic magazine.
“Good afternoon,” Ginger said, a friendly smile pasted on her face. She’d learned to keep her voice low to keep it from carrying along the high ceilings. “I’m Mrs. Reed, the owner of this establishment.”
Ginger held out a hand, gloveless, but with fingers expertly manicured and a row of tasteful rings on her fingers.
The lady hesitated before accepting the handshake. “I’m Deborah, Duchess of Worthington. I was under the impression that a titled lady ran this shop.”
The skin around Ginger’s green eyes tightened. It was true. When she’d opened Feathers & Flair, her official legal title was Lady Gold, as widow of Lord Daniel Gold, a baron. Then she fell in love with Basil Reed. Though the grandson of a viscount, Basil worked as a chief inspector at Scotland Yard, which meant, to some, a slip down the ladder. However, Ginger had readily forfeited the title and the prestige that came with it to spend the rest of her life with him.
Most of the time, Ginger didn’t miss it.
“Yes,” Ginger answered politely. “But now it is run by me. Is there something I can help you find? We can order any of the latest fashions from all the esteemed designers, or our resident designer could help you with an original.”
Ginger didn’t bother to tell the highbrow lady that the upper floor contained racks of factory-made frocks, a new trend followed by the younger generation and those who appreciated the convenience of buying an outfit already sized, and that could be worn that very day.
“Are you new to London?” Ginger enquired. She’d encountered every lady of consequence in the city at some point.
“Until recently, my husband, the Duke of Worthington, and I lived in our villa in Morocco, but with the conflict there . . .” She flicked a hand as if she were bored with the subject. The Rif War between Spain’s colonial power and the regional Berber tribes had been ongoing for six years. Tiring of it, all of Europe hoped for an end to the conflict soon. “The Duke is busy in Barcelona, so I came here.”
She sniffed with an expression of displeasure. “London is still a rather filthy city, isn’t it?”
Propriety insisted that Ginger take the insult to her city on the chin. “There are many lovely places in London, and you might be interested in the fashion show coming to Hyde Park this Friday afternoon. It’ll be splendid.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about the event.” She glanced around the shop and then back at Ginger. “Perhaps.”
“Can I help you with your fashion needs, Your Grace?” Ginger asked, hoping to move this unpleasant encounter along.
“I think not. My driver is waiting in the motorcar. Coco Chanel’s London shop is dazzling, and near my home in Mayfair, where I’m currently staying. Good day, Mrs. Reed.”
Of course, Ginger knew of Coco Chanel’s connections in the area, particularly her alleged affair with Bendor, 2nd Duke of Westminster.
The Duchess of Worthington turned on her heel, never laying an eye on Madame Roux who’d remained several steps behind Ginger, nor the shop girls that watched, wide-eyed, at the back.
“Well,” Ginger said, facing her staff. “I doubt we’ll see her again.” To herself, she thought, good riddance.
The bell above the door rang as the postman entered.
“Dorothy,” Ginger said, “be a brick and grab the outgoing letters on my desk.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Reed,” the postman said, handing her a bundle of letters. He waited until Dorothy returned, handing him the outgoing post. “Very good,” he said. “Good day, ladies.”
“He’s a nice man, isn’t he?” Dorothy said with a soft sigh.
“Too short for me,” Millie quipped.
Ginger perused the post, stopping on one letter with a Paris return address. She recognised the neat cursive script. “Oh, Emma. I think it’s her.”
Emma stepped forward, her hands clasped highly in front of her frock. “Her, madam?”
Ginger removed the single card inserted inside and read aloud.
“My dearest Ginger.” Ginger paused on the next word, the pet surname written behind her name, LaFleur. Withholding that, she continued. “I’m pleased to tell you that I shall be returning to London shortly and shall attend your little fashion show along with my entourage. I look forward to sharing a glass of chardonnay with you. And a grotesque basket of your famous fish and chips!”
“You didn’t say that you and Mademoiselle Chanel were friends,” Madame Roux said. “Though I’m not surprised.”
“We met in Paris, long ago—before her Chanel N˚5 perfume shot her to fame and fortune.” Ginger’s mind went back to the moment they had met, before Ginger’s recruitment into the British secret service, during what seemed another lifetime. Ginger would hardly call them friends.
Emma gripped the edge of the sales counter. “Coco Chanel is coming. I think I’m going to faint.”