Three Times a Lady: Prologue

P1

One pair of sensible, mid-height heels bounced anxiously beneath one practical pencil skirt of reasonable length, itself situated beneath the worn wood of a small table in the Universal Exports company cafeteria. Above the table, Loelia Ponsonby’s delicate fingers gently caressed her mug of darjeeling, her large brown eyes lost in the steam, and one eyebrow arched reproachfully at the string of the teabag trailing down its side.

P17

“It’s like putting your tea in the dustbin.” declared Eve Moneypenny as she heavily claimed the chair opposite Loelia’s, swiftly tucking her own sensible heels and practical pencil skirt beneath the table, pinning her briefcase securely between her leg and the wall.

“That’s what I always say!” moaned Loelia. “Tea from a bag is revolting. The leaves need to be free to bloom and swim about in the hot water. It’s a crime against tea, really. What would it cost them to just brew up a whole pot properly?”

“Still,” Eve arched her own eyebrow, “if it really is the Champagne of Teas, as you are always claiming-“

“It is!” insisted Loelia.

“Then why would you order it in a place like this, hmm? You wouldn’t drink champagne lukewarm from a pint glass at the corner pub, yet you expect the company cafeteria to supply you with the highest quality beverage imaginable.” She took a sip of her own Earl Grey and grimaced. “God, that’s awful.”

P30

“He’s limping,” Loelia murmured after a brief pause.

Eve’s eyes narrowed sharply. “Yes, the dossier mentioned something about a gunshot wound. Still, it’s not like him to let it show.”

“I know!” exclaimed Loelia. “It must be really bad.”

“How is he otherwise?”

“Wistful,” sighed Loelia.

“Woman?” asked Eve. “Nevermind. Of course it is. Did you catch a name?”

“No. To be honest, I’ve stopped trying. There’s too many to keep track of, and he’ll have forgotten her in a week or two. He always does.”

Eve leaned forward. “Yes, but you’ve got two girlfriends who are starving for details, darling, and as his personal secretary you’ve got the best access. We’re depending on you.”

“That’s right, where is Mary? She ought to be here by now. She’s the one who called the meeting, after all.”

“Oh, she’s always late.” Eve relaxed against the back of her chair, “Probably got herself stuffed into the boot of a car, again.”

P28

“You don’t really think so?” Loelia’s eyes widened.

“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit,” smirked Eve.

Loelia allowed herself a guilty giggle. “She is a bit accident-prone, isn’t she?”

Both women took sips from their disappointing mugs of tea, and were sharply interrupted by the thud of a document hitting the table between them.

P62

“Sign!” commanded Mary Goodnight, gigantic blue eyes ablaze. She tossed one pen each at Eve and Loelia, and sat triumphantly on the one remaining chair at the table, swinging one sensible heel high to cross her stockinged legs at a rakish angle. She likewise crossed her arms firmly atop her ample bosom and allowed an anticipatory smile to settle across her face.

Eve glanced at the document briefly, then returned to her tea. “This,” she declared, “is a letter of resignation.”

P76

“Really?” Loelia snatched it from the table and skimmed it intently. “Mary, you can’t be serious.”

“I am,” insisted Mary. “I’m getting out of this place, and I’m taking you both with me.”

Eve yawned. “So you’ve finally lost your mind for good, eh? That must be a relief. Now you can stop looking for it.”

“Where is Newcrest?” Loelia looked up from the letter.

P52

“Nowhere,” grinned Mary. “It’s a completely empty little suburb, waiting to be claimed and molded. It’s the perfect place for a fresh start. Nobody will know us there, because there isn’t anybody there at all. We can make it whatever we want.”

“But we can’t all leave the *ahem* company at the same time,” Loelia protested. “Things would be in an uproar!”

P15

Eve rolled her eyes, “Oh, yes! Three secretaries simultaneously give their notice and the entire British Secret Service crumbles. How will 007 continue to defend the crown if his mail isn’t sorted properly?”

“Or his private liquor cabinet stocked?” interjected Mary.

“Well, I am the only one who can make his tea the way he likes it,” sulked Loelia.

“No, the ‘company’ would survive just fine without us three,” said Eve, “But the reason we’re not doing this is that I love my job and I’m not going anywhere, and I’m especially not going ‘nowhere.’”

P32

“Do you? Do you love this job, Eve?” Mary leaned closer and fixed the enormous blue discs of her eyes directly on her friend’s. “Or are you like the rest of us? Just biding your time, waiting for him to return from one mission after another? Combing documents for mentions of him, searching his face for new lines of care, his eyes for the reflection of new loves, his coat for new bullet-holes?”

Eve’s eyes dropped once again to her tea mug. Mary grabbed her hand, then Loelia’s.

“It’s time. It’s time to stop being supporting players in somebody else’s life story. It’s time to take the lead, and this is our chance. Come with me. Build a city with me. Just sign the letter and let’s go.”

P66

The tension hung thick in the air as Eve audibly drained the last dregs from her mug. Loelia’s eyes darted around the room before finally settling on the pen sitting in front of her. Mary did not release their hands.

“Let’s go.” she repeated as she finally surrendered them, and folded her own hands in her lap.

Shaking, Loelia reached for the pen in front of her. “I . . . I just don’t know if I can . . .”

P71

“Oh, what the heck?” grumbled Eve, as she snatched the letter from Loelia and hastily scrawled her signature at the bottom.  “You pleased?” she snarled at Mary as she tossed the document back across the table.

“Very,” Mary smiled and looked gently over at Loelia. “Now you, dear.”

“Well, if Eve’s on board then I suppose . . .” Loelia picked up the pen and neatly inked her own name beneath her colleague’s. “Though I don’t know who’ll make his scrambled eggs when he’s laid up at home.”

“Open a restaurant,” grinned Mary as she gleefully added her own graceful, loopy signature to the letter she’d written, “You can make eggs for all of Newcrest.”

P50

“He always did say my eggs were the best he’d ever tasted,” said Loelia, “and he’s very discerning, so you know that means something. I bet if I opened a breakfast place I’d do quite well.”

“And there wouldn’t be a single teabag in sight!” smirked Eve.

“Certainly not!” grinned Mary, “It’s like putting your tea in the dustbin!”

“That’s what I always say!” cried Loelia.

“We know, dear,” said Eve, rising from the table and putting on her coat. “We know. Shall we?”

“Indeed,” Mary bounced up from her chair, sweeping the letter into her bag. “We have work to do. Got a number of things to finish up so I can head home to pack.”

P80

“To pack,” Loelia smiled thoughtfully, and looped her handbag over her arm. “I can’t remember the last time I packed a suitcase for myself.”

“Don’t forget your toothbrush,” said Eve, “Now let’s be off!”

Three pairs of sensible, mid-height heels clicked out of the cafeteria, with perhaps a bit more bounce than when they’d entered. Three appropriate, practical pencil skirts parted ways at the elevator, returning to their desks to empty them out in anticipation of a new life. A few hours later, a person known only as M smashed an exasperated fist onto the surface of his desk upon reading a certain letter signed by three secretaries who, truthfully, could never really be replaced.

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