In New York Times bestselling author Hester Browne's delightful new novel, a fading English finishing school is about to get a twenty-first-century makeover. Out with white gloves and flower arranging, in with managing mortgagesand do-it-yourself manicures! Behind this remarkable transformation is business-savvy Betsy Phillimore, with her own unique connection to London's esteemed Phillimore Academy for Young Ladies....
Twenty-seven years ago, an infant turned up on the Academy's doorstep, with a note tacked to her blanket by an elegant golden brooch -- Please take care of my baby. I want her to grow up to be a proper lady. Loved by Lady Frances Phillimore and her kindhearted staff, Betsy grew up aspiring to be an Academy girl. But when Franny and her husband, Lord Phillimore, advise Betsy to instead hone her considerable math skills at college, she brokenheartedly leaves behind the only family she's known.
Now, on the sad occasion of Lady Frances's memorial service, Betsy comes back to find the school in disrepair, the enrollment down, and Lord P. desperate to save his legacy. Enter Betsy, the numbers genius, and her business plan -- to replace dusty protocol with the essentials girls need today: cell phone etiquette, eating sushi properly, handling credit cards, choosing the perfect little black dress, negotiating a pre-nup, and other lessons in independent living.
But Betsy may have bitten off more than she can chew. Can she win over the school's snobby headmistress and its handsome but risk-averse treasurer? Returning to London also means facing her own unfinished business, as she crosses paths with her sexy girlhood crush...and blowing the dust off clues to a lifelong mystery: who were her parents, and why did they abandon her? If knowledge is power, Betsy is on the brink of truly becoming her own woman, and embracing the one thing she's wanted all along: a place to call home.
A bittersweet journey of laughter and tears, The Finishing Touches will have you gleefully turning pages through dinner with elbows on the table -- bad manners, perhaps, but excusable for one utterly irresistible read.
Betsy Cooper Phillimore has turned into a very well-finished lady, considering that she had been abandoned as a baby. Luckily, her birth mother had the foresight to leave her on the doorstep of the Phillimore Academy, one of London's last finishing schools, where she grew up learning good manners along with her ABCs. Betsy didn't actually attend the finishing school, instead taking a math degree at university and eventually ending up in Edinburgh running a high-end shoe store. However, owing to some misunderstanding, her adoptive family believes that Betsy is a successful management consultant and asks her to help get the now faltering academy back on the right financial track. Betsy can hardly say no, and there is the added incentive that she might discover her real mother's identity if she is given access to the academy's old records. Being in London also means that she will see more of Jamie, her best friend's brother and her long-time crush, and Mark, the academy's slightly bookish but handsome bursar. Browne (The Little Lady Agency) has written another entertaining and highly enjoyable novel that will appeal to fans of Bridget Jones's Diary and other British chick lit.-Lisa Hanson O'Hara, Univ. of Manitoba Libs., Winnipeg Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
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June 08, 2009
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Excerpt from The Finishing Touches by Hester Browne
The only truly waterproof mascara is an eyelash tint.
"Betsy, if you want a sneaky cry at weddings and funerals, dye your lashes." That was probably one of the best tips Franny gave me, out of the thousands she'd passed on, over twenty-seven happy years.
Also, "sunscreen now saves face-lifts later" and "never trust a man with a ready-made bow tie."
I stared blankly out of the window at the red London bus idling next to our taxi. For once I didn't mind the clogged-up traffic, because it gave me time to pull myself together between leaving the church and arriving at the memorial tea, where I'd have to hear how elegant and inspiring my mother was all over again, this time while juggling canap�s and a wineglass.
Tears prickled treacherously along my lashes. They weren't the distraught tears I'd cried six months ago, when Franny's headaches turned out to be a tumor, and the end had come almost before I'd had time to realize it. But they were sad ones, because I'd never feel her elegant, comforting presence behind me at memorials again. Franny had always known what to say, the kind word to murmur at the right time. She had handled every situation gracefully.
I blinked hard, knowing that at least I wouldn't be given away by telltale panda eyes, and I could almost see Franny's familiar smile, the one that twisted up a corner of her mouth. She liked a private joke. I hadn't had time to buy a new outfit for the memorial service, but I had made time for a lash tint. I knew she'd know. Somehow.
That really set the tears off. Oh, nuts.
A hand descended on my knee and shook it. "Betsy? Betsy, will you pack in that stiff-upper-lip nonsense and just cry? I'm your best friend, Betsy. I don't care if your nose is snotty!"
I turned my face back into the cab, blinking hard. "I'm fine! Honestly!"
"No, you're not. Your lip has been wobbling for the last five minutes," Liv went on. Her words were brisk, but her voice was gentle and concerned. "You're meant to cry at these things. The whole point of memorial services is to let everyone have a good howl. It's good for the soul. Then the women can repair each other's makeup as an icebreaker after and get on with the hilarious memories. I'm sure you told me that."
Liv was balanced on the taxi jump seat opposite me, her long legs arranged like Bambi's and a mixture of concern and smudged mascara all over her beautiful face. Apart from the lack of a lash tint, Franny would thoroughly have approved of Liv's outfit, I thought. The dress code had been "celebratory," and Liv was wearing a sunshine-yellow miniskirt and a selection of perfectly chosen accessories, including gloves and a gold sequined beret on her straight blond hair, as her tribute to Franny's devotion to the Phillimore Academy finishing school.
It made my simple blue coat and shift dress look rather sober in the drab January light, but I'd barely had time to think about what to throw on before the taxi had come for me that morning.
There was a discreet cough from my left, but I didn't turn my head, because that would mean looking at Jamie, and I wasn't sure whether that was a good idea. I hadn't known Jamie was coming along today. If I had known, I might have distracted myself with hours of worrying about what to wear, but as it was, I only had enough spare energy to angle my head so he couldn't see my puffy eyes.
"What my darling tactful sister means is that after everything that was said about Lady Frances, you'd need a heart of pure concrete not to be in tears," said Jamie. "Even I cried when you read out that letter she sent you at school, about how to make friends with bullies by complimenting their hair. And you know what a heartless bastard I am."
Liv wiped under her eyes with a finger and smeared her mascara. "It was such a lovely service," she sniffed. "It was like Franny was there. Those lilies she loved, and that Bach solo, and everyone in beautiful hats with veils..."
"Here," I said, reaching into my bag, glad of the distraction. "Have a handkerchief."
"But what about you?"
"I've got two." I waved mine, a big white gent's hankie. "Always carry two -- one for you and one for a friend." I managed a watery smile. "A top tip from the Academy."
"Franny told you such useful things," sniffed Liv, patting her face. "I wish I'd grown up in a finishing school."
"So do I," said Jamie.
"Shut up, Jamie," said Liv, blowing her nose with a trumpeting sound. "No one in their right mind would let you into a finishing school. It'd be like letting a fox loose in a henhouse."
"A fox?" I could tell by his voice that he was joggling his eyebrows. "Why, thanks!"
I risked a sideways glance. I'd thought Jamie was in New York, working -- but he'd arrived with Liv, looking dashing, as Kathleen would say, in a dark suit, his blond hair cut slightly shorter than I remembered but still falling into his handsome face. When he brushed it out of his eyes with a tanned hand, my stomach still flipped over, memorial service or not.
It was a habit, I told myself. A bad habit. My stomach had flipped over for Jamie O'Hare since I was fourteen years old; it was hardly likely to stop now. If anything, the familiar ache was replaced by a sense of relief that some things didn't change.
"I meant I wished you'd grown up in a finishing school, you plum," said Jamie. Liv and Jamie still squabbled like teenagers, despite Jamie being over thirty and a company director, albeit of a company that arranged parties for posh girls. "It'd have done you good to have learned some manners. And how to arrange flowers and..." He turned to me and gave me such a charming smile that I forgot to look away and disguise my puffy face. "What exactly did they learn at that Academy? I'm afraid my knowledge of finishing schools is limited to, um -- "
"Dodgy DVDs and his own private fantasy world," Liv finished. "You knocker."
"They learned how to dine with royalty, and talk to anyone, and arrange flowers," I said through a watery smile. The Academy and its near-fairy-tale lessons had been such a big part of my childhood, it merged in places with storybooks. "They used to rehearse marriage proposals too -- accepting and declining without hurting anyone's feelings, that sort of thing. What to wear to the opera, and to Ascot."
"How to be a princess, basically," sighed Liv.
"Sort of," I agreed. "I think there was some useful stuff too. Franny was quite keen for the girls to have things to talk about, in between the proposals and flowers. The girls were there to be finished, you know. Polished up."
"Turned into the perfect wives?" asked Jamie, and this time I had enough presence of mind to rest the puffier side of my face against a hand, as if in thought.
"Nnngh," I agreed, as my brain finally registered that Jamie's knee was almost touching mine and conveniently went blank.
Having a crush at twenty-seven was embarrassing enough; having it on your best friend's brother edged into Mortification Country. It said something about my distracted state of mind that I hadn't already mumbled something moronic to Jamie. Whenever I saw him, I acted as if I were suffering from an incapacitating hangover; Liv, who had no idea how I felt, always mistook it for supreme indifference, something she felt Jamie didn't get enough of.
"And the school is still running now?" he went on. "What sort of finishing do the girls get these days? Do they still do curtseys?"
"I haven't been back in years -- " I began.
"Before you ask," Liv interrupted, leaning over to rap his knee with her clutch bag, "they don't learn how to mix cocktails while doing Pilates and waxing their own bikini lines, so if you're coming along to the reception to check them out, you're going to be disappointed. We all know what your ideal woman is. And you won't find her there."
I glanced between Liv and Jamie. I'd wondered why he'd been at the service -- though it was lovely of him to pay his respects to a woman he'd rarely met -- and now the penny dropped. He wanted to see inside the Academy for potential conquests and/or posh waitresses. My heart deflated a little.
"That is not what my ideal...Oh, forget it, Liv," said Jamie, seeing my crestfallen face. "I came because I know how much Franny meant to Betsy, and I happened to be in London this week, and I'm glad I did." He turned to me and said, with the grave charm that kept a stream of triple-barreled Olympic skiers and party girls swooning in glossy heaps all over London's hottest nightclubs, "She was obviously a real lady of the old school, and if it's any consolation, I think she passed on a great deal of that to you."
I blushed, and Liv coughed, hard, to disguise a little sob.
I wanted to store that gem away, but the trouble about being famous for charm was that it was hard to take Jamie very seriously. Besides, it wasn't true. Franny had done her best to pass on a lifetime of hints and tips, but I just didn't have her grace. That wasn't something any finishing school could teach. You had to be born with it.
The traffic began to move again, and I grabbed the chance to stare out of the window so he couldn't see my expression. We were moving up St. James now, getting nearer Mayfair and the tall town houses near the Academy, and my heart began to thump in anticipation of the moment when I'd have to get out of the car and not have Jamie's leg pressing against mine. I mean, face the other guests at the reception.
"He's right, for once, Betsy," said Liv. "You are like her."
"That's really sweet of you to say." I squirmed. "But Franny was gracious and smart and had fabulous parties and millions of friends. I never know what to say, and I'm still doing my holiday job after five years, even though I'm a university graduate." I sighed, not wanting to go down that particular route. "She just knew how to make people feel better about themselves. That's proper manners."
"But you're -- " Liv began.
"I'm not," I said flatly. "I wish I were."
"I can see she didn't manage to teach you how to accept a compliment," said Jamie. He nudged me, until I turned back and had to look at him. His grayish eyes twinkled with a sad sort of friendliness, and I wished he'd been paying me the compliment under happier circumstances. I managed a small smile, then readdressed my attention to the traffic lights on Piccadilly, so he couldn't see my gormless expression.
"Anyway!" said Liv, slapping her tiny knees. "We've done the sad part; let's concentrate on remembering the good bits! Let's talk about the way Nancy and Kathleen used to throw duchess parties for you when you were little and Franny would lend you her tiara and fur coat!"
"Really?" Jamie cocked an eyebrow, and something melted inside me. "Any chance of doing that...Oh, excuse me." He reached inside his suit pocket and took out his tiny phone. "It's work. Hello, Jamie O'Hare speaking. Lily! Hello! Yes, the ice sculptor should be with you any minute -- the question is, are you ready for him?"
Liv rolled her eyes at me. "When you turn your social life into your job, I suppose the fun never stops. Or the work never starts, whatever."
I rolled my eyes back. We'd turned down Halfmoon Street now and were only moments away from the reception.
"Are you OK?" she mouthed, all concern, and I nodded bravely.
"Let's stop here," I said. "I'd like to walk."
Jamie leaned forward to talk to the driver, phone still clamped to his ear. I could hear the distant gabble of pre-party panic. "Can you drop these two lovely ladies here, please, then take me on to Cadogan Gardens, mate? Cheers." He sat back. "Sorry, I can't stay for the bunfight, I've got a hostess in distress with an engagement party at seven. Themed round Dirty Dancing. You don't want to know what I've had to arrange."
"You came to the most important part," I said. "Thanks."
Jamie smiled, pressing his lips together in a manner that wasn't flirtatious so much as brotherly, and rubbed my upper arm. "My pleasure."
Liv was busy getting out without snagging her tights, and for a second or two my eyes locked with Jamie's as his hand rested on my coat sleeve, and I thought he might say something else. Or the conversation fairy might help me out with a witty comment. But the silence stretched, and then Liv's hand grabbed mine and we were walking down Halfmoon Street, toward the Academy.
Although I'd often been back to the mews cottage where my adoptive grandmothers, Kathleen and Nancy, still lived, I hadn't set foot inside the Phillimore Academy itself since I was twelve years old. Their cottage was warm and cozy, full of cake and nannyisms about "not being at home to Miss Rude," whereas the big house was much more imposing altogether. An old chill of anticipation fluttered in my stomach when I spotted the familiar brass plaque next to the red door.
I'd felt the same flutter as a little girl, walking down the street after my afternoon turn around Green Park with Nancy. There was always something intriguing to spot in the upper windows of the Academy, some romantic lesson in the mysterious grown-up world awaiting the shrieking girls I saw streaming in every morning, with their padded jackets and long hair.
In winter, the four-story fa�ade was like an Advent calendar, with a different scene behind each lighted square: blond girls waltzing together in the old ballroom, where molded plaster vines were picked out in gold above glittering crystal chandeliers, and on the floor beneath them, the Social Dining class, struggling with a plateful of oysters and seven different glasses.
On very hot summer days, the sash windows at the front were opened, and Nancy and I would catch the sounds of a piano being hammered and enthusiastic singing as we walked down the street. Not that we ever went in through the red door; we took a side alley two houses down that ran into the mews behind the street and from there let ourselves into Kathleen's kitchen, where table manners were more rigidly enforced than they were in the Academy's Social Dining class. Both Kathleen and Nancy were well into their sixties when I arrived and were fond of the "elbows off, napkins on, plenty of prunes, and early nights" approach to child rearing.
Now that I thought about it, I'd had a very Brideshead Revisited sort of childhood, though it had seemed perfectly normal at the time...
I was jolted out of this daydream by Liv nudging me.
"I said, did it take you long to get everything arranged, Betsy?" she asked in a tone that suggested I'd probably done everything in an hour. I had a reputation for organizing, which, to be honest, wasn't 100 percent deserved.
I shook my head. "I didn't do very much, really. I did offer, but it's been so busy in the shop, and Lord P insisted that he'd manage it all himself. In fact, he specifically told me not to take time off work and come down." I paused, wondering now if I'd done the right thing. "I thought it was best to let him, you know, keep busy."
Keeping busy was my personal therapy when things were bad. Right now my flat and the shop were absolutely spotless, with every account filed and shelf spotless. A couple of days after Franny's funeral I'd even arrived early and washed the windows, to the amazement of the assistants. I'd used vinegar and newspaper. That was one of Nancy's Good Housekeeping tips, not Franny's.
"Probably for the best," Liv agreed. "I suppose there'd be people at the Academy to help? The headmistress?"
"Mm," I said, distracted by the middle-aged ladies with "good legs" already heading toward Number 34 like honey-blond bees: obviously old Phillimoras from their confident walk in high heels.
"And there's always Kathleen and Nancy," she went on. "I can't imagine they'd stand by and let him undercater a party. You know what Kathleen's like -- " Liv went into a terrible impression of Kathleen's Lancashire solidness, with her hands on her nonexistent hips. "If a party's worth having, it's worth having wi' lots of sandwiches. A cake shared is a pleasure halved. Better to feed the birds after than starve the guests before."
Kathleen and Nancy communicated entirely in pithy sayings, most of which I now suspected them of making up to suit the occasion.
"At least there'll be plenty to eat," I said. "That's one thing you can be sure of. That and the three hundred thank-you notes Lord P will get in exactly twenty-four hours' time."
We were nearly outside the house now, and as we approached, our pace slowed as we tried to pretend we weren't looking at the famous Doorstep of the Abandoned Child.
Over the years, Franny, Nancy, and Kathleen had told the story about the Cooper's marmalade box left on the Academy's front step so many times that it was sometimes hard to remember it had actually been me inside it. Obviously, I had no memory of it myself, and what I'd really wanted to hear wasn't what had happened but how excited and delighted they had been to find me there and how Franny had sent to Harrods for nappies.
I'd told the tale quite often myself at school, admittedly with a few elaborations involving cloaked figures and tearstains on the blanket, and there were times when I'd even made myself cry with secondhand pathos, along with everyone around me. But as I got older and started thinking more deeply about why my mother might have left me and where she might be now, I wasn't sure it was healthy to feel so detached. The simple truth was that I wanted to feel something -- but there was nothing there, except the little bee charm that I wore every day around my neck on a gold chain Franny had given me.
I tried to feel a flicker of something now, seeing the front doorstep where the box had been wedged against the bootscraper, but all I could see was tatty ivy clinging to a frontage that needed a lick of paint.
"Head up, shoulders back, chest out," said Liv as she rapped the lion's head door knocker. "Just remember the happy times, OK?"
It wasn't quite so straightforward as that, though, I thought. Much as I had loved Franny and the graceful, white-shouldered vision of high-society elegance she had represented, there were other memories attached to the Academy for me. Painful ones that I'd thought I'd put to one side but that were now rising inside my chest like acid reflux.
The red front door was opening. The nostalgic smell of polish and high ceilings and fresh flowers rushed out to meet me, making my head spin with recognition.
"Betsy?" Liv's voice sounded far away. "Are you all right?"
I took a half-step back away from the black-and-white tiles of the entrance hall, but then I saw a familiar face and my manners took over. Without thinking, I stood up straighter, pulled my shoulders back, and put on my best smile.
Lord Pelham Phillimore, my adoptive father and the official host, stood at the door, his wiry frame thinner than normal in his dark Savile Row suit. He'd put a crimson silk hankie in the top pocket in a melancholy attempt to comply with Franny's cheerful dress code, but his distinguished face was gray and tight with strain beneath his white hair.
I wished I could hug him, but the only time Lord P voluntarily submitted to having anyone put their arms round him in public was when his tailor took his chest measurement. His expression, though, softened when he saw me, and I smiled, hoping he'd read the hug in my eyes.
"Betsy," he said, reaching out for my hands, "and Olivia, how lovely. Come in."
There's an irony, I thought, as he kissed my cheek and welcomed me inside. Me, being welcomed into the Phillimore Academy by the very man who'd decided, against his own wife's wishes, that it wasn't appropriate for me to attend, nearly a decade ago.