March 08, 1993 12:00 PM

MY FIRST DATE WITH RONALD FERGUSON WAS in November 1990. He was waiting for me at Claridge’s Hotel in London at his “usual table.” “You know, Sarah and I always have this table when we lunch here,” he said, as I found myself thinking: “My God, here I am with the father of the Queen’s daughter-in-law!”

He leaned forward confidentially. “We’re on the phone to one another practically every day. She tells me everything that happens in that household. And I tell her everything that happens to me. She has a very strong personality, you know. Andrew leans on her.” “Really?” I raised an eyebrow at this revelation on a first meeting. “Yes,” said Ronald. “He’s scared stiff of losing her.”

That conversation was my first hint of the incredible vein of incaution that runs through the Ferguson bloodstream. A few weeks later, during an-other Lunch at Claridge’s, Ronald would tell me, “Can you guess what Sarah told me last night? That she and Diana have some sort of pact about their marriages. Both of them have decided they aren’t in love with their husbands—and they’re going to leave them and support each other! I told her: ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ But you never know with that girl.”

The first time Ronald and I made love was in the guest bedroom of my Surrey home not long after we met. I heard the sound of wheels on gravel and saw his burgundy BMW, with the distinctive license plate: ROW 500. It was the first of many visits, and as our affair deepened, I couldn’t help wondering at the risk he was taking. I was being courted by one of the best-known married men in Britain. Anyone who knew Ronald knew that car. If I mentioned my fears, he just shrugged and said: “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be all right.” We made love that first time without speaking. Later, curled up in Ronald’s arms, I felt safe and at peace.

Player writes that while she valued the majors friendship, she was eventually put off by his smothering “obsession” with her. Unaware, she says, of tabloid reports of Fergie’s frolics with playboy Steve Wyatt, Player fell for the burly Texan the night they met at a party in March 1991. Wyatt called Player the next day and invited her to his apartment for dinner.

Steven escorted me up two red-carpeted flights to his flat. He talked to me, he cooked for me, we drank wine by candlelight, and around 11 I said: “I think I’d better go.” He gave me a small smile and poured more Chateau Lafite into my glass. Then he kissed me softly. The next thing I knew he was earning me into the bedroom!

The strains of Vivaldi filled the room as he laid me gently on the huge bed. As a lover, Steven was wild! I swiftly forgot my guilty feelings about it being the first time on a first dale and found myself completly relaxing under the touch of an erotic master.

One thing struck me as unusual, and it happened every time we were together. Shortly alter midnight, he would leave the bed with an apologetic, “Don’t be angry—I’ve just got a quick phone call.” Sometimes that call would last close to a hall hour. Eventually, I realized it had to be Sarah he was calling.

Player’s romp with Wyatt lasted five weeks. “Steven ditched me abruptly and cruelly,” she writes, “the moment I told him I was working with Major Ferguson.” Shortly after the brushoff Ronald stunned Player, she says, with the news that his daughter was having an affair with Wyatt and “didn’t want to be with Andrew anymore.”

“How long has it been going on between them?” I demanded. “Several months,” he said. But I hardly heard him. It meant that all the lime Steven had been saying those beautiful things to me, he had been whispering the same words into Sarah’s ear as they lay in that same bed.

As we finished a bottle of wine, Ronald’s pent-up feelings poured out. “I’ve got incredible financial problem. AND I feel I’ve lost you—that’s what hurts most.” “You haven’t lost me, Ronald,” I said, “I’ll always be your friend.” The next thing we were in my bed. We shared our tears, but we cried for different reasons.

Six weeks later I found that I was pregnant. My first thought was: I want to keep it. My second was: It’s going to be Sarah’s stepbrother, or stepsister! I cried every day. I didn’t want the baby to grow up without a father. But I could imagine the headlines: ‘FERGUSON BASTARD BORN!’ I thought: This baby won’t forgive me if I bring it into the world with such a stigma. Ronald had told me that he wanted me to have his children. I knew it was a hook to snare me. It would also be an excuse to leave his wile. I finally decided to have an abortion.

It was a full year before I told Ronald. After a long moment he said, “I would have; changed my life, left my wife and family for you—yes, you were right not to tell me.”

In late April 1991, the major introduced his mistress to his daughter. Several weeks later, the Duchess invited Player to spend the night at Sunninghill Park. After dining with Fergie and her father, Player writes, “Sarah showed me to my room.”

There was crisp white linen on the bed, and when Sarah took me into the bathroom I saw pale-blue towels with “S&A” monograms embroidered on the corners. They were huge—big enough to cover a bed! My eyes widened still further at the range of toiletries. Sarah laughed at my expression. “The companies send them to me,” she said. “You should see our storeroom—it’s piled to the ceiling! I call it our Aladdin’s Cave.”

My overnight case had been left by one of the chintz-covered armchairs. When I opened the closet—I stopped dead. There, on hangers, were Ronald’s blazer, a suit, trousers…I had been put deliberately in the same room as Ronald. Sarah not only knew about us, but was conniving at her father’s deceit in his marriage—and under her own roof, too. Nobody except me seemed to think anything was amiss.

Player became a regular visitor at Sunninghill over the next eight months, always with Ronald present.

One Sunday afternoon, when Andrew was watching cricket, he called out, “Hey, Lesley!” I joined him. The Sunday tabloids had been full of fresh speculation about the Yorks’ marriage. Andrew had read the papers, just as all the Royal Family do. “You know,” he said quietly, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on in my own life, let alone what’s in the papers.”

John Bryan “was the other Texas ranger riding roughshod” through Sarah’s life, writes Player, whose chum Catherine Loewe was dating Bryan in October 1991 and invited Lesley to join them for a night out.

We hit the nightclub Tramp as if it were going out of style. By 3 a.m., all three of us were quite tipsy as we look the lift to Johnny’s penthouse flat, which was a mess. The décor was a rather vulgar red and grey with two large red sofas in the living room, a grand piano, and a large red canvas over the fireplace.

Johnny weaved his way toward the bathroom. I saw him produce a plastic bag of white powder from a cupboard and trickle out a line onto a marble shelf. Then he pushed a ten-pound note into one nostril and sniffed up a whole line of powder. After ten minutes he came breezing in, picked me up from the sofa, and marched into the bedroom. He dumped me down none too gently on a four-poster bed.

“Ignore me!” he said. “I just want to make love to you….”

“No, John!” I said firmly.

“Come on,” he urged. “Don’t be so prudish….”

Catherine appeared. John’s eyes lit up. “Come on!” he called. “Let’s all have fun.” I got off the bed, smoothed my dress and went home.

In January 1992, Fergie invited Player to act as her lady-in-waiting on a royal visit to Palm Beach. Although the position should have been approved by Buckingham Palace, the Duchess had no scruples about bending the rules. Lesley Player accepted, and the entourage gathered at the sprawling estate of banking tycoon Robert Fomon, a friend of Steve Wyatt’s.

Whenever I was close to anyone connected with Steven, I felt constant anxiety that Sarah would find out about our affair. That first night at a welcome party in Palm Beach, I was convinced she had been told. Usually, she would rush over to me the moment she spoiled me. But this time, when I caught her eye. she didn’t do more than acknowledge me with a curt nod.

My immediate reaction was: Oh, my God. she knows! Ronald, who did know, said: “Ignore her. She’s upset. Just before we flew out, some photographs were found in Steve Wyatt’s flat. The pictures are only holiday snaps, taken a couple of years ago. But they show that Texan with his arm around her. The one that really annoyed Andrew was little Beatrice without clothes being cuddled by him. Andrew hit the roof.”

The next morning, we were sipping champagne when the buzz of a mobile phone broke in. Sarah answered—and all hell broke loose. She screamed: “What? You’ve got to find them!”

She banged the phone down, and turned to us. “That was Steven. There are more photos,” she said. “They’re like the others—only, well, closer…” What she meant was more incriminating.

By lunchtime the crisis was over. A trusted friend was dispatched to dig out the photos and destroy them. Sarah spent the afternoon flicking restlessly through magazines, occasionally asking me if I liked an outfit she’d spotted—then ripping the page out, and ordering her secretary: “Jane, order this one—straightaway, will you?”

Then she disappeared into the bedroom for half an hour—speaking to Steven, I heard later—and emerged lively and laughing. “Dads, he’s absolutely wild!” she exclaimed, pirouetting toward the champagne bucket. I looked at Ronald. “She means wild in bed,” he muttered.

Sarah’s first official visit in Palm Beach was to the Connors nursery for drug-addicted and AIDS babies. On the way, Ronald advised her that this was a chance to improve her public-relations standing, and that she should ensure that photographs be taken of her holding the children. Photos that would be sent around the world.

Sarah unhesitatingly cuddled babies with full-blown AIDS. Later, as the stretch Cadillac slid through the applauding throng, she relaxed. “Thank God that’s over,” she said. “Who’s for a swim?”

In March 1992, three days after the Duke and Duchess of York announced their formal separation, the major invited Player to Sunninghill for what would be her last visit. John Bryan was also a lunch guest.

I could sense an air of brooding tension hanging within the great house. The balding figure of John Bryan was the first person I saw. His jaw went a little slack, but he recovered swiftly.

After lunch we were relaxing around the fire when Sarah sprang up, put on a cassette in Andrew’s study and turned up the volume. The opening fanfare of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” resounded through the lounge.

Sarah came back, swinging her full hips and snapping her fingers. Andrew frowned and went to turn it down. Next thing she turned it up louder. John Bryan approached her. Without a word, he took her in his arms and they danced around the living-room. Their body language was patently sensual. Then the little girls joined in and the four whirled around the floor. Andrew gave them a steely stare. When I next looked he had his head in his hands.

As dusk fell, Ronald was walking me to my car when Sarah ran up, her face tense. “Dads! I’ve just had a call from the Castle. Andrew and I have to go over there. The Queen wants to see us.” Suddenly, even the stoic Sarah, shameless as she might be in many ways, seemed small—and scared.

Last April, London’s Sunday Times published allegations—of which Player was later cleared—that profits from the polo tournament she had organized the previous year had been mishandled. News reports also criticized her for posing as the Duchess’ lady-in-waiting.

From that moment, my world fell apart. Ronald rang. “I’m sorry for you. It’s terrible,” he said. “Can we do something—anything—to put it right?” I asked. “It’s all lies.” “I know,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can do.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But surely all it would take is a letter from you—or, from Sarah—to clear my name,” I implored. “Lesley, I’m sorry. Sarah has enough problems right now.”

That evening I wrote to the Duchess. “One letter would solve everything—pledging your support, putting the record straight about acting as your lady-in-waiting.” And from Sarah—silence. I sent her another letter and left two messages at Sunninghill. She did not respond.

Several days later, when I was out of the country, Ronald called. His voice was shaky. “Lesley, I have some very bad news. There has been a story in the News of the World suggesting you and I are having an affair. It will be the breaking of us.”

And it was—as far as I was concerned. The story appeared in Britain’s most widely read tabloid that Sunday, and from that moment the wolves were howling at my door.

One by one my sponsors for a second Ladies Polo Tournament I was planning dropped out. A children’s clothing company I was launching closed down because every order placed was canceled that week. A few invitations still came, but I had become a social outcast.

I wrote a final letter to Sarah and sent it to her Buckingham Palace office. This time a formal note came from her equerry: “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York thanks you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.” Now I knew what it was like to be “chilled out!”

Now when I think of Sarah, I remember how someone once described the way she learned to ski: “She was always fast and tended to ski outside her limit, taking chances, which is when the adrenaline starts running. It gives a high which some people might find orgasmic.” That was the way she lived her life and probably always will. And Ronald? I realized that once the newspaper articles appeared, I would lose a lot. What I didn’t count on was losing the support of two people I had counted as friends.

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