Excerpt for A Castle in Cornwall by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Castle in Cornwall

By Laura Briggs

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Laura Briggs


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Cover Image: “Azure Castle.” Original art, “Palace” by Alexey Bannykh. Used with permission. http://www.dreamstime.com/

Dear Reader,


It's the sixth book in A WEDDING IN CORNWALL, and Julianne is facing her biggest challenge ever ... only it's not in her work as a wedding planner. She's making a choice to help a friend, and doing it will tear her away from England and the village she's come to love — maybe forever.

Of course, it won't really be forever. This is the world of happily-ever-after (and there is a Book Seven in the series, after all); but it does mark the end of a chapter in Julianne's life. With each book, the characters have changed and grown a little, and it was time for a goodbye of sorts, to the Julianne who began both a little naive about her new life, and unconditionally in love with everything about it. Just like in real life, that love has to withstand certain challenges in order to grow stronger and endure, and there will be none bigger for Julianne than a forced separation from her beloved Cornwall. And just like real life, even in fictional Cornwall, work, obligations, and life's little problems simply can't go away because there's a bigger problem in life, so Julianne will have to come to terms with her choice gracefully while dealing with yet another zany event.

A Castle in Cornwall also brings resolution to another chapter in the series: the dilemma of Kitty and Nathan's romance. Just like Julianne and Matthew, there have been some obstacles between the series' two most contentious personalities and romantic happiness. But for those of you who have been waiting for their big moment, this novel literally 'sets the stage' for its dramatic finale.

For some of you, this book will be a farewell in itself: enough closure for your favorite characters that you won't continue reading about them in Julianne's next adventure in Cornwall. But I hope many of you will join her in Book Seven and discover what her return to Ceffylgwyn holds in store — and will embrace her new experiences and the new characters (along with the return of a few old favorites, of course).

Whether you can't wait to see what comes next in this series, or simply can't wait to see what's on the next page of this book, I hope you enjoy Julianne's latest story. And please, keep reading at the end for a special excerpt from A ROMANCE IN CORNWALL.

A Castle in Cornwall


By


Laura Briggs

I stood at the crescendo of the walkway, where the two biggest stones become a wall to the eye — a short one that only blocks you from taking two or three climbing steps down the plummet before it becomes sheer, yet jagged stone to the bottom. From here, the sea's restlessness is an ever-changing picture, one that I, Julianne Rose, never grow tired of watching, no matter how many times I come here.

No place is more special in all of Cornwall than this one, not to me. Here, I met the love of my life, who mistook me for a tourist the same instant I trampled his endangered native plant. Here, I would tell him I loved him only a few short months later, before we were temporarily parted. Best of all, it is the place where he asked me to marry him after we weathered various storms in our relationship.

I first laid eyes on the fierce and rugged beauty of the county's shore in this place, and it changed my life forever. Now, as I take a deep breath of sea air, and hear the wind and waves collide with the stones forming these heights, I ask myself how I could ever leave it behind.

But that, sadly, is exactly what I have to do.


***


Three Months Earlier


I hadn't the slightest intention of entertaining thoughts of going home. My life in Cornwall was — well — perfect. As the event planner for Cliffs House manor, I had the career I'd always dreamed of, right? Better than my old life in Seattle, where I'd been the bottom dweller on Design a Dream's staff. And the ring on my finger symbolized a relationship more amazing than any from my romantic past, too.

But it only takes a phone call from a friend to change things. And when that phone call is from your best friend, it's difficult to say 'no,' even if it means a major disruption in your own plans — which is exactly what happened to me. Aimee, my best friend in all the world, was having surgery and had no one else who could run her business during her recovery time. Months of lost revenue meant she'd have to close her shop unless someone could take over for her, someone she trusted and who knew the vision she'd been trying to create with her work ... and that's where I come in. Me, who helped her choose everything from wall color to business plan over five years ago when Aimee first dreamed of doing it.

"It would only be for a few months," I said, wrapping my arms around my legs, resting my cheek against my knees. A good huddling position when I was in need of some self-comfort. "She thinks she'll be back on her feet by next March, once her physical therapy is complete. But ... it'll be months. Definitely sure about that part." I bit my lip after these words.

"It's your decision, my love," said Matt. "But as strongly as you feel about it, I can't see you choosing any differently. We will make it work. I promise." From his place on the floor, where he had been drawing a garden layout, he leaned back against the sofa, his hand brushing against my bare foot.

"It's not me I'm worried about," I said. "It's you. What will you do in Seattle?"

Matt was going with me, of course. When I first explained the situation, I had tried to talk him into staying behind in Cornwall, but he declined. This time wasn't the same as our first separation, when we had barely been dating for three months with no commitments between us, as Matt pointed out to me. Even then, we had both been miserable while apart, proving long-distance relationships weren't our cup of tea.

Matt laughed. "Don't worry about me," he said. "Haven't I told you before? I'll find something to keep myself occupied. There is a natural world in Washington as well as Cornwall, and, I have no doubt, plenty of opportunities for employment in either plant science or propagation."

I pictured Matt in wading boots, collecting botanical specimens from along Washington's rocky coasts. This wasn't exactly on par with Matt's Ivy League career from before in the U.S. It was true that Matt changed careers frequently — from classrooms to digging in the dirt in historical gardens, for instance — but I hated to tear him away from opportunities like his most recent one: designing a special landscape tribute to botanical artist Constance Strong's work, in honor of her gallery show opening in Marseilles.

America was a long ways from France. And I wouldn't have a lot of free time for travel while learning the business ropes before Aimee's surgery.

I sighed. "I just don't want things to change," I said. "I love our life. I love this place. And I feel like we're losing everything somehow, just by crossing the Pond ... even if it's only temporarily."

"That's normal," said Matt, softly. "Anyone feels that way when facing a decision like this one. But we can't change the fact that life changes, Juli. And we change with it. I'm afraid it's true. I've loved this place all my life, yet I still left it for a time after university ... and even after coming back, as you well know. Had circumstances been slightly different, I might never have come back at all."

I was indignant, thinking he meant had he gone to New York with Petal, the former model whom Matt had once loved in America — then I realized he was probably talking about the career he gave up after their breakup, his teaching position and the historical gardens in Massachusetts. Even so, I didn't soften towards his suggestion that a few random choices meant he wouldn't have been on the cliffs path the day I took my first walk in Cornwall.

"Well, I'm not changing," I said, stubbornly. "There was nothing wrong with my life in Seattle, and nothing wrong with Washington ... it just wasn't what I truly wanted. It didn't make me happy the way this life does. You weren't there, for starters."

"But I will be now," he pointed out. "Happily combing the beaches of Seattle, and helping you stock boutique shelves when needed. Won't that make a difference?"

"It'll make it more fun," I conceded. "Compared to life at Design a Dream, anyway." Where my former boss had been all too eager to lay credit to any pathetic little bit of an idea she gave me the chance to share for any event we planned.

"You don't think you could change your mind about that life?" Matt raised one eyebrow. "You'll be home again, Julianne. The land of Starbucks and Coca-Cola, of Thanksgiving dinners and fall foliage like a fireworks display in nature —"

"You're thinking of New England," I said. "In Seattle, it rains nearly as much as England." I was exaggerating a tiny bit, maybe, but I stuck with my point. "In that respect, you'll feel as at home as you do in London, I suppose." I was desperately maintaining my pout. Trying very hard not to concede that Matt's argument was logical, and not entirely without possibility, no matter how much I wanted otherwise.

"Don't you think there's a chance you might someday want to return to Molehill?" He referred to my true hometown, the one I had left behind for Seattle in the first place.

"Not if I can retire to Mousehole first," I answered. To Matt, they both seemed equally small, but vastly different, I supposed. And even if I did miss landmarks from my past — my childhood home, my elementary school, the park where I used to play — would I ever miss them enough to live there again, the way Matt had come back to Ceffylgwyn?

"Still," he edged closer, now encompassing one of my hands with his own, "it's only fair that we give life on your side of the Pond a decent chance after the time we've given my home. I've never had a chance to see your former place in the world, since I was on the other side of the country."

Matt hadn't visited Washington during either our engagement or the first months of our marriage — my parents had flown to England twice, and Aimee had come once, but we'd never had the opportunity before to visit my old haunts in Seattle. The bookstore where I used to curl up with a cup of coffee ... the site of the very first wedding I had helped coordinate, be it in a very minor role ... the places where Aimee and Nate and I hung out, or even the spots where I had gone on an occasional date (not counting my rather fruitless relationship with Dwight, of course).

"I could show you around a little," I said, as Matt rose from our threadbare carpet of cabbage roses. "After all, it's only fair, as you said."

"We'll be there for Christmas," he said. "You can show me your family's traditions firsthand."

My family would probably insist upon joining us, I knew — we'd all cram into a small space and maybe forego my mom's usual pre-purchased ham dinner for something a little more special.

"Those traditions involve baking lots of cookies," I said, foregoing the word 'biscuit' since we were talking about America anyway. "And decorating the tree weeks early with really awful handmade ornaments and all the really beautiful ones we love ... and driving around the neighborhoods to see all the houses decorated. Maybe walking past a few — hand in hand, of course. And everyone's windows are lit up, and you see glimpses of parties, smiling guests and hear holiday music when the door opens ... and you dream about the evening your own home is full of friends and as alive as the one you've just admired."

I couldn't help the fact that my voice softened for these words; the picture in my head was an old one, but one I loved, even as deeply as I loved this cottage, and the view of the restless waters of this coast.

Matt's arms slid around my shoulders from behind; I rested my head against his shoulder.

"I guess maybe it's worth seeing for one Christmas," I said. "I wouldn't want you to be deprived of some of our many American holiday traditions. And I shouldn't abandon Aimee to frozen turkey dinners for Thanksgiving." I smiled, even though Matt couldn't see it with his face buried against my hair.

It meant a year without a tree in our cozy corner in Rosemoor Cottage, of course. But we would bring along Matt's beloved childhood reindeer ornament, and hang it next to the souvenir snow globe I had treasured as a child. We would welcome his sister Michelle and her new husband in whatever place we called our own, if they wanted to come; and top our tree with her childhood handmade angel one last time before it returned to its rightful owner. We could learn to live without Dinah's fantastic puddings and a proper Cornish 'cream tea' for a few months while we contented ourselves with Seattle's amazing coffees and biscotti.

"We can come back," Matt whispered close to my ear, as if sensing my thoughts. "And we can give the life wherever we are a chance in the meantime, making the most of it. As long as I'm with you, I'll be content ... and you've already said the most important part for you is being with me."

"True," I whispered back. I closed my eyes, too, picturing the future we would have on the opposite side of the Pond. One that would create new memories, be captured in new photographs, and commemorated in all the 'bits and bobs' that would fill shelves, tables — and moving boxes — for the rest of our life together.

But it won't be the same as this life. And no matter how good it is, I know that I want to come back, because this is home for me.


***


"Happy birthday," said Nathan.

On Kitty's desk, he placed a white box tied with a glittery pink ribbon, an eager smile on his face as he waited, hands tucked in his pockets. Kitty eyed the gift as she lifted it, as if it might contain live insects, or maybe an unwelcome charge card bill instead of a present from someone who was obviously infatuated with her.

"How'd you know it was my birthday?" she asked. Her fingers tugged the ribbon loose.

"Dinah squealed," he said. "Come on, open it up." He sat down on the edge of her desk, looking as eager as if he was the one with a present to open.

He looked completely smitten with her at this moment. Frankly, it was almost adorable, which must be making it tough for Kitty to keep up her usual air of indifference towards him ... one which was rapidly revealing itself as a feint to anybody close to her these days.

She lifted the lid and from inside, lifted an intricate-looking Eiffel tower made completely of chocolate. The label on the box from a Paris confeterie, undoubtedly.

"Thanks," she said. Two pink spots invaded her cheeks at this point. "It's pretty." The tone with which she uttered those understated words was proof that she was secretly pleased. After all, Kitty's French was more than a little intelligible now after several weeks with books and online pronunciation guides, as our new cook Michael from Nice had admitted; this was no doubt the reason why Nathan had chosen this present.

"I, um, thought you might like it," said Nathan, who was blushing now, too. "There's more to the present than just the chocolate — the rest just didn't arrive in time."

"You don't have to get me anything," she said, although she was still turning the little tower ornament, taking in its ornate detail. It had a ribbon at the top, as if it was an ornament and not an edible — and highly meltable — object. "I mean, it's not obligatory, since we — since I didn't say anything about it, or whatever. Besides, Paris chocolate's not exactly cheap."

"So?" said Nathan. "Like I said, I wanted to get you something. And I wanted to stop by and see you today." Suddenly, he was very busy studying the carpet, and then the framed print of the Duke of Wellington on the opposite wall. "I thought maybe if you weren't busy tonight ... I'd take you somewhere. Since it's your birthday and all."

"Oh." Kitty's blush was a little different now, and rapidly turned pale. "Thanks. But ... I've got a thing already. With the players."

It was Nathan's turn to look disappointed. "Right," he said. "The community theatre. I forgot that was coming up." He studied a random paperweight on Kitty's desk. "So ... is this time something important?"

"It's auditions," said Kitty. "I'm thinking about trying for a part this time."

She looked embarrassed, although she shouldn't — Kitty was a surprisingly good fit for Ceffylgwyn's amateur players. It had taken her weeks to work up the courage to attend one of their meetings, where the sullen looks that cover up her shyness had finally melted away in the theatre's diverse and sometimes eclectic society.

Then again, maybe that shyness was now about something different, since both she and Nathan seemed to be suffering from it. Their glances were brief, their body language that of two people who are trying desperately to not give in and let stronger feelings take charge.

"That's — that's great." Nathan still looked slightly disappointed, but undaunted. "Maybe later, then," he said. "I mean, I know that rehearsals always mean you don't have as much spare time, but I ..."

He hadn't seen me sitting at the table by the door, sending a few emails to a London bakery about an upcoming wedding's cake prices. Not until I rose and approached Kitty's desk with a list of vendors did he realize that I was in the office, too, leaping up as if the desk's corner was covered in hot coals.

"Hi," he said — too brightly to be a comfortable or genuine greeting, since it was obviously covering up his guilt. "Um, I just thought I'd stop by and catch up with things here — you know, discuss the upcoming wine competition —" He stuffed his hands in his pockets, since he had no idea what to do with them up to this moment.

"Save it, Nathan," I said, grinning. "I know about you two. You don't have to pretend." I gave them each a knowing look before I departed. The blushes of both Kitty and the event promoter were dead giveaways that things had progressed since what happened between them this past summer.

Everyone knew it was true. The fact that they had been seen together several times that fall and winter only confirmed it — not that either of them actually used the word relationship, of course, as if their dating was a covert operation. Uncertainty, undeclared feelings — was all too familiar from my own past, and I wondered how long until the two of them admitted the truth to each other about how serious they were.

I knew I could probably twist Kitty into admitting details on its seriousness later. But now, I had something more important, and more personal, to do. I followed the sound of voices, and a repeated soft thud not in the direction of Lady Amanda's office, but to the long hall upstairs that served as a portrait gallery for Lord William's long line of ancestors who occupied Cliffs House before him.

Despite the dour-looking expression of great-great-and-so-on-grandfather Edward, little Edwin picked this spot as his favorite place for playing fetch. Of course, his mum did most of the fetching for him, since five-month-old Edwin could only sit up — but as Lord William, inventor of this particular baby game, had pointed out, it might be the arm of a future cricket champion which hurled that red ball an impressive distance of three feet.

His name was a last minute choice in a compromise between Lady Amanda and Lord William, since the baby name dilemma had stretched on until the mystery was revealed with his birth. The rest of him definitely favored his mother, all except his newly-growing hair, which was Lord William's bristly brown thatch instead of Lady Amanda's ginger color.

"Who's a little bowler? Yes, he is!" Lady Amanda's baby talk voice produced giggles from the future heir of Cliffs House, who was seated on a blanket knitted by his grandmother, wearing a pair of ducky overalls that Gemma herself had picked out as a gift, and a pair of tiny red boots. He clapped his small hands, which were momentarily not occupied with either his favorite red ball or with mussing up his hair.

From the gleam in Edwin's eye as he watched my approach, I knew that it wouldn't be too many months before he gained mastery of his tiny feet; it would be his destiny to walk early and lead his mother into many panicked scenarios involving disassembled bouquets and upset biscuit trays.

"Lady Amanda," I said. "Can I have a word with you?"

"Of course," she said. "Would you mind terribly retrieving that ball from behind the podium for Lady Mulgrove's bust? Honestly, it's the second time this morning the silly thing has rolled there."

She was seated cross-legged for the moment, a binder from her huge shoulder tote bag now open on her lap to a list of local boat charters — despite being wife, mother, and lady of the manor, Lady Amanda's tireless efforts at small business growth and public relations in the village took a back seat to nothing, not even Nathan Menton's efforts to put us on the map.

"What is it, Julianne?" she asked. "If it's about the wine competition, I have a complete inventory list on my desk — the master of ceremonies emailed me by mistake." She pretended to make the red ball disappear — on Edwin's face, a momentary look of astonishment as his toy disappeared up the sleeve of Lady Amanda's flowing blouse. "Where did it go?" she asked him, making her eyes as wide as his own.

"Actually, it's something more serious," I said. "Sort of a problem." I sat down beside her.

"Do tell," she said. The red ball reappeared, and all was right in Edwin's world for the moment.

"My friend Aimee in Seattle has an emergency and needs my help," I said. "Specifically, she needs me to run her business for a few months while she recovers from a medical procedure. She doesn't have any parents or siblings to do it for her, and there's no one else she can trust." I swallowed. "And I told her that I would do it."

A moment of silence. Lady Amanda looked surprised. "I see," she said, at last.

"I don't want to quit," I said. My face had begun to burn hot; my hands tingled horribly, the circulation gone from my fingers in my anxiousness. "But I understand that you can't possibly hold this job for me while I'm gone. I mean, we're not talking about a normal holiday, are we?" I laughed, although it felt very fake to do so. "So what I'm saying is ... I understand if you have to replace me."

"Replace you?" said Lady Amanda.

"You need an event planner, a coordinator," I said. "Now more than ever, since you've got little Edwin on top of your own business to run. And I know that you're probably not ready to trust Kitty to do it."

Kitty had come a long ways in a short time, but even I didn't know if she was ready for the pressure of handling Cliffs House on her own. The chaos, the difficult clients who were sometimes picky about their hors d'oeuvres, or angry about a last-minute change — would Kitty revert back to her old self, the opinionated hothead who thought nothing of challenging or insulting her antagonist?

As if sensing this was a serious moment for his mother, Edwin handed me his red ball, his tiny face suddenly solemn. I accepted it, turning it over in my hands as I spoke, as if it were a Magic 8 Ball that would predict the outcome of all this.

"I was going to hand you a formal resignation in a few weeks, but I wanted to talk to you first, so it doesn't come out of the blue," I continued. "I thought I would help you choose a successor, if you needed help doing it."

"I don't see why you should resign for good," said Lady Amanda. "Not if you're planning to return."

"But for months?" I said. "What will you do?" I pictured her hiring a nanny for Edwin, letting her own business affairs fall slack to tie up loose ends for the public side of manor life. It was hardly fair.

"We'll do what you suggested," she said. "We'll give Kitty a chance. After all, she's proven herself quite competent the last six months or so. She deserves a chance ... and, anyway, we'd probably be leaning on her skills until we found someone to replace you, wouldn't we? And it's not as if you're asking us for a paid extended holiday, are you?"

"No," I admitted. "But it's too much to ask, having you hold the position for me." And if I don't come back, I could add, even though it didn't seem possible in my mind. But if I didn't, then Cliffs House's affairs could, well, go 'over the cliff' as they say ... unless Kitty proved herself worthy enough to take my place on a permanent basis.

"Nonsense," said Lady Amanda. "It's my decision, you know, more than William's, even. And I wouldn't choose someone to take your place unless your decision to stay in America was absolute. Besides which, I must admit that I've grown rather fond of Kitty these past few months — she's really quite good with Edwin, you know. He positively adores her."

I thought of Kitty's protests that she was terrible with kids, and hid my smile. "If you want to give her a trial period, I would support you," I said. "We both know she's gifted at this work, whether she admits it or not."

"I had been thinking she might handle the wine competition on her own," said Lady Amanda, whose tone was decidedly thoughtful with this reply. "It would be a good test, really, now that I consider it from all angles. If she can handle that crowd, then we'll know she's practically ready."

"Ag gug goo!" proclaimed Edwin. I handed him the red ball and watched as his throw landed it a disappointing two feet away from his own.

The 'had been thinking' of Lady Amanda's speech caught my ear. "Really?" I said. "You wanted Kitty to be in charge of the event?"

Don't get me wrong — it wasn't professional pride that made me ask, but genuine surprise. This particular competition involved a rather posh and serious subset in the wine community — a group we had dealt with before, who were now hosting a few English winemakers and a few small French vineyards for a blind tasting. The sort of clients who made Lady Amanda nervous, due to the list of pet peeves and preferences that accompanied their booking.

"She wouldn't want to budge from the manor this summer, anyway," continued Lady Amanda. "Not with the players staging a new production, of course. She and Michael get on swimmingly, so the menu for the brunch and the hors d'oeuvres would be simple for the two of them."

"Of course," I said. "But what do you mean by 'budge'?" Was Kitty planning to go somewhere, and I had been clueless about it?

"Yes, well...I had rather a favor in mind from you." Lady Amanda hesitated. "I suppose I've been putting off asking for it — but since you've confided in me, and you're not leaving immediately, I believe that I'll take advantage of your skills while they are still at my disposal. You are here for the summer, I trust?"

"Of course," I said. "And I'm happy to help with anything." Nevertheless, I felt puzzled. There wasn't another major event on Cliffs House's calendar for the summer — unless there was one I didn't know about —

"I don't suppose you've had any experience with royal weddings, have you?" said Lady Amanda.

My eyes widened. "What?" I said.

"Ga-ga woo!" declared Edwin, clapping.


***


Azure Castle, home to the Honorable Samuel and Marjorie Ridgeford, stood at the top of a hill in the village of Aval Towan, or 'sand apple,' as it means in Cornish, named for a once-famous orchard which stood close to the sea. The tongue-in-cheek nickname of the castle locally was 'Towan Castle,' Lady Amanda explained — even with only a smattering of Cornish at my disposal, I was quick to get the point, since 'towan' means 'sand.'

"Marjorie's ever so grateful for this," said Lady Amanda. "You can't imagine, really. She was almost in tears after Helen rang her and positively begged to use the place for the wedding. 'Bullied' would be the proper word for it. Helen's one of those women who always has her way, whether it's by the pressure of tears or words. And ever since the scandal with her husband, she's had a positive fear of the press, her London house practically a cloister since he left."

Helen was Lady Helen Lewison — and somehow closely related to William's cousin Marjorie, it seemed, although Lady Amanda had yet to explain how close. Enough so that she couldn't refuse to let her family's home be used for a family wedding, it seemed.

"Honestly, I don't know how her daughter endured it, short of being at school most of the time — then again, I don't know how Marjorie let herself be persuaded to leave her flat behind for weeks, merely so Helen and the others can avoid a few photographers."

Lady Amanda was at the wheel of her car as we drove to Aval Towan, passing road signs for Land's End and other villages along the Cornish Riviera's coast. I was in the seat beside her, while Gemma and Pippa were squeezed into the rear seat beside a snoozing baby Edwin. Yes, our very own Pippa, who wouldn't miss an opportunity to be part of a royal wedding — even if the royalty involved was as distantly removed from the crown as these two lovers.

"Isn't he a prince, though?" piped up Gemma. "That means he's probably really famous in his country — the entertainment reporters will be mobbing the family for all sorts of juicy details."

"Imagine marrying a prince," sighed Pippa. "It's so romantic. Like the movie where the girl finds out she's a princess, but was living like an ordinary nerd in some American city. Remember the one?" she looked at Gemma. "With Anne Hathaway?"

"He's in the line of succession," answered Lady Amanda, "but very distantly in line for actually inheriting a Scandinavian throne, I assure you. I believe several uncles and their descendants would have to die first." Her lips cracked a rather wicked smile as she caught my eye. "Josephine won't be crowned anytime soon."

"Josephine?" echoed Pippa, dismayed. "What sort of name is that for a princess-to-be?" She wrinkled her nose with distaste, although I couldn't see anything wrong with it.

“But well suited to an empress, I suppose?” Lady Amanda winked at me. "Magnus's choice," she explained to Pippa, referring to Helen's former husband. "It was popular in whatever part of Canada his shipping line was headquartered once — the island where Anne of Green Gables was written, I think."

"Josephine Barry," I said. "The unlikely 'kindred spirit' to Anne."

"Who?" said Pippa. "I've never heard of her. Was she some sort of psychic?" But the only reply was a sleepy gurgle from Edwin, who was beginning to wake up for his lunch.

"How much farther?" I asked Lady Amanda.

"A little longer. Aval Towan is above Penzance on the coast. Not quite part of the Cornish Riviera per say ... the village faces the sea to the west," she said. "I'll show you on the map — where is it?"

"Here's one for the Newquay township," I said. "There's one for the inland roads —" I sifted through the glove compartment's assorted objects, finding mostly extra brochures from the businesses Lady Amanda represented, a bottle of hand cream, and a spare pacifier.

"Is the prince at the castle already?" ventured Gemma.

"Everyone's at the castle," said Lady Amanda, abandoning our search for the map after several sample brochures landed on the car floor. "Even Josephine's grandmother, the antiquated Lady Astoria, who has deigned to leave Paris just to bestow her blessing on the girl ... or stop the wedding, whichever decision her sharp mind entertains upon arriving. And Kristofer's branch of the royal family is there, of course..."

I heard Gemma issue a contented sigh. "There's not a chance there's a few royal brothers, I suppose?" she asked.

"Afraid not. At twenty-two, Kristofer is the oldest and only child of Prince Gustaf," said Lady Amanda. "I'm afraid any younger siblings that might unexpectedly be added to his family would be more eligible as playmates for Edwin than suitors for either of you."

"She didn't say that the royal cousins wouldn't be there," pointed out Pippa. Edwin gave a louder burble of concern.

"I agree, lambikin," said Lady Amanda to him, in a soothing voice. "I believe it's time to luncheon, dear ladies," she said. "Then on to Azure Castle." She turned at the sign indicating Penzance, the nearest sizeable village to the apparently quiet-and-rustic Aval Towan. Our future destination sounded a little like Ceffylgwyn — only perhaps even sleepier, as hard as that would be to imagine, as it wrapped itself around its resident castle on the hill.

Above that sleepy village of whitewash and granite was indeed a hill that looked like a gently-sloping mound, heavily blanketed in timber, with towers of stone rising above the tree tops like sentinels watching over the world below. It was not the gentle slope it appeared, when Lady Amanda's car rumbled up the winding, mile-long wooded lane that curved suddenly to reveal the courtyards, gravel car park, and gardens that formed the grounds of Azure Castle.

"Here we are," she said. I drew a deep breath, unprepared for this first encounter with a true Cornish castle, its appearance as far removed from Cliffs House's stately grandeur as an ancient Norman cathedral is from Windsor Palace — two distinctly breathtaking sites which share the common grounds only of being historical buildings.

Like sand, Azure's newer towers seemed pale and tawny, almost white in the bright sunlight above its wooded glens. Turrets and fortress walkways abounded in its square portions and the serpentine curve of its original structure, especially on the oldest part which now faced us — a darker granite which did seem almost blue in the shadows, as if the trick of the sea's colors on a stormy day had been imparted to it. The whole construct was married together like puzzle's sections harmoniously joined at the corners, with impressive windows surveying us from three floors.

Its sleeping self seemed to awaken as the sun broke from behind its clouds once more, bathing the high walls and the bright shades of flowers in the massive carved urns placed along its facade. It could be a Mediterranean palace overlooking the sea — if only the sea was visible as more than a pigeon's view from the back gardens, as I would later learn. It could be the home where Sleeping Beauty lay for a hundred years, so peaceful and beautiful it stood in the garden's clearing.

"Wow," I said, softly. Nobody heard me, since they were busy taking notice of a second arrival, a rental car parking a short distance away, which was the only thing which drew my attention from the castle before us. From the driver's seat, Dinah emerged.

"Dinah!" Pippa's scream was echoed by the rest of us — as a group, we launched ourselves at Cliffs House's former cook, who almost dropped the box of pots and pans in her arms as a result.

"Heavens!" she said. "You would think it's been thirty years instead of a couple of months! Pippa, mind that decanter, child, it's fragile!"

Among the many favors that Marjorie had called on Lady Amanda to fulfill was the search for an exemplary baker whose prestigious bakery wouldn't try to cash in on the chance to make a royal wedding cake, as cousin Helen evidently feared. And there was nobody as talented or discreet as Dinah Barrington, winner of the southern counties' Grand Baking Extravaganza and owner of the newly-opened Sponge & Scone bakery — whose cakes had formerly graced the receptions of celebrities ranging from footballers to artists.

"It's been longer than that for me," said Pippa, giving Dinah a pouting look. "Aren't you the least bit glad to see me?" Pip had only been at Cliffs House once since her marriage to Gavin a year ago. The former kitchen assistant, along with Gemma, had always been wont to drive Dinah crazy with gossip about celebrities and speculations on the romantic status of Ceffylgwyn's natives ... although I always suspected Dinah enjoyed their company more than she admitted.

"Of course I am." Dinah's customary scolding, but softened, as usual. "And not the least bit surprised you're here, given the grand occasion." She shifted her box of supplies into a more comfortable position. "I only hope that my sponge doesn't fall flat — this filling is rather tricky, and in practice the whole thing is wont to lean."

"It will be brilliant," said Gemma. "You've never had it fail when it's a necessity to pull it off."

"Just like in the baking extravaganza," said Pippa. "Only your soufflé was a bit wonky, come to think of it. And when Pierre pointed out —"

"Enough of this chitchat," said Dinah, before Pippa could detail the exacting sting of judge Pierre Dupine's critique. "Where is the kitchen?" she inquired of the caretaker, who was helping unload our luggage.

"Right this way," said Lady Amanda. In his carrier, Edwin began fussing, his pacifier having lost itself in the blankets, so Gemma lifted him up.

"How's my little fewwow?" she asked him, in exaggerated baby speak, as he beamed up at her, tears vanishing — Edwin was definitely aware of his power over the rest of Cliffs House, and knew how to use it. It resulted in him being fed tiny animal-shaped biscuits dipped in milk from Gemma and me, and getting loads of 'horsey rides' from Geoff whenever he came to tea.

"Here, you're not holding him right," said Pippa. "He needs better support. I'll show you." Pippa now worked at a child care center, where she probably spent hours holding babies and toddlers; but this was mostly an excuse to cuddle Edwin, I suspected, who found her pixie haircut fascinating. The six of us made our way inside, where Marjorie was waiting to meet us.

"I'm so glad you're here," she said, pouring a cup of tea from a brown china teapot. "I've been positively frantic for the past few weeks — Samuel's still in London, will be until the end of the trial, and meanwhile, everybody's popping up, from a Danish ambassador to the dowager herself." She sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. "I told Helen 'the house isn't ready — it hasn't been open since Reginald died, not even for tours by appointment!' But she was so dreadfully insistent ... going on about how Josephine was positively hounded by the press after Magnus left, and there were whispers that Kristofer's family dislikes family drama ... that I broke down ere the end of her pleadings."

She poured tea for all us in turn, as Dinah bustled around in the background, unpacking her personal utensils. "And what a dreadful mess I've made of things," she continued. "I was never lady of the manor, as you know. After all, when Reginald was alive, his second wife — the one from Greece, remember? — she did the smile and wave bit for the tourists, and at the Christmas Eve open house for the village, while I was busy worrying about Downing Street and Whitehall's matters."

Marjorie had a position in government finance, I had learned, while her husband was part of the judiciary. "And now that she's gone, I've no one to turn to but you. Well ... and Aunt Darlene, I suppose. But she's a bit potty these days, isn't she?" She took a sip from her mug.

"Practically senile," said Lady Amanda. "Never fear, though. I've had loads of experience in your shoes — keeper of the castle, that is. And I've brought my very best to answer your needs."

"Thank heavens," said Marjorie, blowing a wisp of bangs from her forehead. "They've placed almost everything about the reception and the decor in my hands. Of course, that gimlet of a wedding coordinator is slithering about, but she's only here to pass judgment, it seems. Helen's so dreadfully nervous that someone will find out about the wedding that she won't let practically anyone of note provide so much as a tulip!"

"You won't hear a peep from me," said Dinah, who was sampling biscuits — shop ones — with a look that suggested they were better quality than the ones that Gemma typically favored at home.

"Nor any of us," I said. "We promise that no word of weddings or royal ties will cross any of our lips, here or at home."

"Helen will be relieved," said Marjorie. Whose voice took on a slight edge when uttering this name.

"Why's she so afraid of the papers?" asked Gemma. "It's not like Prince Harry's getting married."

"Or someone else famous, even," added Pippa, who snagged a biscuit from the plate as Dinah passed it within her reach. "That is, I know the groom's practically a prince — and she's from some branch of the Queen's family tree — but even so, it's not the event of the year when there's loads of celebrity gossip and scandal happening every day. Footballers getting married, actors caught cheating. M.P. candidates upsetting the national polls — selling national secrets, even."

"Ah, well, scandal's the problem," said Marjorie, with a sigh. "Helen's husband left her, you know. Magnus Oppenheimer — the shipping tycoon here and abroad. Five years ago, he absconded with his masseuse — off to Malta on his yacht with nary a word of warning. He left Helen in tears. The whole thing made for a horrible story in the papers, and poor Josephine was scarcely fifteen when it all descended on her."

Marjorie poured a cup of tea for Dinah, who joined us now. "Poor child couldn't stir from her own home without nasty questions about her father plaguing her," Marjorie continued. "She ended up in boarding school in Switzerland to get away from it all. Helen was a bit of a disaster then."

"Is that how she met the prince?" asked Gemma, whose mind undoubtedly leaped ahead to romantic meetings on a ski slope, the prince and his princess-to-be sharing a sleigh robe for a moonlight ride in a reindeer-drawn sled.

"I suppose it was," said Marjorie. "In truth, I think this proposal was rather ... arranged." She hesitated. "His parents were very eager to have him nicely settled — they're a bit strict, quite afraid of their only son choosing a wild child, probably. A lovely, educated girl from a noble family, albeit a foreign one, probably seemed like an excellent stopping point in love, in their eyes."

"And her mother?" I said.

"Agreed right along with them. No doubt because she's afraid that Josephine will make a less-than-sensible choice herself. Magnus wasn't always a tycoon, you know. And he had a reputation — a small one — when they met." She set aside her teacup.

"It can't be a loveless match," said Lady Amanda, scoffing. "The parents can hardly be forcing these two into a union unless there's something there."

"Oh, they seem fond enough of each other — Kristofer especially — but this whole courtship has been rather rushed towards the ceremony. Stiff old upper crust forcing youth into its proper roles." Marjorie smiled. "You'll have a chance to see for yourself these next few weeks."

Dinah was showing everyone the sketches for the cake, two drawings encased in plastic sleeves, along with a photograph of a trial version. I carried my teacup to the tray on the sideboard, gazing at the formal garden which resembled a neat square of bright emerald between stone walls, with hedges like leafy marbles on twiggesh trunks.

"That's the bride," said Marjorie. Referring to a girl in the garden, occupying the middle of the square. Posed like a dancer, or maybe playing statue, she seemed so perfectly still and graceful.

"Ballet, or something from its modern school," said Marjorie, as if reading my mind. "She was a student as a girl — once, when she was quite small, I brought her to see an interpretative Eastern European dance company at the Royal Albert Hall. One of the rare holidays I wasn't fretting over an M.P.'s upcoming vote."

Now, as the girl struck a different pose, I could see the resemblance to some little ballerinas in a jewelry box from my childhood. Josephine had the proper build — slender, a 'slip of a girl' as prim little old ladies would say, in her fitted leggings and leather riding boots, a soft summer top with sleeves flowing around her arms like a dancer's light costume. Her brown waterfall of hair was obscuring the sight of a pair of earbuds, I suspected.

"She looks so young," I said. "She looks sixteen or seventeen, not old enough for marriage."

"She's nineteen," said Marjorie. She was carrying all the tea things to the counter now. "And very bright — she finished her studies early by spending every waking hour with books and classes. Art history and literature. She's only recently been free of scholarly duties, and wished to travel for a bit before settling on a future — I suspect that's why Helen pushed for the wedding, really."

"I see," I answered, feeling sad at the thought of Josephine's possibly-dashed dreams. "What about after they're married?"

They would live in Kristofer's country, I suspected; but surely Josephine wouldn't be the antiquated 'lady of the castle,' sitting around planning formal teas ... or whatever passed for them in Scandinavia. Kristofer wasn't a future king — and this was the twenty-first century, anyway.

"She wants to start an arts program or literacy foundation for children, I think." Marjorie's brow furrowed, as if she couldn't quite remember. "It's practically the only thing she talks about, while Helen and the rest talk above her about couture gowns and the nuptial theme for the formal hall."

"And Kristofer?" I felt a bit nosy asking, but I supposed we would all be meeting Marjorie's royal relations in a matter of hours anyway. It was better to know now than ask them dull questions later.

"Something in government or finance, I think. He's only a few weeks away from accepting a position. He's a charming boy — a bit shy on the surface, but quite personable and kind. Josephine spoke so fondly of him ... well, until their families began meddling." Marjorie's tone was a bit darker at this point. Underlying family tensions, I perceived.

"Go and introduce yourself, if you like," continued Marjorie. "She has to be summoned inside shortly anyway — a meeting with the aforementioned dictatorial coordinator begins in a quarter of an hour. Practically high tea around here." She rolled her eyes. "Just mind the security agents of Helen's, if they're about. They're quite touchy about strangers."

Security agents? "Sure," I said. I opened the outside door, finding a slate pathway outside it, branching in three directions at its crossways. I chose the one leading to the formal garden.

Josephine was inclined almost earthwards, one leg extended behind her, arms stretched in a graceful upside-down 'V'. I paused until she noticed me, then smiled.

She smiled back: a charming, small one that I expected from a newly-minted adult assuming a role in society. She rose, and removed the earbuds; I caught the faint strains of classical music. "Hello," she said.

"Hi. I'm Julianne Rose," I said. "I'm here with your cousin's wife, Amanda. I'm her event planner at Cliffs House, and she's asked me to help out with your wedding's plans."

"You're an American," said Josephine. "From what state?"

"Washington," I said. "Have you ever been there?" Maybe Josephine and I could talk about travel — I had no idea what one discussed with a possible future princess. Were normal subjects acceptable? Should I say something polite about the royal family, or remark on the beauty of castles or crowns?

"Never. I've never been outside of Europe," she answered. "Mummy doesn't like air travel. It gives her a headache. And until recently I was quite busy with my studies, even for holidays. My father has, though." Her tone was short for this remark.

Magnus wouldn't be at his daughter's wedding; Mrs. Lewison had been insistent, not that he had complained or protested at being banished. He had written off his wife and daughter entirely after running away with his masseuse, it seemed.

I switched the topic back to something more cheerful, since we had inadvertently stumbled into sensitive territory for her. "This is such a beautiful place," I remarked. "I think it's a perfect choice for a wedding."

"It was Mummy's." A slight inward pinch of the lips, then Josephine smiled again. "I've always been curious," she said. "Is America really anything like it is on the telly?"

"I'll tell you anything you want to know," I said. "At least until we reach the drawing room where your wedding coordinator awaits."

Josephine's smile dimmed. "Of course," she said. "Duty calls." She turned off her music player and followed me towards the castle's entrance. To my relief, not a single bodyguard materialized from behind the manicured hedges as I began explaining life in Seattle.


***


While Josephine freshened up, I found my way to the drawing room, hoping for a quick introduction to Marjorie's 'gimlet,' the wedding coordinator. The tiny staff Marjorie had hired for the wedding was busy elsewhere, along with the caretaker, so the first two doors I opened upon my guess turned out to be some sort of nearly-empty armory and a vast hall that must surely be the site of the wedding ceremony, with the simple majesty of an ancient throne room, and tall windows filling the whole space with light.

Third try lucky: I found myself in a room with a beautiful modern suite of furniture, a handsome carved fireplace, and bookshelves occupied by leather-bound editions and curious antique knickknacks. Given Marjorie's home in London, I suspected these were mementoes of the house's former owners, Reginald and his wife — including the piano near the windows, where a young man was now playing a song.

Kristofer, I surmised. Not just because of his wheat-blond hair or blue eyes which would immediately suggest northern Europe to most people, but because there was no conceivable reason for anyone else this young or attractive to be waiting for a dull meeting in a drawing room.

"Sorry," I said. "Didn't mean to interrupt. I was looking for the wedding coordinator."

"She will be here in a moment," he said. "Come in, please." The music had ceased when I opened the door, but what I heard before then sounded classical — an echo of the song from Josephine's music player.

"Don't stop playing," I said. "It sounded really beautiful."

"I must stop anyway, when everyone else comes," he pointed out. He rose and extended his hand. "Kristofer Rijink," he said. He spoke English extremely well, although I could detect his accent easily when he spoke at length.

"Julianne Rose," I said. "I'm here to help plan your wedding."

He laughed. "I didn't think there was room left for anyone to help," he said. "The coordinator, my mother, and Lady Lewison — they seem to have done a very remarkable job in very little time. They have made a wedding appear out of thin air." He smiled for his joke, but I wasn't sure it was a completely humorous smile.

The door opened and the rest of the company appeared: a very cool, elegant, and slightly plump woman who was introduced as Anneka — Kristofer's mother; a strong mustached, weathered General Gustaf — Kristofer's father, the prince; and a well-tailored middle-aged man with the family nose and a disarming smile, named Anders — a relative, I presume, although he was introduced as a diplomat.

Helen Lewison was exactly as I imagined her: tired, sad, and extremely dignified. With her fair skin and light ginger hair she looked more like a relative of Lady A's than William's — but with a formal bearing, even in casual situations, that seemed as old-fashioned as her formal — and expensive — afternoon dress.


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