ABOTS_First Chapter Friday
There are worse places to escape a broken engagement than Castle Calder. I haven’t even been inside yet, but when my bestie, Scarlett St Julien, pulls into the driveway of her family’s castle-turned-hotel, I decide immediately. Castle Calder: one. Ex-fiancé: zero. My mother and her Oh, but Bea, he’s such a nice young man: negative five hundred and eighty.
“Wow. I know you said castle, but I didn’t expect, like, turrets and everything.” I gape at the building in front of me. It’s an honest-to-God fairy-tale castle. Big. Imposing. Regal.
Scarlett laughs, maneuvering the Ford Focus we picked up at Manchester Airport between a shiny black Range Rover and a sleek silver Audi TT. “Trust me, you’ll be cursing those turrets by the time you haul a few loads of bedding down the stairs. The people who rent the turret rooms are always the ones who leave their rooms in the worst state. You don’t even want to know the places I’ve found knickers up there.”
I kind of do want to know, but Scarlett eases the car into park and opens the door in one smooth motion, hopping from her seat onto the gravel drive. I follow, leaving my door ajar as I continue to gawk at the red brick building in front of me. It looks bigger when I’m standing up. The front door alone must be eight feet tall and the windows, with their stained glass panes in the middle, are wide and sparkling in the sun.
“This is amazing.” Understatement of the year. Even the cool breeze smells sweet. Judging by the thin sheen of yellow on the hood of the Audi, it’s only pollen, but I have to resist calling it the perfumed air like someone out of a Regency romance. Seriously, if I could bottle this scent, I would.
“It is pretty ace, isn’t it?” Scarlett grins. “Good plan?”
“Oh my God, the best.” I put one hand over my heart and gesture towards the castle with the other. “And then the fair lady rescued the maiden from an awkward summer of working with her ex, whisking her across an ocean and welcoming her into her kingdom.”
Scarlett giggles. “And the maiden was so beholden to the lady she wrote her thesis outline for her over the summer holiday.”
I laugh. “How about, ‘The maiden was so beholden to the lady, she did her laundry,’ or something? It reeks more of servitude.”
“I can do my own laundry. It’s the outline I’m worried about. The Impact of Color and Art in the Workplace on Employee Satisfaction is titillating, but I need your research skills and flawless grammar.”
“I’m a math teacher, not an English teacher. Remember?”
Scarlett waves her hand like she’s brushing off a gnat. “Details, details. Surely a summer abroad is worth a little help with the proper use of the Oxford comma?”
“You convince my mom I’m not getting back together with Theo, let alone marrying him, and I’ll Oxford comma the hell out of your outline. Swear.”
“You forget I know your mother. I’ll be convinced I should marry Theo by the time she’s done with me.” Scarlett makes a face. “Speaking of, are you ready to say hello to the motley crew we’ve got on here?”
“Yep.” I smile, but my pulse dances a samba in my chest. I’ve met Scarlett’s parents before, but spending Parents’ Weekend with them four years ago is very different from spending the summer – especially since Scarlett convinced them to take me on as occasional help, which keeps me off the books. Truly, if I’m beholden to anyone, it’s them.
Scarlett starts towards the huge front door. “We’ll get our cases when we find out where you’re going to be staying. Come on.”
Where I’m going to be staying? Even though Scarlett said the family apartment is small and I’d be bunking elsewhere, I still half-thought I’d be in the room next to Scarlett’s, connected by a too-small bathroom with a super messy counter. Just like our Atlanta apartment. Now, looking at the castle, I realize how dumb that is. This is going to be nothing like Atlanta. At all.
Scarlett pushes the front door and I follow her through, stopping immediately inside. The walls are a deep dark wood, polished and gleaming. A huge fireplace takes up most of one wall with couches placed in a semi-circle in front of it. To my right is a large antique desk with a bell sitting next to a huge vase of fresh flowers. A tapestry of a guy on a horse covers most of the wall behind the desk. He’s holding a sword, a cape flying out behind him as he races towards a mountain.
“That’s William,” Scarlett says.
“William the Brave.”
I nod, then shrug. “I’ve never heard of him.”
Scarlett lets out a belly laugh. “Well, technically he might be William the Wannabe. My parents got that rug at an estate auction a few years ago. I’m not sure who he is.”
“Jerk.” I laugh and reach out to hit her on the arm.
“Hey, I’m trying to give you the full British experience. Plus, you’re the only person I know who calls me a jerk instead of a bitch and I think it’s sweet.” Scarlett rings the bell on the desk before continuing. “Wait until everyone starts asking you to say things. We don’t get many Americans up here.”
I follow as she walks through the foyer. “I’ve noticed.”
When we stopped for gas – petrol – I ended up having a five-minute conversation with a woman in the Starbucks line after picking up the piece of paper she dropped from her bag. Once she heard my accent, we went through the gamut of questions I’ve heard Scarlett answer more times than I can count. Where’re you from? How long are you staying? What brought you here? I’ve always wanted to go to New York, have you been there?
Atlanta. The summer. Vacation. And yes, but when I was five, so I don’t remember much.
I haven’t watched Scarlett navigate that minefield for years without learning a few things in the process. It’s good to know her tactic works on both sides of the Atlantic – be slightly aloof and engage as little as possible.
Scarlett turns and grins. “I wondered if I was going to have to run interference with that woman.”
“Nope, but you owe me for the 7,012 times I’ve done it for you, and I’m sure I’ll be needing it at some point.”
Starting now. A blonde girl dressed in shorts and a hoodie comes around the corner, followed closely by Mrs. Call-Me-Hannah St Julien. Both stop short before the girl throws her arms around Scarlett’s neck.
“I didn’t know you were already here, you numpty. Why didn’t you text?”
“I emailed you our flight info. Besides, I packed my UK SIM and I have no idea where it is.” Scarlett flashes a Julia Roberts smile. “And it’s nice to see you, too.”
The girl laughs and passes Scarlett off to her mom, who hugs Scarlett while saying, “I was just thinking about calling to see where you were, although I guess that wouldn’t have helped. I’m so glad you’re here. How was your journey?”
“Good,” Scarlett says into her mom’s shoulder. “Tiring. You know I can never sleep on planes.”
Mrs. St Julien turns to me. “And Bea, it’s so lovely to see you again. Did you manage to sleep at all?”
“No. Scarlett wouldn’t let me.” I smile and Mrs. St Julien laughs. She gives me a quick hug, too, her arms barely circling my shoulders before she lets go. Scarlett warned me I’m going to have to get used to St Julien family hugs and calling her parents by their first names. I assured her I’m up for the challenge, but I’m glad Mrs. St Julien isn’t pushing it.
“That sounds like my girl,” Mrs. St Julien says. She turns to the girl in the hoodie, who’s been watching our exchange. “Claire, this is Bea, Scarlett’s roommate from Atlanta. They were college roommates and now Bea is a math teacher. I thought I’d put you two together out in the cabin, since Bea’s going to be working in the house this summer, too.”
I almost ask, “What house?” before realizing Mrs. St Julien is talking about the castle. Claire smiles at me. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Me too,” I say. Instead of letting me sleep, Scarlett gave me the rundown of the summer staff at Castle Calder. Claire studies marketing at the University of Bath – pronounced Baaath – and has a crush on Will, a barman at the local pub, which, according to Scarlett, is sad and one sided. But Claire is also funny and handy with a wrench, so Will might come to his senses one of these days.
“Are you girls shattered?” Mrs. St Julien asks. “I made a lemon cake if you think you’re up for it?”
Scarlett claps her hands. “My mum’s lemon cake is to die for. You have to at least have a bite. Come on. I’ll give you a tour on the way to the kitchen.”
She walks and I follow, with Mrs. St Julien and Claire behind. We wind through hallways covered with more tapestries on the walls – but none of them are as impressive as William the Wannabe. Scarlett points out the library – full of books and a dark brown leather sofa -- and a game room – another dark brown leather sofa and a few wingback chairs -- in addition to a hallway she says I’ll need to remember to access the guest rooms. I’m sincerely hoping I won’t need to remember today, because wow, am I tired. Now that we’re here and the excitement of the flight and being in England has abated a little, I feel every one of the thirty-six hours since I last slept.
Of course, if I hadn’t left packing until the night before, I might not feel like death warmed over. The best way to finish an unpleasant task is to get started, you know. Ugh. Four thousand miles away and my mother’s pithy sayings still follow me, if only in my head.
Scarlett pushes a door open to her left and my thoughts of home, Mom, and Atlanta stop as I follow her into the biggest kitchen I’ve ever seen. It’s at least five times the size of mine and Scarlett’s entire apartment. A silver countertop gleams along one side, but it’s the wall of stoves that’s most impressive. There are three huge ovens side by side and fifteen burners. Maybe more. A couple of them have pots simmering on top and there are more copper-bottomed pots stacked on the shelves than the whole kitchen department at Target.
Scarlett opens a cabinet and pulls out a stack of tea cups while Claire fills a kettle and places it on one of the stoves. It’s so seamless – the way they do it without even speaking – it’s clear they’ve done it a thousand times before.
“So, this is the kitchen,” Scarlett says, grinning. To Claire and her mom, she says, “Bea’s idea of cooking is chopping up tomatoes for her salad, so you may not want to let her in here unsupervised.”
Claire laughs, but Mrs. St Julien shakes her head. “We’re short in the kitchen this week because Emma’s daughter is poorly, so, Scarlett, you’ll have to fill in.”
Scarlett rolls her eyes. Unlike me, she’s a whiz in the kitchen, but that doesn’t stop her from hating it. She survives mostly on Cup Noodle and take-out from the cheap Mexican place down the street from our apartment, but on the days she does cook, I’ve learned to stay out of her way. Before she can speak, I hear myself say, “I can help. I’m not as hopeless as Scarlett would have you think.”
“You are, too! Remember the time you thought you were going to make spaghetti sauce from scratch?” Scarlett says.
Mrs. St Julien holds up her hand. “Thank you, Bea. Emma helps with the prep, mostly, so if you can chop, that would be a big help.”
“Plus, it beats changing the bedding,” Claire says. “We have a big party coming on Friday night. Mr. Fisher’s ninetieth birthday.”
Between the way she says it and the way Scarlett and Mrs. St Julien’s mouths purse, I’m guessing Mr. Fisher is a return guest, and not a welcome one. I’m about to ask what he’s done when a deep male voice rings out behind me. “There you are. I thought I heard your voice.”
Scarlett squeals and runs across the floor. My gaze follows her and lands on her target, and every thought of Mr. Fisher leaves my head as Scarlett throws her arms around the young, tall, dark-haired guy in the doorway. His sweater has a hole by the neck, his glasses are a bit askew on his face, and his chinos hang a little too loosely on his waist, but there’s no denying it -- Jasper St Julien still looks damn good.
His eyes find mine over Scarlett’s shoulder. They’re as cool, blue, and intense as I remember and even though the whole kitchen floor stands between us, my body flushes with heat like he’s standing right next to me. My stomach somersaults with the same anticipation. If Theo made me feel half of what I’m feeling right here in this suddenly too small kitchen, I’d be engaged. Happily. Willingly. But he didn’t and I’m not.
For the first time since the whole Theo debacle happened, I’m glad.