ABU First Chapter Friday
My shoulders loosen as the taxi crawls up the gravel drive leading to Castle Calder. From the backseat, I see white lights blinking in the trees, a massive potted fir by the door, and the old-fashioned light hanging over the entrance. The late afternoon sky is grey—damn British weather, it looks like it’s going to start pouring any second—but the castle-hotel glows like a scene from a fairytale.
“Pretty, innit?” the taxi driver says, turning to glance at me over his shoulder. He’s older—my grandfather’s age if I had a grandfather—and pure Yorkshire, which means I can only understand about half of what he says.
“I love it here.” Of all the places my grandmother could have planned this year’s family gathering, Castle Calder is the best possible option. And not only because the owners are incredible hosts, but because turning up here always makes me feel like a princess. And, okay, it’s not a “real” castle anymore, but a plaque in the lobby says Queen Victoria once graced these halls, and if it’s on a plaque it must be true.
“My wife and I stayed here for our anniversary one year. Kids got us a night away in one of the suite rooms. The owners are first-rate, too,” the cab driver says.
“They’re amazing.” I’ve spent ten summers working at Castle Calder, and I agree ten thousand percent. The St Julien’s are amazing. But I stop short of gushing about Hannah and Paul in case he’s the kind who’d pass me a stack of business cards and want me to put in a good word. Hannah would take them, but I’d feel responsible if he turned out to be a nutter.
The real nutters never look that crazy.
The taxi pulls up behind a shiny black Mercedes, its boot open to reveal mahogany-colored leather duffel and a sleek black Tumi suitcase that looks like it would be filled with designer clothes. My battered red Samsonite by my feet looks more youth hostel than a castle-hotel, but sod it. I have as much right to be here as anyone and I’ve brought my own designer dress, thank you very much. Granted, my LBD is my only designer dress, thanks to my ultra-fashionable friend, Scarlett, and her sample sale connections, and it still cost more than I’ve ever spent on a single piece of clothing. But with its fitted bodice and flared skirt, it’s a classic. I can probably get its per-wear cost down into the single digits if I can keep my ass from expanding for the next twenty years. Life goals dictated by wardrobe choices. Which, honestly, is as good a method as any at this point.
I crane my neck to see if Scarlett’s waiting outside, because in addition to being the poor girl’s source for Stella McCartney, she’s Hannah and Paul’s only daughter. So even though she has a fancy job in London now, she’s agreed to meet me here for the weekend. It won’t be a relaxing weekend for her–being the owners’ daughter means she’ll end up working whether she wants to or not–but she jumped at the invite to meet and I wasn’t about to talk her out of it.
I texted her from the train station and she responded with a bunch of emojis, including a bottle of champagne popping open and the message: Ready and waiting! xxx Knowing Scarlett, there’s a fifty-fifty chance she opened the champers without me, she’s watching from the window, or she’s been recruited to help with some pre-dinner task. I know technically that’s a thirty-three percent chance of each, but I also know Scarlett’s not really one to watch from the window.
“That’ll be sixteen pounds-fifty, love,” the cab driver says.
I dig in my wallet for a twenty and hand it through the partition. “Can I have two pounds change, please?”
The driver nods and slips the change onto the little tray so I can grab it. I toss it in the bottom of my bag and open the door. “Thank you so much. Have a great evening.”
“You, too, love. Enjoy your stay,” The cab driver says as he watches me yank my case out of the cab. It’s not heavy, but it’s awkward on the gravel and I wait for him to hop out and take it up the five stairs leading to the front entrance.
When he doesn’t, I slam the door and wave, wishing I’d saved myself the one pound-fifty tip after all. Then again, you get what you pay for and I probably wouldn’t carry my suitcase for one-fifty either.
I bend down to grab the duct-tape-wrapped handle and when I straighten, I’m face-to-face—well, face-to-chest—with a guy reaching for the leather duffel bag in the Mercedes. His other hand reaches for my suitcase.
“Can I help you with that?” he asks in an American accent.
I let my eyes wander up from the grey cable knit sweater to a stubble-covered jaw and up to those green eyes and tousled light brown hair that are familiar even though I’ve never met this guy in my life. Oh my giddy aunt. You have got to be joking.
I’m not one for crushes—celebrity, sport, or otherwise—but standing before me is the larger-than-life, movie-star exception. My breath catches in my throat and I open my mouth and close it twice before managing to squeak out, “You’re Greyson Vaughn.”
“I am.” He grins. He grins! At me! “And you are?”
“Claire.” I stop because I’ve momentarily forgotten my own surname. As you do.
“Nice to meet you, Claire.” His voice is deep and smooth.
“Thank you. It’s a, um, a pleasure to meet you. I watched Savannah the other night and I thought you were absolutely brilliant.”
Greyson nods, but his smile wanes a bit. “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.”
“Sorry, you must get that all the time. Sorry.” My face flushes, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m coming across as crazy fangirl or because I’m apologizing for coming across as crazy fangirl. Either way I should probably own it because, really. Greyson Vaughn.
“No, not at all. It’s always nice to hear someone enjoys your work.” Greyson points to my suitcase. “Can I help you with that?”
“Oh my God, no. I’m fine, really. I can manage.” The idea of Greyson Vaughn carrying my beat-up suitcase is borderline appalling.
“I insist. Let it be my good deed for the day.” He flashes that gorgeous smile again.
And now if I refuse I’m going to end up making it into a thing, so I sputter out, “Um, sure. Thanks. You don’t have to, but thanks.”
I try to hand it to him, but he can’t grab it while my fingers are wrapped around the handle, so we have ten seconds of awkwardness while I fumble to let go before he picks up my case, starting up the stone steps. I follow a step behind, my pulse way too fast. Greyson Vaughn sort of—maybe?—semi-flirted with me. And he’s carrying my suitcase, as well as his own.
Bloody hell, does that mean he’s staying at Castle Calder, too? My eyes wander to his jean-clad ass and up to his broad shoulders. Flirting with Greyson Vaughn for the weekend? Yes, please. He could make me forget the past couple of weeks altogether.
Which is exactly what I should be doing, gorgeous distraction notwithstanding.
Greyson pushes the front door with his hip and sets my case down on the wool rug. “Can I take this to your room for you?”
Can you come inside and stay awhile, too?
I try to fight a grin, but my lips curve up anyway. “No, it’s fine. I’m not sure where I’m staying yet.”
When I was working here last summer, I stayed out in the cabin with Scarlett’s friend Bea, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother and her new boyfriend are staying there now. Amen. Maybe he’ll keep her occupied and unavailable. Eeewww for thoughts of geriatric sex, but there’s a lot to be said for out of sight, out of mind because if she tries to give me one more bit of advice about “dressing for success,” I’ll scream loud enough to be heard in Manchester, if not London.
“One of the owners was around, but I think she went to the kitchen?” Greyson points to the sideboard, which is stocked with glasses and several bottles of wine. “She did mention something about helping yourself to a welcome drink, though.”
“Indeed, she did.” A deep male voice rings out behind me and I turn to see my cousin Caleb coming up behind me. “It’s great to see you, Claire Bear.” He gestures to my red flats. “You here to see the wizard?”
Greyson laughs and my face turns as red as my shoes, but I manage to sound only a little mortified when I speak. “Fuck off, thank you very much. Good to see you’ve not changed at all.”
Caleb’s laugh booms across the lobby, which is no small feat considering how high the ceiling is. He’s wearing an ugly orange sweater that’s just this side of ready for the charity shop—all the better to goad Grandmother with—and his white-blond hair has black tips. Which probably has nothing to do with goading Grandmother, but will serve a dual purpose. He winds a beefy arm around my neck and gives me a loud kiss on the cheek. “I’ll take that in the positive manner in which it was intended. Of course.” He extends his other hand to Greyson. “Caleb Whitley. Nice to meet you.”
Greyson shakes his hand and hoists his bag up on his shoulder. “Nice to meet you. My grandfather tells me cocktails start at six sharp, which I think means I’m running late.”
His grandfather? I imagine Greyson looking after a doddering old man with a cane and my heart swells a little. Can he really be handsome and considerate?
“It all kicks off at six,” Caleb says. “There are drinks and nibbles, followed by more drinks and a lovely meal. After which, if enough drinks have been consumed, someone will take up the piano and someone else will inevitably start singing. Badly.”
Greyson laughs and says, “Sounds perfect. See you there.”
He meets my eyes and I blush. Again. But I manage to choke out, “Thanks again for your help with my bag.”
Greyson smiles and heads for the stairs. Caleb waits until he’s out of earshot before he says, “Making new friends, Claire Bear? Is that who I think it is?”
“Yep. Greyson Vaughn, in the flesh. Sadly, though, we’re not really friends. I’ve only met him just now. He looks a little different than in the Star Fleet series, doesn’t he?” Besides the fact that the Captain Flynn version of Greyson sported blue hair and heavy guyliner, he also spent a lot of time shirtless. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s what Caleb remembers about the film.
“Yeah. No blue hair.” Caleb glances towards the stairs, but Greyson is long-gone. “I wonder if he wore a wig or if it was a dye job? I would have sworn it was his real hair, but maybe not.”
“You should ask him. Maybe he can give you some tips about how to maintain your roots.” I laugh and put an arm around his waist, grabbing a handful of manky wool jumper. “So tell me, how things are with you?”
Caleb doesn’t get any further because at that minute, Scarlett rounds the corner and screeches. “You’re here. Why didn’t you text me you’d arrived?”
She flings her arms around me without waiting for a reply and we both squeeze tight. Scarlett’s the closest thing to a sister I’ve ever had and, just like a real sister, the minute we see each other it feels like no time has passed. I pull back so I can see her properly. “How late am I? You’re already all made up.”
“I’m helping with dinner prep, so I’m on my way to the kitchen as we speak.” Scarlett pushes her long black hair back from her face. It falls in ringlets over her shoulders and she’s braided a thin silver ribbon into her hair behind her ear, which catches the light when she moves. “You’re bunking in Jasper’s room just like old times. Don’t worry, I cleaned all of his gross older brother germs out.”
“It’s not his germs I’m worried about.” Scarlett and I both laugh and I turn to Caleb to explain. “Jaz fell in love with Bea, Scarlett’s roommate from Atlanta, when they were here last summer. They had a pretty steamy affair all over Castle Calder.”
“Lovely,” Caleb says. “Speaking of, are you going to tell Scarlett who carried your bag in for you tonight?”
“Speaking of lovely?” Caleb gossips like an old woman and is totally egging me on, but I have to grin as I turn back to Scarlett. “Did you know Greyson Vaughn was staying here and didn’t tell me?”
Scarlett’s lips purse in a way that tells me she did, indeed, know Greyson was staying here and there’s more to it than his broad shoulders would lead me to believe. “Um, about that…”
“Wait, don’t tell me. He’s your date for the weekend?” Improbable, but not impossible. Scarlett’s always stringing along a man or two and, while Greyson seems less bohemian than her usual type, he is Greyson bloody Vaughn.
“Not exactly,” says Scarlett slowly.
“Okaaay?” I lean forward.
Scarlett bites her lip and shrugs in a very un-Scarlett-like fashion. But she meets my gaze full on as she says, “My lovely, Greyson Vaughn is actually your date for the weekend.”