March 18, 2019
I grew up next door to the royal family’s summer house on the banks of Lake Genovese.
Not because my family was rich and could afford one of the sprawling estates near Valmont Manor, or due to some trace of royal blood in our heritage.
I grew up next door to Valmont because my father was the groundskeeper, our humble quarters tucked into the trees on the south end of the grounds. I grew up surrounded by privilege and wealth, but my parents had cocooned me—as overprotective types with only one child did. I never interacted with the royal family or any of the distant relations who flocked to Valmont in the summer months for the legendary parties Her Royal Highness put on. My dad left his groundskeeper position the fall I turned ten in favor of a job in the north as a park manager.
It had been a decade since I left Valmont as the groundskeeper’s daughter, but little, if anything, had changed. Royal families were like that; change came gradually, if at all, to everything from their estates to their hemlines.
“Do you understand your position here?” The prune-faced woman, in her matronly tweed suit, came to an abrupt stop in the grand foyer, interrupting my nostalgia.
I slipped on the same competent expression I’d worn the day I’d been interviewed for the job. “I understand.”
“You’re quite young. The last off-season house manager was twice your age.” The woman, Mrs. Hutchinson, appraised me, the corners of her mouth turning down.
“What I lack in age, I make up for in work ethic and energy,” I said, checking my shoes to see if I’d somehow managed to step in horse dung when I passed through the Queen Angeline Ballroom, as Mrs. Hutchison’s brow suggested. “And I spent the first ten years of my life on Valmont’s grounds. I know my way around the place.”
“Your father was the groundskeeper, which means he wouldn’t have stepped foot in the castle.”
“Correct.” I made sure to smile as I said it, not wanting to anger the person who was technically my boss. Thank the gods she’d be joining the royal family back at their primary estate, Stratford Castle, as soon as she left here.
“There’s a great deal of difference between keeping the lawn green and shrubs shaped and winterizing sixty-two rooms while keeping an eye out for any signs of snow or ice damage.”
I held my smile and reminded myself she probably didn’t mean to talk down to me. “I’m a quick learner.”
Mrs. Hutchinson’s eyes suggested We’ll see before she walked toward one of the side doors. “Prince Edward and you are the same age, right? Did your paths ever cross when you were growing up here?”
My nose scrunched up, since her back was to me. “He’s two years older, and no, our paths never crossed.”
Thankfully. Prince Edward was a pompous, lazy playboy whose smirk embodied everything that was wrong with society—entitlement and smugness.
“That’s too bad. He’s such a lovely fellow.”
“The loveliest,” I said flatly.
When we stopped at the door, she checked to make sure the giant black binder was still clutched in my arms. She’d assured me it would answer any question I might have about my responsibilities here, as well as detail every duty, from covering the furniture with sheets to setting the thermostats.
“Why did you decide to take the year off from Whitbridge?” she asked, slipping into her beige trench coat after checking the glum weather out the window. “It’s the most prestigious university in the country. Was the course work too rigorous?”
My hands slid into the front pockets of my overalls. “No. I scored top marks both my first and second year.” I wasn’t sure how much I should say. “I just needed a year to decide what I want to do with my life before I commit to another two, or ten, years of college.”
Mrs. Hutchinson chuckled, slipping on her leather gloves. “Doctors go to school for ten years, dear.”
“Not groundskeepers’ daughters?” I said, verbalizing her probable thoughts.
She waved me off as though I were making a bigger deal than necessary. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I stated, because I did understand the way people viewed one another based on social standing and pedigree. My parents had never come right out and admitted it, but I knew my dad giving up his job as a royal groundskeeper had a lot to do with not wanting to raise me around such stunted, old-fashioned views.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it now.” Mrs. Hutchison gave me another look, one that suggested she wasn’t sure if Valmont would be reduced to ashes when she returned with the royal family at the start of summer.
Not that she had a lot of alternatives. There were never a lot of people to apply for a position like taking care of a massive estate in the off-season in one of the most isolated places in the country. A person could go weeks here in the dead of winter without seeing another living soul, animal included.
But I’d had my reasons for applying.
“If anything comes up, I can be reached on my cell day and night.” Mrs. Hutchinson stepped through the door, frowning at the gray, mottled sky.
“I’m sure everything will be exactly as you left it come June.”
She waited under the awning for the driver equipped with an umbrella to fend off the drizzle. “I’m hopeful it will be,” she said before she climbed into the back seat of the black Aston Martin.
There was a vehicle reserved for me to use while I was here, but it was not an Aston Martin. It was more like an old rumble-bucket truck that a person would sell turnips out of the back of.
Standing in the doorway of Valmont, I waved at the retreating car, saying farewell to any signs of life for at least a few good weeks. Time I could use to deconstruct the funk littering my brain and hopefully find my reset button. The one that would put me back to my original factory settings, the place before life, with all of its complexities and expectations, had shoved me off my intended course.
The magic place where I was me and knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
With an excited squeal, I spun inside, locking the door to keep out the rest of the world. Alone at last.
The first thing I did was kick off my sneakers and throw my long hair into a ponytail. Then I slid through room after room, flipping on lights as I went, living out my childhood fantasy of dancing through every room I’d only seen from the outside looking in.
It wasn’t a brief task.
I managed to frolic my way through half of the rooms on the main floor before I gave myself a side-ache and declared my childhood fantasies fulfilled.
Catching my breath at the bottom of the grand staircase, I decided it was time to get to work. The majority of the rooms would be sealed up during my stay, the third floor of the west wing remaining open for my use. The black book of all things Valmont instructed I was to start in the ballroom, but the inherent rebel inside me decided to start in the dining room.
I preferred to get the biggest chores done first, saving the easiest ones for last. The dining room could take a solid week of work, judging by the list in the binder.
Setting my portable speaker on one of the windowsills, I selected my favorite playlist, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.
The playlist was on its third replay and my elbows felt like the size of grapefruits when the clock chimed twelve times. Blowing wisps of hair from my face, I assessed my progress. The silver candlestick holders had been polished and tucked away into one of the mahogany buffets. The massive table had been shined to glass, as had the actual windows, which were now drawn by curtains.
I took a few minutes to throw fresh white sheets over the furniture before deciding a cup of something warm was in order before bed—cocoa, coffee, milk, tea, I wasn’t picky.
The staff kitchen was tucked into the back of the house, where a small gravel lot was used for staff members’ cars during the summer. The kitchen was dark and still smelled of bleach and lemon cleaner. I was about to flip on the lights when an unexpected sound came from the direction of the side door coming off the staff entrance.
Holding my breath, I waited, hoping it was the wind making funny noises, rather than a home invader. There was no shortage of royal nutters out there, plus those looking to make some extra cash by selling a heisted painting on the black market.
The doorknob jiggled. A definite, deliberate jiggle. So much for the wind theory.
Crouching, I grabbed the closest item that seemed self-defense worthy, cursing myself for leaving my phone in the dining room playing Joan Jett yet again.
The stainless steel skillet was heavier than I expected, and it took both of my hands to wield. After stumbling across the house, I positioned myself to the side of the front door, in the ideal spot to either knock out the intruder or make a run for it myself.
The doorknob rattled again, right before the door whined open. Adrenaline flooding my system, I raised the skillet above my head and waited . . .
For half of a second.
“Die!” The word shot out of me on its own as I drove the skillet down on the black-hooded head that had skulked inside.
The person dropped instantly, limbs sprawling across the white-tiled floor.
“I got him,” I whispered, still clutching my weapon of choice.
Several figures came rushing through the doorway, followed by another handful more.
“Freeze!” I hollered, winding the pan back for another swing.
“What the hell?” One of them gasped when they noticed the motionless form on the floor. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” I replied, my fingers fumbling for the light switch that was somewhere beside me.
A rumble of what could have been sighs or laughter passed between the three as I finally found the switch. Light flooded the kitchen, illuminating the scene . . . and my mistake.
“I’m the Duke of Westington,” the one closest to me answered, as the other two crouched beside the one I’d cracked with the skillet. “And that, splayed out on the floor thanks to your skill with kitchenware, is Prince Edward.”