Right Number Wrong Girl Read Online Emma Hart

Categories Genre: Contemporary, Funny, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 107853 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 539(@200wpm)___ 431(@250wpm)___ 360(@300wpm)
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Right Number, Wrong Girl

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Emma Hart

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B09YS6M8SG
Book Information:

Taking a work call for my best friend in my undies? Check. Filling in for her after an emergency and getting mistaken for her? Check.
Royally messing it all up until the hot duke-in-waiting I hate but can’t keep my hands off steps in to save me? Uh, check…
Yes, yes, that all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Until you consider I now have to plan and execute an 80th birthday party for The Dowager Duchess of Devon, and I can’t organise my hairbrushes. The current duchess is the ultimate Type-A personality, determined to micromanage the entire thing.
I’m a type… XYZ...LMNOP… Maybe not even that.
When all my attempts go to hell in half a handbasket—I can’t even mess up properly—the only hope I have to pull this thing off is duke-in-waiting Hugo Edwards.
The dreamy, handsome, makes-my-heart-pitter-patter, arrogant tosspot Hugo Edwards.
He and his brother are the only people who know who I really am. The success of their grandmother’s party relies on us getting along long enough to make it happen—and me and Hugo keeping our hands off one another behind closed doors. None of which is easy to achieve.
When my best friend shows up to take over from me, the fact that I’ve fallen for Hugo is the least of my worries…
Books by Author:

Emma Hart



CHAPTER ONE – SOPHIE

Fancy Nancy

“Stupid bloody thing! What kind of masochist created dresses with a zipper on the back? I bet it was a man. They just love to watch the world burn!” I twisted and turned in ways I was not ordinarily capable of flexing in.

No matter how hard I tried, this little bugger of a zipper was not going up without a fight.

I was in so much trouble.

This was the only dress in my wardrobe that would be remotely acceptable for a job interview, and since that was what I had in ninety minutes, I had to get my shit together and get this bloody zip done up.

The last thing I needed to do was flash my boobs at the person interviewing me.

I wasn’t interviewing for a position in a strip club, after all.

I doubted that putting my boobs on display would help me get a job as a manager of a nearby clothing store.

I doubted that anything would get me that job.

Given my track record over the past two weeks, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get a job again.

What I really needed to do was fly to New Orleans, hunt down a voodoo queen, and have her work her mojo on my ex-boss.

She deserved it, all right?

So being in jail awaiting a trial for embezzlement was probably enough of a punishment, but I thought a voodoo doll would be fun.

I’d never owned one.

They weren’t readily available in England, despite my best efforts to source one, and I didn’t trust the Internet.

I was quite a vengeful person, okay? Ask my ex how his PlayStation was after I’d thrown it out of a fourth-floor window.

I’m sorry.

After it had slipped out of my grip.

Ahem.

I stepped out of the dress and walked half-naked across the flat I shared with my best friend. I knew there was ribbon somewhere in this place—Cam kept hold of everything, and everything had its place.

Living with a Type-A personality was not the organisational dream I’d hoped it would be.

I’d first met Camilla Hopkins on a rainy day in the park when we were seven. The moment we discovered that we shared a birthday, we decided there and then that we would be best friends. Twenty-one years later, that was still the case.

Not that any of that helped with my current predicament.

I had no idea why there was ribbon in my bathroom, but I wasn’t going to question it. Heck, I didn’t have the time to question it. I was on the verge of running late as it was, and there really was no room for error with London traffic.

I looped the ribbon through the hole in the zipper pull, loosely tied it, and was about to put the dress on once again when the phone rang.

Goddamn it.

That was Cam’s work line.

I had to answer it. I always felt guilty if I didn’t.

Hey, if this interview didn’t work out, I could always become her assistant. God only knew she needed one.

I hopped over to the phone with one foot in the dress and picked it up. “Hello, you’ve reached Events by Camilla, how can I help you?”

“Oh, good morning.” The voice on the other end of the phone was distinctly upper-class with the kind of pronunciation only usually heard in the Queen’s Speech on Christmas day.

All right.

Not that posh.

But posh enough. With a weird little southwest twinge.

Like a fancy farmer.

“Is Camilla Hopkins available please?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I replied, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder so I could get dressed while I spoke. “Camilla isn’t here right now, but I can take a message for you.”

“Will she be back soon?”

“Not until this evening.”

“Oh, very well. I’m calling on behalf of Anna, The Duchess of Devon.”

Look at that.

I was right.

Fancy farmer, indeed.

I scribbled that down. “And your name is?”

“Nancy Porter.”

Fancy Nancy, then.

“May I ask your reason for calling?”

“The Dowager Duchess of Devon is turning eighty next month, and Lady Devon would like to hire Miss Hopkins to arrange the party for her mother-in-law.”

Look at Camilla go.

Next month was a little tight, though.

Not that it mattered. She’d have to make it happen.

“Do you have a contact number she can call you back on?”

“Yes.” She reeled it off. “Please ask for me as I will be the point of contact for her ladyship’s household.”

This was feeling very Downton Abbey.

I felt as though I should curtsey or something.

“Absolutely. When should I tell her is the best time to return your call?”

“Her ladyship would like the planning to begin as soon as possible, so please ask Miss Hopkins to return the call at her earliest convenience.”

She clearly didn’t have working hours stated in her contract.

Poor woman.

“I will do that,” I replied, scribbling ‘call whenever’ on the notepad. “Is there anything else?”

“No, that will be all for now, thank you very much. I look forward to hearing from Miss Hopkins.”

“It was lovely to speak to you,” I lied. “Have a lovely day.”

“You, too. Goodbye.”

“Bye!” I hung up and put the phone down, huffing as I threw the pen on top of the notepad.

Now I was running late.

“Balls to it!” I said, yanking the dress up as quickly as I could. It took some manoeuvring, but with the help of the ribbon I’d threaded through the zipper, I was finally able to secure the dress so there would be no random escapes from my boobs.

Thank God for that.

Thanks to the phone call, I had no time to curl my hair like I’d planned, so I had to settle for running the brush through and doing some kind of random updo that was kind of neat.

Ugh. Maybe it wasn’t as neat as I’d like.

I was going to have to start charging Camilla for the time I spent answering the bloody phone.

I quickly grabbed all the things I’d laid out in preparation for the interview, shoving both a copy of my resume and my passport into my bag as I simultaneously slipped my feet into a pair of heels. I had everything I needed except a hefty dose of confidence, but I wasn’t sure this was an appropriate time to start drinking.

I could do that in misery after this interview was over.

Would.

I would do that in misery after this interview.

I rushed out of the flat, locking the door behind me, and down the two flights of stairs. There was no time to wait for the lift—not that my heels meant I was moving any faster than I would be if I were waiting, but it was nice to be proactive.

After making it out of the building, I took a left towards the nearest Tube station and rummaged around for my card so I could get on the next train. I only had a few minutes, and there were far too many people around for me to be able to make it.

I walked down the steps to the underground station, pushing past people in the bustling crowd, and only just managed to make it through to get on the train. I barely managed to get a seat and found myself sandwiched between an unfortunate-smelling gentleman and an old lady who occasionally gave off wafts of Blue Stilton as she snacked on cheese and crackers from a small Tupperware container.

Great.

I was going to smell like I hadn’t showered in six years.

This day couldn’t get any better, could it?

***

“How did your interview go?”

I slammed the door behind me and stared at Camilla, then threw my heel-less shoe on the floor.

She dropped her chin and looked at it. “Oh.”

“Oh.” I tugged off the other heel and dropped my bag, then walked over and dropped myself on the opposite sofa. “Your phone call from the fancy farmer made me late. On the train, I was stuck between two of the smelliest people I’d ever been around in my life, then when I finally get to the interview, I’m told I’m too qualified.”

Camilla swallowed.

“Too qualified!” My voice raised in pitch as I got back up and walked into the kitchen. “To sell fucking clothes! Do you think I care how qualified I am? I need a job! And then, on the way home, I was knobbed about across the bloody tube station like a fucking ping pong ball on methamphetamine!”

“Soph, I’ve told you—”

“I am not going to sponge off you!” I held the wine bottle out in her direction. “It’s bad enough you paid most of the rent on this place when I had a job, never mind everything else you do for me. I need a job, Cam. I need to work and pay my own bills. I know I joke about being your assistant, but shit, I’m getting tempted.”

“It’s unfair you were all fired. You didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, well.” I tore off the wrapper from the top of the bottle and stabbed the corkscrew into the cork. “Unfortunately, Selena had rinsed the company of every penny it had, so there was nothing left to keep us hired with.”

Such was the nature of embezzlement, my friends.

“Ah, I forgot about that.”

“At least one of us did.” I poured two glasses and re-joined her in the living room. “How was your day?”

“I’m scared to say.”

“Better than mine, I’d wager.”

She slipped a bookmark into her book and set it down, grimacing at me. “I called Nancy Porter back.”

“Ah, the fancy farmer.”

Or, as I liked to call her, Fancy Nancy.

In my head, at least.

Cam briefly closed her eyes and let out a small laugh. “Yes. It’s… true. Apparently, that engagement party I planned for Lady Olivia Fortescue means I’m hot property at the moment. Nancy didn’t have enough good things to say about me—apparently The Duchess of Devon was there and couldn’t believe how well organised it was.”

“Cam, that’s amazing!”

She took a deep breath and nodded. “There’s absolutely nothing done for this party as it was a last-minute idea, and I’m supposed to be in Norway two weeks before with my family. I can’t cancel that, and my mum will be furious if I work while we’re away. I’m not entirely sure I can take it on.”

“It’s just a party. You could organise that in your sleep.”

“It’s a big party. With loads of the aristocracy attending—more than Olivia had at her engagement party. Besides, with that, I really just picked up the pieces. I got lucky that her old planner let her down and I was the only person available at the last minute.”

“Nonsense. Everything happens for a reason. You were the right person at the right time. You’ve put your everything into this business.” She’d also put a great deal of her parents’ money into it—a bonus she had coming from a wealthy Scandinavian family, but that was by the by.

She’d put the work in. I could attest to her twenty-hour workdays sometimes.

“It was a lucky break, Sophie.”

“Everyone in business gets a lucky break. If they didn’t, they’d be bankrupt.”

“That was beautiful. Did you get that from a fortune cookie?”

I tapped my knuckles against my head. “From my noggin.”

“You should write poetry.”

“How do you know I don’t?”

She stared at me for a moment, but her serious expression lasted all of a few seconds before her lips twitched, breaking it. “Be realistic, Sophie.”

“I always am. It’s miserable.” I shrugged, swinging my legs up onto the sofa and leaning back on my elbow like someone was about to draw me.

All I needed was a hot artist and one of those fancy, floor-length gowns with feathers that ran along the edges. You know, the kind that rich widows wore in movies or romance novels where they’d stand seductively in a doorway, arching their leg to show their smooth skin while running their hands teasingly over their ample bosoms.

Wow.

I really did need a job.

Maybe I could be a romance novelist if nothing else here worked out for me.

“Do you really think I can do this? It’s tight, timing wise,” Cam asked, chewing on the side of her thumb.

I threw a pillow at her so she’d stop. She’d only moan tomorrow when she’d bitten it to the quick and made it sore.

I didn’t want to hear those complaints.

“Cam, if anyone can do it, you can. You’re a master organizer, and if you make sure to be clear up front that you’ll be away before the party, they kind of can’t be knobheads if they hire you and something doesn’t get done.”

She blinked at me. “Words to live by.”

“Oh, come on. You know I’m right.”

She bit the inside of her cheek. “But I’d have to leave the day after I land from Oslo.”

“So? It’s not the end of the world. You won’t have to be there for long, and I bet she’s willing to pay you a pretty penny.”

“She is.”

“Suck it up, buttercup. You can work remotely, you’ll get a huge reputation boost when you pull it off, and after you turned down that wedding with the Welsh bloke because of a schedule conflict, you can’t really do that again.”

Her lips twitched. “He wasn’t Welsh. He was the Earl of Anglesey and, again, it was a last-minute wedding.”

“If you ask me, the upper-class needs to plan their shit better.” I sipped my wine. “There’s no reason for you not to accept this job, and you know it.”

Cam sighed. “Fine, but if I need help and you don’t have a job, you’re going to have to help me.”

“Are you going to pay me?”

“I’ll pay you minimum wage.”

“Oh, come on.”

She laughed, dropping her head back. “Kidding. All right, fine. You win. I’ll call Nancy in the morning and tell her I’m accepting the job with my conditions.”

I raised my glass. “Cheers to that.”

CHAPTER TWO – HUGO

Just Say No To Matchmaking

“Why has it taken so long to decide to throw Grandma a party?” I asked, leaning against the kitchen island. “And why can’t we do it ourselves?”

Mum turned away from the fridge, milk in hand, and wrinkled her nose. “I do not have the time to throw her a party.”

“It’s not difficult, Mother. People do it all the time.”

“I am not people.”

“You sound like a snob.”

“And you, Hugo, sound like you need a reminder that being taller than me does not excuse you from a clip around the ear,” she replied dryly. “I do not have the time. Neither does your father. Perhaps you’d like to offer your services as a party planner if you’re so against me hiring the work out?”

I snorted. “Absolutely not. I don’t need you micromanaging that.”

“I thought as much.” She poured milk into her teacup. “Perhaps you’d like to look over the draft guest list with Nancy and inform her of anyone you’d like to invite.”

I knew where this was going.

And abso-fucking-lutely not.

I was not going to fall for my mother’s matchmaking tricks. Not at this party—not at any party.

“As if I would interfere with your list,” I replied contritely.

“Hugo, you know what I’m asking.”

“Yes, Mother, I do, and my answer is still no. Has it occurred to you that I might be perfectly capable of pursuing a romantic relationship without your help?”

She turned and eyed me over the top of her teacup. Her blue gaze was equal parts amused and bemused as she sipped the hot liquid and set the cup down. “Yes,” she replied slowly. “Tell me again, are you seeing anyone right now?”

She knew damn well I was as single as single came.

“I am not.”

“Then might it be prudent for me to assume that you are not, as you so eloquently put it, perfectly capable?”

“Are you aware that thirty is no longer considered old? More to the point, I’m not a woman, and I’m not sure why you seem to think my reproductive system is running on the wrong side of time.”

“I’ve never said anything of the sort.”

“You found out Fred and Charlotte broke up and spent three days lamenting her potential inability to find a husband due to her age,” I reminded her.

Charlotte was younger than me.

“Perhaps you’d like to invite Charlotte.”

“I would rather have a sadistic kidnapper bend me over a piano and shove a cactus up my arse.”

“Must you be so crude?”

“Only when you continue to ask stupid questions,” I replied. “Mother, please give it up. This party is about Grandma, not my love life. Can’t you focus on Henry for once? He’s single, too, you know.”

“He’s not inheriting the dukedom, dear.”

“Words you shouldn’t say unless you’re entirely sure he’s not in earshot.”

“I agree,” the brother in question drawled as he walked into the kitchen. “Any chance you could keep that nugget to yourself, Mum?”

Mum blinked at Henry. “I’m sorry, dear, but I was merely making a point that it really is time for your brother to start thinking about the future.”

“Mum.” Henry flattened his hands on the island and looked at her. “I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Hugo knows what the future has in store. You remind him, oh, almost daily, and he’s already shoulder-deep in work on the estate. He knows he gets the dukedom. I know I don’t get it therefore am not as important as he is, but can you give it a rest?”

“I’ve never once said you’re not as important as your brother.”

“It’s the truth, though. When was the last time you set me up with anyone? Asked about who I’m seeing?”

I looked at Mum.

Good question.

Point to Henry.

Mum spluttered for a moment before she stood upright, bristling from his words. “I care about your life!”

That didn’t answer his question.

“That doesn’t answer the question,” Henry replied. “And you know it doesn’t.”

She sniffed. “I have to go and speak with Nancy about the party.”

Of course she did. She was all about confrontation unless she was the one being confronted.

Mum swept out of the kitchen, leaving her tea behind, and left an echoing silence behind her.

She didn’t mean to do it, but her constant reminders that I was the eldest and would one day be The Duke of Devon over my brother didn’t make for the best familial environment.

It also didn’t always make for the best brotherly relationship, either.

It wasn’t my fault I was born ten months before him, just like it wasn’t Henry’s fault that he was born after me.

I just wished our mother would stop fixating on it so bloody much.

“You aren’t going to make an excuse for her?” Henry asked, glancing over his shoulder as he opened the fridge door.

“What for? Her shitty attitude again this morning?” I shrugged and pulled out a stool so I could sit down. “What good does it do? Half the time I can’t tell if it’s the bloody menopause or just her being her usual pain the arse self where this crap is concerned.”

“You usually make excuses for her bringing up the difference between us.”

“She means well, and you know that. She just wants the best for the family legacy.”

“There it is.”

“Oh, fuck off with it, Henry. You know it’s the truth.” I leaned forwards on the counter. “Do you want the damn dukedom? I’ll let you have it if it’ll give me some peace. I’m getting it from every angle right now, and I don’t need you adding to the bitchfest.”

Henry sighed and turned around. “No, I don’t want it, and you know that. It’s your birth right, not mine. I’d just like her to give it a rest once in a while.”

“You and me both,” I said firmly. “Why don’t you look over the stupid guest list with Nancy and see if there’s anyone you want to invite to give me a break?”

“Not bloody likely.” He snorted and poured orange juice into a glass. “As long as she’s hyper-fixated on you, she’s leaving me alone.”

“Stop whinging, then,” I muttered.

My brother had the innate ability to bring out my inner teenager. Sometimes I wondered if there was a part of me that hadn’t been able to grow up. We had a pretty intense sibling rivalry, and it wasn’t helped by the fact our younger sister was already very happily married with a little girl.

It made Mum wonder if we were tormenting her by still being single. I was thirty and my brother would be in six months, and neither me nor Henry had any potential serious relationships in the pipeline.

Even if we did, we wouldn’t tell her.

God only knew she’d have a wedding venue booked within a week.

“She’s going ahead with the party, then? Does Grandma know yet?”

I nodded, grateful for the slight change in subject. “I’d put money on her knowing.”

“No way. Nobody has mentioned it to her.”

“Doesn’t mean she doesn’t know.”

“Grandma isn’t God.”

“She’d take offense to that, mate.”

“She takes offense to everything that doesn’t paint her as a saviour, messiah, or deity. But there’s no way she knows about the party.”

“There’s no way she doesn’t know about it, either.”

Henry shook his head, still disagreeing with me.

“I’m telling you, she knows, and she’s not going to be happy about it,” I reiterated.

“Grandma is never happy.”

“That’s not true. She’s happy when she’s doing that class where she can paint and drink wine at the same time.”

Henry paused. “Maybe we should hijack the party and make it one large drinking and painting get together.”

“Do that.” Grandma hobbled into the kitchen with her leopard print walking stick clinking against the slate tiled floor.

Shit.

“Do what?” Henry asked innocently.

“Do the painting thing instead of this godforsaken shindig your mother is paying some poor bugger to organise.”

He blinked at her.

Grandma glared at him. “Would saying please make it better, Henry?”

“You know?”

“I told you,” I said, smirking. “She knows everything.”

Grandma pointed at me. “Smart boy.” She sat on the stool next to me. “Yes, I know. You should know by now that I know everything that happens in this house. You can’t get anything past me.”

I held out my hands and looked at my brother as if to say, “I told you so.”

I had told him so.

He should have known better. She really did know everything that went on in this place—and outside of it, too.

Neighbourhood watch groups had nothing on Grandma.

Heck, she was probably secretly part of MI5. I wouldn’t be surprised if she one day came out and told us James Bond was real and she’d been one of his girls.

I shuddered.

Now there was fuel for my nightmares.

“No. I’m not doing this. I’m not awake enough for this crap.” Henry grabbed his giant mug of tea and strolled out of the kitchen.

“Stop scratching your backside,” Grandma hollered after him.

His hand snapped to his side, and he disappeared from view.

I chuckled. “Would you like a cup of tea, Grandma?”

“As long as you make it properly. Not that weak shite your mother makes.”

Dutifully, I got up and made my way over to the kettle. It was only to boil the water—Grandma only ever took her tea in a pot and insisted until she was blue in the face that it was better than from a kettle.

I understood why, but I couldn’t taste it myself.

Tea was tea.

Unless you were drinking that hinky herbal tea, it all tasted the bloody same.

I made her pot of tea and brought it over to where she’d sat herself at the large farmhouse-style table. Her half-moon glasses were perched on the end of her nose as she peered down at the newspaper in front of her with her brow furrowed.

“Here you go, Grandma.” I set it all down and carefully poured the scalding liquid into her teacup.

“Thank you, dear. Where is everyone? Is it a bank holiday? Why are you pouring my tea and not the staff?”

“Because I’m capable of pouring you a cup, and you complain when anyone else does it.”

“I don’t like yours either. I just don’t want to moan after you’ve had a conversation with your mother.” She sniffed, then licked her finger and elegantly turned the page, never taking her eyes off the paper. “Only your grandfather has ever been able to make a pot of tea the way I like it. It’s a distinct skill, and one that many people appear to lack these days.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied, walking back to where I was sitting at the island.

Most people would be insulted by her outspoken honesty.

I wasn’t. If Grandma was honest with you, it meant she trusted you.

It was an arse-backwards way of showing it, but it was trust all the same.

“Are you going over the guest list with Nancy?”

I glanced over at her. “I cannot think of anything I’d rather do less.”

“I think I saw Charlotte on there. You know, the one the Coventry lad was sleeping with.”

They were engaged, but I didn’t feel like correcting her this morning. She’d only argue with me.

“Charlotte can be on that list all she wants. She’s the last person on Earth I’d consider marrying,” I replied.

Well, perhaps. There were quite a few people on the never-marry list.

“Good. She’s a gold-digging bitch.”

“Grandma. You can’t say that.”

“Yes, I can. I just did.”

“Well, you shouldn’t.”

She put down her paper and turned around, peering at me with an unimpressed expression that was only exemplified by the fact she was wearing her glasses. “Why not? In case I might upset her? In case people don’t like the truth?”

“It’s… not polite.”

“I don’t care about being polite,” she continued. “There’s a time, a place, and a person to be polite to, and none of those things include someone who pays no mind to being polite to you, for a start.”

I lifted my mug to my lips, holding her gaze with mine.

“And let me tell you, Hugo, Charlotte is not the person one should be polite to until she herself has learnt a lesson about what kind of person she should be. As Maya Angelou once said, ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ I happen to have seen who she really is, so I couldn’t give a flying fig on a fiddle if she’s offended by my opinion of her. If she doesn’t like my observation, she should be a better person, shouldn’t she?”

I swallowed.

That felt like a trick question.

“So no, Hugo. I shan’t be polite to her, and if she has the balls to show up at my bloody birthday party, I shall drown her in the lake.”

“Grandma!”

“If you attempt to court her, I shall drown you in the lake, too.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

“Don’t look at me like that. I know where your baby pictures are.” With that, she turned around and went back to her newspaper, putting the conversation to a very firm end.

I knew better than to discuss the matter further.

And thank God I had no interest in Charlotte.

God only knew what resided in the lake on our estate.

It could have been the Devonshire monster for all I knew.

CHAPTER THREE – SOPHIE

Note To Self: Learn To Say No

“Absolutely not.”

“Please,” Cam said down the crackling phone line. “Soph, I’m stuck here. I have no idea when I can leave. Believe me when I say I’ve tried everything.”

“You’re in Norway, not the bloody North Pole. What do you mean there aren’t any flights?”

“There aren’t any flights,” Cam replied. “They’ve all been cancelled. Between a strike—”

I stopped with the fridge door open. “A strike? Where are you? Norway or fucking Spain? Aren’t the Scandinavians all supposed to be happy?”

“—And a storm, I’m totally stuffed. I’ve even looked into getting the train to Sweden to get out, but they’ve cancelled flights, too. Finland and Russia are out of the question. It’d take me forever and a day to hit the borders, and I probably wouldn’t be able to get there anyway.”

Who knew Norway bordered so many countries?

Not me.

“Cam, what you’re asking me is utterly insane. There’s no way I can drive down to Devon and do this party in your place.” I pulled the wine bottle from the fridge and set it down on the counter so I could unscrew the cap one-handed.

It’d been three weeks since I’d answered that call from Fancy Nancy, the point of contact for The Duchess of Devon, if you please. Cam had been in Norway visiting her family for the last week, and now a major winter storm was rolling in.

It was March.

Personally, I thought it was too bloody late for a winter storm, but if you lived that far north, it wasn’t that unusual, apparently.

I was just waiting for the papers to come out with their “Beast from the East” bollocks they usually did.

She’d already delayed her return by three days since her grandma was sick—a delay I didn’t begrudge her at all, but there was no way I’d be able to go to Devon tomorrow and take her place.

I couldn’t organise anything, much less a party for an old aristocratic family who had insane standards.

Camilla didn’t even let me organise the spices, for goodness sake.

“Please, Soph. It’s only forecast for a few days. We’re talking two—three days max—and I’ll be able to get a flight out from either Oslo or Gothenburg. Gothenburg is only three hours away, it’s not that bad.”

“Gothenburg? Are you there with Batman? Are you secretly Catwoman? God, that would make so much sense.”

“Sophie!”

I groaned after filling my wine glass and put the bottle down. “Camilla, I cannot go down there. I can’t organise my hairbrushes. There’s no way that, out of all the people you know, you can send me to Devon to organise a bloody aristocrat’s birthday party and expect me to get it right.”

“Of course I can.” The line crackled, and her next few words came in fits and spurts of broken English.

“Cam? I can’t hear you!”

Oh no, no, no. She was not sticking me with this! I was not capable of organising such a shindig. I was a toddler in an adult’s body.

Did you hear that, God?

A toddler in an adult’s body.

I could not organise such a fancy arse party.

I couldn’t organise any party.

My best friend had lost her fucking mind.

“Cam!”

“I’m here, I’m here, sorry.” She crackled back into audible range. “My signal is shit and getting worse, just listen to me. I have everything already done and booked in. All I need you to do is follow up with the vendors, check in on the minor things, and make sure the needs of the Devons are attended to with regards to the party.”

That sounded like a lot of work.

“It’s going to be two days. Three tops. Grandma is getting better, and I’ll check every hour for a plane back to literally anywhere in the UK until I find a seat on one.” Another crackle. “Please, Sophie. Just explain that you’re there to oversee the preparations while I try to get back.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“I’ll pay you!”

“The answer is still no. I will ruin your business.” Hell, I couldn’t get bloody hired by anyone, so there was no way Camilla was going to pseudo-hire me. “One of us needs to pay for this flat, and God only knows it isn’t me. I’m blasting through my savings at a breakneck pace.”

“Exactly why you should do this for me! I’ll pay you, you don’t have to pay for accommodation because I’ve already booked a cottage on a farm estate.”

I didn’t reply.

“You’re stuck in London with nothing to do, no job, no boyfriend.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” I muttered.

She had both of those things.

“Please, Sophie. You know I wouldn’t ask you if I wasn’t completely desperate.”

“Can’t you just delay going down there again? If it’s only a couple of days, what does that matter? You can work remotely.”

“I can’t. A lot of stuff is being delivered and someone has to be there to handle it.”

“Camilla…”

“I’ll contact them. I don’t know if I can call but I have email access. Please, Soph. Please.”

I dropped my head back and looked up at the ceiling with a sigh.

“Is that a yes?” she asked hesitantly.

“Damn you.”

“Thank you! Thank you, thank you!”

“Don’t thank me yet. There’s a huge chance I might just fuck this up big time for you.” I grabbed my wine glass. “You have to tell them that I’m not you and it’s only for three days. I’m only standing in, not organising shit at all.”

“Yes, yes. Okay, look, I have to go, my phone is dying, and I have to get back from the airport.”

She was still at the airport? Lord. This was all a mess.

I was making a terrible choice here. I knew it. Camilla knew it. The entire aristocratic Devon family were about to know it.

Which meant everyone was about to know it.

“I’ll send you all the details as soon as I’m back at Gran’s, all right?” The line was breaking up again, and I only just caught her saying goodbye before it cut off.

There was no use calling her again. If it wasn’t her signal going, it was her battery, so I had no choice but to sit tight and wait for her to email me.

I couldn’t believe I’d said yes. I was insane, and I was in way over my head here.

It couldn’t have been a kid’s party, could it? With easy games of Pass the Parcel or Musical Chairs? Where sausage rolls, cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks, and cheesy puffs were the order of the day?

I could probably pull that off.

A couple of party games. Food to make them all hyper. A clown to scare the shit out of them, you know.

The basics.

No.

I couldn’t get a clown to scare the upper class, could I?

I mean, I could.

Technically.

There wasn’t a law against it or anything.

It just… wasn’t appropriate.

Appropriate was overrated.

Regardless of what I could and couldn’t do, I didn’t know anything about these people. Thankfully, the Internet was at my disposal, and there had to be something about the current holder of the dukedom of Devon on there somewhere.

Mostly, I needed to have some kind of bloody idea what I’d gotten myself into.

I sat on the sofa, turned on an episode of Friends for some mindless background noise, and booted up my laptop. As I’d suspected, it didn’t take long for Google to spit out hundreds of thousands of search results for my reading pleasure.

Bypassing Wikipedia, I clicked on the next search link. The website that loaded up looked as though it’d been ripped from the coding of The National Trust and modernised, but I didn’t have long to dissect that before the page fully loaded and a photo of an extremely large, Jacobean manor house that wouldn’t be out of place in an Jane Austen adaptation.

Cavendish House.

An appropriately pompous name.

I tapped on the box that invited me to get more information and grabbed my bag of popcorn. I had eaten more than enough for one day, but now I needed to comfort eat.

Camilla might as well have been sending me to Buckingham bloody Palace.

The page finally loaded, and I leaned closer to the screen to read it. Cavendish House was originally built on Exmoor in 1392 on the outskirts of a village called Moorhaven. After a fire destroyed a third of the building in the fifteenth century, it was rebuilt in 1503, when it was handed to the Devon family to be the seat of the dukedom. An extension to the original building was completed in 1612, which explained the Jacobean architecture given the actual house’s age.

The estate consisted of more than eight hundred acres of woodland, pasture, and arable farmland, and the website noted that of the over five hundred acres of farmland, almost all of it was rented out to local farmers. What was left was currently being used as a small petting farm.

A quick detour to that website showed it was quite popular and, apparently, quite the little money maker.

Nice work if you could get it.

Anyway. Back to the fancy website.

Cavendish House was currently home to the Duke and Duchess of Devon, their two adult sons, and The Dowager Duchess of Devon. It noted that the Duke and Duchess’s daughter was married and living nearby, although it didn’t elaborate further on that.

And that was it.

That was all the information, aside from some other menial information about the estate that I didn’t care too much about.

I leaned back against the sofa cushions and stared at the photos.

This place was grand as fuck.

There was no way I was going to be able to convince these people that I was supposed to be there. I was going to have to have to pack some of my best clothing—I wasn’t sure yoga pants with a chicken print would pass as an appropriate outfit choice.

What was I getting myself into?

I loaded up my email. I hoped it wouldn’t take too long for Camilla to send me over the information for the cottage or the party. I was going to need to study like this was a flipping exam if I was going to pull this off.

Never mind what I was getting myself into, what was Camilla getting herself into? Letting me take control of this.

If I ever needed proof of our friendship, this was it.

She was putting her business into my very messy, very unorganised hands.

And here we always thought I was the reckless friend.

Thankfully, there was an email from Camilla that was forwarded from her usual booking website. Her accompanying message was short but sweet, letting me know that she’d changed the name on the booking and would call Fancy Nancy tomorrow.

I blew out a breath and clicked on the link, then logged into her account with the information she’d given me. Like I didn’t already know it.

Well, I said know.

It was saved in my Google account.

I couldn’t remember my own passwords, never mind Camilla’s, too.

“Oh, this is better,” I muttered, opening the booking page for the cottage she’d rented. She had it for two weeks—God, I hoped I didn’t have to stay that long—and it was much more my speed.

Small but not too small, set away from a main road, with a slate roof, a cottage garden, and a wildlife pond in the back. It overlooked open farmland, and the inside was exactly how you’d expect a small cottage rental to look.

Cute, cosy, kitschy.

It was definitely the kind of place I belonged.

Cavendish House? Not so much.

This was going to be a disaster.

***

It was official.

I hated driving.

I hated driving, I hated cars, I hated buses, taxis, cyclists, and I most definitely hated bloody birds.

In the four-and-a-half hours it’d taken me to drive from my flat in London to this adorable cottage in North Devon, I’d almost been hit by six cyclists, almost driven into the side of a taxi on a blind country lane and had one pigeon smash into my windshield.

My windshield was, thankfully, unharmed by the vicious attack.

I couldn’t say the same for my nerves.

I blew out a long breath as I got out of my car and looked around. The cottage was everything it’d seemed to be in the pictures. The white walls were clean and sharp, and the bright blue window shutters and door contrasted amazingly with both the walls and the vibrant spring colours of the garden.

And it was quiet.

Wow.

There was literally nothing except the sounds of the countryside. Mooing cows seemed to converse with sheep, and birdsong tittered from the trees that towered up into the cloudless blue sky.

Was this what Heaven was like? Peaceful and pretty?

Okay.

Maybe I could make this work if it meant a few days here. As well as helping Camilla, I’d be able to clear my head. I’d done nothing but look for a new job and go on interviews for the last six weeks, so maybe some time away from London would do me good.

Why yes, I was telling myself whatever it took to make me feel better. Was it that obvious?

A girl had to do what a girl had to do.

The door to the cottage opened, and a black and white border collie darted out and towards me. Its tail wagged excitedly as it circled me, and its tongue lolled out of its mouth happily when I bent down to stroke it.

“Hello!” I laughed, rubbing the top of the dog’s head.

“Oh, Oscar!” A woman’s voice chastised from the doorway. “One of these days, he’ll stay when he’s told to!”

I looked up. The woman walking towards me was clearly in her sixties, although she had a shock of vibrant auburn hair piled on top of her head where a leaf stuck out of her hairclip. Her smile was warm and kind, and she adjusted the collar of her gilet as she approached me.

“Oscar!”

“It’s fine,” I assured her with a smile. “You’re just saying hi, aren’t you, Oscar?”

He barked as if to agree with me and plopped his arse on my foot.

The woman stared at him for a moment before she returned her attention to me. “You must be Camilla. Wait, no. Sophie?”

“Sophie.” I smiled and held out my hand. “I’m sorry if it was any bother to change the reservation.”

“Oh, dear, no, not at all. These things do happen. I’m Eleanora, but everyone calls me Nora.” She shook my hand. “And that rascal there is Oscar.”

“It’s lovely to meet you,” I replied. “Thank you so much for being understanding.”

Nora waved her hand and motioned for me to follow her. “Come on inside and I’ll show you around, then I’ll leave you to it, dear. It’s quite the drive from London, and you must be tired.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” I said slowly.

I was absolutely lying. It was awful. The only good part about it was that I’d left London.

Nobody tell my mother I said that.

She’d spent the last six weeksof my unemployment trying to get me to move back to Norfolk. If she knew I was happy to be out of the city, she’d never let me hear the end of it.

That was the last thing I needed.

Moving back home and her having something legitimate to go on at me about.

God only knew that would cost me what little sanity I had left.

CHAPTER FOUR – SOPHIE

Foot, Meet Mouth

The cottage was small and cosy, and Nora had to be the sweetest woman I’d ever met. Not only was the cottage completely sparkling clean, she’d also left me a loaf of freshly baked bread in a bread maker and six eggs from her garden chickens.

I wasn’t saying I could get used to this, but I could get used to this.

It was so strangely quiet here, too.

Well, quiet was the wrong word. It wasn’t quiet—birds were singing in the trees that surrounded the cottage, I could hear a cockerel singing the song of his people, and I was also pretty sure I’d heard a frog croak somewhere. The only traffic noises came in the form of tractors and other farm machinery as they rattled down the lane.

But it was still… quiet.

There were no sirens, no shouting, none of the bustle that I was used to outside our flat in London.

It was… weird. Very weird. I wasn’t sure if I would get used to it. I’d become so accustomed to it just being noisy all the time that these sounds of nature were so alien to me.

Even barking dogs sounded different.

I took a deep breath and looked out of the window. Camilla said I had to go and meet the Devons tomorrow instead of today after they had something come up, so that gave me the rest of the afternoon to myself.

The problem was that I’d had an awful lot of those lately, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this particular one.

I supposed that exploring the village would be a good thing. It wasn’t like I was going to be here long enough to need to know what happens here, but it seemed like a much better idea than sitting here on my own. Besides, Nora had mentioned there was a pub, a café, a bakery, and some small little shops, so if all else failed, I could get something to eat and drink.

It was better than nothing.

I changed out of the clothes I’d travelled down in and grabbed my coat. It was sunny outside, but I knew English weather far too well to trust it to stay like this.

It’d probably be raining by dinner.

I double checked to make sure I had everything, including the keys, and headed out. The cottage was only just on the outskirts of Moorhaven, and Nora had assured me it was only a couple of minutes of walking on the lane before I would reach the bridge that would take me into the village.

So I started walking.

It was so pretty here. The hedgerows that lined the road were taller than I was, and little birds flew in and out of them. Some had little sticks in their beaks, and I found myself smiling at them as I walked.

They were so busy. It was adorable.

Wow.

I really did need this escape.

I was losing my mind.

I came to the small stone bridge Nora had mentioned and slowly made my way across it. The stream rushed below, smashing into big rocks in the water, and it wound its way through the trees before it disappeared from my view. I brushed my fingers over the uneven, raggedy rocks that lined the top of the bridge sides and hopped off the end, then took a deep breath as I looked at the village.

It was like stepping into a fairy-tale.

The terraced row of little buildings was a mix of stone and painted exteriors that blended well, and the slate-tiled roof was a gorgeous contrast as the sun glinted off the windows. The café Nora had mentioned was identifiable by the cast iron table and chairs on the pavement outside and an adorable pink and white striped awning provided a little shade over the front door and windows.

The stores were all a mix of things. One was a clothing store with a mix of vintage and boho styles. The one next door was an old-school sweet shop complete with huge jars of all the best sweets and hard candies in the window. The row was completed by a post office, a small touristy shop that sold various knickknacks like pens and postcards and magnets, a bakery, and what looked like a furniture shop.

I continued walking past a bed and breakfast, a larger hotel, and some other general-type stores including a greengrocer.

I hadn’t seen one of those in a long time, and I made a mental note to stop by today and take some fresh fruit and veg back to the cottage with me.

The other side of the street was the stream, another small bridge, and what looked like the entry to a woodland area.

I really hoped Cam wasn’t wrong, and I’d be able to get done what I needed to relatively easily so I could maybe have some free time to explore.

Or maybe she wouldn’t mind me hanging out for a couple more days when she got here.

Whoa.

What was happening to me?

I’d been here for ten minutes and was already considering extending my stay.

Was that a sign it was time to find the pub?

I suppose the answer to that largely depended on what you considered an acceptable reason to start drinking. And if—I checked my watch—three in the afternoon was an acceptable time to start drinking.

You know what?

It was five o’clock somewhere.

I wandered through the dreamy little village until I came across the pub on the town square. This had even more stores and bed and breakfasts than the original street in, but it lacked the countryside charm of it since it was only buildings and didn’t benefit from the rushing of the stream and the endless singing of birds.

Actually.

That wasn’t so bad.

It was nice to have a break from it. I wasn’t quite used to the happy, chirpy, Snow White shit yet.

The Gnome Arms was exactly what I’d expected it to be. Rectangular in shape with a flaking chalkboard sign declaring it to be beer and a burger night. Another sign on the wall told passers-by that it screened the sports channels, and the stone exterior matched the vibe of the town perfectly.

I just hoped they served a good Sauvignon Blanc.

And food.

Mm, food.

I was, apparently, hungry. For something better than toast and McDonald’s.

I pulled open the door and stepped inside. Three in the afternoon or not, I was going to break the rules and eat dinner and drink wine early like the rebel Teenage Sophie had always wanted me to be.

Teenage Sophie had really overestimated my ability to rebel against society.

A small smile toyed with my lips as I entered the pub. It wasn’t dark—it was just gloomy enough that it felt like your average country pub that served the best food, but the wall sconces gave off just enough light to be cosy but not uncomfortable.

Was this what love felt like? It might have been.

And to think—I’d even brought a book with me.

What a stroke of genius that was.

Sophie Smith, the genius.

There are words my grandmother never thought would be in one sentence.

There was a small table tucked away in the corner by the window, and I claimed it by putting my coat on the chair and my bag on the surface. It was marked with a little bronze circle with the number four on it, so I took my purse from my bag and walked up to the bar.

“I’ll be right with you, darlin’,” the woman with blond hair said. “Give me two seconds.”

“Oh, that’s fine, there’s no rush.” I smiled, and she returned the gesture as she picked up a glass and poured a pint of Guinness like a pro.

Impressive.

I sometimes struggled with getting tap water in a glass.

It was a miracle I was allowed to adult.

She didn’t look like she was that much older than me and I bet she could get water without splashing it all over herself.

She wiped her hands on her apron after ringing up the last punter and came over with the same beaming smile on her face. “What can I get for you?”

“I was told you do food, but there’s no menu on the table?”

“Ah, I’m sorry, darlin’. We serve lunch from eleven ‘til two and dinner from five ‘til nine.”

“Oh.” Bugger it. “That’s fine, I just got here and wanted to explore anyway. I don’t suppose I could reserve that table in the corner, could I?”

“Sure can.” She pulled out a clipboard from a shelf at the back of the bar. “What time? Four-thirty? I can get your order in for five that way.”

“Oh, yes. That would be wonderful, thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sophie Smith.”

“Well, Sophie Smith, that’s all yours.” Her nose wrinkled up when she smiled. “I’m Caitlyn, but everyone calls me Cait.”

I held my purse to my chest. “Thanks, Cait. Where would you recommend a woman starts exploring around here?”

“Well, if you’re hungry, Alice’s bakery down the street is a good starting place.” She winked at me. “Then just hop from shop to shop, and there’s also Cavendish House if you’re here long enough to drive over there. Part of the estate is open to the public if you like that sort of thing.”

I did not.

But it wasn’t like I had a choice anyway, so…

“I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks. I’ll see you at half four.” I retrieved my things and waved goodbye to her before I left the pub.

I took her advice and went to the bakery, grabbing a fresh cream éclair and a cup of tea to go. After eating it while sitting on a bench that overlooked the stream, I made my way slowly through the village, popping in and out of the shops. By the time four-thirty rolled around, I’d been in almost every shop in the village and had procured myself two bags of groceries and spent more money than I should have in the sweet shop.

I’d had a momentary lapse of judgement.

That, or the sour blue and pink bottles had taken over my life.

Spoiler alert: it was the bottles. They were the best sweets ever, and I was fully prepared to fight anyone who said otherwise.

“Sophie!” Cait grinned and waved when I walked in. “You look like you’ve been busy.”

I bit my lip and smiled. “I had a great afternoon.”

“Your table is ready for you. I’ll bring you a menu over in a second. Can’t take your order ’til just before five, but it’s got a drinks list on there, too.” She nodded her head in the direction of my table.

“Thanks!” I grinned and walked over to it.

“Who’s that?” a guy asked at the bar.

“That’s none of your business,” Cait replied to him with more than a little amusement in her voice. I didn’t hear anything else after that, but I carefully hung my coat over the back of my chair and peered over.

I hadn’t noticed the guy standing there, so he can’t have been there when she’d greeted me.

Trust me.

He was the kind of guy you noticed.

Tall. Dark hair. Broad shoulders. And his voice was deep and rich—if melted butter on toast had a sound, it would be his voice.

Their conversation lasted only another minute before Cait slid two pints across the bar to him, gave him a firm look that was accompanied by a wry twist of her lips, and he laughed as he picked up the beers and disappeared to the other side of the bar out of my line of sight.

I pulled my phone out of my bag and ran through the mountain of notifications I’d accumulated during my afternoon out. The only one that really mattered was the message from Camilla.

CAMILLA: Did you make it there ok????

CAMILLA: Hello?

CAMILLA: SOPHIE ARE YOU ALIVE

CAMILLA: Oh no you got eaten by a cow didn’t you

CAMILLA: SOPHIEEEEEEE

CAMILLA: I’m going to call the police.

I’m sorry.

Messages.

Emphasis on the plural.

There were a ton more.

ME: Sorry. I got distracted.

I was quite surprised by her immediate response.

CAMILLA: OF COURSE YOU DID. Did you get there ok? Was there any problem checking in?

ME: Yes, it’s all fine. Nora was really kind. I’m getting food now.

CAMILLA: Okok. Good. I haven’t had an email back from Nancy so you might have to explain the situation when you get there tomorrow.

ME: WHAT?

CAMILLA: I don’t have signal. I can’t call. I’ve tried.

Right.

We were on WhatsApp. That used the internet.

Not to sound like a grouchy grandma, but there were too many apps on my phone that all did the same thing.

ME: Right. Ok. I guess I can do that.

CAMILLA: Thank you. Soph you’re amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without you.

ME: Maybe we wait until I’ve gone there and see how that goes before you start singing my praises.

“Here you go.” Cait set an old, leather-bound menu in front of me on the table with a smile. “Everything all right?”

“Oh, yeah, just catching up with my best friend.” I returned her smile. “Who was that guy at the bar?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Hugo?”

I cleared my throat. “I heard him asking who I was.”

“Oh, right.” She laughed. “Ignore him.”

“Are you…” I motioned awkwardly with my hand.

Cait stared at me for a moment. “Are we… Oh.” She ran her tongue over her lips, pursed them, then fought a smile. “No. We’ve been friends for a while. Uh… he’s not my type.”

I stared at her.

Literally how?

Wasn’t tall, dark, and handsome most women’s type?

“Sophie. He isn’t my type.”

I blinked.

Oh.

Oh.

“Oh,” I said after a moment, then shook my head. “I’m so sorry. It’s really none of my business and that was rude of me.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s no secret. But even if I were straight, he still wouldn’t be my type.” She winked. “What do you want to drink?”

“Sauvignon? Do you have it?”

Cait nodded. “I’ve got a great one. I’ll have it brought over to you in a second.”

“Thank you. And I’m sorry again.”

“Don’t be sorry.” She reached out and squeezed my shoulder with another wide smile before she disappeared.

Still.

I felt bad. Even if she didn’t think I had nothing to be sorry for, it still felt wrong that I’d practically baited her into explaining her sexuality.

This was why I needed to work in an office. Where I barely had to speak to anyone. It was definitely for the best.

My glass of wine was set on the table in front of me by an older woman, and after thanking her, I picked up my phone and opened the stupid messaging app again.

CAMILLA: You’ll be fine. I promise.

ME: You will be home in a couple of days, won’t you?

CAMILLA: I hope so.

ME: What the hell does that mean????

CAMILLA: The weather still isn’t great. If it doesn’t stop in the next 24 hours, I might be here an extra couple of days.

ME: Oh, Jesus Christ. You’ve sent an idiot to organise a party for people who are one step removed from royalty. Start swimming.

CAMILLA: Don’t be so dramatic. As long as I have the Internet, I can work virtually to help you.

ME: And what if you don’t have the Internet?

CAMILLA: …

CAMILLA: I’m going to add you to my Dropbox and put some detailed notes on the plans.

ME: I cannot adequately express how much I hate you.

CAMILLA: I love you. I’ll do that now while I have a connection.

I bit back a groan. This was the last thing I needed. I knew it wasn’t her fault and she couldn’t control the weather, but the idea that she might be there even longer? Leaving me to explain the situation because nobody was returning her calls? To potentially organise the whole frigging party?

I was going to have to spend my whole evening swotting up on the plans to make sure I sounded like I knew what I was talking about tomorrow morning.

Spoiler alert: I was not going to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

Never.

I flicked through the menu and settled on a shepherd’s pie. As the sun had started going down the temperature had definitely dropped outside, and this was a guaranteed tummy warmer for my walk back to the cottage.

I really was glad I’d bought my coat.

***

The bar was much busier now than it had been an hour ago. The food had been amazing, and I wanted to settle my tab, so I grabbed my bag and headed over to the bar where Cait was working her butt off.

She noticed me with a glance in my direction. I made the universal sign for the bill, and she nodded, then quickly turned her attention back to the pint she was pulling. She skimmed the excess head off the top and poured another, did the same, and turned to ring them up.

A few people were ahead of me, so I waited happily, looking around the bar. Someone’s arm pressed against mine and I jolted, turning to tell whoever it was to watch where they were going.

The problem was that no words came out.

I was pretty sure it was the guy who’d asked Cait who I was earlier, and he was even hotter from the front than he was from the back. His hair was dark, and his eyes were either blue or green—the dim lighting at the bar made it hard to tell for sure, but they were framed with annoyingly thick, dark lashes.

The kind women paid stupid amounts of money on mascara to obtain.

He had thick, full lips and a stubbled jaw that could cut diamond, and when he smiled at me, I could swear my ovaries hopped right on out of my body and latched onto him.

What did she say his name was again?

Shit. I wasn’t even sure I knew my own name right now.

“Sorry,” he said, smiling widely at me. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

I gave myself a mental shake and took a step to the side. “No, it’s fine.”

“I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“I’ve never been here before,” I replied, turning away and looking at Cait in the hope she’d feel my eyes on her and come and rescue me.

Help.

Please.

“Are you here for long?” he asked.

“I hope not,” I muttered.

“What was that?”

“Probably not,” I said a little louder. “Sorry, I just want to pay and go back to my—where I’m staying.”

Cait must have heard my mental pleas because she finally approached with a receipt in her hand. “Hugo, leave her alone. Here you go, Sophie.”

Hugo! That was it.

Hmm.

He looked like a Hugo.

I felt like all Hugos were handsome.

“Thanks. I’ve got my card here.” I opened my bag to fish out my purse, but Hugo rested his hand on my arm.

“I’ve got this. An apology for bumping into you,” he said, looking into my eyes.

Ding dong, my clit’s alive.

I brushed off the fizzle of attraction to him. “You barely touched me. It’s quite all right, thank you.”

“I insist.”

“I insist more,” I said, unzipping my purse and pulling out my card. I shook his hand off, took another step to the side, and shoved my card at a very amused Cait before he could do anything else.

The man was handsome as hell, but apparently, he couldn’t take a hint.

I wasn’t exactly short of experience with guys like him.

He held his hands up. “I was just going to do something nice for you.”

I turned, leaning on the bar, and met his eyes. “Look. I live in London. I know what something nice means when a hot guy hits on a woman in a bar. If you really want that line to work, the polite thing to do is accept her rejection and walk away. Otherwise, you simply look rude, entitled, and honestly? Kind of a creep.”

He blinked at me.

“So thank you, but no thank you.” I took my card and card machine receipt from Cait. “Thank you.”

She wasn’t even trying to hide her enjoyment of this situation. “You’re welcome. I’m working again tomorrow if you’re still around.”

In other words: come in for a drink so I can laugh at what just happened.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.” I smiled and headed back to table where I grabbed my things and made sure to zip my coat right up. I waved goodbye to Cait and didn’t bother waving to Hugo, but that didn’t mean I ignored him entirely.

I couldn’t.

He was staring at me with his head tilted slightly to the side. His lips were pressed together, and his brow was slightly furrowed. The look in his eye gave a glimpse of what he was thinking—that he didn’t know what to make of me.

That he wasn’t used to being shut down and called out like that.

I glanced back one last time.

Green.

His eyes were green.

CHAPTER FIVE – HUGO

Miss Marple Eat Your Heart Out

That woman was infuriating.

Not because she’d called me out.

No, I knew I should have accepted her refusal of my offer and moved on, but my mouth wouldn’t let me.

I wanted to know who she was.

Especially after Cait had told me it was none of my business.

Well, I fucking knew that, but I wanted to know anyway.

Women like her—Sophie­­—didn’t tend to come to places like Moorhaven and eat alone in a country pub. At first, I’d thought she might be the person my mother had hired for Grandma’s birthday party, but her name was Camilla.

Which meant there were two random women wandering around Moorhaven.

If Camilla was half as attractive as Sophie…

Shit, it’d been a long time since I’d been so immediately attracted to someone. Especially someone I didn’t know—someone who was so clearly a stranger to this place.

She was the last person I’d expected to see in here today. Or ever, really. I didn’t know a damn thing about her, and our meeting hadn’t started off well, but there was just…

Bugger it. There was something about her that made me want to get to know her more. Perhaps finding out where she was staying and trying to catch her wasn’t the best idea in the world, but if she was staying in the village, then someone would have to know where she was.

God, even I knew this was ridiculous.

I just wanted to know who she was.

If I found that out, I might learn why I was acting like an absolute fool.

“You’re staring,” Cait said, wiping out the inside of a wine glass.

I dragged my eyes away from the closed bar door and met her gaze. “Of course I am. Did you see her? When was the last time someone that gorgeous showed up here?”

She inclined her head in agreement. “I’ll give you that, she’s gorgeous. But by the sounds of it, she’s not interested in you at all.”

“I heard you tell her you’re gay. Did she seem interested in you?”

“How did you hear that?”

“I’m a nosy fucker.”

“You’re not wrong,” she muttered, setting the glass down on the shelf behind her. “And no, she did not. But just because she’s into men doesn’t mean she’s into you.”

I grinned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

She shot me a dark look. “Hugo. Just because your mum wants you to get a date for that party doesn’t mean you need to latch onto and piss off the first new girl you see.”

“She wasn’t too impressed, was she?”

“No, and let me tell you, it was bloody delicious to watch.” She smirked and turned to serve someone who’d walked up to the bar.

“What was delicious to watch?” Henry asked, grabbing the empty bar stool next to me. “Did you get turned down? That’s always fucking hilarious.”

My brother was a real jokester.

“Bumped into someone, tried to pay her bill, got shut down,” I said briefly.

“And called out for his shitty, pushy, typical arse male behaviour,” Cait said, returning. She grabbed Henry’s empty glass and poured him another beer. “It was hilarious.”

Henry’s eyebrows raised.

“Typical male behaviour? What would you have done in the same situation?” I asked her.

“Exactly what Sophie said,” she continued. “You see, being a woman, I have the edge when it comes to dating women. I know how they want to be treated. When she turned down the offer, you should have asked if she was sure, then left her alone, and she might have been a little nicer to you.”

Henry shook his head and sighed. “You never learn, do you?”

I just about refrained from rolling my eyes at him. I already knew all this, but if it made them feel better to shit talk me, then I’d let them get on with it.

“Who was it?” he asked Cait.

She shrugged. “Never seen her before today. She came in this afternoon looking for food, but we were between servings, so she reserved a table and explored the village.”

“Why’s she here?”

“Jesus, what is this? Border Force interrogation?” She wiped down the bar. “I don’t know what she’s doing here. She didn’t offer it, and I didn’t ask.”

“What use is a bartender who doesn’t know everything about everyone?” I grumbled. “For future reference, the next time a hot, straight woman comes in here, ask what she’s doing here.”

“I’m sorry, only asking the straight ones does nothing for me,” Cait replied blithely.

“Well, you asking the gay ones doesn’t help me.”

“Nothing helps you,” Henry said dryly. “That’s why you’re thirty and single.”

“You’re thirty in six months and I don’t see you getting on one knee anytime soon.”

“Yet, here you are, bickering like thirteen-year-old girls.” Cait smirked. “If she comes back in tomorrow, I’ll ask, all right?”

I sipped my beer. “Thank you.”

“Settle down, Romeo,” she said, sliding a gaze in my direction. “I said I’d ask. I never said I’d tell you.”

She was going to be the death of me.

I still didn’t know how we’d ever ended up friends. It was just one of those that one day, we weren’t, then the next thing I knew we were the best of friends, and she was crying on my fifteen-year-old shoulder while she told me she thought she was gay.

Now I was somewhat stuck with her.

It had its ups and downs, that much was for certain.

“What are you two doing here, anyway? Don’t you have anything better to do?” Cait asked, pouring two glasses of red wine for someone, then passing it over to Charlie to take to the table.

“Mum’s being unbearable,” Henry answered. “She’s so bloody obsessed with this party, and I think it’s pretty much a ball at this point.”

Cait wrinkled her nose.

“She’s basically using it as fifty percent for Grandma and fifty percent a matchmaking opportunity,” I continued. “It is equal parts hilarious and exasperating.”

“Hilarious when she and Grandma fight about it, exasperating when she’s trying to slip eligible single women onto the guestlist,” Henry finished. “And that’s for both of us. Someone convinced her it was only fair.”

I grinned.

Me.

It was me.

I was someone.

If I had to be set up with someone, so did he.

That was how brothers worked. Especially when you had a perfect sister who could do no wrong.

“I think she’s going to call your mum, by the way,” Henry said. “Something about arranging the cake.”

“So I should tell Mum not to answer the phone,” Cait replied.

I grinned. “Depends how badly you want to piss Mum off.”

“All right, I’ll let her know.” She sighed. “How much longer do I have to put up with you two tonight?”

I glanced at Henry, and he nodded.

“All night,” we said at the same time.

“Thank God it’s a pub,” she muttered.

***

I should have known that letting my brother strongarm me into heading to the pub before five o’clock was a terrible idea.

In his defence, this party-slash-ball-slash I didn’t even know what it was now was driving our mother absolutely bonkers, and despite living on this huge estate, there really was no escaping the woman.

It was like scrolling Facebook and seeing the same ad seventy times in one day.

Intolerable.

Today would be even worse. The beer I’d consumed was definitely making itself known in my pounding head, and since the party planner was coming today, it had been a very bad choice to drink so much beer.

That, and I was not eighteen anymore.

I could not hack that level of drinking.

I stepped out of the shower and grabbed the bottle of water from my beside cabinet, then sat on the edge of the bed. I had to shake this headache before my mother started going on about the party.

God only knew that would give me a headache anyway.

I finished the water and got dressed, then headed downstairs. The household staff were busy cleaning and polishing everything in sight, so I knew that meant the party planner would be here soon.

Mum only sent them on overdrive if there was someone coming over.

“Good morning, Lord Hugo,” the butler, Rupert, said when I walked into the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please. Do you know if there’s any Ibuprofen in the medicine drawer?”

“There is. Your brother took some not long ago.” He shot a small smile my way. “Feeling rough, are we?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I grumbled, slumping over the kitchen island. “It’s bad enough Mum is insisting we get up this early.”

“She is rather determined to make some headway on this shindig.”

“Is Grandma awake yet? Oh, thank you.” I gratefully took both the tea and the box of ibuprofen from Rupert.

“She is. She has been following the staff around all morning telling them which specks of dust they’re missing.” He paused. “I can’t decide who she’s trying to annoy more. The staff or your mother.”

“Always Mum.” I shook my head slowly. “If Grandma is annoying someone, it’s with the ultimate intention to drive my mother up the wall.”

“Stop telling everyone my secrets.”

I turned to see Grandma hobble into the kitchen with her walking stick knocking against the tiles. “Good morning.”

“It most certainly is bloody not,” she sniped. “Have you seen all this palaver in my house? How can one look at this and think it’s a good morning?”

Oh, good.

She was in an excellent mood.

Today was going to go well.

“Would you like a cup of tea, Your Grace?” Rupert asked, bowing his head.

Grandma’s head snapped around, and if this were a sci-fi movie, she’d have been shooting lasers out of her eyes.

“I’ll get Grandma some tea,” I said, standing up even though the act of it made my head thump.

She turned that angry glare onto me. “Are you hungover?”

“No,” I lied.

“You look hungover.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You’re hungover. I see that Ibuprofen. You only take that when you’re hungover.”

What was this? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Fucking hell.

“Can’t you take your grumpiness to Mum? She’s the root cause of all this, not me. I’m trying to be helpful. Where’s Henry? I don’t see him offering to make you tea.” I poured hot water from the kettle into a teapot. “I’m on your side, you know.”

“You’re only on my so-called side because she’s trying to set you up with someone!” She tapped her stick against my leg as she crossed over to the dining table. “Otherwise you’d throw me to the wolves!”

“Grandma.” I pressed my hand to my chest. “I would never.”

“You’re so full of shit they can smell you in Scotland,” she grumbled.

All right.

I was a little full of shit.

But it didn’t stink quite that bad.

“Grandma. That is very unladylike language,” I scolded her, carrying the pot over for her on a tea tray that Rupert had put together for me.

She stared up at me. “You mistake me for a woman who gives a shit.”

“Tut tut.”

“I’m old. I can do and say what I want.”

“You and your friends can think that all you like, but it doesn’t make it true.” I set the tray down and pulled the tea cosy off the pot. “Would you like me to pour it for you?”

“No. You’ll only do it wrong.” She rested her stick against the table and reached over to pour it for herself.

Again, I wasn’t going to argue with her. She was clearly in that kind of mood, and if anyone was going to be on the end of her threats to be beaten with her walking stick, it would be someone else.

“Good morning!” Mum strolled into the kitchen with a beaming smile. She was as impeccably put together as always in a matching pair of trousers and blazer, and her heels clicked against the tiles as she walked over to the island.

I felt woefully underdressed.

She was going to make me change, wasn’t she?

I didn’t think I’d be having these thoughts at thirty, but here we were.

It wasn’t as if I lived a normal life as the future duke, was it?

“I wish everyone would stop saying that! It is not a good morning,” Grandma grouched from her spot on the other side of the kitchen.

“Oh, Evelyn, do try to smile,” Mum retorted, accepting the cup of tea from Rupert. “It’s really not the end of the world, is it? You’ll get to see your friends.”

“I don’t like those people.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I wasn’t aware you lived in my head, Anna.”

Mum put her cup of tea down and walked over to her. “Evelyn.”

“Anna,” Grandma said in a petulant tone with an equally childish expression.

Mum rolled her shoulders. “Camilla Hopkins will be here in twenty minutes to go over the plans for your party and put them in motion. Will you please attend the meeting and be polite to her? She’s doing this at the last minute for us and your input will be required.”

“My input is that I don’t want a bloody party. I’m going to be eighty, not thirty. If you want a party so much, why don’t you organise your own?”

“Because my birthday is in November, and it is currently March.”

“Is it? I thought it was August.”

“Can you please co-operate?”

“Absolutely not.”

Rupert leaned over. “Should I slip her a Valium, sir?”

“Which one?” I whispered back.

“Both?”

“You might have to.”

“What are we whispering about?” Dad asked, leaning in.

I grinned. “Morning. Those two.”

“Ah.”

They were still bickering.

“Good morning, Lord Devon,” Rupert said, standing up straight.

“Good morning, Rupert,” Dad replied brightly. “You don’t have a cup of tea, do you? I was up rather early helping the Johnsons attend to an ewe who was struggling to lamb.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?” I asked. “I would have helped.”

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a curve of his lips. “I tried to. You were passed out on your stomach in your bedroom.”

“Do not let Mum know that,” I muttered.

“I’m not that daft, son. Ah, tea, excellent. Thank you.” He took the strong cup of tea and sipped. “Lovely.”

“How did the lambing go? Did it make it?”

“Unfortunately not,” Dad replied morosely. “The cord was wrapped around the poor thing’s neck and we couldn’t save it.”

“Shame,” Rupert muttered.

“Rupert! A moment, please,” Mum called.

He excused himself.

I looked at Dad. “What now? Didn’t they lose one last year after this?”

“Yes. Luckily, they have a three-day old lamb they’ve been hand-rearing. It was a twin and mum rejected it, so they’re trying to introduce her to the ewe now. We’re hoping she accepts it.” He put another teaspoon of sugar in his tea. “One of those things, sadly. When’s this party girl getting here? Do I have time to act like I was never here?”

“Ah, George, there you are.” Mum swept over.

“Good morning, darling. You look lovely today.”

Mum stared at him. “Where have you been?”

He relayed the story of the lamb again.

“Dreadful shame.” She actually looked as though she agreed. “Camilla will be here in…” She checked her watch. “Any moment, if she’s got good manners.”

I frowned. “She doesn’t have to be here for another ten minutes.”

“Exactly,” Mum replied, turning to Dad. “Rupert is preparing the drawing room with some tea now. I would appreciate if you could talk to your mother and ask her to co-operate.”

“Whatever makes you think she’ll listen to me?” Dad asked. “The woman doesn’t listen to anyone.”

“George!”

“I’ll ask.” He picked up his cup of tea and walked over to where Grandma was now browsing the newspaper and grumbling about the price of fuel.

The only thing she drove was my mother up the wall.

“Where’s your brother?” Mum asked me.

“I don’t know. I don’t have a tracking device on him.”

“Watch your mouth. You’re not too old to go over my knee, Hugo.”

My family was utterly exhausting sometimes.

“Ah, Your Ladyship. Miss Hopkins is waiting in the drawing room for you.” Rupert bowed in the doorway, and Mum instantly brightened.

Scarily fast, actually.

“Hugo. Come with me. Where’s Nancy?” She paused and looked at Dad. “George, please bring your mother.”

It was like being in the military.

“Nancy is waiting outside the drawing room for you. I fetched her a second ago,” Rupert replied. “If you’d follow me, please.”

I followed behind Mum, glancing back to see if Dad and Grandma were following yet.

They weren’t.

I’d be surprised if he was able to convince her to come.

“Good morning, my Lady,” Nancy said, then turned to me. “Lord Hugo.”

“Good morning, Nancy,” Mum replied as I acknowledged her with a nod of my head. “Rupert, do let us in. We’re wasting time.”

Rupert opened the doors and stepped aside. Mum fell in behind him, then me, followed by Nancy.

“Miss Hopkins, I’d like to present to you Her Grace, The Duchess of Devon. Your Ladyship, this is Miss Camilla Hopkins.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Hopkins,” Mum said, stepping forward and extending her hand. “Thank you so much for coming on such short notice.”

“It’s lovely to meet you, Your Grace,” a very familiar voice replied. “But I—”

“Please, let me introduce you to my son, Lord Hugo, The Earl of Exmoor.” Mum stepped aside, and I fought a smile.

Sophie was standing in front of me.

Or was it Camilla?

Sophie swallowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Hugo.”

My lips curved into a smile.

Not as much of a pleasure as it was to meet her.

CHAPTER SIX – SOPHIE

Up Shit’s Creek Without a Paddle Boat

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.

I was in so much trouble.

Hugo.

Lord Hugo.

The Earl of Exmoor.

The guy whose arse I’d chewed out yesterday.

I’d been in this bloody great house for five minutes, and I was already making a mess of it.

He held out his hand, and I took it, trying to ignore the shiver that ran down my spine.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Hopkins,” he said smoothly.

Yep.

Voice like butter.

There it was.

Oh, no.

No, no, no. Camilla was going to kill me.

Dead.

I was so frigging dead.

And why wasn’t I allowed to talk? They thought I was Camilla. I had to tell them I wasn’t before this got out of hand, but I knew the protocol.

I had to behave.

If only I’d told myself that yesterday before I’d mouthed off at him.

“This is Nancy, my assistant. If you have any queries, please do direct them to her. She will be helping you with this. Please, take a seat,” the duchess said, motioning to the sofas.

Did I look green?

I felt like I was going to throw up.

I sat down opposite her and Hugo, while Nancy took the seat next to me. “Your Ladyship, I—”

“I am very impressed with the plans you’ve drawn up,” she said, opening the binder. “It’s not too formal but is most certainly befitting a dowager duchess. I would like my mother-in-law to go over the menu before any final decisions are made, and I believe there’s also a choice of flower arrangements.”

“Yes, there is, but—”

“I have the final guest list for you, and I will have Nancy have someone bring that to your place of residence. Where is it that you’re staying?” The duchess looked over at me.

“Bluebell Cottage. I—”

“Oh, with Nora. Of course. Beautiful place.” She nodded. “Nancy, if you would be so kind as to have that delivered to Miss Hopkins later today, we will select the invitations and have them printed tonight and sent tomorrow. I trust you’re familiar with aristocratic seating plans for the dinner?” I didn’t have a chance to respond that I did not before she said, “Ah, no matter, I do believe there are some issues at the moment. Hugo will be able to assist you with keeping those who don’t get along separate from one another.”

Spectacular.

This got better.

“I will not mind my manners,” said an elderly female from outside the door. “I do not want this bloody party, George, and I shall not be a part of the organising.”

That would be the dowager duchess, then.

“Mother, please,” said an exasperated male voice I assumed to be George—the duke.

“Henry! Tell him!”

“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” a new male voice retorted.

The duchess shot a look at someone behind me, and two seconds later, the door was opened to reveal an elderly woman and two men who bore a striking resemblance to Hugo—one a similar age, and one clearly older.

His father and brother, then.

Everyone stood up, and I quickly followed suit.

“His Grace, The Duke of Devon with Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of Devon, and Lord Henry,” Rupert announced formally.

The dowager duchess shuffled in using a cane and looked at me. “Are you the party planner?”

No.

Not at all.

“Yes, Your Grace. I’m—”

“I want to see the menu,” she demanded, cutting me off. “If I have to be involved with this, it might as well be something I bloody well care about.”

“Mother,” the duke said. “I do apologise, Miss Hopkins.” He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Thank you so much for coming.”

I was going to throw up. “It’s my pleasure, Your Grace, but I—”

“My son, Lord Henry.” He motioned, and the younger man stepped forward, giving me an appraising glance.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hopkins,” he said with a smile, shaking my hand.

I was never going to be able to tell the truth, was I?

“And yours, Lord Henry.” I withdrew my hand and looked down.

I’d never felt so awkward in my life.

All these people thought I was Camilla, and I couldn’t get a word in edgeways to tell them otherwise.

The only person in this room who knew my name was actually Sophie was Hugo.

The eldest son.

The heir.

And I doubted I was his favourite person after yesterday.

“Goodness me,” the duchess said. “There are far too many people in this room for such a simple task. Hugo, Henry, please step aside and let your grandmother take a seat.”

Both young men did as she’d told them and took a standing position on the other side of the elegantly decorated room. Both of their eyes flickered to me and away again, and it took everything I had not to pay attention to either of them.

The dowager duchess sat down and looked over at me. “Well? The menu?”

“Perhaps you and Miss Hopkins can meet this afternoon to go over the menu,” the duchess said. “There are a couple of options for you to choose from.”

“Left it a bit late, Anna, haven’t you?”

The duke pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right. Anna, that’s a wonderful idea. Mother, why don’t you accompany me to the village? I have some things to pick up.”

The duchess looked up at him. “I can send someone to—”

“And we’ll get a spot of lunch,” he continued, looking at his mother. “Miss Hopkins, are you free to discuss the menu this afternoon?”

I blinked. “Oh, yes, that would be fine.”

“Perfect. Mother.” He offered the older woman his arm, and she winked at me as she got up.

She was a hoot.

I had a feeling I was going to like her.

Whatever she thought my name was.

“I do apologise for her,” the duchess said. “There are some creative differences.”

“It’s all right,” I replied. “It happens.”

Like I knew.

“Anyway, I did like the designs you sent for a cake, and design three is my chosen option.”

I quickly opened my notebook and wrote down cake – 3, before looking up again. “I’ll call the bakery this morning and let them know.”

Thank God I’d swotted up on everything for this party and knew the details better than I knew my own phone number.

“Excellent. Ask for Angela. Please do let Nancy know when the menu is decided so she can co-ordinate with the chef.” The duchess closed the book and looked over at me. “I think we should go with the roses for the flower display, and Rupert would be more than happy to co-ordinate on the wine list with you.”

Wine list.

Right.

I quickly marked down the flower choice and swallowed. “No problem. I should tell—”

“I presume a company will be coming in to decorate. Do you know when they will be arriving? Do they need to come to take measurements? I can ensure the ballroom is ready for them.”

Uh-oh.

Camilla had not given me that information.

“I will get that information tonight for you and let you know in the morning, if that’s all right.”

She made a noise that said it wasn’t all right. It wasn’t like she had a choice about it, though.

If I didn’t know, I didn’t know.

“Right.” She checked her watch and got to her feet, prompting me and Nancy to do the same. “I have a hair appointment ahead of my business trip, so I will leave you to it. Rupert, Nancy, please see to it that Miss Hopkins is assisted appropriately.”

“Of course, my lady,” Rupert replied.

“Thank you. Will you request one of the valets bring my car around in five minutes?”

He bowed his head.

“Hugo, Henry, please get yourselves dressed properly before you assist Miss Hopkins with the provisional seating plan. Nancy, I’d like you to accompany me to the hair salon so we can go over my schedule for London.”

“Yes, my lady,” Nancy replied, clasping her hands in front of her body.

Everyone but me and Nancy filed out of the room, and I slowly let out a deep breath.

Nancy turned to me. “What is so important that you had to attempt to tell Her Grace several times?”

I swallowed. “I’m not Camilla.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “I’m sorry? Then who are you?”

“I’m Sophie. I took your original phone call.” I grimaced. “Camilla is my best friend and flatmate.”

She pressed her fingers to her temples. “Where is Camilla and what on Earth are you doing here?”

“She’s stranded in Norway.”

“That’s not something you hear every day.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered, wrapping my arms around myself. “She went to visit family, but her grandmother is unwell, so she extended her stay. The day she was due to come home, a winter storm moved in over Scandinavia and all flights were cancelled. She did email you, but I’m not sure if any went through.”

One of Nancy’s eyebrows quirked up in disbelief, and she whipped a phone from the pocket of her smart, grey blazer, and tapped on the screen. Her expression changed from one of doubt to one of resignation, and that was followed by a sigh a moment later. “The email went to my spam, and there is indeed a storm. It says here that they’re due to resume flying tomorrow.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you are not Camilla,” she said, putting her phone back in her pocket. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to do as Her Grace has asked you, and you’re going to ensure that your friend is here by the time she returns from London.”

I nodded, swallowing hard.

“You have four days. By which point you will have returned home, and Camilla will be in your place.”

I nodded again.

“Her Grace has a tendency to be rather… heavy-handed… and there is more than one witness to attest to her rather continuous interruptions of you.” Nancy folded her hands on her stomach. “It will be brushed off as a simple misunderstanding and miscommunication thanks to the weather and her lack of time. Now, I presume you do know what you’re doing here, do you?”

Absolutely fucking not.

“I do. I have all the information except for the decorating, but I’m going to contact Camilla immediately to get that.”

“Very well. And you’re staying at Bluebell Cottage?”

“Yes.”

“I will have the final guest list sent to you tonight, so perhaps it’s best to focus on something other than the seating plan with Lord Hugo.” She checked her watch. “I will call you at eight a.m. sharp tomorrow to check in to give an update to Her Ladyship.”

I couldn’t stop bloody nodding. “Yes. Of course.”

“Very well. I have to leave now.” She walked towards the door, then paused and looked over her shoulder at me. “Sophie?”

I swallowed. “Yes?”

“Don’t mess this up. Your best friend’s reputation is on the line here.” With one final glance over me, Nancy turned around and left me alone in the drawing room.

I dropped onto the sofa and buried my head in my hands.

I was so screwed. I needed a moment to breathe and collect my thoughts because they were absolutely all over the place. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if Camilla couldn’t get back for whatever reason.

I needed her to get back.

I didn’t want to still be here when the duchess returned.

Hell, I didn’t want to be here when Nancy returned from the hairdresser, never mind anything else.

I pulled my phone out of my bag and opened the chat app with Camilla.

ME: I need you to get your butts home. They never got your email and the duchess wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeway. I tried to tell her like 10 times before she cut the meeting short. Fancy Nancy realised there was something I wasn’t saying and said I need to be gone by the time the duchess gets back from London and you need to be here.

ME: Oh, and I also chewed out their eldest son last night when I thought he was hitting on me so there’s that

ME: I TOLD YOU NOT TO SEND ME HERE CAMILLA

ME: I’m never forgiving you for this

ME: These people are absolutely fucking terrifying

“Are you all right?”

I jumped at the voice. That didn’t look like Hugo.

Was it his brother? Henry?

“Here.” He brought a bottle of water over and put it on the table next to the planner book, then looked at me. “I won’t bite. You can talk to me.”

“I’m sorry, Lord Henry. I—”

“Henry,” he said with a smile. “Lord Henry is my uncle.”

A light laugh escaped me, and I picked up the water when he pushed it towards me. “Thank you.” It was cold, and strangely, it did help to calm me down a little bit.

“Are you all right?”

“I don’t know,” I replied slowly.

“Well, you could start by telling us what your real name is,” Hugo said.

I turned to see him standing in the doorway.

Goodness, he was handsome.

“Hugo,” Henry said firmly.

“Relax, nobody else is here. Nancy went with Mum, Dad and Grandma left, and Rupert is cataloguing the wines in the cellar.” He walked into the drawing room and sat down opposite me. He rested one ankle on his knee, leaned an arm across the back of the sofa, and smirked at me. “Is it Miss Hopkins or is it Sophie?”

“If you’re going to be cocky about it, it’ll be Miss Smith.”

“Suits me fine. You can call me Lord Hugo.”

I smiled. “I’d rather not talk to you at all, to be perfectly honest.”

The smirk dropped from his face.

Henry coughed next to me, and I was almost certain it was to hide a laugh. “So if you are Sophie, how on Earth did you end up here, pretending to be Camilla?”

“It’s really quite a simple explanation.”

“Then explain it,” Hugo said sharply.

I glanced at him.

“Ignore him. He doesn’t know what to do with a woman who doesn’t fall at his feet,” Henry said dryly. “What happened?”

I explained everything.

“Do you not have a job to get back to?”

“No. I was made redundant a few weeks ago.”

Hugo snorted.

“After my boss embezzled all the money from the company,” I added, glaring at him for good measure. “So I agreed to help Cam out, but then everything happened, and now I’m up shit’s creek without a paddle.”

“Doesn’t sound like you’ve got a boat, never mind a paddle.”

Henry sent a withering look in his direction. “Hugo, if you’ve nothing helpful to say—”

“I don’t.”

“Then go away.” Henry turned to me with a sympathetic smile. “Are you any good at party planning?”

I pressed my lips together. “I can’t plan to watch a TV show that plays at the same time every week. Does that answer your question?”

“Brilliant,” Hugo muttered.

“All right. And Camilla is supposed to be back in a couple of days?” Henry had clearly chosen the path of ignoring Hugo now.

“She’s going to drive straight down as soon as she lands,” I confirmed. “And she’s done the groundwork, but the rest is on me.”

“Well, then we’ll help you.”

I blinked at him. “You’ll do what?”

“We’ll do what?” Hugo echoed, his eyebrows shooting up.

“We’ll help you.” Henry sat upright and tilted his body towards me, looking over at Hugo. “It’s Grandma’s birthday. Have a heart.”

“She doesn’t even want the party!”

Wow.

The guy was a bit of an arsehole, wasn’t he?

Henry glared at him.

“Fine,” Hugo said. “I suppose I have to navigate the politics of the seating plan anyway, so I might as well muck in with the rest of it.”

“So generous of you,” Henry said dryly. “What can we do to help you right now, Sophie?”

“Um.” I briefly closed my eyes. “I have to confirm the flowers, the cake design, I have to get Camilla to confirm the decorating company, I have to meet your grandmother to finalise the menu and the invitations, and… um… a bunch of other stuff.”

“Wonderful. We have the equivalent of a drunken goat organising the party.”

I snapped my gaze around to Hugo. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise your past self from last night was organising it?”

Henry snorted.

“Then again, that’s probably an insult to goats. They have better manners.” I reached forwards and grabbed everything from the table, then stuffed it into the oversized tote I’d brought with me. My phone showed a notification from Camilla, but I ignored that as I shoved it into my handbag and pulled out a notepad and pen. I scribbled down my name—Camilla’s name—and my number, then handed it to Henry.

“She’s forward,” Hugo remarked smarmily.

I wasn’t even going to look at him. “I didn’t organise the meeting with your grandmother before she left. I’m happy to come back whenever she’s ready to see me today, so please give this to whoever arranges her appointments.”

Henry grinned. “Can I keep it?”

“I’m only here for two or three days and don’t intend on coming back, but sure. As long as you don’t give it to him.” I nodded towards Hugo and walked to the door. “Goodbye, Lord Hugo. It was a displeasure.”

That smirk crept back onto his face. “Don’t worry, Miss Smith. We’ll be seeing plenty more of each other over the next couple of days.”

“I shall have to remember to bring a blindfold, then, won’t I?”

This time, the smirk didn’t fall. It stayed firmly plastered on his face, and his eyes flashed with silent laughter as he leaned back further into the sofa cushions.

“I’ll walk you out,” Henry said, fighting back a laugh. “Come on.”

“Thank you.” I followed Henry out of the room and through the humungous house to the front door where I slowly turned to him. “Thank you, and I’m sorry about the way I spoke to your brother. We had a rather unpleasant altercation yesterday evening in the pub.”

“For what it’s worth, most altercations with him are unpleasant.” Henry chuckled. “But I do already know. I was surprised when he told me it was you, though, given the situation.”

“Well, forgive me, but I didn’t know who he was.”

“He won’t hold it against you. He looks like he’s enjoying it,” he added. “Even if he isn’t, I most certainly am.”

My lips twitched. “Well, like I said, I won’t be here for too much longer, so I’ll be gone before you know it.”

“Seems like a shame.” He fought back a smile. “I’ll speak to Grandma when she gets back and give you a ring.”

“Thank you. If you can’t get through, leave a message. I do have a few calls to make.”

“All right, will do. I’ll see you later, Sophie.”

“Thank you… Henry.” I smiled and walked down the steps. “I’ll speak to you later.” I waved goodbye and walked over to my car where I threw my things into the backseat, then looked back at the house.

I could swear I saw Hugo looking out of one of the windows.

I gritted my jaw and got into my car, then drove away from Cavendish House.

Camilla had to get her butt back here.

As soon as possible.

CHAPTER SEVEN – SOPHIE

Grandma… But She’s Mentally, Like, Eight

Somehow, I managed to get all the information I needed. The bakery discussion was easily had, and the cake was booked, and a swift conversation resulted in my best friend apologising profusely about seven thousand times before I told her to shut up and give me the info for the decorating company.

Who knew there were companies who specialised in decorating for parties?

What happened to blowing up a few balloons and sellotaping a banner above the fireplace, huh?

That was a party in my book, thank you.

Unfortunately, the upper class did not consider that a party.

Although I was rather beginning to think that Evelyn, The Dowager Duchess of Devon, was on my side of my argument.

And that was purely based upon the grumbling I heard as Rupert guided me towards the library.

It was the most fucking dramatic, dreamy room I’d ever seen in my life. It was double storied, and every wall was covered with shelves that were full of books both new and old. There was even a ladder like it was something out of Beauty and the Beast, and the second story had a balcony that wrapped around and looked down to the lower floor.

That was it.

If anyone lost me, this room would be where I could be found.

“If it doesn’t have alcohol, I’m not interested, and you can tell your mother to shove her mocktails where her diamonds don’t shine,” she said to Hugo.

“It’s like you want to watch her clip me around the ear, Grandma,” he grumbled right back. “I’m not telling her that.”

“Are you a grown man or are you a little boy afraid of your mother? Where are your balls?”

“I’m a grown man who’s afraid of my mother. You’ve met her. You understand why.”

I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t laugh.

“I’m not afraid of your mother. I think she’s—”

Rupert cleared his throat, interrupting her. “Miss Hopkins for you, Your Grace.”

The elderly woman turned to look at me from her position on the sofa and slowly broke into a smile.

I didn’t know whether to be terrified or excited by that look.

Hugo smirked at me, and his green eyes glinted with amusement.

God, he was so irritating.

“Thank you, Rupert. Miss Hopkins, do come and take a seat.”

I… was going to do as I was told, that was for sure.

Hugo might have been afraid of his mother, but I was afraid of just about everyone in this place.

“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” I greeted her. “Lord Hugo,” I added as a blithe afterthought.

“Miss Hopkins.” His smirk was plastered on his face.

The elderly woman turned to him. “Get out.”

He blinked at her.

Ha. The smirk wasn’t so plastered on now, was it?

“Excuse me?” he said to his grandma.

“Get out.”

“I thought I was going to help you with the menu.”

“You thought wrong. Now go away. I expect she’s better company than you are.”

The woman had good taste.

Hugo took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, and I swore that his lips moved to the tune of him counting to three under his breath.

I don’t know why that amused me quite as much as it did.

He turned to her with a smile. “Let me know if you need any help, Grandma.”

“I won’t.” She sniffed and turned away. “Off you go.”

He bent to kiss her cheek, an action she received with a tilt of her head, then he turned to me. “Miss Hopkins. Always a pleasure.”

“I can’t say I agree,” I muttered, and his laughter echoed through the library as he left, closing the door behind him.

The dowager duchess looked at me with twinkling eyes. “I’m with you. It’s rarely a pleasure with him around.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—” I paused and gave a rueful smile. “That was rude of me, Your Grace.”

“Evelyn.” She picked up the teapot and poured a cup without me asking her to. “There’s absolutely nothing graceful about me, my dear. And rude, perhaps, but truthful nonetheless.”

I tried to hide my smile. “Then please call me So—Camilla.”

“So-Camilla?” Evelyn questioned. “What’s that? One of those stupid kids shows?”

“Camilla,” I replied with another smile with Nancy’s words ringing in my ears. “Oh, thank you for the tea.”

“You’re welcome. I made it, so I know it’s decent. Not like the bollocks everyone else makes.”

I was in love.

I had to admit that I was irrationally obsessive over how I made and drank my tea. I had yet to find anyone who could make it quite the same way, and my mother was the only person who even came close.

Camilla had learnt a long time ago to just put the teabag in the cup and wait for me to make it myself.

She thought I was a diva.

I just thought I couldn’t start my day properly unless my tea was perfectly made. I didn’t understand the issue with that.

Some people were fussy over coffee and put all sorts of stuff in it – vanilla and caramel and syrups and sauces or whatever else they did.

Just give me a cup of tea that’s been steeped for three minutes, one- and three-quarter teaspoons of sugar, and two and a half dashes of milk.

It really wasn’t that complicated an order.

I put my sugar of choice into the cup and stirred it in, then sipped.

Oh.

Evelyn could make a cup of tea.

“Oh. This is delightful,” I said, looking over at her. “I’ve not met anyone who can make tea the way I like it. This is the closest yet.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Really? I find myself wondering why nobody can make a cup of tea either. Hugo is the only person who comes close, but even then, it still tastes like tea mixed with piss.”

I snorted, and hot tea went up my nose. I pinched the bridge of my nose and squeezed my eyes shut until the overwhelming burning sensation stopped spreading through the upper front part of my head.

Wow.

“Sorry about that,” Evelyn said brightly when I opened my eyes, not looking sorry in the slightest.

“It’s fine,” I croaked out, putting the teacup down. “I understand. My flatmate just puts the bag in the cup and leaves it for me to do because she’s tired of me complaining.”

“I wish people would let me make my own tea. I might be eighty in two weeks, but I’m as fit as a fiddle. The stick is for optics,” she said, patting the walking stick that was resting next to her. “It’s also to beat people with, but don’t repeat that.”

“Or you’ll beat me with it?”

She grinned. “You’re smart. I like you.”

I laughed, but quickly brushed it away with a clearing of my throat. “Shall we get these menus over and done with? I know you’re not a fan of this party and obviously have better things to do, but family are the worst.”

“How do you like my grandsons? Would you like to marry one? I’d recommend Henry over Hugo. He’s a bit of a mardy bastard at times.” Her eyes sparkled with amusement. “Also, you don’t have to do the fancy duchess thing with him. You can live your best socialite dreams in London.”

I flicked my tongue over my lips. “Actually, I’d rather a place in the countryside, long-term speaking.”

Evelyn held up her hands. “Got that.”

“I can’t decide if you’re kidding or not.”

“Good. That means you’re not entirely opposed to it.”

“I’m not exactly enthralled with the idea.”

“What’s wrong with my grandsons?”

“From what I’ve learnt, one has no manners, and one is exasperated from putting up with the other. Forgive me if neither of those traits are exactly exciting.” I said it with as much nicety as I could muster. “Shall we move to the table to go over these menus?”

Evelyn cackled and used her stick to help herself to her feet. “You really are smart. I suppose my daughter-in-law doesn’t seal the deal either.”

“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to comment on Lady Devon,” I said slowly.

“It’s not appropriate for me to say what I do about her, either, but I still do.” She took a seat at the table. “She’ll not hear a word from me. In fact, I try not to talk to her unless I absolutely have to. I already have an arsehole; I don’t need another one.”

I almost choked on my own damn saliva at that.

Wow.

She really did not think much of her son’s choice of wife.

Not to be that person, but I wasn’t entirely sure I liked her, either. At least that was what my gut told me.

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” I admitted, bringing our cups of tea over to the table.

She continued laughing—she had the dirtiest laugh I’d ever heard, and I’d imagine it was the kind of laugh that usually preceded her getting into some form of trouble.

All right.

Maybe I wasn’t afraid of everyone in this house.

I kind of wanted to be Evelyn.

“Right. What shit has my daughter-in-law put on this menu? I bet there’s no pizza, is there?”

I didn’t know if she was being serious or not, but if I had to bet, I’d say she was.

“There’s no pizza,” I said slowly.

“Right.” Evelyn pushed her teacup out of the way and plucked my pen out of my hand. She clicked the top with a little too much vigour and stole my notebook, then wrote ‘menu’ in big block letters on top. “We’re going to write a real menu.”

“I’m not sure you can serve pizza in a five-course meal, Evelyn.”

“It’s my birthday. Can’t I eat what I like?”

“I suppose, but perhaps you can at least look at the menus I was given?” I held them out with a hopeful smile.

She stared at me for a long moment, and I couldn’t help but notice that her hazel eyes erred a little more on the side of green. “Oh, all right,” she finally said. “But only because I like you.”

CHAPTER EIGHT – SOPHIE

The Great Cake-astrophe… Almost

“Well, it’s a bit of a mish-mashed version of the menus,” I said, staring at our one.

I think she’d taken one thing from all the set menus, but this was what she was insisting upon. I wasn’t even sure the menus could be modified this much. I also didn’t think Evelyn would accept anything less than her version, which put me in a really shitty position.

I was sure that Camilla would have been able to talk her into using a correct menu. I was also sure that she would know exactly what to do right now in this situation.

Me?

Not so much.

“That’s the menu I want,” Evelyn said. “And I’m not changing my mind.”

“I don’t know if it’s possible.”

“Make it possible. I’m not changing my mind.”

I’d heard that bit the first time, but the second one really rammed it home.

“She won’t change her mind,” Hugo said from the doorway. “If you couldn’t tell.”

Evelyn glared at him. “Is someone coming to clear these tea trays? I need a nap. And a snack. I’m hungry now.”

“Rupert is in the kitchen. I have to run into the village to get some stuff for Dad.”

She narrowed her eyes. “He got everything he needed this morning with me.”

Hugo shrugged. “Now he needs more, and he says I’m loitering, so I don’t have a choice.”

“You? Loiter? Never. Are you even safe to drive with your hangover?”

“I do not have a hangover.”

“You did this morning.”

“That was this morning. I’m fine to drive now.” He turned to me. “I don’t see a car outside. Did you drive here?”

I paused. “No. I cycled.”

“You cycled?”

Evelyn snorted, getting up. “People do use things other than cars to get around, you know. Back in my day, cars were for the rich.”

Hugo slid her a look. “You were the rich. You are the rich.”

“Good point. Never mind, then.” She winked at me, adding a cheeky grin to it, and walked towards the door. “I trust you’ll be taking Camilla back to her cottage.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” I said, right as Hugo said, “I won’t be passing there.”

Evelyn stopped dead in front of him and craned her neck to look up at him. “It wasn’t a request, Hugo.”

He rolled his shoulders. “Understood.”

“That’s what I thought.” She tapped his leg with her stick, and he stepped aside to let her pass.

It was abundantly clear who ran the roost around here.

Hugo sighed the second she’d disappeared. “Are you ready?”

“You don’t have to take me,” I said, picking up the rucksack and slinging it over my shoulders. “It’s really not far by bike.”

“I don’t want to take you, but the idea of Grandma finding out I didn’t is something I like a whole lot less, so let’s go.”

“I have Nora’s bike with me. I can’t just leave it here.”

“I’ll throw it in the back. Come on.” He motioned for me to follow him again, and I begrudgingly did so.

I could not think of anything I wanted less than to spend time in an enclosed space with Hugo. Or any space, really. We’d not exactly hit it off at the pub, and that was clearly a theme we were going for given that we’d sniped at one another every time we’d spoken.

So sitting in a car?

No, thank you.

“I’ll ride the bike back,” I said when he opened the front door.

“Just let me take you. I’m trying to be nice,” he huffed.

“You’re only being nice because she told you to be. You’re not doing it out of the goodness of your heart. There’s a difference.” I stepped outside.

He followed me, pulling the door closed behind him. “Either way, think of it as an olive branch.”

“I’m not a fan of olives.”

“Of course you’re not.”

I gave him a withering look, then sighed. “How are you going to get the bike back? Do you have a bike rack on your car?”

“I have a pick-up truck.”

I blinked at him. “What is this? Little Texas?”

Hugo scratched his cheek. “Look at where I live.”

Pointedly, I turned around and stared at the huge manor house. “Downton Abbey?”

He licked his lips and looked up.

I swear.

If he did that counting thing he did with his Grandma…

“Don’t start counting,” I warned him.

His gaze snapped down. “You caught that?”

“You have the discretion of a pick-up truck parked outside Downton Abbey.”

“Maybe I should count to ten instead of three with you,” he muttered, walking over to where I’d left Nora’s bike. “It might make me be able to be nice to you for real.”

“I’m not a child.”

“You’re acting like one.”

“So are you.”

“Fair point,” he agreed, wheeling the bike over. “Come on. I’ll toss this in the back and take you there.”

All right. Fine. I clearly wasn’t winning this argument, and even if he was only doing it because Evelyn had made him, I’d accept the olive branch.

At the end of the day, he knew I wasn’t Camilla.

I was loathe to admit it, but I needed his help.

It meant I’d have to try to get along with him.

“Thank you,” I said, watching as he carefully put the bike in the bed of a muddy black pick-up truck. “So why do you have this miniature lorry?”

He chuckled. “Exmoor.”

“You’re going to have to elaborate.”

He opened the passenger side car door for me. “I’ll explain on the way.”

“Thank you.” I put both my bags in the footwell looked at the truck.

I was five-foot-three.

These wheels were almost bigger than I was.

How on Earth was I meant to get in there? I supposed I was going to have to haul myself up and hope for the best.

I braced my hands on the seat and the door, took a deep breath, and yanked myself up. My hand gave way on the soft fabric of the seat, and my foot slipped on the metal step. My life flashed behind my eyes, and I was about to scream when Hugo grabbed me from behind.

He wrapped one arm around my waist and held me against his body. My heart pounded uncontrollably, and I didn’t know if it was from the fear of my near fall or because I was nestled tightly against him.

He had a very firm body.

It wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever been pressed up against, for what it’s worth.

“Need a leg up?” His lips were far too close to my ear, and his words were said on an exhale that skittered warmly against my cheek.

Yep.

Yeah.

Yes.

The heart pounding was definitely from his closeness.

This was an unwelcome development.

“My hand slipped,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t shake. The last thing I needed was for Hugo to learn that I was affected by his closeness—given the tit for tat we’d already engaged in, it seemed like it was something he would use to his advantage.

“I saw.” Amusement tinged his tone. “I’ll help you up. Come on.” He slowly released his arm from around my body, moving his hands to my sides.

His fingers twitched against my waist, and I swallowed hard, making sure to grip the seat extra hard this time.

With his help, I was able to make it into the front of the truck and sit down. I steadfastly ignored him by looking down at my knees, but that didn’t mean I didn’t catch a glimpse of him smiling out of the corner of my eye.

Camilla. I need you to come home.

I could not stay here any longer than possible. I didn’t need to be attracted to this man.

Lord Hugo was nothing but a ginormous pain in my arse.

I needed him to stay that way.

He was far too handsome to be anything more than that.

That was dangerous territory.

“Well, that’s the last time I get into this truck,” I quipped.

Hugo laughed, got into the truck on the other side of the cab, and started the engine. He backed it up across the sprawling driveway, missing the fountain expertly, drove down the road until the gravel became asphalt.

“So. The mini lorry?” I asked, breaking the silence that had settled between us.

He laughed quietly. “Our estate is eight hundred acres. Not all the areas have access via roads, and sometimes, it’s quicker to get to some of the farms by not going on the main roads. Dirt tracks can be rough and although we have a few four-wheel drives, they don’t always have enough space for stuff we need.”

It was hard to argue with that. “All right. That makes sense, I suppose. How many farms do you have on the land?”

“Right now? About six. There are a couple we aren’t renting out at the moment because the properties aren’t up to code, but we rent that land out to other local farmers who are all too happy to use it. The six we do have are quite a lot of work. We’re pretty involved in it.”

“Really? I can’t imagine you mucking out horses.”

“I can’t say I do.” Laughter bubbled out of him. “I’ve helped with the muckier work, though, and Dad made me take a course in some animal care stuff because we don’t have a local vet for twenty miles.”

“Not at all?”

“Well, we have a usual vet who sees cats and dogs, but not a farm vet.”

“That seems like a terrible oversight, given how many you have.”

He inclined his head in my direction. “You’re not wrong. We really do need to get one out here for emergencies.”

“What kind of mucky stuff do you do? I can’t imagine anyone in your family that I’ve met getting down and dirty at the business end of a cow, for example.”

He glanced over at me as he pulled up at a red light. “Well, my mother doesn’t.”

“I am completely and utterly shocked by that.”

“I know. Everyone who meets her is.”

I dipped my chin and fought back a laugh. Were we… getting along? “Did your Grandma or sister ever do it?”

“How do you know I have a sister?”

“I… might have Googled your family before I came,” I admitted, slowly nodding my head. “I wanted some kind of idea what Camilla had put me up to.”

“Ah, that’s fair. But you didn’t know who I was in the pub, did you?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t do that much research. I literally read a bio of your family, read about the estate and house, and left.”

He chuckled and turned down the road that would lead to the cottage. “Makes sense. To answer your question, yes. Grandma used to ride horses, and she would get in at the dirty end. She’d still do it now if her arthritis would let her. Helena did the same with horses when we were younger, but it was mostly because Dad wanted her to learn some responsibility.”

“What about now?”

“Well, Helena and her husband live on the estate on one of the farms. She runs a riding school, and Ed handles the chickens and ducks.” He pulled up alongside Bluebell Cottage and looked over at me. “You know my mum will never approve that menu, don’t you?”

I nodded slowly, grimacing. “I figured I’d email it to Nancy, tell her Evelyn won’t budge, and let her deal with it.”

“Smart. Although it could start a riot as soon as Mum’s back from London.”

“That’s fine. I won’t be here then.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You won’t be?”

“No. Camilla will be back in the next two days, then she’s coming right here and I’m going home. Nancy said she’ll deal with it.”

“Right. Nancy will deal with it.” He shook his head. “Nancy does nothing but defer to my mother. Whatever you think she’s going to do, it’ll be the opposite. It’s pretty clear you’re not correcting anyone on who you really are, so make sure your friend knows that she might have a storm to deal with when she gets here.”

A lump formed in my throat.

That was not good.

I also wasn’t about to tell Hugo that worried me.

“Cam will be able to deal with it. Plus, she’ll have proof that she did tell Nancy ahead of time. Not to mention that she’s rather more put together than I am.”

“No offense, but it seems like everyone might be.”

“There’s no need to be that rude to me,” I replied, looking over at him. “Thank you for the lift, however unnecessary.”

“Now who’s being rude?” He clicked his tongue. “I’ll open the bed and get the bike out, unless you need a hand getting out?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you.”

“I bet you thought that before you tried climbing in, too.”

“Oh, shut up.” I shoved open the door, ignoring his laughter. Thankfully, I made it out onto the ground with only a little “ooft” as my feet hit the stony road.

At least I didn’t fall this time.

Hugo took the bike out of the back and gently set it against the wall. “Ah, you made it out alive.”

“Has anyone told you that you’re a comedic genius?”

“A genius, yes. In other areas.” His eyes twinkled. “Not comedy.”

“Thank God,” I replied, ignoring his innuendo. “Then the people around you might have a sense of humour.”

He tugged his lips up to one side. “I’ll be passing by Kellie’s place. Do you need anything to be given to her for the cake?”

Who was Kellie?

“Who’s Kellie?”

He stilled. “She’s making the cake. Cait’s mum.”

“No,” I said slowly.

“Yes,” he replied, just as slowly.

I set the rucksack on the cab and opened it, pulling out the folder. I flipped through the pages until I found the cake one and pressed the tip of my nail against the bakery’s name. “That’s who I was told is doing the cake.”

Hugo leaned over, and his arm pressed against mine. I shoved the folder over a little so he wasn’t quite so up close and personal with me.

“No, Kellie always does it. She used to own the bakery before she retired to focus on cakes.”

“I… don’t have her name here.”

“Are you sure this is the right folder?”

I nodded. “The menus were correct and so were the flower choices. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the name Kellie before.”

“Is this the only folder that you’ve got?”

“No. I have another one, but that’s discarded ideas. Cam wanted me to bring it just in case.”

Hugo turned to me. “Show me it.”

“This is the right folder!”

“I know, but Kellie is literally the only person my mother trusts to make our family’s cakes. Is there a chance Camilla mixed it up?”

“I guess.” I grabbed the stuff from the cab. “We can check if you’re absolutely sure Kellie should be doing it.”

“I think so.” He closed up the back of the truck and followed me over to the cottage.

I unlocked the door and he followed me in and through to the kitchen where I had the folders laid out.

“They’re different colours,” Hugo said, stating the complete bloody obvious. He looked at me. “Are you sure you have the right folder?”

“Yep. She told me the one with the flower was the old plans, and the plain pink one was the correct one.”

He looked at the flower, then opened it. “Christ, this thing is a mess.”

It resembled my brain, to be honest.

I put my stuff down and walked over, then flicked through it to the cake stuff. It really was a huge mess and mishmash of several different concepts, but the list of potential bakeries only had two on there, and neither of them said Kellie.

“See? That’s the bakery in Moorhaven, and that’s… I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s in Ebstone Cross, the nearest town to us. You’re right—Kellie isn’t in here. There’s no way Mum wouldn’t have mentioned that, so I’m not sure what’s happened.”

“I honestly don’t even think she spoke to your mum,” I admitted. “I think it all went through Nancy.”

“That explains it,” he muttered. “All right, we have to fix this.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. You don’t know Kellie, but you’re going to have to cancel that other order.”

“Maybe we wait until we’ve spoken to Kellie.”

“All right.” He pursed his lips. “Let’s go.”

CHAPTER NINE – HUGO

The Mother of All Attractions

I hoped she was right when she said her friend would be coming in two days, because Sophie had no idea what she was doing.

It was pretty clear that she was way out of her depth.

Still, it didn’t explain why there was no mention of Kellie on the books.

Sophie said she wanted to try and get hold of Camilla to see if that had been missed, so I was waiting out in my truck. I didn’t want to sit in her cosy little cottage for a second longer than necessary, but I was going to text my mum and ask about the cake.

ME: Is Kellie doing the cake for Grandma?

It only took her a moment to text back.

MUM: Yes. Isn’t Camilla calling her today? Why?

ME: Just wondering. Just saw Cait that’s all.

MUM: How is everything going? Did the menu go well? Have you done the seating plan yet?

ME: Waiting for the guest list from Nancy. Not sure on the menu.

I wasn’t going to be the one who told her that Grandma had essentially created her own entirely new menu from the set ones.

You know. The ones that couldn’t be changed.

I think the options were so she could choose things, not mix and match four separate set menus into one single one.

MUM: All right. Let me know if there are any problems. Xx

ME: Will do.

I tucked my phone into my pocket right as Sophie stepped out of the cottage. She paused to lock the blue door behind her, then tucked the keys into her jacket pocket and came over to the truck.

Sophie opened the passenger side door and looked at the step.

I pressed my tongue against my upper lip, trying not to smile. “Want a hand?”

“No, thank you. I can manage.”

“Historically, you can’t.”

“It’s only happened once.”

“And until you get into the truck without falling more times than you do, my point stands.”

She huffed out a breath, jutting out her lower lip into a pout that caught far more of my attention than it had any right to.

I was already annoyingly attracted to her.

I didn’t need her doing shit like pouting.

“One, two—” Sophie hauled herself up.

I heard the crunch of gravel before I saw her slip.

“Ow! Bloody hell!”

I jumped out of the truck and ran around the front to her. She was holding her shin, leaning against the side of the truck, and I bent down.

“Are you all right?”

“Do I bloody well sound all right? Why is it so high? I know I’m a little bit vertically challenged but come on!”

“Put your foot on here.” I patted the step, and she did just that, releasing her leg. I rolled up her jeans until I saw a graze that was about two inches long, going right down her shinbone. “It’s just a graze. You’re not even bleeding.”

Mostly.

“It hurts,” she muttered, reaching over and rolling the material back down. “I hate this stupid truck.”

“Don’t talk about her like that. It’s not her fault you’re short.”

She glared at me with such fire in her eyes I thought she was going to punch me. “You know the thing about short girls?”

“You’re cute?”

“One swing of a fist between your legs, and you’ll be my bitch.” She nudged me back and stood in front of me. “Now help me get in this bloody lorry before I drive myself.”

I put my hands on her waist like I had earlier and deliberately took a step closer to her. She tensed, and her upper back pressed against my chest as she inhaled deeply.

Well.

It looked like I wasn’t the only one having issues with attraction.

“One,” I said quietly into her ear. “Two. Three.”

She pushed off the ground right as I lifted her, and just as she had back at home, she made it safely into the cab this time.

But not without another little huff of indignance.

Boy, she did not like me.

That was more amusing than it should have been.

“You’re welcome,” I said, pushing the door shut.

She pursed her lips as I rounded the front of the truck and got in. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“Why? Do you have somewhere to be?”

“Yes. It’s wherever you are not.”

I laughed and pulled away from the cottage. “Believe it or not, I do have things to do that don’t include cleaning up your mess. I text my mother and it is supposed to be Kellie doing the cake, so I’m not sure how that information never made it to your friend.”

Sophie frowned, looking down at her hands in her lap. “You saw it. That’s all the information I have for the cake. If Cam knew it was supposed to be Kellie doing it, that’s what she would have given me.”

“I’m not saying she wouldn’t have. It’s quite clear that you have both the final plan and what’s essentially a scrapbook of ideas, so there must have been a miscommunication somewhere.”

“Mm.” She turned to look out of the window. “Must have been.”

“Didn’t you speak to her?”

“She hasn’t replied yet. Whatever you’re thinking, this has to be a mistake. She’s taking enough of a risk by sending me here without her making sure she’s giving me the correct information.”

“Hey.” I glanced over at her. “I’m not saying anything like that. It’s her business after all, and you’re not in the greatest situation right now.”

She made a noise that sounded a little like agreement. “Thanks for close captioning my pain.”

I bit back a laugh and pulled up outside Kellie’s cottage. It wasn’t that dissimilar to Bluebell Cottage—most places weren’t this far into the countryside—and since all the cottages were built around the same time, they all had the same setup inside. The only difference was really the exteriors which had been extended, secured, and decorated to the owner’s taste.

“How should I introduce you? Camilla or Sophie?” I asked, looking over at her. “I don’t know who knows who you are and who doesn’t.”

“You and Henry,” she said slowly. “Cait, but I can tell her, and obviously Nora knows. But I can ask her to keep that to herself.”

“All right. Let’s go, Camilla.”

“Ugh.” She got out of the truck with a squeak when her feet hit the ground, and I shook my head as I locked the vehicle and headed towards the door.

She wasn’t having a good day, was she?

I knocked on the scarlet red door and stepped back. Kellie’s arrival was preceded by the incessant barking of her two cocker spaniels, and the door was barely open an inch when they shoved their way out and circled my legs emphatically.

“Oh, bugger it!” Kellie said, shoving the door wide open. “Biscuit! Trifle! Get inside!”

I burst out laughing. “It’s always funnier when you shout it angrily.”

“You.” She wiggled her finger at me. “You know you’re supposed to call before you knock on the door.”

“Sorry.”

“Oh, hello.” Sophie giggled as Trifle jumped up at her legs, and she looked over at Kellie. “May I pet him?”

Kellie’s lips tugged to the sides. “I’d like to see you not. That’s Trifle.”

Sophie bent down with a grin, petting him. “That sounds like there’s an interesting story behind that name.”

“The day we brought him home he tripped me up and I dropped the trifle. He ate it. That was a fun trip to the vet,” Kellie replied dryly.

“I remember that.” I chuckled.

“Oh, dear,” Sophie said, straightening up.

“Biscuit! Get off my rose bush!” Kellie stalked across the front garden and scooted Biscuit away from her prized roses before he could cock his leg and do his business all over it. “Over there, you little bugger!”

Sophie smiled at him.

“Well, that’s quite the introduction,” she said, wiping her hands on her trousers. “Hugo? Care to introduce us?”

“Oh, of course. Kellie, this is S—Camilla.” I caught myself at the very last moment. “She’s planning Grandma’s party.”

“Ahh.”

“Camilla, this is Kellie. She’ll be doing Grandma’s cake. Or she will be now.”

Kellie side-eyed me. “What does that mean?”

“It’s a long story,” Sophie said.

“I like stories. Come inside, please.” Kellie stepped aside, and I motioned for Sophie to go ahead of me.

I hoped she remembered to be Camilla in this situation.

“The kitchen is right down the hall and to the right. I’ll just get these two rascals in.” Kellie disappeared outside.

Sophie took a tentative seat at the kitchen table. “Will she be okay to do this?”

I nodded. “She’s a bit like my mum. She’s not as scary as she seems.”

Sophie looked as though she doubted every word of that.

“I heard that.” Kellie walked into the kitchen and looked over at me. “Mind yourself, Hugo. I have photos of you when you were in nappies.”

I pressed my lips firmly together.

It really wasn’t fair that I had this many women in my life who took it upon themselves to happily threaten me with my baby pictures.

“I’m not scary at all,” Kellie said, looking at Sophie. “Can I make you some tea?”

“Oh, no, thank you,” Sophie replied. “I had some not long ago.”

“Perfect. Now, let’s discuss this cake business and what Hugo meant when he said that I will be now.”

Sophie swallowed. “We’re not sure what happened, but you weren’t on my list of approved bakers. In fact, I didn’t know about you being the one to do the cake until fifteen minutes ago.”

Nice.

Kellie’s eyes widened. “I’ve done all their cakes since before those boys were born. I can’t imagine that Anna wouldn’t tell you it was me.”

“I actually never spoke to her until this morning.”

The older woman tilted her head. “Let me guess. You spoke to Nancy.”

Sophie nodded. “I was sent a few inspiration designs and told to find locate bakers. The bakery in town was the one I settled on based on their work.”

“And rightly so. I wouldn’t have sold Alice my bakery if I didn’t think she was good enough to take it over, and she makes some phenomenal cakes.” Kellie shrugged a shoulder. “But Anna is extremely fussy.”

“Mum and Kellie grew up together,” I added for Sophie’s benefit. “Kellie moved away for a while, but came back when Cait was about seven, which was when we became friends.”

“Oh, you’ve met Caitlyn?” Kellie smiled.

“I had dinner at the pub last night.” Sophie smiled. “So if you’re that close to the duchess, why weren’t you on my list?”

She was wording this well.

“I don’t know.” Kellie’s smile dropped, and her gaze narrowed. “Anna would never consider anyone else. We spoke about this just this week, and I was waiting for her to call me, so I know for a fact I was doing it.” She looked at me.

“I text her to ask,” I said. “Before we came over. She said it was you.”

“Interesting.” Kellie tapped her fingers against the table, and there was a tense heaviness to the air that made me glance at Sophie to see if she was all right.

This was… weird.

“Never mind that for now. I’m sure it was just a minor miscommunication.” Kellie added a brightness to her smile. “Do you have that final design for me?”

Sophie snapped out of whatever contemplative mood she was in. “Oh, I actually brought two. Both were approved, so perhaps you could choose which one you think Evelyn would like?”

“Evelyn? You’re on first name terms? She must like you.”

Sophie dipped her chin to hide a shy smile. “We have a similar view on how tea should be made.”

Oh, no.

There were two of them.

That was all the world needed.

“Ah. That makes sense.” A glimmer returned to Kellie’s eyes. “Let’s see, then.”

Sophie handed over two images from her folder, and Kellie took them.

I had no idea what was going on.

I didn’t care.

It was a cake.

It was going to taste good no matter what it looked like, so I had no horse in this race.

Their conversation was easy, and I sat quietly as Kellie made suggestions and edits to the designs and Sophie offered her input. In the end, they came up with something that was somewhere between the two original ideas, and they both seemed to be quite happy about the final product.

I was just fucking hungry now.

My stomach rumbled, and Kellie shot me a knowing look. I grinned sheepishly.

“All the food talk made me hungry,” I mumbled.

“I know. It always does. All you have to do is think about a piece of bread and you’re hungry.” She got up and walked over to the fridge. “Don’t let Trifle trip you up for this.”

“Oh. Is that a trifle?”

“No, Hugo, it’s a chocolate souffle.”

Sophie hid a smile behind her hand.

“Yes, it’s a bloody trifle.” She set the dish down in front of me. “And don’t expect this every time you come and see me. I just happened to have one.”

She always just happened to have something in the fridge she could give me.

She might have retired from baking, but that didn’t mean she’d stopped.

“You’re the best.” I kissed her cheek. “If you’re done, we’ll leave you to it. I have some stuff to do for Dad.”

“We’re all done. I’ll make sure this is delivered the morning of the party. I’ll be there to calm your mum down anyway.” Kellie chuckled. “Bring that dish back tomorrow when you’re done.”

“How do you know I’ll be done tomorrow?”

She hit me with a look that made Sophie laugh. I glared at her, but she was too busy giggling to notice.

“I’ll bring it back tomorrow,” I muttered, picking up the trifle as I stood.

“Good lad. Enjoy it.” She winked at Sophie and guided us to the front door. “Hugo, do give Camilla my number.”

“Huh?”

“In case she needs to discuss the cake. I don’t have my phone with me right now.”

Camilla.

Sophie.

Right.

Shit, this was confusing.

“Right, of course. Sorry. I’ll make sure she gets it before I leave her.”

“Thank you. Camilla, don’t take any of his crap.” She winked at Sophie and let us step outside.

“Thank you for all your help, and I’m sorry about the mix up,” Sophie said, pausing on the doorstep. “I’m glad we got to the bottom of this.”

“Not quite the bottom,” Kellie said, lips twisting. “But we ended up in the right place.”

“I suppose so.” Sophie hugged the folder to her chest. “Thank you.”

“Let me know if you need anything.” Kellie wrapped her in a hug before releasing her. “Hugo. Be nice to her.”

“I’ll be nice when she’s nice to me,” I called from the front of the truck.

“Then be a gentleman at least,” she shouted back.

I held up my hand in acknowledgment of what she’d said—like I hadn’t already helped Sophie into the truck twice today—and turned to Sophie. “Need a hand again?”

“If you get that shit-eating grin off your stupid face,” she muttered, putting the folder in the footwell.

“Absolutely not. I’m enjoying this, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.”

“You are insufferably annoying.”

“Yet here you are.” I rested my hands at her waist and leaned forward. “Suffering.”

She gave a short, sharp exhale from her nose that might have been indignance or amusement, and I helped her into the pickup for the third time today.

It wasn’t the worst thing in the world to do from my point of view.

She got in and looked over at me. “Can you take me to the pub?”

I leaned against the door and smirked. “Awfully forward of you to ask me out.”

“I don’t remember asking you to come with me.” She blinked innocently at me. “Feel free to go yourself, but you’ll not find much conversation with me. I’ve spent more than enough time with you today.”

“After I saved your arse, too.” I clutched my hand to my chest. “You wound me.”

“You know what? I’ll walk.”

“Before you get out,” I said, blocking her. “Do you know how to get there from here?”

She paused, one foot on the lower step. She bit the inside of her cheek and slowly pulled her foot back inside the truck, diverting her gaze.

“I didn’t think so.” I stepped back with a grin and shut the door, then walked around and got in myself. “Let’s go, munchkin.”

“Never call me that again.” She glared at me.

“What? Now that you’ve made it clear how much you like it?” I smiled and pulled away. “I’m going to call you it every day.”

CHAPTER TEN – SOPHIE

Meltdown Imminent

I sat at the bar and looked at Cait. “How on Earth can you be friends with that man?”

Caitlyn blinked at me. “Good afternoon. How was your day, Sophie?”

“Oh, don’t get me started. I think I’m about to have a mental breakdown.”

She glanced above the door where the clock hung and said, “Glass of wine?”

“Might need a bottle.” I sank my fingers into my hair and dropped my head down.

I was so tired.

Today had been non-stop thinking and working, and all the drama that had ensued over this party made it very clear to me that I was not cut out for a job that involved this many people.

No.

I was better off in an office. With walls. And a telephone I could send to an answering machine.

This whole thing where everyone had an opinion and things could be miscommunicated? No, thank you. That was not for me.

I peered up and saw Cait put a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a glass in front of me.

“I’d advise some food, too,” she added with a twinkle in her eye. “Yes? The bottle? You can take it with you if you don’t finish it.”

“Hit me.” I sat up straight and watched as she uncapped the bottle.

“So, what happened that made today so bad? How can a holiday be so stressful?”

“I’m not here on holiday.”

“Ah. Why are you here?” She slid the glass of wine over to me and put the bottle in a bucket.

I gave her a quick explanation of everything that had transpired with Camilla being stuck in Norway. “Anyway, I’m here standing in, and I finally made it to Cavendish House this morning to meet everyone.”

“I sense that’s where your day went to shit.”

I grimaced. “Yes. I had no idea who Hugo was last night when I chewed his arse out.”

“That was fun. Do it again, please.” Cait’s face was the furthest thing from grimacing. “His brother thought so, too. I guess you met Henry?”

“I met everyone. The problem is that they think I’m Camilla.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “All of them?”

“Hugo and Henry not included,” I added. “I tried saying it like eight times, but Lady Devon kept cutting me off.”

“Yeah, Anna tends to talk first and listen later. Much later.”

“No kidding. Anyway, Nancy—”

“Ugh.”

“Does nobody like her?”

Cait leaned forward on the bar and frowned. “You know those people who you meet and you just… don’t like them? There’s no reason for it. They’re perfectly nice and friendly but you just don’t get that little spark of likability for them.”

“Yes. I suspect people feel that with me regularly.”

She laughed. “Unlikely, but that’s how I feel about Nancy.”

Huh.

That was how I felt, too.

“Me, too,” I agreed. “She knows I’m not Camilla. She said the best thing to do is just to get on with it since Lady Devon is in London and Cam will be here by the time she returns.”

“A little awkward, but not the end of the world. What made it so bad?”

“Well, after Evelyn completely decimated all the set menus and created her own—”

She hid a laugh behind her hand.

“—She made Hugo take me back to the cottage where we realised the person that we’d booked to make the cake was not the right person.”

She stopped laughing. “You didn’t book my mum?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t have your mum’s info anywhere. I had to prove it to him, too, because he didn’t believe me.”

“That’s… really strange.”

“I know. That’s where we just came from, by the way. She’s doing the cake and I’ve cancelled it with Alice, but none of us can figure out how that information never made it to even Camilla.”

“Huh. Hold on. Yes, darlin’, how can I help you?” She skirted down the bar to a customer, and I took the opportunity to pull out my phone and see if Cam had replied to me yet.

She had.

CAMILLA: Sorry. Grandma’s in the hospital and my phone died. No I wasn’t told anything about a Kellie, are you sure that’s right?

Oh, no.

ME: I’m sorry, Cam. What’s wrong?

CAMILLA: Not sure. She’s getting some tests done now, but they’re talking about a ventilator because she’s struggling to breathe. What about this cake????

Well, now I felt awful for putting this on her.

ME: She’ll be fine, I’m sure. She’s as tough as old boots. And yes, it’s right. Lady Devon confirmed it. It’s fine though, Hugo helped me sort it, and we have it being made with Kellie (she’s the duchess’s best friend)

CAMILLA: Who’s Hugo????

ME: Future duke and the largest pain in my arse I’ve ever met.

CAMILLA: You fancy him, then.

ME: Don’t we have more important things to discuss?

Because yes.

Yes, I did.

I fancied Hugo.

It was a very sore spot, and I didn’t want to talk about it.

CAMILLA: That’s a yes, then. The cake was probably a miscommunication, I’ll double check my email when I get a chance to make sure but it happens sometimes. I trust that you fixed it. How is everything going otherwise? Was Lady Devon annoyed you’re there instead of me?

Hmm.

That was a tough question.

Was it lying if I said no? Technically, she wasn’t mad. Granted that was because she didn’t know and thought I was Camilla, but…

“What’s on your mind?” Cait asked, leaning over.

“Camilla wants to know if Lady Devon is annoyed I’m here instead of her,” I replied slowly.

“But she doesn’t know.”

“Exactly. And Cam just told me that her grandma is in hospital and sounds pretty unwell.”

Cait winced. “Isn’t that the whole reason she extended her trip in the first place?”

“Yeah. I kind of don’t want to upset her.”

“Okay, well, what kind of person is she? If you lie to her now, will she understand and forgive you given the circumstances?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“Then lie through your frigging teeth,” Cait said.

“All right. If she doesn’t forgive me, I’m blaming you.”

“I’ll take it.”

Laughing, I unlocked my phone and pulled up the messages.

ME: Sorry, eating dinner. Yes, it’s all fine. They completely understood. I just wanted to double check on the cake but we got it all sorted, no problem.

CAMILLA: Okay, thanks. We’re waiting for the Dr, can we chat later?

ME: Of course. Send her my love and make sure you and your mum look after yourselves too. Xx

CAMILLA: Will do. Xx

“I feel so bad.” I dropped my forehead onto my arm, groaning.

“Well, to be fair, she’s put you in a pretty dreadful situation.”

I peered up at her.

“She waited until the very last minute to dump this on you and apparently didn’t do her due diligence in making sure everyone knew you aren’t her. Because of that, you’re in an almost impossible situation where if something is wrong you don’t know about it because you’ve never spoken to anyone.”

I blew out a long breath and reached for my glass. “That’s about it.”

“Right. So don’t be so hard on yourself if you mess something up. It’s like asking a toddler to load the dishwasher and being mad if they smash a glass.”

I didn’t know whether to agree with the analogy or be offended she’d compared me to a toddler.

Either way… It was right.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in an impossible situation, trying to be someone I wasn’t, trying to navigate the seas of mistakes, trying to please several people all at once.

It wouldn’t hurt to give myself some grace.

Even though I knew I wouldn’t and would kick myself for every single little thing, it was a nice thought.

“You wanna order some food? It’s almost five. I can get yours in first,” Cait offered, giving me a sympathetic smile.

“Yeah, sure.” I opened the menu she must have put in front of me at some point and scanned through it. “The chilli, please.”

She wrote it down and glanced at me one more time before she disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen.

I looked down at the bar once again and took a deep breath. I was lying to more people at once time than I ever had in my life, and I was asking other people to lie for me.

The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got with Camilla.

Of course her grandma being unwell wasn’t her fault. Neither was the storm nor the fact that flights had been cancelled, and I knew I’d been the one to convince her that she could do this job, but that was just it.

She was the one who was supposed to do this job.

Not me.

Cait was right when she said she’d dropped me into it at the very last minute. Storms didn’t come out of nowhere, usually. They were forecast, and she had enough family in Norway who could have told her about this one.

Cam hadn’t been prepared for the worst-case scenario, and now I was in trouble.

Her grandma had been ill for a while, and her needing a ventilator didn’t sound good to me. Could Cam justify leaving her potentially dying grandmother to come back to work? What if her grandma didn’t make it?

Would she be able to come back at all then?

Jesus, I was a terrible person.

Her grandmother could be dying and all I was thinking about was myself. Or, rather, pretending to be her for longer than necessary.

The problem with lying was that it always caught up with you, especially when you weren’t the only one keeping a secret.

Now, I couldn’t help but wonder how long I’d have before my lie did the same to me.

***

The next morning came with the lush sound of birdsong to accompany my alarm.

The guest list had been waiting for me when I’d arrived home from The Gnome’s Arms last night, and that meant my day would be spent with Hugo doing the seating plan.

I couldn’t wait.

I hoped that if I kept telling myself that, I’d end up believing it.

The whole thing was really quite ridiculous. I’d barely known the man longer than a day and yet I’d never been so attracted to someone. And I didn’t even like him—I thought he was far too full of self-confidence, smarmy, and more than a little bit arrogant.

I hated the way he smirked at me. I hated how he took genuine pleasure in my inability to get into his stupidly large pickup truck, and I hated even more how a tingle danced over my skin when he’d touched me.

It was all hormonal. I knew that. It was all purely from the most basic of attractions, and I couldn’t help but hope that it was something that would disappear.

Either because I had to go back to London or… I just had to deal with it.

There was enough going on right now without me making the stupid mistake of sleeping with someone I really, really shouldn’t be sleeping with.

Not that I was thinking about sleeping with Hugo.

No, sir.

Not me.

Ahem.

I was not responsible for what my subconscious delivered to me in a dream, all right?

In all seriousness, I wanted to get in and out of Moorhaven as quickly and easily as I could. The less friendships or entanglements I found myself in here the better.

I quickly showered and got ready for the day. I didn’t have Hugo’s number—for good reason, and that was that I didn’t bloody want it—so I would have to go to Cavendish House to go over the guest list.

At least I wouldn’t have to see Lady Devon.

She was… overwhelming. I had not been prepared in any way to enter the home of an upper-class family who held prestige like the Devon dukedom.

Maybe that was why I’d clicked with Evelyn.

She didn’t act like she was.

I just hoped today would be easy.

Avoiding Nancy wouldn’t go amiss, either.

I didn’t know why invitations were being sent out this close to the party. I could only assume that Lady Devon had sent the equivalent of a birthday party save-the-date before now, but I knew the invitations were in the post on the way to the guests.

She had people for that.

I didn’t have a clue who they were, but as long as I didn’t have to do it, I was all right with it.

I left Nora’s bike behind and decided to drive. I had no desire to have Hugo haul me up into his truck again—I didn’t need him to touch me at all, lest my attraction get the better of me.

I wasn’t exactly known for my good decision making.

That was why I was here, after all.

I should have said no.

Christ, that would be on my gravestone.

Here Lies Sophie. She Should Have Said No.

That would have saved me from a few nightmare exes, too.

I drove over to Cavendish House and parked in the same spot as I’d been instructed to last time. I didn’t know what kind of level of aristocracy you had to be to have a guy who instructed a visitor where to park.

The only place I’d encountered such a thing was at a zoo in an overflow carpark.

Perhaps not the most accurate comparison.

I got all my things from the passenger seat and got out, locking the car behind me. A huge part of me hoped that Hugo wouldn’t be here—we hadn’t actually set an appointment and given that Henry had actually been nice to me, I was definitely hoping that he would help me instead.

The less time spent with Hugo the better.

I felt as though I needed that tattooed onto the inside of my eyelids so my subconscious would get the message.

No, actually, I didn’t like the dream where he pinned me against his pickup and kissed me.

Look, I was already tit-deep in lies. What was one more to myself?

I rapped the door knocker four times and took a step back. The door opened within seconds, and Rupert smiled down at me.

“Ah, Miss Hopkins. Ready for a day’s work?”

“That’s why I’m here.” I beamed at him, following him inside when he stepped aside for me. “Thank you, Rupert. I need to work on the guest list. Is Lord Hugo around?”

“His Lordship is helping one of the estate’s farmers with a struggling ewe. She’s lambing with twins as we speak,” he said apologetically. “To the best of my knowledge, Lord Henry is available, if he might be of any help to you. I can request he join you, if so.”

Oh, thank God.

“I’m sure he would be able to help me get started. That would be great, thank you.”

“Would you like to use the drawing room or the library?”

Oh, Lord above, that library.

I’d taken His name in vain so many times there was no way I’d be able to step foot in a bloody church again.

Oops.

Never mind…

“The library, please.”

“Follow me, Miss Hopkins.” Rupert closed the door behind me and guided me through the house to the library.

I would never not be in awe of this room. It was utterly beautiful, and I envied everyone in this household who could spend their time in here.

“Would you like some tea?” Rupert asked.

“Oh, no, thank you,” I replied, setting my things on the table where I’d sat yesterday with Evelyn. “I’m fine.”

“Very well. I’ll be right back with Lord Henry.”

I sat down and began arranging everything. Along with the guest list, Nancy had sent me a few copies of the seating plan that I could work on, and I laid the first of them out on the table with the guest list.

Wow.

This was overwhelming.

If I ever got married, I was going to elope to Vegas or somewhere like that.

Seating plans looked like more trouble than they were worth.

I had no idea where to begin. I knew none of these people. I’d heard of a few in the entertainment and society columns, of course, but I barely knew how any of them were connected.

The Duke and Duchess of Worcester, The Earl of Portsmouth, The Dowager Countess of Inverness…

Nope.

All right over my head.

“I hear you’re in need of my help.”

I turned at the sound of Henry’s voice and sighed. “Thank God. I’ve got no idea what I’m doing. You have to help me.”

He laughed, rubbing his hand through his wet hair. “Rupert mentioned the seating plan. Isn’t that my brother’s job?”

“He’s on a farm helping a sheep give birth to twins,” I said slowly. “I think that’s what Rupert said.”

“Ah. Dad’s at a meeting this morning, so that explains it.”

“And you aren’t helping? Why not? Don’t you feel like shoving your hand up a sheep’s rear end?”

“Cannot think of anything I’d rather do less,” Henry said firmly, sitting down next to me. “Have you made a start?”

“I’ve looked at the list.”

“So, no.”

“No,” I confirmed. “The problem is that I don’t know who any of these people are. I don’t know who should and shouldn’t sit together.”

“All right. I don’t pretend to know everything, but we can always send this off to Mum for her opinion when we’re done. Hugo knows a little more than me.” He pulled the chair next to me out and sat down.

“Forgive me for saying so, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who knows the ins and outs of high society.”

Henry chuckled. “You’d think, wouldn’t you? But it’s part of our family tradition. Every year at Christmas we hold a ball, and there’s a meal involved. Traditionally, The Duchess of Devon has been the one to organise it, but since he’s single, Mum has been teaching him both sides of it.”

“Makes sense,” said the part of my brain that controlled my mouth.

Oh, he’s single, said the part that clearly controlled my libido.

I beat that part down with the vigour one kneaded bread dough with. Perhaps a little too much.

Still, I wasn’t going to pay attention to it.

The part of my brain that controlled my libido, that was.

The part that had sense was definitely going to be listened to. All the time.

“Okay, so we usually try to keep family together,” Henry said, leaning over. “So let’s start with… Ah, that’s easy. The Baths.”

I had no idea what he was going on about.

“So the Duke of Bath will be attending with his sister, Lady Catherine, and his daughter and her fiancé, Lady Gabriella and Mr. Kingsley.”

I put four little flags on a table. “That leaves… six spaces on that table.”

“Perfect. That’s for the Worcesters and the Angleseys.”

“Are they family?”

Henry nodded. “But I forget how they’re related.”

“The Dowager Duchess of Worcester is The Duke of Bath’s sister,” Hugo said from behind us, making us both turn around. “Which makes Lady Gabriella and The Duke of Worcester cousins. Additionally, Lady Gabriella and The Duchess of Worcester, Adelaide, are best friends, and The Countess of Anglesey is Evangeline, Adelaide’s twin sister. Also note that there’s a question mark on The Countess’s attendance as she gave birth last month.”

I looked at Henry then back at Hugo. “How in the hell do you remember all that?”

“Because my mother likes to remind me that I’m heir to an ancient dukedom and if I forget all these things, I’m not too big to be taken across her knee.” His lips twitched to one side. “And forgive me for saying so, but at thirty years old, I have no desire to be spanked by my mother.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN – SOPHIE

Munchkin, My Arse

It was very hard to argue with that particular point of view.

Not that either of us tried—but Henry did have a rather dour look on his face as Hugo approached us.

“Haven’t you gotten started yet?”

“This is your job,” Henry said blithely.

“So was helping Jonathan’s sheep give birth safely,” Hugo shot back. “Which is part of my actual job.”

“Well, since you’re here now, I’ll leave you to it. If you can be trusted not to harass Sophie again.”

I pressed my lips together. Wow. There was some sibling rivalry here.

“I managed it just fine for a couple of hours yesterday, thank you,” Hugo replied. “But don’t feel as though you need to leave.”

“I think it’s for the best.” Henry glanced at me. “I’ll see you later.”

“Thanks for offering to help.” I smiled at him.

He softened. “Anytime.”

I watched him as he left then turned to Hugo. “You don’t get along, do you?”

He snorted and sat down. “Sometimes. He’s only ten months younger than me, so there are some underlying issues about inheriting all this.” He waved his hand around in a vague gesture. “We’re close, but we bicker.”

“No kidding,” I muttered. I didn’t really have any desire to get into their family dynamics any more than I already had. “Did the lambs make it?”

A smile broke out across his face, and it was the realest, most genuine smile I’d seen him give yet. There was a boyish charm to the glint in his eye, and I had to fight my own smile as something in my stomach fluttered.

Wow.

Danger, danger.

“They did,” he said happily. “Thankfully. I only went to help because she’d been labouring a while, but after I got the first one unstuck, the second one practically fell out. She was cleaning them both when I left, so it looks good for her accepting them.” He sat down opposite me. “Don’t worry. I showered before I left the farm.”

“Well, I did assume so. Unless you usually help sheep give birth in a white t-shirt?”

His boyish grin turned into his usual adult, asshole smirk. “Not my usual uniform, no. Have you made any progress at all here?”

I shook my head. “I arrived a few minutes before you did.”

“Great. Here I was hoping to have a nice, relaxing day.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” I rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to help if you don’t want to. Henry was happy to help.”

“Mm. I’m sure he was.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. The Worcesters are coming with The Dowager Duchess. Make sure you don’t forget her. Or The Dowager Countess of Anglesey. I believe Matthew’s bringing his grandmother instead of his mum, unless Eva doesn’t come, then I’d imagine they both will.”

I swallowed. “Right.” Jesus, this was confusing.

Also, no wonder there was drama.

There were a lot of women in the aristocracy. Which I suppose made sense given that most titles could only be handed down the male line and women tended to outlive men.

We didn’t do as many stupid things as men did. I could attest to that by once watching my father climb a tree to trim it and almost falling out. My mother trimmed it later that day after borrowing what I liked to call a chainsaw on a stick from a neighbour.

She kept her feet firmly on the ground and did not fall.

That was only one example I could come up with. There were a lot more.

“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” Hugo sat down next to me and took the guest list from me.

“Is it that obvious?” I replied dryly.

“Painfully so. What are these silly little flags?”

I shrugged. “They’re what people use at weddings.”

“Yes, when the tables are numbered and they’re to denote the bride’s side or the groom’s side.”

Oh.

That made a lot of sense.

“How do I know? I’ve never gotten married or even thought about planning a wedding. I’m eloping to another planet, never mind another country.” I took the flags off the table with a huff, then grabbed a pen and started numbering the tables. “Is your family sitting together?”

“Sadly.”

“Right. Then this one is yours.” I wrote a big number ‘1’ in the table that belonged to them, then grabbed the other notepad and wrote down that it belonged to them. “I assume that that’s you, your parents, Evelyn, and your sister and her husband. And Henry.”

“Yes.”

“That’s only seven. Tell your grandma to find a date,” I ordered him.

“Absolutely not. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

“Well, I can’t put seven people on a ten-seater table, can I? It’s either eight to rearrange the seats evenly, or she, you, and Henry all need a date.”

“I guess you’re out of the question.”

“I will be in London, forgetting I’d ever gotten myself into this giant mess, so you guess correctly.” I handed him a pen and looked at him pointedly. “Start numbering the tables and stop pouting.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not pouting. Just thinking how gutted my brother will be that you won’t go with him.”

“Yet you were the one who brought it up,” I shot back. “If you’re going to irritate me, I’m going to pack this up and take it back to the cottage and spend the entire day getting brain-numbingly exhausted by reading the internet’s history of the aristocracy.”

“Don’t forget about the gossip pages. They’re full of upper-class drama.” He shifted his chair around and leaned back, resting his leg on his opposite knee. “That’ll keep you busy for hours.”

“Can you please take this seriously? I’d like to bluff my way through the next forty-eight hours before I can go back to my real life.”

Hugo sighed and leaned forwards. “Grandma gets on well with both Lady Catherine of Bath and The Dowager Countess of Anglesey. Put their table close to ours.”

Thank God. “Table two?”

“That one.”

I marked it as table two and denoted it as the correct families.

“Look at that. You remembered what I said.”

I glared at him. “You are really starting to get on my nerves.”

“Good. It’s amusing when you’re annoyed.”

“No wonder you’re still single.”

“Aren’t you also single?”

“By choice,” I replied. “I’m single by choice.”

Hugo shrugged. “So am I. So your point is moot.”

I was getting a headache. “I’m not sure this is going to work with you and I trying to do this.”

“I’m entirely sure it’s not going to work,” Hugo said wanly. “But we might as well try. Did you get the decorating company sorted yet?”

Bugger.

The cake drama made me forget.

“I’m judging by the panicked look on your face that the answer is a no.”

I swallowed. “I was going to do it yesterday afternoon but then the cake thing happened.”

“And you forgot.”

“And I forgot. So sue me,” I said with an edge to my voice. “There’s a lot of information I don’t have and I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Your patronising judgement is not helping me.”

Hugo held up his hands. “I’m here under duress as much as you are, munchkin.”

“Do not call me that!”

“You’re even more adorable when you get angry.”

“You think I’m adorable?”

“You’re small, you’re feisty, you’re attractive. That equals adorable in my book.”

I really didn’t know how to respond to that.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t that used to someone telling me I was attractive to my face.

It’d definitely never happened when the opposite person was a handsome heir to a dukedom.

I cleared my throat in the hope he didn’t notice that I was blushing. “I still don’t like it.”

“All the more reason to keep using it.” His eyes twinkled. “Come on. Let’s get this plan finished.”

***

“It was not that difficult,” I said, shaking my head. “Not once you dropped the attitude.”

“Attitude? I don’t have an attitude.” Hugo scoffed.

“Yes, you do, and it sucks. There are all-girls schools out there full of teen girls who have less attitude than you.”

“You’re a fine one to talk. My attitude pales in comparison to yours.”

“Oh, please. I’m hardly going to sit here and take your crap, am I?”

He peered over his shoulder at me. “Tea? Or would you rather make it yourself?”

“How do you make it?”

“Wrong,” Evelyn said, walking into the kitchen. “He makes it wrong.”

“Then I’ll make it myself,” I replied. “Good afternoon, Evelyn. How are you today?”

“Depends how well you make my tea, Camilla,” she mused.

I hadn’t offered, but sure. I’d make it. I was interested to see if how I took it was anything close to how she did it.

“Well, if you’re making it…” Hugo said, sitting down with a smirk.

“Stop smirking. It’s not becoming of a young man.” Evelyn rapped her walking stick against his leg. “You’re a gentleman. Act like it.”

I hid a smile by dipping my head as I poured hot water into the teapot.

“You stop smiling, too. If the two of you are going to sleep together, get on with it. I heard you flirting from the other side of the hall.”

“We were not flirting,” I replied, putting the lid on the teapot and setting the timer on my phone.

Hugo grinned. “I was.”

“I didn’t know whining was considered flirting.”

“It is when the other person is adorable.”

“Ugh.” Evelyn mimed throwing up. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You and me both,” I told her, checking the phone timer. “And he can flirt all he likes. I’m not interested.”

Mostly.

“Smart girl.”

“I’m sitting right here,” Hugo said, holding his arms out.

My phone went off, and I stopped the timer then took the lid off the teapot so I could fish out the teabags. “Good. Then you’ll get the message to stop flirting, won’t you?”

“Why do you set a timer for your tea?”

“So I know how long to let the teabags steep. Do you not do that?”

“Normal people don’t do that, no.”

“That’s why you make shit tea, then,” Evelyn interjected. “You can’t go around letting teabags steep willy-nilly.”

I pointed my teaspoon at her and looked at Hugo pointedly. “She’s right. Teabags are useful.”

He shot me a withering look. “Really? How useful can a used teabag be?”

“Extremely. They’re used to treat conjunctivitis.”

“They are?”

“And if you apply tea instead of after-sun to sunburnt skin, it’ll take out the burn and add moisture to the skin. Tannin has numerous medicinal properties.”

“And you can compost tea leaves,” Evelyn added, accepting the cup of tea I slid her way. She added milk and sugar, stirred, then sipped. “Would you like to move in?”

I smiled.

“Seriously? One pot of tea and you want her to move in?” Hugo looked at her.

“Yes. She can have your room.”

“If she’s moving into my room, I’m staying.”

I handed him a cup. “I’ll sleep in the shed.”

Evelyn chuckled. “This is fun.”

“Only because she’s on your side,” he muttered.

“Also known as the right side.”

Hugo put milk in his cup, stirred, and sipped. He didn’t say anything, and I stared at him until he finally met my gaze.

“What?”

“He’s just sulking because it’s good tea. Don’t mind him,” Evelyn said, standing up. “Thank you, dear. I’ll have this in the garden. It’s fresh out there, and I enjoy scaring the gardener’s new intern.”

I watched as she left. “She does what to the intern?”

Hugo dropped his head and sighed. “Every spring, our gardener hires some interns or an apprentice. Sometimes it’s student work experience, sometimes it’s people who need actual experience to get a job. It works. This year we have a nineteen-year-old college student doing an apprenticeship with her and Grandma is taking great pleasure out of telling her everything she’s doing is wrong. I think she’s starting to get Grandma’s number, but…” He shrugged. “Nobody can make her stop it, so we just assure the girl she’s doing a great job and that Grandma is an arsehole.”

“You can’t say that about your grandma!”

“She is an arsehole.”

“Well, at least you know where you get it from.” I sipped my tea and peered over the top of my cup at him.

He opened his mouth, presumably to argue with me, but he was cut off by his dad walking in.

“Good afternoon,” he said brightly. “Are we having a tea break?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“Good afternoon, Lord Devon,” I replied. “We are. We just finished the draft table plan.”

“Ah, I’m surprised tea is the strongest thing you’re drinking, in that case.” He smiled at me.

“There’s some left in the pot if you’d like some.”

“Did Hugo make it?”

I hid my smile behind my cup.

Hugo threw his hands out. “Why does everyone have an issue with the way I make tea?”

“Because you’re dreadful at it, son,” Lord Devon said to him. “If that’s the case, I think I will, Camilla, thank you. You don’t mind if I call you Camilla, do you?”

I shook my head.

Yes, actually, but such was my life right now.

“Brilliant. Miss Hopkins seems so formal.”

And Lord Devon was what one called all their close friends.

He poured his tea and looked between us. “You two seem to be getting along well.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Hugo replied slowly. “She’s…”

“Surviving,” I finished for him.

“I was going to say tolerating.”

“It’s about the same thing.”

Lord Devon’s lips pulled to one side in a way that was reminiscent of the way Hugo smirked, but his was more of a gentle smile. “I see.”

What did that mean?

“What are your plans for this afternoon?” he asked me.

“Decorations,” I responded.

“Excellent. I trust the invitations have been sent out?”

“Nancy handled that.”

“Ah, wonderful. It’s a little more relaxed without Nancy around, I’ve noticed.”

“Where is Nancy?” Hugo asked, frowning. “I haven’t seen her all day. I’m not complaining, but I don’t want to get too used to walking around this happily.”

Okay.

Now I really was trying not to smile.

“She’s with a stylist. Arranging dresses for your mother for the party. She asked Mum if she’d like to join her, but I believe she told her she’d rather defecate in her hands and clap, then eat toast without washing them.”

I wrinkled my nose up. “That’s a very strong sentiment.”

“Indeed.” Lord Devon fought a laugh, then finished his tea. “I have a meeting in twenty minutes, so I’ll leave you kids alone. That tea was wonderful, Camilla, thank you.”

He swept out of the room without a word, leaving us alone once more.

Hugo looked at me. “At least you didn’t forget the decorations this time.”

“Oh, shut up.”

CHAPTER TWELVE – SOPHIE

Curveballs and Wisdom

I slowly surfaced from under the bath water and blew out a long breath. The five seconds I’d spent sinking beneath the hot water had done wonders for the stress that I felt balling in my shoulders.

One more day. That was all I had to get through.

I could do that. As long as the duchess wasn’t around, I felt as though I could breathe. Hugo was a whole other matter, but I was pretty sure I was done with him now. He’d done his part that he needed to, saved my ass, and there was no reason for him to spend any time at all with me.

Ever since he’d told me that I was attractive, I’d felt weird.

Not a bad weird. A good weird. Because I was obviously insanely attracted to him, even though he irritated me, but I didn’t… dislike him.

That was the worst part.

It would be easier to brush him off if I couldn’t stand his company, but I could.

I wasn’t exactly mad about having to spend time with him. He was nice to look at, after all, and no matter how annoyed I got by him, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

And, you know.

Maybe I had overreacted a little the first time we’d met.

Not that I planned to tell Hugo that, lest he get the wrong idea.

I pulled the plug in the tub and got out, wrapping a huge towel around me. I was going to have to ask Nora where she got these from—they were the biggest, fluffiest things in the world, and it felt as though I was being dried by a cloud.

I wandered into the bedroom and picked up my phone. I had a missed call from Cam, and I sat on the edge of the bed as I called her back.

“Soph?” she answered, although she sounded like she wasn’t quite there.

“Cam, are you all right? I can barely hear you. Do you have signal?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Does that mean you’re coming home tomorrow?” Please, please, please.

Silence.

“Cam. What’s wrong?”

“G—Grandma died this afternoon.”

Oh.

Oh, no.

“Oh, Cam. I’m so sorry.” I closed my eyes.

She sniffed. “Thanks. I… I have to stay. Until the funeral.”

“Of course you do.”

“I won’t be back until…” She cleared her throat. “Two days before the party. I’ll leave the morning after.”

Yep.

That was about right.

“Soph? I’m really sorry to stick you with this. I’ll pay you more for it, but I just can’t leave my mum to deal with it and—”

“Cam, it’s all right.” It was not all right. I was in so much fucking trouble. “I’ve got it handled, okay? Don’t worry about it.” She should have been worrying about it. “I’ll explain everything and I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“I’m so sorry.” Her voice was thick, and I could tell that she’d been crying. “I’m going to send you my login stuff in case you need anything, all right? And I’ll be here if you have any questions. You can just ask me, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

“I know. But it’s fine, all right? I’ve got this.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“Yes, I am, but I’m not going to tell you otherwise, am I?”

She laughed, but it had a thickness and heaviness that her laugh didn’t usually have. “Thank you. You’ll be fine.”

That was very debatable.

“I will be fine,” I reassured her.

“All right. Um, I need to try to sleep. It’s late and it’s been a really long day.”

“I’m sure it has. If I can do anything for you, let me know. Have you spoken to Ollie yet?” I asked, referring to her boyfriend.

“I have. He’s going to see if he can get some days off work to be here with me.”

“Okay. I’ll let you go. Let me know if you need me.”

“I will. You’re already doing more than enough. I… Oh, God, I don’t even know.”

“Hey, it’s okay. Go and take a bath and rest.”

“Yes. I will. Okay. Thank you, Soph. You’re saving my life right now.”

That might have been an exaggeration.

We said goodbye and I put my phone down on the bed with a deep breath.

I was fucked.

I was so, so fucked.

What was I supposed to do now? I couldn’t pretend to be Camilla until the last moment, nor could I face Lady Devon and tell her I’d originally lied.

I needed some fresh air.

I threw off the towel and pulled on my pyjamas, leaving my hair wrapped in the other towel. I wrapped myself in my dressing gown and went downstairs to the kitchen where I knew half a bottle of wine resided from my dinner at the pub last night.

I’d been an adult and cooked tonight.

I should have ordered a pizza a size too big so I’d have something to comfort-eat right now.

I poured a glass of wine and took it outside. It wasn’t that late. In fact, the sun was only just setting to the right of the cottage and sending a golden hue west across the sky. It was a shame it was a little chilly, but that was what the dressing gown and fancy towel hat was for.

I sat on the swinging bench in the front garden and cradled the glass of wine in my lap. I pulled one leg up so my foot curled around the edge of the seat and used my other leg to slowly rock the bench back and forth as I stared out.

The cottage garden really was beautiful. The spring display of yellow daffodils and precious bluebells and other pinks and purples and whites of flowers I didn’t know the names of was incredible, and the gentle glow of the sunset in the sky wrapped me in a calming blanket I needed.

I… was in so, so much trouble.

I was lying to too many people, and at some point, I was going to have to come clean to one side. I wanted that to be the Devons—it was easier all around if we could wrap up the little issue of my identity as soon as the duchess was back from London and write it off to a miscommunication, but…

Nancy concerned me.

She’d made it quite clear that she wasn’t happy with my accidental deception, and I hadn’t seen her since our original conversation. I had no choice but to speak with her tomorrow regarding this change, but the idea of it gave me hives.

What I needed was someone to talk to about this. I couldn’t call my mum as she’d only give me a lecture about lying, and Cait was all the way in the village.

I didn’t know what the rules of the countryside were, but I imagined that going to the pub in your pyjamas for no reason was frowned upon.

Which was unfortunate, if you asked me.

When I rose to power, pyjamas were going to be the outfit for office workers everywhere. And everyone else.

I sighed, staring at the sky. The sun was gradually lowering, and the sky was darkening just like my mood.

I was so conflicted. I was absolutely heartbroken for Cam, and a little bit for myself. I’d met her grandma several times over the years, and I’d always adored her, and I knew her loss would leave an irreplaceable hole in their family.

But it was another impossible situation I’d found myself in.

Nobody was at fault. Guilt gnawed at me for thinking the things I was, but I was only human, and unfortunately that meant I wasn’t a perfect person.

I was a good person—mostly—who thought bad things sometimes.

Now was one of those times.

I was angry.

I didn’t want to be doing this. It wasn’t helping me at all, even if she was going to pay me more. The fact was that I needed to find a job, and the longer I had to spend here, the longer that was going to take me.

I couldn’t mooch off Camilla forever, no matter what she said. Not to mention that I knew she was holding off on moving in with Ollie because we lived together. I wanted her to be happy, but I wanted me to be happy, too.

It didn’t matter that I felt more at peace here at Bluebell Cottage than I had for a long time in London. The countryside was a part of who I was given where I’d grown up, and I liked to think that one day I’d settle down back in the middle of nowhere.

But this wasn’t that day. My romantic prospects were nil, despite Hugo’s jokes about flirting with me. At least I thought they were jokes. If they weren’t, he had a very strange way of flirting.

Sure, I felt a little fuzzy when he touched me, and the times he’d helped me into his truck had sent my hormones into overdrive, knotting my stomach, and making my heart skip a little faster than normal, but that wasn’t the point.

I was putting my life on hold to help my best friend, and although she’d done as much as she had for me, the dread in my gut meant that I wasn’t appreciating that as much as I probably should have been.

And that was all right.

I was allowed to feel that way.

A wet nose touched my bare foot, and I jumped, almost spilling my wine.

“Hi, Oscar,” I said, reaching down to scratch the collie’s head. “What are you doing here?”

“Bringing someone a blanket,” Nora said from the gate, holding up a checked blanket with a smile. “You’ll catch your death out here, dear.”

“Oh, thank you. I just needed some fresh air.”

She walked over, unfolding the blanket, and I dutifully lifted my glass so she could drape it over me.

“Would you like some company?”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

Nora skirted past me and sat next to me on the bench, and Oscar lay down at our feet with his tail slowly wagging and shifting dirt from one side to the other.

“What’s on your mind, dear? You look awfully bogged down with something.”

“Camilla isn’t coming home like I thought,” I replied. “Her grandma passed away this afternoon and she’s now staying until after the funeral.”

“Ah.” Nora nodded knowingly. “That puts you in quite the spot, doesn’t it?”

“You have no idea.”

“Why don’t you tell me, then?”

I did.

I told her everything.

How I wasn’t able to say who I was, how I’d really met Hugo, how he, Henry, and Nancy knew who I was, how worried I was about pulling this off when I’d messed up at almost every turn, how I didn’t know how to tell the truth now that I was in this hole, and I even said about Hugo’s jokes and how Evelyn was so wonderful.

I also admitted how conflicted I was about the way I felt, and how Cait had brought up some really good points yesterday.

“That’s a lot,” Nora said, looking out at the sky as the last of the light dwindled away to twilight. “First, I’ll say that you could do a lot worse than Hugo.” She winked at me before turning her attention forwards again. “Secondly, you’re not wrong about Anna. She’s very proper, very particular, and likes things done a certain way. She’s always moved at one hundred miles a minute and getting her to listen when it’ll divert her from her train of thought has always been terribly difficult.”

“You say that like you know.”

She chuckled. “Oh, dear, I was her drama teacher for three years. I am entirely aware of our duchess’s qualities.”

“Ah.”

“Indeed.” She tapped her fingers against her legs, drawing Oscar’s attention. “Your situation with Camilla is unfortunate. I do agree with our Caitlyn that she didn’t do quite enough at the beginning to ensure it was known that you would taking her place, but circumstances beyond your control have changed things. That said, now…” She reached over and patted my knee. “You are allowed to be frustrated, Sophie. You’re only human, my dear, and your feelings do not have to be dictated by what society deems to be right or wrong. Only you know how you truly feel, and how you feel about something is never, ever wrong. It belongs to you and you only.”

A lump formed in my throat. “Thank you. I feel terrible because she’s hurting so much but I’m so annoyed at everything.”

Nora kept her hand on my knee. “I know. And that is completely and utterly fine. You are in a very difficult situation right now, but let your heart be soothed by the knowledge that I shall not reveal your true identity to anyone until such a time you tell me to.”

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“I trust Caitlyn will be doing the same.”

I nodded. “I don’t think Hugo or Henry will say anything, either.”

“I doubt that very much. But Nancy…”

“I get the impression not many people like her.”

Nora shook her head. “She’s not from around here. Anna hired her out of London, and she’s never really given much of her time to settling in outside of Cavendish House. She’s very… devoted… to Anna.”

“That sounds like there’s a story there.”

The older woman sighed. “I don’t like to gossip.”

“That’s what my mother says. On the contrary, she enjoys it very much.”

Nora’s shoulders shook with her laughter. “I try not to gossip,” she corrected herself. “I do like a good chinwag every now and then, but I try to refrain from discussing things that don’t have any semblance of truth behind them.”

“A wise thing to do.”

“Indeed. However, I am in possession of a titbit of knowledge that might be relevant to your situation, given what you’ve shared with me this evening.”

I turned to her. “You are?”

“Yes. Do not by any means take what I’m about to share with you as fact, and I’d appreciate you keeping it to yourself. At the very least, don’t say I told you if you do share it for whatever reason.”

“I promise.”

She rocked her head from side to side, stretching out her neck, and said, “I’ve heard from someone I consider to be a reliable source that Nancy is rather put out that she was not selected to arrange Evelyn’s birthday party. Apparently, Anna confided all her wishes in her to the point she believed Anna would put her in charge, but then she had her contact your Camilla.”

I blinked at her.

Was she saying—

No.

Surely not.

“Nora, are you saying that Nancy has an issue with Camilla and by extension, me?” I asked softly.

“I’m saying that I do not trust Nancy, and I believe you are right to feel the same way,” she said carefully. “Nancy has long had views above her current level of employment, and I think she might have viewed this as a way to level up, if you will. She said Camilla’s email regarding you went to spam, yes?”

I nodded.

“I wonder how many of those other emails never made it to her spam filter,” she mused. “And the cake? Everyone here knows that Kellie is Anna’s closest friend and always makes their cakes. That Anna would instruct Camilla to book anyone else is unfathomable.”

I swallowed hard.

“A lot of communication designed to go through Nancy appears to be miscommunicated.” Nora looked at me. “I would err on the side of caution, if I were you. That’s all I’m saying.”

I looked down to where Oscar was lying on top of my foot. As if this wasn’t hard enough, I might have an enemy I didn’t even know I’d made.

“Now,” Nora said, patting my knee once more. “I think you’d do well to get yourself an early night and wake up tomorrow with a fresh perspective on things.”

I nodded.

“And finishing that glass of wine with a good book might help. I usually find that to be the case.”

“I do have a book I’ve been wanting to finish.”

“There we are, then.” She used my knee to help herself to her feet and clicked her tongue, and Oscar jolted to attention and followed her to the gate. “Oh, and Sophie?”

“Yes?” I looked over at her.

“I like both Hugo and Henry, but if I had to pick and I were thirty years younger, I’d go for Hugo. That boy needs a nice girl like you.”

“That boy can keep looking for a nice girl like me,” I retorted.

She grinned. “I said that about a boy once.”

“Let me guess. You married him?”

“Sure did.” She winked and, after patting her leg so Oscar would follow her onto the road, closed the gate with a clink. Her final goodbye was the raise of her hand and a happy yip from Oscar, and a moment later, I was alone once again.

Nora’s visit had been short, not so sweet, but incredibly informative.

And I really had to take a moment to figure out how I was going to do this, knowing what I did now.

I’d had a weird feeling about Nancy since the moment I’d spoken to her on the phone, and now I had an idea why.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN – SOPHIE

Operation Catfish Camilla

Apparently, a good night’s sleep didn’t always make you feel better.

Of course, it might have helped if I’d had a good night’s sleep. I had not. I wasn’t even sure I’d slept at all, and it was because of what I had to do today.

The whole situation had left me in a foul mood, and now I had to pretend I was in a better one because there was no way I could show up to Cavendish House in this state.

Unfortunately, time wasn’t on my side, because I was already here.

I got out of my car and knocked on the door. I hoped Nancy was here because I needed to speak to her straight away to figure this out.

Maybe I’d be able to get a bit of a read on her, too.

I wanted to delve more into what Nora had told me last night, but for now, I needed to just get through the door and break the bad news to Nancy.

And Hugo.

I doubted he’d be that happy about having to spend the next ten days with me.

I wasn’t happy about having to spend it with him.

That amount of time close to Lord Hugo struck me as rather dangerous.

The large, ornate doors opened, and Rupert smiled down at me. “Ah, Miss Hopkins. Good morning. Do come in.”

“Thank you, Rupert. How are you today?”

“Very well, thank you. Yourself?”

“I’m okay, thank you. I don’t suppose Nancy is around, is she? I need to speak with her about something?”

He frowned. “I believe she’s in Her Ladyship’s office. Would you like me to fetch her?”

“I don’t want to disturb her if she’s busy.”

“I’m sure she’s only catching up on her administrative work. Why don’t you follow me over there and we’ll see if she can spare you a few moments?”

“That would be great, thank you.” I stepped inside and proceeded to follow him through the house into an area I’d never been before.

This house truly was the largest building I’d ever been in. It seemed to go on forever, winding and curving through the hallways until we finally reached a small wing to the side that was a collection of three rooms.

Rupert knocked on the middle door and waited for Nancy to call out, then pushed it open. “Nancy, do you have a moment? Miss Hopkins is here.”

“Of course. Please send her in.”

Rupert stepped aside and gestured for me to go in. “Will you find your way back or would you like me to wait for you?”

“I’ll take her back. I’m due a break. Thank you, Rupert,” Nancy said from inside.

“Anytime.” He bowed his head and disappeared.

I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me.

Nancy turned around and fixed me with a stern look that said I needed to get the hell on with it. “Well?”

God. I did not like this woman.

“I have some bad news.”

“If you’re going to tell me that Camilla will not be coming home today or tomorrow, then I don’t want to hear it.”

“All right, then. I won’t tell you.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose, dipping her head. “Sophie…”

“Her grandmother passed away yesterday afternoon. Her entire family is devastated, and she can’t leave them. She’ll be back two days before the party.”

“That doesn’t help me,” Nancy said. “At this point, she might as well not even show up. There’s no way to explain who she is two days prior.”

“That’s why I’m here. Lady Devon returns tomorrow, so we’ll just explain everything. She spent all of fifteen minutes with me.”

“She will not take kindly to the idea she was lied to.”

“I didn’t lie to her. I wasn’t able to get a word in as she was so determined to leave, and you were the one who didn’t pick up the email regarding me coming instead of Camilla.”

She pushed away from the desk and stood. “What are you accusing me of?” she asked me coldly.

Her eyes were like ice.

This was not a nice woman.

I’d know.

She reminded me a lot of my old boss.

“Absolutely nothing,” I replied, holding her gaze. “I just think it’s weird that of all the email communication you had with Camilla, that was the one email that went to your spam filter. I’d assume a consummate professional such as yourself would have ensured her email address was on an approved list.”

Nancy’s nostrils flared. “I don’t know how that happened. Email servers aren’t known for their reliability.”

True, but it wasn’t as though it was the first email they’d shared. As far as I was aware, even the most unreliable one didn’t pull that crap.

She was lying through her teeth, and I wanted to know why.

It wasn’t a question for today, though. I didn’t believe in much, but I did believe in karma.

It would come out eventually.

“Either way, it’s an issue we need to figure out.” I folded my arms across my chest. “And fast.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Nancy mirrored my stance. “You’re going to continue to be Camilla, and you’re going to tell her that you have it handled, and she should stay wherever she is for a little longer.”

“This is her business. I’m not going to tell her how to run it.”

“You are in this instance. She got you into this situation, and you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that.”

“You want me to lie to your boss just so you don’t have to deal with the fallout?”

“Two days ago, you were happy to go back to London and let your friend deal with it,” she pointed out.

She wasn’t wrong.

That was annoying.

“On your guidance,” I shot back, hitting her with a glare of my own.

“Then follow it now.”

“I think your guidance needs work in this situation.”

“I don’t care what you think, Sophie. In two weeks, you’ll be gone, and none of us will ever see you again. I can’t imagine you’ll make a success of this party to the point anyone in this family will hire Camilla’s company again, so you’re going to have to deal with it.”

I hated her.

It wasn’t a word I used lightly.

But now?

Nancy?

I hated her.

I was very inclined to believe that Nora’s gossip was bang on the money.

This was a conceited, selfish woman who wanted to level up, and she’d do whatever that took. She’d take anyone down who stood in her way, and right now, that was me.

If Nora’s gossip was accurate, I was doing the job she wanted.

Nancy wanted me—Camilla—to fuck up so she could sweep in and save the day like some kind of medieval knight.

Well, the joke was on her.

I wasn’t going to fuck it up.

I was going to do Camilla proud and throw the best bloody party in the world.

My fatal flaw was digging my heels in. When someone told me I couldn’t do something, I straightened up, put on my good panties, and did the damn best I could do.

Never underestimate the power of a good pair of knickers.

“I don’t know what you have against me or Camilla,” I said softly.

My words stopped her mid-turn, and she looked over her shoulder at me.

“But I’m going to make the best of this,” I continued. “I’ll play by your rules. I’ll pretend I’m Camilla so you don’t have to deal with the fallout of a miscommunication you were solely responsible for.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off again.

“But when the truth comes out, you better believe I’m going to throw you so far under the bus you’ll wish you had Edward Cullen to blast you out of its path.” I stared at her for a second longer, then turned and left the office, shutting the door behind me with a firm finality.

My heart was racing. I’d never stood up to anyone like that before, and I wasn’t sure I’d even done the right thing. But I was entirely sure that Nancy was in charge of her own self-centred operation that would only hurt Camilla, and no matter how angry I was at her, my instinct was always to protect her.

If that meant a little hurt had to ultimately go her way, then it was going to suck. And suck balls. Big time.

And, hey.

If it all went to shit, I could take the heat.

Nancy was right.

After this party, I wasn’t going to see any of this family ever again.

***

“You look lost.”

I looked up at Henry’s words. “Why else would I be sitting on the floor hoping that someone would help me?”

He chuckled and held out a hand to help me up, which I gratefully took. “I don’t know. The painting matches your hair?”

I glanced back at the wall and the painting of a boat. “I hope not.”

He laughed again and motioned for me to follow after him. “Where are you trying to get to?”

Anywhere Nancy wasn’t.

“The library, I guess.”

“Come on. This place can be a maze. We used to play hide and seek here as kids.”

“Your sister, too?”

“Yep. Me and Hugo used to team up on her.” He laughed. “She could never find us because we always hid together.”

“That’s mean.”

“Well, we were boys, and we were little arseholes.”

“That’s fair.”

He smiled over at me. “Do you have siblings?”

“No. I’m what my mum calls a miracle. Boy, did that give me a big head as a kid until I realised what that actually meant.” I rolled my eyes. “When I irritate her, she likes to point out that I was the strongest swimmer out of all her potential children, and she’s never forgiven Dad for it.”

Henry dropped his chin with a small laugh. “Do you get along?”

“We do, mostly. We’re quite similar, so we clash a lot. It drives Dad insane.”

“Do they live in London, too?”

“No, Norfolk. Just outside King’s Lynn. That’s where I was raised.”

“Really? How the bloody hell did you end up in London?”

He was so shocked I couldn’t help but laugh.

“University,” I replied. “Camilla and I both went to neighbouring universities, so we roomed together because it was cheaper. After, we just kept living together because it made sense.”

“So how did you end up here?”

“Until I was made redundant, I worked pretty standard office hours.”

“Nine to five?”

“In theory. More like eight ’til six by the time my commute was done,” I replied, wrapping my arms around myself. “Cam often worked weird hours and people like to call when they really shouldn’t, so I took calls for her. Especially on weekends. After that, I ended up being her kind of pseudo-secretary because everyone called our home number if they couldn’t get through to her on mobile. That was how I ended up talking to Nancy.”

Henry nodded slowly. “That makes sense. Here’s the library.”

I looked up and into the decadently decorated room. “Thank you.”

“Anytime. Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine. I have a lot to get done.”

Henry nodded. “Doesn’t Camilla arrive tomorrow?”

“Uh, no.” I told him what I’d told Nancy. “So it’s on me.”

“Great. That’s all we need. You here for even longer.”

I glared at Hugo as he strolled casually into the library. “You’re not helping.”

“I’m not here to help.” He grinned at me. “I’m here because Rupert hadn’t seen you and was worried you’d gotten lost.”

“She did get lost,” Henry answered. “I found her sitting on the floor somewhere near to Nancy’s office.”

Hugo glanced at me. “Guess she wasn’t happy that you’re here and not Camilla.”

“You could say that,” I replied vaguely. “Do you know when your mum gets back?”

“Tomorrow morning. And I’m going to assume she’s going to want a meeting with you, probably to nit-pick every single little thing you’ve done.”

“Hugo,” Henry groaned.

“What? It’s true.” Hugo shrugged. “She’s a control freak, and we all know that’s what she’s going to do.”

“You could have said it in a nicer way.”

“It’s fine,” I said, smiling at Henry. “Really, it’s okay. I have to get to work now.”

“All right. I’m heading out, but here.” He took out his phone and tapped on the screen, then mine vibrated in my bag. “I saved your number, so just call me if you need anything.”

“Thanks.” I pulled out my phone and saved his number to my contacts list. “Saved it.”

Henry smiled at me.

Hugo glanced at Henry. “Didn’t you have to go?”

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving.” Henry shot him a dark look and left, leaving me and Hugo alone.

“I guess you aren’t getting along today,” I said dryly.

“You could say that.” Hugo put his hands in his pockets. “So you’re not leaving.”

“Unfortunately not.”

“What were you doing at Nancy’s office?”

“Throwing a party. What do you think I was doing?”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN – HUGO

The Death of Me

Sophie was in a foul mood.

It wasn’t the way she spoke to me—that was no more filled with attitude than her usual snipes or snark, but it was in her eyes.

There was a darkness to them that I hadn’t yet seen. Whatever it was that was doing that to her, it was heavy.

“It didn’t go well with Nancy, then,” I said, watching as she pulled her laptop out of her bag.

“Whatever gives you that idea?” Sophie shot back, not even bothering to look at me.

“It rarely does.”

“Well, then that was a stupid question, wasn’t it?”

“Hey.” I stepped closer to her and reached over, touching my hand to her shoulder. “What happened in there?”

She drew in a deep breath and rocked her head side to side, stretching her neck, then slowly looked around.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t want anyone to hear me.”

“Impossible in here. The staff will be in cleaning soon. Leave this here and come with me.” I walked towards the door and looked back at her. She was staring at me. “I’m not taking you to my room, if that’s what you were wondering. Unless that’s where you want to go.”

She rolled her eyes and followed me, tucking her phone into her pocket. “Will it be all right there?”

“Yes. Hold on. Cassandra,” I said, catching one of the housekeeping team as she left the drawing room.

“Yes, Lord Hugo?”

“So—Camilla’s things are on the table in the library, but she wants to see the gardens to see if there are any spring flowers for the party. Can you make sure nobody touches her belongings, please?”

She nodded her head. “I’ll make sure it’s left alone, my lord.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.” I turned back to Sophie and nodded. “Come on. It’ll be fine.”

“Thank you,” she said softly to Cassandra as we passed. When we were clear of her, she glanced over at me. “Smooth lie.”

“I needed a valid reason to be taking you outside. So you could tell me something confidential didn’t seem like something the staff ought to know.” My lips curled to one side, and I opened the back door for her then stepped aside to let her go first.

She turned to the side and slid past me, brushing against my body. My jaw tightened and I forced it to slacken—making a move on her wasn’t the smartest thing in the world for me to do, especially in the mood she was in right now.

I closed the door behind me and walked away from the patio into the rose garden. The bushes were just coming to life, and their leaves were unfurling in shades of green and burnt orange and red, making it bright and colourful even though the flowers themselves weren’t even buds yet.

“Pretty,” Sophie muttered from beside me.

I glanced down at her with a small smile.

Yeah.

The flowers, too.

“If you’re happy to walk for a couple more minutes, there’s a brick summerhouse on the lake. We’ll be able to talk there.”

“That’s fine. How big is this place?”

I laughed. “Endless, it can seem. The formal gardens stretch out pretty far, but we make a fair amount of money from the admissions from the general public. That rose garden we walked through is Mum’s personal one. She likes fresh flowers in the house, and she’s quite particular about it.”

“I’m surprised,” she replied dryly. “I can’t imagine her gardening.”

“Believe it or not, it’s when she’s happiest. She won’t even let the gardener touch it.” I put my hands in my pockets. “I’m pretty sure the only reason we have the summerhouse is because she uses it to escape to when she’s had enough.”

“Do you not come out here?”

“I fish here sometimes, but everything is so busy going into the summer that I don’t have that much spare time. This year we want to do up one of the old farmhouses and rent it out.”

“As a farm? Or a holiday let?”

“Dad wants another farm, but I think it should be a holiday let. I know a lot of locals don’t like it, but tourists do bring good money to the village. Besides, it’s not like we’re buying up property to rent out. It already belongs to us.”

“That makes sense. I think it’s an issue with a lot of rural communities. People buying property and renting it out or second homeowners buying houses and leaving them sitting empty. There’s a lot of that at home, too.”

“London?”

“Norfolk.” She laughed lightly. “Near where I grew up, a lot of people had to leave because they were priced out of the housing market.”

“Is that why you’re in London?”

“If I can’t afford a house in Norfolk, whatever makes you think I can afford one in London?”

“Excellent point. It’s extortionate.”

“Don’t you have property there?”

“Technically it’s the estate’s property,” I said slowly. “My grandpa bought it before prices skyrocketed. We got lucky, I suppose. But we all use it whenever we need to go to London, like Mum is now.”

“Why is she there?”

“No idea. Some business thing. Mum had her own inheritance from her grandparents and she’s pretty good with investments, so she often has stuff to do in London.”

Sophie shook her head. “That’s insane. I can’t imagine her doing any of these things.”

“She can be a real bitch sometimes, and she’s pretty cold to strangers, but that’s only because she’s wildly snobbish.”

“Wow. You are really selling her to me.”

I laughed, dipping my head. “I love my mother dearly, but I’m not blind to her flaws, Sophie. She has many, but she also has many good qualities. A lot of the things she does that piss me off come from a good place.”

“Like what?”

“Trying to marry me off to a suitable woman.”

“I can see how that would annoy you.”

I inclined my head. “She and my dad weren’t a love match in the beginning. They were kind of… forced together… by my grandfathers. They did eventually fall in love, but I think she kind of feels that she needs to do that for me now because it’ll work out the same.”

“The aristocracy is weird.”

“You don’t need to tell me that.” I smiled at her as we approached the lake and the beautiful brick house that sat with a dock that stretched out. “Here we are.”

“Wow.” Sophie stopped and looked around. Wonder replaced the frustration in her gaze, and she took a step forward. “It’s incredibly beautiful here.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “Come on. There’s seating inside.”

I led her over to the house and opened the door. There was no need to lock it because there was nothing remotely of value in here, and there were cameras on the lake to stop people fishing it illegally.

It happened more than you’d think.

“Right. Now tell me what’s bothering you,” I said, sitting down opposite her.

She crossed her ankles and looked up at me. “I spoke to Nora last night and we talked some about this situation. She told me that Nancy wanted to be the one to organise the party, and she thinks these miscommunications might not be… well, miscommunications.”

I stared at her. Sophie had no reason to lie about that, and there did seem to be a few very important things that hadn’t been shared. The fact Sophie was coming instead of Camilla for a start, the cake, and no information about a decorating company…

“You think she’s deliberately not passing on information?”

Sophie shrugged. “I don’t know, but this morning, she was adamant that I didn’t tell your mum who I really am. She even went so far as to suggest that Camilla not bother coming at all.”

“Well, she does have a point there.”

“I’m not saying she doesn’t, but it’s not because I’ll have done all the work. Or attempted to,” she added half-heartedly. “It’s because she doesn’t want your mum to know I’m not who I’m supposed to be.”

“Mum barely let you speak in that meeting,” I said to her. “She might be a little pissed that nobody passed on the message, but she’d be over it in an hour.”

“I don’t know what to do. There’s no way I’m ever going to get to speak to your mum without Nancy being around, and everyone thinks I’m Camilla. She’s not going to be able to get here until two days before the party anyway, so it might just be easier keep pretending I’m her, tell her not to come, and try to keep Nancy out of the planning as much as possible.”

“That might be difficult.”

“I have no choice. I might have yelled a little,” Sophie said, wrapping her arms around herself. “And told her that I’ll be throwing her under the bus if the truth comes out.”

I dropped my chin and laughed silently.

“Stop laughing at me!”

“I just love the fact you shouted at Nancy. Do you know how many times I’ve wanted to do that?”

Sophie pouted.

Speaking of wanting to do things…

I really wished she wouldn’t do that, because all it did was make me imagine what it would be like to kiss her.

I didn’t think she would appreciate me trying to get that answer.

Sophie pushed to standing and paced the summerhouse. “She said that after this I’d never see any of you again, so it wouldn’t matter. And she’s right. When this is done and I leave Moorhaven, it’s not like I’m ever going to come back for any reason, and nor would you have any reason to see me in London, so maybe I’m just overreacting and—”

I stood up and grasped her shoulders, forcing her to stop walking. “Sophie.”

She swallowed, looking up at me.

“Breathe.”

She took a deep breath in through her nose, then huffed it out of her mouth.

That wasn’t quite what I meant, but I suppose she had done as I’d said.

“What’s easiest for you?” I asked her, bringing one hand to cup her chin so she had to meet my gaze. “Is it continuing as if you’re Camilla, or is it telling the truth?”

Her tongue flicked out and wetted her lower lip. “I don’t know.”

“Then you need to decide. If you want to keep being Camilla because that’s easiest, then that’s what we’ll do.”

“We?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I’m bollock-deep in this lie with you, aren’t I? I’ll help you plan the bastard party that Grandma doesn’t even want, and we’ll make sure it goes off without a hitch. I can also keep an eye on Nancy.”

“Why would you do that?” she asked me quietly. “It was one thing for three days, but there’s still two weeks until the party. That’s a lot of lying to your family on behalf of someone you don’t even like?”

My lips twitched on one side into a small smile. “I don’t dislike you, Sophie.”

“You don’t?”

“The first time we met, I tried to hit on you until you handed me my arse in front of the entire pub,” I reminded. “Then, the next day when you walked into my house and were introduced as someone else, I didn’t out you. When it was clear you were in way over your head, I knuckled down and helped you, saving your arse with the cake.”

She peered down at the floor.

“Would I do all those things if I didn’t like you, munchkin?”

“I hate that nickname,” she muttered.

“I know. It’s why I use it.”

“Let me guess.” She looked back up. “You wouldn’t call me that if you didn’t like me?”

“Nailed it.”

She tilted her head to the side. “You don’t even know me.”

I brushed my thumb over her jaw. “I don’t need to. I know you’re a good person who’s found themselves in a difficult situation.”

“How do you know I’m a good person?”

“Because you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. You’d have told your best friend to fuck off.”

“I want to.”

“Because you’re human. I’d be worried if you were happy with this development.”

Her bottom lip twitched, and a small smile curved the sides of her mouth up. “Thank you. I guess I’m just a little overwhelmed by it all.”

“It’s a lot to take in, but like I said, I’ll help you figure it all out. Okay?” I tilted her head back and held her gaze steadily with mine.

Her head jerked. “Okay,” she whispered.

God. I wanted to kiss her so badly.

She was so bloody beautiful, even with uncertainty and frustration swirling in her eyes. Or maybe that added to it—made her even more beautiful with a fire in her eyes.

I was unbelievably, annoyingly attracted to this woman.

It might be the death of me.

Especially because I knew that doing something about that attraction would be very, very wrong.

Not that it stopped me wanting to. In fact, it only fuelled the desire to do something about it.

I was rather used to getting my way. I was sure that wouldn’t matter to Sophie one bit, given how she’d already handed me my arse once.

That said, not even she could deny that there was a little something between us. A little fizzle, a spark, a tiny jolt of a connection that had been there from the second I’d deliberately nudged into her at the pub.

I wanted to see if that spark would come to anything bigger.

An explosion, perhaps.

Sophie swallowed, and her gaze flickered to my mouth before she took a step back and broke the contact between us. “We should get back before someone comes looking for us. We don’t really have an excuse to be this far out.”

“You’re right.” I cleared my throat and waited for her to leave, then closed the door behind me. Sunlight danced off the lake, and a ray of it glinted over Sophie’s face when she turned to look out at the water.

Shit.

I was in so much trouble with her.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN – SOPHIE

Wine + Hot Guy = Oopsie

“This is not a date,” I said to Caitlyn. “It’s a working dinner.”

She gave me an impish grin that made her eyes light up. “Does Hugo know that?”

“Yes. We’ve reached a truce.” That involved him cupping my chin and talking me off a ledge in a very romantic spot earlier today, but that wasn’t the point.

Actually, it kind of was the point, but I wasn’t going to share that little titbit with her.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it.

I hadn’t expected him to be so gentle with me. I’d almost expected him to tell me to stop whining and get on with it, I was in this situation because of my own choices, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

He hadn’t.

He’d cupped my chin with his stupidly gentle touch, looked me in the eye, and told me he’d help me however he could.

“I thought you two bickered every time he opened his mouth,” Cait asked, opening the bottle of wine. “Understandably.”

Very understandably. “We do, but I’m starting to think that’s just how we communicate.”

“It’s interesting.”

“What is?”

Cait put two wine glasses down in front of me. “You two. I thought for sure you’d never speak to him again after that first night, and he’s helping you. While you argue like an old-married couple.”

“Whoa, watch your mouth.”

“Can you really do this for another two weeks?”

I shrugged. I’d had to tell her—she was basically my only friend here. I didn’t know if she thought I was a friend, but I’d decided she was mine, so that was that. “I just need the party to go off without a hitch. Nothing else really matters aside from that.”

She shook her head. “You’re a damn good person, Soph. I don’t think I could do what you’re doing for my friends.”

“Cam’s more like my sister than anything. It’s a little thing, really.”

“It’s not. It’s a bloody big deal, and you’re too nice.”

She wouldn’t think that if she’d heard what was running through my mind last night and this morning.

“If you say so.” I smiled and picked up the bottle with the two empty glasses, then took them back to the table. We had a corner spot by the window that could seat four, which gave us enough room to lay everything out to work on it.

Hugo looked up from his phone. “That took you long enough.”

“Like you’d know. You were on your phone the entire time.” I set the bottle and glasses down on the table. “She’ll take our order in a few.”

“All right. What are we doing now?” He opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses, his a little smaller than mine. “Driving,” he reminded me.

Of course. He’d followed me to the cottage before he driven into the village—with a regular car, this time. Not the lorry.

I was very pleased about that.

“Finalise the seating plan,” I replied. “Did you speak to your mum?”

He nodded. “She’s back tomorrow at ten and wants a meeting with you at eleven.”

“Great.”

“I’ll be there. Don’t worry. Dad has a meeting with the builders for that cottage, and Henry will be at work.”

“What about your grandma?”

“She’ll probably crash it halfway through and tell us what’s wrong.” His lips twitched. “Her usual behaviour.”

“Well, better her than your mum. She scares me a little.”

He laughed quietly.

“Are we set on this plan?” I asked. “And ten-seat tables? That seems awfully large.”

Hugo switched immediately from laughter to business mode and leaned forwards. “Space-wise, it makes the most sense. There’s a lot of people coming, and the ballroom can only hold so many.”

“I feel as though I’m locked in a regency romance novel.”

He glanced at me, smirking. “Are you looking for romance, my lady?”

“Shut up and be serious.”

“I was.”

“Not very well,” I drawled. “Why can’t we do tables of eight and add a few more tables?”

“Routing,” he replied. “Do you have another one of these plans?”

I slid one out from under the main plan and set it on top. “I have about ten.”

“And you tell me you’re not organised.”

“I’m not. I washed my hair with conditioner this morning and had to take another shower.”

He grimaced. “It’s been a rough day for you, hasn’t it?”

It really, really had.

I nodded slowly and reached for my wine.

“All right.” He did some quick maths on his notepad, then held the sheet of paper with the seating plan up against the window with the blank side facing us. He quickly sketched out very rough tables and chairs using the light as a guide before he put the sheet back down in front of me. “Look at this routing. The more tables there are, the tougher it is for the serving team to navigate. Ten to a table isn’t so large that it’s overwhelming for them or it’s too hard for the guests to talk to one another. Remember that dinners like this are served to a military-style schedule. There’s a certain time for each course to be served, it’s all brought out in a certain order, and in a certain time frame.”

“Right. And larger tables mean less navigation even though it’s the same number of people?”

Hugo nodded. “You’re looking at Silver Service. Each server can carry a minimum of four plates at any one time. It’s not two plates per person which doubles the serving time.”

“It’s about bringing out the food, not the guests.”

“Essentially, yes. You want them fed as quickly as possible.”

“Right. Ten to a table it is,” I acquiesced. “But none of that answers the question of whether we’re happy with the seating plan.”

He chuckled and leaned forwards. “I think it’s about as good as it’s going to get. Relatives are sitting together, those who don’t get along are as far apart as we can make them, and honestly, dinner doesn’t last long enough to stop any issues that are going to arise from it.”

“That… isn’t scary at all.” I pulled the plan back to me. “All right, you know better than I do. So… that’s the cake, the seating plan, the invitations. Flowers need your mum’s approval, clothing is none of my business, and the menu also needs your mum to approve it.”

“Good luck with that,” Cait said, pulling her notepad out of her little apron. “I saw Evelyn today and she was adamant that she’d deliberately picked items from each menu to wind Anna up.”

I closed my eyes and nodded slowly. That was exactly what had happened. “Yeah, that about sums it up.”

Hugo sighed. “What are you eating?”

“My misery,” I muttered.

Cait snorted. “Sorry, we don’t serve that.”

“You should. I have plenty of it.” I opened the menu and scanned it. “I don’t know… bangers and mash.”

“You are very classy today, darling,” Cait said, writing it down. “Lord Hugo?”

He shot her a look. “Same for me.”

“Way to make your date feel good.”

“I’m not his date,” I bit out at the same time he sharply said, “She’s not my date.”

Cait took our menus with a wan smile and said, “The ladies doth protest too much.”

I glared after her. “Is she always like that?”

Hugo nodded slowly. “She needs to get laid.”

Didn’t we all?

“Does she know you think that?”

“No, I’m not stupid. I’m also not in the position to help her meet anyone because our target audience is not the same.”

I leaned back, laughing. “Oh, my God.”

“What?”

“You won’t be her wingman because the women she’s interested in are more interested in her than you?”

Hugo’s nostrils flared. “It sounds bad when you put it like that.”

“It sounds bad any way you put it.”

“Would you do it for your best friend?”

I raised my eyebrows. “One hundred percent. I have no issue being wingwoman for one of my friends no matter what their sexuality is.”

“So you’ll go out with Cait and get her laid?”

“Heck yeah. I’ll do it.”

Hugo rubbed his temple. “I’m not sure Moorhaven could handle that.”

I shrugged. “Send her to London. I don’t care. I’m literally here pretending to be my best friend to help her business. Going wherever Cait would need to go to meet someone seems like a small thing to do.”

“Christ. You really are a good person, aren’t you?”

“That, or you’re a raging bloody arsehole.”

Hugo paused. “Definitely the latter.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, stop it. You’re not that bad.”

“Was that a compliment I just heard?”

“Not exactly.” I put away the table plan and laid out the photos of the flowers. “I need to make sure these are ordered tomorrow. These are the ones your mum laid out as final, so please help me.”

Hugo pulled the pictures towards him. “Grandma will hate every single one of these.”

“I thought as much.”

“I suppose the most palatable for her would be the purple selection, but she’s going to complain no matter what.”

I grimaced, taking the photos back. “That’s what I’m afraid of. I can either please your mother or your grandmother. I cannot do both.”

Hugo chuckled. “Oh, no, munchkin. You’re mistaken. You cannot please my mother.”

“This is not helping.”

“I know. I’m a realist, though.”

“Funnily enough, I’d figured out that pleasing your mother is nigh on impossible,” I said, marking the photo with the purple floral display with an X.

Funnily enough, that had been Evelyn’s first choice, albeit begrudgingly. Perhaps there was hope for me after all.

You know.

As long as Camilla didn’t show up.

I was going to have to come up with a little something to convince her not to come down here when she got back. Maybe a few extra days in Norway.

After all, what would two more be at this point?

That was bitchy of me.

Sigh.

“Here we go.” Caitlyn approached the table with two plates of food. “Put your work away, team. Here’s your dinner.”

Thank God.

I was starving. It’d been the longest day, and I was ready to eat my body weight in sausage and mashed potato. The fact there was gravy was even better.

“Can I get you anything else?”

Hugo shook his head. “I’m good, thanks.”

“Same here.” I tucked the last of the papers away so we had enough room to eat, then put the bag on the floor by my feet. “Thanks, Cait.”

“Anytime.” Cait winked at me and left.

Hugo peered over at me. “She thinks this is a date, doesn’t she?”

“She’s sorely mistaken,” I assured him, picking up my glass of wine. “This could not be anything further from a date.”

***

“You’re right. This isn’t even close to a date,” Hugo said, unlocking the door of my cottage.

I sighed, leaning against him. “I might have had a worse day than I thought.”

“Sophie, you drank one and a half bottles of wine pretty much by yourself. You’re going to have a worse one tomorrow.”

“Impossible,” I mumbled, looking at the floor so I didn’t trip on the step.

Ha!

I remembered there was a step into the door.

Who said I was drunk?

Hugo was dumb.

All the handsome men were. Dumb, liars, or cheaters.

Whoops.

This was why I didn’t usually drink that much wine. Old wounds reopening and all that.

“Then again, Cait finishing work early and joining you in your misery fest probably didn’t help matters,” Hugo continued, lowering me down onto the sofa. “Do you have any painkillers here?”

“Ibuprofen. In the bathroom. In the toiletries bag by the sink.” I paused. “I think.”

He rolled his eyes and walked down the hall to the bathroom, and the sound of him rummaging through my toiletries bag preceded his swift return with a box of Ibuprofen. He tossed it to me and went into the kitchen while I fumbled around with the blister pack to pop two pills out.

Sober Hugo was much smarter than Drunk Sophie.

That wasn’t hard, to be honest.

Drunk Sophie was really stupid. Then again, Sober Sophie couldn’t be all that smart—it was her actions that got me into this situation.

I had to stop talking about myself in third person.

“Here. Drink this.” Hugo handed me a large glass of cold water, and I started by throwing the Ibuprofen back, then drank the entire glass in one go.

It wasn’t the most elegant thing I’d ever done.

“Are you all right?” Hugo’s lips twitched.

“Fine.” I grimaced. “Sorry. I bet this isn’t how you planned your night to go.”

“Helping two drunk twenty-something year old women into their houses at the end of a night while I’m totally sober? Believe it or not, it’s not the first time that’s happened.” He sat down next to me and peered over at me. “Although you two were far more amusing.”

“I don’t know how I feel about that,” I muttered. “Oh, God, I am going to want to die tomorrow. And I have to have a meeting with your mother.” I buried my head in my hands.

“Not to mention the fact that I left with both you and Cait will likely be the talk of the village by lunchtime. Actually, make that breakfast.”

“Hugo. That is not helping.”

“You aren’t even going to remember this in the morning.”

I sat back up and looked at him, pointing. “I am not that drunk. I will, unfortunately, remember this.” I paused. “Probably.”

He smiled. “You sure?”

“Not at all. It’s all bravado.” I sighed, leaning my head back.

“If you’re all right, I’m going to head home.” Hugo pushed off the sofa.

I nodded and stood with him. “I’m good, thank you.” I followed him to the front door. “Hugo?”

“Hm?” He turned back to me.

“Thank you for making sure I got home safely.” I leaned against the wall, biting the inside of my lower lip. “And, um, I’m glad we were able to clear the air a little earlier.”

He raised his eyebrows, and the hint of amusement that flashed through his eyes manifested with a quirk of his lips. “Me, too, munchkin. Come here.” He pulled me into him and wrapped his arms around me.

Oh.

“Don’t tell anyone I hugged you. I’m not a hugger,” he muttered into my ear as I circled his waist with my arms.

“I’m not promising anything,” I mumbled against his very firm chest.

“That’s fine. I’ll just tell you tomorrow that you promised not to.” He pulled back and looked down at me, lips curling to the side. “If you even remember that I hugged you in the first place.”

“I doubt I’ll forget this.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” Stupid Sophie. I cleared my throat and glanced away. When my gaze met his again, my fingers twitched against his back. He knew exactly what I’d said, and I knew in that moment I’d never live it down.

Maybe that was why I rolled onto my tiptoes and kissed him.

His lips were soft and warm, and this was very, very wrong.

I shoved myself away from him and cupped my hands over my nose and mouth.

No, no, no, no.

Why had I done that?

Wine!

That was why.

Stupid wine.

Stupid Hugo.

Stupid belly butterflies whenever he was around.

Hugo stared at me, and I gripped onto the handle of the door I was backed up against, keeping one hand pressed over the lower half of my face.

“Sophie—”

“Please leave.”

He raised his hand as if he were about to say something, then sighed. He jerked his chin in a silent agreement and turned around, pulling the cottage door open. He left without another word and pulled it closed again behind him with a thump that was just a little too loud, and I dropped down, crouching against the door.

I was so stupid.

So, so stupid.

What the hell had I kissed him for?

What on Earth had possessed me to think that was a good idea? That it’d been the right thing to do? That he even wanted me to kiss him?

I doubted it was the first time Hugo had been in a situation where a drunk girl kissed him without his say so, but that wasn’t who I was. I didn’t do that stuff. I didn’t get drunk and kiss random men, much less men who were in line for a dukedom.

I was a farmer’s granddaughter from Norfolk who’d failed in everything she’d ever tried to do, and he was heir to an ancient dukedom who seemed to have his shit together.

And I was working for his family.

Under someone else’s name.

I let my bum hit the ground and rested my head back against the door.

How the hell was I going to face him tomorrow?

CHAPTER SIXTEEN – HUGO

Bad Decisions

I leaned over my cup of tea and stared into the liquid. It swirled around a few times before settling to a stop with little bubbles in the centre.

That felt like my brain.

Except it hadn’t bloody stopped since I’d walked out of Bluebell Cottage last night.

Sophie had had a lot to drink. She wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t exactly in full control of her actions. There was no way she would have kissed me if she were completely sober, and I knew that to be one hundred percent correct.

That was why I’d left when she’d told me to.

It didn’t matter that her one gentle press of her lips to mine had set a fire raging through me in a way I didn’t understand.

It didn’t matter that all I wanted to do was drag her back against me and kiss her until her knees gave out.

She’d been drinking.

She wasn’t in a clear state of mind.

I wasn’t, for a single second, going to do anything that would take advantage of her in that state. That wasn’t who I was.

I didn’t even know if she would remember it all this morning. Given the look of horror in her eyes when I’d left, I’d assume she’d sobered up pretty swiftly after she’d kissed me.

Her meeting with Mum was in thirty minutes, and I didn’t know how she was going to react to me this morning. I’d tried to text her a thousand times to see how she was, but every message sounded stupid.

There was no way to ask her if she remembered what had happened the night before.

In hindsight, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have hugged her. I hadn’t lied when I said to her that I wasn’t a hugger—it just wasn’t something I did a lot of, but something had compelled me to pull her against me the way I had.

If I hadn’t done that, maybe she wouldn’t have listened to the wine and kissed me.

Fuck, who was I kidding?

It didn’t matter what I told myself. Maybe it would have happened anyway at some point. Fucking God only knew how badly I was attracted to her, and if I wanted her before, I was on my bloody knees begging for her now.

That one kiss, that one fucking light little touch, had made me crave her.

And the way she’d looked at me as I’d left didn’t give me much hope that it was a craving that would ever be fulfilled.

“You look like shit.”

I looked up at my brother as he walked past me to the kettle. “Good morning to you, too.”

“Late night?”

“Weird night,” I muttered.

“Yeah, there are rumours.”

I covered my face with my hand. “I can guarantee none of them are true.”

“So you didn’t leave the pub with Cait and Sophie?”

“That’s true, but I bet nothing else after it is.”

Grandma hobbled in and looked at me. “You’re a slut, Hugo.”

I looked from her to Henry and said, “Absolutely none of it after that is true.”

“Two women!” Grandma said, her stick clinking against the floor. “Back in my day, that never would have happened.”

“It didn’t happen,” I said dryly.

“You left the bar with Caitlyn and Camilla!” She sniffed. “Charles could never.”

I was not going down that route of discussion.

“Camilla and I had a working dinner,” I said. “We were finalising some stuff before her meeting with Mum this morning, and after we got done, Cait finished work and they both had some wine.”

Grandma eyed me.

“I hadn’t even had a whole glass, so I drove them both home. Kellie took Caitlyn in, and I stopped in at Camilla’s to make sure she drank water and took some ibuprofen, then I left when I knew she was all right.” I rubbed my hand down my face. “I swear. That’s all that happened.”

Theoretically.

They didn’t need to know the rest.

“I’m sure,” Grandma said, turning to Henry. “Do you believe him?”

“He doesn’t have a reason to lie, does he?” Henry shrugged. “I don’t think he’s so stupid as to start something illicit with someone who’s working for us, either.”

Debatable.

It was nice to know he had some sort of faith in me.

“If I were young and single, I’d sleep with Camilla,” Grandma said, moving Henry out of the way so she could make her tea.

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” I said, even though I couldn’t blame her.

“You missed out male,” Henry replied, pouring milk into his mug.

Grandma looked at him and deadpanned, “Who said I’d need a penis?”

Well.

That was a valid point.

My brother shook his head and sat down at the island. “Was she that drunk?” he asked me.

“No,” I replied with a little jerk of my head side to side. “But she’d had enough that there was no way I was comfortable letting her take herself home. They were a bit merry, that’s all.”

Very merry.

Enough to make bad decisions as far as Sophie was concerned.

“I’m miffed I wasn’t invited.” Grandma finished making her tea and poured a cup. “Where is Rupert? Why isn’t he pouring my tea?”

“He’s getting the drawing room ready for Mum’s meeting,” Henry said. “Mum’s faffing because she hasn’t been involved every step of the way, so I think Camilla’s in for a rough time.”

That was exactly what Sophie needed.

Mum in micromanage mode.

“I suppose I should make sure I’m there,” I replied, finally picking up my tea.

It was lukewarm.

Gross.

Henry eyed me. “Why would you need to be there?”

“Yes, Hugo.” Grandma grinned. “Why would you need to be there?”

The questions were asked in very different tones.

My brother’s was a sharp one that told me he didn’t like that I was offering my help, which meant he was clearly interested in Sophie.

Grandma was just her being her—insinuating there was something there.

Which was probably to equally rile both me and Henry.

“I helped her make some of those choice,” I replied, getting up. “And someone has to be there to talk Mum off the ledge when she sees Grandma’s meal, and we all know it won’t be Grandma.”

The woman in question cackled.

“My point,” I said, pouring my lukewarm tea down the sink and setting the mug on top of a dirty plate next to it. “Feel free to join me, Henry.”

“I’ll catch up with her after,” he grumbled.

Grandma’s eyes narrowed. “Are you interested in her?”

Henry scoffed.

“That didn’t sound like a no to me, boy.”

“She’s attractive,” he said vaguely.

“She also works for us,” I replied gently, looking at him pointedly. “It’s not a good idea, and you know that.”

Because she was not Camilla, like everyone else thought she was.

That was opening a can of worms.

It was also why I knew that kissing her was a terrible idea.

Sophie was absolutely the kind of woman one could fall in love with if they weren’t paying attention.

I didn’t need to deal with that.

Henry glared at me. “Anyone would think that you’re interested in her.”

“Oh, stop being so bloody childish,” Grandma snapped, shoving sugar into her cup with vigour. “The pair of you are bickering over that woman like she’s the last crème egg in July. You sound frigging ridiculous, and if you continue, I shall bang your heads together like the rocks they are.”

I wasn’t fighting over her.

Given that she’d kissed me, I thought I was rather doing my brother a favour by reminding him it wasn’t a good idea to pursue her.

Not that I could tell him that. I wasn’t sure he would appreciate it.

We all turned towards the door at the sound of Rupert and Sophie talking. Had it already been thirty minutes? Or had she somehow managed to wrangle enough sanity to show up early?

“That’ll be my cue,” I said, walking in that direction.

Henry muttered something, but I didn’t hear it. It didn’t behove me at all to respond to him either way, so I brushed it off and followed Rupert and Sophie to the drawing room.

“Your Grace, Miss Hopkins is here to see you,” Rupert said, stepping aside.

“Ah, Rupert, thank you. Do come in, Miss Hopkins,” Mum responded. “I’m looking forwards to hearing your progress on the arrangements.”

“Of course, Your Grace,” Sophie replied without a hint of nerves. “It’s been… a journey.”

I caught Rupert’s eye and approached.

“Lord Hugo for you, Your Ladyship.”

Mum looked over at me. “What is it? I’m busy.”

“I’ve been assisting with the arrangements,” I said smoothly. “Perhaps I could join.”

Mum glanced at Sophie, then shrugged one shoulder. “Come and sit down, then, darling.”

I slipped into the room and sat down to the side in one of the armchairs and looked at Sophie. She was studiously avoiding my gaze, and I couldn’t help but greet her with a, “Good morning, Miss Hopkins.”

Sophie swallowed and offered me the briefest of glances. “Lord Hugo. Good morning.” She cleared her throat and pulled a sheet of paper out of her folder, which she handed to Mum. “The cake has been ordered and confirmed with Kellie after a minor miscommunication,” Sophie said, looking serenely at her.

She didn’t look hungover in the slightest.

I was impressed.

“Miscommunication?” Mum asked. “Wasn’t she your first point of contact?”

“Unfortunately not,” Sophie replied. “I only had the information for the bakery and had originally booked it with Alice, but Lord Hugo informed me otherwise and introduced me to Kellie.” She adjusted some papers. “This is the final design we came up during the meeting, and I cancelled the original booking with Alice and took full responsibility for the hiccup.”

Mum’s brows briefly pulled together before she schooled her expression into one of interest. “These things do happen. As long as it’s righted.” She examined the paper. “This is a beautiful cake.”

“Kellie said you can contact her with any changes.”

She shook her head. “None for this. I trust her implicitly. What else have you achieved during my absence?”

“The guest list was finalised, and invitations sent out. This is a copy of the seating plan for dinner that Lord Hugo and I worked on.” Sophie gave her another sheet of paper. “Amendments can be made, of course, but he assured me this is a suitable plan.”

“Mhmm.” Mum set it down. “I’ll look that over later today. What of the menu?”

Sophie took a deep breath. “That was… difficult.”

“What was difficult? Evelyn had to choose between four different set menus.”

“She made her own,” I said, interjecting so I’d be the one to take the heat. “Grandma didn’t like any of the menus, so she created her own.”

Mum’s nostrils flared. “That wasn’t the deal.” She looked at Sophie. “Could you not talk her into one of the approved menus?”

Sophie shook her head.

“She was with her for four hours,” I said calmly. “Grandma was particularly stubborn about this. She’s to hold no blame for Grandma’s behaviour regarding it. She even told her that there was little to no chance her menu would be approved.”

Mum shifted uncomfortably and rolled one of her shoulders. “Show me it.”

Sophie handed it over.

Mum scanned it. “Absolutely not. This is all four of the menus put together, and she’s added her own dessert. The chefs simply cannot do this at such short notice.”

“I did explain that,” Sophie said, fidgeting. “But she wouldn’t listen and insisted upon this.”

“Absolutely not.” Mum shook her head. “I cannot have these menus changed this close to the event. What version went to the guests for the RSVP? We were already unacceptably late sending that out due to the delayed decision about the party.”

I looked at Sophie.

All the colour had drained from her face.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “After we confirmed the guest list and the design, I didn’t see them again.”

Mum tilted her head to the side, inclining it slightly in interest, then turned to me. “Hugo?”

I nodded in agreement. “I didn’t see it, either. Whoever is on the seating plan is the final invitations, with the exception of The Countess of Anglesey.”

“She just gave birth, did she not?”

“Yes. I believe Matthew will bring his mother in Eva’s place if she doesn’t feel up to travelling.”

“Understandable.” Mum let out a rather stressed breath and looked at Sophie. “I’ll confirm the menu designation. That will have to be the one regardless of what my mother-in-law chose.”

“No bloody menu went out,” Grandma said, joining the meeting. “I told that fancy pain in the arse of yours that it’ll be ordered on the day.”

Oh, Jesus.

Mum snapped her head around to look at Sophie again. “Were you aware of this?”

“No, Your Grace,” Sophie replied, looking more than a little terrified. “I handed the guest list and invitations to Nancy and that was the last I had control of, per my emails with Nancy.”

Mum pinched the bridge of her nose. “Menu three needs to be distributed to the guests as a matter of urgency.”

Sophie scribbled that down. “I don’t have the contact details for them.”

“Whyever not?”

“I was never given them.”

“You should have been!”

“I don’t have them.”

This was going awfully.

“Mum,” I said, breaking into the back and forth. “It’s quite clear that she wasn’t given that information. Nancy handled the invitations. Perhaps Nancy should be the one you have this conversation with.”

She snapped her head to the side and glared at me. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that Nancy was responsible for the invitations being sent and any questions about that should be directed to her,” I replied, carefully choosing my words. “If Camilla knew, she’d have told you by now, don’t you think?”

Mum adjusted the collar of her dress and turned around. “Of course. Now, talk me through the rest. I want to see the flowers, the decorations, and all the transportation arrangements. We can discuss the rest tomorrow.”

Sophie ducked her head and swallowed.

Jesus Christ.

My mother was eating her alive.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – SOPHIE

Absolutely Not

I was dying.

This had to be what death felt like—the world swirled before you, your head thundered, your heart pounded, and it was almost as if you were about to explode right there and then.

Three hours.

Three hours of listening to the duchess nit-pick and tear apart everything I’d worked on for the last few days, and I couldn’t even offload that angst to anyone.

I had to give credit to Hugo. He’d stepped in and defended me against every viable criticism as much as he could, but his mother was honestly such a Type-A personality that there was no way she wasn’t going to micromanage the rest of this party, and that was such a vast contrast to my own…

Well.

Not Type-A personality.

I also knew she didn’t believe our assertations that Nancy had taken control over some things that hadn’t been shared with me.

If I’d thought it would be hard before, today had absolutely shown me how impossible my job was going to be from now.

Nancy was someone I needed on-side, but that ship had sailed halfway across the world and gone into orbit. There was no way she was going to help me, and I truly believed she thought she had it all under control. She was absolutely going to make my life hell and try and make this fail for her own goals.

It was my word against hers, even with Hugo factored in.

I didn’t see how, professionally, his mother could side with us. Nancy was her right-hand woman, after all, and I was sure she trusted her more than almost anyone else.

Which was my biggest fear.

Nancy knew my secret—that I wasn’t Camilla. I was sure it wouldn’t benefit her to reveal that information any more than it would me, which was almost worse.

It meant I was in an unpredictable situation.

But… so was Nancy, technically. After all, all I needed was to check Camilla’s email and find the one where she’d told her that I would be coming, and it would blow a hole in any assertion that she didn’t know.

Not that it made it better.

It was still going to be one’s word against the other.

Talk about a Mexican stand-off.

I did know that I wanted to get the hell out of Cavendish House before Hugo found me again. He’d been dragged away by his father a few minutes before the end of my meeting with the duchess, and I was more than ready to be done today.

My head hurt—actual stress headache, not a hangover—and I needed another hot shower to clear my head.

Like I didn’t have enough rambling through my mind right now, I also had this shit with all the things Her Grace thought were wrong.

If only she knew that I’d been thinking about the fact I’d kissed her son a little over twelve hours ago.

Sure, I’d been naïve to assume that Hugo wouldn’t be here this morning, but a girl could hope.

My next naïve hope was that I could leave without him trying to speak to me.

I knew he would. My misplaced kiss last night had taken him by surprise. I knew that much, and I’d demanded he leave the second I’d realised what Drunk Sophie had done.

I wanted to believe that he would think I had no recollection of that little mishap, but Hugo was too smart for that.

He was going to want to talk to me.

I was going to have to talk to him eventually—I just didn’t want that to be today.

I finished gathering the last of my party things into the bag and zipped it up. I was going to go back to the cottage, curl up into a ball in the shower, and avoid everything I needed to do.

I also needed to order some clothes.

I’d only bought enough for a few days, and I was running out of things to wear. Thank God for next day delivery, that was all I could say.

I was wasting electricity and water having to run the washing machine without a full load. I was this-close to raiding Nora’s cupboards and freshening up her towels just to justify washing my knickers.

It was a sad state of affairs.

“Can we talk?”

I jerked up to standing and looked at Hugo. “I can’t. I have too much to do to fix all this.” I slung the backpack over my shoulder, grabbed the folder, and headed towards the door where he was.

“Sophie,” he said softly, holding his arm out so I couldn’t pass.

“Please let me past you,” I replied.

“We need to talk.”

“I’m too busy to talk to you right now. Please respect that and let me do my job.”

Hugo sighed heavily and dropped his arm.

“Thank you.”

“You can’t run from this conversation forever,” he said in a low voice. “You’re going to have to speak to me sooner or later.”

I looked up at him with a sharp glare. “Then I choose later,” I snapped, pushing past him into the hallway so I could leave as soon as possible.

I was a little surprised he didn’t follow me outside, but I was relieved. Even if a part of me wishes he had followed me to my car—then I could be angry that he wouldn’t leave me alone.

On the other hand, him respecting my wishes just endeared him to me a little bit.

Endearing was not anything I needed Hugo Devon to be.

I got into my car and backed up, pulling away from Cavendish House. I’d largely made it out unscathed, but that didn’t mean that wouldn’t change at some point over the next several days as the party got closer.

This really had been left to the last minute, and I didn’t know how successful it would be even if I were Camilla.

I really wanted to make this a success—for Camilla, for me, for Evelyn, too. Especially Evelyn. I knew she didn’t want a fuss made and was completely against it, but I wanted her to enjoy herself if she could regardless of if she wanted it or not.

It was no easy task.

Harder now I’d crossed the line with Hugo.

I pulled up outside the cottage and went inside. At least it was quiet here. Only the sounds of the countryside permeated the walls of the old cottage, and I was slowly becoming used to it. The sheep and cows in the surrounding fields were already nothing more than a low hum in the background, almost like white noise, and the birds were quickly drowned out by things like the shower or the kettle or the TV.

I took myself to the bathroom and spent the next fifteen minutes in the shower feeling sorry for myself. I needed to buck my ideas up and pull myself together if I was going to make a success of this, and I was sorry that I needed help.

I didn’t want help.

I was feeling more and more out of my depth as this thing went on.

Oh, yeah.

Pulling myself together was going well.

Not.

After showering, I changed into the only pair of jogging bottoms I had with me—that might have been clean, I wasn’t even sure anymore—and headed into the kitchen for some food. Naturally, I chose the healthiest option of a giant bag of crisps that supposedly had multiple servings.

What a joke.

That was one serving.

We all knew it.

I set the party things out on the dining table and looked at it all.

Where to start?

A knock at the door interrupted my train of thought. All right, it hadn’t left the station yet, but whatever.

“Who is it?” I shouted, moving hesitantly towards it.

If it was Hugo, I was going to lock the damn thing.

“Henry.”

Oh.

He was fine.

“It’s open,” I called out.

He cracked the door open. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

He closed it behind him and walked over to me. “Are you all right? Grandma said Mum was pretty hard on you and I wanted to check in.”

I grimaced. “It was rough. I didn’t have all the information I should have, and she wasn’t happy with your Grandma’s changes.”

“Yeah, she kind of yelled at Mum a bit about that. Saying it was her party but she had no say in it. They both asked Hugo to back them up, and he said he wasn’t getting involved, so now Mum and Grandma aren’t talking to each other or him.”

“That seems like a good outcome for everyone, honestly.”

“Pretty much. Is there anything I can do to help you?” Henry looked at the table. “That looks like a lot.”

“It’s a lot of phone calls,” I replied slowly. “But if you have nothing else to do, I’m sure there’s something here in your mother’s long list of endless modifications.”

His lips twitched warmly. “All right. Hit me with it, Sophie. Let’s get to it.”

***

“The chef?”

“Check,” I replied. “Called the team, clarified the menu with a change to the dessert, and received the new menu in return.”

“Emailed to all the invited guests?” Henry questioned.

I nodded. “Or their household point of contact. With a note of apology for the lack of menu included with the invitation due to an oversight.”

A staffing oversight.

You better believe I was blaming Nancy for that.

“They’ve also been given seventy-two hours to RSVP with their choice of food for each attending guest which they can do either by post or email. Physical responses are to be addressed to Camilla Hopkins at Cavendish House.”

“Bingo. Then you have all the answers you need.”

“Exactly. That was a good idea. Thanks.” I smiled at Henry. “Keep going.”

“Meeting with Mum and Grandma to clear the air about the menu?”

“I’m not going to call Nancy; I’m going to arrive tomorrow morning at the usual time and get them then. With the chef’s approval, the menu is final.”

“Perfect. Nancy seems to be your weak link, doesn’t she?” Henry looked at me curiously. “Have you noticed that?”

I hadn’t explained the situation to him the way I had with Hugo—just that there’d been a few miscommunications. “Yeah. Honestly, we just don’t really click like that. The menu chat is so quick and easy it can be had in the hallway if necessary. It doesn’t really require scheduling anyway.”

“All right. And the alcohol?”

“I will arrange with Rupert tomorrow to search the cellar and sort out the wine menu with him as he’s a trained connoisseur.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “This is a lot of information to remember.”

“But you’ve got this, Sophie.” He reached over and touched my arm. “I know you think you’re not doing a good job, but this isn’t your job.”

I smiled at him, letting my eyes open. “Thank you. But I couldn’t have done this without you. Or Hugo,” I added, slightly begrudgingly.

“I think you could.” Henry pushed the paper back to me. “You’ve got enough here to assure my mother that you have everything under control.”

“Thank you. I hope so.”

“I think she and Dad are going out for dinner somewhere tonight, but if I see her, I’ll let her know you want to discuss the menu with her in the morning so to keep ten minutes for you.”

Ugh. He was so nice.

If nothing else, maybe I’d leave Moorhaven with a couple of friends more than I’d had when I’d arrived.

“It’s getting on a bit.” Henry checked his watch. “Nearly six. Do you want to go out and grab some dinner somewhere?”

I shook my head. “No, I think I’ll cook something here. It’s been a really long day, and I made a very bad choice regarding some Sauvignon Blanc last night.”

Yeah. Just one.

His face dropped a little bit, and a shiver of guilt went through me.

Had he… just asked me out?

“I’m sorry,” I said, wringing my hands together as we both stood up. “I just really need some time alone.”

He waved his hand. “It’s fine. I’ll grab something to take home with me. I was just wondering, given that your lunch was a giant bag of salt and vinegar crisps.”

“Wow. Are you judging me?” I teased, walking him to the door.

He laughed and opened it. “No shame, but I’m definitely more of a cheese and onion guy.”

“Ugh.”

“You sure you don’t want anything? I can drop something off for you.”

“No, I’m fine, thank you. I should really eat a salad or something. I’ve eaten nothing but pub food for the last few days.”

He chuckled. “All right. Let me know if you change your mind.”

“I will. Thank you. And for your help. I really appreciate it.”

“Anytime.” He winked and walked through the front garden, pausing at the gate to wave goodbye.

I waved to him and headed back inside. We had gotten a lot done, and what we’d achieved were the things that the duchess was most concerned about.

Yet it felt like I’d made no progress at all.

With a sigh, I walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge door. I’d told Henry I was going to make a salad, but honestly, a sandwich was so much easier.

Three knocks sounded at the door, and I dropped my head back with a small groan. If that was Henry again, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t go out with him for dinner because I’d drunk-kissed his brother last night and that was all kinds of wrong.

I was most definitely not that type of girl.

I’d read enough romance novels to know that shit ended in tears. Usually the heroines.

I didn’t want to cry, thank you very much.

I shut the fridge and walked through the cottage to the front door. “Henry, I—” I stopped. “You aren’t Henry.”

“We don’t look that similar,” Hugo drawled. “Were you expecting him?”

“I wasn’t expecting you,” I shot back. “And no. He left a few minutes ago, and I thought he was back for something.”

“Wonderful. Can we talk?”

“I’d prefer we didn’t. Also, I haven’t eaten dinner yet, so it’s never a good idea to talk on an empty stomach.” Not to me, anyway.

I went to close the door, but Hugo stepped into the doorway.

“Do you mind?” I said, shoving it into him.

“Do I mind you shoving the door into me? Not really. You’re not terribly strong,” he answered. “Do I mind you deliberately avoiding me instead of discussing what happened like the adults we are? Very much so.”

I stopped trying to cut off his shoulder with the door. “I don’t see that there’s much to discuss,” I said honestly. “I had too much wine and made a terrible error in judgement. It was a mistake, and it never should have happened. Thank you for listening. Goodbye.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” He wedged himself further between the door and the wall. “Must you squish me entirely before you realise I’m not going away?”

“I don’t know. Seems like a win for me. If I squish you, I won’t have to listen to you.”

“You’ll attempt to murder me just so you don’t have to talk to me?”

“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but you’re the one shoving yourself in my doorway, are you not? I think murdering intruders is a perfectly valid thing to do.”

“Intruder is a strong word.”

“Have I invited you in?”

“No.”

“Have I asked you to leave?”

“Too many times.”

“Then you, Lord Hugo, are an intruder. So kindly fuck off.”

He gripped the edge of the door, fighting a smile. “Sophie. I just want to talk to you about what happened last night.”

Jesus Christ, this man was relentless.

Was it a familial trait?

“I’ve already dealt with one impossible member of your family today. I don’t want to make it two.”

“Only one?” he asked, eyebrows raising. “Then you’ve had a good day. Also, I take offense to you describing me as impossible but not my brother.”

“Your brother is far more tolerable than you are.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – SOPHIE

Lies & Other Things I Tell Myself (And Hugo)

“I disagree.” He snorted. “Sophie, listen to me. It’s all right. I know it didn’t mean anything because you’d had a bit too much wine. It’s one of those things, and you don’t need to avoid me.”

“Oh, bloody hell. Come in before you tell the entire village.” I begrudgingly let go of the door and walked inside, folding my arms across my chest.

“God. That door hurts.” Hugo rubbed his chest, following me into the kitchen.

“You’re the one who stood there,” I shot back. “I am only going to have this conversation with you once, so listen up and listen good.”

He held his hands up.

“It meant nothing,” I said firmly, meeting his eyes. “It was nothing but a drunken mistake done in the heat of the moment. I was embarrassed when it happened, but I’m over it, and I’d like for you to give it a rest now.”

Hugo nodded slowly. “Understood.”

“As long as that’s clear.”

“Crystal clear.”

“Good.” I swallowed. “And, for the record, I do not and will not harbour any desire to kiss you.”

“Brilliant,” Hugo said, nodding. “I have absolutely no desire to kiss you, either. As long as we’re clear on that.”

“We are. Crystal.” I shifted uncomfortably to lean against the wall. “Good.”

“Wonderful.”

“Fine.”

“Great.”

“Okay.” I sniffed and looked away, casting my gaze on any part of the room except the space he was in.

I was glad we’d cleared that up. It certainly made things easier if we knew where we stood after last night’s little mishap.

“I’ll be off, then,” Hugo said, putting his hands in his pockets.

“If that’s all, then yes. Carry on. Cheerio.”

“Right. Will do.” He shuffled towards the door. “Glad we cleared that up.”

“Yep. Me, too.”

I didn’t move, and neither did he.

Why wasn’t he leaving?

Did he know I was lying through my teeth?

I did, in fact, want to kiss him. Very much.

I was harbouring a great deal of desire as far as kissing Hugo went.

Hugo turned around and walked out of the kitchen.

Thank God.

He was going.

I couldn’t keep this up any longer. The longer he stood in front of me, the more I thought I was going to let it slip that I did, actually, want to kiss him.

That would be disastrous, because—

“Fuck it.”

I turned at Hugo’s words, just in time to see him stalking back in my direction. I inhaled sharply when he grabbed my hand and pulled me towards him, then cupped my face and pressed his lips to mine.

Oh, my God.

I wrapped my fingers around his arms and leant into him. This was a real kiss, and boy, did I know it. Every part of me was slowly coming alive as Hugo’s lips moved swiftly across mine. His teeth gently nipped at my lower lip, and I stepped against him, sliding my hands up his arms and around to his chest.

My fingers twitched, curling into the material of his t-shirt and clasping it tightly. My heart was positively thundering against my ribs as the kiss deepened and a tingle ran down my spine.

I was so glad he’d changed his mind.

I might regret this in the morning, but for now, I was going to bathe in the utter dreaminess of being kissed by Hugo.

I didn’t want him to stop.

At all.

I wanted him to stay here with his palms against my cheeks and his lips moving against mine like there was nothing else in the world he had to do.

Hugo pulled back, brushing his nose against mine. “Sophie, we need—”

“Shut up,” I breathed, yanking him back to me. I stepped back as I did, and I was flat against the wall as our lips came together one more time.

He clearly abandoned whatever it was he was going to say, because he deftly slid his hands down my body to my waist and pulled my hips against his. I rested my hands at the sides of his neck and let him kiss me until I couldn’t breathe anymore.

Until there was nothing but the feel of his hands on my body, his mouth on mine, and the complete and utter obliteration of anything that existed outside of us right now.

I’d never been kissed like this.

I’d never wanted to be kissed like this.

I didn’t know if anyone other than Hugo could do this to me.

And that pissed me off.

Every part of me wanted this man right now, and it irritated me to no end.

“Sophie.” Hugo’s fingers dug into my hips, and he pulled back so there was just enough of a separation to our lips. “I have to go.”

“What?” I forced my eyes open and met his gaze. “Did I do—”

“Don’t finish that,” he warned me, pressing a thumb to my mouth to stop me talking. “Don’t you dare.”

I shut up.

“I have to go because I don’t have a condom with me, and if you keep fucking kissing me like that, I’m going to need one.”

I swallowed. “I don’t have any.”

“There we are, then.” His lips twitched to one side. “Believe it or not, I didn’t come here with the intention to do this.”

“You did, though.”

“Yes, I did. I wanted to.” He dipped his head so our lips were the tiniest breath of air apart. “I’ve wanted to kiss you like that since the moment I met you, so don’t assume that was a heat of the moment thing. It wasn’t.”

“I’m not mad about it,” I whispered, my eyes fluttering shut.

“I figured that when you dragged me back to you.”

“Shut up.”

He chuckled and slowly brushed his lips over mine. “I am only leaving because neither of us are prepared for this.”

“I know.” I nodded, slowly running my hands down his chest. “It’s probably a good idea anyway.”

“For now.” He pulled back to meet my eyes. “We aren’t done here, Sophie.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Hugo.”

“I’m not.” He kissed me once more before releasing me and stepping back with a not-so-smooth adjustment to his jeans. “That’s one I most definitely intend to follow up on.”

“We’ll see.”

“Not when you’re on your knees with your eyes closed and screaming my name.” Hugo yanked me back towards him and swallowed my response with one firm kiss. He released me just as quickly as he’d grabbed me and turned away, heading down the hallway to the front door.

He left without so much as a look back at me, and I sagged back against the wall.

Well.

Shit.

I didn’t see that coming.

Was it too soon for another shower?

***

I stared at Cavendish House.

I was borderline ready to turn around and leave this place. My stomach flipped at the thought of seeing Hugo, and I knew he’d likely insert himself into the meeting with his mother.

It was ridiculous.

It wasn’t like there was anything between us, emotionally speaking. At least I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. He’d never given me anything to believe that was true, and I was almost entirely certain that I felt the same.

Did I even like Hugo?

Or did I just want him to fuck my brains out?

The jury was still out on that one.

It was a terrible decision to sleep together, all things considered. It didn’t matter if it was only for one night or not. Bad decisions were bad decisions, and that was all there really was to it.

Was that going to stop me?

Absolutely fucking not.

If the man could kiss that well, what else was he capable of? He’d rocked my world just by kissing me, so if he was given more time…

I did not need to be thinking about that as I got out of my car.

I had to focus on delivering all the information necessary to Evelyn and the duchess.

That was obviously why I leaned against my car and didn’t move at all.

I was intimidated by the duchess.

Evelyn was as scary as a gust of wind, but Hugo’s mum…

It felt weird to call her Anna.

Anna was so personal and informal, and she’d never been either of those things with me.

The duchess scared the shit out of me.

I imagined she did that to a lot of people.

The front doors to Cavendish House opened, and Rupert stepped out.

Uh-oh.

I bit my lower lip as he walked over to me.

“Miss Hopkins, are you quite all right?” he asked, stopping a few feet away from me. “You’ve been standing out here for a while, and I thought it might be best to check on you.”

Oh.

I loved Rupert.

I briefly dropped my chin and smiled before I met his eyes. “Oh, yes, thank you. It’s a lovely day, and I was enjoying a few minutes of peace before I came inside. I’m sorry if I worried you.”

“Not at all, my dear. Is there anything I can do to help you since I’m here?”

“No, thank you. I only have the one bag today.”

“Was Lord Henry a help to you yesterday?”

I paused. “I’m sorry?”

“Lord Henry,” Rupert said, tilting his head to the side. “He told me he was going to check on you not long after you left. You did seem rather distressed, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

I grimaced. “Not at all. I was. It was a very long day. To answer your question, though, he was. It’s very kind of you to ask.”

Rupert smiled. “But of course, my dear. There was a mention of wine from Lord Henry this morning. Is there anything I can do to help you with that?”

“Boy, is there,” I replied.

He laughed loudly, bowing his head as if he were surprised by his outburst. “Forgive me. That was quite excitable.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I grinned, walking towards him and following his lead towards the house. “I’ve confirmed the final menu with the chef and I’d like to meet with you to arrange the wines for each course based on what’s in the cellar, if you can spare me some time.”

“I most certainly can. I will have to check if I can be spared for half an hour to walk you through the cellar, but it shouldn’t be a problem.” He checked his watch. “If you might be able to provide me with a copy of the menu so I can begin gathering ideas, that would be much appreciated.”

“Ah.” I unzipped the bag and pulled out a large envelope. “I am a step ahead of you, sir.”

Rupert took it with a small chuckle. “Very well, then. I thank you for this, and I will arrange a time to meet with you. As soon as possible, I’d assume?”

“Yes, please. I’d like to confirm it with Lady Devon as soon as possible.”

“Understood.” Rupert closed the door behind me. “Where are you working this morning?”

“I was actually wondering if Her Grace was available for a quick meeting,” I said to him. “No more than ten minutes to confirm the menu, preferably with Evelyn present.”

He tilted his head. “Is that not a request for Nancy?”

“I thought we might kill two birds with one stone.”

“I see. Her Ladyship is in the sunroom taking her morning tea, so I’ll take you there and see if she’s happy to entertain you for a few minutes.” Rupert gestured to me. “Follow me, please.”

“Thank you so much, Rupert. I appreciate it.”

He smiled at me in a way that said he wasn’t used to hearing such words, and I followed him into an area of the house I’d never been before. I’d only ever really seen the drawing room and the library, but it wasn’t a shock to see that the rest of the house was just as elegant and regal as those two rooms.

The furniture had to be antique; the kind that was there for generations before this one. I didn’t even know what kind of style it was, just that it was old, fancy, and likely immeasurably expensive.

“Your Ladyship, Miss Hopkins is here and would like to speak with you, if you have a moment for her?”

She looked up from the book she was reading with a small smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I can spare five minutes.”

How gracious of her.

“I will see if I can find Lady Evelyn,” Rupert said with a bow of his head before he disappeared.

She slipped a bookmark between the pages and set the book down on the table, crossed one ankle over the other, and looked at me expectantly.

I pulled the menu sheet out of the folder and held it out for her. “I spoke with the chef yesterday and confirmed the menu. They were happy to make a change in the dessert section to accommodate Evelyn’s request for a lemon cake.”

She raised her eyebrows as she took the menu and glanced down it. “Is my mother-in-law aware this isn’t her menu?”

“No, but honestly, she only really cared about the cake.”

“That sounds about right.” The duchess scanned it. “Very well. I suppose we can compromise on that if the chef is accepting of the change.”

“He was more than happy to make it,” I confirmed. “It has also been sent via email to all the guests with an RSVP and an apology for a menu not being included with the invitations.”

She almost looked impressed.

Almost.

“Very well.” She put the menu down on the table. “I see no wines on the list.”

“That was my next question.” I hugged the folder. “I’ve already given Rupert a copy of the menu, but he said he will need some time to take me to the cellar.”

“Thirty minutes tomorrow morning at nine,” she said. “I will accompany you.”

Of course she would.

“Did you get the blasted lemon cake?” Evelyn asked, walking in. “Oh, you’re here,” she added blithely to the duchess.

She closed her eyes. “Hello, Evelyn.”

Evelyn grunted in response and looked at me. “Well? The cake? I don’t give a frig about chicken or beef.”

I smiled. “Lemon cake is on the menu.”

“Excellent. I will have it for all three courses. Write that down.” She waved her walking stick at me.

“That’s not how it works, Evelyn. You cannot eat cake for all three courses,” the duchess said to her.

“I don’t know,” Hugo said from the doorway. “It’s her party. I’d just let her eat the cake.” He peered over at me with a small smile. “Good morning, Miss Hopkins.”

I swallowed.

Was I blushing?

I felt like I was blushing.

I cleared my throat. “Good morning, Lord Hugo.”

Evelyn glanced between us, then quickly blinked and shook her head. “I agree with Hugo. Let me eat the cake.”

“Hugo, that does not help,” the duchess said, removing her glasses and setting them gently on top of the book. “Either way, I have things to do today, so if we’re all done here…”

I nodded. “That was all. Thank you.”

“Right.” She stood up and walked past me. “I shall see you tomorrow, Camilla. Hugo, Evelyn, I’ll see you later on.”

“Bye, Mum.” Hugo put his hands in his pockets.

Evelyn didn’t even bother to look at her as she left, instead turning to me. “What are you doing today?”

“I have some things that need to be ordered,” I said, thankful that Camilla had given me the details of her business card where money had already been transferred for costs relating to the party. “So I’ll probably disappear now and go to the café.”

She raised her eyebrows. “I quite fancy some cake.”

That sounded like a hint.

Hugo coughed and rubbed his hand over his mouth. I caught a glimpse of a smile before he dipped his head so Evelyn couldn’t see.

“Would you like to join me?” I asked her, fighting my own smile.

“Well, I don’t mind if I do. I’ll even buy you a cake for your troubles.” She paused. “I’m not allowed to drive anymore, though. Something about not being as sharp as I once was, which is utter bollocks. I’m sharper than a knife, me.”

I was inclined to agree.

“Grandma, you almost ran over someone who was only here to ask us to vote for them in the local council elections,” Hugo pointed out.

Evelyn blinked at him. “Well, she shouldn’t have been in front of my car, should she? Driveways are for cars, not jumped-up councillors with a misplaced sense of importance.”

“You could have killed her.”

“She was going to kill me with her harping on about wind turbines. We have quite enough of those ruining the countryside, thank you very much.”

Again… I had to agree.

Evelyn sniffed and looked at Hugo. “Get your car keys.”

He blinked at her. “What for?”

“To be a gentleman and take us for cake. You’ve not got anything better to do, have you?”

“I have my car. I don’t mind driving,” I said.

“No, it’s fine. Hugo will take us. He doesn’t have anything to do.”

“Actually, I do,” he replied.

Evelyn looked him up and down. “Why are you in here, then?”

I raised my eyebrows in question and met his eyes. “She has a point.”

He glanced at me and grumbled, “I’ll get my bloody keys, then.”

“Make haste, boy!” Evelyn hobbled over and tapped him with her walking stick. “I’m starving!”

CHAPTER NINETEEN – SOPHIE

Cake and Co-operation

“I want the glitter ones,” Evelyn said, peering at the laptop. “Those shiny ones.”

I read the description. “The iridescent ones from the mermaid collection?”

“Yes,” she replied without batting an eye. “They’re pretty and I like them.”

Hugo pinched the bridge of his nose. “Are you still doing this?”

I looked up at him and nodded. “I have been given a very strict colour scheme by your mother, and iridescent or glitter decorations do not fall under that.”

“I don’t care what Anna wants. She can have that stupid colour scheme for her own birthday.” Evelyn sniffed. “The woman is a menace to society and will be the death of me.”

Hugo dropped his chin to his chest. “Slightly strong words there, Grandma.”

“I’m not wrong, am I?”

“I’m really not going to get involved in that,” he replied, sitting down. “How was your cake?”

“Sliced far too small.” Evelyn sniffed. “Kellie would never serve me such a small slice of cake. It’s a travesty.”

I peered over at him. “She had two slices of cake.”

He sighed. “Grandma. Aren’t you supposed to be watching your blood sugars?”

“I am watching them, Hugo.” She picked up her tea. “Watching them rise.”

He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

“Help me convince Camilla here to let me have the shiny decorations.”

“Help me.” I mouthed.

He knew full well I could not buy those decorations. Heck, I didn’t even want to open the laptop around Evelyn because I knew she would do this. I wasn’t even sure if she wanted the decorations because she actually liked them or because she knew they were the most likely to piss off her daughter-in-law.

Based on their relationship, it was the latter.

She seemed to get complete joy out of pissing her off.

Then again, that seemed to be a mutual thing.

“Grandma, can we be reasonable here for a second?” Hugo asked, leaning forwards. “You know you’re only doing this to piss off Mum. It’s the same reason you fucked with the menu, and it’s just going to make this all harder for everyone else. Especially Camilla.”

I was impressed he didn’t falter whenever he used the wrong name for me.

Evelyn had the good graces to look chastised. “I suppose there’s some truth to what you’re saying,” she said slowly. “And I do not want to make it terribly difficult for Camilla. She’s the only person who knows how to make tea correctly.”

It’s true.

I was.

I was just saying.

“Exactly,” Hugo continued. “So do you think you might take a moment to engage your brain and be helpful? For Camilla’s sake?”

Evelyn scratched the side of her nose and shrugged a shoulder. “I suppose I can do that.”

“Thank you.”

“Why do you care so much?” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re awfully worried about Camilla.”

“Because it’s draining for me to listen to you and Mum’s bullshit, so God knows how she feels,” he drawled. “Can you please now select some decorations that are in Mum’s chosen colour scheme?”

“All right.” Evelyn sniffed. “But I am going to take a Sharpie to one of those balloons and draw a very, very tiny penis, then watch your mother lose her mind in her attempt to find it.”

I choked on my water and slammed my fist against my chest to clear the little bit in my throat that caught. “That seems like a reasonable compromise.”

Hugo’s lips tugged to one side. “Better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Right. Show me these bloody decorations. Hugo, I want another slice of cake.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I am your elder and you will respect me and do as you are told.”

“You’re also my grandmother who is borderline diabetic, and I will not be responsible for making you cross that line. I do quite like you being around, believe it or not.”

Evelyn sighed theatrically. “It’s a terribly hard life to be loved so much.”

“Yes. You are really suffering,” Hugo replied, flashing me a look of amusement. “Might we get this over and done with so I can take you home? I’m sure Camilla has a lot to do today and would like to get on with it.”

I grimaced.

Not as much as he’d think. I’d cleared a good amount out yesterday, so after a couple of phone calls, I was free.

Evelyn sighed. “All right, all right. Let’s pander to my nightmare-in-law.”

I pressed my lips together and looked at Hugo.

He waved his hand. “Just… do it.”

Evelyn rubbed her hands together. “Let’s shop!”

***

“I am becoming increasingly alarmed at how well you and my grandmother get along.”

I grimaced, slowly nodding my head. “You and me both. I am agreeing with far too many things she says, and I’m starting to scare myself.”

Hugo pressed his lips together with a rueful glance at me. “Starting to?”

“I am scared.”

“You’re right to be. She’s insane.” He put his hands in his pockets, his lips twisting to one side. “She’s standing right behind me, isn’t she?”

Laughing, I shook my head. “No, she’s still not back. Don’t worry.”

“Well, I’m glad I’m not the person who has to clean that bathroom.”

I shuddered. “Can we not? I don’t want my cake to come back up.”

“Sorry.” He grinned. “You seem like you’re getting it sorted out. The party.”

“I think so. Henry was a big help after your mother ripped me apart yesterday”

Hugo grunted at the mention of his brother.

“What’s that all about?” I asked.

“What?”

“You. Every time I mention your brother’s name, you get a hugely sour look on your face and make some stupid noise that I’d expect out of a prepubescent girl, not a thirty-year-old man.”

He fought back a smile. “That’s quite the comparison.”

I shrugged, unbothered. “It’s true.”

“We don’t get along, for the most part. It’s complicated.”

“Believe it or not, I was able to deduce that much for myself.” It was glaringly obvious. “Is it really that bad?”

“Right. I’m ready for my nap now.” Evelyn hobbled through the café and looked at us expectantly. “Let’s go.”

Hugo looked relieved to have an out for that conversation. If he thought I was done on the topic, he could think again. I was not done. They were so close in age that surely they had to be closer than they seemed.

Or maybe not.

I didn’t know.

I wasn’t about to find out, either, and that really bugged me. Ugh.

I followed them both out to Hugo’s car. At least with Evelyn here he hadn’t considered using the lorry he insisted was a car so there was no risk of me falling this time.

I hated that stupid lorry.

Truck.

Whatever it was.

I got into the front seat after Evelyn was settled in the back and tucked my bag between my feet. The ordering of the decorations had really taken so much longer than necessary thanks to Evelyn, even though she had actually co-operated in the end.

I was surprised.

She never co-operated.

Hugo’s little pep talk about making life easier for me must have hit a nerve with her.

The drive back to Cavendish House was mercifully quiet after how full on the last hour had been. Evelyn really was tired if she wasn’t talking—I’d never been with her and not heard her nattering about something or another.

Hugo pulled up next to a black Range Rover I’d never seen before. “Oh. Helena’s here.”

Helena?

“That’s your sister, right?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Ooh, I bet she brought me a baby!” Evelyn said excitedly. “Hugo, come and open this door for me. There’s a baby in there for me to cuddle.”

Hugo fought back a laugh. “Give me two seconds, Grandma.” He got out of the car and walked around to the opposite side where he opened her door then quickly turned and opened mine for me, too.

“Thank you,” I said softly, smiling when I got out.

He tossed me a quick wink then helped Evelyn out of the car. “Are you coming to meet Helena?” he asked me.

“No, I need to get back to make some phone calls. I’ll let you have some family time.” I smiled and picked up my bag. “Thank you for the cake and the co-operation, Evelyn.”

The old woman beamed at me. “Anytime, dear. As long as you don’t tell that woman how agreeable I was. I don’t want people finding out the truth about me. I have a reputation as an ornery old cow to keep up.”

Hugo rolled his eyes.

“Your secret is absolutely safe with me,” I assured her.

“Jesus. You two are quickly becoming best friends, aren’t you?” Hugo shook his head. “This is becoming a set-up for a cheesy TV show.”

Evelyn winked at me, over-exaggerating the action so it was almost cartoonish. “I think that would be a hoot.”

Again with the agreeing.

“I will see you later, dear,” she said patting my arm. “Be safe on your trip back to the cottage. Try not to run over any sheep.”

“Or errant council people to be?” I asked teasingly.

“Oh, no. Always run over those buggers. One less person to shove a leaflet in your face and lie about how they’ll make the county better.” She wiggled a finger at me. “They would do well to campaign about fixing potholes. That would get my vote.”

“You’re not allowed to drive,” Hugo reminded her.

“I ride in cars, don’t I?” she scoffed. “I’m going inside. Hugo, are you coming?”

“Give me a couple of minutes,” he said, shutting the car door. “I need to speak to Camilla about something.”

Seriously.

I was very impressed by his ability to switch between my two personas.

Evelyn narrowed her eyes. “What about? Are you cavorting after dark?”

That was one way to ask two people if they were sleeping together.

Hugo stared at her with an expression that wasn’t all that dissimilar to the one she wore. “It’s about your birthday present.”

“Ooh.” She brightened. “I didn’t sense a denial.”

“We are not… cavorting,” Hugo said with a frown. “What kind of question was that?”

“One from a nosy old woman with nothing better to do than gossip.” With that, Evelyn turned and hobbled up towards the house where the doors were opened by Rupert, who greeted her warmly.

“I think I want to be her when I grow up,” I said slowly. “I would very much like to be a nosy old woman with nothing better to do than gossip one day.”

Hugo locked the car and slowly shook his head. “You might be the perfect wife for the upper class. That’s all the old women are. Gossips.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please. I am not cut out for all this.” I waved towards the giant house. “Not to mention your mother hates me and would have a fit.”

“Who said I was talking about my wife?” He grinned, and I smacked his arm. “Kidding. I could do worse.”

“Thank you?” I replied uncertainly. “No, I’ve seen that guest list. It’s full of single aristocrats and socialites. I know exactly the kind of woman your mother is intending you to marry.”

“I am more than acquainted with her idea of who her successor should be.” A darkness crossed his features. “I have, however, avoided such a thing thus far, and I intend to continue doing so.”

“Good luck with that,” I muttered. “What did you need my help with?”

“What?”

“The present for your grandma.”

“Oh, right. I do actually need help with that, so this is just a bonus.” His lips tugged to one side. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Probably eating my body weight in things I shouldn’t be,” I replied honestly. “Why?”

He raised his eyebrows.

Oh.

Oh.

Right.

We had some unfinished business.

Cavorting, if you will.

“So I should probably change my plans,” I said slowly, swallowing. “What if someone sees you there? I’d really prefer to keep this to ourselves.”

“That’s why I said I need help with Grandma’s present.”

He looked very proud of himself for that.

“As far as anyone is concerned, you’re helping me look online for something tonight because that’s all you have free.” He stepped forwards. “Still, I’ll park down the lane and walk up.”

“What time?”

“Depends when my sister leaves.”

“What depends on me leaving?”

Hugo turned around and laughed, then hugged the woman with dark hair. “Hey, Helena.”

She returned the hug, peering over his shoulder at me. “She doesn’t look like Mum set you up with her.”

I… probably should have been offended by that, but I wasn’t.

I was more than fine with that.

“Helena,” Hugo said darkly. “This is Camilla. She’s planning Grandma’s party. Camilla, this is my little sister, Helena.”

She shot him a dark look before she stepped forwards and held out her hand for me. “Pleasure to meet you, Camilla.”

I hesitated before accepting her handshake. “You, too, Lady Helena.”

“Just Helena.” She smiled, and it was the same small smile Hugo gave when he knew something I didn’t. “You don’t have a moment, do you? I have a quick question about the party.”

“Oh, of course.”

She turned to Hugo. “Mum’s waiting for you. Grandma is winding her up about the colour scheme.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I should have known she wouldn’t co-operate for this long.” He turned and walked into the house.

“What can I help you with?” I asked Helena.

She ran her tongue over her lips. “You aren’t Camilla.”

Shit.

“I’m sorry?” A nervous laugh escaped me.

She tilted her head to the side with an amused smile. “You aren’t Camilla. I met her at Olivia Fortescue’s godawful engagement party.” She paused. “Actually, the party was wonderful. It was the hostess I don’t care for.”

I swallowed, but there was a bubbly tickle in my throat that made me cough.

“So I know you aren’t Camilla.”

“It’s a long story,” I said slowly. “I’m Sophie. Her best friend and flatmate.”

She pressed her lips together, fighting a warm smile. “So, Sophie. What are you doing here?”

I gave her the cliff notes, including the miscommunication. I told her enough that it was somewhere between what Hugo and Henry knew, and I was surprised when she nodded along.

“That sounds about right. I told Mum not to hire her, but she didn’t listen. The problem is that she’s very good at her job,” Helena said quietly, looking at me firmly. “So little mistakes are brushed under the rug.”

“I figured that was the case. It’s just put me in a very awkward position.”

She nodded. “I won’t say anything. It’s not my place. And neither is it to say this, but I’m going to anyway.” She reached forwards and gently touched my upper arm. “Sophie, whatever you’re doing with my brother, make sure our mother doesn’t find out.”

I swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not blind. My brother has a soft spot for you, and judging by the way you looked at him, you feel the same.”

“Soft spot is an exaggeration. I’m not sure if we’ve passed tolerating each other yet, to be honest.”

She dropped her hand with a quiet laugh. “I remember when I felt like that with my husband.”

“Please don’t threaten me like that.”

This time, her laugh was louder, and her eyes twinkled with it. “Just… be careful. Nobody can find out.”

“I know,” I replied softly.

Her smile settled into something that said she understood. “My mother-in-law is watching my daughter tomorrow. Why don’t I bring lunch over?”

I was almost sure there was only one acceptable answer.

“Sure. I’m staying at Bluebell Cottage,” I replied.

“Perfect.” She beamed. “I’ll see you at twelve-thirty.”

CHAPTER TWENTY – HUGO

Bad Habits and Late Nights

“Knock knock.” Helena poked her head in the door. “I’m leaving when Ellie has woken from her nap. Do you have ten minutes?”

“Do I look like I’m doing anything?” I motioned to the television.

She glanced at it. “What you do when you’re alone is your business, Hugo.”

“Shut up and sit down,” I told her.

Being the eldest was hard sometimes.

Helena sat down and smiled at me. “I like Sophie.”

Uh.

“Who’s Sophie?”

“You’re cute when you play dumb.” She snorted. “I know. I’ve met the real Camilla.”

Ah.

“She explained it all to you?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

Helena nodded. “It’s a very tough situation she’s been put in by everyone. Is she handling it well?”

“She couldn’t organise a bath for a duck,” I admitted. “But Henry and I have tried to help her where we can, and I think she’s gotten a handle on it now.”

“You have been helping her, haven’t you?”

“What do you mean by that?”

She grinned. “You like her.”

“Slight exaggeration.”

“Hugo.”

I sighed and muted the television. “What exactly do you want me to say to you, Helena?”

She shrugged. “I was wondering if you were taking up the mantle of pissing Mum off. Tag teaming with Grandma.”

I stared at her.

“You have to know how utterly stupid this is. She’s pretending to be someone else, she’s working for Mum, and if Mum ever found out you were sleeping with her over all the women she namedrops on a daily basis as a suitable partner for you, she would have a merry fit.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t much care what she thinks,” I told her honestly. “I’ve made it perfectly clear to her that I am not interested in any of the women she sends my way and that I’ll get married when I’m ready, not when she deems me to be ready. She’s trying to marry me off as if Dad is going to die tomorrow.”

“I think she just wants you to be happy.”

“I am happy.”

“You’re sleeping with someone you’ve known for less than a week.”

“Incorrect. I have not slept with her.”

“Yet.” She looked at me pointedly. “Don’t think I don’t know that you’re waiting for me to leave so you can go over there.”

I threw out my hands. “So what if I am? We’re both single, consenting adults. You don’t need to fucking judge me.”

“I’m not judging you.”

“Then stop talking, because your word choice doesn’t convey that at all.”

She sighed. “You like her. Whether you want to admit it or not, you clearly have somewhat of a soft spot for her. I’ve never known you give anyone this much time unless you were interested in something more. Grandma told me you went for cake today. You’ve had dinner with her. You go out of your way to help her.”

“I’m trying to make her bad situation a bit easier.”

“Grandma thinks you fancy the pants off her.”

“I do. You’ve met her.”

She tilted her head to the side. “She is very pretty. She seems nice, too.”

“She is.”

“Why not just admit you like her?”

“Because attraction is one thing. I do not intend to cross the emotional line with her, and if I do, I will keep that to myself.”

I was keeping it to myself right now.

Helena raised her eyebrows. “You’re an idiot. I can see it in the way you look at her.”

“Then perhaps you need to book an eye test,” I said dryly, standing up. “Are we done?”

Helena stood up, giving me the withering kind of a look that only an exasperated sister could give someone. “I think this will end in tears, Hugo.”

“I didn’t ask you what you think.”

“I’m going to tell you anyway, and it’s because I care about you.” She took my hand and wrapped it in both of hers. “You know, in the end, you will give in and do what Mum wants because it’s the easier option. No matter what you do, just be careful.”

She was wrong. I wouldn’t do what my mother wanted when it came to be married. Just because she and Dad grew to love each other after being set up didn’t mean the same thing would happen to me.

I would not spend the rest of my life married to someone I didn’t love because that’s what she thought was best for me.

Not that Helena was going to listen to that right now.

“I will,” I finally agreed.

She kissed my cheek and walked to the door, where she stopped and looked back. “Oh, by the way,” she said. “I’m having lunch with Sophie tomorrow.”

I blinked at her. “Why are you doing that?”

“She seems nice, and Ellie is with Myra. Why not?”

“What was all that about just now if you’re having bloody lunch with her?”

Helena just smiled and quickly turned, leaving me alone in the room, staring after her.

My sister was a giant fucking pain in the ass.

I understood where she was coming from, but that didn’t mean I was going to change my mind. I wasn’t stupid—I knew Sophie would leave when this party was done and there was little to no chance we’d ever see each other again, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t have some fun while we were here together.

We were adults.

Consenting adults.

Who knew what they were doing.

As far as it went keeping it a secret from my mother, I had to confess that I didn’t exactly give her a news bulletin when I slept with someone or thought there might be a relationship to pursue. I hadn’t had too many serious relationships, granted, but still.

It seemed like a very bad idea.

So this one definitely wasn’t going to be anything that she would find out about.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – SOPHIE

Green-Eyed Butterflies

“I hear you’re having lunch with my sister tomorrow.”

I grimaced, looking at Hugo. “Is this really what we’re going to discuss while we’re naked in bed?”

“Do you have any other suggestions?”

I sighed. “She asked, and I didn’t feel as though I could say no.”

“You felt correctly,” he said with a light laugh as he propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at me.

Jesus.

The man’s biceps would make a nun weep.

“You should also be aware that she knows.”

“Knows what? Who I am? I know that. She met Camilla recently. She told me outside your house.”

“No, this.” He motioned between us. “She spent far too long earlier telling me why this is a very bad idea.”

“Ah.” I nodded. “Yeah, she mentioned something like that to me, too.”

“Which is why I don’t understand why she invited you to lunch.”

“I’d imagine it’s because she’s your sister and if she’s anything like your Grandma… She wants to know everything.”

“Look at that. You know my family almost as well as I do.”

I laughed and nudged him, then sat up with a sigh. “Well, I didn’t think any of this was in my plan.”

Hugo smirked. “Really? It was mine the second I saw you.”

I swatted at him, and he laughed, rolling out of the way. In fact, he rolled right out of the bed, landing on his feet, and grinned at me in all his naked glory.

“Oh, put some bloody clothes on,” I grumbled.

“That’s not what you were saying forty minutes ago.”

I grabbed one of the decorative throw pillows from the floor and chucked it at him. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“You think I’d fuck you and run?” He raised his eyebrows and grabbed his underwear from the floor. “No.”

“Aren’t you a real gentleman?”

“Not really. You still need to help me with Grandma’s birthday present.”

I threw another pillow at him, this time hitting him as he bent down to put his boxers on and grab his trousers.

“Ooft.” He shuddered as he straightened up. “Nice shot.”

I rolled my eyes and got up, reaching into the drawers for some clothes. I tossed on a baggy t-shirt and some leggings, then followed him downstairs. “Do you have any idea what your grandma wants?”

“No. She has everything already. That’s why it’s so bloody hard.”

“How did I know you’d say that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure you’ll tell me it’s because of something like me being painfully predictable.”

“You? Predictable? I don’t think so.” I shook my head and grabbed my laptop from the kitchen so I could take it through to the living room. “That’s the last word I’d use to describe you. I mean, I thought you were a raging asshole the first time we met.”

“You have mentioned that once or twice.” He sat down on the sofa and put his feet on the coffee table.

I sat next to him and patted his feet. “That’s rude.”

“Blimey.” He swung his feet down and stretched his legs out so they were under the table instead. “Is that better, Your Highness?”

“Much. Thank you. I put my tea on that table.”

“Ah, your impossible to make tea.”

“It’s not impossible.”

“It might as well be. You should just put bloody gold in there at this point.”

“Christ, you’re dramatic.” I opened the laptop. “One would assume you’d be in a better mood after sex.”

Hugo laughed and leaned in, resting his arm across the top of the sofa cushions. His fingers toyed with my hair as I booted up the laptop. “I am in a fantastic mood, as far as it goes.”

I peered over at him and typed in my password. “Mm.”

“Do you have any ideas for this present?”

“I cannot believe you’ve left it this late,” I said quietly. “It’s in a little over a week.”

“I don’t really like shopping.”

“I am shocked by that revelation.”

“Now who’s the dramatic one?”

I shook my head and pulled up Google, then typed in gift ideas for 80-year olds.

Hugo stilled. “Really? That’s your idea?”

“It’s better than yours. Yours was to make me look,” I scoffed.

“This is true,” he said slowly. “Are there really lists?”

I turned my head and looked at him. “You really don’t shop much, do you?”

He pressed his lips together. “Would it sound bad if I said I either get my sister, Rupert, or one of the staff to do it for me?”

“Your sister? No. The other two? That makes you sound like the upper-class git you are.”

The corners of his mouth pulled up into a smile. “I don’t know why I enjoy it when you rib on the aristocracy, but here we are.”

“Not the aristocracy. Just you.” I flashed him a quick grin and clicked on the first link. “Here. Is there anything here that could work?”

He leaned right over and looked at the screen, so I scrolled slowly down the list. “Nope. She has all this already.”

“All right.” I hit the back button and went to the next article.

“Oh, that’s too much reading,” Hugo said.

Bloody hell.

I repeated that four times before he finally shook his head and sighed in defeat.

“I’m just going to have to accept that there’s nothing to get her.”

“There has to be something,” I replied.

“I suppose the best gift would be cancelling the party.”

“Oh, hell no. I have not put myself through the hell of pretending to be someone else and organising it just for you to cancel it to make yourself look good.” I shook my head. “Absolutely fucking not.”

He laughed, dropping his head back. “All right, all right.”

“Do you have to get her an actual present to open? Is there anything she likes to do that you can arrange for her?”

“She likes to talk a lot of shit,” he replied slowly. “Not sure I need to book a specific day out for that, though.”

“No. I don’t think you do.”

“She likes those painting classes where you can drink wine.”

Of course she did.

That was exactly the kind of thing Evelyn would enjoy.

“Why don’t you book one of those, then?” I asked, shifting to look at him a little more.

“Because then she’d expect me to go with her.” Hugo looked at me pointedly. “And I do not paint.”

“You don’t? That’s a shame. You struck me as a brooding artist.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.”

“Do you honestly think anything about you says artist?”

“Hey. I could be an artist.”

I rolled my eyes with a little extra oomph so he knew how ridiculous I thought that was. “If you’re an artist, you have to create art.”

“I could make mosaics. You don’t know.”

Mosaics.

Oh, my God.

Of all the things he picked, it was mosaics.

Not writing, not sketching, not even something pretty mainstream like pottery.

Who made mosaics?

I blinked at him. “Mosaics? Really?”

He shrugged. “It was the first thing that came to mind.”

“Your mind is a rather peculiar place. Has anyone ever mentioned that?”

“Coming from you, I think that’s quite the compliment.”

“I essentially just told you that you’re weird, and you think that’s a compliment?”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a little weird.” Hugo poked my cheek. “You’d know.”

“Well, that’s rude.”

“Is it still rude if I tell you that I like weird?”

“It sounds like a desperate attempt at insisting you aren’t insulting me.” I side-eyed him. “For what it’s worth, I don’t count weird as an insult. But discussing this doesn’t solve your problem.” I checked the clock. “And you really should think about going because we’ve apparently been trying to buy your grandmother a birthday present for an hour and a half now.”

He stilled. “Shit.”

“And when you get asked what you chose…”

“I’m going to need Caitlyn to cover for me.”

I jerked around, almost knocking the laptop onto the floor. Thankfully, I had relatively quick reflexes and was able to save it from being probably broken.

“You can’t tell her!” I grabbed his arm. “Hugo!”

He sighed. “You’re right. All right, I’ll come up with something. Got distracted on the way back or something like that.”

“If you say so,” I said warily, putting the computer on the coffee table and getting up after him.

“We’re going to have to be more careful.” He grabbed his jumper from the hook and pulled it over his head.

“Awfully bold of you to assume it’s going to be a regular thing for the rest of my stay here.”

Hugo pulled me into him with a swift tug of my hand and responded with a deep kiss that made butterflies go insane in my belly. He released me just as swiftly as he’d taken hold of me, grinned, and turned to get his shoes.

My cheeks burned. “I stand by my previous statement.”

He simply laughed and stood up. “I’ll have a better excuse for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? What am I? A sex toy?” I folded my arms across my chest. “What if I have plans tomorrow?”

“Do you have plans tomorrow?”

“I might make some.”

His tongue flicked out across his lower lip as he fought a smile. “Well, if you don’t, I’ll be your plans.”

“Do I have a say in it?”

“If I bring food, does that work in my favour? Surely pizza and sex is the best offer on the table for you tomorrow.”

Pizza and sex?

Wow.

The man needed to calm down.

I swallowed. “I think you need to leave before you turn me on again talking like that.”

He laughed again before pressing one last kiss to my lips. “Goodnight, munchkin.”

“And I am no longer feeling any of sexual excitement whatsoever.”

He grabbed his phone and keys from the entry table where he’d left them, glancing at his phone. “Yep. I’m being harassed to see where I am.”

“Do your family know that you are, in fact, an adult man?”

He grinned, shoving his phone in his pocket. “They do. My mother wants to know if I’ve left you and am now with the woman she tried setting me up with this morning.”

There was a really annoying little twist of my stomach at his words—one I didn’t like the feel of.

I wasn’t a jealous person by nature. Not romantically speaking.

So why didn’t I like the idea of his mum setting him up with someone else?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to delve too deeply into the answer to that question. There was a very good chance I wouldn’t like what I found there.

“Fun,” I finally replied, thinking that was probably the best answer to go with.

One of Hugo’s eyebrows quirked up, but if he thought my answer was weird, he didn’t mention it. Instead, he left with a quick smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I walked to the door and watched as he wove through the darkness of the front garden. By the time he reached the gate, he’d already disappeared from my view thanks to the complete blackness of the countryside night-time.

I hesitated there for a moment with my arms wrapped around myself.

I liked Hugo.

More than I’d ever thought I would, but I wasn’t prepared for the clinching of my chest when he’d said his mother was trying to set him up with someone.

I knew that. I knew she was doing that. Half the guests on the list for the party were women under the age of thirty that she deemed acceptable wife material for him. I thought it was old-fashioned and ridiculous, but her reasoning did make sense when you considered it’d worked for her thirty-something years ago.

And I knew that nothing would ever come of this. Hugo and I were nothing more than a very-short term fling that was based purely on mutual attraction that I wasn’t sure either of us were particularly happy about, given the situation we were in.

None of that explained this hint of a hollow feeling.

I didn’t want to think that I was even considering that I might have real, true feelings for Hugo. Ones that were greater than just a bit of attraction. I hadn’t known him long, but we had spent a lot of that time together.

We did, weirdly, have a lot in common, too.

But it didn’t change the fact that I was not the kind of person he could or would marry.

Not that it mattered. I wasn’t even thinking about something like that.

Not as I closed the front door and turned the key to lock it, not as I trotted back into the living room with a dull heaviness in the pit of my stomach, and not as I sat and stared at my computer screen, still on the last article we’d read.

Most definitely not if I wondered if sleeping with Hugo was only going to make that aching, weird feeling worse.

I think I already knew the answer.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO – HUGO

The Mistakes We Make

ME: Nancy is hovering around asking questions about the party. Are you not telling her anything?

I shoved a wine gum into my mouth and chewed while I waited for Sophie to respond. I’d spent the morning helping my father go over architecture plans for the new cottage, and I was exhausted from all the thinking. Hanging out in his office also meant I was closer to my mother’s and had heard Nancy asking her things about the party until even Mum had had enough.

SOPHIE: Why would I tell her? I don’t need to.

ME: That explains it. She didn’t even know you were choosing the wine this morning.

SOPHIE: *shrug emoji* Your mum was there. If she wanted Nancy to be there, she would have been, right?

ME: Most definitely. Interesting.

SOPHIE: Is it? Rupert is a literal wine connoisseur. I cannot imagine there’s anything Fancy Nancy would be able to add to the conversation.

I choked on my wine gum.

Fancy Nancy? That was the best thing I’d heard in a while.

ME: Fancy Nancy?

SOPHIE: Um…

SOPHIE: This is awful, but I was in a bad mood when she called originally, and I thought she sounded like a fancy farmer on the phone so I called her Fancy Nancy in my head.

SOPHIE: And now I really don’t like her so I keep calling her it.

I rubbed my hand down my face, fighting laughter.

It was hard to argue with her. It was kind of the perfect nickname for Nancy if you needed something that wasn’t completely derogatory, and now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to call her anything else ever again.

Shit.

This woman was something else.

ME: That’s the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.

SOPHIE: It’s pretty awful, actually. But then again so is she so I struggle to care.

I nodded slowly, pressing my lips together. Again, there was no argument there. She really was awful, and I had no idea why my mother kept her employed. She was good at her job, sure, but she wasn’t the only person who could do it as well as she did.

And the other people probably wouldn’t be dicks, either.

ME: How’s lunch with my sister?

SOPHIE: She’s currently on the phone to your grandma trying to come up with an excuse for why she wasn’t invited.

Jesus.

Grandma really was falling in love with Sophie.

Or Camilla, as she called her.

ME: Oh. That’s why I saw her stomping through the hallway earlier muttering about ungrateful bitches.

SOPHIE: I do believe I heard that mentioned once or twice.

SOPHIE: Does she know she doesn’t need to shout into the phone? Helena is about to go deaf. I’M about to go deaf.

Yes.

Grandma did know.

She also did not care.

ME: She is aware.

SOPHIE: So it’s deliberate.

ME: You’ve spent enough time with her to know that nothing she does is accidental. You’re going to have to have lunch with her tomorrow, by the way.

SOPHIE: Yep. That’s been mentioned, too.

SOPHIE: Does your family usually treat people they hire like this?

I laughed. Loud.

No.

Never in my life had anyone in my family ever treated someone we’d hired in this manner. If I didn’t know better, I’d say there was a conspiracy afoot, but I was pretty sure it was really just down to the fact Sophie was the only person alive who could make my grandmother a cup of tea she didn’t want to throw at the wall.

Also, my mother still treated her the way she did anyone else.

ME: Absolutely not. They appear to have taken a shine to you.

SOPHIE: That’s not awkward at all.

ME: Grandma can be a bit of a limpet.

SOPHIE: I suppose I’m having lunch with her tomorrow, then.

ME: I don’t think you have a choice.

“Oh, there you are.” Mum walked into the room. “Do you know where your sister is? I’m expecting her at some point today.”

“Having lunch with Sophie,” I said, staring at my phone.

“Sophie? I don’t know a Sophie. Who is Sophie?”

Shit.

I turned my attention away from my phone and towards my mother who was staring at me expectantly. “A friend of hers.”

“She doesn’t have any friends called Sophie.”

“She’s a new one.” Not a lie.

“Are you friends with her, Hugo?”

That was a loaded question.

“I know her,” I said slowly.

I knew where this was going.

Mum walked further into the room and tilted her head slightly. “How well do you know her?”

Well enough to know what she sounds like mid-orgasm, although I doubted that was the answer she was interested in.

“Relatively.” That was a very careful answer.

“Are you interested in this girl?”

More than I had any right to be.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t know her well enough to answer that.”

“You just told me you know her relatively well.”

“I do know her relatively well, but not well enough to know if I’m interested in anything more than friendship.”

“Hmph.” Mum sighed. “While I’m here and we’re discussing women you may or may not be interested in—”

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly with a sharp shake of my head.

“Hugo.” She put her hands on her hips. “The Earl of Coventry’s daughter is single and ready to get back out there.”

“And I wish her the utmost success in her quest for love.”

“It would be polite for you to escort Lady Amelia to the party.”

“I will be escorting Grandma to the party.”

“You would be better placed with Lady Amelia.”

“You know as well as I do that protocol dictates I escort Grandma as the eldest single male and she a widow.” I put my phone screen down on the cushion next to me as it buzzed. “Why don’t you ask Henry to escort Lady Amelia instead?”

“Because I think the two of you will get along.”

I sighed. “We do. I am quite fond of Amelia and was sorry to hear of her breakup in November, but I am not interested in her in a romantic sense.”

“You could be.”

“But I am not,” I said, this time punctuating it with an annoyed look. “Mother, I appreciate your efforts to introduce me to people, but believe it or not, I am capable of finding my own romantic interests. I think we had this conversation a few weeks ago.” And not for the first time, either.

Mum crossed her arms over her chest, unimpressed. “Are you seeing anyone?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me. I’d like to know if you are. I might be more inclined to relax myself if I thought you were making an effort to pursue a relationship with someone.”

“Fine. Yes. I am seeing someone.”

“May I know who?”

“You may not.”

“Will I get to know?”

“It depends how things play out.”

I’d never seen my mother look quite as conflicted as she did right now. She clearly wanted to press the issue, but she also knew she’d probably gone as far as she could, given my admission.

That wasn’t entirely true.

It wasn’t untrue, either, but if it meant she’d leave me alone for a week or two, I would have to toe the line.

I’d also been vague enough that when Sophie went home and I told Mum it hadn’t worked out, she’d have to accept it.

“All right,” Mum said after a moment. “I… will accept your position.”

“How very gracious of you.”

She shot me a sharp look. “Will she be attending the party?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask.”

“Very well.” She hovered as if she wanted to ask yet another question about my love life, but she finally relented and changed the topic. “Have you seen Camilla? We selected the wines earlier, but I have a question about something. Oh, did you find a present for your grandmother? You were gone rather a long time last night.”

“Anna.” Dad walked into the room. “The boy is thirty years old. He can come and please as he likes.”

Mum bristled. “I was only asking. Does it really take the better part of two hours to find someone a birthday present?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Dad said, sitting opposite me and picking the tablet up from the table. “Did it, Hugo?”

I shrugged. “She’s impossible to buy for.”

“There we are, then.” Dad motioned to me, then unlocked the tablet. “And he just admitted to you that he’s seeing someone, so perhaps she’s nearby and he paid her a visit.”

Bloody hell.

That was good.

Mum snapped her attention back to me. “Is that true?”

“She’s close enough,” I replied vaguely. “There’s a distinct lack of privacy in this house that means driving somewhere to have a phone call isn’t outside the realm of possibility, either.”

“Amen to that,” Dad said, scrolling.

Mum looked at both of us, slightly affronted, then turned on her heel and left the room.

I waited for a moment until I knew she was out of earshot and said, “Thanks for the save, Dad.”

He peered over at me. “I don’t know what you were really doing last night, but as long as it isn’t illegal, I don’t suppose it’s any of my business.”

I fought back a smile. “It’s perfectly legal.”

“I trust you did at least attempt to find your grandmother a birthday present. No success?”

“None.” I shook my head. “Camilla suggested paying for one of her wine and painting nights, but I’m a little worried she’ll drag me along with her.”

“Valid fears.” He bobbed his head in agreement. “If you come up with anything, do let me know. I’m struggling myself.”

“Will do.” I paused. “How much of that conversation with Mum did you listen to?”

Dad’s eyes twinkled. “I heard her muttering to herself about Lady Amelia and suspected she was looking for you. I thought I better follow her and get you out of that one since she’s lost her marbles.”

“Why would you get me out of it? You usually support her ideas.”

“Son, Amelia Coventry is a perfectly lovely young woman, and she will be an excellent wife to whoever is lucky enough to marry her. However, I do not believe she’s the correct woman for you. She’s far too nice and gentle. You need a woman who will keep you on your toes and call you on your bullshit. Someone with a little bit of fire. You’re far too much like me.”

My lips twitched. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“And I thank you for doing so.”

My small smile became a grin.

“Either way, I suspect your mother is off to find your brother now.”

I picked my phone back up. “Well, good luck to him.”

Dad chuckled. “Indeed. Although I do think he and Amelia would make a fine couple.”

He had a point.

***

“What do you mean your mother thinks you’re seeing someone?” Sophie’s jaw clenched, and there was a flash of something in her eyes that was eerily reminiscent of last night when I’d said my mother was trying to set me up with someone again.

The irrational side of me said it was a hint of jealousy, but what did she have to be jealous about?

“My mother thinks I’m seeing someone,” I said, sitting down on the sofa.

She looked at me with incredulity in her eyes. “Hugo!”

“What?” I leaned back. “She wouldn’t get off my back about escorting someone to the party. She got herself all worked up and I had to tell her something.”

“And you thought that was the best thing to tell her?”

“At the time. She said she’d be more inclined to leave me alone. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

She pressed her fingertips against her temples and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “And who does she think you’re seeing?”

“She doesn’t know. I’m not that stupid.”

“Oh, as long as you’re not that stupid, it’s perfectly all right.”

“You’re overreacting a little bit.”

She stilled.

Never mind.

I was that stupid.

What kind of a bellend told a woman she was overreacting?

Me. I was the fucking bellend.

“Or not,” I said quickly, sitting up straight.

“Overreacting?” Sophie said, shooting daggers at me.

Honestly, if her eyes were lasers, I’d have been eviscerated several seconds ago.

“I am here under duress, pretending to be someone else, trying to keep the truth from too many people, trying to keep the fact we are apparently sleeping together on a regular basis between the two of us, and you tell your mother, who hates me, that you’re seeing someone while you come to my cottage.” Each of the points were said with increasing frustration and volume.

“Shouting isn’t going to change any of that.”

“You are a bloody idiot!” She grabbed a cushion and threw it at me.

I snatched it out of the air and dropped it on the sofa. “Will you stop doing that?”

“I will not!” She picked it back up and advanced on me, using the cushion as a weapon.

I crossed my arms over my face and ducked my head as she beat me with it. It was about as terrifying as a butterfly, but if it made her feel better to have a one-sided pillow fight, then all right.

Also.

I might have deserved it.

She did make quite a good point.

Sophie threw the cushion back on the sofa with a frustrated noise, and I darted out, grabbing her. I pulled her down onto my lap with her knees resting either side of my hips and wrapped my arms around her so she couldn’t go anywhere.

It didn’t stop her glaring at me.

“It wasn’t my finest moment,” I admitted. “And it was a selfish desire to get her to leave me alone. But believe me, she knows nothing beyond the fact that I’m seeing someone.”

“And you’re lying to her.”

“Not entirely.”

“We are not seeing each other.”

“I’m literally looking at you right now.”

She was not impressed. “You know what I mean.”

I sighed. “I do know what you mean, but I needed a break, all right? It’s fucking exhausting not having her respect my wishes to give it a rest. I know it comes from a good place, but her good place is broken.”

Sophie’s gaze brightened just a little bit. “It’s… misplaced.”

“Exactly. Her inability to listen to anyone regarding the subject doesn’t help. Not even my father can get through to her. I just wanted to get through the next week without her on my back.”

“I suppose I can understand that.” She relaxed a little and looked down at my chest. “I just… if anyone sees you here…”

“I parked in the village and walked. The only person likely to see us is Nora, and she has a bit of a soft spot for me.”

“Who doesn’t?” she muttered.

I fought a smile. “I used to mow her lawn after her husband passed away.”

“That’ll do it. Ugh. And you keep saying you have an arsehole reputation to keep up.”

“Only to weird outsiders who pretend to be other people.”

“Har, har, har. Aren’t you a funny dick?” she deadpanned.

I grinned, sliding my hands up her back. “You can put your jealousy back in its box now.”

“Jealous? Who’s jealous? What on Earth makes you think I’m jealous of any poor woman who has to deal with you?”

“That reaction for one.”

“I am not jealous. I barely tolerate you.”

“The feeling is completely mutual.”

So was the fact we were both lying.

We were good at that.

To ourselves and each other.

“Trust me, your mother can set you up with as many people as she wants,” Sophie went on. “I pity them. They have to have her as their mother-in-law. I’d rather join a convent.”

“It’s not that bad.”

Although I had considered running away more than once. And that was just in the last month.

“Hugo, the woman is going to name your children and then not speak to you if you refuse to use her choices.”

I laughed, dropping my head back. “Probably.”

Sophie paused. “I was kidding.”

“I wasn’t.” I met her gaze again. “But I hear you. You’re not jealous.”

“I am not.” She pushed off me and got up. “I have nothing to be jealous about. This is just sex. You’re at perfect liberty to see whoever you’d like.”

She was not convincing in the slightest.

It was kind of cute. I wasn’t sure who she was saying that to—herself or me, but it did confirm the one thing I’d feared.

I didn’t mind that she was a little jealous.

A part of me wanted her to be.

You didn’t get jealous if you didn’t care.

The draw I’d felt to her when I’d first seen her hadn’t eased over time, and the more time I spent with her, the more I wanted to spend with her. I’d happily never leave this cottage if I didn’t have to.

She was funny and quick-witted with a sharp tongue and a gentle touch.

I was in huge fucking trouble with Sophie Smith.

“And me, too.” Sophie turned around with a shrug of one shoulder. “I could do the same thing. I could go out with someone if I wanted.”

“Over my dead body,” I muttered under my breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” I tampered that hint of possessiveness down.

Her?

Go out with someone else?

Absolutely fucking not.

She folded her arms across her chest. “I was asked out this afternoon, in fact.”

Almost every muscle in my body tensed as I looked at her. “You were?”

“I was. By your brother.”

Ex-fucking-cuse me?

I jumped up off the sofa. “My brother asked you out?”

“That’s what I said.” She shifted from one side to the other. “I’m not sure it was the first time he’s done so, either.”

I stared at her.

I didn’t have any words.

Had I completely missed Henry’s interest in her?

Of course I hadn’t. And if I’d seen any on Sophie’s part for him, I probably would have stepped aside and not pursued my own in her.

“Are you interested in him?” I asked tightly. My stomach had more knots than a pirate ship, and something about the idea of her going for dinner with my brother really bit at me.

“Do you think I’d be here right now if I was?” She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t. And I had to tell him that, too.”

The tension left my body.

“And perhaps you should check your own jealousy before you come at me,” she added, looking away.

I sighed and walked over to her, slowly bringing my hand to her face. I tilted her head, lowering mine, and pressed my lips against hers in a gentle kiss.

There was something about the way she sighed into the touch, how she leant into me just enough that I wasn’t sure she even knew she was doing it.

“It’s completely irrational of me,” I said in low voice, bringing her body against mine. “But the idea of you seeing anyone else makes me want to burn the place down.”

She sniffed. “That’s a little over the top.”

“You do like to tell me I’m dramatic.”

“You are.” She turned her cheek into my hand. “I suppose, in light of your admission, I can admit that I’m not too taken with the idea of you seeing anyone else, either. Even though it’s completely ridiculous and I have no business feeling like that.”

Shit.

Why did I enjoy that so much?

Something that I knew was bad? Those were words we really shouldn’t be saying to one another, and yet… here we were.

Standing here, with her wrapped in my arms, resting her head against my chest, and my chin on top of her head.

Her hair smelt like strawberries.

It always smelt like strawberries.

I didn’t know how or when I’d noticed that, but I had.

“Shit,” I whispered.

“What?”

Crap. I said that out loud.

“I, er, left the tap running.”

Sophie pulled back and looked at me, her face a mask of amusement. “Bullshit.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE – SOPHIE

Emotions Schmotions

“I promise you, I can handle the entire thing,” I said, pressing the phone between my ear and shoulder. “There’s no use you rushing back for two days.”

“Ohhh, I don’t know.” Camilla’s voice crackled down the line. “I feel bad about it.”

“I’ve already done the work,” I told her, removing the teabag from the mug. “You’ll be here for, what? A day and a half, really? When you could spend that time with your family?”

“I suppose you have a point, but I feel uncomfortable throwing you to the wolves like that.”

“Cam, I’m already with the wolves. I have a bedroom in their den.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Stay with your family after the funeral. There will still be things to do. You’ve had a really long few days, and you’ll need to be there for your mum and aunt.”

I really, really needed her to agree to do this.

It was the only way I was getting out of this unscathed.

The party was in six days, which meant she was due back in four. If I could convince her to stay away entirely, I would be able to get out of Moorhaven and Cavendish House without the truth being revealed to everyone.

It was ironic.

The very thing I was so angry about was the thing that could save my lying arse right now.

“I still feel strange about it,” Cam said. “You didn’t want to go in the first place.”

“Yes, but I’m here now, aren’t I? I’m doing the work. It’d take an entire day to go over every last detail with you as it is.” I extracted the phone and carried my tea out to the back garden. The sun was shining, and it was beautiful. “I’m managing just fine, and your mum still needs you.”

She made a noise that I couldn’t quite place. “I suppose you’re right. I have to come back the day of the party though because I have a meeting the next day.”

“So just fly to Heathrow or Gatwick and don’t worry about it here. I’ll be back the next day. I’ll leave here first thing.”

“All right. I have insurance, so I’ll change my flight. Can you send me an email with some updates at least?”

“Of course. I’ll do it today.”

“Thanks, Soph. You’re a lifesaver.”

If only she knew.

I really, really wasn’t.

“How are you doing?” I asked, getting up off the bench at the sound of a car approaching. “How’s your mum?”

“Well, all things considered. I’m just mostly glad we were here, and we were able to say goodbye,” Cam replied. “I think that made it a little easier.”

“Definitely.” I walked around the side of the house and caught sight of Helena’s car parked up outside the gate. “Did Ollie make it there?”

“Yeah, he got here last night. He’ll stay for the funeral and maybe a couple of extra days now if I’m staying.”

“You should ask him.”

“I think I will. Thanks, Soph.”

“You’re welcome. I’d say anytime, but I’d rather we not make this a habit.” I waved at Helena.

She laughed. “All right. I have to go and help sort out Grandma’s things. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay.”

“Make sure to email me.”

“I will, I will!” I laughed, and we said our goodbyes approximately eight times each before we finally hung up.

Helena grinned at me. “Who was that?”

“Camilla. I told her she should stay on for a couple of extra days, so I’m hoping she won’t come at all and then I can go home when this is over, and nobody will ever know.”

She slid her sunglasses on top of her head. “That’s awfully optimistic of you.”

“The part where nobody will know?”

“No, the part where you’ll go home. It’s quite clear that you love it here.”

I did love Moorhaven. I liked the people, the peace, and the general aura of the village was calming and welcoming.

“Still, I live in London, and half the village think I’m Camilla while the other half thinks I’m Sophie.”

“You’re pulling it off extraordinarily well, I must admit.”

“Turns out a lot of people are quite good liars. I’m not sure if that information fascinates me or scares me,” I admitted. “Didn’t you say you were bringing Ellie?”

Helena nodded. “I was, but Ed’s meeting with the supplier got rescheduled, so he said I could leave her with him instead. He didn’t have to tell me twice. She was up all night teething. He can have the screaming demon for a few hours.”

I grimaced. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you go back to bed?”

She laughed. “I’m used to running on Red Bull and sheer determination. Besides, I don’t often get time to myself, and I drifted apart from a lot of my friends when I moved to the farm and had Ellie.”

“I’d love to tell you I understand, but I don’t. Do you want to come in while I get changed?”

“Sure.” Helena followed me to the front door. “It was hard. Cait was pretty much the only person who didn’t forget I existed after I got married, but I don’t even get to see her as much as I’d like. I was quite happy when Mum said she’d hired Camilla—I liked her when we met.”

“And you got me instead. Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. On the contrary, I’m more than thrilled to have met you.” She touched my shoulder with a smile. “You’re charming almost my entire family, aren’t you?”

“Which is hilarious when you consider I’m about as charming as a pig rolling in its own shit.” I laughed. “Give me two seconds. I’ll get changed and be right out.”

“Don’t rush.”

I walked into the bedroom and pulled on the clothes I’d laid out before Camilla had called me. I was glad I’d placed an order online that had given me something to wear, although I was seriously lacking in something appropriate for the party. I hoped I’d be able to get away with a trouser suit—I’d brought one of those for the initial meeting—given that I’d be behind the scenes and not actually participating.

If not, oh well.

It was going to have to do.

“I helped myself to your biscuits. I hope you don’t mind.” Helena bit into a custard cream with a sheepish smile.

Laughing, I shook my head. “Help yourself. They’re only biscuits.”

“Henry told me you turned him down yesterday.”

I hesitated. “I did.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with Hugo, would it?”

“Don’t make me find another lunch date, Helena.”

She giggled, putting the lid back on the biscuit tin. “There’s clearly something between the two of you. Grandma is too busy annoying Mum to notice, Mum lets that kind of thing go over her head, Dad doesn’t care, and Henry is about as observant as a bat.”

“Bats are blind.”

“That’s my point.” She leant against the table. “I know he’s been here the last three nights.”

I paused, swallowing. “How do you know that?”

“I know everything.” It was her turn to pause. “Actually, Cait knows everything. She saw him heading in this direction last night.”

“It was an accident?”

“Him being seen or him being here?” She grinned, her eyes twinkling in the same playful way that Hugo’s did. “Have either of you truly thought this through?”

“I can’t speak for him, but I know I’ve thought it over one million times and deduced it’s a terribly bad idea, so that’s why I keep doing it.”

“I thought as much.” She paused. “Mum thinks he’s seeing someone. I spoke to Rupert this morning on the phone, and he overheard her asking Nancy to see if she can find out anything.”

Why was it always fucking Nancy?

“Have you told Hugo?”

“He’s been on one of the farms all morning. I haven’t had a chance to speak with him yet.” She shifted uncomfortably. “You’re both going to have to be extremely careful if you continue this for the rest of your time here. If Nancy finds out you’re the one he’s spending his time with, I don’t doubt she’ll tell Mum everything.”

An uncomfortable feeling formed in the pit of my stomach.

Hugo and I had to stop this. I’d solved the problem of Camilla, but now Nancy was an issue. This was the only way to make sure everyone got out of this situation unscathed.

We’d only slept together twice. It didn’t mean anything. It was only sex.

Until I saw the look in his eye when he found out that Henry had asked me to dinner.

That was not a look of a man who was only in it for the sex.

It mirrored the way I imagined I’d looked at the thought of his mum setting him up with someone else.

I had some very real feelings for Hugo, but it didn’t matter. They were misplaced and misguided, and they had to disappear now.

“I’ll put an end to it,” I told her, meeting her gaze. “With Camilla not coming, it’s for the best.”

Helena tilted her head to the side. “For who?”

I couldn’t answer that.

***

“That’s not the table layout.” I looked at the plan Hugo and I had finalised what felt like one thousand times. “This is the layout and the seating plan.”

Lucy, the woman in charge of decorating the ballroom, took it from me. “That’s not the one I have.”

“The one you have is wrong,” I replied. “This is the only seating plan and the one that should have been sent to you. In fact, I sent it to you.”

“Yes, but I received an email yesterday from your assistant saying the plan had changed and we needed less table decorations.” She motioned to the pile of boxes behind her. “Less table decorations.”

“My assistant?” I blinked at her. Camilla. Be Camilla. “I don’t have staff. I’m the only person who works for me.”

She frowned. “I definitely got an email from someone who said they worked with you.”

I took a deep breath. “Who was it?”

“They said they were assisting you in the preparations and that you’d requested a new table plan be sent over.” Lucy pulled her phone out of her pocket and tapped and scrolled. “Here. See it for yourself.”

I took the phone and read it. It came from an email related to the Devon family. “Nobody here is my assistant. They’ve helped me, but nobody is assigned on a formal basis. I don’t know who sent you that, but they were wrong.”

“Well, then my boss is going to be very pleased that we do, in fact, need those other decorations,” she replied, putting her phone back in her pocket. “She was furious yesterday that almost a third of it had been cancelled the day before we were due to deliver it all.”

“I can imagine. Can you get it here tomorrow?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. I believe we’re making a delivery here again anyway. Do you mind if I go and call her and let her know?”

“No, please do. I’ll see if I can find out who sent that email.” I had a pretty good idea who was behind it. “If you have time this afternoon, can we go over the plans and make sure they match up? And can you forward that email to me, please?”

Lucy nodded. “I’d be happy to. I’d rather we not make any mistakes.”

Amen.

I was very much in agreement with that.

“Me, too,” I replied, mostly to myself as she exited the ballroom and I looked around at the craziness.

Lunch with Helena and Evelyn had been the hoot I’d expected it to be, and we’d actually managed to extract some birthday present ideas out of the older woman. Granted, skydiving probably wasn’t going to be one that was purchased, but the idea was nice.

I also had to talk to Hugo.

This latest hiccup made it clearer than ever that Nancy was trying to sabotage me from the inside out, and there was no way we could sleep together again.

It was for the best.

It wasn’t like we were wham, bam, thank you ma’am-ing it over there. It was the conversations and hanging out that made it harder, and that was where the stupid little emotions were coming from.

That needed to stop before it all got too crazy, and I felt things I couldn’t take back.

I said that like it wasn’t already too late.

I took a deep breath and looked around. There was nothing I could do in here as everything was being unpacked. It felt as though I’d been in Moorhaven for much longer than I had, and I had both too much to do and not enough. A lot of it now was observing and making sure everything went to plan, which meant I felt as though I was at a loose end today.

There was a lot happening.

But not… for me to do. Which was a weird feeling. I’d spent the last two days finalising everything and I couldn’t believe Cam did this as many times as she did.

I had a headache from it all.

“Camilla.”

I turned at the sound of Henry’s voice. “Hey.”

He smiled warmly, letting me know everything was okay. “Hey. Have you spoken to Nancy today? She was looking for you this morning.”

I paused. “No. She hasn’t come looking for me, either, and I’ve been here for an hour.”

“Oh.”

“She wants you to go to her office.” Hugo leaned against the doorframe with a smirk.

My heart fluttered.

“I’d rather die,” I muttered, turning away from them both. “I’m too busy to go running around after her. She knows exactly where I am.”

“Well, I’m not passing that message on,” Henry said from behind me. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Yes, keep that woman as far away from me as possible.” I picked my clipboard up off the nearest table and looked at it. “Who is Anthony and where can I find him?” I asked them, looking over my shoulder at them.

“He’s one of the footmen,” Hugo replied. “Why do you need him?”

“He’s in charge of the tables. I need to talk to him.”

“I think he’s outside,” Henry said. “Dad needed him this morning to clean one of the cars.”

I waited. “Is nobody going to offer to take me?”

Hugo’s lips twitched. “I’ll take you. Come on.”

“Thank you.” I flipped the piece of paper back down and followed him out of the ballroom. “That was harder than it needed to be.”

He looked over at me. “You seem stressed.”

“Do I? Fancy that. Nothing to do with me being stressed.”

“Hey.” He took my arm and pulled me off into a side room I’d never been in before.

Another living room.

Of course.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked away from him. “I just have a lot to do.”

“Sophie.” He touched the side of my face and forced me to meet his eyes. “What’s. Wrong?”

Everything, I wanted to say.

“The decorating company was sent a wrong version of the table plan with less tables from someone claiming to be my assistant,” was what I actually said.

He stilled. “You think Nancy did it?”

“Lucy showed me the email. It came from someone within the working household and was sent after I confirmed the plan. I need to make sure Anthony has the correct one.”

“What’s happening with the decorations? Do they have enough?”

“Yes. It was sent yesterday, and Lucy said her boss was furious at the change. Thankfully, everything was ordered for my plan, not the other one.”

He rubbed his hand down his face. “I can’t believe she’d do this.”

“Really? Nancy has hated me since she laid eyes on me. She’s fully determined to sabotage this, probably so she can swoop in and try to fix it.” I hugged the clipboard to my body. “Camilla is staying in Norway until the day of the party and not coming here, so I just have to push through the next several days and I can go back to my life.” I walked past him and opened the door, moving towards the front door.

“Whoa, whoa,” Hugo said, rushing after me. “Why don’t you take a break?”

“I have things to do, Hugo. Can you just take me to Anthony, please?”

Confusion flashed in his eyes, and I hated myself for how I was speaking to him.

Yes, I was stressed.

Yes, this newest attempt by Nancy to circumnavigate my plans was part of that, but part of it was because I had to put an end to the very tiny fling we’d started.

I didn’t want to do that.

One look at him in the doorway of the ballroom, leaning against the frame with his white t-shirt and his green eyes and his smirking lips, and all my bravado to end it had disappeared.

“All right,” Hugo said slowly. “Let’s get this sorted out.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – SOPHIE

Tell You Tomorrow

I was so tired.

I wasn’t even sure I had the energy to get in my car and leave Cavendish House. It was past ten o’clock and I’d spent the entire afternoon double-checking with all the service providers that the information they had was correct. I’d even had to reiterate to them all that unless the information came from my email address, it was incorrect.

And to tell me if they got any emails or calls stating otherwise.

I’d spoken to more people in one afternoon today than I usually did in a week.

I’d started my day by asking myself how Camilla did this, and I knew.

She didn’t have a Nancy to contend with.

I was such an easy target for someone like Nancy. She had a vindictive streak and clear ambitions to ultimately become the only person the duchess relied on for anything, and the fact I’d walked in here and not known what I was doing meant her job was too easy.

As far as she was concerned, I was easy to break.

She hadn’t counted on me being a bit of a pain in the arse. As unorganised as I was, the help I’d gotten from Hugo and Henry had meant I’d been able to form some kind of a system.

The system had now reached chaos level, and this was where I was most comfortable.

Chaos was where I thrived.

I was walking chaos most of the time.

Unfortunately for today, chaos was now tired.

“What on Earth are you still doing here?”

I looked up at the duke’s voice. “Oh. Lord Devon. I’m sorry.”

He held up his hands, shaking his head. “I thought you’d left hours ago. My dear girl, have you had anything to eat this evening?” He walked into the room. “You look exhausted.”

I rubbed my hand over my face. “One of the plans was wrong and I had to handle it today,” I half-lied. “I got finished about ten minutes ago.”

“Goodness me. That’s a no, then. Let’s get you some food.”

“I’m okay, really. I think I’m going to drive home and go to bed.”

He looked at me with that kind of fatherly worry. “You do not look as though you’re in a fit state to drive yourself anywhere.”

He wasn’t exactly wrong. Especially not on these dark, winding, still unfamiliar country lanes.

“If there’s nobody else, I’ll take you back to Bluebell Cottage myself.” He tucked his book against his body. “Wait here.”

I nodded tiredly, and as soon as he was gone again, I dropped my head onto my arms and sighed. The few minutes of silence that followed were wonderful, and familiar approaching footsteps made me look in the direction of the door.

Hugo stood there with a small smile playing on his lips. He was wearing checked pyjama bottoms and a black hooded jumper, and he leaned against the doorframe with his arms folded across his chest. “Why are you still here?”

I motioned to all my crap over the table. “Had to fix the mess.”

“Sophie, it’s past ten. You were supposed to leave at six.”

“Had to fix the mess,” I muttered again. “Make sure nothing else was wrong.”

“There’s a spare room here. Do you want to stay here and run home in the morning?”

I shook my head.

“Right. Let’s clear this up and get you out of here.” He walked into the room and looked at my mess. “That really is a mess.”

“Mhmm,” I mumbled. “Everything else was right, though. Just the floorplans. Warned everyone.”

Hugo gently brushed his hand over the back of my head and started gathering everything up.

“Told them if it’s not from me it’s not—” I paused to yawn, then shivered. “Ooft. It’s not real,” I finished after a second. “My brain has turned to mush.”

“It certainly sounds like it. Here.”

I sat up straight with a heavy sigh. He’d gathered everything up into one pile, and I put it into the folder, closed it, and yawned again.

“Bloody hell, Soph,” he said softly. “You can’t do this to yourself over a stupid party.”

“Mmph.” I wasn’t sure I was capable of forming a complete sentence. I’d been switched “on” for so long that my brain was no longer working the right way, and there was a very high chance I was going to be asleep by the time we reached the cottage.

Hugo took the folder and my bag, then wrapped one arm around my waist. He might have been holding me up—I was honestly too tired to even tell, and the process of getting into his car and getting home was nothing but a sleepy blur for me. I didn’t even know we were there until he reached over and brushed the back of his fingers over my cheek.

“Where are your keys?” he asked me softly.

“In my pocket.” I dug them out and handed them to him with a yawn, and we both got out of the car.

I trudged up to the door behind him, almost tripping over my own feet at one point. I definitely would have tripped on the step going inside if it weren’t for Hugo seeing it happen and catching me.

Him having to take me home had to be getting old.

“This is becoming a habit,” he muttered, letting me inside.

“I didn’t ask you to take me home. I could have driven,” I replied. Yawning. Again.

Always with the yawning.

He glanced back at me. “Yeah. You could have driven yourself. Into a hedgerow.”

Perhaps.

I flopped down onto the sofa and, after resting my head against the back of the cushions, closed my eyes.

“Sophie?”

“Mmph?” I replied without opening them.

“You can’t sleep there.”

“I could sleep in a pond.”

Hugo sighed, and the next thing I felt was his arms sliding under my back and my knees as he scooped me up.

“What are you doing?” I asked sleepily.

“Putting you to bed. Sleep in your jeans, if you must, but you can’t sleep on the sofa. You’ll only wake up with a sore neck tomorrow morning.” He carried me through the cottage. “Mind your head.”

I rolled it so my head was resting on his shoulder, and the next thing I felt was him putting me on the bed. I kicked off my shoes and yanked the tousled covers over my body, once again yawning as the mattress dipped.

“What are you doing?”

“Come here.” He was on top of the covers, but he pulled me against him, and I rolled over to rest my head on his chest.

I knew I shouldn’t.

I knew this was bad and it would make ending it harder, but there was a huge part of me that couldn’t turn away from his touch.

His arm was wrapped tightly around me, and the rise and fall of his chest was as soothing as the way he stroked my hair.

I’d never felt this comfortable in my entire life.

That scared me.

A lot.

***

I shifted, stretching my legs right out. Man, it felt so good to do that, and I kept the stretch in place until my muscles felt as though they were going to cramp up instead.

Stupid muscles.

There was nothing better than a stretch after a hard sleep. I could barely remember getting home last night, but I knew Hugo had been the one responsible for bringing me back.

Hugo.

Shit.

I’d fallen asleep in his arms.

In my bed.

What if he’d fallen asleep? I was almost afraid to look, so I crept one hand out to the other side of the bed and felt for him.

Nope.

Nothing.

I opened my eyes and rolled my head to the side. He was gone, but there was a sheet of paper on the pillow with my name scrawled on top.

I sat up and unfolded it.

Phone died. Woke at 5 and went home, text me when you’re ready, and I’ll come and get you.

I was not going to wait until I was ready to leave.

He stayed here until five? Oh, my God. How was I supposed to explain that? How was he? There was no explaining that.

My phone wasn’t in the bedroom, and I was wearing the same things I’d fallen asleep in last night. Wonderful. This day was going terribly.

I located my phone in the kitchen and picked it up. It only had four percent battery, so I took it back through the bedroom and plugged it in, then checked my notifications.

CAMILLA: Did you send the email?

Shit.

ME: Sorry. In my drafts. Give me an hour.

I winced at the lie and pulled up my chat with Hugo.

ME: YOU FELL ASLEEP HERE????

ME: YOU DINGBAT

I also needed to get out of these clothes. A shower had to be my next mission. I felt gross and icky, and absolutely none of the stress I’d felt yesterday had disappeared in any way, shape, or form.

I soaked under a hot shower for far too long, then wrapped myself in two towels and went back to my phone.

HUGO: I was tired!!!!

ME: Did anyone see you return??

HUGO: My mother.

Oh, for the love of God.

This was a disaster.

ME: HUGO.

HUGO: She thinks I took you home then went to see my secret girlfriend.

ME: I swear to God…

HUGO: She knows you were up late working. Answer your door.

ME: Why? I can’t. I just took a shower and I’m not dressed.

HUGO: You’re wet and naked? Excellent. Even more reason to.

Was he… outside?

I put my phone down and went back into the bathroom. It overlooked the front garden, and I opened the window so I could see.

He was at the door.

With what looked like food.

Well, that was the way to my heart.

If any woman told you otherwise, she was a psychopath.

Women fucking loved food.

I darted down to let him in. “Quickly!”

“Why? Are you afraid the sheep will start a rampage?” He looked me over. “You are wet and naked. It’s a valid fear.”

“Wet and naked after a shower? Shocking. I thought a shower was something one did outside, in the sunshine, fully clothed.” I rolled my eyes and shut the door behind me. “Is that food?”

He nodded. “I was instructed to bring you breakfast to thank you for all your hard work last night.”

I glanced at the bag. “By your mother? Is it poisoned? I know I wanted to be a princess when I was a kid, but Snow White wasn’t my first choice.”

“It came from the bakery, and I don’t think Alice is on payroll.” His lips twitched into a smile. “Actually, we spoke this morning, and I told her about the table thing. She didn’t realise you were here so late and appreciated what you did to make sure there were no other miscommunications.”

“Was she angry?”

“She was mildly irritated.”

“So a regular person’s raging mad.”

“I think she blames the company, actually. Thinks there was an error in communication on their end.”

“Your mother is making excuses for me? What kind of fucking parallel universe have I woken up in?”

“Same one I’m in,” Hugo replied, taking the food through to the kitchen. “Either way, this is her thank you. There’s nothing she appreciates more than a solid work ethic, and I think you earnt some brownie points yesterday.”

“What was I supposed to do? Sit and wait for someone else to tell me what kind of fuck up was coming my way?” I opened the fridge and pulled out a carton of apple juice. “I don’t know what else Nancy has done or will do. I’m not sure she knows that I know she’s trying to take me down.”

He blinked at me for a second. “She probably will today.”

“Excellent. Then I might throw something at her.”

“Now that will get you fired.”

“Even better. Then I can go and get peace and quiet in my flat.” I harrumphed and poured apple juice into a glass. “Do you want one?”

“Do you really miss London that badly?”

I set the carton down and met his gaze. “I don’t know. I guess. It’s where I live. It’s my home.”

“Is it? Home isn’t always where you live.”

“I like it here, but I could say the same when I go to my parents’ house. I guess that now that the party is within touching distance, I’m feeling a bit homesick, that’s all.”

Hugo nodded slowly. “I get that.”

“Do you?” I picked up the glass and sipped. “Because the way you just asked me that question says you don’t.”

His chest rose and fell with a deep breath, and he looked at me across the table. “A part of me wishes things were different.”

Stupid butterflies.

Stupid fluttering.

Stupid feelings.

“But they’re not,” I said softly, holding his gaze. “In a few days, I will go back to London and our lives will resume as normal.”

He stared at me for a moment before he took my glass of juice.

I huffed but grabbed another glass and poured it before I flipped my head forwards and removed the towel from my hair. I straightened and looked over at him as I squeezed out the excess water.

“They should go back to normal now, Hugo.”

He snapped his gaze to me. “What?”

“We shouldn’t…” I waved a hand half-heartedly between us. “Nancy is trying to find out who you’re seeing, and last night was a close call. If she finds out that you were here until five, she’ll tell your mum everything and it’ll all go to shit.”

“You’ve been speaking to my sister too much.”

“But it’s true and you know it!”

He said nothing.

“I’m so close to pulling this whole lying bullshit off. Camilla will forgive me, and when it’s all said and done, she can claim she had no idea and be able to be honest about it.” I set the towel down on the back of a chair and looked at him. “I just need to get through five more days and it’s over, Hugo.”

“What if I don’t want that?”

“Does it matter?”

“So my feelings don’t matter?”

“I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.”

He leant forwards and held my gaze. “How did you mean it, Sophie? Explain it to me. Because you’re doing an awful lot of circling around a topic that I’m not sure you even want to be discussing.”

I swallowed. “I was always leaving. We discussed that before we slept together. We haven’t known each other that long—ten days. It’s insane to think there’s anything more to this than just lust.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” Hugo got up and rounded the table. “I don’t think it’s insane to think there’s a little something more to this than just lust, and I don’t want to give up before we’ve had a chance to find out for real.”

“I think this is a terrible idea.”

“It’s always been a terrible idea.”

“That doesn’t soothe me at all.”

He reached up, cupping my face, and pulled me in close to him. “Humour me until you leave.”

I averted my gaze. “I just—I don’t…” I trailed off with a sigh.

“You don’t want to end this right now any more than I do, Soph. Like you said, you’re leaving anyway, so if you leave and don’t want anything more, I’ll leave you alone. I’ll delete your number, and you’ll never see me again.”

I didn’t like the idea of that at all.

Which was the problem.

I slid my hands up his chest and closed my eyes. I didn’t know how it was possible to feel this way this quickly, but I did know that he was right. I didn’t want to end it, and at this point, one more risk didn’t feel like such a big thing anymore.

It was probably a mistake, but as Hugo’s lips found mine and a shiver of delight snaked down my spine, I didn’t care. I didn’t care that we were being reckless and idiotic, and I cared even less when he scooted my short arse up onto the dining table and parted my legs, stepping between them.

Or as he kissed down my neck.

Or as he freed my towel and let it drop behind me.

Or as he dropped to the chair and buried his face between my legs, using his tongue to toy with me until my hips bucked.

And I most definitely, certainly, absolutely did not care as he stood, rolled on a condom, and eased inside me.

For that moment, nothing else mattered than how it felt to be so close to him. How it felt to be this connected, this in tune, this inexplicably tied through the most physical of touches.

There was just me and him.

And a part of me wanted to keep it that way forever.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – HUGO

Mother Grandma Knows Best

“Your staring is glaringly obvious.”

I turned to Grandma. “What are you talking about? You’re not even paying attention to what’s going on. You’re doing your crossword.”

“I finished it twenty minutes ago. It was too easy. If your clue is a wartime Prime Minister, it’s obviously Churchill. Chamberlain was a right git.” She set the newspaper down and leant into me. “You’ve spent the last thirty minutes staring at her.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do. That’s why you’re lying.” Grandma leant in. “Do you fancy her?”

“Grandma.” I shook my head. “Give it a rest.”

“She’s cute.”

“You’ve mentioned it before.”

“It bears repeating.” She peered over at where Sophie was discussing the decorations with Lucy. “I wouldn’t be upset if you married her.”

“You’re getting carried away. Do you need a lie down?”

“I’m almost eighty. I always need a lie down.” She sniffed and looked around. “You should ask her out.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, that’s right. You’re seeing someone, according to your mother. Is it her?”

“I’m not seeing Camilla.” Technically, that was true.

She tapped her finger against her lips. “She said her name was Sandra. No, Sophie. Who is she?”

“Nice try. I’m not saying anything. Like I told Mum, it’s new, and I don’t know where it’s going.”

I knew where I wanted it to go.

I didn’t want her to leave at all.

I didn’t know how we’d get around that, but there had to be a way to let the truth come out.

There was something about her.

Something about the way she made me feel. I’d meant every word I’d said to her this morning—I didn’t want her to leave. I wanted things to be different. I wanted us to be able to try a relationship for real and see if we could make it work.

The intensity of my feelings for her terrified me a little.

I’d never been so drawn to anyone in my life, and when I put it all together, it put me in a position I’d never been in before.

The one where I was pretty sure I’d met the woman I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with.

I couldn’t admit that out loud. Everyone would think I was insane, because there wasn’t really any way for me to know that this quickly.

Yet I did.

A niggle.

A little one in the back of my mind, in the deepest part of my stomach.

It told me that Sophie was the person I’d been waiting for.

She was the one.

And I didn’t know how to convince her of that.

“You’re staring again,” Grandma said, flipping through the paper. “Why do they put these stupid sudoku things in? Who thinks number games are fun? What kind of sadists enjoy these?”

I peered over. “I’ve never been able to figure those out.”

“That’s because they’re bloody stupid.” Grandma closed the paper and eyed me. “I see you’ve finally stopped looking at the girl.”

“Grandma. Give it a rest, would you?”

“I will not. You definitely have a crush on her.”

“Is there nothing else you can do? You’re repeating yourself.”

“Yes. I can eat. I’m hungry.” She pushed up to standing and hobbled off towards the door, and I shook my head after her.

The woman was like a dog with a bone. If she got one idea, that was it. There was no getting it out of her head.

She wasn’t wrong, of course, but still.

I didn’t want her to actually figure it out.

I had to be more careful.

“Is everything all right this afternoon?” I asked Sophie, quietly coming up behind her. “No issues?”

She nodded. “Thankfully. It was a lot of work yesterday, but I think it might have saved it from anything going wrong. If there is anything else, I’ll know about it.”

“Good. Have you had lunch yet?”

“I haven’t. I wanted to make sure this was all going smoothly first.”

“Come and get something to eat.” I rested my hand on her upper back. “Or you’ll end up in the same situation you did yesterday.”

She rolled her eyes at me, but she put down the clipboard and followed me out of the ballroom all the same.

“What do you want to do? Eat here or go into the village and get something?”

Sophie shrugged. “I don’t know. Wouldn’t the village be a little suspicious?”

“I suppose, but it’s not like you’ll get much more privacy here.”

“It’s just easier to stay here. Besides, I’m not sure I’m comfortable leaving.”

I understood that. “All right, then. Any specific requests?” I asked as we entered the kitchen, rolling up my sleeves.

Sophie stopped. “You’re going to cook?”

“I can cook.”

“You can?”

I turned around and looked at her. “Why are you so horrified by that?”

“I’m not horrified.” She shuffled closer to the island. “I just… didn’t peg you for much of a chef.”

I held out my hands. “What do you want to eat?”

“That depends what you can cook. Preferably the thing with the least chance of giving me food poisoning.”

I stared at her, and the corners of her mouth twitched for a moment before she dropped her head and averted her gaze. Her shoulders shook as a tiny laugh escaped her, and she walked up to the island.

“Sorry. That was mean.”

I shook my head and opened the fridge. “You’re so lucky you’re cute.”

She really did laugh at that. “Not my favourite way to be described.”

“I know. That’s why I use it.” I looked inside the fridge and found some salads that were already prepacked by the chef Mum hired. “Prawn or chicken salad?”

“Chicken, please. I guess.”

“Great.” I took out two chicken salads and put one in front of her.

“You are such a great cook I didn’t even see you do it,” she deadpanned.

Laughing, I handed her a fork and sat down with her. “I did intend to cook, but I saw these and thought it might be easier.”

Sophie shook her head, taking the fork from me. “And you wonder why I was shocked that you said you can cook.”

I opened my salad. “I can cook.”

“He can cook,” Dad said, walking into the kitchen. “It’s one of those little things he tries not to do but is actually very good at.”

Sophie frowned at me. “I don’t believe it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“The polite thing to do is offer to cook her dinner,” Dad mused, looking through the fridge. “She’s working hard enough. Unlike you.”

She tried not to laugh.

“Blimey, Dad. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?”

He looked back at me with a smile. “I had to talk to Nancy.”

Yep.

That would do it.

Not even Sophie could keep her expression under control, and Dad grinned when he saw her.

“Well?” he asked me. “Are you going to offer to cook her dinner?”

I looked over at her. “I don’t mind.”

Sophie hesitated, then said, “Sure. Prove me wrong.”

“That means you’re on dessert,” I replied, turning my attention back to my salad.

“What’s the time?”

“Why?”

“I need to make sure I have enough time to go to the bakery.”

I shook my head. “That’s not the deal.”

“Oh, it is, unless you want your dessert to taste like it’s been bathed in charcoal.”

Dad chuckled and pulled a fork from the drawer, then picked his salad up. “I wouldn’t take that risk. You definitely want to make sure at least one of your dishes is edible.” He winked at Sophie and left, laughing happily to himself.

“Hey!” I called after him.

Sophie looked at me, biting the inside of her cheek.

“What?” I fought a smile.

“I think your dad just tried to set us up.”

“Well.” I stabbed a piece of chicken with my fork. “At least you know where I get my good taste from.”

***

We’d decided that Bluebell Cottage was the best place for me to cook. Cavendish House was too busy, and between Grandma’s comments and Dad’s strong-arming into this, we both agreed that having dinner together, alone, at my house wasn’t the best idea.

In an event to stop my mother asking questions, Dad had told me before I left that he was going to say I was out with a few friends.

Most of my friends were in London, so God knows how he was getting himself out of that one.

That wasn’t my problem, though.

My problem was that Sophie was wearing a hoodie and shorts that were a little too short for me to fully focus on what I was doing.

“What are you cooking?” She cocked her hip against the counter and leant forwards.

I peered over at her. “Salmon.”

“I like salmon.” She paused. “Are you going to kill me with it or no?”

“I’d prefer not to. I’m quite fond of you being alive.” I pulled a bottle of wine out of the bag and set it down in front of her.

“Salmon? Wine? Do you have candles in there, too, Romeo?”

I looked her dead in the eye and pulled out a bag of tealights.

Sophie glanced down at them and bit her lower lip to stop her smile forming. “Tealights.”

“It was all they had.” I snorted. “I figured you’d make a smartass comment, so here we are.”

“Shit. You know me too well.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I just know that you have a response for everything, so I covered my bases.”

“What if I didn’t for this?”

“I’d have made an excuse for why I had them.” I smirked and finished taking everything out of the bag, then balled it up. “Scoot over. You’re in the way.”

She shuffled a few steps away and reached up to pull out two wine glasses. “I assume you’re having one?”

“A small one,” I replied. “And I do need some to cook with.”

“The last time I drank a lot of wine around you, it ended badly. Don’t worry.”

“I disagree. I think it had a pretty good outcome in the end.” I rubbed the seasoning over the fish and put the lemon I’d already sliced on top, then washed my hands and covered the dish with foil.

Sophie pushed a small glass my way. “A pretty good outcome, really? This mess we’re in?”

“I like the mess we’re in.” My lips tugged it. “I find it to be mutually beneficial.”

“Mutually beneficial with an expiry date.”

“You’ve always got to put a dampener on the mood, haven’t you?”

“Just being realistic.”

I tossed the asparagus into the steamer and turned to her. “Can we pretend for one night that this doesn’t have to end? What do you think?”

She blinked at me, shrugging one shoulder. “I don’t know. I feel like that’s dangerous.”

“Everything we’re doing here is dangerous.” I took the glass from her and set it down carefully.

Sophie flattened her hands against my chest as I pulled her into me, and she gazed up at me with a sparkle in her eyes that tugged right at my heart.

She could bring it up all she liked.

She didn’t want this to have an expiry date either.

I didn’t need to be psychic to know that. I could see it in her eyes—in the way they darkened when it was brought up, how her lips turned down just enough that the sadness was undeniable.

“For right now,” I said softly, cupping the side of her face. “We’ve been gifted an evening where we don’t have to lie or sneak around. Let’s just pretend for one evening that this doesn’t have to end in a few days.”

She turned her face into my hand with her eyes fluttering shut. She nodded, the tiniest amount, and I dipped my down to kiss her. Her lips gently met mine, and I pulled her tighter against my body, sliding my hand around to the back of her head.

Sophie’s fingers clenched and she fisted my t-shirt, and my cock throbbed when her hips pressed against mine.

“We need to eat,” I murmured, breaking the kiss.

She sighed. “Don’t grab me like that, then.”

I kissed her again, then let her go. “You’ll soon complain if you’re hungry.”

“True.” She turned to the ingredients left on the counter. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“After you had to buy a cake for dessert? I think not.”

“Hey, I said I can’t bake. I can cook.”

I eyed her. “Peel those potatoes.”

“Great. That’s the exciting task I was hoping for.” She opened the cutlery drawer and pulled out the potato peeler.

“Pass it here. I’ll do it.”

“Nope. I’m here now.” She tore open the bag of potatoes and grabbed the biggest one, shot me a determined look, and ran the peeler down the potato.

And her knuckle.

Sophie dropped her head and looked at her finger. “That… really hurts.”

I briefly closed my eyes and chuckled.

“This is not funny!”

I took her wrist between my fingers and guided her to the sink, then ran her bleeding knuckle under the tap. “Stay there.”

She winced. “What an idiot.”

“I’m going to guess this is why you didn’t want to peel potatoes.” I searched the cupboards for a First Aid kit, finally finding one at the back of the cupboard under the sink. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

“I might have done,” she mumbled.

“Soph.”

“Twice.”

I laughed as I grabbed the kitchen towel roll and tore off several squares. “Hold this against it while I find out a big enough plaster for that.”

She shut off the tap and did as I said. It didn’t take me long to find a big plaster, and we quickly worked together to get it on her cut before it started to bleed again.

“I think I’ll handle the potatoes,” I teased her.

She pouted. “What can I do?”

“Sit down, drink your wine, and look pretty. That might be the safest thing for you to do in the kitchen right now.”

“That’s rude.” Sophie paused. “True, but rude.”

I held up her hand. “Necessary.”

“All right, all right. Will you at least cook with your shirt off, then?”

“Are you making demands?”

“Yes.”

I laughed and reached down, then pulled off my t-shirt. “There. Is that better?”

She grinned. “I’ve always wanted a half-naked man to cook in my kitchen.”

I held out my arms and bowed. “Your wish is my command.”

“Careful.” She sipped, peering over the rim of the wine glass. “That could get dicey.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” I leant over the island and cupped her chin. “If your requests are in line with me taking my shirt off, I’m more than happy to do whatever you’d like me to do.”

Her lips curved up. “I’m holding you to that.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX – SOPHIE

The Truth Hurts

Pretending is a tough one.

I would know. I’d been doing it for long enough, but my newest act was one I’d never been prepared for.

Pretending as though I wasn’t falling in love with Hugo.

After his dad’s pseudo not-a-date, it’d become uncomfortably clear to me that the feelings I’d developed for Hugo were beyond anything I could have imagined. I didn’t want to use the L-word because that came with a world of issues.

And vulnerability.

I wasn’t that great at vulnerability.

I didn’t know what I was going to do when I left. I was the one who kept bringing it up, but ever since that dinner date where I’d sliced off half my knuckle, I hadn’t been able to.

Forgetting that whatever we shared had a time limit had been my biggest mistake.

Because I almost had forgotten. For more than just that one night.

And now, with two days to go until the party, I was remembering again.

“We have a problem.” Helena ran into the library and shoved the door closed behind her. “Sophie.”

“What? Is something wrong with the party?”

She pressed her lips together. “Camilla’s here.”

I froze. Absolute terror hurtled through me, and nausea churned my stomach.

What?

What was she doing here?

There was no way she was here. She wasn’t supposed to be back in the UK—never mind here.

“She’s what?”

“Camilla’s here.” She held her hands flat against her stomach. “Oh, Soph, I—”

I cupped my hands around my nose and mouth and dropped onto the chair. “No. She’s still in Norway.”

“She’s not. Rupert has just let her in, and I ran in here. There’s a lot of confusion out there right now.”

“You have to get her,” I told her. “Bring her here and we can explain and—”

The library doors opened, revealing Rupert, the duchess, and Camilla.

I froze.

I’d never wanted to see my best friend less in my life.

“Camilla, this woman claims she’s Camilla. What’s going on here?” The duchess asked, looking at us all. “Helena, why did you run in here like a bat out of hell? I’m extremely confused and would like someone to clear it all up.”

Cam frowned at me. “Soph? I don’t understand.”

“Soph?” The duchess looked between us. “Who is Soph? Will someone please explain?”

Helena inhaled. “It’s a long story.”

“Will someone please tell it?” her mother shouted.

“What’s going on?” Hugo walked in with Henry on his heels. “Rupert mentioned something about there being too many—oh, shit.”

I looked at him.

Help.

Henry cleared his throat. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out!” The duchess was losing her patience if the tone of her voice was anything to go by.

Hugo and Henry shuffled closer to me, and so did Helena.

That was nice.

We could all go down together.

HMS Sophie.

It had quite the ring to it, didn’t it?

Cam took a step forward. “Soph, I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“She’s been lying to you.” Nancy walked into the library like she was Hercule fucking Poirot ready to solve the mystery that never was. “She’s not Camilla. Her name is Sophie Smith.”

Recognition flashed across the duchess’s face. “Sophie?”

Hugo stepped forward, but she held up her hand.

“No. Don’t you dare,” she warned him. “Someone needs to start talking and start talking now.”

Cam looked at me, confused. “Soph?”

I rubbed my hands over my face. Hugo reached out, but I shrugged him off, taking a step closer to Helena.

“I am not Camilla,” I said quietly. “I am, as Nancy said, Sophie Smith.”

“I don’t understand,” my best friend said softly. “Have you been pretending to be me?”

“It was a misunderstanding at first.” I glanced between her and the duchess. “Your email never made it here, and I wasn’t able to explain who I was during the first meeting. It was only for three days until you got here, and the duchess was in London, so—”

The duchess glared at me. “You thought you could leave it to her to explain.”

“With all due respect, that was not my choice and—”

“You have been lying to me ever since you arrived here. You’ve lied to me, my family, my staff.” She took a step back. “In my home.”

“I tried to tell you when I arrived, but—”

“And she’s been seeing Hugo.” A flash of a smug smile appeared on Nancy’s face as she stepped closer to the duchess, but it was quickly replaced with a mask of concern. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you that information.”

The duchess glanced down and whispered my name, then looked at Hugo. “You knew?”

He inhaled sharply. “Yes, I knew, but—”

“And you allowed her to lie to me?”

“I—”

“I cannot believe you, Hugo. Of all the things, I abhor liars, and you allowed this woman to do that to me for almost two weeks. Worse, you pursued a relationship with her and lied to me about it!”

“Mum—”

“What is even the truth here?”

“For the love of God, Anna.” Evelyn walked into the library preceded by her signature click-clack of her cane. “Why don’t you shut up and let someone talk? You might just find the answers you’re looking for.”

Oh, no.

Not Evelyn.

This was going from bad to worse.

She turned to me, and there was a warmth in her eyes that made my knees tremble.

She wasn’t angry at me.

“Go on, dear. Now is the time for truth, is it not?” she said kindly.

I nodded. It was.

“Soph?” Camilla flattened her hand against her chest. “I don’t understand.”

I took a deep breath and steeled myself ready to explain. From the very beginning. Everything.

But I wasn’t allowed.

“I would like you leave my house,” the duchess said. “Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing here, get out. And do not come back.”

Helena took a step towards her, but I turned to her.

“It’s fine. I should go. You and Hugo know everything anyway.” I touched her arm and collected my phone and keys from the table, then walked towards the door, only pausing close to Camilla. “Everything you need is either on the table or at the cottage.”

“Soph, I need you to explain.” Cam grabbed my hand. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

I shook her off and continued walking.

“For goodness’ sake, Anna,” Evelyn snapped. “Allow the girl to explain herself!”

“This is my house, and I will not be lied to in it!”

Helena barked out a laugh. “Then you need to fire Nancy, because that woman has been lying to you, too!”

Nancy gasped. “I beg your pardon?”

“Oho!” Evelyn chuckled, clapping her hands together. “Isn’t that a turn up for the books? I’d love to say I’m surprised, but I’m not.”

My footsteps faltered. How could they defend me? Helena, perhaps, but Evelyn? After I’d lied to her?

“Helena, I think it’s best you leave,” the duchess said to her daughter. “Your husband will be home soon and—”

“Hugo,” Helena said, making me squeeze my eyes closed. “Tell her the truth. I know you know it all.”

“Mum.” Hugo’s voice was weak. “She—she’s right.”

“Jesus Christ. Grow a pair.”

“I cannot believe you’d accuse me of lying,” Nancy said, interrupting what I was sure would be a sibling argument. “I would never do—”

“But you have been.” I turned back around and looked at her, and everyone else in the room did the same to me. “Haven’t you? You can stand there and be holier-than-thou, but you’ve been lying longer than I have.”

The duchess looked at me. “I believe I asked you to leave.”

“I’ll leave. Gladly,” I snapped. “But if you want to talk about liars, then I’ll tell you about one. Nancy knew who I was. She knew before I got here. She deleted the email Camilla sent her and claimed it went to her spam when that wasn’t true. Then, when I explained after our meeting, she told me to pretend for the time you were in London until Camilla was scheduled to arrive after the snowstorm in Norway.

“When she didn’t get back because her grandmother passed away, Nancy told me I had to figure it out and continue deceiving everyone or my best friend’s business was on the line. I didn’t even want to be here. I never should have been here.”

Anger bubbled inside me to the point I knew my skin was turning red and I didn’t even care. Adrenaline pumped through my veins at warp speed, and I turned to Camilla.

“I told you to take this job, but you never should have asked me to step in for you. The fact you couldn’t get here isn’t your fault. I would never blame you for that, ever, but you know as well as I do that I should never have been taking your place, and you should have done better checking in when I arrived. It was your job to make sure the message got across that you wouldn’t be the one showing up.”

She let out a slow breath and gave a small jerk of her head, and I knew she knew I was right.

I looked back at the duchess. “And all those mistakes? Those miscommunications? They were all over things that went via Nancy. She was working to actively sabotage Evelyn’s party because she was pissed she didn’t get the job.”

The duchess—actually, fuck that.

Anna.

She didn’t deserve my respect anymore.

Maybe she never had.

Anna’s jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon?”

“She hid my identity from you. The lack of menus in the invitations? She sent them out and didn’t include it in a deliberate act. As soon as the guest list was confirmed I had no say. She never gave either of us Kellie’s details as the baker, so we hired the bakery in the village until Hugo corrected me. She contacted the decorating company and pretended to be my assistant, giving them the wrong floor and seating plan so they didn’t originally ship us enough decorations despite me ordering them. And she would have cancelled the lemon cake for dessert if I hadn’t sat in this very room until past ten o’clock the other night calling every single person involved in this party to make sure all changes were directly communicated to me.”

Anna glared at me, but I caught Nancy taking a step back.

“Yeah. I was a step ahead of you,” I told her. “Nice try, but the chef called me this morning to protest the last-minute change, and I told them it was bullshit.”

Everyone’s eyes were firmly on me.

“Out,” Anna said. “Now.”

“It’ll be my pleasure. I hope you treat Camilla far better than you’ve treated me.” I took a step back and pressed my hand to my stomach. “I might have lied about who I was, but it came from a good place. I didn’t come here intending to deceive anyone. I came here to help my best friend, and the only people who ever bothered helping me were your children.” I glanced at Nancy. “It’s a shame you can’t say the same thing for the people whose job it actually is.”

Hugo stared at me from across the room. His expression was inscrutable, and I held his gaze for a moment before I turned to Camilla.

I wondered if he could see how sorry I was.

How much I’d miss him.

I was so done with everything.

“My laptop is on the table over there. It’s got all you need to know for the party. I’m going to pack and go back to London.” I turned to Nancy one last time. “I warned you that if I went down, I was going to take you with me.”

Then, I walked out.

“I knew I liked that one,” Evelyn said brightly.

“Sophie!” Hugo shouted after me, but I didn’t stop.

“Hugo, don’t you dare go after her!” Anna shouted, and there was more than one set of footsteps following me through the house.

“Give it a rest!” Hugo snapped at her. “I’m not letting her leave like that.”

“Yes, you are!” I shouted back, still walking.

“I’m fucking well not. Sophie!”

“Hugo, leave it,” Henry said, and there was a squabble as I picked up the speed and reached the main hallway.

I ran out of Cavendish House and across the driveway. The gravel crunched under my feet, and tears burnt my eyes and blurred my vision as I got in my car. I knew driving was stupid, but I needed to get out of here and I couldn’t go on foot. There’d be no other way to get home.

To London.

Where I belonged.

“Sophie!” Hugo bellowed.

I looked over to see him burst through the front door with Henry hot on his heels, and his dad, too.

Turning away, I put my foot down, thankful I’d parked facing towards the driveway this time.

Perhaps there was a part of me that had known I’d need a quick getaway today.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN – HUGO

Hurts Like Hell

I shoved Henry off me and ran down the steps after Sophie. “Sophie!”

It didn’t matter.

She couldn’t hear me.

She was gone.

I hit my pockets, but I didn’t have any keys in there. “I need my keys. I have to go after her. I—”

Dad stepped in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders. His gaze was a hectic cacophony of confusion and frustration, but also understanding and realisation. “There are times to chase, and times to breathe. Now is a time for breathing. For both of you.”

How?

How the fuck was I supposed to breathe?

Sophie had consumed my entire universe since the moment I’d seen her in the pub, and there was a finality in the way she’d looked at me before she’d walked out.

She’d wanted me to stand up for her. To back her up. To support her.

I hadn’t.

I’d done none of those fucking things.

“No,” I said to Dad, trying to walk around him. “I have to go after her. I have to—”

I have to tell her that I’m falling in love with her and she can’t leave.

“Hugo.” Dad didn’t let me go. “There are decisions that have to be made, questions to be asked, and stories to be told. We must figure out the truth. Your family needs you right now.”

My nostrils flared as I dragged my gaze from the darkness that had swallowed her car to my father’s eyes. “What if you’re stopping me going after someone that could be that to me right now?”

He sighed, his eyes softening. “Son. One step at a time.”

Every part of me ached with the need to go after her. Every single person in that room who’d known the truth hadn’t stood up for Sophie the way she’d deserved.

I should have stepped up, but I didn’t.

Shit, even my sister had spoken up.

Sophie deserved so much better than that.

“Let me go.” My words were a plea. “Dad. I have to go after her.”

Dad glanced over my shoulder. “If you go after her, you will do nothing but fight. If you want to argue, turn around and go back inside.”

“No, I have to—”

“She is no state to drive to London tonight,” he said softly. “If you wake up tomorrow with a clear head and wish to chase her to Singapore, I will happily book your plane ticket for you.”

I clenched my jaw.

“I can see how you feel about her. I like her. A lot.” His lips tugged up. “She’s vivacious. She’s got some balls, and I’m not surprised you have feelings for her. There’s a reason I suggested you make her dinner the other night.”

I fucking knew it.

“Your feelings will still be there tomorrow morning.”

“I can’t let her leave.”

“Yes, you can,” Dad said calmly. “Blame it on me. The local graveyard heard you shouting her name, so she certainly did. If we get several ghosts called Sophie show up, I shall blame you.”

I shook him off and touched my pockets again as if my keys would have magically appeared. “Sod this. I’ll walk.”

“Hugo Charles Devon, you stop right there.”

My father’s voice was so deathly calm in a way I’d never heard before that I had no choice.

“What are you going to do if you go after her? Can you bring her back to this? To that insanity inside that house?” He raised his eyebrows. “No. You cannot, and you know that.”

“I can’t let her—”

“And you won’t let her go.” His look was pointed. “You can let her, but you won’t. But you do need to step up now for your family.”

I shrugged him off and rubbed my hand through my hair. What if this meant I lost Sophie? She was alone here, and I couldn’t stand the idea of that.

“Hugo.”

I pulled my phone from my pocket and unlocked it.

ME: Need u 2 go 2 soph at cottage

I hit send on the message to Caitlyn and looked up at Dad. “I won’t leave,” I said to him. “But I won’t let her be alone, either.”

Dad looked at me in a way I’d never seen him do before. “I respect that. This discussion needs to happen now. Ready?”

CAIT: Fuck sake what did u lot do

CAIT: Omw, gonna kill u if u hurt her

“Why me? I’m not the head of this family. You are. Why is my job to go in there and demand the truth?” I questioned, shoving my phone in my pocket. “Why me?”

Dad smiled. “Because not all defence of family has to happen in front of them.” He stepped up to me and gripped my shoulder. “Son, if you believe Sophie is your family, then go in there and set her place in your family. Tell them why she deserves to be there. As far as I’m concerned, she’s earnt her place, but she can’t walk into this mess, and you know it.”

I inhaled deeply.

Every generation of an aristocratic family was a new court.

My family title was old—it was older than the reigning monarchy. If I wanted Sophie, I had to cement her place by my side.

Dad stepped away and inclined his head in the direction of the house.

Being heir was difficult. It was a standoff position where there was only so much you could do. I only had so much authority within the family, but if Dad was handing me free reign…

I briefly closed my eyes and inhaled, then met his gaze. “Thank you.”

It was fucking old and antiquated, but here we were.

I turned away from my father and walked up to the house. The only people there were Henry, Helena, and Rupert, and I turned to Rupert. “I would like my mother, Nancy, and Camilla back in the library in five minutes.”

Rupert glanced at my father, who nodded.

The butler inclined his head. “Of course, Lord Hugo.”

I looked at my siblings. “Come with me.”

***

“Where are your fucking balls?” Helena slammed the door shut behind her. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Sit down,” I shot back.

“Absolutely not. Where do you get off telling me what to do? I will—”

“Sit down, Helena.” I turned to her, then glanced at Henry. “We have five minutes to figure this shit out and convince our mother that Nancy is behind it. We all know the truth, so let’s figure out a line of attack before it’s too late.”

“It is too late, arsehole,” Helena snapped.

Henry sighed. “Go all out.”

“What?”

“You’re the only person she’ll listen to along with Dad. The two of you have to shut Mum down and force the truth. I’ll go and try to stop Sophie leaving, and Helena will back you up.”

I turned to Helena. “Will you?”

She sat back, folding her arms across her chest. “She’s the first friend I’ve made since I got married and pregnant and everyone ditched me. If you’ll note, I’m the one who stood up against our mother just now.”

The library doors opened, and the time for negotiation was over.

I hoped like fuck my dad had been honest when he’d told me to lead this.

Rupert opened the doors, and my mother, Nancy, and Camilla all filed into the room, followed quickly by Grandma.

“Where is my father?” I asked Rupert, noting that Henry quickly dipped out of the room.

He bowed his head. “His Grace will be with you momentarily.”

“Sit down,” I said firmly to everyone else.

I was the only one standing except my mother.

“That includes you, Mother,” I told her.

She folded her arms without moving. “I will not be ordered around by my son.”

“Sit down, Anna.” Dad strolled into the room and sat down. “There’s been a lot of deception in this house, and it’s time we got to the bottom of it.”

Mum turned her glare on him.

Grandma hobbled into the library again. “I told you this party was a bad idea, but does anyone listen to me? No, they do not. You people should listen to me more often.” She stopped when she realised the only people standing were me and Mum. “What’s going on? Is there a secret meeting? Are we all supposed to be sitting down?”

She turned to Mum and dragged her to a sofa where she shoved her back before sitting down in the nearest empty armchair herself. Helena choked back a small laugh.

“There. Sit down, Anna. You were making the place look untidy. Not that you need to be standing to do that, but still.” Grandma looked at me. “Now. What’s all this mess about Camilla and Sophie and Nancy being a big fat liar?”

That was one way to put it.

“Evelyn, you will not talk to her that way!”

“She’s been lying to you,” I said to Mum. “I know that for a fact. Everything Sophie told you is true. There was only ever one version of a seating plan and that was the final one. Nancy was responsible for ensuring the invitations went out correctly.” I turned to Camilla. “Did she ever tell you about Kellie? Who would be doing the cake?”

Camilla’s eyes widened, and she shook her head, quickly recovering from the shock. “I was given a bakery run by someone called Alice and one from a nearby village. I’m sorry, I haven’t looked at the information in a while.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Grandma said, reaching over and patting her knee. “Forgetting happens to the best of us.”

Camilla smiled gratefully.

“And when you emailed Nancy to tell her Sophie would be coming in your place?”

“I didn’t get a response. I had a lot of signal issues with the storm and then my grandmother fell ill, so I didn’t check in the way I should have. Soph was right about that.” She glanced down.

“You have a lot of hearsay,” Mum said. “But there’s no proof. Why would Nancy lie about it? Nobody wanted Evelyn’s party to be sabotaged.”

“I did,” Grandma said brightly. “Although the lemon cake was a step too bloody far.”

Dad shot her a look.

“We knew,” Helena said. “We didn’t know as much as Hugo until just now, I don’t think, but we knew.”

“You also knew her true identity and didn’t tell me,” Mum snapped at her.

“She was doing what she thought was best!” Helena shot back with just as much bite. “She was put in the most impossible situation by everyone around her and yet she still managed to pull it off. Everything on that table over there is her hard work. Wasn’t it just three or four days ago she was there until past ten p.m. working to make sure nothing went wrong? You were praising her work ethic the next day.”

“I should have been told!”

“You didn’t let her tell you,” Grandma said calmly. “She tried to say something on the first day, if I remember correctly, and you cut her off, then flounced off to the hairdressers.”

“You’ve spent time with her,” Mum said to her. “A lot of time. How can you defend her? She was lying and, apparently, conducting an affair with your grandson!”

Grandma looked at me. “I think affair is a rather sordid word, Anna. More to the point, I think it’s a gross underestimate of the true nature of their relationship, hmm?”

I held her gaze for a moment before I couldn’t anymore.

“That’s what I thought,” Grandma continued. “And I can defend the girl quite easily. As Helena said, she was in a difficult situation and did what she thought was best. Was it the wrong choice? Absolutely. But if it’s true that her friend’s business was threatened by someone within the household, then can you blame her?”

“Well?” Dad asked Nancy, tapping his fingers against the back of the sofa. “Were you aware of her real identity? And did you have a part in keeping that information secret?”

Camilla held out her phone. “I have my email here. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said to Dad.

“Quite all right, dear.” He leant forwards and took the phone, looking at the screen. “Sent two days before we met her.” He held the phone out to me, and I walked over and took it.

It was true.

It was all there.

Nancy had known.

I looked at Mum. “She knew. She kept it a secret. And I know one hundred percent that she’s done everything she could to ruin the party.”

“She didn’t do that good a job, did she?” Grandma asked, just as cheery as ever. “Darn thing is still going ahead.”

Mum stood up and threw up her hands. “I’m not listening to this. I need to lie down. I have a migraine.”

“Mother!” I called after her, but she walked out, ignoring me.

Dad shook his head. “Leave her, son. You know you won’t get a conversation out of her tonight.”

“Well, she has just found out that her right-hand woman is a lying, conniving, scheming—”

“Mother,” Dad warned her.

“—bitch,” Grandma finished with a smile at Nancy. “The question now is what do we do with you?”

Nancy’s jaw tensed.

Dad turned to me. “It’s on you.”

I took a deep breath and looked at her. “Luckily for you, it’s not my place to fire you.”

She relaxed.

“But you are suspended pending an investigation for improper conduct,” I said firmly. “Do not show up for work tomorrow. I don’t want to see you here until you’re ready to fully admit to my mother what you’ve been doing.”

Nancy glared at me.

“Rupert, please escort Ms Porter from the property.”

“Of course, Lord Hugo.” He all but marched her out of the library and closed the door behind him.

I let out a long breath and sat down, burying my head in my hands. My heart was thundering, and I couldn’t even blame my mother for walking out and going to have a lie down—my head was thumping like someone was hitting me with a brick.

“So, you’re Camilla,” Grandma said, breaking the silence. “The real one.”

I peered up.

Camilla smiled reluctantly. “Yes, I am.”

“I’m Evelyn. I’m in charge around here.”

Dad let out a small chuckle. “I’d love to argue, but I think we’ve had enough of that.”

“Oh, that’s my son. He’s the Duke of Devon, but you can call him George.” She frowned. “I don’t know why it took you so long to let Sophie call you George.”

Dad frowned. “I only spoke to her twice before I told her to use my name.”

“Twice too many.” Grandma sniffed. “That’s my granddaughter, Helena.”

Helena held up a hand. “Hi. We met at Olivia’s engagement party.”

Camilla smiled at her.

“And that’s Hugo. He’s going to be the duke. And apparently, he’s been shagging your best friend.”

“Grandma!” Helena said right as Dad called, “Mother!”

I rubbed my hands across my face and grimaced. “Grandma, it’s not really necessary, is it?”

“Neither was you shagging Sophie, but you still did it. More than once if she’s the girl you told your mother you were secretly seeing.”

“All right.” I stood up. “Camilla, not to be rude, but I need to go and see if I can stop her leaving.”

“Good luck with that,” she said softly. “I think I’m better off staying here for a little while.”

Helena smiled at her. “I’ll go over all the plans with you, don’t worry.”

“Ooh, me, too!” Grandma pushed up to standing using the arm of the sofa. “Let’s make some tea and get to it.”

“Watch her. She’ll try and change things, so don’t listen.” Dad nodded to me. “I think I should check on my wife. Excuse me.”

And I was going to hope like hell that Sophie hadn’t already left. It’d only been thirty minutes since everything had gone to shit, but the cottage was only five minutes away.

She was also angry and hurt enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if she was no longer here.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – SOPHIE

When It Rains, It Pours

I stumbled into the cottage and leant against the front door, burying my face in my hands.

The pain I felt at everything coming out was unreal. I was so confused about why Camilla was here and why she hadn’t told me she was coming, and the way everything had come out made my head feel like it was going to explode.

I needed to get out of here.

There was no reason for me to stay. I’d just yelled at everyone at Cavendish House, including Camilla, and she didn’t even know what was going on. Anna would never let me in the house again, and Hugo…

My eyes stung with tears.

It didn’t matter, did it?

We’d known it from the start, but whatever was between us was doomed. Even more so now than ever.

He’d said to me a few days ago that if I left, he’d leave me be.

I hoped he meant that.

Even if it meant breaking my own heart along with his, this was for the best.

“Soph? Are you in there?” Cait asked from the other side of the door. “Your car is still here.”

I had no choice but to let her in.

If she was here, she knew. There was no other reason for her to come, after all.

I forced myself off the door and opened it.

“Oh, Soph,” she said, looking at me. “Hugo told me to come. I assume everyone knows the truth. How did that happen?”

“Camilla showed up unexpectedly and the truth came out. You know I’m leaving.” I walked back into the cottage and headed for the stairs. I didn’t know how long I had before someone showed up to try to get me to stop.

What was I saying?

Cait was here already.

That meant Hugo wasn’t coming.

That thought hurt so much more than it should have.

Cait rushed after me, following me up. “You can’t leave.”

“Yes, I can, and I am.” I threw my suitcase on the bed and unzipped it, then set to gathering all my belongings. “There’s no reason for me to stay here.”

“No reason? What about Hugo?”

“You know as well as I do it was only a short-term thing.” I walked into the bathroom and got my toothbrush and toiletries, talking as I did so. “I just yelled at his mother, and she kicked me out of the house, so there’s no chance she’s going to allow us to see each other.”

“Soph.”

“He’ll be fine.” I shoved the toiletries into the case and opened the wardrobe for my shoes. “He’ll marry some nice aristocrat who hasn’t lied and who his family approves of, and he’ll be just fine.”

“Oh, come on. You know that isn’t true.”

“It is true, Caitlyn.” I gripped the edge of the hard case and met her eyes. “It’s true, and you know it.”

She took a deep breath and sighed.

“I just—I can’t stay here.” My voice was soft. “There’s no reason for me to be here anymore. Cam will finish the party.”

“Do you have to go?”

“I do. It’s easier for everyone.”

“It’s easiest for you, you mean.”

I glanced at her then paused, training my gaze away. Of course that was what I meant.

Didn’t I deserve to do what was easiest this time? I’d spent the last twelve days doing something that was incredibly difficult for me.

Was it selfish of me to want to take the easy route?

Maybe.

I thought I’d earnt the right to be selfish right now.

“Sophie? Are you still here?” Henry’s voice filtered through the cottage.

I jerked my head around. “What’s he doing here?”

Cait shrugged. “Might as well let him up. We’re upstairs!” she called in the direction of the door.

Great.

His footsteps thundered against the stairs as I folded my clean laundry. “Sophie.” He stopped and looked at my suitcase. “Don’t go.”

“I’m leaving. Why is that so hard for anyone to understand?” I shoved the last t-shirt into the case and pulled the top down.

That was it.

That would do.

Anything I’d left could be brought home by Camilla in a few days.

I zipped the suitcase up and put it on the floor next to me. “Excuse me.”

“Sophie, I’m not letting you go,” Henry said, blocking the door.

“Why not?” The words burst out of me. “Why do you not understand that I need to leave this place and go home?”

“I promised Hugo.” He met my eyes. “I told him I wouldn’t let you leave.”

“I don’t give a damn about Hugo.” My voice was quiet, but I held his gaze. “If he cared, he’d be here instead of you, wouldn’t he?”

“He tried to. Dad wouldn’t let him. He’s trying to get to the truth at home and smooth things over and—”

“He’s still not here. He still sent you and Cait in his place. If he really wanted to be here, he’d be here right now.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and inhaled, fighting back the sting of tears again. “Let me pass.”

He glanced over my shoulder.

“She’s right,” Cait said softly. “Her logic is pretty sound.”

Henry sighed. “I think you’re making a mistake.”

“I’ve already made plenty. One more doesn’t matter,” I replied.

He stepped aside, dropping his chin to his chest.

“Thank you.” I pushed the case through to the hall and carried it downstairs. There were just a few things here that were still mine, and I grabbed them, splitting them between my handbag and suitcase.

Both Henry and Cait watched me as I finished getting everything together.

It’d taken me fifteen minutes to pack all my things.

I wheeled it out to my car and threw the case into the boot, then turned back to them. I pulled the cottage key off my keyring and held it out to Henry.

He looked at it.

“Can you give it to Cam, please? It’s the key for the cottage.”

Nodding, he took it. “I’ll pass it over. She’s still at the house.”

“Thank you.” I opened my car door and sniffed, pausing for a second before I turned back around. “Thank you, guys.”

Cait ran at me and wrapped her arms around my neck. “Can’t you just wait? For like an hour? And if Hugo doesn’t come, go then? It’s only seven.”

I hugged her back. “No. I think it’s best if I just leave.”

She released me and clasped her hands to her chest, and Henry pulled me into a warm hug and pressed a kiss against the top of my head.

“He will come, Soph,” he whispered. “I know he will.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I whispered back to him. “I know this is the right choice.”

He sighed. “If you told me we’d be here the first night we met you, and you’d basically be in love with him right now, I’d have laughed.”

“So would I.” I let out a small laugh, but it was accompanied by a thick sob that sounded like my heart breaking.

I was pretty much in love with Hugo.

How? I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment I’d really crossed into these intense feelings for him, but they were here.

They existed.

And right now, they were very, very real.

And they were breaking me.

I shrugged Henry off and got into my car. If I didn’t, I was just going to stand there in his arms and burst into tears and never leave.

I knew in the rational part of my mind that I could do as he’d suggested and wait for an hour—maybe then it would be enough, and Hugo would show, and we could talk, but that wasn’t the part of my mind that was in control right now.

That was the emotional part.

The part my heart controlled.

The part that acted irrationally and impulsively.

I pressed the button that rolled the window down. “Henry?”

“Yeah?” Hope flashed across his features, and I felt bad for saying this.

“Will you say goodbye to your grandma for me?”

He nodded his head with a tiny smile. “I will. Drive safe, Soph. Will you at least text one of us when you arrive home?”

“I will. I promise.”

Cait wrapped her hands around his arm and leaned into him, staring at me.

I turned away and started the car, and I didn’t look back as I pulled away.

And drove.

Right away from Moorhaven.

From Cavendish House.

And people I had come to love very, very dearly.

And the one person who owned more than a little bit of my heart.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE – HUGO

Truth and Good Intentions

Her car wasn’t there.

That was the first thing I noticed.

The next thing was that Henry and Cait were sitting on the doorstep with faces like thunder.

I got out of the car, and they both looked up at me. Cait slowly got to her feet, and her throat bobbed with a swallow, and I knew.

She’d gone.

Sophie was on her way back to London.

“We tried,” Henry said sadly. “She thought it was for the best.”

“Shit!” I hit the roof of my car and leant against it, resting my forehead on my arms. “I fucking knew I should have gone right after her.”

“I think she needs to be alone.” Cait’s voice was soft, and when I looked at her, she wrapped her arms around her waist. “We told her you’d come, but she really wanted to leave.”

“When did she go? How long?”

They glanced at each other.

“Ten minutes ago,” Henry replied.

I pushed off the car. “I’m going after her.”

“To do what?” Cait asked, walking through the front garden to me. “Drive to London? Do you even know where she lives? What are you going to do when you get there?”

I stilled.

“Time isn’t a bad thing.” Her voice was soft, and she reached out for me. “She’s really hurting right now. She’s done a lot for everyone and when it came down to it and she needed everyone else, nobody did it for her.”

“I tried. I wanted to. I just—”

“None of us stood up to Mum.” Henry finally joined us. He looked mad, but not at me—at himself. “When she was speaking to her like shit, we didn’t step up and defend her. Sophie has every right to feel the way she does.”

I looked away.

He was right.

When it came down to it, the only person who’d tried to stand up for her was Helena.

I hadn’t done anything until it was too late.

I’d let my mother speak to her like she was worthless.

I’d gone after her, but it wasn’t enough. Even if I’d told Dad to let me go and I’d gotten here right now, it probably wouldn’t have been enough.

I leant back against the car, and all my resolve drained out of me. I was exhausted. I was physically and emotionally spent. I’d never felt such a wide range of emotion in my life, and I’d definitely never felt anything that hurt this badly.

Sophie was gone.

Maybe if I’d realised how completely I was falling in love with her before now, I might have been able to change that.

I might have stood up for her.

I might have told her.

Would that have been enough? Or would she have always left?

I promised her I’d let her go if she went, but now I knew that was a lie. She wasn’t supposed to leave like this, and I don’t know if I could ever let her.

Maybe Dad was right.

Maybe Cait was right.

I didn’t have her address. I didn’t know where she lived, so I’d be going to London in an emotional haze with no plan.

There was still an entire day before the party.

If Camilla told me her address, I could get there. I could go after her. I could see her tomorrow and talk to her.

I could try.

“Go home,” Cait said. “Go and sleep. Rest. Regroup, and come back tomorrow with a clear head.”

“She’s right.” Henry gripped my shoulder. “There’s nothing you can do tonight.”

“Yeah, there is.” I looked at them both. “I’m going to make sure our mother fires that bitch.”

Cait grinned. “I’m coming, too. That sounds fun.”

***

Grandma put a cup of tea on the table in front of me and stared at me.

I peered up from my computer. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. How are you feeling this morning?” She trudged over to the chair opposite me and sat down with a groan. “Oh, I’m getting old.”

Like she wasn’t turning eighty in three days.

“At least we’re on the same page about that,” I replied, putting the laptop to the side. “Thank you for the tea.”

“I thought you needed a decent cup. How do you feel?”

I shrugged.

I didn’t know.

I’d never been in love before, so I’d never experienced any kind of heartbreak. That felt like a very strange thing to say, and perhaps I was misspeaking to say I’d never been in love. I’d loved people, and I’d been hurt when relationships had ended, but it had never been… this.

A never-ending dull ache that permeated every inch of my body.

No matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of it. It was there, clinging onto me, refusing to give in.

My fucking God, it hurt.

It hurt more than anything I’d ever felt in my life.

“That sounds about right,” Grandma said, settling her walking stick against the sofa. She slowly reached for her teacup and sat back again, sipping. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

I jerked a shoulder, looking down. “About as close as a person can be, I think.”

“I’m not surprised. I thought there was something between you the first time I saw you together. A little spark, as the kids say these days.”

I peered over at her. “Grandma.”

She chuckled. “It’s true. You just… fit, Hugo. Like puzzle pieces. You were never bored or distracted when she was around—you were always entirely aware of her. I rather got the sense that you always knew where the other was in a room, and it made me smile. It was like that with your grandfather.”

I smiled. “You two were always able to say exactly where the other one was.”

“It was quite irritating, actually.”

“You loved it.”

“I did. It was still irritating, though. And the fact I loved it made it all the more irritating,” she explained. “Are you going to London today?”

“How do you know I plan to?”

“I overheard your brother speaking to your dad. They’re not nearly as quiet as they think they are.”

I could agree with that.

“I’m surprised you didn’t go last night.”

“I wanted to,” I admitted. “But Cait and Henry said they thought she needed space. I don’t know, Grandma. I stood there and let Mum berate and belittle her and everything she’s done, and I didn’t say a word in her defence. I should have stopped her.”

She nodded slowly. “She was very harsh, but you didn’t speak because you have a great deal of respect for your mother. It was difficult on her, too.”

“But it’s not the same.” I put the cup down. “I respect Mum greatly, but that’s not an excuse for not standing up to her. Sophie needed someone to do it, and I was too fucking pathetic to do it.”

“Oh, you’re not pathetic.” She set her mug down, too. “There are worse things in life than a young man respecting his mother. Heck, even I respect her, but you’re not to tell her that.”

My lips twitched.

“You were between a rock and a hard place, and no matter what you chose to do, you would have felt regret and done wrong. I think you did the right thing.”

“You do? Why?”

“Because if you are in love with this girl and she’s the one you can see your future with, you need to get your house in order.” She looked at me firmly. “This will all be yours one day. There’s a very good chance your mother will still be alive when that happens, and you need to ensure that your wife has a smooth transition.”

I sighed.

That was what Dad had said.

“What about you and Mum? You can’t get through ten minutes together without fighting.”

“Not now, but when your grandfather died, who do you think looked after me?” She raised her eyebrows. “Your father was busy taking over the estate and arranging the funeral, but I was so bereft I could barely get out of bed on a morning.”

I swallowed.

“Your mother brought me tea and toast on a morning. She made sure I had a good lunch every day with fresh fruit, and she pulled me out of bed for my favourite dinner every single night, even if it meant everyone ate the same thing for five days in a row. She ensured I got outside the house for fresh air, even if it was only opening a window or sitting on a step. There were fresh tulips on my bedside table every day because she brought them with her morning greeting.

“When we buried your grandpa, she was the one who stood by my side and held me up when my world collapsed around me.” Grandma glanced down for a moment, then she visibly straightened her spine and met my gaze again. “She’s a pain in my backside, but she’s a good woman. She’s also dealing with her own world of betrayal right now, so give her some grace. She’s not a bad person.”

“She acted like one.”

“Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes good people have emotions and reactions that make them seem like bad people. What good people don’t have is a bad heart. Your mother is a good person. It’s just wrapped under several layers of bullshit.”

“You know it’s bad when she’s speaking kindly of me.” Mum appeared in the doorway, hovering almost uncertainly. “Might I join you?”

Grandma looked at me.

I waved to the sofa she was sitting on. “Go ahead.”

Mum sat down gently next to Grandma. “I think we have a lot to talk about.”

“If you’re going to sit there and shit on Sophie, I’m not going to listen to it,” I warned her. “I should have told you to cut it out last night, and I didn’t. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”

She nodded. “I know.”

I paused.

“There’s no justification for my behaviour towards her. Your father and I have discussed the situation at length, and he dealt me a few home truths.” Mum fidgeted her hands in her lap. “The only response I have is that I was upset and angry and I reacted accordingly.”

I stared at her. “I hope you’re saving the apology for Sophie, because that one was ridiculous.”

“Hugo, please. I’m trying to be open here.”

“You’re doing a terrible job.”

“I would like to discuss the situation with you.” She met my gaze. “I know your accusations were not unfounded. You’re not that kind of person, and to have so much support…” She glanced away. “I would like to see the evidence so that I might make a decision in regard to Nancy’s employment.”

“I suspended her indefinitely without pay, pending investigation,” I replied.

“I know. You were correct to.”

“I don’t need your validation for that.”

“I know.”

“Good. We’re making progress.” I stared at her. “I love you, Mum. I respect you more than you know, but your actions yesterday were really fucking shit. I’m sorry for using that language, but there’s no other way to describe it.”

She looked at her hands on her lap. “You’re not wrong.”

Grandma’s lips curved up into a small smile, and she nodded at me to continue.

“You didn’t let her say her part from the very beginning. Instead of listening, you attacked. Sophie has never bitten back at you. She’s never done anything other than pander to your pedantic whims and your unnecessary criticisms. She went out of her way to please you and give you the party you wanted for Grandma, even at the expense of how Grandma felt.”

Mum closed her eyes.

“You treated her appallingly. Even when we backed her up, you ran away and chose to listen to Nancy’s bullshit denial instead.”

“I know,” she said quietly.

“And because of you, she’s gone. Sophie’s gone back to London.”

Grandma picked up her tea and sipped.

“I should have followed her last night, but I couldn’t. I had to be here. Talking to the brick wall that you are. I didn’t make it to the cottage before she left, and you need to know that for all your matchmaking, your inability to listen might have fucked it up good and proper for me.”

Mum raised her chin and took a deep breath in, meeting my gaze.

“Sophie might not be who you think is right for me, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is who I think is right. You don’t have a say over my future wife. That’s the only thing in my life that belongs entirely to me, but you might have buggered it up anyway.”

“I understand,” she said softly. “And I hope you know how very, very sorry I am that my actions have caused this.”

“I don’t.”

She met my gaze.

“And I never will,” I continued. “If this doesn’t work out, I sincerely hope you will regret what you’ve done for the rest of your life.”

Grandma raised her eyebrows. “Oh, boy.”

“I will be going to London today. Grandma, if I’m not back for your party, I’m sorry. But she left before we could talk, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her walk out of my life without doing everything I can to keep her in it.”

“Hear, hear,” Grandma muttered.

“You asked Grandma last night how she could defend Sophie.” I sat back. “I wondered the same.” I looked to her. “Do you mind sharing?”

“I never mind sharing, Hugo. Sharing my feelings and opinions is my favourite hobby, as it happens.” She took the last drink of her tea and elegantly sat forwards, carefully setting the cup down on the coaster on the table before she linked her fingers over her knee. “I don’t bloody care.”

Mum looked at her. “You don’t care?”

“I don’t care, Anna,” Grandma repeated. “Her name does not define who she is as a person. As far as I’m concerned, she was kind, understanding, and thoughtful. She couldn’t do enough for the people she loved, and she was determined to make this godforsaken party a success, even if it hurt her in the end. Which it did.” She glanced towards me. “And she risked everything she was doing because her heart told her to.”

I looked away.

I would never say the words to my mother, but Grandma knew.

Grandma knew everything.

“I don’t care if her name is Sophie or Camilla or Veronica or Emma. What matters is who she is inside. In here,” Grandma continued, touching her fingers to her chest. “You cannot fake kindness. The smiles she wore during our time together were not fake. Her laughter was not fake. Her determination that the party be flawless was not fake. You cannot fake a kindness as pure as the one she showed.”

A ball of emotion stronger than anything I’d ever felt consumed me. There was a lump in my throat and the backs of my eyes burned with tears I never thought I’d cry, and the chill that made the hairs on the back of my arms stand up was the most intense thing I’d ever experienced.

“Her name was fake, but her heart was true. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all that matters.” Grandma took hold of her walking stick and pushed to her feet. “You can change your name whenever you’d like. You cannot change your heart.”

Mum looked at me, but I studiously avoided meeting her gaze.

“Now, I can only speak for myself,” Grandma said, hobbling towards the door, where she paused and turned back to us. “But I believe someone’s heart is the most important thing. And if they make decisions you disagree with, it’s important to understand the reason why they made those decisions. You don’t always have to agree with someone’s choice, but it’s good form to respect it. Chances are, it wasn’t made for no reason.”

She opened the door and trotted out, leaving us alone.

My mother had never looked as ashamed as she did in this moment. Maybe the passage of time overnight had given her enough time to think about what had happened yesterday, but I wasn’t hopeful.

“I’m sorry.”

I didn’t meet her eyes.

I couldn’t.

“She’s a good person,” Camilla said hesitantly from the doorway. “She never meant for this to happen.”

I looked up. “You’ve spoken to her?”

“Kind of,” she replied. “She texted me to let me know she was home safe, but she wouldn’t answer my calls.” Camilla turned to my mother. “I spent the night looking over everything Sophie had worked on. She told you the truth. I’ve known her since we were kids, and I owe her a huge apology. She was only supposed to be here for three days, and I really should have done a lot more to ensure you all knew she was coming in my place while I was stuck in Norway. I didn’t confirm it, and that’s on me.”

Mum gazed up at her.

“I had no idea what was going on, but it lines up to everything I know about Sophie. The missing information makes sense when you put it together. I think Nancy took advantage of the change in circumstance for her own benefit.”

“She threatened your business,” I told her.

Camilla nodded. “She did. Believe it or not, Sophie wrote down a whole list of all the things that didn’t add up, and I found it in my Dropbox this morning. I think she was keeping track so she had a point of reference in case anything went wrong, and it said in there that Nancy had threatened my business if Sophie came clean. It matches up with everything she claimed last night, too.”

Mum’s jaw twitched.

“I wasn’t supposed to come back yesterday. Sophie told me to stay with my family in Norway, but I couldn’t change my flight. She really had no idea I was still arriving yesterday afternoon.”

That made sense.

“I drove down as soon as I arrived home. She was doing what she thought was best.” Camilla turned back to Mum. “Please don’t think badly of her. She’s the kindest, most wonderful person in my life. She might not always make good choices, but they always come from the best place.”

Mum took a deep breath. “Do you have all of her plans?”

“I do.”

“I would like to see all the evidence that Nancy was conspiring against the plans.”

“I can provide that.”

“Good.” Mum looked at me. “Is Sophie at your flat?”

Camilla glanced at me. “I don’t know that she’s there for sure,” she said softly. “She sent that one text and that’s it.”

“She has been there.” Henry hovered behind Camilla. “I asked her to tell me or Cait when she got home, and she texted me about two this morning.” He focused on me. “But I think she knew I’d tell you.”

I stood up and walked towards her. “Camilla. I need your address.”

“I don’t—” Camilla paused, stepping away.

Henry glanced at her. “It’s all right.”

Camilla hesitated. “I’m not sure. She’d have left if she wanted you to have it.”

“Loving her is the happiest I’ve ever been,” I replied quietly. “Please. Let me try and prove that.”

She drew in a deep breath. “All right.”

CHAPTER THIRTY – SOPHIE

Bright Lights and Broken Hearts

I scrolled the website for job vacancies. They were all shit, but so was unemployment.

My little stint into the fantasy world of Exmoor hadn’t changed my very real-life situation. All I had to show for it was a broken heart, a soul full of regret, and still no job.

I applied for literally every job possible and set the laptop down. It wasn’t even mine. My laptop was in Devon with Camilla in Bluebell Cottage where Hugo was and—

I took a deep breath.

It was fine.

It was all fine.

It didn’t matter that being with him had brought me a joy I’d never felt before.

Nope.

Nothing.

No bother.

Not a care in the world.

I’d gotten home a little before two a.m. I’d kept my promise and told both Henry and Cait that I’d made it home safely, and after waking up today, I’d texted Cam and let her know I was all right.

I’d left Cavendish House in quite the storm yesterday, and I didn’t want her to worry too much.

She was my best friend, after all.

I had a stream of missed calls from her. I’d done nothing but sit and watch the phone ring over and over until the screen had darkened and it was yelling at me about battery.

I didn’t want to talk to her. I knew I had to—I had to explain everything from my side. I owed her that much at least, and for what it was worth, I didn’t think it would be too difficult a conversation to have. She hadn’t left me any messages, so she wasn’t going to yell at me.

I needed to call her.

I picked up my phone and stared at the screen.

Why couldn’t I do it?

I had to face my actions, even though I’d run away from the scene of the crime. In the end, the only person I’d ever have to see again was Camilla.

I couldn’t really get out of that one.

We lived together.

And she had my laptop.

The one I’d been using was almost as old as I was.

All right. Not that old. But it’d had more than one update to run before I’d been able to log in and do my job search.

I tapped my thumb against the screen. The fingertip reader thought I was trying to unlock it, and my phone asked me to enter my passcode because I’d been locked out for the next twenty-five seconds.

Great.

I blew out a long breath and tapped in the passcode. Maybe that was the prompt I needed to text her at least.

I was going to do it.

I opened WhatsApp and our chat.

ME: I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t leave you too much of a mess to deal with. I panicked and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to tell you and worry you after your grandma got sick and then I was in too deep to do anything about it. I hope Anna isn’t giving you too much of a hard time and I’m so so sorry.

I gripped the sides of my phone and stared at the screen. The three little dots in the bottom that indicated that someone was typing captured my attention until her little bubble popped up.

CAMILLA: Can you answer your stupid phone???

I didn’t get a chance to reply before her name popped up in a call.

Well, I should have known that would happen. She was a weirdo who used her phone to talk to people.

I answered and tapped the speaker button, then hugged my knees to my chest. “Hi.”

“Sophie, thank God,” she said, breathing out a sigh of relief. “Are you all right?”

No.

“Yes. I’m sorry, Cam. I’ve made a complete mess of things.”

“You have.” She laughed softly. “But it’s not so bad in the end. You did an amazing job with the plans for the party and keeping a list of everything Nancy did was a huge help for us.”

“Well, I wasn’t lying when I said I warned her I’d throw her under the bus if I was found out.” I paused. “I hoped you’d find it.”

“Titling the document CAMILLA READ THIS made it quite hard to pass up.”

“I did that in McDonald’s toilet stall last night.”

“Of course you did.” She laughed again. “Why did you go, Soph?”

“I panicked,” I replied quietly. “I just needed to get out of there. I knew I’d never be able to show my face at Cavendish House again and gossip spreads like hell through that village, so it was just easier if I left.”

“I get that. I wish you’d have stayed. You can’t avoid Hugo.”

“I’m on the other side of the country.”

Silence.

“Camilla.”

“He left an hour ago,” she replied, the line crackling. “He wants to talk to you. He’s completely gutted, Sophie.”

I closed my eyes. “Please don’t tell me you gave him our address.”

“All right. I won’t.”

“Cam!” I dropped my forehead to my knees. “Why would you do that?”

“Because you clearly have feelings for each other,” she replied. “And I want you two to talk things through.”

“I can’t even deal with that right now.” My voice was weak. “Are you not mad at me?”

“Well, I’m not exactly thrilled with the situation,” she admitted after a moment. “But I’m not mad, Soph. With all things considered, you were in a really tight spot, and I do have to shoulder some of the responsibility. I didn’t check in as often as I should have, and it was my job to confirm that the message had gotten across. If I’d done that, this could have perhaps been avoided, and I’m sorry for that. I should have done better.”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not entirely our faults, either. I likely would have had to deal with the same obstacles as you, given that I didn’t get the message about the cake. Not quite to the same extent, of course, but it would have been tough enough.”

I swallowed and nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. “I bet Anna was furious with me.”

“She wasn’t too pleased with Nancy, either. She actually went to bed shortly after you left because she had a migraine, and Hugo suspended Nancy without pay, pending investigation for misconduct. Something like that.”

“Hugo did?”

“Yes. His dad said it was his call. Then this morning Anna was in a more agreeable mood, and she’s looking over everything right now. I don’t see how she can employ her still, to be honest.”

“I’m sure she’ll find a reason to,” I mumbled. “I’m not answering the door when Hugo gets here.”

“Yes, you are. You have to talk to him.”

“If I’d ignored him to begin with, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Well, sleeping with a client’s son is something I’d avoid, personally,” Camilla said with a teasing note to her voice. “It can get a little bit messy.”

I groaned, rolling over and lying on my side in the foetal position instead. “I’m sorry. I’ve really screwed things up for you.”

“No, you haven’t. Anna has already said there’ll be no repercussions from it, and in fact, she’s going to recommend my company. Apparently, if you can do such a thorough job with absolutely no experience, I must be phenomenal.”

“Wow. That’s the nicest thing she’s ever said about me.”

“She is rather prickly, isn’t she?”

“Careful. She’ll hear you.”

“She’s in the library going over everything. Don’t worry about it.”

I made a little noise.

“Look, it’ll be fine. At least hear Hugo out. There’s clearly something between the two of you, so you owe it to yourself if nothing else. And, Soph, if you really do feel strongly about him, you owe it to him, too.”

She was right.

I knew she was. I had to listen to what he had to say. Everything that had happened, had happened so quickly. I’d always intended to leave, and because of that, we’d never really discussed what would happen when I did.

A terrible oversight, really.

I’d assumed we would discuss it when the time came, but it hadn’t worked out that way. I’d done things backwards, and if he was driving all the way up here, I couldn’t turn him away.

I just didn’t know what I’d do when I saw him, either.

***

The next few hours passed in what felt like an eternity. Every time I heard a noise outside the door, I shot off the sofa and peered through the peephole like I was forming some kind of new neighbourhood watch scheme.

My heart went from zero to one hundred and back again every single time, and I was honestly wondering if I’d developed some kind of shiny new nervous tick.

That was probably why I almost fell off my sofa when he knocked on the door.

I was so adamant that every noise was not him that I wasn’t prepared for the one that was.

I shuffled to the door and looked through the peephole. His dark hair was all tousled, like he’d run his fingers through it a thousand times already today, the rest of his face was covered by the shadow of him looking at his feet. His hand was resting against the wall next to the door, and he looked how I felt.

My heart both swelled and broke at the sight of him.

I took a deep breath and opened the door just enough that he could see me.

He looked up at me, and everything I felt for him rushed through my body like a tidal wave. It was the most intense flood of feelings I’d ever experienced, and it was somewhere between the goosebumps of happiness and the sinking sensation of grief.

“I didn’t think you’d answer,” he said softly.

“Neither did I for a moment,” I replied. “You didn’t have to drive all the way up here.”

“I did. You know I did.”

I looked away. “Do you want to come in?”

“If that’s all right.”

Nodding, I stepped back from the door and let him come inside. He did so tentatively, almost as if he were afraid that I’d slam the door on him.

In his defence, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done such a thing.

I pushed the door closed behind him and leaned against it. “Do you want something to drink? Or eat? I—”

“Why did you leave?” He turned to me, and his eyes blazed with a raw emotion that made my stomach tighten. “Ten minutes. I missed you by ten minutes.”

I dragged my gaze away from him. “Whose fault is that?”

“That’s unfair. I—”

“No, it’s not unfair.” I pushed off the door and folded my arms across my chest. “You have no right to make me feel bad for leaving. You had the option to stand up for me and follow me the second I left, and you chose neither.”

He rubbed his hand down his face. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I had to leave because I couldn’t stay there anymore. I stood there and listened as I was called a liar and berated and belittled because of a situation I was forced into against my will. I should have been honest and ignored everyone else, but I didn’t, and that’s my fault, but I was doing what I thought was right. None of that justified the way I was treated. And of everyone in that room, you were the one person who I thought would stand up for me. You didn’t.”

“I regret it so much,” he said, and I could see the truth in his eyes. “There’s no excuses for why I didn’t stand up for you, and you have no idea just how sorry I am for that.”

“Why are you here, Hugo?” I rubbed my hand up and down my arm. “I don’t know what you think you could achieve by coming.”

“You left.” He held out his hands. “And we are not done, Sophie.”

“On the contrary, we are done,” I said firmly. “Trust me. We knew getting into this that we would be done when I had to leave, and that happened last night.”

“This is not over, Sophie.”

“Yes, it is!” I threw out my arms. “You told me if this was my decision that you’d respect it. I cannot and will not ever go back to Moorhaven, and that’s where your entire life and future is. What part of that makes you think that we could ever work as anything more than a casual fuck?”

He laughed, smiled, and looked over at me. “A casual fuck? Are you still on the hill that this is nothing more than sex?”

No.

I rolled down that hill right after we slept together for the first time.

“What do you want from me, Hugo?” I asked, staring at him. “I don’t fit into your world.”

“You are my world, Sophie.”

“No, I’m not. Your world is huge houses and estates and priceless heirlooms.” I ran my fingers through my hair, sighing. “I know the kind of woman you’ll end up with, and it’s not an unemployed idiot who’s lucky enough to have a best friend with a rich family so she doesn’t have to pay rent. I know the kind of person you’re going to marry.”

“What if I don’t give a flying fuck about them?”

“Oh, a billionaire heiress isn’t exciting? An earl’s daughter? The Queen’s cousin’s daughter? They’re not exciting or interesting? Pull the other one.”

“Yes, those. I know them all, and I don’t care for them. I don’t want any of those women. I wouldn’t drive this far for any of them.”

“Why not? They’ll fit your perfect little fancy world. Your mother will be thrilled, and they’ll all be in your house tomorrow night. Perfect.”

He tightened his jaw and met my eyes. “Because I’m not in love with any of those women.”

He—

He was what? With who?

“What?” I whispered, freezing. “What did you just say?”

“I’m in love with you, Sophie.” Hugo rubbed his hand over his jaw. “God knows why. You’ve driven me mental since the second I met you. I spend half my time trying desperately not to roll my eyes and figure you out, and the other half…”

When he didn’t say anything, I asked, “What?”

“You just drive me fucking mental, to be honest.”

That was fair.

“Please. Give it a chance. Give us a chance. Properly. Where we don’t have to hide or lie or—”

“It’s never going to work,” I interrupted him.

“I know you feel the same way I do.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I fought back tears. “This will never work because of your family, Hugo. Do you get that? I will never fit in there, and this will end in tears no matter how hard we try.”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t agree with you.”

“Then you’ve lost your mind.” Tears still burnt my eyes, but I wasn’t going to give in and cry in front of him. “I never, ever want to return to Moorhaven, and I never will. There is not a single thing that could make me go back.”

“I’ll stay in London with you.”

“And pass the dukedom to your brother?” I raised my eyebrows. “The one thing you’ve worked for and supported your entire life? You and I both know you don’t mean that, and even if you do right now, you’ll regret it. I don’t want to be the reason you regret the way your life turned out.”

“No. I don’t see a time I regret ever choosing you.”

“You’re an idiot. We’ve known each other for two weeks.”

“And I would still choose you.” His lips tugged sadly to one side. “Every single fucking time, I would choose you, Sophie. I don’t need to be with you for twenty years to know you’re the one I’ve been waiting for.”

“Your standards are horrifically low.”

“On the contrary, I can’t think of anyone better than you.”

“Then you know some really shitty people,” I shot back. “I can’t. I can’t do this, Hugo. I won’t let you give up your life for me, and there’s no way I can fit into yours.”

He stared at me.

“Not everything is meant to be. We’re one of those things.” I opened the door and looked down. “Please. I’d like if you left now.”

He didn’t move for a moment until he dropped his chin and nodded slowly. “I’ll leave. For now.”

“For good.”

“No. I’m not walking away from you, Sophie. I let you do that last night, and it was a mistake.” He stepped up in front of me. “I love you. I don’t care what anyone thinks about that. I want to see where this goes, what we can do together.”

“Then I’m very sorry for disappointing you.” I inhaled slowly, steeling myself and holding back the flood of tears for one more minute. “Goodbye, Hugo.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“I hope not. I didn’t ruin my life for a party you won’t even attend.”

“Fine. I’ll drive back, go to the party for you, then I’ll see you on Sunday.” He stroked the back of my head. “And I will keep coming back. Every single day. I will keep knocking on your door and fighting for us until you have no other option but to give in.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Please.”

He let his hand drop and stepped back from me, crossing the threshold to the hallway. “I’ll see you on Sunday, Soph.”

I pushed the door shut behind him and finally gave in to the tears that had been waiting to fall. They streamed out of my eyes silently, and I moved away from the door so he couldn’t hear me crying.

No.

He wouldn’t see me on Sunday.

I wouldn’t be here.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE – SOPHIE

Home Sweet Home

“Mandy! Someone’s at the door!”

“I can hear that, Steve!”

“Can you answer it?”

“No! I’m busy!”

“Watching yesterday’s Countdown is not busy!”

“Speak for yourself! I’m winning!”

“I’ll get it myself, then!”

“Thanks, darling!”

My parents’ bickering from inside their cottage brought a small smile to my face. It was a warm, comforting feeling that was so reminiscent of my childhood. It was a bit like a warm blanket—the argument over who would answer the door was one I’d heard a thousand times, and who won was anyone’s guess.

I guess Mum won today.

The sage green front door swung open, and Dad froze when he saw me. “Sophie. I didn’t know you were coming.”

Neither did I.

His gaze was so warm. There was something so inherently comfortable about standing in front of him, and he hadn’t changed since I’d last seen him three months ago.

Combined with the wild emotions of the last few days, it was just too much. Tears welled in my eyes and the pain in my chest was almost unbearable from the clenching of my heart.

Concern frittered across his face. “What’s wrong, pudding?”

I lost it.

My childhood nickname triggered all the emotions, and he wrapped his arms around me before my legs gave out. The emotion exploded from me in a way that was only possible in front of my parents, and my whole body ached with it.

Every bit.

“Oh, Soph,” Dad said softly, cradling the back of my head. “What’s happened, my girl?”

“Dad.” I choked it out over a sob.

“Come on.” He guided me over the doorstep, keeping me against him. “Mandy!”

“Oh, goodness. I’m coming. This better be good or I—oh, baby girl. What are you doing here?” Mum rushed over and wrapped her arms around me, and I was passed from my father to her as I cried hard. “What on Earth has happened? Do I need to kill someone? Steve, get your shovel. We need to bury a body. Call the team. Have Jerome get his boat. We’ll dump it at sea, and nobody will know.”

I laughed through the tears. “It’s not that drastic, Mum.”

“You show up here, crying, and you think that’s drastic? Who did this to you? I will murder them with my slipper.”

“I love you.” I hugged her tightly. “I just really need you right now.”

“Oh, honey. Baby.” She rocked me side to side. “Do you have a suitcase? Steve, get her things from the car.”

Dad kissed the side of my head as he passed. “Oh, dear. I should make some tea, too.”

The universal sign for distress for British people everywhere.

Not a flag being turned upside down.

We should make tea.

It was somehow very fitting.

Mum pulled me into the cottage, shepherding me into the living room and onto the sofa where her tight hug resumed like she’d never paused it.

I was grateful for it.

There was nothing in this world that could compare to my mother’s hugs. We had our difficulties, but if a safe space were a person, it would be her.

I curled up against her side while she rocked, shh-ing me as if I were a baby, intermittently telling me it was all right and I’d be okay, that this was fine to cry, that letting it out was the best thing, that there was nothing like crying to make someone feel better.

I might have cried forever if Dad hadn’t brought a pot of tea in and poured it. That was the single action that made Mum release me, and I curled up in the corner of the sofa under an old blanket and watched as Dad made the tea exactly how I liked it.

“Here we go,” he said after a moment. “Here’s your tea, pudding.”

“Thank you,” I said softly, taking the cup from him.

“That was quite the entrance,” Mum said, taking her own. “Thank you, darling.”

Dad’s lips twitched to a smile. “I always said she got her dramatic side from you.”

“All right,” I replied, fighting a tiny smile of my own. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”

Mum held up her phone. “So I don’t need to assemble the troops to hide a body?”

“Not today, Mum.”

“Bugger it. We haven’t had anything this exciting lately.”

“Mandy,” Dad scolded. “That’s not appropriate, is it?”

“I don’t know, Steve. She’s smiling, isn’t she?”

“Stop bickering,” I muttered.

Mum sighed and held me against her. “I’m sorry, honey. What’s going on? Why are you here, sobbing your little heart out?”

“Oh, Mum, it’s a long story.”

“Well, luckily for you, we’ve got a long time.” Dad nestled into the armchair opposite us. “So why don’t you humour us and tell us everything?”

***

This house wasn’t my childhood home, but it didn’t matter. It had the same furniture and ambience. The room that I’d spent many of my teenage years in had changed and grown into an elegant guest room, but there was still something about it that was familiar.

I rolled onto my side in the bed and flipped over my phone.

It was the day of Evelyn’s party. Her birthday wasn’t until tomorrow, but today was the day that had been designated to celebrate her.

I’d given my all to that party.

And it would go ahead without me.

That hurt more than it should have. I didn’t know how to cope with that feeling, but the ache that had consumed me for days was becoming all too familiar.

I opened my chat with Camilla and wished her good luck. As far as I knew, nobody knew I was in Norfolk. I’d asked my parents to keep it to themselves, and everyone else thought I was still in London.

I wanted to keep it that way.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go home right now. I didn’t think I could see Hugo again, and it wasn’t as though there was anything keeping me in London. As Camilla had pointed out a few weeks ago, I had no job or boyfriend or ties to the city.

Maybe returning here was what I needed. A fresh start on old ground. There was always a chance I could get a job here, and the tourist season was coming. That meant there was an abundance of seasonal jobs, and if I moved back with my parents, I wouldn’t have to pay rent.

Wow.

I was scraping the barrel now.

Was I that desperate to say goodbye to the past few weeks?

I might have been. I wouldn’t be considering it otherwise, would I?

CAMILLA: Thanks. But it’s all you, really. Wish you were here to see it.

I smiled sadly at the message.

ME: Will you hug Evelyn for me? And tell her I said happy birthday for tomorrow.

CAMILLA: Of course.

ME: There’s a gift for her in the wardrobe. I think I left it.

CAMILLA: In the shiny white bag?

ME: I didn’t get to wrap it.

CAMILLA: I got it. Don’t worry.

ME: Thank you.

CAMILLA: How did it go with Hugo? Henry told me he got back last night. Wasn’t expecting that.

ME: I ended it. It’s not going to work.

CAMILLA: Are you sure?

ME: Yes.

CAMILLA: I heard him tell Anna he’s going back tomorrow.

ME: I’m not at the flat.

CAMILLA: WHAT??? WHERE ARE YOU?

ME: Don’t tell him.

CAMILLA: Oh, God. You went home.

ME: Yes. Please don’t tell anyone.

CAMILLA: Of course I won’t. He was heartbroken when he got home, though.

ME: I’m not exactly bouncing off the walls myself.

CAMILLA: Why do it? I know how you feel about him. Give it a chance.

ME: Mum’s shouting. I think it’s time to feed the chickens. Talk to you later.

I tucked my phone against my pillow and got up, leaving it there on charge. It wasn’t a total lie—I could hear Mum shouting outside, and that generally only happened when we spoke on a morning and the chickens were staging a breakout.

Or they were just hungry.

Mum had hung her old dressing gown on the hook behind my door, and I gratefully wrapped it around me. It really was old and tatty, but it was still so comfortable at the same time.

I tied the belt as I headed downstairs. The cottage was little more than a two-up, two-down, old house, but it’d come with an acre of land that Mum had truly loved developing into her own chicken paradise.

That was how she’d gone from a no-pet kinda woman to having thirty chickens.

“Good morning,” she sang, setting one of the feeders down for a batch of particularly fluffy chickens. “You’re up early.”

I clutched my arms around myself. “I couldn’t sleep and thought I’d come and see the chickens.”

“Good, you’re just in time to help me get the eggs.” She shut the door behind her and handed me a wicker basket. “They’re all out. Just unlatch the nest boxes and pop out their eggs.”

That sounded a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Fortunately, she was right. None of the modern-day dinosaurs were in their coops, so I was able to unlatch the boxes from the outside and collect all the eggs that were nestled in there.

Being in the countryside was refreshing.

It’d been weird to be in London, if only for one night. The city noises seemed so foreign to me now. Being here and woken by the sound of cockerels and clucking and sheep baaing was far more comfortable.

Maybe this was where I was supposed to be.

The country.

Mum held the door open for me to pass through. “Oh, you got lucky today.”

“Is this a green egg? What do you have in there? The Easter bunny?”

She laughed, taking the basket from me. “I have a couple of birds who lay blue and green shelled eggs. Are you hungry?”

“I guess.”

“Let me make you breakfast. Egg and soldiers?”

My lips twitched. “I haven’t had that in years.”

“Of course you haven’t. The only thing you can boil is your temper.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“That’s why I can say it.” She laughed and swept through the kitchen. “How did you sleep?”

“I slept.”

“That doesn’t answer the question, Sophie.”

“I slept,” I repeated. “It’s better than nothing.”

Mum put a lid on the pan and turned the heat right up. “You’re right. How do you feel today?”

I sat down at the table that filled the middle of the room and looked at the crocheted placemats. “Do you actually use these?”

“With your father around? Don’t be silly. He’d spill his tea on them. They’re purely decorative.” Mum turned to look at me. “How do you feel?”

“Wow. You are not letting this go.”

“Honey, you showed up yesterday afternoon and burst into tears on the doorstep. I am absolutely not letting this go.”

I toyed with the frayed edge of the mat. “It’s the party today. I’m… I guess I’m sad,” I said after a moment. “I worked hard on it, and I really love Evelyn. I wish I could be there to see it.”

“You could be. You could drive and make it in time.”

“No. I’m not going to crash it. Besides, Anna would have a fit if I showed up.”

“Anna sounds like she needs my book club to bury her.”

“Or throw her in the sea?”

“Just say the word.”

“I’m going to pretend as though I haven’t just walked into a conspiracy to commit murder,” Dad said, unzipping his jacket. “Good morning, pudding.” He kissed my cheek. “My most beautiful wife.”

Mum narrowed her eyes as she accepted his kiss. “What have you done?”

I hid my smile.

“Why must I have done something? Can I not be happy to have my favourite girls in my kitchen?”

“No.”

I laughed. “Oh, Mum. Never change.”

“Why would I do that?” she asked. “I’m wonderful the way I am.”

“You most definitely are,” Dad replied.

Was it any wonder I loved Evelyn?

She and my mother were scarily similar. Neither one was short of confidence, that was for sure. They liked to say what was on their mind, and I wasn’t sure it ever occurred to either of them to, you know.

Keep it to themselves.

Then again, I could relate to that.

Hmm.

Mum side-eyed him. “Would you like some eggs?”

“I would love some eggs, thank you.” Dad sat down next to me. “How are you this morning, pudding?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “The party is today. I kind of wish I was there to see it after everything, but it’s for the best.”

He nodded slowly. “What can we do today? Would you like to go somewhere and take your mind off it?”

“No, but thank you.” I leant against him, resting my head on his shoulder. “I asked Cam to give Evelyn her present.”

Mum’s eyebrows raised. “You gave her a birthday present?”

“I helped…” I stopped talking. “I helped find gift ideas,” I settled on after a moment. “I got her a bottle of wine and a packet of paintbrushes.”

“Interesting choice,” Dad said.

“Not really. She lamented the giant birthday party and said she’d rather have one of those nights where you drink wine and paint.”

Mum chuckled. “So you got her wine and paintbrushes.”

I looked down, smiling.

“Wouldn’t she need paint for that?” Dad questioned.

“Yeah,” I replied slowly. “I… Hugo bought her paint.”

“Ah.”

Mum snorted. “You co-ordinated his grandmother’s birthday present and you’re sitting here in my kitchen feeling sorry for yourself? Good grief, Sophie.”

“Mandy,” Dad said firmly.

“No. I personally hope he finds out that she’s here and I can meet my future son-in-law.” She peered over her shoulder at me. “People who have known each other for a week do not co-ordinate their birthday presents for a family member.”

“It was a joke,” I replied.

She put eggs in the boiling water and set the timer, then slipped toast into the toaster and set it. “The point still stands. You appear to have gotten awfully close to these people in a very short space of time.”

“Everyone except his mother.”

“She sounds like a right mean cow,” Dad said, nodding slowly.

“Oh, Steve.” Mum took the toast that popped and replaced it with more slices. “Don’t be rude.”

He rolled his eyes.

“I’m going to grab my phone,” I said, getting up and leaving the kitchen.

I needed a moment.

I rushed upstairs and pulled it off charge.

CAMILLA: Just got here, do you want to see the ballroom? It’s all ready.

No.

Yes.

No.

Yes.

No.

ME: Maybe.

Several images came through less than a minute later, and my heart jumped into my throat at the sight of them.

Oh.

The ballroom was beautiful.

The tables that dotted the floor were draped in beautiful white tablecloths, and the centrepieces were stunning floral pieces in shades of purple and white and light pink. Balloons and flower bouquets in the same colours decorated the outer walls, and Evelyn would hate every last bit of it.

My heart screamed in pain.

ME: It looks beautiful.

CAMILLA: You did a great job, Soph.

ME: I just did as I was told.

CAMILLA: You did a great job. Don’t sell yourself short.

I breathed in deeply and went back downstairs. Mum called me when I was halfway down, and she looked over at me when I walked back in.

“Your eggs are ready. Where’s your—what’s wrong?”

“Cam just sent me some photos of the ballroom. I think I might need to unplug today.” I put my phone down as she set the runny eggs and toast in front of me. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, darling.” She gave Dad his plate. “I’m going to take a bath. Please put the dishes near the sink for the dishwasher when you’re done.” She left, and I looked around the kitchen.

“Where’s the dishwasher?” I asked Dad.

He dipped one strip of toast into an egg. “It’s me. I’m the dishwasher.”

I laughed, reaching for my own breakfast.

It was good to be here, no matter the circumstances.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO – HUGO

Save Your Tears

“I wholeheartedly reject this entire thing,” Grandma said, looking around. “Although I would take another slice of that lemon cake.”

“It was good cake,” I agreed.

“Slices were unacceptably small, though.” She sniffed and looked around. “You don’t have to sit here with me, dear.”

I patted her hand. “I’m quite all right with you, Grandma. I’m not really in a partying mood.”

“Neither am I. I wanted her to be here, too, you know?” She wrapped her fingers around mine. “She did all of this. She should be here.”

I swallowed, looking out at the party. Dinner was long over, and all the tables and chairs had been swiftly cleared away, freeing the space up for dancing.

Everyone was having a great time.

Then there was me.

“I did also appreciate your co-ordinating birthday presents,” Grandma continued. “Although I do appear to be missing a wine glass so I can have a paint and wine party in my bedroom.”

“You let me know when you want one, and I’ll bring you one.”

“Now we’re talking.” She squeezed my fingers. “Why don’t you call her, Hugo?”

“She won’t answer. I’ll drive up in the morning and go and see her again, and hopefully she’ll talk to me.”

Grandma nudged me with her shoulder. “You know you didn’t have to come back for this. I wouldn’t have been angry.”

“Of course I did. Like Sophie said, she didn’t ruin her life to make this happen for me not to be here.”

Her shoulders shook as she laughed. “Ruin her life, indeed. Falling in love with a future duke didn’t ruin my life.”

“It’s a bit different, Grandma.”

“Let me guess. You told her you’d give it all up, she refused to let you, and you left with your tail between your legs.”

I side-eyed her. “How did you know that?”

“I read romance novels. Classic move.” She shook her head. “Never works.”

Evidently.

“I think Sophie would hate all this,” Grandma continued, looking around.

“Ah. Now it makes sense, doesn’t it?” I peered at her, smiling. “You just want someone to moan with.”

She nodded. “That’s about it, yes.” She continued gazing around the room. “There’s an awful lot of pomp and how-do-you-do here. And these shoes are hurting my feet. Not to mention this dress is too long and I’m afraid I’ll pee on it.”

I dropped my chin to my chest and closed my eyes. I really had no response for that, but I was sure Sophie would have if she were here.

Grandma snorted. “Sophie would have had a smartarse comment for that.”

“Jesus, Grandma.” Helena took the chair on the other side of her. “Why don’t you call her if you’re missing her that badly? I’m not sure you’ve ever waxed so poetic about any of your actual grandchildren.”

“That’s because you’re all heathens who can’t make a decent cup of tea to save your life.” She sniffed. “Henry made me a cup this morning. I thought he was trying to kill me.”

My sister looked over at me. “You have her phone number. I’m sure out of everyone, you’re the one she’d answer the phone to. She made sure Camilla gave you your present, didn’t she?”

“Wine and paintbrushes.” Grandma sighed and looked down sadly. “I’d swap them both for her.”

“This is really sad,” Helena said. “Mostly because Hugo is the one who’s in love with her and he’s not complaining nearly half as much as you are.”

Grandma glared at her.

I fought back a small laugh. “What’s there to complain about? She knows how I feel. I also know she’s not going to walk through that door in a burst of drama. She’s made it abundantly clear that she never wants to come back here.”

“Mm.” Helena rested her hands in her lap. “That doesn’t mean you’ve given up.”

“No,” I agreed. “I haven’t given up, and I’m determined to prove to her that we can make this work.”

“Well, you can thank your mother for all of that,” Grandma said flatly. “She not only threw the girl out, but she also didn’t bother to hide how horrified she was that you’d been seeing her and not some fancy rich girl.”

It always amused me when she referred to any of the upper-class as fancy rich girls. Like she hadn’t been the daughter of an earl herself before she’d married Grandpa.

“If I were Sophie, I wouldn’t be coming back here, either. Let’s face it—Helena got out because she got married, but if, God forbid, your father died young, we’d have three generations of a duchess in this house.” She eyed me. “It’s not like the two of you would have a house of your own, is it? She’d have to live with your mother. Would you want to after what she said about her?”

“So what you’re saying is you think I’m doomed.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I think your mother has doomed you.”

“Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, Grandma?” Helena muttered.

“Tell me I’m wrong, Helena. Go on. Tell me.”

My sister said nothing.

It was good to know Grandma believed in me.

“Go to London,” she said, swatting my leg. “Your miserable old face is making me moody.”

“You don’t need any help being moody,” I replied.

“I don’t, which is why this is a problem.”

“Mum will skin me alive if I leave.”

“No, she won’t.” Mum stepped up beside me and put her hand on my shoulder. “You won’t hear me say this again, but your grandmother is right.”

Grandma punched the air. “Ah-ha!”

Mum squeezed my shoulder. “You’re not enjoying yourself here, and the only reason you’re here is for your grandmother. If she’s telling you to go to London… Go to London.”

I looked up at her. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “You’re just wasting your time here,” she said. “Best to go now and you can catch her in the morning, hopefully.”

I looked at Grandma.

“Bloody go before you make the rest of us completely miserable with you,” she said, but she was smiling.

Helena got up. “Come on. I’ll help you get sorted.”

“It’s fine,” I replied, standing. “I can—”

“I’ll help you,” she said, more firmly this time, then grabbed my arm and dragged me from the room before anyone could stop us. “I need a breather.”

“I should have known there was a reason you were so quick to help me.”

She swatted my arm with a laugh and lifted her dress so she could walk up the stairs. “Why did we need a bloody ball? What’s wrong with a nice family dinner?”

“Ask Mum. It was her call.”

Helena sighed. “I think I’m turning into Grandma.”

“Yeah, well, Sophie is Grandma, just fifty years younger. I’m not sure what that says about me.”

She grinned, squeezing my arm. “Grandma would say it means you’ve got good taste.”

I opened the door to my bedroom and sighed. “Do you think I can do it, Helly? Convince her it’s worth fighting for?”

My sister softened at her nickname. I rarely used it anymore, and even though I was the eldest child, she’d always been the fixer of the family.

“I know you can,” she said quietly, touching my arm. “Hugo, if you’re supposed to be together, you will figure it out. One way or another. If, for whatever reason, you can’t do that, then she was only ever supposed to be with you for a short time. Either way, lessons have been learnt by all of us.”

I swallowed, nodding. “I know.”

“But I think you’re supposed to be together,” she continued. “There’s something about you being together that just makes sense. Grandma always said to me, “Helena, when you know, you know.” It took me a while to know with Ed, but I think you knew with her right away, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Pretty much. I just…” I sighed. “I’m not coming back without her. I’m not leaving London unless she’s with me.”

“That’s a very bold statement to make, Hugo.”

“I mean it.” I stepped away from her and pulled my suitcase out from under my bed. “I’m only coming home if she’s coming with me.”

***

I made it to our London house at two a.m., crashed on the sofa, and after a shower, left for Sophie’s flat as quickly as I could.

She had to know that I wasn’t lying. I was serious about everything I’d said. Literally nobody else in this world mattered to me as much as she did, and I still didn’t understand how she’d crept under my skin and gotten such a hold on me as quickly as she had.

I knocked on the door and waited. There was no noise from inside her flat, and I leant against the door.

Knocked again.

Still nothing.

Maybe she just wasn’t home right now. It was the middle of the morning, after all.

I waited another few minutes and knocked once more, but nothing. My stomach rumbled, and that was my sign to give up for now. I didn’t want to run across London seven thousand times today, so I made my way back down and headed outside.

I’d get breakfast and try again later.

***

Three p.m.

I knocked.

I waited.

I knocked.

I waited.

I left.

***

Six p.m.

I knocked.

I waited.

I knocked again.

I waited some more.

I left again.

***

Nine p.m.

I knocked.

I waited.

A door opened, and I jerked around.

“Are you looking for someone, love?” A woman who looked to be in her fifties asked me gently. “I’ve seen you here a few times today, that’s all.”

“Oh, I’m sorry if I’ve disturbed you.” I swallowed. “You haven’t seen Sophie, have you?”

“Is that the one who usually answers the door in her pyjamas?”

I tried not to laugh. “That sounds like her.”

She shook her head with a rueful smile. “Not today, love, sorry. Didn’t see her for a while, but she was back a few days ago. Caught her getting the post a couple of days ago but haven’t seen her since.”

“All right, thank you.” I paused. “If you do see her, would you tell her Hugo stopped by?”

“Will do, love.”

“Thank you. Sorry for disturbing you.”

She waved it off and went back inside, leaving me alone in the hall.

Was she even here?

And if not, where was she?

***

“My neighbours are going to take a restraining order out on you.” Camilla opened the door so I could come in. “You are exceptionally persistent; do you know that?”

“I did have a moment last night where your neighbour across the hall opened the door. I thought she might chase me out with a knife.” I closed the door behind me.

“Ah, Mrs. Elanga is perfectly lovely. It’s Mrs. Hooper upstairs who’s the nutty one.” She sighed. “She’s not here, but I think you already know that.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “Do you know where she is?”

Camilla held my gaze for a moment before she turned away. “I do. She told me and left a note on the fridge. I think she was going to keep it to herself.”

I turned to the fridge.

“I’m not that daft,” she told me. “Do you want some tea?”

“No, thank you. Cam, please tell me where she is. I have to talk to her. She won’t answer my calls, she’s ignoring my texts. I… I don’t know what to do.”

She finished filling the kettle and turned back to me, leaning a hip against the counter. She watched me for a moment before sighing again. “You really are in love with her, aren’t you? It’s not just a fling for you.”

“Yes,” I replied simply. “I really am. And I’m not leaving London unless she’s coming with me.”

Her lips twitched to the side. “She’s with her parents.”

“She’s in Norfolk?”

“Yes. But that’s all you’re getting out of me, and I mean that.” She put the kettle on the base and flicked the switch to turn it on. “I’m not going to tell you where they live, so don’t bother asking me.”

“Camilla—”

“No,” she said firmly. “If she’s with her parents, it’s because she needs to be left alone. She’s there to take a break. Let her have that breathing space.”

I sat down at the island and rubbed my hands across my face. She was right. I knew that.

“Listen.” She leant forward on the counter and looked at me. “I get it. I do. But you have to understand how she’s feeling right now. Your mum pretty much humiliated her, and she’s the entire reason she’s not speaking to you.”

“I know that.”

“She’s got a lot of feelings she has to work through right now, and I think she’s in the right place to do that. It’s away from everyone who has a horse in the race, and her parents will be able to talk her through it. Outside perspectives and all that.” She toyed with the ring on her right hand. “I think it’s the best thing for her.”

“What am I supposed to do? I can’t keep calling her for her not to answer, but if I don’t do anything…”

“She knows how you feel about her.” She smiled sadly. “I think you have to accept that she needs to decide if the way she feels about you is worth it.”

I dropped my head to my hands, pressing the heels into my eyes. “What if she doesn’t?”

“Then there’s nothing you can do about it.” We were both silent for a moment, then she said, “I’ll tell her you were here and that you’re in London for her.”

I peered up at her. “You will?”

She nodded. “Yes, I will. For what it’s worth, Hugo, I think she should answer your calls, too.”

“Will you tell her that?”

Her grin was infectious. “You bet I will. Now, since you’re here, how about that tea?”

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE – SOPHIE

Moving On

CAMILLA: He’s in London.

ME: He’s at perfect liberty to go where he likes.

CAMILLA: He’s here for you.

ME: That backfired.

CAMILLA: Soph. Come on. At least pick up the phone and talk to him.

ME: How do you know all this?

CAMILLA: Because he came over.

ME: He needs to find a hobby.

CAMILLA: He has one. It’s convincing you that what you have is worth fighting for.

ME: 1: terrible choice for a hobby and 2: it’s not.

CAMILLA: Yes, it is.

ME: Whose side are you on here?

CAMILLA: The side of common sense. Just talk to him. It’s not going to kill you.

ME: It might do.

CAMILLA: You’re being a child about this. I know you’re hurting right now but it’s a hurt of your own creation.

ME: Would you go back if you were me??? Would you pursue a relationship with someone whose mother hated you? Would you put yourself in a situation that would make you uncomfortable?

CAMILLA: I don’t know. I’m not in it. But I do know one thing.

ME: What?

CAMILLA: You can’t keep running away from the things that scare you, Sophie.

***

“There’s another note.” Dad put the envelope down in front of me. “That’s the third one in three days.”

I stared at the little white rectangle. “Throw it out. I’m not interested.”

“Sophie.”

“No, Dad.” I snatched it up and held it up to him. “This woman treated me horribly. I have no interest in anything she has to say to me. I can’t imagine it’s terribly important.”

“She’s come all the way from Devon. That’s not a quick hourlong drive. That’s a heck of a trip for nothing important.”

“Why is everyone on their side?” I slapped the envelope down. “Camilla is. You are. Mum is. Why am I the one in the wrong here? Why can nobody respect my want to just move on from this?”

“Because I know you, pudding, and I don’t think that’s what you really want at all.” He rested his hand on top of mine. “You haven’t smiled since you got here. Not properly. I can see how much you’re hurting.”

“It doesn’t change the situation. It doesn’t change everything that happened.”

“No, it doesn’t. Mistakes were made all around. Nobody here is entirely innocent.”

I stared at him.

“If everyone around you is telling you that perhaps you should be open to hearing what someone has to say, don’t you think you should listen?” He raised his eyebrows.

“No.”

He chuckled and raised his hands. “All right. You’re a grown woman. I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I think you should at least read that letter. I know you’re just going to fish it out of the bin to read it later anyway.”

“It’s not my fault I’m curious,” I muttered, eyeing the envelope.

“What harm will reading it do?” He pushed it towards me. “If you don’t like what she has to say in it, nothing changes. If it’s an olive branch…”

I scoffed. “Anna doesn’t extend olive branches. Anna waits for someone else to extend it to her. The previous three notes were all asking us to contact her. If it’s an olive branch, why isn’t she knocking on the door? Why isn’t she calling? Camilla wouldn’t tell Hugo where you live, so why would she tell Anna? It’s a lot of work to track you down just to slip a piece of paper under the door.”

“She has called.” Mum stepped inside and put the egg basket on the kitchen table. “Several times. And she’s knocked on the door twice.”

I looked between them. “And you didn’t tell me?”

She shrugged, looking over the eggs. “I didn’t think you needed to know. I knew you didn’t want to speak to her, and you most certainly don’t want to see her, so I asked her to please stop calling and coming over here.” Her gaze fell to the envelope. “Clearly, she didn’t listen.”

“That family is so bloody persistent,” I grumbled. “When was she last here?”

“Last night when you were in the bath.”

“You told me that was Betty Carlisle.”

“Well, they’re both equally irritating, so I didn’t see the difference, personally.” She took the basket over to the egg holder and started distributing the eggs. “What does she want this time?”

“Your daughter is channelling your best trait and refusing to open it.” Dad winked at me.

“Are you saying I’m stubborn, Steve?” Mum gave him a pointed look.

“Oh, fine.” I snatched the envelope up and untucked the flap. The letter was perfectly folded inside, and I slid it out.

Sophie,

I understand that you don’t owe me anything. If I were you, I’d be ignoring me, too. But please—I need to speak with you.

I’ll be at The Pelican Bay restaurant tomorrow at two-thirty.

I’d like if you’d join me.

Yours,

Anna

The audacity of that woman.

How could she think I would accept that offer?

Actually, I was going to. I was going to go.

“What does it say?” Mum asked, looking over expectantly.

“She wants me to meet her tomorrow afternoon to talk.” I put the piece of paper down.

“Are you going?”

“Oh, yes. I’m going.” I got up from the table. “I’m going to tell her to leave us all alone. She can’t keep harassing us like this. Enough is enough.”

***

I paused in the restaurant doorway.

Anna was there on the terrace, peering down at her phone. Nobody else was out there which meant we’d have complete privacy, but my stomach rolled all the same.

Why was I here?

I had nothing to say to her. Whether she served me coffee or was a duchess, it didn’t change the way she’d treated me.

How she hadn’t listened me.

How she’d strong-armed me.

How she’d kicked me out of her house for a deception I’d never wanted to be a part of before I’d left.

How she’d been a part of how irrevocably my heart had been broken.

Looking at her hurt. I saw so much of Hugo in her—they had the same, lush green eyes that were so emotive, and where Henry leaned to their father’s sandier blond hair, there was no doubt that Hugo took after Anna with their dark locks.

I didn’t want to walk out there and sit down opposite her. I was afraid of my heart breaking all over again. That I’d be reminded of what I’d left behind, of what and who was a part of my past now.

But I couldn’t take this anymore. She had to leave my parents alone. She had to stop calling and sending letters and knocking on the door.

They wanted peace.

So did I.

The Devon family were a part of my past, and that was all there was to it.

Anna had to go back to where she belonged.

Spoiler alert: it was not King’s Lynn.

“Soph? Are you all right?”

I turned at the gentle voice, starting a little at the touch to my arm, then smiled tightly when I saw it was my old school friend. “I’m fine. Just delaying the inevitable.”

Wendy grimaced. “You want me to kick her out? I’ll do it. Just say the word.”

I gave a hollow laugh and patted her hand. “No. With any luck, she’ll be leaving in a moment anyway.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am. Thank you, though. I’ll keep it in mind.” I squeezed her fingers and released her, heading in the direction of the terrace.

This was it.

This was my moment to say goodbye.

The Devons would no longer impact my life in any kind of way after this conversation. Some bridges were made to be burnt, and this was one of them.

I pushed open the terrace door and looked over at Anna. Her dark hair was perfectly coiffed into a ponytail, and she tapped expertly at her phone screen with her light blue manicure.

She didn’t look up.

I don’t know why I expected her to.

Sadly for her, I was over deferring to her social status.

“You’ve got a lot of bloody nerve coming here.”

Maybe it was my words, my tone, or my appearance in general, but Anna jumped. Her phone dropped to the table with a clatter, and she looked up at me with an uncertainty in her eyes that was reflected in her posture.

“Sophie. You came.”

“I don’t know what kind of bollocks you think you’re pulling,” I said, walking over to the table where I gripped the back of the chair opposite her and leaned forwards. “But you best believe that the only reason I’m here is to tell you this: leave my family alone.”

“Sophie—”

“No. I don’t care, Anna. You’ve made your feelings about me perfectly clear. My parents do not deserve your harassment. I don’t know how you knew where I was but I’m only going to tell you once. Leave Norfolk, and if you ever come back, stay as far away from my family as possible.” I met her eyes. “If you contact my parents again, I’m calling the police.”

She looked at me with pained eyes.

“Have a safe trip back to Devon.” I pushed off the chair and turned around, heading for the door.

“Please. Will you give me two minutes?”

“Have a safe trip back to Devon,” I bit out, this time harsher than the last.

“You care about Hugo, don’t you?”

Her words cut me to the quick, and I froze, closing my eyes.

“If you think to use my misplaced feelings for your son to blackmail me into listening to you—”

“I don’t. I don’t want to blackmail you at all. But he’s why I’m here, Sophie.”

I drew in a deep breath.

“I know he came to see you and you sent him away.”

“I wasn’t going to welcome him with afternoon tea, was I?”

“No. And your reception of us both was valid, and I understand entirely how little you want to speak with me right now.”

“I’m not sure you have any idea how badly I want to be anywhere but here.”

“Two minutes. Please allow me two minutes to say my bit, and then I will leave you and your parents in peace.”

I turned and looked at her. “One more word to them, ever again, and I will call the police.”

Anna inclined her head and motioned for me to sit. “Two minutes is all I ask for, and I know I am asking an incredible lot from you.”

I pulled out the chair and sat down, keeping a good few feet between me and the table. “Two minutes. Then I’m leaving.”

If she noticed, she didn’t mention it. “Would you like some wine?”

“Tick tock.”

She held up her hands. “I am so very sorry for the manner in which I’ve treated you. At no point did you do anything to warrant my behaviour, and I am fully aware that mistaking you for Camilla is entirely my fault, and I am the reason you were unable to be truthful about who you were. Who you are.”

I folded my arms across my chest and stared at her.

“I should not have insulted you, belittled you, or treated you as anything less than the incredible young woman that you truly are. You were able to pull off an incredible party for Evelyn despite your lack of experience, and that is to be commended. It’s a credit to who you are as a person that you were able to achieve such a thing in the situation you found yourself in.”

I wasn’t buying it.

“I should have listened when I was told that Nancy had kept information from you—or Camilla. I didn’t want to believe that someone I had trusted so implicitly for so long had done anything that would ultimately hurt Evelyn for her own gain. My mother-in-law and I have a tempestuous relationship and it might be difficult to believe, but I do love her greatly.” Anna peered down at her hands on the table. “None of this excuses my behaviour towards you, Sophie, and please accept that I am wholly aware of how unnecessarily rude I have been towards you since you entered my home for the first time, and how much I have hurt you.”

I swallowed.

Good.

I hoped she really did know how badly she’d hurt me.

“I fired Nancy before I left to find you. I’ve never been quite as ashamed as I was when Hugo told me the whole truth,” Anna continued, raising her gaze to meet mine. “He told me everything, Sophie. How Nancy manipulated the situation, how you did what you thought was best for your friend, how you thought you had no other choice.

“As misguided as your intention was, it was honourable all the same, and I want you to know that Camilla’s business will receive nothing but glowing recommendations from me.”

“Why?”

“Because anyone who counts you as their best friend must be an exceptional judge of character.” Anna pulled an envelope from her bag and slid it across the table to me. “And she insisted that the cheque be made out to you because you’d done the work.”

“You came all this way to give me a cheque?” I shoved it back at her. “I don’t want your money.”

“I know. But it’s yours all the same.” She nudged it back in my direction. “I can arrange a bank transfer. I have your information for it. Either way, you’ll get the money.”

“What do you really want from me?” I asked her. “This is a long way to come for an apology you could have slapped a first-class stamp on.”

“Hugo is in love with you.”

I looked away.

“Which you already know.”

“Get on with it,” I demanded, my voice thick.

I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear his name or how he felt or how she thought he felt.

I was done. So done.

I wasn’t going to let my heart get broken by this family again.

“He’ll never admit it to me,” Anna said, softly this time. “He’s never shared anything like that with me. I might have pushed him too hard towards a certain kind of person because it worked for my parents, but Hugo isn’t me, and he’s not George, either. George and I were lucky to fall in love. We were pushed together and happened to fall the way we did.”

My throat was so thick with emotion that I was almost nauseous.

I was either going to cry or throw up.

“You’ve had a lot longer than two minutes,” I told her scratchily.

“Hugo has spent the last decade telling me that he’ll fall in love with the right person at the right time.” Anna’s gaze was focused entirely on me. “And he was right.”

“Are you done?” I whispered.

“He’s in London,” she said softly. “He hasn’t left since the day after the party when he went to your flat the second time. He refuses to come home unless it’s with you, and Camilla won’t give him your parents’ address.”

“That must be devastating for you.”

“He loves you!” For the first time since I’d sat down, there was a fire to her voice. “He bloody well loves you, Sophie. He’s done nothing wrong in all of this. At least speak to him and hear him out. Let him tell you himself how he feels without anything other than the two of you.”

Slowly, I turned to meet her gaze. “I never meant to deceive you,” I told her quietly. “I wanted to do what was right by my best friend, and we were both betrayed by someone you should have been able to trust.”

“I know.”

“I… I never intended for any of this to happen, but you have to know that I am so in love with your son that it hurts, and it’s so ridiculous because I haven’t known him long enough to love him the way I do, yet here I am.”

Regret filled her eyes.

“Rejecting him is the single most painful thing I have ever done in my life.” I pressed my hands flat against my stomach and fought back the tears that threatened my eyes. “But I would do it again and again because I want him to be happy.”

“You are that person. You are the one who makes him happy.” Anna leaned forwards, and her eyes welled with tears. “Please do not punish Hugo—or yourself—because of my actions.”

I closed my eyes, even as they became thick and wet with emotion. “I don’t. You and he are not the same person. But I have to move on from this.”

Anna pressed her hand to her face and nodded. “I understand. If that’s your wish, I will respect it. Hugo will, too. Just… please think about what I’ve said today.”

I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop thinking about it.

“I’ll think about it,” I said after a moment. “But not because you asked me to.”

“Take this.” She reached into her bag and pulled out another small envelope. Slowly, she untucked the flap and pulled out a silver key. “This is a key to our London house.”

I stared at it.

“The address is on a slip of paper in here.” She returned the key to the envelope and secured it again, then set it on top of the envelope that included the cheque. “If for any reason he comes home and you haven’t seen him, I’ll let you know.”

“What about the key?”

“Just post it back. Or I’ll have the locks changed.” She shrugged, then reached up and pushed her hair behind her ear. “But I think he’ll be there for at least another week before estate work will call him home.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You never said a nice word to me the entire time I was in Moorhaven. Now you’ve taken the time to presumably do research into me, track down my parents, and travelled all the way over here.” I tilted my head to the side. “Now you’re giving me a key to your house in London, and you don’t even like me.”

“I don’t dislike you, Sophie,” Anna said softly. “I can’t say I like you, either, but that’s because I don’t know you. I never took the time to know you, and I regret that deeply. My entire family is apparently completely enthralled with you, so I’m going to assume it really is a case of it’s not you, it’s me.”

“At least you’re honest about it.” I looked at the envelope that she’d set on top of the one containing the cheque, then pulled them both to me. “If I don’t use the key in a week, I’ll send it back to you. And I’m only taking the cheque because I do truly believe you’re stubborn enough to send it to my bank anyway.”

“I am. And if you don’t cash this, I’ll do it.”

“I believe you.”

She nodded and pushed her chair back. “I’ve already covered the bill. Feel free to take that wine with you. I only had one small glass, and I always think it’s a shame to waste good wine.” She got to her feet and walked to the door, then turned back to me. “I’ll be returning to Devon tomorrow. Hugo doesn’t know I’m here. Everyone thinks I’m visiting a friend. If you choose to draw a line under the two of you, I’d prefer to keep this visit between us.”

I bobbed my head. “I agree.”

“And, Sophie? Before you make any decisions, there’s one more thing.” She gripped the door handle and looked at me probably with more honesty than she ever had. “If you and Hugo do decide to pursue a relationship, you will be welcomed to my home and my family with open arms.”

A lump formed in my throat.

“If that is the case, I should very much like for us to spend time together. I think we would both be surprised by how much we have in common.” She smiled. “Thank you for listening to me. I didn’t deserve your time today, but you gave it to me anyway. Evelyn was right when she said you had a good heart. It’s much better than mine.”

“You came all this way just to give me a key in the hope I would see Hugo.” I gave her a rueful smile. “You’re not a bad person, Anna, and I do accept your apology.”

“Thank you.”

“And… maybe… one day we might be friends.”

Her smile widened just the tiniest bit. “I sincerely hope so.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR – SOPHIE

The Choices We Make

“What are you going to do?”

I toyed with the key and looked at the laptop screen where Camilla was biting down onto her freshly manicured nails. “I don’t know. I’ve been staring at for a day now.”

“I think she meant it. She was pretty regretful before I left. I think she was in a corner after she saw everything.”

I shrugged. “What difference will it make? I don’t think I can trust her. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“You still went to speak to her, though. No matter how many times you tell me it was to ask her to leave your parents alone, you have to admit that you wanted to hear what she had to say to you.”

“All right, I did.” I clutched the key tightly in my hand and the rough edge dug into my palm. “I wasn’t expecting what I got, though.”

“I don’t imagine you were.”

“What am I supposed to do, Cam?” My voice thickened. “I—I love Moorhaven. I love everyone I met there, but everything that’s happened has made me so uncomfortable with the idea of ever going back.”

“I can’t make that choice for you.” She smiled sadly. “You told me three days ago that the way you felt about Hugo wasn’t worth fighting for. It’s been a week since you last saw him. Do you still feel like that? Knowing now what you do?”

I looked down at the keyboard.

I missed him.

A lot.

We’d spent so much time together when I was in Moorhaven, and ever since I’d left, it’d been almost as if a part of me was missing.

Like when you cut your hair short, and it takes you forever to get used to.

That was the only way I could describe how I felt, but I wasn’t sure I’d get used to it. It was such a heavy, dull ache that was always there, and every time I closed my eyes, I was reminded of the moments where I didn’t feel that.

Because Hugo was there.

“I’m not sure you’ve ever felt that way. You just told yourself you did because it was easier for you.”

I peered up at my best friend.

“You’re in love with him, Sophie. Look at you. You’re running away from something you can’t escape. You can’t just put your feelings in a box and go somewhere else until they disappear.” Her lips curled up. “Go and see him. Now that you have all the information and you know Anna isn’t an obstacle, you’ve really run out of excuses.”

“But what if I do and we try and she—”

“You don’t know unless you try,” she said calmly. “What have you got to lose? You’re already heartbroken. You have no job tying you to London. You are quite literally at rock bottom.”

I grimaced. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What about you? If I go and do something insane like move to Devon, what about you?”

“Well, for a start, Anna mentioned about hiring me for her wedding anniversary next year and is apparently going to pass my business card to everyone she knows, so I’m pretty sure that would have us move in the same circles.” Her lips twitched. “Secondly, I’ll move in with Ollie. His place is way bigger than this.”

“He also has a back garden because he’s richy-rich-rich.”

“Not Hugo rich.”

“I think only the Queen is richer than the Devons.”

She dropped her head and laughed. “Don’t you worry about me. I will be absolutely fine. You’re my best friend and I just want you to be happy.”

“I know. I’m just… making excuses, I guess.”

“I know.” She bit her lower lip. “If he makes you happy, then I think you should go for it. I don’t want you to spend forever regretting not trying.”

Mum called my name from downstairs.

“I have to go. Mum’s made dinner.” I reached forwards. “Thanks, Cam.”

“Let me know what you decide to do.”

“I will. Bye.” I hung up to a close-up picture of her waving and smiling like a loon, then closed down the laptop.

That key was burning a hole through my palm.

I reached for my phone. I unlocked it and left my thumb there, hovering, like I couldn’t decide what to do.

Did I call him?

Text him?

Lock it and put it down and die a little more inside?

No.

My thumb swept the menu up and tapped the gallery, and I scrolled down and search for the only photo I had of us. We’d taken it the day before I’d left. Our cheeks were pressed right against each other, and although I was looking at the camera and smiling properly, Hugo wore the biggest, cheesiest grin and was looking anywhere but.

I looked down at the key.

It was funny.

People always said there was a key to your heart.

I literally held one right now, but it was one key to two people’s hearts. If I went there, we could fix it.

He thought this was worth fighting for. That I was worth it. He’d said his world didn’t matter because I was his world.

He’d consumed mine from day one.

I’d fallen for him so hard and fast I was still dizzy from it.

Could I…

I closed my eyes. This was more than just love. If I did this, I’d be agreeing to potentially take a role in a society I didn’t know or understand.

I didn’t know much, but I knew that he was the only person I’d ever consider doing that for.

I opened my eyes and stared at the key.

It was five-thirty.

If I left now, I would be there by eight.

Fuck it.

It was time to take a risk.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE – SOPHIE

Decisions, Decisions

I did not think this through.

This was fancy London.

Richy-rich London.

Not that I was able to park, mind you. Nobody ever was. At least not at their exact destination, and it’d taken me a while to find a spot that didn’t require a resident’s permit.

Fifteen minutes away.

See?

Richy-rich London.

Now, I was standing down the street from the house. Where he was. I knew he was there because I could see his car outside.

I just didn’t know what to do.

Anna might have given me the key, but I couldn’t just pop it in the door and let myself in, could I? I was going to have to knock and that meant waiting and I—

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could do this. I could walk up there and knock. I could—

I couldn’t.

I made it as far as the inside of the front gate before I stopped.

What if he was angry with me for ignoring him? What if he didn’t want to see me? Then what was I supposed to do?

I pulled out my phone and opened my text chain with him. The last chat we’d had was him taking the piss out of me cutting my finger—it was now the tiniest little scab, and I was ninety percent sure it was going to scar, but whatever.

ME: I like your house.

I hovered over it for a moment before I hit send. My gaze flittered between the house and my phone until it buzzed in my hand.

HUGO: What?

ME: I said I like your house.

HUGO: I don’t understand.

ME: Knock knock?

This was absolutely dreadful.

Why couldn’t I just say “I’m outside” like a normal person?

The sound of a latch slipping made me inhale, and I looked up just in time to see him open the door.

Every breath I took was rough and laboured, and I could do nothing but stare at him. In his freaking Pokémon t-shirt that was so ridiculous but made my heart swell all the same.

“Hi,” I breathed, holding my phone against my body.

“Sophie.” Hugo’s gaze never faltered. “What are you doing here? Cam said you were in Norfolk.”

“Um. It’s a really long story.” I fidgeted. “Involves a key, me threatening your mother with arrest, and some chickens.”

He stared at me for a moment before he dropped his head. His shoulders shook, and he rubbed his hand down his face. He was laughing when he looked back up at me, and I smiled awkwardly.

“I am not surprised at that combination of things,” he said. “Do you want to tell it inside instead of out here?”

I nodded, but my feet wouldn’t move. I was completely frozen in place where I was, and the trembles that ran through my body had me grip my phone even tighter in case I dropped it.

“Oh, Soph.” Hugo skipped down the three steps that lead to the door and along the path. He grabbed me, pulling me against his body, and I buried my face in his chest as he held me tighter than he ever had before. “I missed you.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “I thought you might be upset that I didn’t speak to you.”

“No. Never.” He cupped the back of my head with his hand and pressed his lips into my hair. “I understand. It’s been difficult.”

I nodded, squeezing him. “I’m getting cold.”

“Come inside.” He released me but took my hand and guided me up the steps and into the house.

It was a beautiful house, decorated in a much more contemporary manner than Cavendish House was. Hugo took me through to the kitchen where he motioned for me to sit at the large island and opened the fridge.

He cracked open a bottle of wine and poured two glasses, pushing one my way. “Here. Drink that while you explain about the key, the chickens, and threatening to have my mother arrested.”

I pressed my hand to the lower half of my face. “Arrested is a bit strong. I think it was a restraining order.”

“Either way, I am completely enthralled by this.”

I cradled the glass. “She found me.”

His eyebrows shot up. “She did what?”

“She found me. I assume she found out I was in Norfolk, then she did some digging. I don’t know how she did, but she showed up at my parents’ cottage.”

He pressed his lips together. “I bet that went down well.”

“I didn’t see her until yesterday. That didn’t stop her leaving four notes, a stream of calls, and two doorstep appearances.”

“I’m starting to understand the restraining order.”

“Mhmm.” I nodded. “She said she’d booked a table at a local restaurant and asked if I’d join her. I went to tell her to leave my family alone.”

“Which is when the threat happened, I assume.”

“She begged for two minutes, and I gave it to her.” I took a deep breath in, then sipped the wine before continuing. “She gave me what is probably the most impressive apology I’ve ever heard in my life. It was very long, very detailed, and very… well, apologetic.”

“Apologies do tend to be that way.”

I frowned at him, and his lips tugged up into the tiny smile I’d missed so much. “Then she gave me a cheque. That’s why I’m here. She paid me to come.”

He ran his tongue over his lips and looked into his wine. “Was it a lot?”

“A considerable amount. But with the price of petrol these days, she had to give me some cash, too.”

He peered over at me, fighting a smile. “Did it cover it?”

“No.”

His laugh was soft. “What happened?”

“She gave me a cheque for the job. Cam apparently insisted it be made out to me, and I had to take it, because apparently, she has my bank details and was going to pay me either way. Your mother is really very annoying.”

“Yes. She is.”

“It’s where you get it from, I presume.”

“Most likely. Bit of Grandma sprinkled in there, too.” His eyes twinkled.

I smiled. “She also gave me a key to this house.”

“She did what?”

I pulled it out of my jeans pocket and put it on the counter between us. “She told me you were here, gave me this key and the address, and told me that if we decided to try to make it work between us, she would welcome me with open arms into the family.”

Hugo stared at the key. “And I assume you’re here to give it back.”

“Well, I didn’t see a need for us to have two. I thought I might just use yours in the future.”

He looked up at me. “Sophie—”

“You were right,” I said, emotion flooding through me. “When you said this was something worth fighting for. I know that running away was wrong, but I wasn’t sure we could make this work until now. I don’t know what I’m doing.” I stared at him. “But I have nothing keeping me here. If you aren’t angry with me and you still feel the same way, then I…”

Hugo pushed off the counter and walked around it. He pulled me up from the stool and cupped my face, tilting my chin back so I had to meet his eyes. “I love you, Sophie,” he said softly, a small smile tugging on the corners of his mouth. “I love you even more than I thought was possible. I know what we have is worth fighting for. You are, Soph. You’re worth it all to me.”

I pressed my lips to his, and the tears burnt my eyes. One crept out and he brushed his thumb over my cheek, bringing me even closer to him.

“I love you,” I whispered in a thick voice. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”

“I would have waited forever for you,” Hugo replied on a whisper. “Believe me when I say that.”

I nodded.

I had to.

How could I not?

“Can you explain the chickens part of the story now?”

I laughed and leant into him. “My mum has thirty chickens. It just seemed like an equally random epilogue.”

He nodded, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. “You got that right. Come on. Let’s sit down. I’ll tell you everything that happened after you left.”

I picked up my glass and followed him into the living room. I sat on the sofa, and Hugo swung up my legs, pausing to tug off my shoes. He shuffled along the cushions so we were right next to each other with my legs over his, and he rested one arm along the back of the couch.

I leant my head on his shoulder. “What happened?”

“I tried to come after you, but Dad said I needed to sort everything out. I didn’t agree at the time, but now… it was probably the right decision,” he said warily. “We pretty much backed up everything you said, I suspended Nancy, and Camilla provided the initial proof that she’d sent the email to her that said you were going in her place.”

I swallowed.

“Mum woke up the next day in a better mood. I don’t know what happened, but I think Dad flipped his shit a bit. I wasn’t much nicer to her. Grandma pointed out all the good things you’d done, and I think it really hit home for Mum how badly she’d treated you.”

“It did. If what she said to me was anything to go by.”

He trailed his finger up and down my arm. “In the end, she fired Nancy, the party went off without a hitch, and Grandma has been whinging about not seeing you. Dad confirmed he did try to set us up—”

“We knew it.”

“—And I think our family learnt a great lesson, all things considered.” He chuckled. “And Henry hit it off with the woman Mum had intended to set me up with, so it really did end well.”

“Good for Henry,” I muttered.

“So was Mum in Norfolk the whole time? We thought she was in Yorkshire visiting a friend.”

I nodded. “She said nobody knew. I… think we might even be able to salvage a friendship out of this mess.”

“Wow. You really are a good person.”

I smiled, remembering what Dad had said to me. “Well, we all made mistakes. None of us were innocent in the situation. Really, we were all being manipulated by one person.”

“She won’t do that anymore.” Hugo kissed the top of my head. “So what do we do now? Are you staying here, or are you coming back to Moorhaven with me?”

“I have nothing to stay for. Cam said she’s happy to move in with Ollie, and it’s not like I have a job or commitments. Going home made me realise how much I missed the countryside, so I suppose I’ll come home with you.”

“I like hearing you call it home,” he murmured.

“I need to find somewhere to live, though. It won’t be with your mother.”

Hugo laughed, dropping his head back. “I agree. Probably best to keep some degree of separation between the two of you.”

I tilted my head back. “This could be tough.”

“Well, you know that cottage we were talking about renovating?”

I nodded.

“Dad told me this morning that we received planning permission.” Hugo paused. “It’ll take about eight months to complete, all in all, and it’s only two bedrooms, but… what if we found you a short term let? Maybe even talk to Nora? Then when the cottage is ready… We could live there together.”

“Not in the big house?”

“Not in the big house. Eventually, of course, that would be home, but while it’s just the two of us, I don’t think Dad would have a problem with us living there for a couple of years.”

I smiled. “Can I have chickens?”

“You can have whatever you want as far as I’m concerned.”

I leant into him again. “What about until there’s somewhere for me to stay? Even a hotel until something more permanent comes up.”

“We’ll stay here,” he said softly, leaning his cheek against the top of my head. “I’ll ask Helena to find a place for you to stay.”

“I don’t have a job.” I paused. “Although that was a pretty substantial cheque from your mum.”

“There you are, then. Not that I’d expect you to pay for anything.”

“You are not paying my rent.”

“We can agree to disagree.”

“Hugo.”

“Sophie.”

I sighed. “I’m too tired to argue. I’ve done enough of that with myself.”

He chuckled. “How about I order food and we just stay here, doing nothing? Then we can go to bed, sleep, and we can finally wake up together tomorrow morning. Where you can make the tea because I’ll do it wrong.”

“That sounds perfect.”

EPILOGUE – SOPHIE

Forever

“And Nora didn’t mind?”

Hugo shook his head, hitting the indicator. “Nope. She said she only had one weekend stay booked, so she cancelled it. She’s actually charging market rate and not holiday-let rate, too, so it’s a good deal. I think she likes you.”

“Everyone there likes me. Except your mother.”

He side-eyed me.

“All right, all right.” I fought back a giggle. “No, I mean it. Everything that happened, happened. I’m willing to draw a line in the sand and do the best I can to be friends with her.”

“I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot more work on your part than hers. You’re much easier to get along with than she is.”

“I don’t know. I’m a bit of a diva sometimes.”

“I am aware.”

It had been five days since I’d shown up in London, and we were finally making our way south to Cavendish House. Nora was more than happy to give me a temporary tenancy on the cottage, and I was extremely grateful for that.

I didn’t want to move right into Cavendish House. There were a lot of people there that I wasn’t used to. It was a whole way of life I’d never truly experienced, and I wanted to ease in slowly.

Hugo agreed.

We’d fallen so hard and fast that I think we were both aware of the work it would take for us to have our relationship progress like a normal couple. Me having my own space was a big step towards that, and so was my new job.

When I’d gone home yesterday to finish packing my things, Camilla had been there. She said she was so impressed with what I did that she wanted to bring me on in her business.

I still wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if my heart truly lay with any kind of party planning, but it was definitely an option for me. I hadn’t disliked planning Evelyn’s party, not when it got down to it, but I had a feeling there was something else out there for me.

Something I hadn’t yet crossed paths with.

Still, even temporarily, it would work.

I needed to carve out who I truly was, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would happen in Moorhaven.

I’d loved that village since I moment I’d stepped foot in it.

That didn’t change as Hugo turned and the village sign came into view.

I was terrified to go back to Cavendish House. I didn’t know how I would be received by anyone, despite Helena’s stream of excited text messages. I hadn’t spoken to anyone other than her and Henry. Hugo had done his best to reassure me, but it didn’t necessarily make it better.

Our few days in London had been quite the bubble of the two of us, and I wasn’t completely sure how we would adjust to having a much more public relationship. I was nervous about it all, and I hoped more than anything that the adjustment would be easy.

I was risking everything I knew for Hugo.

Funnily enough, that scared me the least.

Of all of this, I was certain that he would be the one who would pick up the pieces of whatever went wrong. He would be there for me no matter what, and that made this just a bit easier to navigate.

The ornate gates that lead to Cavendish House opened in front of us, and I drew in a deep breath.

“It’ll be fine,” Hugo said, reaching over and squeezing my knee. “You know it will be.”

I squeaked.

He laughed, and he removed his hand to change the gear down as the house came into view.

Everyone was standing outside.

Talk about a welcoming committee.

“I’m going to throw up,” I whispered.

“No, you’re not. You’re still the same person who was here two weeks ago.” Hugo parked the car and looked at me. “Besides, I can bet Grandma is already on her way over here.”

Oh, God.

I opened the car door and got out. As he’d said, Evelyn was almost in line with the car, and I hesitated.

“Where have you been?” she demanded, tapping my arm with her stick. “You missed my birthday party!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to avoid her half-hearted attack. “I did buy you a present!”

“Forgot the wine glass, though!”

“That was his job!” I pointed at Hugo.

She turned on him and glared. “I knew it was you. It’s always you.”

Hugo froze.

Evelyn looked back at me and smiled. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” I replied honestly.

She pulled me into a warm hug that made me want to cry. We really had bonded during my original time here, and I hadn’t realised just how much I’d truly missed her until now.

“Grandma, move over!” Helena grabbed me from behind and put her chin on my shoulder. “I knew you’d come back.”

I laughed as Henry joined the pile on and I was sandwiched between the two younger Devon siblings. “I’m glad someone did.” I glanced at Hugo, and he dipped his head to hide a smile.

“Let her breathe,” George said, approaching. He smiled at me in such a warm, fatherly way that almost all my nerves disappeared. “It’s good to see you, my dear. I hope Hugo hasn’t given you food poisoning yet.”

“Not yet, but I think he’s biding his time,” I replied. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Anna stepped up beside him, and Hugo wrapped his arm around my waist.

I didn’t know if anyone other than the three of us knew about our conversation in Norfolk. Either way, she didn’t look like she wanted to murder me, so I was taking that as a win.

She smiled slowly. “It’s good to have you back, Sophie. It wasn’t the same without you.”

Evelyn did a double-take. “Are you drunk?”

Everyone laughed, including Anna.

“It’s good to be back,” I told her.

“I’m glad.” There was a genuine hope to her smile when she said, “Maybe we can have lunch when you’re settled.”

“I would like that.”

Hugo squeezed me against him.

If anyone else thought that was strange, they didn’t say anything.

Evelyn, who didn’t care, snorted. “I’m going to see that. After the last time they spoke, I want a front-row seat. Henry, get me inside. I’m too old for standing up this long.”

Henry offered her his arm and helped her inside, and George said something to Helena, and they turned away, both with a smile.

Anna hovered for a moment longer. “They don’t know,” she said, answering my unspoken question.

“They don’t need to,” I replied, smiling. “You knew I’d go, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She wrapped her arms around herself, her lips pulling to one side. “When I said that I hoped we’d be friends, you agreed. I knew then that you’d go, even if you didn’t.”

Hugo pressed his lips to the top of my head. “Thank you, Mum.” He looked at her. “For doing what you did.”

She reached out and squeezed his arm. “Despite my meddling, all I want is for you to be happy. One only has to look at you together to know that is exactly what you are.” She looked at me. “I believe Evelyn has made at least four pots of tea in anticipation of your arrival, and she would be rather put out if we didn’t join her for a cup or four.”

“We’ll be there in a moment, Mum,” Henry said.

She nodded. “Sophie, let me know when you’re ready for lunch. I think we’ll have to take Evelyn and Helena, but I’m sure we’ll live.”

I leant into Hugo. “Why don’t we say Tuesday?”

She smiled. “Tuesday it is. I’ll give you a moment.”

She dipped her head and walked inside, leaving us both standing alone on the drive.

Hugo looked down. “See? I told you.”

I met his gaze. “It’s only been five minutes. Don’t get your hopes up. Come on.” I dragged him towards the house while he laughed.

Yes, this was going to be difficult.

It was a whole world I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to be a part of, but if his family were going to keep their word and take me under their wing, I would do everything I could to uphold both their values and mine.

Spending the rest of my life with Hugo was worth it all.

THE END

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