Two Sisters ÷ One Prince = Royal Heartbreak
Calling all people obsessed with the royal family! If you’re all caught up on your Prince William, Harry, and Kate gossip and need something else to occupy your time, look no further than ROMANCING THE THRONE by Nadine Jolie Courtney!
If there are any rules of sisterhood, “Don’t fall for the same guy” should be one of them. When Libby decides to join her sister Charlotte at posh Sussex Park school, social-climbing Charlotte considers it her sisterly duty to bring Libby into her circle—which just so happens to include handsome seventeen-year-old Prince Edward, heir to Britain’s throne. But the sisters soon discover there may be a price to pay for romancing the throne…and more than one path to happily ever after.
Start reading the first three chapters of ROMANCING THE THRONE below!
My serve has been my secret weapon ever since I mastered it at Wimbledon junior tennis camp two years ago. The moment I arch my back and feel my racket make contact with the ball, I know Libby is done for.
She runs for it, almost tripping over herself in her haste to get to the corner. The ball slices right and smashes into the hedges. She’s not fast enough.
Game, set, match.
“Damn!” She stops at the net, her chest rising and falling heavily from the sprint. There’s a ring of frizz around the crown of her curly brown hair. “You never practice—it’s not fair you’re so good!” She tucks her racket between her knees as she wipes her brow with her forearm. The morning sun is unusually harsh, even for August.
“If you got it, you got it,” I say, grinning. “Don’t feel bad, Libs! You’ll catch up with me someday.”
The joke is my sister has no reason to feel insecure. She’s an academic rock star, just like Dad was at school, but at least I inherited Mum’s sport gene.
And it’s nice to know there are still things I can beat my big sister at.
She pulls down her scraggly ponytail, the hair falling around her slim shoulders. “Let’s play again. I know I can beat you.”
“Scared you’ll mess up your makeup?”
“I’m not falling for that trash talk. I need to get ready for the party, so I am worried I’ll mess up my makeup, as a matter of fact. I guess you’ll just have to survive knowing you’re second best,” I tease.
Libby bounces the ball on the other side of the court. “C’mon . . . one more set. We’ll be done in ten minutes. That’s all I need to beat you,” she says, smiling.
“Tempting, but no.” I shake my head and swat a ball across the net. It sails into nothingness, making a satisfying whomp as it hits a wall draped in lilac-colored wisteria. “My train leaves at one thirty and it’s going to take me at least an hour to get ready. Thank God I’m already packed. Although I would kill for a quick dip in the pool.” My parents have been doing renovations little by little since buying this house, and the Olympic-sized swimming pool—my mother’s dream ever since she was a girl—was finally finished at the beginning of the summer.
“All you do is lie out by the pool and play with that damn beauty app,” she sighs. “We’ve only played tennis twice this summer.” Libby starts walking around the court, gathering the scattered balls.
“Hey, my tan’s not going to top up by itself,” I say, adopting a more serious tone when I see her disappointed face. “But I’m sorry. We should have played more.”
“Nah, I’m not angry. I’ve been distracted, too.” She bops her racket against her heel, anxiety creasing her delicate features.
“Greene House?” I ask.
“Yeah.” Over the summer, rumors started that Libby’s headmaster had been taking bribes from parents in exchange for high marks. Libby made me promise not to tell Mum and Dad. If the rumors turn into something real, it could ruin Libby’s last year—universities might look at all the top students coming out of Greene House as suspect.
I try to distract her by making light of it, gathering balls and dumping them in the hopper. “I never understood why you wanted to go to an all-girls school in the first place. No man candy? Cringe!”
“What a novel concept,” she says, smiling. “Picking a school for the academics. What was I thinking?” She walks around the net and smacks me on the bum with the face of her racket.
“Whatever.” I make a big show of looking exasperated. “Sussex Park is just as good as Greene House. We’re fifteen-time field hockey champions.”
“We send more women to Oxbridge universities than any other school in England.”
“Our graphic design program smokes yours.”
“The prime minister’s wife and the Queen of Jordan went to mine.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, Prince Edward goes to mine. Boom.” I make a mic drop gesture with a tennis ball and we both start giggling. “I wish we’d gone to the same school from the beginning. If the Greene House stuff gets really bad, you should transfer to Sussex Park.”
“It’s not that easy.” Libby looks around the court, which is now empty. “I think we’re done here.” We turn and start to make our way across the court and through the gate, turning up the wide, sloping lawn toward our house. We’ve been living here for four years—not only do we have a tennis court and a pool, but we have acres and acres of fields, and the house itself is gorgeous. It’s a three-story Tudor with brick, stone, and wood half-timbering and a gabled roof. I only spend the summers and holidays here, when I’m home from boarding school, but I still can’t believe this is ours.
It’s so smart that it even has a name: Wisteria.
“It’s exactly that easy. Sussex Park loves sibling legacies—double the tuition. Mum makes a few phone calls, writes a check, and voilà!”
“In my last year of school?”
I shrug. “Why not?”
Libby shakes her head as we walk up the low stone steps leading to the pool and back garden. “I like Greene House. All my friends are there. I’m already signed up for all my A levels. Hopefully everything will be fine and I won’t have to worry about it. New subject. Excited for the party tonight?”
“Obviously. India’s house makes Downton Abbey look like a cottage. They even have a garden maze.”
“Sounds terribly smart.”
“You could act a little more sincere. Be happy for me!”
Libby laughs. “What do you want from me, Lotte? That’s amazing! I am positively astounded! This party is guaranteed to change your life—forever!” She raises an eyebrow. “Is that better?”
Libby keeps her sarcastic side hidden from most people, but I secretly love seeing it. “Fine. But I’m super excited. Did you know India’s grandfather is the Duke of Exeter?”
“You don’t say. I only heard you telling Mum and Nana and whoever you were chatting on the phone to earlier.”
“Oh, stop pretending you’re above it.” I lean down as we walk by the pool, splashing a little water on her. She squeals.
“Your friend’s grandfather could be the Duke of America for all I care. It’s not like we don’t know people with titles and nice houses. Both of our schools are full of them. And Wisteria is hardly a shack.”
“Yeah, but this is different. You’ve never met India. She’s amazing.”
“Preparing to be amazed.”
I roll my eyes at her. “Besides, she’s good friends with Prince Edward.”
“That’s two mentions in two minutes. Somebody’s got him on the brain,” she teases.
“I do not.”
“India’s a regular girl, and Edward’s a regular boy. There’s nothing special about either of them.”
“You know it’s not important what people like that think of you, no matter how posh they are, right? What matters is how you see yourself. You’ve got to be comfortable with you,” she says, her face turning serious.
“Okay, Dr. Freud.”
“You’re too preoccupied with money and status, Lotte.”
“Oh, come on. You know how kids at our schools work. There’s no money,” I say, holding my hand palm-down near the waist of my tennis shorts, “and there’s new money”—I gesture at our massive garden, full of roses and jasmine and hyacinths, as we walk through it toward the indoor terrace—“and then finally there’s old money.” I raise my cupped hand above my head to signal the upper limit. “You can pretend all you like that that stuff doesn’t exist. But it does.”
“That stuff isn’t as important as it used to be.”
“That stuff is always important. We’ve got to work twice as hard to prove ourselves to the kids with old money—while pretending we totally don’t care.”
Libby shakes her head. “I hope you’re exaggerating. I have no interest in proving myself to anybody—it sounds exhausting.”
“All I’m saying is, everybody loves you. You’re smart, you’re kind, and you’re gorgeous. I know you’d be just as happy hanging out with normal people as with royalty. And they’d all be lucky to have you. Don’t forget that.”
“Well, Prince Edward is royalty and he’s normal. So it’s a double bonus,” I say, butterflies working my stomach as I think about the possibility of hanging out with Prince Edward tonight. “But thank you. You should bottle that praise and release a motivational app. I’ll play it whenever I need a boost.” My eyes widen as I adopt a creepy voice and raise my arms like a zombie. “You’re smaaart . . . you’re gooorgeous . . . everybody looooves you . . .”
She laughs. “I’ll miss you when we go back to school.”
As we walk through the terrace and then inside the French doors leading to the sitting room, I think for the millionth time how nice it would be to have something lining the walls or dotting the bookshelves showing my success. Instead, the wood-paneled room is a shrine to my sister’s academic perfection, with her certificates, badges, and trophies on conspicuous display:
First Place, Year Ten Science Carnival.
National Achievement Award in Writing: Year Eleven.
Greene House Student Merit Award.
Libby Weston for the win!
Mum obviously realized at some point that turning our house into the Libby Weston Fan Club was a little weird, and earlier this summer two framed photos of me competing in field hockey and athletics suddenly materialized atop the baby grand piano by the brick fireplace.
Hey, at least they’re trying.
“Race you to the kitchen!” I say.
“Not if I get there first!”
We elbow each other while running into the kitchen, laughing as we try to beat each other to the fridge. The kitchen was last summer’s upgrade project; Mum had it gutted and remodeled to look like the prime minister’s kitchen, which was featured in House Beautiful magazine. The showpieces are the island, with a white marble countertop, and the huge Aga stove—two other things she’s been fantasizing about for years and finally was able to get after her business took off.
“Careful, you two!” Mum’s at the kitchen table, typing on her laptop with a buffet of documents laid out in front of her. A glass of white wine sits next to the computer. “I’ve been working on these all morning.”
“What’s the latest?” I ask, chugging water and standing at the counter while scrolling through my favorite beauty app, Viewty. I heart a photo of dip-dyed fringe, and then bookmark a picture of purple-and-silver smoky eyes, making a plan to try the look myself later. Libby pulls a chair out and sits next to our mother.
“We have a big order shipping next week. I’ve been reviewing the stock to make sure everything is organized.” She points a manicured finger at the screen. “See that? Not a bad day’s work for your ol’ mum, huh?”
I look up momentarily from scrolling through the photo feed, peeking over her shoulder before looking down at my phone again. “Holy crap! Harrods ordered your shoes? That’s sick! Way to go, Mum!”
“Thank you, Charlotte, but will you please put your phone away? You’re glued to it.”
“She’s on that app again,” says Libby. “I don’t know why you use it so much if you’re always complaining about how buggy it is.”
“Sorry,” I say. “But there’s nothing better out there.” I leave my phone on the counter, grab a banana from the fruit bowl, and sit down opposite her. Outside the picture windows, the sun blazes over the fields surrounding our home. When we first moved here, I didn’t like the thought of being so secluded out in the country, but now I love it. “You going to miss me tonight? Throwing a big party while I’m gone?”
“Dad is picking up a curry.”
“Do you think he knew when you got married that you’d never cook a day in your life?” I ask between bites of banana.
“I cook! Sometimes . . .”
“Well, why should women be expected to cook anyway, right?” I say. “So sexist. So antiquated.”
Libby laughs. “So says the girl who’s dying to become a princess.”
“I’d be a totally modern princess,” I say, raising my chin in mock haughtiness. “The royal family wouldn’t know what had hit them.”
“You’d throw Buckingham Palace’s first garden-party electronica concert.”
“And Snapchat from the balcony.”
“And Instagram photos of your outfits with the hashtag ‘princess pose.’”
“Ooh, look at you! Libby knows what a hashtag is! Somebody’s been brushing up on her social media.” The only thing Libby regularly uses is Twitter, so she can keep up with breaking news. As for me, Instagram is my drug of choice—I have over ten thousand followers, which thrills me—though I wish the number were even larger. Thanks to Mum’s shoe business, Soles, my collection is massive and my “shoes of the day” posts get hundreds of likes. “I wish you’d join Instagram, Libs. You’re such a great photographer—you’d love it.”
“Who’d want to see my boring photos?” she says. Mum and Dad bought Libby a professional DSLR last year—finally responding to years of subtle hints. True to form, however, Libby doesn’t like doing anything unless she can excel at it, and she’s too shy to share her photography attempts—even though I think they’re amazing.
“Um, earth to Libby. Boring people with your photos is the entire point of social media.” We giggle.
“None of my friends are on Instagram, anyway.”
“Ugh, Greene House. Lame. You really should move.”
We exchange a panicked look as I remember that Mum doesn’t know about the scandal yet. I quickly change the subject.
“I should probably start getting ready for India’s party. Can’t go looking like this.” I point to myself and pull a face.
“You’re beautiful without makeup, honey,” says Mum. “I wish you knew that.”
The first time I applied makeup, I felt transformed. I’m sure it had more to do with my age—thirteen—than my actual self-esteem, but I was going through a rough acne patch and felt like a total ugly duckling.
Mum had started Soles the year before, and it took off like a rocket. Suddenly, we were rolling in money. We moved from a small two-bedroom town house in Guildford—where Libby and I shared a bedroom—to a six-bedroom house in Midhurst, a quaint town dotted with Tudor architecture. Overnight, we upgraded not just our house but our lives: now we could afford vacations, new clothes instead of hand-me-downs from cousins, a car for each parent, and, of course, boarding school. Not everybody was happy about the transition. Even though I invited my old friends over for sleepovers all the time, they dropped me soon after we moved. I think they were jealous of the fact that we suddenly had money, but they said I was up my own bum. I cried every night for two months—Libby came home from school three weekends in a row her first year at Greene House just to comfort me. While it was hurtful and confusing, it also made me determined to surround myself with people who admired success, instead of resenting it.
To cheer me up, Mum let me tag along on her first Soles photo shoot. The makeup artist showed me some tricks, and everybody agreed I looked a million times better after she plucked my brows and applied mascara and lip gloss. Even my dad said I looked pretty when Mum and I got home from the shoot—and he never focuses on looks. Soon after, Mum bought me all the makeup that the artist recommended, and I left for my first day at Sussex Park a few months later fully made up: armor on.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson. People say it’s what’s on the inside that counts—but you’re fooling yourself if you think they ignore the outside, too.
“You’re certain Prince Edward will be there?”
Libby groans. “Not you, too, Mum.”
“It’s very exciting!” Mum says defensively, taking a sip of wine. “Your father and I have spoiled you both. Sending you to top schools has paid off. You don’t know how lucky you are. Not everybody is a classmate of the future king. Most people will never run in those circles.”
“—a boy,” I say, finishing my sister’s sentence. “We know, we know. But come on, Libby. Has that all-girls school turned you to stone? Even your feminist heart has to beat a little faster thinking of a prince as hot as Edward.”
She smiles. “I never said he wasn’t hot.”
“Thank you! That’s all I ask. Just a little acknowledgment that your sister has made it to the big leagues.”
“How many people are expected at India’s?” Mum asks.
“From what I heard, her parties are small. Only about twenty people.” I don’t tell my mum that India’s parties are also notorious for teenage debauchery. Last year, the entire Sussex Park campus was abuzz for weeks with talk of Flossie Spencer-Dunhill’s drunken skinny-dip with Tarquin Sykes in the Huntshire pool.
I know Libby’s right: it’s kind of embarrassing that I’m this excited about gaining India’s friendship. Even with my self-esteem at an all-time low when I was younger, I’ve never been a wallflower, and I have a ton of acquaintances at Sussex Park. But my old friends—mostly hockey teammates—graduated last year, and after India’s best friend, Byrdie Swan-Grover, graduated, India tapped me for friendship. Being part of India’s group is a stamp of approval that guarantees major social access—the kind of approval I’ve been dreaming about ever since leaving my old school. I’m cool with India’s friend Flossie, who plays hockey, and with Alice Hicks, who’s in a few of my classes. And, of course, India and I have been friendly since we sat next to each other in English class my first year and instantly bonded when we realized we both thought manufactured pop groups were totally lame. But the rest of her clique is a mystery. India’s small circle is the best of not just Sussex Park but of English society in general—and Prince Edward is smack dab in the center of it.
Why wouldn’t you want in on that?
“So, do you really think India means to set you two up?” Mum asks. “Surely she was joking.”
“I don’t know.” I shrug, trying to play it cool. I’m trying to keep my hopes in check, since boys like Edward tend to only date girls like India—the upper-class kids like to swim in the same pond, recycling the same few options over and over. “I guess we’ll find out.”
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Libby says magnanimously, reaching over to squeeze my hand.
I poke Libby in the ribs playfully before picking up my phone again. “Right? It’s huge. He’s very private. Not just anybody gets to hang out with him.”
“Nana’s going to lose her mind. Have you told her, Mum?”
“I may have mentioned in passing that you were going to a house party he would be at . . .”
“Ha! I bet the two of you had a forty-five-minute conversation all about it,” Libby says. “Where she immediately decided they would become a couple, started daydreaming about a spring wedding, and plotted out exactly what she’d say to the King and Queen when she met them.”
“Ugh,” I say. “No pressure or anything.”
Mum laughs. “Guilty.” The wineglass rapidly empties. “Nana kept repeating the importance of her rules.”
“Oh, God, Nana’s Rules for Dating,” I groan. “How many times did you have to hear that when you were growing up?”
“You’re better off not knowing.”
“Rule Number One,” repeats Libby. “Never let a boy know you like him.”
“Rule Number Two,” I say. “Always play hard to get.”
“Rule Number Three. Let him see you surrounded by other gentlemen,” she counters.
“Rule Number Four. Don’t give away the milk for free,” I laugh.
“Because women are cows, and barnyard metaphors are so progressive,” Libby says, shaking her head. “She’s so special.”
“She’s truly from a different time,” Mum says. “Can you imagine what a nightmare it was trying to date with all that rubbish in my head?”
“As long as Lotte doesn’t compromise her goals,” says Libby, suddenly serious. She looks at me. “This is a big year for you. You need to keep your marks up and focus on hockey, too. You’re so great at it—you could get a scholarship! Don’t get distracted by boys.”
“Oh ye of little faith. Like I can’t juggle boys and books?”
“Yeah, but he’s not a normal boy—he’s a prince.”
“Whatever. Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.”
She rolls her eyes, smiling at me. “Well, then, promise me one thing: Treat him like any other guy, okay?”
“Relax,” I say. “I’m a big girl. I can handle myself just fine.”
“I know you can.” She’s silent for a second, and then breaks out into a grin. “And if you can’t, your big sister will be your attack dog.”
We each kiss our index finger twice, holding them out until they touch.
“Are you two still doing that?” Mum asks, looking amused. “I haven’t seen you do that in years.”
When Libby and I were little, our absolute favorite movie was E.T. We’d re-create the scene where Elliott and E.T. bike through town, with Libby wearing one of Dad’s red zip-up sweatshirts and me sitting in a milk crate on the floor of our cramped living room or our shared bedroom. We loved the scene when E.T. touched Elliott with his glowing finger, and over the years, it morphed into our own private thing. Whenever we do it, it’s an instant code reminding us that we always have each other’s backs.
“Sisters forever,” we say together.
Mum beams with pride. “My little girls. You’ve grown up so fast.”
I’m so chuffed you’re here, Lotte,” India says, hugging me as I get off the train in Gloucestershire. She holds me at arm’s length, looking me up and down. “You look wonderful. You’ve clearly been in the sun.”
India is tall and willowy, with the sort of quiet confidence I can only dream of. I’ve tried to mimic her graceful, glacial movements, and I end up feeling like a stiff robot. But somehow, on India, all the poise and maturity totally works. She has the bearing of an old-world empress trapped in an English teenager’s body.
“Here, let me help with that.” India reaches out and grabs my mum’s Louis Vuitton duffel bag, carrying it to her dusty VW Golf. “We’re going to have the best time tonight. Flossie, Alice, and Tarquin are already here, and there’s another group driving in from Tetbury before dinner. Mummy and Daddy are in Honkers, and my grandparents have promised to make themselves disappear. We’ll have the place to ourselves.” Her low voice is always scratchy, husky—as if she’s smoked an entire pack of cigarettes.
After three years at Sussex Park, surrounded by kids from the wealthiest families in the world, there are times when I still feel like a stranger in a strange land. The sharpening of my observation skills while at boarding school would put any private investigator to shame.
“Hong Kong, darls. You should come next time we go. You’ll love it.” India swishes her waist-length blond hair as she tosses my luggage into the boot of her car. I wince as Mum’s new Louis Vuitton duffel brushes up against a dirty pair of riding boots and a mud-caked saddle.
This is something I’ve noticed with India’s set. Unlike what you’d expect, new and gleaming is bad. The older, dirtier, and more worn-in something is, the fonder they are of it. It’s not like India’s running around in rags, of course. She favors J Brand skinny jeans, skintight tank tops in every color of the rainbow (which she buys in bulk during London shopping trips to Harrods and Harvey Nichols), and has an arm crowded with trendy bangles, charms, rubber bands, strings, and candy-colored concert wristbands. But during winter, I’ve caught her more than once wearing a cashmere jumper with tiny holes in the elbows or on the collar. My mother would worry about people thinking she was common—when it comes to clothing, the newer and more expensive, the better. India and her friends seem to wear their grandmothers’ ancient hand-me-downs as a badge of pride.
They’re a paradox, those old-money aristocrats.
At Sussex Park, money is everywhere—although nobody talks about it for fear of being branded tacky—but only a handful of students are true aristocracy. Boundaries and barriers are almost impossible to cross in the draconian English class system, which fascinates me. India’s set have a certain air about them: a worldly knowingness. They’re courteous and friendly, and they might not call you out for your protocol mistakes—but believe me, they notice.
After all, only people who know the rules in the first place are allowed to break them.
Even I think the prospect of Edward dating a regular, non-titled girl like me is very unlikely. Like clings to like—everybody in his crowd is the earl of this or the viscount of that.
Luckily, India doesn’t seem to care about all that. But still, I have to try harder to fit in—a lot harder.
“Hong Kong sounds awesome. Although I don’t know how keen my parents will be.”
“Parents are a damn nuisance,” India says, waving her hands in contempt as she starts the car and sets off toward Huntshire.
“You’re lucky,” I say. “Your parents never bother you—they’re not a nuisance at all. Mine are always up in my business.” India’s parents rarely come to campus, and when they do, they’re aloof and uninterested. They seem happy to let her run the show.
“The less involved parents are, the better. They don’t understand us. You have to train them. It’s like boys, really.”
I laugh. “Speaking of boys . . . who’s coming tonight?”
She raises an eyebrow at me and smiles. “Plotting your conquests already? Tarquin’s here—although everything out of his mouth is bound to be a complete disaster, as always. Oliver’s on his way as we speak. There’s a group of Eton boys arriving after dinner. And, of course, Edward.”
“Oh, yeah? Nice.”
“You’re as transparent as a plastic bag,” she laughs. “Don’t try to play it cool.”
I blush. “Fine, you caught me.”
The first time I ever saw Prince Edward, it was three days into my first year at Sussex Park, when I literally bumped smack into him on the quad while texting Libby.
“Oh! Are you all right?” he asked.
I looked up, ready to start offering my apologies. Then I realized the tall boy whose bony chest my forehead had just made contact with was Prince Edward. The Prince Edward.
Sussex Park had its fair share of royalty and nobility, but most of the princes and princesses were from faraway countries you’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce—like Djibouti or Tuvalu. Going to school with the future king of England (and Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and the Commonwealth), though, was a very big deal. Edward sightings were still rare on campus. It was rumored that he mostly stayed in his dormitory, only coming out to eat and attend classes.
“Oh my God!” I said. “It’s you!” The second the words tumbled out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back.
“Last time I checked,” he said, looking down at his forearm and pulling on the sleeve of his rugby shirt. He was wearing a rucksack and faded trainers. “Yep. Still me.” He smiled at me before continuing on. “Have a great day—see you around!”
As soon as he’d passed through the stone arches at the south end of the quad, I whipped my phone back out and called Libby. “Oh. My. God. You are not going to believe what just happened.”
Students tended to stick with classmates in their own year, and like India, Edward was a year older than I was, so our paths rarely crossed. Sometimes he’d smile at me, but I wasn’t convinced he didn’t smile at everybody.
Of course, now that I’m about to encounter him again today, I can’t help but get excited. It’s three years later, I’m about to turn seventeen, and I’ve got my flirting down to a fine art.
There will only be a handful of us here tonight—so he has to notice me.
“Edward will be here in time for dinner. He’s driving in from Cedar Hall.”
I nod, recognizing the name of his family home from my mum’s issues of Hello! “What’s for dinner tonight?”
“Nothing special. My grandmother Pidge arranged pizza for us in the garden. Her chefs are off for the night.”
As we zoom down the narrow A433, I think how, to an untrained eye, these country roads might look similar to the roads near our house in West Sussex. But there’s more of a hush here; the leafy trees shading the road seem greener somehow. It’s as if the scenery knows that the people who live in this part of England expect a higher level of privacy.
We drive though unspoiled medieval towns, with stone houses dating back hundreds of years. We cross over a shallow river, which trickles through an impossibly quaint village surrounded by thatched cottages. India points out the oldest tree in England, a two-thousand-year-old oak nestled in the grounds of a small church.
After miles of winding country lanes, we turn off onto a narrow cobbled path where I notice a brown sign. There’s a small house-shaped icon, and the word “Huntshire” painted on it in white letters. We pull up to a back gate. Recognition dawns on a security guard’s face as he waves India through.
It’s a magnificent place. A narrow brook curves around a muddy building made out of wood. The smooth grass runs alongside a circular lake, where a mirror of still water is lined by a copse of trees.
We pass the stables and make a sharp right, turning onto a paved driveway leading to the largest house I’ve ever seen.
I see three sprawling levels of gray stone tethered to the earth in front of us as we pull right up to the front entrance.
I try to remember all the rules I’ve learned as I’ve slowly made my way into India’s circle.
I think of Nana: Don’t look too impressed.
This is by far the most majestic house I’ve ever seen. The word house doesn’t begin to do it justice.
“Nice,” I say casually.
“Yeah.” She shrugs. “It’s home. Well, it’s home until Grandfather dies and Uncle John inherits it and kicks us out.”
Ah, the peculiarities of the English class system.
The huge portico on the north front of the house resembles the entrance to a pantheon rather than a family home. I’m expecting an army of butlers and housekeepers to come outside and take our bags, like on Downton Abbey, but India pops the boot open, and the two of us sling our bags over our arms. She walks up to the front door and saunters in like she owns the place.
“It’s never locked,” she says. “If you make it past the gate, you’re meant to be here.”
The wide, cavernous entrance hall is decorated with gold paneling everywhere, featuring black-and-white checkered marble floors and several thrusting marble pillars flanking each side. The ceiling is breathtaking, with water lilies carved into the plaster and gold skirting the edges. To the left of the entrance hall is a huge, dusty fireplace. There are a dozen or so lavish-looking hall chairs and a substantial number of ancient-looking artifacts. While the house looks like a hotel on the inside, it’s empty and quiet: No servants bustling around. No reception desk. No one but India and me.
There’s an imposing oak staircase leading up to the first-floor picture gallery. Tapestries of various sizes depicting medieval kings and queens line the walls, and Romanesque busts on marble columns stand next to each window.
India trudges up the sweeping staircase and turns left, where large portraits hang proudly. The faded gilt on the frames has the telltale patina of centuries of age—unlike the faux-aged frames my mother is fond of buying. “My ancestors,” she says by way of explanation, gesturing toward canvases as we pass down the hallway. “An assortment of silly Frasers through the years. The first duke, who fought alongside Henry the Fifth in the Battle of Agincourt . . . the fourth duke, who fled to France during the Restoration by posing as a woman under cover of night . . . the ninth duke, who tried to convince the king that American independence would be a fad . . . my great-grandfather, the eleventh duke, who died on the Lusitania a year after inheriting . . . my grandfather, the current duke, who was born in India and still calls Mumbai Bombay.” She makes a frustrated noise. “I don’t know what my family was thinking naming me. Talk about cultural appropriation.”
“Have you ever thought about changing it?”
She rolls her eyes. “It’s not worth the grief they’ll give me. My parents are old school, to say the least. I’m still surprised my dad took the lesbian thing on the chin.” India came out to them this summer, texting me furious updates for weeks. “But, you know, they roll with the punches. Keep calm and all that.”
“Speaking of, where’s your dad’s portrait?”
“Dad’s the younger son: he doesn’t matter. Uncle John’s portrait will go up after he inherits. He’s panicking over it—claims he doesn’t want the bloody thing and all the pressure that goes with it.”
“Why doesn’t he just give it up?”
“He’d need to go to court, it would be a whole thing. Nobody wants that, not even him. Well, maybe my dad, but he’s the only one.”
“You don’t want your dad to inherit?”
India squints, looking thoughtful. “Then he’d be on the hook for the whole bloody estate. The pressure of financial upkeep, the stress of letting down generations if you fail—it’s a nightmare. It’s much more trouble than it’s worth.”
We walk down another passageway wide enough to drive a truck through, where the floor is covered in an ancient-looking maroon, blue, and gold weave. Dusty gilt-edged mirrors and battered wooden console tables are placed against the sides. The hallway has the musty smell of an old-age home.
As we turn right into yet another endless hallway, I can’t help myself. “Bloody hell, this place is massive.”
India laughs. “There are a hundred and fifty-six rooms. My grandfather rents part of it out for weddings most summer weekends. Brings in good income to keep the place going.” She starts pointing at door after door. “Those are guest quarters . . . more guest quarters . . . that’s a room that hasn’t been used since the 1700s . . . that’s just a loo . . . that’s a staff staircase leading back downstairs.”
We make another right turn and encounter a parallel hallway in the back of the house. “I used to ride my bike down these hallways. Drove my nanny bonkers,” India says. “That’s a drawing room . . . that’s a staff door leading up to the third floor. This staircase goes down to the kitchen, another one mainly for the staff . . . I don’t know what that room is used for, I think it used to be a ballroom . . . my bedroom is just around that corner.”
“What about all the rooms on the other side of the house?” I ask.
“More living quarters. Staff quarters on the third floor of the west wing, some larger guest rooms and a study where my grandfather keeps all his maps and war memorabilia, drawing rooms with pianos, stuff like that. And, of course, their private living quarters back in the east wing.” She points to another door. “That’s Pummy’s room.”
“My older brother, Andrew. Everybody’s called him Pummy since he was a baby—I can’t remember why it stuck.” The upper classes love to call their children ridiculous nicknames that sound like something from a children’s nursery rhyme. No doubt India will someday be proud mother to a baby Moony or Smush or Flopsie.
India stops in front of a door that looks just like every other one. “This one is yours: the Oak Room.”
There are several portraits on the walls and a gigantic four-poster bed that dominates the room. On the bed is a green velvet cover with gold embroidered stitching. The room is adorned with heavy tapestries hanging from the tall, wood-paneled ceiling, and two large windows look out onto Huntshire’s rolling hills. The walls are decorated in muted shades of green and salmon . . . and is that a hand-painted mural? Next to a stone fireplace, framed by an enormous gold mirror and two French taper candelabras, is an elegant wooden armoire. On a low marble table, there’s a pot of tea, a tray of digestive biscuits, and the latest issue of Elle with a black-and-white picture of Emma Watson on the cover. The room has clearly been renovated for guests—from what I’ve read in Hello! and Julian Fellowes books, most guest bedrooms at grand old country houses are sterile, drafty cubicles. By contrast, this room feels like the Ritz. I wish Libby were here to see this.
“It’s fabulous,” I say, looking around and realizing there’s no en suite bathroom. “Um, but where is . . .”
India smiles. “The loo is down the hall, remember? People think it’s so glamorous living in a house like this, but they don’t realize I grew up with coal heating, it took ten minutes to walk to breakfast, and you share the lav with ten other people.” She turns to leave. “Everybody’s probably out back by the pool, so I’d take advantage of the privacy and get ready now if I were you. Come down whenever you like, but dinner’s at seven sharp. Meet beforehand in the Smoking Room.”
With three hours until dinner, I have time to kill. If Libby were here, she’d explore the grounds, walk through the gardens, maybe take an excursion down to the stables or peruse the library before the rest of the troops arrive. Me? I pull out a hair dryer and the massive makeup bag from my duffel. I’m going to use every single moment to make myself look perfect.
I spend forty-minute minutes trying on outfit combinations before settling on an “effortlessly”—ha!—casual look for tonight: flowing white top, black shorts that hit mid-thigh, and gold sandals. After a relaxing hot shower, I blow-dry my long hair slowly and carefully, adding little braids to the sides so it looks bohemian and artfully messy.
I pad down the hallway from the bathroom back to my room. One of the hanging portraits, of a studious young man holding a book, makes me think about Libby. What if the scandal at her boarding school taints all the hard work she’s done? It wouldn’t really affect her chances at getting into a good university, would it? I couldn’t care less where I attend. University isn’t for well over two years—it’s a lifetime away. But Libby’s had a single-minded pursuit of St. Andrews, Dad’s alma mater, since she was young. I hope my sister isn’t screwed over by something that she has nothing to do with.
Eventually, I decide to put her troubles on hold. I have enough to worry about in my own life. Libby’s smart. She’ll figure it all out.
Makeup is another endeavor: after forty-five minutes applying waterproof mascara, eye shadow, eyeliner, tinted moisturizer, foundation, bronzer, blush, shimmer highlighter, and lip gloss, I’m satisfied. The trick is to look like you’re not wearing any makeup, which—like the “this old thing?” outfit—is harder than it sounds. I spritz on a waterproof finishing spray, to keep anything from running or smudging if we go into the pool, and then text Libby to get her opinion.
ME: What do you think? Is the makeup too much?
LIBBY: Maybe a little less lipstick
LIBBY: But I love the braids—you look amazing!
ME: K, thx, love u!!
ME: Heading down to dinner now
LIBBY: Love you, good luck! You’re going to do great!
I wipe off my lip gloss, swiping on clear ChapStick instead. Libby’s right: it looks even more natural. I check myself from every angle in the dusty gold mirror opposite the armoire, marveling at the dappled evening light streaming through the picture windows. It’s better than any Instagram filter. I snap a selfie, tagging Huntshire’s location and captioning it “Dinnertime! #countrylife #magichour,” and then do a quick ten-second Snapchat video, showing off the view from my window with a timestamp filter.
I check my phone again: it’s already a quarter to seven. I walk down the long hallways, feeling like an outsider as I make my way back downstairs.
Stop it. You were invited. You belong here.
The entrance smells like cinnamon. I walk downstairs, stopping by a tall gold clock and trying to remember which way India said I should go.
To the right of the entrance is a green hallway full of portraits, leading to the other wing of the house. To the left is a massive library.
I feel like I’m in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel from my childhood. On one side: coziness, familiarity, and warmth. On the other: uncertainty, danger, and intrigue. Which to choose?
I move toward the library, peeking inside.
It’s a cavernous two-story hall with paneled ceilings and amber walls, looking more like the lobby of a grand old resort than a single room. Square oriental tapestries cover the vast length of the hall, polished wood peeking out every twenty feet. A chandelier the size of a helicopter hangs from the paneled ceiling way down in the middle of the hall, and there’s a giant organ taking up an entire wall at the far end. There must be twenty thousand books in here. This room alone must take an army of staff to maintain—if you can even call it a room.
“Looking for the Smoking Room, miss?”
I jump, feeling guilty.
An older man in a black suit comes and stands behind me, carrying a tray.
“Yes, thank God you came along! This place is enormous.”
“Follow me, please,” he says, leading me toward the green hallway. I check out all the old portraits of Frasers on horseback and in uniform and clutching flowers and wearing jewels, wondering how many bloody portraits one family can take over the centuries. We pass by a study, and then finally arrive at the Smoking Room.
Outside the room, there’s a gruff-looking man in a navy suit and yellow tie. He takes a step toward me as I approach, as if to block my entry.
“Um . . . the Smoking Room?” I point toward the door, barely recognizing the timidity in my voice.
He nods, taking a step back.
The room is gorgeous, but it’s less grand than I expected—especially compared with the library. There are a few overstuffed sofas and ancient chairs, a piano in the corner, a fireplace in the center of the room, and a colossal floor-to-ceiling war tableau covering half of the wall opposite the door. The floor is covered in a red-and-gold antique rug. On top of the piano, there’s a framed photo of an old man with the King and Queen. With the exception of the truck-sized painting and the royal photo, it’s pretty damn similar to my parents’ drawing room at home in Sussex.
And on a hideous floral sofa nearest the fireplace, with his head buried in his iPhone, is Prince Edward. A golden retriever is curled up into a ball next to him, its massive head leaning on Prince Edward’s thigh.
I walk in, clearing my throat. “Hiya!”
He looks up from his phone, his face breaking into a warm smile. “Hi! Charlotte, right?” At Edward’s voice, the dog lifts its head, looking at me lazily.
Prince Edward knows me. Holy crap.
“Yep, Charlotte Weston. India’s friend.”
“She mentioned you were coming. You’re from Midhurst?”
Remember what Libby said: treat him like any other guy.
“Have you got a dossier on me or something?”
He laughs. “Something like that.”
“Where is everybody else?”
“They’re never on time.”
“Scary guy standing watch outside the door.”
“Oh, that’s just Simon. Ignore him.” Recognition dawns—it must be his bodyguard.
As if sensing my thoughts, the dog jumps off the sofa and rearranges itself on the floor. I will myself to walk over and sit next to Edward on the sofa. “I like your kicks.” He’s wearing a pair of blue-and-red trainers with his jeans and rugby shirt. Up close, I notice how wide his shoulders are. I picture myself snuggling into him by a roaring fire at Kensington Palace, his arms wrapping around me as we make out during adverts of Britain’s Got Talent. I have to snap myself back to reality, otherwise I’ll start blushing.
“Thanks!” He puts his phone down and swings his arm around the back of the sofa, crossing one leg over the other and jiggling a heel up and down. “So, you’re a forward on the hockey team?”
“Seriously, how do you know all this? My stalkers are normally way less up front about it.”
“I have MI6 on my side,” he says, stone-faced. It takes me a second to realize that he’s joking.
We hear a din out in the hallway, and Flossie, Alice, and India walk in.
“There you are,” India says. She’s wearing a flowing white caftan with gold embroidery, looking perfect as always. “I knocked on your door. But I see you were otherwise occupied.” She smiles, inclining her head toward Edward, and I blush. The two of us stand to greet everybody.
“Hi, Charlotte,” Flossie says, looking back and forth between Edward and me.
“Hi, Flossie! Good to see you!”
She smiles. “You, too.”
Flossie and I have been hockey teammates for two years now, though it was only after India took me under her wing late last year that Flossie started acknowledging my existence.
“Eds! We missed you by the pool today. You would have loved the new diving board.” She opens her arms wide and kisses him on both cheeks. “He does a mean backflip,” she says to me.
“Two weeks in Paris with your family and suddenly you’re double-cheek kissing?” India says to Flossie before giving Edward a hug.
Flossie glares at her, but India doesn’t notice. She’s already turned her back.
“Hi, kids, big kisses,” Alice says distractedly to Edward and me, walking around the near edge of the room by the fireplace. Her wild red hair floats around her thin face in a fuzzy halo. “Where’s the booze cart? I desperately need a drink. I’ve had the worst day.”
“Oh, no,” I say. “What’s wrong?”
“My parents just phoned to say my pet ferret, Mr. Moose, died.”
For a second, I think Alice is joking. But then I remember last year in our English class when Alice gave an impassioned speech about how plants have souls, and another time when she declared that she intended to spend her Christmas holiday using sonar equipment in Scotland to see if there was anything large in Loch Ness. She’s an eccentric one.
“I’m so sorry. Is he your only pet?”
“Oh, we have a menagerie. Horses, dogs, cats, goats, a donkey, the most wonderful llamas, you name it. My brother Hamish collects snakes—mostly ball pythons, of course. But the loss of one of your children always stings.”
I nod, wanting to show support but not really sure how to respond. “Of course.”
Flossie points to my legs. “You’re covered in dog hair.”
I look down at my black shorts, which—sure enough—have a thin layer of golden retriever hair all over them. I try to appear cool as I calmly dust my hands over my thighs and bum, letting the hair fall to the floor. Inside, though, I’m cringing.
I mean—I like dogs, my mum likes dogs, everybody likes dogs. But the bloody upper classes are obsessed with them.
“Did I get it all?” I ask Edward.
He glances down at my legs nervously, as if worried he’ll get yelled at for checking me out. “Looks good to me.”
Oliver and Tarquin walk in, each holding a six-pack of beer.
“Beer? You must be joking.” India points to the drinks cart in the corner, partially hidden behind a tall plant by the fireplace. “There are like fifteen bottles of gin over there.”
“Gin is for mums. I want beer,” says Tarquin. Even though he’s as posh as it gets, he has a faint Cockney accent, which amuses me—India says it’s because of his childhood nanny. His brown hair is still wet, and his round cheeks are fire-engine red, as always. He grabs her, planting a wet, sloppy kiss on her cheek.
India ignores the kiss, plucking a beer bottle from his pack and holding it between her fingers. She inspects the label, wrinkling her nose. “Stella?”
“Didn’t seem to bother you ten beers in at Arthur’s last weekend,” says Oliver, his dimples popping. He removes the top and looks for a place to put it. Tarquin grabs it from him and tosses it in the corner.
“Let’s not completely trash the joint,” India says. “My father isn’t heir. They could kick us out of here at any time.”
“Oh, please—you have loads of servants. It’ll be pristine by morning.” Tarquin looks at me but doesn’t bother coming over. He nods in greeting. “Hey, Edward. Hey, Charlotte.”
Oliver approaches us both, slapping hands and body-slamming shoulders with Edward and then giving me a polite hug.
I watch all the commotion, looking over at Edward to gauge his reaction. He seems amused, settling back into the sofa cushions as Flossie comes over again.
“Eds, are you thirsty? Beer? Wine? G and T?”
“A beer would be great, thanks.”
“I’ll take one, too, please, Flossie!” I call after her. I lower my voice, muttering to Edward, “I mean, might as well take advantage of her scurrying around after you.” Normally I’d be more deferential to Flossie, but I’m taking a risk that Edward will be amused.
He raises an eyebrow. “India told me you were a bit of a firecracker.”
“Among other things.”
“Really? What other things?”
“It’ll only make you blush.”
“She said you were gorgeous, for one,” he says, holding up his hands and ticking off fingers. “She also said you were smart, a great athlete, and had excellent taste in men. So far I know she got three out of four right.”
The corners of his mouth hook upward, and his eyes dance back and forth between mine. His eyes are dark blue, like my favorite
J.Crew jumper. I find myself fighting the urge to lean forward and kiss him.
We’re off to a very good start.
The full party has arrived, and twenty of us are lounging by the swimming pool as the stars twinkle and fireflies buzz. Huntshire backs up onto one of the most spectacular gardens in England—a vast expanse of hedges, greenery, flowers, and a Hampton Court–inspired maze.
“What are you drinking?” I ask. His plastic cup is full of a brownish liquid.
I walk over to the edge of the pool, where it slopes down a green incline leading to the maze, and plop myself next to Oliver on a crumbling stone fence. He’s tall and handsome but not at all my type: very buttoned up, with close-cropped reddish-blond hair and a stiff, slightly awkward manner. His father is one of the top bigwigs in the British army—like a general or something.
“Whiskey. Want a sip?”
“Sure, I love whiskey!” I’ve never tasted it before, but I’ve heard it’s revolting. I steel myself as I take a small sip, swirling it around the way I’ve seen my father do at family dinners with my uncle. I swallow gingerly, willing myself to have a poker face as the burning liquid hits my throat. “Good stuff.”
“I’m impressed,” he says. “Most girls can’t handle whiskey.”
“Don’t be sexist. You don’t have to be a boy to drink,” I say, poking him in the ribs. I take another sip, this time slightly bigger, before handing the cup back to him.
As I expected, Edward soon comes over to join us. Seconds later, Flossie appears, too.
“What’s going on?” Edward asks. He sits down on the fence next to me.
“We’re getting our whiskey on,” I say.
“Charlotte’s a tough old bird,” says Oliver approvingly.
“Is she?” Edward asks. He looks at me. “What did you do this time?”
“That’s between Oliver and me,” I say coyly, hoping a little competition will spur Edward on rather than scare him away.
“Hey, Oliver! Flossie! I need your help!” India calls from across the pool. She’s carrying a tray of cupcakes with one hand and a bottle of vodka with the other.
“Duty calls,” says Oliver, marching across the lawn.
“What does she need now?” Flossie sighs, following behind him.
“And then there were two,” I say, leaning back and letting my hair fall over my shoulder.
He meets my gaze and we smile at each other. I’m doing my best to appear cool, but my heart is beating double-time. God, but he’s so cute.
“Can I tell you a secret?” I ask, scanning the situation and taking another risk.
He leans forward. “I’m all ears.”
“Oliver thinks I’m a rock star because I had a sip of whiskey, but I hated it. It tastes like jet fuel.”
Edward laughs. “I know what you mean—I don’t have a taste for anything but beer and cheap wine. When people serve me expensive wine at dinner, it’s such a waste. I have to gulp it down and pretend I know the difference.”
“I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine,” I say, raising my cup.
We lock eyes.
“Oh, but you’re almost out,” Edward says. “Can I get you something?”
“Whatever you’re having,” I say. “Beer is just fine.”
This must be the first time in his life that Prince Edward has been dispatched to get a drink.
He chuckles. “One bottle of Belgium’s finest, coming right up.”
He makes his way over to the icebox and pulls out two bottles of Stella, holding them aloft triumphantly as he returns. He skillfully removes the tops using the ledge of a wall as an opener, banging his palm down over the metal caps.
“Somebody’s been around the block.”
“If you had spent time with my friends growing up, you’d know how to open a beer bottle in three seconds flat, too.”
I do my best to look dainty as I take my first sip. I’m not used to drinking very much at all—whether it’s whiskey or beer.
I notice that Edward is already halfway through his beer, whereas I’ve taken only two small sips. I wonder if he burns through girls as fast.
“What are you two whispering about?” India calls from the side of the pool.
“We’re talking smack about you, obviously,” says Edward.
“Good. As long as I’m at the center of all your thoughts,” India says before turning toward a member of staff trying to get her attention. Flossie stands next to her, holding the tray of cupcakes and looking bored. She and I lock eyes for a second before Flossie smiles at me.
“Is it my imagination, or does Flossie keep giving me weird looks?” I ask in a low voice. He starts to crane his neck and I put my hand on his arm to stop him. “No! Too obvious!”
Edward turns his head and makes a quick sweep of the balcony. “Oh, yes, she obviously hates you. Daggers. I’d lock your door tonight if I were you.”
“You’re terrible,” I say, nudging him with my shoulder, which only serves to push us even closer together. “I’ve known her for a couple of years, but I feel like she’s being kind of weird tonight.”
He cocks his head to the side. “I don’t think she’s being especially weird with you—that’s just Floss. But if I had to guess, I’d say she’s jealous.”
“Jealous? Of me?”
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
“Hmm, that’s true. I am pretty amazing.”
He crooks up an eyebrow in amusement. “Humble, too.”
“I’m just joking.”
He shakes his head. “No, you’re not. And that’s why you are amazing.” He looks back at Flossie discreetly. She’s followed India to the far corner of the garden, where India’s holding court with Oliver, Tarquin, and a few people I don’t know. “I’ve known her since we were infants. Our parents are close friends.”
“Did you two ever date? Is that why she’s jealous?”
“Nah,” he says. “We kissed once when we were like twelve, but it was during a game. She’s had a crush on me ever since.”
“Now you’re the humble one.”
“Technically, we’re related,” he says. “Our great-great-great-grand-whatevers were siblings, so I think we’re fourth cousins.”
“You snogged your cousin? Gross!”
For some reason, Edward finds my reaction hilarious. “Not quite that . . . but sure.”
“So, she’s just not your type?”
“Not even a little bit.” His eyes crinkle.
“I see,” I say, taking a sip.
“You didn’t ask me your question.”
“What my type is.”
The edges of my lips curve into my sexiest smile. I look him full in the face, my pulse racing as I say boldly, “Oh, I think I know exactly what your type is.”
I reach out to brush an imaginary something off his shoulder, letting my hand linger a moment too long. Really, I just want another excuse to touch him.
Across the pool, India whips off her flowing white dress to reveal a gold bikini on a body to die for. “Edward, stop chatting up my friend and get over here! You, too, Lotte. It’s time we all got wet.” With that, India dives headfirst into the pool.
“With an invitation like that, how can we resist?” I say.
“After you,” Edward says, offering me a hand. I clean the gravel off my bum and follow him to the pool.
The large, rectangular pool is surrounded by solid beech hedges, which have been cut into pillars and shaped into arcs. I remove my shoes and throw my clothes on a nearby chair. Underneath, I’m wearing my red bikini.
I catch Edward looking at me, but he glances away when he notices me looking. He pulls off his shirt and we stand in front of each other shyly.
“So . . . are you just going to stare at me all night?” I ask.
Edward takes me by the hand, pulls me after him, and the next thing I feel is a blast of cold water as we plunge clumsily into the pool.
As we laugh and splash around in the cold turquoise water, I jump on his back and try to dunk him. We begin grabbing at limbs and climbing all over each other like puppies. He lifts me up slightly and I realize that my cleavage is now at his eye level.
“Not quite so high!” I squeak, feeling a flash of self-consciousness. My bikini top is so ludicrously padded, I might as well have towels stuffed in my bra.
He slides me lower down his torso. Now we’re eye to eye. “Is this better?”
With our bodies pressed together, I can feel his heart racing just like mine.
I close my eyes briefly, willing him to lean in and kiss me.
Instead, he just grins and sinks down to the bottom of the pool, pulling me under with him.
Before I know it, it’s two a.m. and we’re all drunk as farts, running around Huntshire’s expansive grounds in our wet bathing suits. Somebody’s found an old Polaroid, and we all mug for the camera. After a series of silly photos of just the two of us—Edward holding me in his arms, me jumping on his back, the two of us hamming it up with beer bottles—Edward and I play hide-and-seek in the maze, which has over a thousand yew trees and a single path leading to the center. It’s all so romantic I don’t know how this could end with anything but a kiss.
I finally find Edward in the center of the maze, a narrow, enclosed space. Edward leans in, and our faces are mere inches away from each other.
I’m in a maze with a handsome prince.
“I caught you,” he says. He’s so close I can see a faint freckle on his right cheek. I can pick out the flecks of gold in his blue eyes.
“I caught you,” I say, shivering as much from the cold night air as from his steady gaze. I can feel his warm breath, sweet with the faint smell of fermented hops, as he leans forward and rests his lips on mine.
As our lips meet, I feel a frisson of energy and excitement and triumph shimmy down my spine. He leans into me hungrily, and I push my body back into his, acutely aware of the bare skin of my stomach grazing against his.
I’ve been fantasizing about this moment for so long, but I never believed it would actually happen. I mean, who snogs the future king?
I’ve kissed only a handful of boys, but I suspect I’m not a bad kisser. And the way Edward is running his hands over my back right now, not to mention nibbling gently at my tongue, makes me suspect this isn’t the worst five minutes of his life, either.
“God, Charlotte, you’re a hell of a kisser.”
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
As he leans down again, he starts kissing the side of my neck, sending waves of pleasure through my body. I let out an involuntary little moan, and he grins at me. “Ah, you like that, do you?”
In response, I pull him onto the ground and then roll us over onto his back, so I’m now on top. I saw a woman in one of my dad’s favorite James Bond movies do that once, and it looked so cool.
“And you like this,” I laugh.
I feel more comfortable and confident being in control. I’m willing to bet Edward isn’t used to girls taking the lead, either.
I giggle, leaning down and meeting his lips again. As our lips and tongues touch, I try to stop myself from laughing, but a wave of involuntary giggles comes over me. Every time I try to get serious, I succeed for only a few seconds before the giggles rise up again.
“I’m that bad, huh?”
“No!” I laugh. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Happiness. Or nerves.”
“I don’t believe you’ve been nervous a day in your life.”
“I have!” I protest, leaning forward so that my elbows are on either side of his head and my forearms are resting on his chest. “I get nervous. All the time.”
“I’ll believe that one when I see it.”
“What about you? Surely nothing makes you nervous.”
“Oh, plenty makes me nervous. I just do a good job of hiding it.”
I shift on top of him and suddenly realize that a bulge is poking through his bathing suit.
“Hi there,” I giggle.
He blushes. “See? Nerves.”
“That is not what nerves feel like.”
We both start giggling, and before I know it, we’re kissing again, Edward’s hands running all through my hair, down the length of my back, up the sides of my legs.
Suddenly, the mood shifts from light and sexy to heavy and expectant, and I realize that I’m standing on a precipice. Is this the moment? I’m not sure I’m ready. Scratch that—I know I’m not ready.
I like Edward, but my first time having sex isn’t going to be on the grass in the back of somebody’s garden—prince or no prince.
I put my hand lightly on his chest, sitting up slightly. “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. But I should go to bed.”
He looks concerned, sitting up, too. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m feeling fine. I just . . .”
“I understand,” he says, nodding. “At least, I think I do.” He holds my gaze, blushing a little. “You’re kind of amazing.”
“Oh, go on.” I pause and then say, “No, but seriously, go on.”
He laughs, standing and offering his hand to pick me up.
“You’re not transferring away from Sussex Park, are you?”
“Good. Then this won’t be the last time I see you.” He gathers my face in his hands, leaning down to give me one single, sweet kiss.
“Should we say good night to everybody?”
“I’m going to stay awake. But I’ll walk you back to your room.”
“No need,” I say. “Let’s say good night here.”
I lean up on my tiptoes to give him one last kiss, then turn on my heel, running out of the maze and back into the house.
I’m not surprised in the least when, on the train back home to West Sussex the next day, I pull my buzzing phone out of my pocket to find a text from Edward waiting for me.
EDWARD: I can’t wait to see you again. Xx
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