Elisaveta always got a thrill when her car turned into the driveway at Flintock Hall. The driveway wound through rolling parkland, the old Tudor mansion appearing as she rounded the last curve, the sea shining in the distance. But today Flintock Hall was full of friends, relatives and hangers-on, every bedroom and spare space housing another great-aunt or godparent.
Heading out for her usual ramble, Elisaveta found herself dodging poles and stepping over cables. Contractors were everywhere, erecting marquees, hanging bunting, putting up tables and polishing everything in sight. The rose garden, one of her favourite haunts, was full of guests lounging in deck chairs and drinking cocktails as if they were re-enacting an Edwardian house party. Elisaveta didn’t know any of them and Theo was nowhere to be seen.
Her hand touched her mouth, retracing the line his had drawn. She didn’t belong here, not for this occasion, not while the ghost of his kiss lingered on her lips, not while his words echoed through her thoughts.
‘Elisaveta, just the person!’
She turned at the peremptory summons. ‘Hello, Lady Navenby. How can I help?’
Theo’s mother pursed her lips. ‘A whole expensive team of wedding planners on the premises and not one to be found when we need them. Apparently the napkins are the wrong shade of off-white and Lady Fitzroy seems to think that everything is ruined as a result. Sort it, will you? They’re in the Rose Room.’
Wedding organisation wasn’t in her job description but Elisaveta had never seen Lady Navenby so ruffled – and it wasn’t as if she had anything else to do. ‘Leave it with me.’
The Rose Room was a long gallery running along the front of the house. As she neared the door, two women came out, and she recognised the younger as the bride-to-be. Neither took any notice of her.
‘It’s no good, Madeleine,’ the older woman said. ‘This house is chaos. You will need to keep the reins much tighter when you take over. You’ve been practically living here for the last year. I expect better from you.’
‘But, Mummy, I don’t think Lady Navenby is ready to step aside just yet.’
‘Nonsense, she’ll be delighted I’m sure. It’s not Lady Navenby you need to be worrying about. It’s that husband-to-be of yours. He can’t spend his time playing at running a company. He has responsibilities here. He needs to be mixing with the right kind of people. It’s your job to make him see that. It’s time that boy started acting like an earl!’
Elisaveta stared after them as they stalked off along the hallway, still arguing. Playing at running a company indeed! Didn’t Lady Fitzroy appreciate just how successful Theo was? But she was right about one thing – he was an earl. He was an earl and Madeleine was an Honourable and she was just a nobody from East London. Practically a servant. Good for sorting out napkin colours but what did she know about running a house like this? Theo might not be in love with Madeleine now, but she belonged at Flintock Hall in a way Elisaveta never could and it was time she faced up to that and put any lingering romantic notions well and truly aside.