‘The tiled floor of the wide entrance hall was covered in buckets, vases, stands, and what appeared to be chicken wire. Bright yellow roses and dark green foliage were stuffed and stacked into any and all containers; loose leaves and petals littered the ground. And in the middle of it all sat Isabelle, head bent over a small crystal vase filled with two blooms and a few sprigs of lavender, sunlight from the windows either side of the front door shining silver on her hair.
I leant my overfilled suitcase against the wall, and asked, “Can I help?”
Isabelle jerked her head up to look at me, and she lost her grip on the vase in her hand. It tumbled to the floor, spilling water across the floor tiles and crushing one of the rose’s stems. I darted forward and righted the vase, miraculously still intact. For one, brief moment, I saw the depth of the shock she must be feeling flash across her face, before she recovered her composure.
She really hadn’t expected me to come. As much as I knew the lack of an invitation wasn’t a mistake, I realised a small part of me had been hoping against hope that it was. That I hadn’t been forgotten, cut out.
Except I had.
“Hi,” I said, trying to look less nervous than I felt.
“Kia, darling, really!” Isabelle smiled, but she still looked a little shaken. Older, too, I realised. Faded. Frail. “You should have told us you were coming. You can’t just show up, scare people half to death.”
I reached my arms around my grandmother’s body, feeling bones and skin. “I did tell you. Well, I told Nathaniel I’d be here, when he rang to invite me. I even emailed him the train times after he called last week.” He’d wanted to check I was still coming. I wasn’t sure that it was a good sign that Nathaniel was so desperate to have me there to witness whatever he had planned to add excitement to Isabelle’s party. It almost made me an accessory.
Not to mention the fact he hadn’t told anyone else he’d invited me. What did that say about the welcome I should expect?
Isabelle wriggled out of the embrace and, regaining her natural poise, set about choosing a new rose for her vase. “And isn’t it just like your grandfather not to mention it.”
“Perhaps he wanted it to be a surprise?” I suggested, feeling even more uneasy. I’d honestly assumed he’d have at least told them I was coming. I should have known better. This all had the stink of one of Nathaniel’s Plans – and they seldom ended well.
“I’m sorry, Isabelle. I really thought Nathaniel would have told you.” Isabelle sniffed, but looked faintly mollified, so I went on, “Where’s everyone else?”
Isabelle checked her watch and ticked them off on her fingers. “Your parents have taken Caroline to buy a dress for the party, as the one I picked for her was apparently unacceptable to her. Your grandfather has the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign up on his door, so I choose to believe that he is writing. Therese is probably still wandering the woods aimlessly, and has forgotten she’s supposed to be collecting foliage for me. Edward’s here, though. He can help you with your bag.”
No mention of the two people I wanted to know about most, I noticed. Had it been Ellie Isabelle sent for vases? I wanted to ask a thousand questions. About how Ellie was, how she’d been, since I left. Whether she still hated me as much as I imagined she must. And, most urgently, what had Ellie told our grandmother about why I left? From her reaction, I suspected that she knew more of my secrets than I’d like. When I’d left, while Ellie and Greg were on their honeymoon, what happened had been a secret between the three of us. I couldn’t imagine that Ellie would want anyone else to know, any more than I did. But from Isabelle’s reaction to my arrival, it was clear that she knew something.
God, what if everybody knew? My hands started to tremble at the very idea, a horrible sense of dread seeping through my veins. What if my secret was out, and I was walking into a house full of people who utterly – and rightly – despised me?
It was enough to send me running back to the train station, and the safety of my flat, hundreds of miles away in Scotland. But then, something curious about her list struck me.
“Edward?” I asked, trying to shift my focus away from my fear. I was pretty up to date on family members, despite my absence, and I was sure that there hadn’t been an Edward when I’d left.
“Yes.” Isabelle moved to the stairs and called, in as genteel a manner as possible, “Edward!”
I went and picked up my suitcase. If my grandmother had started hallucinating household help, I’d probably better get used to carrying things around myself.
To my relief, when I turned back a tall, slim stranger was leaning on the banister at the top of the stairs, looking utterly at home. “You hollered, Isabelle?” The man raised a sandy eyebrow. “I don’t suppose that you were just missing my company?”
“Always, dear,” Isabelle said, absently. “I thought that you might like to help Saskia with her bags, while I call Sally and Tony and inform them that their prodigal daughter has returned.”
“Might like to?” Edward asked, taking the stairs at a lazy jog, long legs making easy work of the steep steps.
“Would if I asked you to,” Isabelle clarified.
“Of course.” Edward hopped over the last few stairs and landed on one foot on the hall tiles. “And I assume that this is Saskia,” he said, turning on his heel to face me. He looked a little older than my twenty-six, with the start of tiny laugh lines around his eyes. He wasn’t smiling now, though, and he didn’t seem in any way pleased to meet me. In fact the coldness I felt from him suggested exactly the opposite.
“I’ve heard a lot about you from Ellie,” he said, which explained the chill. Even if she hadn’t spilled the whole story to this stranger, I was under no illusion that she’d have spoken about me in anything approaching glowing terms.
“Oh good. Listen, I’m fine carrying my own case, honestly.” I had four whole days stretching ahead to spend time with people who disapproved of me. I didn’t really feel up to starting off with someone I’d never even met before.
Edward took two long strides across the hallway and snatched up my bag. “Not a problem.” He gave me a short, tight smile, then swung round to face Isabelle, suitcase swaying in his hand. “Which room is she in?”
“My room,” I said, as if that should be obvious, at the same time as Isabelle said, “You’d better put her in the Yellow Room.”
“Right-ho.” Edward hefted the case up the first few stairs.
“Hang on. What’s wrong with my room?” It was, after all, my room. I snatched the case out of Edward’s hands.
“Caroline’s sleeping in it.” Isabelle looked vaguely regretful for a moment, but it didn’t last. “But really, Kia, it is a little girl’s room, and Caro’s too big for the box room, now. She’s almost ten. She needs her own space.”
Caroline – our last-minute-accident baby sister, and the shocking evidence that our parents were still having sex into my high school years. How could she be ten already? How much had she changed in the last two years? How much had I missed?
“It’s my room,” I said again, even as my brain acknowledged the ridiculousness of this statement.
“Your room is the candy-stripe confection in the attic?” Edward reached out and retrieved the case from my hands again, his long slim fingers brushing against mine as he took the handle. I gritted my teeth against the slight shiver his touch gave me, even in the warm summer air.
“My grandfather helped me decorate that room.” One long summer when my parents were abroad and Ellie and I had stayed at Rosewood for six glorious weeks, instead of sweating it out in our semi in the suburbs of Manchester. It had taken an age, because Nathaniel had been working on Rebecca’s Daughters at the time and would regularly disappear into his study for hours in the middle of painting the walls.
Edward grinned. “Strange. Nathaniel never struck me as a candyfloss kind of guy.”
“Who are you, anyway?” It didn’t seem fair. I’d been home mere minutes, and I was already being mocked by strangers.
“I’m your grandfather’s assistant,” Edward said, making his way up the stairs, lugging the case alongside him.
I looked to Isabelle for confirmation. “I know,” she said. “We were surprised too. But he’s been here over a year, now.” And no one had mentioned him to me – not even Nathaniel. Which said more about how far I’d run away than the seven hours it had taken me to get back by train that day.
Edward reached the top of the stairs and paused, obviously waiting for me to follow. I looked at him with a new appreciation. The last assistant Nathaniel had hired, six months before I left for the wilds of Scotland, had lasted approximately a fortnight before falling down those very stairs in his hurry to get away from Rosewood. Granddad did not work well with assistants.
“Well, okay then.” Picking up my handbag, I turned back to Isabelle. “Do I really have to sleep in the Yellow Room?”
“It has a lovely view of the Rose Garden, darling.”
“But all the roses are in here!” I waved an arm at the overflowing buckets of blooms.
“Don’t be melodramatic, dear. There are plenty of roses left. We’re only using the yellow ones, anyway.” She plucked a few leaves from the bottom of a rose stem and added the flower to the bucket. “Besides, these are just for the house displays. The florist is doing the stands and centrepieces outside.”
That sounded like an awful lot of flowers. “But the Yellow Room’s all…yellow.” There was a muffled snort of laughter from the top of the stairs, and I mentally glared at Edward, wondering what it was about Rosewood that made me thirteen again. “Never mind. I’ll go get freshened up, and maybe by the time I get back my parents will have found their way home.”
“Perhaps. Kia…” Isabelle paused, as if trying to decide whether to speak again or not. Finally, she said, “Did your grandfather say particularly why he wanted you to come back?”
I blinked in surprise. “It’s a family occasion. I assume he wanted us all here.”
Isabelle gave a sharp nod, and turned back to her buckets of roses. “Of course.”
Confused, I turned to follow Edward. But I couldn’t help wondering what Isabelle thought Nathaniel was up to this time.’