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The crocuses were pushing their small, bright heads up through the earth in cheerful clusters that reminded Olivia Penryn of little bells as she walked through the walled garden of Casterglass Castle, the remnants of its beauty now hidden beneath a dense thicket of frost-tipped nettles and tangles of bindweed. She’d arrived back at her ancestral home a week ago, and she needed to get to work. The trouble, she thought ruefully, was knowing where—or how—to start.
Olivia crouched down to caress the silken head of a determined crocus, stubbornly insisting on flowering even amidst the choking weeds, the frozen ground. There had to be a metaphor in there somewhere, Olivia thought wryly, if she could summon the energy to find it. Something about rebirth, blossoming amidst the trials, strength through the suffering. What doesn’t kill you…
Of course she didn’t really have the right to think that way. If anything, she was the thing that almost killed you. Or at least one person in particular.
With a creak of her knees she stood up, brushing her hands along the sides of her jeans as her dispirited gaze roved over the acre of brambles and weeds that had once been a neatly tended kitchen garden, with beds of vegetables and herbs, trellises climbing with roses and grapes, thickets of raspberries and borders of lavender. She was meant to transform this into something people would pay a tenner to see how…?
Just over two months ago her older sister, Althea, had suggested that instead of selling Casterglass as their father had sadly deemed necessary, they transform it. Turn it from a dilapidated ancestral castle into a vibrant going concern, complete with glamping pods, an assault ropes course, a tea room, artisan shops, and a beautiful garden. Olivia, as the Penryn with the greenest thumb, had been put in charge of the garden. Althea was the overseer; Sam, when he returned from his latest charitable adventure, was going to do the glamping and assault course, and their sister, Persephone, who had been a happy surprise to their parents and was only twenty-two, was planning to run the artisanal workshops.
It all sounded amazing, Olivia thought, and she’d been quite excited to get stuck in—as well as escape the life she could no longer bear in York. The trouble was, all that fizzy, empty-headed optimism had started to go flat when she’d returned to the castle and realised what a, well, wreck it really was. A lovable wreck, but there could be no denying it, not when they’d had water pouring down the stairs on Christmas Eve, and with the garden looking like something out of Sleeping Beauty, a hundred years on. She wanted it all to both challenge and inspire her, but instead, under a dreary, heavy-laden February sky, she just felt tired.
So very tired…of everything.
Heaving a sigh, Olivia started walking back towards the castle. It was a hive of industry these days, thanks to Althea. She’d turned a room off the kitchen that had been a housekeeper’s parlour back in the Edwardian age into her own office, papered with surveyance maps of the property, estimates from a dozen different professionals, and metre-long to-do lists that were constantly being ticked off. Just going into that room made Olivia feel overwhelmed, and also like a schoolgirl being summoned—and scolded—by the headmistress.
She loved her older sister madly, but the renovation of Casterglass had turned Althea into something of a whirling dervish, and a bossy and demanding one at that. It reminded Olivia of when they’d been small and Althea had always organised them relentlessly, whether it was into armies for a game of soldiers, or the cast for one of their classics-mad mother’s Greek tragedies, enacted in the ballroom with a bedsheet for a curtain.
Olivia had always gone along with it, because she’d more or less gone along with everything, although usually she would have been happier to find a secluded nook to curl up in with a book, a pad of paper, and a couple of coloured pencils, or even just a daydream. Too bad that wasn’t possible now. She wanted to be distracted from her ever-circling thoughts, not search out the space to give them free rein.
“Olivia?” Her mother’s voice wafted through the garden, a distracted, musical trill. “I think Althea said something about lunch…”
One of her sister’s new initiatives was a weekly lunch around the big kitchen table, where they all shared their progress in their various departments and Althea sat at the head of the table like the unofficial CEO of Casterglass. This would be only Olivia’s second such lunch, yet she already found herself half dreading it. She suspected the rest of her family felt similarly; last week her mother, sitting next to her, had murmured, “She’s rather terrifying, isn’t she? Where do you supposed she gets it from?”
Olivia hadn’t replied, although she wondered if Althea had filled the void left by her parents’ rather hands-off method of child-rearing. She had, she thought with a sigh, filled it admirably.
“Olivia,” Althea called as she came into the kitchen where her parents were already waiting, looking slightly cowed, her father still smiling, her mother staring into space with a slight, puzzled frown. “You’re just in time. Sam is joining us on a video call so we can have full updates from everyone.”
“Fab,” Olivia murmured as she washed her hands at the deep stone sink. Her younger brother, Sam, was in New Zealand until next month, when he’d return to Casterglass and take up his part of the bargain. At least, she hoped he would. From the patchy Skypes they’d had she couldn’t tell if Sam was actually enthused about this prospect or not, although perhaps Althea had enough enthusiasm for all of them.
“Right, then,” her sister said as she took her place at the head of the table. Their father, smiling genially, took the other end, while Olivia and her mother sat on one side, and Persephone sloped in at the last minute to sit on the other. Olivia gave her younger sister a smile, but Seph just scowled. She knew better than to take it personally; that’s just how Seph was. She’d spent most of her childhood alone, prowling through the castle and working for the neighbouring farm, run by John Braithwaite, who was now newly divorced Althea’s significant other, or at least something close to it. Althea liked to say they were good friends, but their mother had murmured in her dreamy way, “If that isn’t a euphemism, I don’t know what is. As Catullus wrote, ‘The sun may come up each day but when our star is out, our night, it shall last forever.’” She’d given a long, contented sigh. “That’s being good friends.”
Olivia had managed a laugh, but in truth she did not want to think about love or romance or any of it. She’d had a bellyful of it recently, and it had given her something of a stomach ache. Not heartbreak, she told herself. Never that. Just…a deep-seated nausea and an aversion to making the same mistake twice.
“Right,” Althea said in a voice like a loud clap as she began doling out the quiche and salad. “Let’s have our updates. Daddy, how is the orchid room going?”
“Well…” Their father tugged at his collar as he gave an abashed smile. “I’ve been awfully busy…”
“Daddy. You love orchids.” Althea gave him a not-so-mock-stern glance. “Why are you dragging your feet on this one?”
“One can hardly say I’m dragging my feet,” Walter Penryn, twelfth baron of Casterglass, replied with some asperity. “I’m merely being judicious.”
Althea raised her eyebrows as she handed him a plate of quiche. “How judicious?”
“Quite judicious. It takes planning, Althea. You can’t just bung a bunch of orchids in a room and call it good.”
“Well, you could,” Olivia interjected with a smile, “but it wouldn’t be right.”
Her father beamed at her. “Exactly, my dear. Exactly.”
Olivia couldn’t help but preen a bit under his praise; she felt so battle weary and heartsore that it was nice to have an easy compliment, a bit of camaraderie. She’d always got along with father, bonding over his collection of rare orchids when she’d been barely more than a slip of a girl. She’d watch him tend the fragile plants like a mother with her children, and she’d thought, I want to love something that much. Or someone.
“So what needs to be done to the orchid room to get it up and running?” Althea asked, and Olivia tuned out her father’s lengthy explanation about fluorescent heat lamps and proper ventilation as she picked at her quiche. She knew Althea was likely to ask her next how the garden was going, and the truthful answer would be not at all. She’d had such big ideas, and she’d been raring to get started, or at least she thought she had, but somehow as the days had passed under a dreary February sky, she hadn’t been able to summon either the enthusiasm or the vision.
“Olivia?” Althea’s voice pierced her melancholy thoughts. “What about the garden?”
There was something shrewd and assessing in her sister’s gaze, Olivia thought. She had to know as well as she did that she hadn’t made a start on the garden, besides wandering along the old brick paths and plucking at a few weeds. She’d also made a few notes and sketches, but nothing she could talk up now, at least not much.
“Er,” she said, and Althea banged her fist on the table.
“Why is no one taking this seriously? We’re meant to be up and running for the May bank holiday weekend. That’s less than three months away. We’ve got to have something to offer.”
“But we will, darling,” their mother said as she speared a lettuce leaf with her fork and waved it in the air. “We have the castle already.”
“And it’s falling down about our ears!” Althea exclaimed.
“I wouldn’t say falling,” their mother replied mildly. “The roof is being replaced, after all.”
Althea let out a groan. “We can’t charge visitors to see our new roof. What’s the hold-up, Olivia? I thought you were buzzing with plans.”
“I was,” Olivia replied with the same touch of asperity her father had shown. “And I still am,” she added hastily. “But I can’t go digging things up just now. First of all, it’s February and the ground is half-frozen. Plus I need to have a design in place, and that takes time. I’m still in the planning stages.”
“All right.” Althea sounded very slightly mollified. “How is the design going, then?”
“Er,” Olivia said again, and Althea looked as if she wanted to explode.
“I’m working on it,” Olivia said quickly. She thought of the couple of pages of chicken scratching that currently constituted her notes. “I will work on it, I promise.”
Althea let out a groan. “Seriously, Olivia.”
“Darling,” their mother intervened, flinging out one hand. “You can’t rush genius.”
Olivia stifled a guffaw of slightly hysterical disbelief. Genius? She felt far from it. She always had. She was the invisible Penryn, the one who always slunk to the shadows, who was happiest when left alone. Although, actually, maybe that was Seph. She glanced at her younger sister, who was—predictably—scowling, and at nothing in particular.
“All right, can you give me a timeline, then?” Althea asked. “Of when you might have a completed design, and also when you can begin putting it into place?”
She sounded so exasperated that Olivia couldn’t keep from wincing. “I won’t need to start planting till mid-March at the earliest,” she replied placatingly. “So that gives me several weeks to work on the design. But I’ll need help with the labour—I can’t do all the digging and shifting on my own.”
“All right,” Althea said grudgingly. “I am sure we can find someone suitable when the time comes.” She looked down at her notes, riffling through the pages. “Now, Seph, what about the workshops? And then we’ll try to get Sam on the laptop…”
Olivia let her mind wander again. Not that she wasn’t interested in the workshops, of course, or the planned tea room and gift shop, or Sam’s ropes courses and glamping yurts. It all sounded marvellous. She just couldn’t quite get her head round any of it coming to pass. She felt stuck, so stuck that she couldn’t imagine anyone managing to change, least of all her.
“Why the long face?” Althea asked in her blunt way once lunch was over, and they’d said goodbye to Sam on Skype. Their mother had drifted back to her study, and their father had gone to potter about his orchids. Seph had simply disappeared. Althea dumped a stack of plates into the deep stone sink with a clatter. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Olivia replied, just a little too quickly. Althea arched an eyebrow.
“I thought you were happy to come back to Casterglass.”
“I am.” But you didn’t leave a life you’d built over ten years without a little sorrow and grief. Surely Althea understood that; she’d left twenty years of marriage and domesticity back in Surrey. She’d found happiness up here in the wilds of Cumbria, it was true, and she seemed better and stronger for it, but it hadn’t always been that way. Two months ago she’d been a wreck, and Olivia had done her best to bolster her sister’s sagging spirits and help her to get back on track.
She wished her sister could afford her the same latitude now, but Althea was always a go-getter, striding forward rather than looking back. Olivia was the plodder—quiet, dreamy, middling in everything.
How many teachers had said with a laugh, when she’d spoken or uncurled herself from the corner of classroom, “Goodness, Olivia, you gave me a fright! I hadn’t realised you were there.” How many girls had glanced over her, not in derision, but as if she were simply invisible? She hadn’t actually minded; her school days had been a quiet utopia spent in nooks of libraries or the peaceful solitude of the school’s gardens or greenhouse, busying herself with the friends who never let her down: books and plants. She hadn’t wanted to be noticed. She hadn’t even wanted to be seen.
That had changed, a little, at university; she’d found a small tribe of like-minded friends and while the rest of the world still skipped right over her, her friends saw her through and through. That had been rather wonderful, but thirteen years on they’d all drifted their own ways, married, had children…except Olivia.
Which, in a way, was what had led to the whole dispiriting destruction of her life in York.
“Well?” Althea asked as she turned on the taps and squirted nearly half a bottle of dish soap into the sink.
“What’s going on?” Althea asked, as if she’d asked it several times already. Perhaps she had, and Olivia simply hadn’t been listening. She had a dreadful tendency to disappear into a daydream while someone was talking, and her sister’s voice could be awfully easy to block out.
“Nothing’s going on,” Olivia said as she cleared a few glasses from the table and lined them up next to the sink. “It’s just that I’m still recovering, Althea.”
“Recovering?” Althea frowned. “You mean from that jerk who led you up the garden path? No pun intended of course, when it comes to gardens…”
Olivia tried to smile, but she had a feeling she’d flinched instead. Althea could afford to be a bit blasé when her own life had been so easily and neatly sorted, but Olivia felt as if she were still standing amidst the smoking wreckage of her own.
“Liv.” Althea put a soapy hand on her arm, soaking her jumper. “He’s not worth a second of your time. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do, but it’s not quite that simple, is it?” Olivia returned, a slightly waspish note to her voice. “You can’t just press a delete button in your brain and never think about someone again.” Not that she was pining over Matt—far from it. She was just constantly cringing over her part in that ill-fated non-romance.
“I know.” Althea was quiet for a moment, no doubt thinking about her ex-husband, Jasper. She’d spent far more than a second thinking about him, even after it was all over. Olivia had talked her through a good deal of it, listened to her struggle and moan, and she’d been glad to, of course she had. But no one can listen to me moan, because I don’t want to admit to any of it.
It was true she’d told Althea the basics of the sordid story…how she’d met Matt at the garden centre where she worked, how he’d chatted her up and taken her out. She’d hinted at how smitten she’d been, although she hadn’t confessed to hoarding bridal magazines only a week after they’d met. There was only so much crazy you could admit, even to your sister. Despite all that, Olivia knew she hadn’t told Althea all of it. And she never would.
“I’m sorry, I know I’m nagging,” Althea said with a small, apologetic smile. “About a lot of things. It’s just I want to see you move past this, and I think the garden—and you—have so much potential. I just want to help, Liv. Honestly.”
“I know.” Olivia gave her sister a quick, tight hug. “Sorry I’m being so mopey. I’ll get over it soon, I promise.”
“I think we need a night at the pub,” Althea declared. “Drown your sorrows, maybe meet a new man.”
“At the Casterglass pub?” Olivia asked, wrinkling her nose. “You snagged the last eligible bachelor in all of South Cumbria, Althea. Unless you want me falling for Edward Bransholme?” He was a local farmer, eighty years old and missing most of his teeth, but he’d always brought a huge burlap sack of vegetables to the castle every Christmas, like some sort of medieval tithe.
“Maybe he has sons…?” Althea suggested with a wicked glint in her eye.
“He’s a known bachelor, and no, thank you.” But Olivia was smiling, and she felt a little lighter than she had in some time—weeks, maybe even months, ever since Matt Westcott had walked through the garden centre doors and given her a boyish grin…
You couldn’t help me, could you? I’m looking for a houseplant that can survive my lack of attention…
She’d been quick with the witty repartee, telling him he shouldn’t buy a plant if he couldn’t be bothered to water it, all the while flirting with her eyes, just as he had been, her heart racing with excitement at being noticed, chosen.
But I want some greenery in the house. Have mercy…
She’d directed him to a tray of succulents, and as he’d selected a cactus he’d asked her out. She’d been so thrilled. She’d been such a sap.
Olivia straightened, banishing the memory of Matt’s aw-shucks attitude and her own cringingly giggly response. It was over. She would never, ever make that kind of mistake again. She’d make sure of it.
End of Excerpt