“How long did you say you were moving in for?”
Max Kennard dumped the last box on the table and looked around him in dismay. The kitchen had been built at the back of the Tudor house by his great-great-grandfather, Sir Ralph Kennard, who had conveniently married an American heiress and proceeded to spend all her money on improving Hasebury Hall so that she could entertain in the style to which he fully intended to become accustomed. The kitchen itself was a grand, high-ceilinged room with tall windows looking out over the walled kitchen garden and had a warren of sculleries, pantries and servants’ quarters leading off it.
A great pine table, worn smooth by generations of cooks, stood in the middle of the room, and the original dresser was ranged against one wall, but everything else had been spanking new thirteen years ago, when Georgie, Lady Kennard, had thrown money away on a major refurbishment while her husband, Max’s father, was busy bankrupting the family.
So there were units and worktops aplenty, and that morning the kitchen had been an austerely spacious room, largely empty save for the microwave and toaster, which was all the cooking equipment Max required.
No longer. Now, every surface was cluttered with boxes and bags stuffed with every conceivable kitchen gadget. There were beaters and bowls, piping bags and peelers, graters and more different shapes of baking tins than Max had ever imagined. There were wickedly sharp-looking knives and food processors and saucepans. There were weird ingredients Max had never heard of, and plastic boxes and industrial-size rolls of greaseproof paper and foil. On the floor and chairs stood more boxes full of more spilling packing paper that his two dogs, Bella and Ted, were tearing apart with much growling.
And in the middle of it all stood Flora Deare, unpacking a complicated-looking machine from a box. “I know it looks bad,” she said soothingly, “but I’ll only be here until June. Seven months, and all this will be gone, I promise.”
“It’s going to take you seven months to put all this stuff away,” said Max with a dour look around. It wasn’t that he spent any time in the kitchen, but the chaos made him uneasy.
“What’s that?” he added suspiciously as she hoisted the machine out of its packing with a grunt. He could see lots of chrome, lots of fiddly bits.
“This? This is my most treasured possession,” Flora told him, giving whatever it was an affectionate pat. “This is what gets me through the day. In short, it is a coffee maker.”
A coffee maker! Max barely restrained a snort. “I’ve got one of those already,” he said. “It’s called a kettle.”
Flora rolled her blue eyes and tsked. “Let me make you a real coffee. You’ll never drink instant again.”
“I haven’t got time to fuss around with fancy coffee,” he grumbled. He’d already wasted half the morning helping her carry in all the stuff from a van she had hired to bring her equipment out of storage.
“It won’t take long,” said Flora. “Besides, we need to talk about how things are going to work over the next few months, and you’ll be less cranky if you sit down and have a coffee.”
“I’m not cranky,” Max said, crankily. He just had a perfectly reasonable dislike of having his home taken over and his well-ordered life turned upside down.
“Right.” Flora nodded, but he was outraged to see that a smile was tugging at the corners of a mouth that already seemed predisposed to tilt upwards. Was she laughing at him?
“Look, it really won’t be so bad,” she said, as she dug around in a bag, muttering to herself about coffee beans. “I’ll put all this away and clear the surfaces every night. You’ll hardly know that I’ve been here.”
Max doubted that very much. Before they retired, her grandparents had run the shop and post office and, like them, Flora knew everybody. She was a striking figure, tall and lusciously curved and always animated. Since she had come back to look after her frail grandfather, Max had often noticed her laughing in the pub, or engaged in an intense conversation on the village green or leaning out of her car to banter with the postman.
And now she had taken over his kitchen, and Max was unsettled in a way he couldn’t really explain. She was too vivid, too sociable. Her eyes were too blue. She charged the chilly air of the manor just by standing there, fiddling with that stupid machine. Max didn’t like it, but it looked like he was stuck with her for the next few months.
“Do you really need all this …” he gestured around his kitchen “… all this stuff?”
“I might not,” said Flora, calmly pouring water into the coffee machine. “I won’t know until I’ve planned the menu for the wedding.”
Ah yes, the wedding. His sister’s wedding. His sister’s royal wedding. Had he mentioned the fact that Hope was going to be a princess? Oh, and that instead of marrying in the splendour of the royal palace in San Michele, like any normal princess-to-be would do, she had decided on a wedding in her childhood home.
“Jonas and I want a simple, intimate wedding,” Hope had said.
A simple, intimate royal wedding. Like that was going to happen. Max shook his head at the thought.
“We want to be married in St Philip and All Angels, and then walk back to a reception in the garden here. Please say we can, Max!”
How could he refuse her? Max was all too aware of the tough time his sister had had. He hadn’t been able to save her from the effects of their father’s stupidity and greed, but he was head of the family now, and if Hope wanted to get married at Hasebury Hall, that was what she would do, even if it bankrupted him all over again. Max had just struggled out from under the burden of debt their father’s death had left on the estate, and he didn’t want to think about how much a wedding, let alone a royal one, would set him back, but this was his sister. He would make it work somehow.
“I don’t want you to be out of pocket because of this, Max,” Hope had said firmly as if reading his mind. “Jonas is disgustingly rich, and he can afford a wedding. It’s not as if we want anything grand or over the top, anyway, and we certainly don’t want to spend our time arguing about the colour of the tablecloths. I’ve planned enough weddings to know that mine is going to be small and simple, so I’ve asked Flora to do the catering, and Ally’s going to keep the press at bay, I hope, and all the flowers and the cake will be local. All you have to do is make the gardens look wonderful, which they do anyway. Oh, and to give me away, of course.”
Hope’s smile had a painful edge that stuck the jokey retort he planned in his throat. Because Hope had always been a daddy’s girl, and she must surely have dreamed of Gerald Kennard walking her up the aisle one day. Whenever he thought of his father, Max had to wrestle down a surge of rage and grief. How much had Gerald missed thanks to the stupidity and greed that had put him in prison before kidney disease had killed him?
How much was Hope still missing?
Max wasn’t much given to hugging and kissing, but he put his arms around his sister then and held her close. “I’m not sure I want to give you away,” he managed as she clung to him and buried her face in his shoulder. His throat was so tight he could hardly speak. “I think I’d rather keep you. But if you will insist on throwing yourself away on the first prince who comes your way, I suppose I’ll have to learn to live with it.”
Hope laughed a little shakily as she pulled herself from his embrace. Her green eyes so like his own were suspiciously bright, and she swiped a knuckle under them.
“Jonas is worth it,” she assured him.
So Max didn’t care how much money His Serene Highness Prince Jonas of San Michele had. He was giving his sister her wedding. He couldn’t replace her beloved father, but he could make sure that as far as her wedding was concerned at least, her dreams would come true.
“Don’t worry about the cost,” he had said to Hope before she left.
Easy to say, not quite so easy to put into practice.
“We should really talk about how the next seven months is going to work,” Flora said, jerking him out of a morose memory of evenings spent staring at his latest bank statement, his only strategy being the hope that if he glared hard enough at it, the figure at the bottom would magically acquire some more zeros.
“Must we?” he said without enthusiasm. “I thought we’d agreed. You use this kitchen until the wedding for your catering business, and in return I get a Michelin starred chef to cater the wedding at a cut price.”
It was humiliating that Flora Deare knew how little he could afford, but ever since his father’s trial and imprisonment had made national headlines, Max had learnt to live without pride. He might be Sir Max Kennard of Hasebury Hall, but nobody cared any more about the generations of Kennards who had looked after the land and the village, or the famous gardens that Max had lovingly preserved. He was just the son of Sir Gerald, naïve fool or corrupt fraudster, depending on your point of view, who had died in prison before he could try and sort out the mess he had created. And while Max might have been able to hold on to the house, everybody knew the rest of the family assets had had to be sold. He couldn’t afford to be proud. Flora hadn’t been crass enough to say as much when she put her proposition to him, but she hadn’t needed to.
“Oh, and you’re cooking every Thursday when Holly and Ben are here,” he reminded Flora, who gave him a wry look.
“I hadn’t forgotten. You drive a hard bargain!”
“You shouldn’t have told me how badly you needed the space,” said Max, unrepentant.
“It’s true, though,” she said. “You try supplying local cafés and restaurants with cakes, pies and pastries in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen! I’d got to the point where I’d have done anything for more space. If I’d been able to rent a temporary kitchen, I wouldn’t have had to impose on you, but at least catering Hope’s wedding means we both get something out of the deal.
“And it’s not as if it’s a problem to cook for you and the kids occasionally,” she went on frankly. “I’ve heard so much about them from Hope. I’m looking forward to meeting them. And in the meantime, it’ll make such a difference having all this room to work in.” She looked around the kitchen with satisfaction.
Max followed her gaze, unable to see what was so pleasing about the clutter of boxes and bags. The kitchen looked a mess to him. Not that he came in here much. When Holly and Ben came over, he tried to make an effort to cook healthier meals but it was all too tempting to fall back on pizza – tomatoes and mushrooms were vegetables, right? – while for himself, he was just as happy with beans on toast.
“Well, I’m glad it’s working out for both of us,” he said after a moment.
“You might want to talk about a budget,” Flora started but he held up a hand.
“No, I don’t. I don’t want to know about anything! I want you to cook whatever Hope wants and give me the bill.”
She gave him a disapproving look over her shoulder. “That’s a bit rash of you, isn’t it?”
“You’re one of Hope’s closest friends,” said Max. “She trusts you with a big part of her wedding, and that’s good enough for me. Besides, I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to cooking, catering, weddings or any of it. Use whatever ingredients you need and let me have a round figure. As far as I’m concerned, I’m getting the best part of the deal.”
Or so he’d thought when Flora had come round the previous Friday to put her proposition to him. But now here she was in his kitchen and suddenly it didn’t seem such a good idea. He had just managed to restore order to his world after twelve years of chaos that had begun with his father making national headlines and then dying four years later in prison, had continued with a bankrupt estate, his mother’s death, the birth of his two children and finally divorce from Stella six years ago. Max felt he was due some quiet time, but there was nothing quiet about Flora.
He eyed her as she fiddled with the coffee machine. Today she was wearing jeans and a tight-fitting red jumper that accentuated her generous curves and made her look like a flame against the cold Victorian kitchen. She was just making coffee, Max knew, but she was changing things by standing there.
“How do you take your coffee?” She smiled at him over her shoulder and Max had the alarming sensation that the tiles had tipped abruptly beneath his feet. He could do without this kind of disturbance, he sighed inwardly, but if it would give Hope the wedding she wanted, then he would have to put up with it.
Resigned, he moved a box of platters from a chair and sat at the table. “Black,” he said.
She might have known Max Kennard wouldn’t go for a frothy cappuccino, thought Flora. She had never met anyone so resolutely un-frivolous. His face was set in stern lines and he had an aloof air that befitted a baronet and latest in a long line of Kennards at Hasebury Hall. According to Hope, who adored her brother, he was quite different when you got to know him. Like everyone else in the village, Flora knew Max had had to put up with a lot, but she couldn’t imagine ever breaking through that intimidatingly starchy manner.
There was more than a touch of Mr Rochester in Max, Flora reckoned, minus the mad wife in the attic, of course. Tired of scraping by, Stella, Max’s wife, had divorced him and remarried, and was now living on the other side of Ayesborough with the two children. Max lived alone in the great Tudor house his ancestors had built, sadly now emptied of all its treasures. Sir Gerald’s scandal and his death eight years earlier had left his son with crushing debts; Max had sold most of the estate, the paintings, the silver and all the valuable furniture, but against the odds he had been able to keep the manor intact.
Not that it seemed to give him any pleasure. He was glowering around the kitchen while she made the coffee. Maybe it was a bit of a mess, but she had only just arrived. He’d feel better after a coffee, Flora told herself.
She should make an effort, too. They were going to be spending the next few months together, after all.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have somewhere to cook properly,” she told him as she put the cup and saucer in front of him with a flourish, and went back for her own cappuccino. “I’m longing to get started on Hope’s menu.”
Pulling out a chair, she sat down opposite him. “The kitchen is absolutely wonderful,” she said. “I had a poke around earlier, and the larder is fabulous! It’s got the original marble shelves.”
When Max just looked across the table at her with a sardonic expression that indicated that marble shelves left him cold, Flora found herself burbling on. “I love the scullery too. Can’t you just imagine the poor maids washing up in there?”
Of course, Max’s ancestors wouldn’t even have known where the scullery was, she remembered. Clearly they weren’t going to bond over the kitchen. “Anyway, the space is fantastic,” she said, and she spread her hands expressively as she looked around the kitchen. “This is my fantasy,” she confided with a smile.
His brows lifted, and wait, was that the ghost of a smile she could see hovering about his mouth? It lightened the severe lines of his face and Flora was abruptly aware of him: of the autocratic nose, the firm jaw, the green eyes glinting with mockery.
“It’s not much of a fantasy, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Ridiculously flustered by the unnervingly prompt way her imagination suggested a different and frankly much more interesting fantasy that involved Max, the hands cradling his cup and nakedness on the kitchen table, Flora willed the colour in her cheeks to fade. “My culinary fantasy,” she amended, her gaze sliding away.
There was a silence. Curses, now she couldn’t get that fantasy out of her head. And with Max Kennard of all people! If she was going to fantasize, Flora wanted it to be with someone sexy and fun, not a man who couldn’t be bothered to smile properly and had nothing to recommend him except a cool, firm mouth and capable-looking hands and what looked as if it would be a solid body and … what exactly was her problem with the fantasy again?
Good grief, she had to pull herself together. Flora cleared her throat, and made a big deal of searching for some frangipane tarts she had made the day before. The bulk of them were destined for a café in Ayesborough, but she had put aside a few to break the ice with Max.
Although frankly grappling each other naked on the table would be a much better way of warming things up.
Stop it, Flora told herself, horrified by the way her wayward brain had grabbed on to that stupid fantasy and was busily galloping away with it. This was Sir Max Kennard, village squire and Hope’s brother and out of her league on absolutely every count. Quite apart from being very poor fantasy material. I mean, why not pick someone incredibly handsome to fantasize about? And not just handsome. If she was going to have a fantasy, she should make it a good one, about a prince like Hope’s perhaps, or some billionaire businessman relocating to Combe St Philip for some unspecified reason (it was just a fantasy, after all).
She had to spend the next few months with Max. Fantasizing about him was totally inappropriate, not to mention pointless.
She was absolutely not going to do it.
End of Excerpt