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“Don’t you want to at least say hello?”
“No.” Seph kept her eyes on the gleaming steel spindle of her lathe as her older sister Althea stood in the doorway of her workshop, her hands on her hips, her manner decidedly put out.
“Seph. Come on. This is our first ever intern, and he’s going to arrive any minute. We want to make a good impression. Show him we’re a united front, a welcoming community—”
A community? “Save it, Althea, for the publicity,” Seph replied curtly. “I’m working, and it’s really difficult to stop a piece in the middle of the process. Anyway, he’ll have loads of people to meet right now. I’ll say hello later.” Maybe.
Althea was silent for a taut moment in which Seph knew she was considering whether to deliver one of her bracing lectures about pulling together for the sake of Casterglass, how everyone needed to do their bit, yada, yada. Seph had already heard versions of this familial Ted Talk at least a dozen times since her older sister had marched back home to take over the family’s dilapidated castle nearly a year ago, and tried to turn it into a cross between Legoland and Chatsworth. Somewhat amazingly, she had managed to pull it off, more or less, with everybody else’s help. But there were limits to Seph’s patience, as well as her willingness to pull together with the family who had forgotten she existed for over a decade. And meeting some toffee-nosed fop fresh from Oxford was way down on her list of priorities.
“I’m busy,” she stated firmly, just in case her bossy older sister thought she could change her mind with a few well-worn phrases. After another tense moment, Althea gave a huff that was a cross between exasperation and defeat, and then turned and left her workshop without another word.
Seph breathed a sigh of relief, enjoying the spicy smell of cedar that struck her nostrils as she positioned the wood on the main spindle and then adjusted her safety glasses. She was working on a series of outdoor pieces for the Casterglass brand, and hard-wearing cedar was perfect for the flower boxes she was constructing. She ran her hand along the grain of the wood, enjoying the slight roughness of it against her callused palm, knowing she would get it to a satiny finish before she was done. As long as people didn’t keep interrupting her.
She was about to start up the lathe again when a burst of laughter made her still. She felt the familiar swirl of resentment and longing as she heard the ensuing chatter of voices. The oh so wonderful Oliver Belhaven must have arrived then, she thought with a roll of her eyes, and of course Althea would be rolling out the red carpet. Her older sister was thrilled that Casterglass had attracted the notice of someone asking to be an unpaid intern, and an Oxbridge graduate no less.
Whoop-dee-do, Seph thought, knowing she was being unreasonably bitter, in the privacy of her own mind if not in public. Three years at Oxford and an MA out of it for Master Belhaven, while a year of local sixth form college and zero A levels had been her lot. That wasn’t sour grapes, she told herself, not exactly. Who needed a degree, anyway? She was doing just fine.
Conversation continued to float in from the courtyard and Seph started up her lathe again, so the soothing hum of the machinery drowned out any other noise. She was busy. This flower box needed finishing. Yet in the pause of the machinery, she heard someone laugh—Althea’s fiancé John, she thought, recognising his low, easy rumble—and she felt a little spurt of something—jealousy, perhaps, which was ridiculous, because she’d chosen to stay out here. She knew that, and yet…
It hadn’t really felt like a choice. It never did.
She wiped the back of her arm across her forehead and switched off the lathe. The sudden silence that the workshop was plunged into felt absolute; they all must have moved inside, and she couldn’t hear a single thing, which should have been a relief but wasn’t. Not exactly, anyway. She knew she should stay out here and finish the flower box, if just to prove to Althea she’d meant what she’d said.
And yet, for a reason she couldn’t quite fathom and did not want to probe too deeply, Seph found herself moving out into the courtyard, straining her ears. Dusk was falling, violet shadows gathering in the corners, the mountains in the distance no more than jagged black shapes against the darkening horizon.
Ellie, who ran the pottery shop, had left hours ago; now that it was November, she only opened for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. They’d had very few visitors since September, after a banner August, when paying customers had flooded through the gates. Althea had big plans for some winter-themed parties and events in November and December, and a big Christmas wedding reception to boot, a prospect that made Seph feel exhausted before she’d even thought about it properly, although she recognised that keeping Casterglass open and offering events was probably the only way to keep the place afloat. And keeping the place afloat had become, since Althea’s return, something of a given. Her sister had assumed that was what everyone wanted, because this was Casterglass, after all. The family pile. The ancestral castle. The only home Seph had ever known.
She took a few steps towards that home, taking in the lights in the kitchen, the silhouettes of people moving around. She could picture Olivia filling the big brown teapot, this Oliver Belhaven chatting with John and Will, Olivia’s fiancé. Her brother Sam and his girlfriend, no doubt soon-to-be-wife, Rose were at the hospital in Kendal, with their premature twins who had been born a few weeks ago, to much excitement and celebration. Her mother would be wafting around as usual, Seph thought, and her father smiling benignly. Something clenched in her stomach, and she made herself breathe in and out a few times.
Never mind. She didn’t want to be there. She turned around to head back to her workshop, only to be stopped by a friendly voice.
“Hey, Seph, aren’t you joining us?”
It was John’s eighteen-year-old daughter Alice. She and Althea’s daughter Poppy were best friends, although Poppy had started university at Lancaster this September while Alice had decided to take a gap year and help out at her father’s farm.
“I’ve got work to do,” Seph replied after a second’s pause.
Alice raised her eyebrows in scepticism, which made Seph smile, at least a little. She and Alice had known each other for a long time. Seph had started hanging around Appleby Farm when she was about twelve or so, sullen and lonely, and John had taken her under his easy, amicable wing. He’d been the one to teach her woodworking, and although Alice was five years younger than her, they’d always got along.
“Come on, Seph,” she said, smiling, “don’t be grumpy.”
“I’m not grumpy!” Seph replied, indignant. She knew she could come across as abrupt and yes, maybe a bit sullen, but she wasn’t grumpy.
“Whatever you’re doing, I’m sure it can wait. Oliver’s really nice. And,” she added, her tone turning mischievous, “he’s cute. Fit, I mean, but in a slightly geeky way.” She grinned. “Just your type.”
“Don’t,” Seph retorted, annoyed to realise she was actually blushing. She turned away to hide the colour that had stupidly flooded into her face. “Some Oxford toff?” she scoffed. “Not my type at all, trust me.”
“Oh, I don’t know—”
“I do.” She strode back towards her workshop. “I’ll put my tools away and then come and say hello,” she promised, only to placate Alice, and not because she was curious. Not at all.
“All right, but don’t be long,” Alice replied severely, and then, with a toss of her long, blonde hair, she went back into the kitchen while Seph headed to the safety of her workshop. As she packed away her tools and tidied the shop, she took her time because she was realising she didn’t want to burst into the kitchen and have everyone turn to stare at her. That kind of attention was more or less her worst nightmare, which was why she tended to avoid these types of gatherings, or really, any types of gatherings. After a childhood spent in virtually complete solitude, coping with a crowd was not yet in her skill set.
But, she acknowledged, as she finished tidying the workshop, she should at least make an appearance. A very quick one, just so she wouldn’t be considered rude. Or grumpy. With a sigh, Seph glanced around her workshop, taking comfort in the machinery now shrouded in sheets, the warm, spicy smell of wood that still lingered in the air.
Although she had a tangle of complicated feelings about turning Casterglass into a tourist attraction, she did love this workshop. She loved making things with her hands and sharing them with the world—although the sharing part was still a little bit scary. But still, the opportunity to do what she loved was soul-satisfying, a pleasure that resounded in her very bones.
With another sigh she turned off the lights and headed to the house.
Whoa, there were a lot of people here. Oliver kept smiling and nodding as he was introduced to far too many names to remember. Althea he knew, because he’d corresponded with her. Walter and Violet Penryn he recognised from the website, as the twelfth baron of Casterglass and his wife. John was Althea’s fiancé. After that the names and faces started to blur. Alice, Will, Toby, John… He just kept smiling.
“So what made you decide to come to Casterglass?” Violet asked, eyebrows raised. She had a decidedly ditzy way about her, but Oliver thought he saw a certain shrewdness in her pale blue eyes.
“I saw a spread in Country Life and my curiosity was piqued,” he said with yet another smile and an easy-going shrug. “How you turned the place around.” He’d been particularly encouraged by how dilapidated Casterglass had looked in the ‘before’ photos—and still did, in some regards—and how Althea had talked about doing it up on a ‘shoestring.’ Both aspects appealed to him, and applied to his own faint hopes.
“You’ve just graduated from Oxford, haven’t you?” Walter chimed in with a beaming smile. “Which college?”
“Um, Harris Manchester.” He gave an apologetic smile, because it was the college most people hadn’t heard of, the one for ‘mature’ students—that was, anyone over twenty-one. Oliver had been twenty-two when he’d started.
Sure enough, Walter’s forehead wrinkled in confusion before he said, almost sadly, “Oh, I was at Brasenose. Wonderful place. Wonderful times.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Lovely city—”
The kettle started whistling shrilly and Althea’s sister—Olivia?—whisked it off the enormous Aga. Although Casterglass was at least five times the size of Pembury Farm, its kitchen had the same cosy shabbiness that Oliver loved about the home he was desperate to save. Coming to Casterglass was a last-ditch attempt to keep it in the family…and one he already suspected wouldn’t work.
“So you mentioned you were the nephew of an earl…?” Althea asked as Olivia poured the tea and they all sat down at the rectangular oak table that looked as if it could seat at least twenty.
“Oh, er, sort of.” Oliver felt himself blushing. He’d mentioned the tenuous aristocracy connection out of desperation, but now he felt embarrassed that he’d actually dared to play that worn-out card. “My great-great-uncle was an earl, but the earldom went extinct in the nineteenth century, when there were no male heirs to pass it on to.” He gave an apologetic grimace.
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Althea looked a bit too crestfallen, Oliver thought. Did it make that much difference to her, whether he was related to nobility or not? He was an unpaid intern, after all. “And what is the name of the earldom’s seat?”
The earldom’s seat? He found himself blushing harder and he was grateful for a pause in which to gather his wits while Olivia passed around mugs of tea. He took his own with a murmured thanks, taking a sip before he made himself reply, “The earldom’s seat is Pembury Hall, but I’m afraid it was sold after the First World War. It’s a hotel now, with a golf course. My uncle owns Pembury Farm, which was the farm attached to the original estate. That’s the property I’m looking to…” he paused uncertainly before finishing: “…save.”
“I see,” Althea said, and Oliver feared she now sounded distinctly cool. Had he misrepresented himself? He was sure he hadn’t indicated that his family home was Pembury Hall. He’d never even been in the place; his uncle refused to go, even though it was just down the road.
An awful beat of silence followed before Althea’s fiancé—John?—chipped in. “A farm, eh? I’m a farming man myself. Sheep, mainly. What does your uncle farm?”
“Er, nothing, really.” This was starting to feel slightly excruciating. Oliver took another sip of tea before continuing. “After the hall and most of the land was sold off, my uncle moved to the farmhouse mainly to save money. He doesn’t actually farm, but that’s something I’d certainly consider, if I’m able to manage the property.”
Another few seconds of silence. Oliver was almost starting to wish he hadn’t come. He really hadn’t thought he’d misrepresented himself when he’d written to Althea a few months ago, but now he wondered if he had, either subconsciously or unintentionally. Had he made it sound like he was saving Pembury Hall, and not the far more modest farmhouse? And did it really make a difference?
“Well, it all sounds terribly interesting,” Violet remarked brightly. “And we certainly look forward to your help for the next few months.”
“Thank you. I look forward to helping.” Oliver smiled weakly and took yet another sip of tea. Althea, he saw, was frowning slightly, like she couldn’t make him out. He supposed it did seem a bit strange, that he’d asked for this internship when the house he wanted to work on was nothing like Casterglass. A six-bedroom farmhouse with outbuildings and about ten acres was a far cry from the likes of this castle, but it was Oliver’s home, his heart. And if he logged these hours and gained some of the experience his uncle claimed he didn’t have, then maybe he wouldn’t sell Pembury Farm like he was threatening to.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll be very useful,” Althea said a bit dubiously. Oliver was saved from having to reply by the kitchen door swinging open hard and banging against the wall. A young woman stood there, scowling and looking fierce. Oliver stared at her in surprise, for she was unlike any of the other Penryns he’d met so far. Her hair was possibly the most extraordinary thing about her—bright pink dreadlocks that were growing out so there was about four inches of platinum-blonde hair at her roots. Her face was heart shaped with bright blue-green eyes and an expression of deep discontent. Her body, slender and willowy, was swathed in a pair of baggy, paint-splattered dungarees, paired with well-worn work boots.
“Seph,” Olivia exclaimed, sounding genuinely delighted. “Come meet Oliver.”
The woman’s gaze swung towards him, looking decidedly unfriendly. “Hello.” She sounded sulky, and as he often did, Oliver found himself overcompensating. He sprang up from the table, nearly spilling his tea.
“So pleased to meet you!” He came out from around the table, holding out his hand to shake, while she looked at it like it was something dead, and everyone looked on in bemusement. “I’m Oliver. And you’re…Seth?”
“Seph,” she replied, with a touch of scorn.
“Short for Persephone,” Olivia filled in helpfully. “Mum is a classicist.”
“It was such a disappointment that your father wouldn’t let me call Sam Amphitryon,” Violet said, a touch mournfully. “He was such a moving figure. He rescued Thebes from the Teumessian fox, you know.”
“There are limits,” Walter replied genially. “And there have been Samuels in the Penryn line for over three hundred years. It’s my middle name,” he explained to Oliver, who could only nod. Seph still hadn’t taken his hand, and he had no choice but to rather sheepishly withdraw it.
“Anyway, nice to meet you,” he said again, and then, because he didn’t know what else to do, he slunk back to his seat.
She didn’t bother to reply.
“Seph, come and have some tea,” Olivia entreated, and Oliver had the sense she was talking to some wild creature in need of taming. After a second’s pause Seph moved over to the enormous brown teapot and poured herself a mug. Oliver watched as she poured milk in and no less than three sugars. She leaned against the counter and sipped it, gazing around watchfully at them all over the rim of her mug.
The conversation moved back, unfortunately, to him and his circumstances.
“So what exactly are you hoping to do with Pembury Farm?” Althea asked and Oliver had the urge to squirm, which he thankfully resisted.
“Uh, well, keep it in the family, basically,” he said. “Some of the ideas you’ve implemented here could work on the farm, I think. The campsite, in particular, and the workshops. I’ve also thought about having pick-your-own vegetables and fruit—there are orchards on the property—apple, plum, and cherry.”
Althea’s expression had turned thoughtful as she sipped her tea. “Pick your own. I like that.”
“We’ve let the orchard go a bit, I’m afraid,” Walter told him with an apologetic smile. “I don’t think the trees are very productive anymore.”
“I don’t even know where the orchard is,” Olivia exclaimed. “Where is it, Daddy?”
“Across the river, on the far side of the wood, opposite the campsite.”
“Perhaps that’s something Oliver can help with,” a young woman—John’s daughter?—suggested. “Getting the orchard back into shape.”
“You can’t prune trees in autumn, I’m afraid,” John put in, with a commiserating look for Oliver, as if he would have known that. The truth was, he’d thrown the ‘pick-your-own’ idea out there a bit wildly, simply because Pembury Farm did have a somewhat productive orchard. He didn’t know the first thing about fruit trees, however. So great, yet another way he could feel like a fake.
“In January though,” Althea said musingly. “You’ll still be here then, won’t you, Oliver?”
The terms of his internship—unpaid as it was—had been decidedly ambiguous. “Possibly,” he said, trying to sound optimistic. Would Uncle Simon have decided on whether to sell by then? He kept making ominous noises, but Oliver didn’t know if that was just his way to keep him guessing. As long as he didn’t sell, he knew Oliver was beholden to him, willing to dance to his tune. But once he did…
Well, it simply didn’t bear thinking about.
Oliver straightened and smiled around at the group, determined to stay optimistic. Uncle Simon had said he needed experience to run Pembury Farm, and so here he was, gaining it. He’d work hard and learn along the way, and never mind the slight missteps he’d had so far. Too much was riding on this to let himself be dissuaded by a little disapproval.
As if sensing his thoughts, Seph caught his eye and gave him a scowl. Oliver’s benign smile faltered. For a second, she looked as if she actively hated him, and the optimism he’d been holding on to so determinedly slipped, just a little. Three months suddenly seemed like a rather long time.
End of Excerpt