Once Upon a Princess, the book I co-wrote with Clare Lydon, will be out next week. Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
Once Upon a Princess
© Clare Lydon & Harper Bliss
Olivia Charlton clenched her left fist, a headache beginning to wrap itself around her brain. She could still hear the whir of camera lenses, the shouts of the photographers asking them to turn around, but she didn’t look back. They’d posed for 20 minutes and taken questions, and that was as much as the press were getting today. Her smile was broad and her head held high, her hand wrapped around that of Jemima Bradbury, now her fiancée.
It was early May, and the sky was blue and cloudless.
Unlike her mood, where storm clouds were brewing.
It was only when she was through the thick, black wooden gate and into the courtyard of the estate that she dropped Jemima’s hand and relaxed her shoulders, blowing out a frustrated sigh.
She still couldn’t believe her parents had made her hold an engagement press conference at such short notice — less than 24 hours. It wasn’t their style, which led her to believe they were worried she was going to bolt. They weren’t wrong.
When she glanced up, Jemima was flexing her hand, a soft smile on her face. “Jeez, you nearly broke a bone you were holding my hand so tight. Anyone would think you didn’t want to marry me.” She punctuated her statement with a single raised eyebrow. “And what was that answer about the proposal? You could have at least made up a good story, given the press what they wanted. This is a happy occasion, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Jemima cocked her head, her long, blonde hair cascading around her tanned shoulders. She was wearing a specially tailored white skirt and matching top with black trim, and her feet were encased in a pair of pristine white Manolo Blahniks.
“What’s the point of a made-up story, Jem?” Olivia raked her fingers through her long conker-brown hair, her shoulders tightening all over again. “You really want to marry me? When you know damn well we don’t love each other?”
Call Olivia old-fashioned, but she’d always thought that when she got engaged, she’d be in love with her future bride. It was something her mother couldn’t understand, something she kept telling her youngest daughter wasn’t important in their circle. “Love comes quite far down life’s must-haves, Olivia. I thought, by the age of 33, you would know that.”
A soft breeze wafted over her as she stared up at the back of the red-brick Surrey estate, her home for the past three years since she’d come back.
Or her prison, as she often thought.
Jemima laughed, a pained expression settling on her face. “I’ve tried the love thing, and it didn’t work out. It often doesn’t.” She paused. “It didn’t work out for you and Ellie, did it?”
Hearing her name was still like a punch to the gut.
Jemima went on. “And you’re not such a bad catch from where I’m standing. You’re a princess. Getting the opportunity to marry a royal is one I don’t intend to turn down.” She sighed and reached out to take her fiancée’s hand.
Olivia jumped as they connected. Jemima’s palm was sweaty.
“We could be good together, you know that. We’ve got history.” Jemima fluttered her long lashes Olivia’s way, a practised move.
“I’m not sure that’s enough.” Yet here they were, engaged. She and Jemima had gone out in their early 20s until Olivia had decided on a career in the army rather than one as a socialite. Sure, they still mixed in the same circles and they’d had an ill-advised one-night stand a year ago that Olivia still winced about, but now, her old flame was being thrust into her life once more by royal decree. The trouble was, everyone — including Jemima — was far happier about it than Olivia was.
“The press might be fooled because we make a great-looking couple and that’s what they want.” Olivia locked her gaze with Jemima’s. “But don’t you want something more? Do you really want to settle for me?” She wanted Jemima to think hard about what she was getting into, because she had more choice than her. Whereas, in the back of her mind, Olivia had always known this was likely to happen, having seen her sister go through it.
Jemima let out a strangled laugh. “Marrying Princess Olivia, fourth in line to the throne is hardly settling. And we could rub along together just fine. It’s not like we hate each other, is it?”
It wasn’t, Olivia had to agree. Despite being exes, they’d always got on. She went to kick a stone in the courtyard, but then realised she was wearing 4-inch heels and not her trainers: today, she was a professional princess, not a soldier. She wanted to stuff her hands in her pockets and stalk around the courtyard, but it wasn’t so effective in a poppy-red dress and full make-up.
“Think about it, this isn’t such a terrible plan,” Jemima said, splaying her manicured hands. “Don’t you want to settle down, and wouldn’t you rather do it with someone who knows your world, understands it and looks good on your arm? Wouldn’t that make life just a tiny bit easier?”
Olivia licked her lips, knowing Jemima had a point. But the nagging doubt was still in the back of her mind, and she couldn’t let it go. Now she’d tasted love once with Ellie, she wanted it again.
When she got married, she wanted it to be for real, for life, forever.
And none of those things belonged in the same sentence as Jemima Bradbury.
Her mother’s private secretary, Malcolm, came out of the ornately carved door and bowed his bald head before speaking. “The Queen will see you now.”
He didn’t say another word, but his narrowed gaze told Olivia all she needed: do not cause the Queen any unnecessary trouble because it will be me who clears it up.
Olivia gave him a sweet smile as she walked past.
She’d never liked Malcolm.
Her mother — Queen Cordelia to give her full title — was fiddling with her phone when she walked in; her father — Prince Hugo — was reading today’s Times in his favourite armchair. It was golden, tattered and creaked at every opportunity, but he refused to let Mother re-upholster it and so far, she’d agreed. It was a small victory in the life of her father, one he clung to.
When Olivia cleared her throat, he put the paper down.
The Queen glanced up, then folded her arms across her chest: this was going to be just as hard as Olivia had feared.
She motioned to the soft blue couches in front of the fireplace, and her mother followed. They sat opposite each other. Olivia flexed her toes in her high heels. She’d kept the same clothes on, because she knew her mother would be fully made up and ready for battle. She hadn’t been wrong: the Queen was dressed in a figure-hugging grey trouser suit and matching heels, her appearance as sharp as her attitude.
“So, did you watch it?”
Her mother nodded. “We did.” She paused, crossing one leg over the other. “You could have smiled more, looked a bit happier.” She squinted as the afternoon sunshine hit her face through the leaded palace windows and put a hand up to shield herself. “You looked like you were announcing a funeral, not a wedding.”
“Your mother’s right.” Her father came over to sit next to his wife in his usual black suit and striped tie, his pallor grey. “You didn’t look like you wanted to be there.”
“Because I didn’t want to be there, you know that!” Olivia threw both hands in the air: her parents could send her from zero to 100 in seconds. How could they be so calm when they knew this wasn’t what she wanted? They’d had the conversation only three nights ago, and they knew where she stood.
“And you know that questions are being asked and you’re of a certain age.” Her mother’s face was icy. “Your sister knew it and got married without a murmur. We’re not even making you marry a man—”
“—Big of you.” Olivia scowled.
“—It is, actually. You’re going to be the first lesbian princess to marry, and Jemima is a good fit for that. If you must marry a woman, it has to be the right kind of woman. This is not just about you, Olivia, this is about being a royal — you need to settle down. And ever since Ellie, you don’t seem to want to try.”
Why was everyone bringing up Ellie today? Ellie was in the past, married to another, and Olivia wanted to focus on her future. That may or may not feature love, but she wanted to at least give it a try. To do that, she had to calm down, play it cool. Appealing to her father was her best bet.
“I just wasn’t fully prepared for that press conference today — you only told me last night. And it felt like we were lying, like they could see through the charade.”
Olivia knew it was time she faced up to her royal responsibilities — the clock was ticking — but she hadn’t thought it would leave her feeling so… empty. Bereft.
“Nonsense — the press see what they want to see,” the Queen replied, clasping her hands on her knees and fixing her daughter with her stare. “Everyone knows you and Jemima have a history, and you look perfect together. Tomorrow’s papers will be awash with your pretty, smiling faces. Well, Jemima’s at any rate.”
“She’s really not that bad a compromise, Olivia,” her father said, before looking away.
Olivia ground her teeth together: he’d compromised and look where that had got him.
If there was one marriage Olivia didn’t want to emulate, it was her parents’.
She wanted a love match, a love that burned bright every day.
She stood and walked to the fireplace, her heels clicking on the polished wooden floors. She stared at the photo of Alexandra holding her as a baby, a proud older sister at the age of six. Alex had done her duty and married Miles, and now they had two children of their own.
Olivia had no desire to emulate their marriage, either.
She turned to her parents, gathering all her courage into a ball and taking a deep breath. “I just need a few weeks to sort my head out. This has thrown me. I know what you want, and I know we agreed, but saying it out loud felt… wrong. Dishonest.”
“Welcome to royalty,” her father replied, straight-faced.
Olivia shook her head. “I’d like to go away and stay at the Cornish house. Just to clear my head and sort out what I’m really thinking.”
“The engagement’s been announced now; it’s a bit late to run off.” Her mother’s face was stoic. The Queen didn’t do touchy-feely, and she certainly didn’t understand her daughter.
“I just need some space, Mother.” Olivia pursed her lips. Surely her mother could see that, even if she didn’t agree.
“Besides, there aren’t any staff at the Cornish house at the moment; we’ve had to cut costs, show willing,” the Queen added. “And what about bodyguards?”
“I don’t need staff and I don’t need bodyguards — I’m not a teenager anymore,” Olivia said. “Plus, it means I can really have some alone time, sort myself out.” She paused. “Just two weeks, that’s all I’m asking. Then I promise to come home and go through with whatever we agree on.”
Now it was the Queen’s turn to purse her lips, casting her gaze to the floor, then to her husband.
“I suppose you think we should let her go, seeing as Olivia’s always had you wrapped around her little finger.”
Her father shrugged. “She’s only asking for two weeks, and if that’s all she needs to work things out, I say she can go.” He looked over at his youngest daughter. “Just don’t create a scene, don’t let on to people you’re there, otherwise the press might suspect something’s up. Be discreet, no wild nights or getting drunk in the village pub.”
Olivia shook her head, relief flowing through her.
They were letting her go.
“I’m a bit old for that.” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been anywhere vaguely near a wild night. “I’ll get some glasses and even cut my hair and dye it so I won’t be recognised. Nobody will expect a short-haired princess.”
“Just don’t cut it off too short. Not like when you were in the army. You looked like a man.” The Queen wrinkled her nose.
“I looked like a woman with short hair, Mother; stop being so homophobic.”
The Queen stood, pulling herself up to her full five feet ten. She’d always been a towering presence in Olivia’s life. “We’re letting you go, don’t push it. Just make sure you’re back here so you can start to approve wedding arrangements in a few weeks.” Her voice was clipped, not to be messed with. “I’ve asked Malcolm to start getting possible venues and guest lists organised.” She gave Olivia a stony look. “And remember I want long hair in the wedding photos, so not too short.”
“The wedding’s three months away.”
“Not. Too. Short.”
“And no wild parties or I’m sending bodyguards,” her father added.
Olivia took a deep breath and pulled back her shoulders. “I promise I’ll be good.”
Rosie craned her neck and stared into the distance, over the empty tracks. She glanced at her watch. It shouldn’t surprise her that the train was late again. She took a deep breath. It wasn’t as though the cafe was full of customers waiting for her. She tried to relax her shoulders and have a little moment of mindfulness. You could take mindfulness classes in Otter Bay these days — and yoga, of course. Neither were Rosie’s cup of tea.
A hoot sounded in the distance. Her sister wouldn’t be arriving too late then. She was glad she no longer had to pretend, if only to herself, that she was practicing mindfulness. Although she could do with a minute or two of clearing her head.
The train approached with a loud rumble, clearing Rosie’s brain of any thoughts momentarily. Ah. So, loud noise disturbing the weekday quiet of the Cornish countryside was all Rosie needed to free her mind from thoughts — not some silly mindfulness practice.
Rosie tried to catch a glimpse of Paige through the windows rolling past, but she couldn’t see her. The train screeched to a halt and it took another few seconds before the doors opened.
The first passengers disembarked. Rosie kept a keen eye on them. Knowing Paige, she’d be the last to get off the train. Unless visiting Bristol university had got her so excited, she couldn’t wait to repeat all the things she’d already told Rosie on the phone.
Rosie cast her glance down and took her eye off the trickle of people leaving the train only for a split second, when something hit her side.
“I’m so very sorry,” a woman said.
“Watch where you’re going,” Rosie said automatically.
The woman was wearing the exact Paul Smith jacket Rosie had seen in a magazine left by a customer in the cafe just that morning — otherwise she would never have recognised such a fashionable item. Her eyes had watered when she’d seen the price.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the woman said again and briefly caught Rosie’s gaze before hurrying off.
Just another rich Londoner pushing up the price of everything in Cornwall. Rosie watched the woman scurry off, as though she was late for a very pressing appointment. Maybe she was on her way to a mindfulness class.
Rosie hadn’t seen that much of her face, yet the woman looked vaguely familiar.
“Hey.” Paige appeared by Rosie’s side.
Rosie had been so distracted by the stranger barrelling into her, she hadn’t seen Paige get off the train.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Paige said. “Saves me a ride on the bus and about an hour of my time.”
“No problem.” Rosie briefly touched her much younger sister’s shoulder. “Taxi Rosie is always available for you.”
“Can I have that in writing, please?” Paige said.
They walked to Rosie’s battered, old Toyota. She’d got it second-hand for a few hundred quid from Raymond, the local garage owner, who’d put in extra time to fix it up for her free of charge.
“I’d like to add a clause,” Rosie said as they reached the car. “Taxi Rosie is always available to you as long as this luxury vehicle holds up.” She shot Paige a smile.
“It better be good for a few more months then.” Paige grinned back. “At least until I leave for uni.”
They got in. It was good to at least have a laugh at the state of their finances. A split second of relief was better than none.
“Tell me all about Bristol again,” Rosie said as she started driving. They had to rely on conversation to break the silence — the car radio had given up the ghost almost a year ago.
As Paige raved about Bristol University and summed up all the reasons she would love to go there, pound signs added up in Rosie’s brain. But she’d had the opportunity to go to university — at least for the two years she’d been able to attend — and she’d do anything for Paige to have the same experience, without having to take on a crushing student loan. Even though things were very different now.
If she really wanted Paige to go to uni, maybe Mark & Maude’s, the cafe her parents had started a couple of decades ago, had no other prospect than a For Sale sign in the window.
Rosie got the funny feeling in her stomach she always did when she opened her online banking. The dread in the pit of her stomach that made her want to throw up a little. She longed for a day when she could check the state of her bank account carefree — although she was always aware of the exact amount in it, and the number of bills that needed to be paid from said amount.
The profit she’d made on the sale of her parents’ house after their untimely death had long run out. She’d used it to cover the arrears in the monthly mortgage payments on the cafe.
On any given month, nothing much was left over in the account after paying rent for the tiny flat she and Paige shared — a considerable downsize from the place they’d lived in next door to the cafe before their landlord had jacked up the rent once again. Rosie couldn’t blame him for wanting to turn a higher profit with short-term holiday rentals. If only her cafe could benefit as much from the influx of tourists as well.
But Mark & Maude’s was old school, closed before dinner time, and not generically trendy in the way well-off Londoners preferred their eating establishments. And they didn’t serve any alcohol. Maybe they should change that. How hard could it be to get a license to sell alcohol? Selling adult beverages had certainly done wonders for other cafes in the village.
Rosie glared at her laptop screen, as if it was the screen’s fault that her bank balance was so low. She leaned back in her chair, chastising herself for even opening her online banking. It wasn’t as if looking at the numbers would change anything. But she’d hoped the desperation of the situation would spark a magic idea in her brain.
She logged off. No magic spark came. She undid her pony tail and shook her hair loose. She was long overdue a visit to the hairdresser.
Footsteps approached and Paige walked into the living room. “Bonsoir ma soeur,” she said in French with the heaviest accent possible. Paige had the same dreams that Rosie had at her age. She wanted to travel the world and learn some other languages in the process. Studying French at uni was the start. “What’s for dinner?”
“Whatever you’re making,” Rosie said. “It’s your turn, remember?”
Paige sank into a chair. “Emergency pizza from the freezer it is then.”
“At least save your unhealthy eating habits until you’re at uni, will you?” Rosie slapped down the lid of her laptop. The bank’s website was still open and she didn’t want Paige to ask her any money-related questions.
“What will you be eating when I’m away?” Paige cocked her head. “Don’t tell me pizza from the freezer won’t tempt you then?”
Rosie had a hard time thinking so far ahead — and an equally hard time imagining Paige not living with her anymore. Come September, would she be lonely as well as jobless?
“Quinoa and avocado toast with almonds and chia seeds every day,” Rosie joked. She remembered the first time a customer at the cafe had asked if they served quinoa.
“It’s not really a Cornish delicacy,” Rosie had replied, and pointed at the items they did serve on the menu.
The bell rang and Paige jumped up. “I’ll get it,” she said.
Rosie stretched her arms above her head while she tried to guess who it was.
“Brace yourself,” Page whispered when she walked back into the living room. “Your ex is here.”
“Amy.” Rosie groaned. “What does she want?”
Hands on her hips, Paige looked at her as though Rosie had just asked the most stupid question in the world.
“Knock, knock.” Amy’s voice came from the hallway.
Rosie wanted to shoot her sister a look demanding why on earth she had let Amy in, but Amy was already standing in front of her, so there wasn’t much point.
“Hi,” Paige said to Amy. “I’ll leave you to it.” She disappeared into the kitchen. Maybe she would take the time to figure out an alternative menu for dinner.
Amy walked over to Rosie and kissed her on the cheek. She kept her hand on Rosie’s upper arm a little longer than was necessary — at least according to Rosie.
“What’s up, Rosebud?” Amy asked while she gave Rosie a once-over. “Although I really like your hair when it’s down like that, you look a little glum.”
Of course Amy wouldn’t for a second consider that it was her turning up unannounced — again — that made Rosie look unhappy.
“You know,” Rosie said. “A bit stressed.”
Amy shook her head. “You can’t go on like this much longer,” she said. “And you do have options. You know that.”
It was easy for Amy to say. Her parents actually knew how to profit from the new quinoa-eating, novelty-gin-drinking, mindfulness-practicing holiday crowd. They basically owned the local economy and their brand-new cafe was direct competition for Mark & Maude’s.
“I don’t need your help,” Rosie said, shifting her position in the chair. She didn’t much feel like inviting Amy to sit, lest she give her the impression she was welcome to stay for a chat — or that she wanted her help.
“Don’t be so stubborn. You’re only twenty-eight. You have your whole life ahead of you. There are so many things you could do if only you didn’t cling to your precious cafe so much.” Amy had always been a straight talker. “You could get a job managing one of our cafes just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Think about it, Rosie. A steady salary. No staff to pay. There’s something to be said for that kind of security.” She lowered her voice. “Especially with a younger sister going to uni.”
“Stop meddling with my life. It’s none of your business.” Rosie tried to hide the agitation in her voice. Amy might be right on some level, but Rosie surely wasn’t going to admit that to her face.
“I care about you.” Amy took a step closer again. “You know that.”
Rosie was just able to keep from rolling her eyes. She’d heard that line so many times before. It didn’t work on her anymore.
“What are you even doing here, Amy?” Rosie couldn’t mask the irritation in her tone this time.
“We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
Rosie sighed. Not as far as she was concerned. She didn’t need friends like Amy. “Paige and I were about to have dinner. It’s not really a good time for a friendly chat.”
Amy glanced at her in silence for a moment. “Message received loud and clear.” She turned around and headed for the door.
Fat chance of that. Rosie followed Amy into the hallway, looking forward to the moment she would slam the door shut behind her.
<<End of preview>>
Once Upon a Princess will be available on Thursday 24 May 2018