Read an Excerpt
Elwood House: Must-Do listMonday
• Meet up with Kate and Amber to finalise Amber's weddingdo NOT let Kate talk you into fuchsia or satinwalk away from the satin.
• Decide on classical music pieces for the bathrooms.
• Be ready to fend off that very persistent new wine merchant.
• Stay in for the garden centre delivery of the spiral box trees for the front porch.
'Snow. I am going to need lots of snow. And tiny white fairy lights sparkling in the trees and over the pergola. Can you do fairy lights?' Amber's voice tailed off into a dreamy whisper. 'It would be so magical and romantic.'
Saskia Elwood rolled her eyes and grinned at her best friend Amber, then clicked in the box next to the garden lighting option on her wedding planner spreadsheet.
'Of course I can do white fairy lights. As for the snow? That shouldn't be too difficult for New Year's Day in London. But, you know me, if you want it to snow on your wedding day, then snow you shall have, even if I have to track down a snow gun machine and make you some. Although Won't it be a bit cold? From the designs I have seen, that dress Kate is making for you would be perfect for a tropical beach weddingbut London in January? Brr '
Amber giggled and flicked her long straight blonde hair over one shoulder in a move she had perfected in fashion shoots and as years performing as a concert pianist. 'I know,' she replied, wrinkling up her nose in delight. 'It is so perfect. Sam is going to love it.' Then she sighed out loud and strolled out past Saskia and through the conservatory into the garden with a faraway expression on her face. 'Just love it.'
'She's off again,' a cheery voice sounded from behind Saskia's shoulder as Kate Lovat bounced into the room with a bundle of wedding magazines in her arms. 'Dreaming of the fabulous Sam. If I wasn't so smitten with my Heath I would find it a bit sickening. In fact, sometimes I'm surprised you put up with the two of us. Always talking about the lucky men who we have agreed to marry one day.'
'Right now,' Saskia replied with a snort, 'I am more worried about Amber getting frostbite in that skimpy, mostly backless dress you are planning for a winter wedding. Any chance of a jacket? Thermal vest? The poor girl is going to be blue, which is not a good look for any bride.'
Kate replied by playfully hitting Saskia on the head with a rolled up bridal magazine and sat down next to her at the conservatory table. 'Blue? With that fabulous suntan? No chance.' Then she relaxed and rested her elbows on the table. 'Relax. There is a beautiful full-length quilted ivory coat to go on top of that slinky dress for any outdoor photos. Fear not. The girl shall not freeze. When the dancing starts she will be glad of that layered silk gown, even if the beads will be flying everywhere.'
Kate arched her eyebrows and peered at Saskia's computer screen, her green eyes bright with amusement. 'Does that say dinner and reception for twenty-six? I thought this was just going to be a small family wedding. As in no professional musicians, fashion models or anybody else in Amber's world who will make us feel totally inadequate as human beings.'
Saskia laughed out loud and started counting out on her fingers. 'How could you forget Amber's first dad and his huge new stepfamily, her second dad Charles Sheridan' she pointed towards Kate, who waved a magazine in the air 'with Heath and his new family. Her third dad might bring his new wife but she is having some "freshening up" surgery post-Christmas and might not have the stitches out in time. Oh, and her mum, of course. Julia is bringing the latest beau plus entourage, including her aunt and three American cousins and ' the air whooshed out of Saskia's lungs ' twenty-six hungry, cold people are going to celebrate the best wedding they have ever been to. Amber's friend Parvita and her husband are looking after the music and I booked the waiting staff last week. All I have to do is enjoy myself.'
'Um. Yeah. Right,' Kate replied and looked over the top of her spectacles at her. 'And exhaust yourself in the process of getting everything ready up front so it looks easy on the day. Who is kidding who here? We know you far too well, girl.' Kate smiled and gave her a one-armed hug. 'Now, let me see that list again. Aha. Thought so. You have missed out a crucial item. Tut tut.'
'What?' Saskia glanced at the screen in disbelief and then back to Kate. 'I spent most of my Sunday double-checking the plan. Out with it. What have I missed?'
Kate slid out of her chair and came around to stand in front of Saskia. 'Wedding date for a very picky hostess to be provided by her pals. Tall, dark and handsome. Dancing skills an advantage but will settle for extra hot. And you're not typing that in.'
Saskia sat back in her chair and lifted both hands into the air. 'Trust you to find me a date? Oh no. I still remember that graphic designer who offered to paint my portrait if I stripped down to earrings and a cheeky grin.'
Kate fluttered her eyelashes and tugged down the hem of her perfectly fitted jacket over her petite curves. 'We do such good work.'
Saskia snorted and turned back to the laptop. 'Thank you for the offer but the last thing I want is a boyfriend. You do know that this is the first wedding that Elwood House has ever seen, so no pressure at all.'
Kate waved her arms around and then cocked her head on one side and pushed out her lips. 'This house is gorgeous and that curvy staircase was made for a bride to walk down on her father's arm. It is going to be fabulous, even if we do feel guilty about leaving you to do most of the work.'
Saskia took a breath then shrugged off the lingering disquiet by tapping her wristwatch with her home-manicured fingertip.
'And I feel bad that I am making you late for your sexy lingerie fitting appointment. You know, the one that you booked three weeks ago.' She waggled her fingertips at Kate. 'Go. A new wine merchant and his sales team will be here soon and the last thing they want to see are you two drooling over wedding brochures. Scoot. And have a great time!'
Kate gasped, whooped, flung the magazines onto the table and ran out to grab hold of Amber's arm. Two minutes later all that was left of Amber and Kate were empty coffee cups and plates, a whiff of couture perfume, lipstick on her cheek and a smile on Saskia's face that only spending breakfast with her two best friends in the world could bring.
They had known each other since high school. Totally different in every way and yet she could not want better pals. They might only have reconnected at a high school reunion that May, but now it felt as though they had never been apart.
Had it only been May? Wow. So much had happened in the past few months. Amber was engaged to Sam and spending most of her time living the dream in India, while Kate was sharing her home with Amber's stepbrother Heath only a few streets away. They were both so happy and off to be fitted with sexy lingerie by the most famous bra shop in London.
Suddenly the wedding planning spreadsheet lost its appeal and Saskia sniffed and sat back in her chair. She envied them the luxury of having time to spend comparing fine lingerie, while she was sitting here trying to decide on whether to have background music in the bathrooms. Or not.
Ah. The joys of running your home as a private meeting venue.
A whisper of self-pity flitted into her mind but she instantly pushed it to the back of her brain in disgust.
She had so much to be grateful for. Her friends Kate and Amber were the perfect pretend family who knew her a lot better than her absent parents. And then she had her home, Elwood House the architectural masterpiece which she had shared with her Aunt Margot until last year.
A gentle breeze wafted in from the garden outside the conservatory room and Saskia smiled out at the hardwood planters overflowing with autumn blossoms.
She had spent so many summer evenings with her aunt in this very room, talking and talking about their grand plan to transform Elwood House into a fabulous private dining venue. Her aunt had been the acclaimed wine expert with superb taste in interior design who was happy to leave Saskia to work on the details and business plans. Together they had been a genius team who had started the project together.
It was so sad that her aunt had never seen those plans come to fruition.
Shuffling to her feet, Saskia gathered up the breakfast dishes and loaded the dishwasher. Clasping hold of the marble worktop, she let her arms take the weight and closed her eyes for a second and took a couple of breaths.
The past six months had been harder than she had expected.
A lot harder and much more expensive. But she could not think like that. She had to make her home into a successful business because the alternative was too terrible to think about. A day job in the city would not come close to meeting the running expenses of a house this size.
Elwood House had been the home of the most famous wine merchants in London for over one hundred and fifty years. It was strange to think that she was the last in the line and responsible for preserving the heritage of the house the first of the Elwood clan had built in this smart part of London.
It was her safety net. Her home. Her sanctuary. And her security.
Saskia inhaled deeply and waggled her shoulders to release the tension.
No matter what it took or how many hours she had to work, Elwood House was going to pay for itself.
Patience. That was what she needed. Patience and a lot of new bookings.
She had only been going a few months and it took time to get a private meeting venue like hers off the ground. Reputation spread by word of mouth and she was already attracting repeat clients, but it was a mightily slow process and she had a big gap to fill before the Christmas party season started. Maybe Amber's wedding would turn things around and she could start the New Year with hope and excitement burning in her heart?
And as for a date for Amber's wedding? That was so not going to happen. She had served meals and coffee to an awful lot of businessmen over the past few months but she had not the slightest interest in dating any of them. Just the opposite. She had learnt the hard way the cost of giving up your independence and she had no intention of repeating her mother's mistake any time soon.
Her gaze fell onto one of the wedding magazines that Kate had brought for Amber to look at and a headline on the cover leapt out at her.
Read all about the huge rise in Civil weddings at home. Celebrate your wedding in the intimate and private venue of your own home.
A spark of an idea flashed bright. Civil weddings. Now that was a thought. Amber's wedding might be the first wedding reception that Elwood House had seen. But it need not be the last Um Perhaps there was a market for small private house weddings in a city this size. Not everyone wanted an extravaganza of a huge hotel banqueting suite.
The idea was still rattling around inside her head a few minutes later when the telephone rang. Saskia barely had a chance to pick up the handset and say the words 'Elwood House,' before a transatlantic female voice belted out down the line at such a rapid-fire pace that she had to hold the phone away from her ear for a second.
'Oh, good morning, Angela. Yes, I am still available to talk to Mr Burgess and his team today. Not a problem at all. And there has been a change to the agenda. Right. Have you got the details? Tell me everything.'
Rick Burgess leant his elbows on the solid white railings of Waterloo Bridge and watched the water taxis mooring at the jetty below. The River Thames flowed beneath his feet and wound in wide lazy curves eastwards towards the sea. Stretched out across the horizon in front of him, high-rise marvels of modern architecture reached tall into the sky against the backdrop of landmark ancient cathedrals and majestic stone buildings that made up the city of London.
A fresh breeze wafted up the river and Rick inhaled deeply, his chest rising under his white open-necked shirt and soft black leather biker jacket.
Just what he needed to clear his head after being cooped up inside an aircraft and then underground trains for the past four hours.
He ran his fingers back through his tousled dark brown hair.
Yesterday he had spent the afternoon talking wine over a plate of antipasti in a sunlit garden on a Tuscan estate with a young Italian couple who had sold everything they had to buy a tiny prestigious vineyard that he knew would be taking the world by storm in time. And today he was in London under a cloudy sky with only patches of blue peeking through to lighten the grey stone buildings.
He knew exactly where he preferred to be and it certainly was not here!
It was on mornings like this that it hit more powerfully than ever that it should be his older brother Tom who should be getting ready to go into a crucial sales meeting with one of the most prestigious private dining venues in London. Not him.
Tom had been the businessman. The IT genius who had transformed a small chain of family wine shops into Burgess Wine, the largest online wine merchant on the West Coast of America.
Rick shook his head and chuckled. He had a pretty good idea of what Tom would've said about the crazy enterprise he was just about to launch in this city and the language would not be fit for his parents to hear.
Tom had been a conservative businessman to the core. He would never have taken a risk with a group of independent young winemakers making tiny amounts of wine on family estates across Europe.
Not all of the wine was remarkable yet. But some of it was amazing.
It was going to have to be if he had any chance at all of redeeming himself in the eyes of the media. As far as the wine trade press were concerned, Rick had certainly never earned his place on the board of directors of Burgess Wine. Far from it.
To them, Rick Burgess would always be every bit the renegade who had walked away from a job with the family wine business to become a professional extreme sports personality. What did he know about the modern wine trade? And they were right.
If Tom was still alive his business ambitions would have stayed in the world he knewprofessional sports and adventure tourism. They had always been his passion and still were.
But Tom was dead. And there was nothing he could do to bring him back.
Just like he couldn't change that fact that his parents were both in their sixties and needed him to take Tom's place and work for Burgess Wine.
It had never been his decision or his choice. But as they said, there was nobody else. Burgess Wine was a family business and he had just been promoted to the son and heir whether he wanted the job or not.
He didn't like it. They didn't like it. And they still didn't completely trust him not to mess things up or run back to his old life.
Emotional blackmail only went so far.