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Seattle, Washington: Present Day
It wasn’t often that a girl had the chance to get lost in a fairy tale.
Persephone Josephine Alexander wasn’t one to find herself in those sorts of straits, but she was hardly in a position at present to do anything about it. She was captive in the darkened wings of a venerable Seattle theater, watching something undeniably magical unfold in front of her. The handsome prince, accompanied by a breathtaking set of strings, was vocally waxing rhapsodic about the charms of the appallingly lovely girl across the stage, while that girl was accompanying his waxing with her own musical commentary about his perfections. It wasn’t long before the pair fell into each other’s arms as if they’d been born for just that moment, their voices mingling in perfect harmony, soaring above the orchestra and leaving very few dry eyes in the audience.
Pippa was sure of that because she’d peeked out into that audience—after she’d dragged her sleeve across her own eyes, of course. Damned dust allergies kicking up at the most inopportune moments.
She got hold of herself, then turned back to her purely academic study of the love story going on in front of her. She had to admit, grudgingly, that it looked as real as anything she’d ever
seen anywhere—or at least it did until the handsome prince stepped on the back of his soon-to-be princess’s dress and tore it half off.
Pippa came back to earth abruptly at the two glares she found thrown her way as the prince and his lady attempted to dance as if nothing had happened. Fortunately there were no further mishaps before the couple managed to get themselves off stage for the last costume change.
“Lovely designs, Pippa,” the princess said shortly as she ran off the stage. “Too bad you couldn’t have sewn them better. I imagine Frank agrees.”
“Pippa didn’t design them,” Frank whispered sharply, “and given what I’ve seen tonight, it was a mistake to let her sew them.”
Pippa didn’t bother to respond to that. She had indeed designed all the costumes, as well as having sewn most of them, but she was standing on the brink of a truly remarkable piece of good fortune, and she didn’t want to jinx it by arguing the point with a successful show’s director on closing night.
Though it was really tempting to take the pair of dressmaker’s shears she had stuck in the back of her belt and cut off Frank’s ponytail while he was otherwise engaged in sucking up to his leads and belittling the little people. Fortunately for his dignity, she found herself suddenly too busy repairing tears and replacing sequins to do any trimming.
By the time she had gotten all the costumes put away for someone lower than she on the food chain to worry about cleaning in the morning, she had given up the idea of revenge. Petty theater directors and grumpy actors were in her past. Her future was a sparkling green city in the not-so-distant distance and there was nothing standing between them but a no-nonsense flight to England. She got herself home through a damp and rather foggy Seattle night, then settled happily into her favorite pair of flannel pajamas before going in search of a decent post-production snack.
Half an hour later, she pulled her last cinnamon-sugar Pop-Tart from the toaster, then frowned at the smell. Something was burning, and it wasn’t what she was holding in her hand. She leaned forward and sniffed her toaster. No, not there, either.
She followed her nose to her front door, then opened it and looked out into the hallway. Gaspard, her neighbor, flung open
his door, shrieking curses in French as he jerked off his chef’s hat, threw it on the floor, and stomped out the flames. He looked at her.
It took her a moment to reconcile herself to the fact that flames were licking his doorframe, which meant he was obviously not just capable of dispensing advice on how to make a killer Bolognese sauce but could also run a mean escape operation. She watched the smoke begin to billow for a moment or two before she realized that she was about to become as crispy as the pastry she was holding in her hand.
She dashed back into her apartment, tossed her future into a suitcase, then bolted for the stairs.
Several hours later, she stood on a the edge of tree-root-ravaged bit of sidewalk, pushed back the hair that was curling frantically around her face and dripping down the back of her now-soggy pajamas, and decided that there was only one explanation for the swirling events she’d been plunked down into.
Karma was out to get her.
She was a big believer in Karma. A girl couldn’t grow up as the child of flower children and not have a healthy respect for that sort of thing—and for tie-dye as well, but those were probably memories better left for another time when she had peace for thinking and some mini chocolate muffins to ease the pain.
She rubbed the spot between her eyes that had almost ceased to pound, then looked around for somewhere to sit. Her sturdy, vintage suitcase was there next to her, looking imminently capable of standing up under the strain, so she sat and was grateful for the recent departure of fire engines and Dumpster delivery trucks. She rested her elbows on her knees, her chin on her fists, and gave herself over to the pondering of the twists and turns of her life.
She also kept a weather eye out for that rather large and clunky other shoe she was fairly sure was going to be dropped onto her head at any moment. One couldn’t have the sort of spectacular good fortune she was about to wallow in without some sort of equal and opposite cosmic reaction. And to keep herself from breaking into the kind of jubilant rejoicing she was sure Karma took note of, she reviewed the path that had led her to her current enviable spot on a suitcase out in the rain.
It had begun, she supposed, when Susie Chapman’s mother had given her a Barbie and a lunch sack full of fabric scraps for her seventh birthday. A world of possibilities had opened up for her, a realm that included plaids and paisleys, stripes and polka dots, all made from fabrics that weren’t made from hemp and were probably anything but organic. Her parents would have rent their tie-dyed caftans if they’d seen any of it, but Pippa had avoided detection by keeping her contraband doll and those glorious mass-dyed fabrics hidden cunningly in a couple of Birkenstock boxes.
She had continued her illicit evening-gown-making activities even after she and her siblings had been dumped by her überflaky parents on the doorstep of an aunt who had sprung, fully formed, from the pages of a Dickens novel. Pippa had in public sneered at romance, fairy tales, and designing clothes for dolls who savored both, but in the privacy of her little garret room she had sewn magical things from the best her lunch money could buy. She had gone on to major in art and costume design in college, then spent the ensuing four years slaving away over seams for others to wear in their own fairy tales acted out on stage.
And while designing for shows had been good practice, her burning and up-until-now secret desire had been to have her own line of clothing. In spite of her own avoidance of the like in her personal life, she dreamed of creating modern things with a hint of medieval romance and fairy-tale magic for others, things with little touches that only those looking for them would see. She wanted the women who wore her clothes to feel like the heroines of their own fairy tales, beautiful and beloved.
She paused. It was entirely possible she had some unresolved issues concerning romance, knights in shining armor, and her time at Aunt Edna’s.
She made a mental note to consider therapy later—after she’d eluded Karma’s steely eye and leaped at the chance she’d been recently offered to make her dreams come true.
Her sister Tess, who owned an honest-to-goodness English castle and made her living by hosting parties for all sorts of people with money and imagination, had shown some of Pippa’s designs to one of her clients. The man had looked at the kids’ costumes, then spontaneously uttered the magic words.
I say, your sister Pippa doesn’t design for adults, does she? I’m looking for a new place to invest a bit of money.
Pippa had immediately begun fiendishly working on things to expand her collection, wondering all the while if there might be something bigger at work in her life than simply her wishing for it. She certainly didn’t believe in magic, pixie dust, or any of the romantic drivel her older sister Peaches read on what seemed to be an alarmingly regular basis. She most certainly didn’t believe in the fairy tales put on by any of the theaters she’d sewn for.
But in this, she couldn’t deny that there was something, well, unusual at work.
“Pippa, what in the world happened?”
She looked up at that aforementioned over-romanced sister Peaches, who had suddenly materialized next to her on the sidewalk.
“Gaspard had his flambé get a little too friendly with his natural fibers, apparently,” she said with a sigh. “What are you doing here so early?”
“It’s not early. It’s almost nine. And I’m here because I thought that since you were leaving tonight, you might need help packing.”
Pippa supposed Peaches would have thought that. Her sister made a living by acting as a life coach, plucking people one by one out of a sea of bills, undeclared intentions, and old pizza boxes to send them off into a new life of organizational calm. Their parents were almost proud of her, though they would have preferred her credentials in feng shui be a bit more solid.
“It’s all finished,” Pippa said, patting her suitcase and hoping Peaches wouldn’t want to check her work. “Costumes for the kids’ party, my passport, and some granola. And my backup thumb drive with all the new designs I scanned for ease in display. I was sort of in a rush and left everything else behind.”
Peaches glanced at the smoldering ruins of Pippa’s building. “I imagine you were. And I suppose you can replace what you lost.”
Pippa nodded, though she couldn’t exactly agree. She’d spent years collecting one of a kind vintage fabrics and trims. In fact, she could have started her own store with what she had stacked on shelves in her apartment, or hidden cunningly under her bed and skirted end tables. There had been a few times—all right, there had been more than a few times—when she had simply sat there and stared for a few minutes—all right, it might have been for an hour or two at a shot—at the stacks and stacks of fabric she possessed, all full of possibilities, all waiting for her to take them and make them into something more than they had been before—
“I mean, it’s not as if you don’t have money in the bank,” Peaches continued relentlessly, “or renter’s insurance, or all your valuables tucked safely away in a safe-deposit box like I’ve been advising you to do for the past year.”
“I don’t have any valuables.”
Peaches studied her in a way that made Pippa feel as if her sister really did know that she hid money in her mattress and family heirlooms in hot chocolate cans.
“But the insurance, Pippa,” Peaches prodded. “You did take care of that, didn’t you?”
“I have an appointment with the insurance guy,” Pippa said, trying not to sound defensive. “At noon today, so yes, I did take care of that. And I did have savings, but I took it all and bought an embroidery machine last week. And a nicer serger. And a few bolts of velvet and silk.” She paused. “Maybe a few sequins.”
“How many sequins?”
Pippa waved her hand toward the wreckage she couldn’t bring herself to look at any longer. “I think they would be the enormous swath of multihued sparkles you see up there where the second floor used to be.”
“That’s a lot of sequins.” She took a deep, calming breath. “At least you have your scooter. It could be worse.”
Pippa pointed over her shoulder to where the Dumpster had been dumped earlier that morning. A wheel and part of a fender stuck out from below the container.
Peaches looked, paused, then laughed a bit. “You’ve had quite a morning.”
“Tell me about it.”
“At least you have your trip to look forward to.” Peaches nudged her over a bit to join her on her suitcase. “Tell me more about this guy who wants to look at your designs. He could be the reason for all this cosmic attention you’re getting.”
Pippa was happy to talk about something else besides the stench of incinerated fabric she could still smell lingering in the air. “I don’t know anything about him except that he’s nobility and he has really deep pockets.”
“He’s the son of an earl, I think, and runs in Tess’s academic circles. And he has deep pockets.”
“You already said that.”
“His deep pockets are very attractive to my ultimate plan of fashion world domination.”
Peaches laughed. “I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your focus.”
“Mr. Nobility might front me some dough for more sequins, and Karma is probably done with me,” Pippa said with a shrug. She ignored the little niggling doubt at the back of her mind that said Karma was nowhere close to being finished with her. “You’re taking me to the airport tonight, and I have enough money in the bank to buy more underwear. What else can go wrong?”
“You can open your big mouth, that’s what can go wrong,” Peaches said quickly. “Don’t tempt Fate.”
“Nah,” Pippa said confidently, “I think the worst is over. After all, bad things come in threes and my quota is full.”
“My little disorganized friend, good things come in threes. I don’t think bad luck is constrained by the same rules.”
“Ridiculous,” Pippa scoffed, finding it in herself to rally a bit. She stood and wrapped an emergency blanket around herself because she was cold, not because she was unnerved. “You can go along with all that woo-woo business we were weaned on, but I’m not buying it.”
Pippa shook her head sharply. “Look, Peach, Karma’s done her bit with me this week. In the past eight hours I have lost, in no particular order, my apartment, my life’s savings, my inventory of irreplaceable fabric and salvaged trims, my means of making a living, and my purple Vespa. I’m in the clear.”
Peaches only zipped her lips, locked them, and threw away the key.
Pippa put her shoulders back and stood tall. Her destiny was not controlled by some cosmic, unreasonable force. She was in charge. Hadn’t she just the night before looked life in its steely eye, clutched her Pop-Tart like a sword, and announced as much?
Approximately thirty seconds before she’d smelled the smoke, but surely the two were unrelated.
“Oh, no,” Peaches said, standing up so quickly, she knocked Pippa’s suitcase over. “Not this.”
“What?” Pippa asked, leaning over to right her suitcase.
“I told you there was no limit,” Peaches said pointedly. “Number Four’s on its way. I’m not sticking around to see what Number Five’s going to be.”
Pippa looked over her shoulder, then found herself assailed by a sudden desire to collapse. Fortunately, her suitcase was still there, sturdy and dependable. She sat down heavily.
“This doesn’t count.”
“Keep telling yourself that, if it makes you feel better.”
Pippa watched gloomily as the ultimate hippie-mobile came up the way. It was a tie-dyed Winnebago, powered by solar panels and used french-fry oil, with a faint cloud of cannabis hovering overhead and Grateful Dead stickers plastered all over the back.
“What are the parental units doing here?” she asked uneasily.
“Maybe they came to visit before you took off for yon blessed isle,” Peaches offered. “Maybe they’re going to insist they be the ones to take you to the airport, in style no less. You might manage to get them to stop by the mall, unless Mom has some hemp underwear hiding in a drawer you could have.”
Pippa shuddered and stood up. “I’m not about to go looking in her drawers. I don’t want to know what else is hiding there.”
Peaches slung her arm around Pippa’s shoulders. “How is it with parents like these we turned out to be so normal?”
“Don’t ask,” Pippa said darkly. That was the last thing she wanted to think about. She’d spent her entire life fighting against her parents’ lifestyle, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.
She paused. That wasn’t exactly true. She had, at fourteen, been sprung for a couple of months from Aunt Edna’s Gloomy Victorian Boardinghouse to go with her parents to England. She’d loved the place so much, she’d happily spent her time brewing herbal tea and creating Renaissance-inspired tofu delights to sell at all the reenactment gatherings they could find. One place she had fallen particularly in love with had been a castle on the northern coast. Artane, she thought its name might have been. She had been standing near that castle early one morning, when she could have sworn she’d seen—
Well, never mind what she’d thought she’d seen. She’d been fourteen at the time, an age particularly prone to vivid imagination. Gorgeous guys in chainmail just didn’t pop up out of the mist, even in England. She’d been taking the whole reenactment thing too seriously, eaten too much refined sugar, and her mind had played tricks on her.
Never mind that she’d gone back to that exact spot every morning for the week they’d been there, hoping beyond hope to catch another glimpse—
She took a deep breath and rubbed her hands over her face. She was losing it. Maybe it was smoke inhalation, or the off-gassing of too many sequins. What she remembered most about that summer was that even though she’d done a very brisk business in medieval and Renaissance faire food, her parents had grown tired of her and dumped her with her aunt again so they could go back to doing their own thing. She had gone back to her usual habit of denying the existence of anything magical, wearing it even through college like a badge of honor.
And if she made cone-shaped headgear with sweeping netting cascading down behind them, or crowns of flowers with streamers placed just so, or low-waisted gowns with slight trains, it was strictly business. She had never indulged in any more romantic imaginings about the women who might have worn them and the medieval knights in shining armor who might have loved them. No sir. And she had definitely never indulged in any speculation about the more fantastical and magical items she made for fairies and their ilk. She was a steely-eyed, determined businesswoman sitting on a suitcase full of samples. The chance to impress an investor with her reasonably priced, impossibly charming line of little-girl fairy clothing and further impress him with an equal number of very subtle, medieval-inspired grown-up things had been an opportunity she hadn’t dared turn down.
Maybe having her life burn to the ground in front of her had
been a blessing in disguise. She had no choice but to go forward and put all her eggs in an English basket.
The Winnebago circled the block three times until it found a place to weigh anchor. It took a moment or two, but the door finally opened and belched out its occupants. Pippa pushed her hair back out of her face and braced herself for the onslaught.
First came her mother in a multicolored muumuu that set off her long, henna-dyed hair to perfection. She looked a little dazed, but since that was her usual condition, Pippa didn’t think anything of it. Her father came stumbling down the stairs next in acid-washed jeans and a ratty Grateful Dead T-shirt, and a dozen strands of Mardi Gras beads hung around his neck. The cowboy hat he was wearing was iffy, but it was probably made of hemp so she gave him a pass.
They both came to a screeching halt and stared at the ruins of Pippa’s apartment. They couldn’t seem to drag themselves away from the sight, but then again, they were probably being dazzled by the sequins.
Her mother held out a tin of something toward her husband. He fumbled inside it, pulled something out, and ate it, still gaping at the ruin in front of him.
“Those look like brownies,” Pippa murmured.
“Just don’t ask what’s in them,” Peaches muttered in return.
Pippa managed a smile. “You know, even though I don’t have the warmest of feelings for them, I’m not sure I’d count them as karmic retribution.”
“I don’t think it was the parents you needed to look out for.”
Peaches pointed back toward the motor home.
Pippa looked at the doorway, then felt her mouth fall open.
A foot had appeared in view, a foot wearing a shoe that had to have had at least a five-inch heel. A calf followed the foot, followed by more of a leg that went on forever. And then, as if the possessor of those incredible legs was eternally trapped in a Bob Fosse musical, the rest of the body appeared with a slinkiness that had left an endless trail of males in various stages of swoon for as long as Pippa could remember.
Cinderella Alexander, the bane of Pippa’s existence.
Cindi glided over in her best beauty-queen walk, then stopped and looked at Pippa from a face so perfect, it made Pippa’s teeth ache.
“I hear there’s going to be a party.”
Pippa retrieved her jaw from where it had fallen yet again to her chest. “What?” she asked, pretending to wiggle her ear to hopefully dislodge whatever it was that prevented her from hearing properly.
“In England. A party.”
“Ah,” Pippa began.
“And that fairies are involved.”
Pippa looked at Peaches, who only lifted an eyebrow knowingly. No help there. Pippa turned back to Cindi.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, lying without a moment’s hesitation or guilt. “Hadn’t heard a thing.”
“You’ll need a queen. I’ve decided to come along and be that for you.”
Pippa would have sat back down on her suitcase, but that would have drawn attention to it and perhaps led Cindi to become more acquainted with her wares than necessary. Pippa settled for not hitting Peaches when she began to pinch her arm, hard. The pain kept her from either swooning or bursting into tears—if she’d been the sort to do either, which she most definitely was not.
She was left with no choice but to admit the truth of it. She’d been cocky. She had stared Karma right in the face and dared her to do her worst. The platinum blonde bimbo unconsciously preening in front of her was proof enough that Karma did not like to be messed with.
Pippa knew she had every reason to hate her older sister. Cindi hadn’t had to work her way up through her chosen employment as professional beauty queen; she’d pretty much started at the top. And once she’d realized Pippa could sew, she’d had her sewing at all hours, continually preparing for ball after ball where the prince always noticed Cindi, always proposed, and always went away dazzled and disappointed. Pippa never even got to meet the evening’s leftovers. She was too busy slaving away over the next gala’s gown, which of course had to be more elaborate than the last.
She could have lived with that if the indignities had ended there, but they hadn’t. Every time Pippa thought she might have a meeting with someone useful, Cindi would somehow catch
wind of it, then arrive in all her glory and walk off with all eyes on her, leaving Pippa to metaphorically slink along behind her, carrying her train.
She had gone to ridiculous lengths to ensure that this time Cindi would have no idea what was up. She’d sworn Tess to secrecy, made Peaches pinky swear she wouldn’t tell, and threatened her other two sisters with grievous bodily harm if they breathed a word. She couldn’t imagine how Cindi had found out.
Obviously, Karma had been busy.
“Where are your things?” Cindi asked imperiously.
Pippa eased in front of her suitcase protectively. “I have them packed away safely.”
“Not that it matters,” Cindi said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’m bringing my own designs.”
Pippa blinked. “What?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Cindi purred. “I’ve been working on a line of fairy-tale fashions. I had lunch with David Jacoby last month and he mocked them up for me.” She frowned, a perfectly elegant creasing of her equally elegant brow. “Did I forget to tell you?”
Pippa could only gape. Words were beyond her. The Jacoby studio was so far above where she’d ever hoped to even attempt a submission of her portfolio, she could hardly wrap what was left of her smoke-fogged brain around the thought.
“He shipped them to England for me last week. I imagine Tess has them now.” Cindi reached out and patted Pippa on the cheek. “I just thought that since you’d been working so hard, I would take some of the pressure off you. You’ll be bringing along your little costumes, though, won’t you, darling?”
“They’re so sweet. I can hardly wait to dress up the girls and lead them around the castle.” Cindi frowned suddenly, then looked slightly unsettled, if that was possible for a woman for whom everything in life clicked into place with a perfection that was truly appalling. “Oh, I’d forgotten about the castle. Tess said it was drenched in things I might not like.” She looked at Pippa narrowly. “She mentioned drama.”
Pippa didn’t dare look at Peaches. The drama the castle was drenched in would increase exponentially when Cindi arrived, but there was no sense in saying as much.
“Do you know anything about that?” Cindi asked suspiciously.
“Oh, I don’t think it’s drama you have to worry about,” Peaches said without hesitation. “Tess was probably trying to give you a subtle warning that what her castle is really drenched in is ghosts and rumors of mayhem in times past.”
Cindi took a step backward, looking now definitely unsettled. “Ghosts?”
“And mayhem,” Peaches repeated. “And other things that go bump in the night.”
If there was one thing Cinderella Alexander couldn’t stand, it was things that went bump in the night. The creaking wood in Aunt Edna’s Victorian House of Warped and Hand-Scrubbed Boards had just about done her in. Pippa knew that because she had hopped up and down on the floorboards next to Cindi’s door more often than necessary on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, just to hear her sister shriek.
She suspected Karma had definitely taken note of that.
Cindi took another step back, then turned abruptly. “Dad looks like he’s been sniffing too much of something. I’d better go rescue him.”
Pippa watched her sister slink off, her perfect legs that went easily up to her ears carrying her away as if she’d been a black widow—perhaps a rather more nervous than usual black widow—reaching out to cover ground between her and supper in the most expedient way.
Peaches put her arm around Pippa’s shoulders. “I tried to get rid of her for you, but I don’t think she was terrified enough to cancel her trip.”
“I appreciate the effort,” Pippa said, trying to sound cheerful, “but don’t worry. After all, how much trouble can she possibly cause?”
“I don’t think you really want the answer to that,” Peaches said with a half laugh, “so I won’t give it. Let me go see if there’s anything edible in the parents’ fridge. You sit there and rest. I think you’re going to need it.”
Pippa agreed, so she sat and attempted a smile because she was, after all, going to England. Surely nothing else untoward was going to happen to her.
Then she realized what Cindi had said.
“Hey, Peaches,” she said before her sister got too far away. “What was Cindi talking about?”
Peaches turned around. “What do you mean?”
“I mean about the castle. Cindi said there was drama and you said there were ghosts.” She laughed dismissively, because she wasn’t at all unnerved by creaking floorboards or other things of a more paranormal nature. “I mean, really. You weren’t seri¬ous, were you?”
Peaches smiled. “Well, Tess did say her castle has some strange things going on. She might have mentioned ghosts. And stuff.”
Pippa felt her mouth fall open. “Get out.”
“That’s probably what Tess tells the ghosts all the time,” Peaches said. “And there is a rumor about murder and mayhem, but I’m not sure if that applies to former inhabitants or if Tess knew ahead of time that Cindi was coming along for the ride.”
“You’re not funny,” Pippa said darkly.
Peaches laughed. “I imagine you’ll know much more about it in the end than I will. You’re not afraid of ghosts, are you?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Famous last words.”
“Peaches, you’ve been reading too many novels,” Pippa said with a snort. “Let’s just leave paranormal happenings safely tucked in your romances, where they belong. I’ll stick with stuff that’s firmly grounded in reality—”
“Like fairy-tale clothing geared to leaving women thinking they’ve stepped back in time hundreds of years?” Peaches interrupted dryly. “Yeah, you’re a realist, all right. Come on, Miss Cynic. Maybe Mom went completely off the rails and bought sugary breakfast items for you.”
Pippa couldn’t imagine she would be so lucky, but she picked up her suitcase anyway and followed her sister over to the motor home with as much spring in her step as she could manage. Never mind that she had no apartment, no transportation, no underwear. She had a suitcase full of impossibly adorable fairy costumes, people across the deep blue sea who would appreciate them, and probably a sturdy castle guardroom she could lock Cindi in for the duration of their stay.
But ghosts? Ridiculous. Tess’s castle was just a pile of old rocks that had acquired a few, well, quirks along the way: drafts, crumbling mortar, the odd bird nesting in an out-of-the- way spot. Nothing unusual, nothing spooky, nothing to worry about, just smooth sailing from now on. After all, she’d gotten all her rotten luck out of the way that morning. What else could possibly go wrong?
She decided it was probably better not to know.
She took one last look at the disaster behind her, then put her head down and marched off to find breakfast before she had to face the fact that she suspected her adventures in the unexpected had just begun.