Duke Austen and Jane Sparks request the honor of your company
at their wedding on August 26th. Please join
the happy couple for a week of festivities and celebration…
Archer Quinn turned over the expensive invitation. It was a quarter-inch thick and gold-edged, but it didn't list a location. "That's weird," he muttered.
His secretary Denise looked up. "Something wrong, Mr. Quinn?"
"One of my clients is getting married." He looked around for the envelope. "But I have no idea where." He tapped open the envelope and let the enclosed cards fall into his hand. One was the RSVP card with the dates of the event, which noted in small type that the wedding was being held in England, but precise directions would be disclosed only upon receipt of a guest's acceptance, for privacy reasons. "I knew he was getting married, but I didn't expect to be invited."
"Who is it?"
Her eyebrows went up. "That will be quite an event. Are you going?"
Archer smiled halfheartedly. A week of festivities, the invitation said; he couldn't fathom taking off that much time just to attend a wedding, not even a client's wedding.
On the other hand, Duke Austen was no ordinary client. His company, Project-TK Industries, had gone public recently to the tune of nearly twenty billion. Austen was the It Guy of Silicon Valley at the moment, riding high on a wave of genius, ballsiness, and tabloid fascination. Archer had met him in a hotel bar a few months ago and spent the evening reminiscing about epic gaming sessions battling the Covenant as Master Chief in Halo, only to get a call two days later asking him to represent Project-TK. It was a lawyer's wet dream come true, particularly a freshly minted partner looking to make a splash at his new firm. Archer had talked through the engagement terms with Project-TK's company counsel, hung up the phone, and almost punched a hole in his office wall from elation. And when he told Jack Harper, the managing partner, Jack took him out for a drink. "I knew we made the right call hiring you away from San Francisco," his new boss had declared, beaming over his third glass of scotch. "Damned right!"
Still, a week in England didn't fit his current workload. "I don't think I can," he said, answering Denise's question. "Too much going on here." He was up to his eyeballs in work on a start-up called Brightball which, if all went well, would follow in Project-TK's very profitable footsteps. If all went badly because Archer vanished for a week … He'd have plenty of time for vacation when Jack kicked his ass out.
"Of course. Still…" Denise hesitated, then leaned forward. "It will be very romantic, I'm sure. He fell in love with a novelist and she wrote her books inspired by their love affair."
Archer gave her a wary, sideways glance. "What?" Romantic love affairs were not what came to mind when he thought about Austen. Obviously the man must have some moves, if he was getting married, but he was also rich, and in Archer's experience money made a lot of women blind to personality defects.
"Didn't you know?" Denise suddenly looked like an eager teenager who'd just discovered her favorite band was coming to town. "It was in all the papers. And the bride's novels are just lovely. Now you're invited to her wedding." There was definitely some envy in her voice.
"Right." Thank God; Denise's phone rang, and Archer escaped into his office. He forgot all about Austen's wedding until the next morning, when he sat down at his desk and beheld a brightly colored paperback in the middle of his blotter. The Wicked Wallflower, it read in curling letters, above the image of a woman in a long gown tearing the shirt off a man who lived at the gym, judging from his muscle definition. It took Archer a moment to puzzle out why such a book was on his desk. He took it to the secretarial bay.
"Um, Denise?" he began, leaning over the side of her station and holding it up in question.
She blushed, which was very atypical for her. Denise was usually unflappable. "Yes, it's mine. I know you haven't quite decided to go yet, but I thought just in case—"
"That's very"—What? he wondered. Unexpected? Strange? Somewhat disturbing?—"thoughtful, but I don't have much time to read …"
Her blush grew redder. Even the tips of her ears were red. "Oh, well—I think it's a marvelous story and I bet you would enjoy it if you read it, but really I was hoping … if you did decide to go to the wedding … that you might ask her to sign it. The bride is the author and I would love to have it autographed."
Archer cleared his throat, hoping he wasn't blushing too. "Right. I just—right. Sorry." Now he was stuck. He imagined himself approaching the bride—a woman he had never met—and asking her to sign this book. Not for him, but for his secretary. Yeah, everyone would believe that. He caught another glimpse of the cover guy's sculpted abs, and resolved to work out more often. "If I go, I will definitely have her sign it for you."
The smile on her face made him feel guilty that he'd all but decided to decline. "That would be simply wonderful, Mr. Quinn."
"Call me Archer," he reminded her and went back to work.
But he still hadn't sent the RSVP two days later when his phone rang and Duke Austen himself was on the other end. After twenty minutes of rapid-fire questions about business, Austen suddenly asked, "Did you get the wedding invitation?"
"Yep." Archer reached for his bag and rummaged inside for the thick envelope. "Congratulations to you both. Where is it?"
"England. Jane wanted to have it in a real Regency mansion," said Austen, without a lick of concern for any inconvenience it might cause his guests to have the wedding three thousand miles from home. "We had to make a last-minute change after there was a fire at the original venue. We're keeping it low-key because I want privacy. We've got this whole place for the week—sorry, Jane calls it a sennight—so come whenever you want."
"Ah," began Archer, caught off guard. "I was checking my calendar—"
"It's not for a few weeks," said Duke as if that solved every problem. "Call my assistant and she'll book everything for you. I know you're a busy guy and Jane's got a whole system set up."
"Right," said Archer, digging out the RSVP card and trying to phrase his very polite, appreciative, but negative reply. "I'm not sure—"
"It'll be a good time. And we can discuss some new ideas without people breathing down my neck. Going public has some serious baggage."
Archer made a noise of quiet agreement. Public company governance was probably cramping Duke's freewheeling, agile business style, but that was the cost of taking other people's money.
"So I'll see you there," said his client almost absently. In the background was the furious clicking of a keyboard, as if he was already at work on his next killer app. "Good talking to you, Archer."
"And to you," said Archer as the dial tone echoed in his ear. He hung his head and pulled off the earpiece with one hand. His other hand still held the pen, poised over the "Is unable to attend" box of the RSVP card. The wedding was in less than a month, and now Duke expected him to be there. He went looking for Jack Harper.
"Of course you should go," was Jack's pronouncement.
"For a week? Brightball is getting desperate for funding." A start-up like Brightball needed venture capital to grow; they needed lawyers to make sure they didn't give away the store in exchange for that capital.
Jack waved it away. "And Project-TK will be a few million dollars in billing this year alone. You could find three more clients like Brightballs at the wedding reception."
"So you're okay with it?"
"Go," exclaimed Jack. "I can handle Brightball; it's my client, after all. Go schmooze the hell out of Austen's friends."
And that was that. On the way back to his office, Archer walked by Denise's station. "I'm going to get your book signed for you," he told her.
She brightened. "Oh, thank you! And just think—you'll get to see the wedding of the year."
"Can't wait," he replied as he went back to work, and tried not to think about the wedding of the year.
Three weeks and two days later, Archer remembered all his hesitations and then some. Too busy to leave? Check; he spent all six hours of the overnight flight working. Too remote an acquaintance to justify being there? Check; Denise had followed reports about the wedding in the major tabloids, and breathlessly related all the juicy gossip. People Archer had never heard of—and worse, people he had heard of—were rumored to be on the guest list. A-list movie stars, top tech gurus, big names in finance and politics, even a few minor royals … He was sorry he'd agreed to go even before he had to pack. And that was all before he got off the train in the tiny town of Melbury, England, where a hired car was waiting to take him to the hotel …which appeared to be in the middle of Sherwood Forest.
"Are we almost there?" he asked, not so much because he was anxious to arrive but because he was starting to hope the driver had made a mistake or a wrong turn. All he could see now were trees and hedges. Did utilities even run this far into the wilderness? Duke Austen had said he wanted privacy, but this was ridiculous.
"Yes, nearly," shouted the man back, grinding his gears as the car lurched to one side. The narrow road was one sharp, blind turn after another and Archer had long since taken hold of the strap above the door. "Just another mile."
Holy crap. Another mile of this. He leaned down to peer out the window. More trees. More hedges. Very rustic—and utterly unlike any place he would have guessed likely to host the wedding of a brand new tech billionaire. Why didn't the bride want a Caribbean wedding on the beach? Why couldn't her wedding planner have talked her into a private cruise in the Mediterranean, or a week in Fiji? If money was no object, why would any bride choose to have her big day in a place that made the moon look accessible?
Denise had told him all about the bride's novels, most of which he didn't remember. But he had retained two bits of information, both of which were assuming the aspect of bad omens: the bride wrote historical romance novels, set in stately old mansions, and she was rumored to be planning a wedding that would have made Jane Austen die of envy. He devoutly hoped this wasn't going to be a nineteenth-century wedding in more ways than one.
After another several minutes of being thrown from side to side along what passed for a road, the driver pointed. "There, you see it? Brampton House."
Archer exhaled quietly. It was indeed a sprawling mansion, right out of a PBS Masterpiece movie. The grounds looked nice, and one could only see a few construction vehicles off to the side. But his suspicious eyes noted the absence of utility wires, and when he dared a quick look at his phone, it showed a grimmer sight: zero bars of cellular service.
The driver pulled right up to the impressive flight of stone steps and leapt out to unload the luggage. Archer pressed a nice tip into his hand and took one of the man's cards. Who knew when he might need an escape vehicle?
The wide oak doors at the top of the stairs stood open. As the driver set the last of his luggage on the graveled drive, a man in an expensive suit came out to meet him. He had the broad cheekbones and impeccable grooming of a male model. "Welcome to Brampton House. I am Mark DeLancey, the manager."
"Nice to meet you." Archer put out his hand automatically. "Archer Quinn."
The fellow shook his hand. "May I show you to your room? Mr. Harry Compton, who owns Brampton House, extends you a warm welcome on behalf of Mr. Austen and Miss Sparks." Behind his back two younger men, also clad in well-tailored suits, were collecting the luggage and carrying it inside. Unconsciously Archer straightened his shoulders and wondered if he'd be the scruffiest man at this wedding, even including the hotel staff.
He took the opportunity to scope out the house as he followed Mr. DeLancey inside. Just as fancy on the inside as it was on the outside, with sleek marble floors and intricately carved woodwork around every doorway. The ceiling above put him in mind of a room in Buckingham Palace, which he'd seen on a tour a few years back. The stairs were wide and graceful, with a rich red runner up the middle and an ornate brass railing. They climbed two flights, then turned down a long corridor with doors on one side and tall narrow windows on the other.
"The property is still undergoing a bit of renovation," said the manager as he unlocked—with a real key, not a card key—a door almost at the corner. "A few rooms aren't quite ready, and Mr. Compton suggests you avoid them for your convenience. The library is the main one still in disarray, but if you find a door barred here or there, please don't be alarmed. The builders will do their utmost to keep noise and dust to a minimum so you can enjoy your stay with us."
"I'm sure it will be fine." Archer went into the room at the manager's silent invitation, and slung his laptop bag onto the desk chair. The room wasn't a typical hotel room, but only for the better. The windows were the same tall, narrow ones as in the corridor, and the room was flooded with light. The desk was wide and the bed looked comfortable. He walked to the window and looked out on rolling hills, stately oaks, and part of a garden. It was beautiful and peaceful and screamed of money. Even way out in the country, this much land—and a house this old and tastefully renovated—must cost a fortune.
The porters brought in his luggage and arranged it neatly and quickly on luggage stands, then left. Archer turned around to find the manager still waiting by the door. "Have many other wedding guests arrived?"
"Only a few, Mr. Quinn, but that will soon change. Mr. Austen has reserved the entire house for the wedding party, and we're expecting every room to be taken." He smiled again. The man looked like he could be on a magazine cover, or maybe on one of the bride's novel covers. "If you require anything at all, simply ask."
"I will. Thanks very much."
Mr. DeLancey bowed his head and left. Archer exhaled and pulled out his phone, hoping its mute state was pure coincidence. Normally it buzzed with incoming messages or e-mail every minute or two, and it had been suspiciously silent since he left the train station. It was midafternoon now, which meant morning back at the firm's offices in Boston. He began every day with dozens of messages and e-mails, and only got more every hour, so he wasn't much surprised to see that the phone still had no signal. He dropped it on the bed and unpacked his bags, shaking his head as he hung his suits in the old-fashioned wardrobe in place of a closet.
The computer bag sat like an unexploded bomb on the desk. Archer considered ignoring it and stretching his legs with a walk through the garden, then reluctantly unzipped the bag and took out his laptop. Just a quick skim through messages, he told himself. As long as nothing was going horribly wrong with any clients, he would be justified in taking a day off. He'd left one of the firm's best associates, Elle Williams, in charge of most of his current matters while he was gone, but he still felt the need to check over her shoulder.
He found the Internet cable and the handsomely printed card with instructions for connecting, but when he plugged in, nothing came up. The indicator just blinked. He double-checked all the connections, undid them and reconnected, and still got nothing.
"Perfect place for an Internet billionaire's wedding," he said under his breath before snatching the key and heading off to find the manager.
He went back down the stairs and located the main desk, tastefully and discreetly tucked at the back of the wide airy hall. "I can't seem to get the Internet working in my room," he told the same suave gentleman who had shown him in.
"Ah yes." Mr. DeLancey assumed a face one might wear at a state funeral. "I'm afraid we're having a technical problem with the cabling, sir."
Archer's bad feeling returned, worse than ever. "Have you tried rebooting the modem?"
"British Telecom will be arriving within a few days to repair it. I assure you we're working as hard as we can to restore service."
"Restore? You mean there's no Internet?" He'd been right: it was going to be a nineteenth-century wedding all the way.
"I'm afraid not, at the moment."
Archer just stood there. The concept of no Internet access left him speechless. Not at the moment? For how long, then—hours? Days? A week or more?
The manager was still talking. "I do apologize. Mr. Compton deeply regrets the inconvenience. If you require connectivity urgently, several shops and restaurants in town offer wireless, and of course one can purchase a mobile access plan—"
"I'd do that, but there seems to be a distinct lack of cell signal here."
The man's polished calm didn't waver in the face of Archer's dry tone. "Yes, unfortunately the house isn't in line with the nearest towers. We're down in a valley and I'm afraid there's not much I can do. However, there are spots on the grounds with better reception. If you don't mind a bit of a walk, the top of the hill directly behind the garden offers excellent reception. I've gone up there myself to test it."
Archer sighed. "The top of the hill?" It was one thing to contemplate taking a walk to see some of the famous English landscape, and another to face a hike up a hill in order to check his e-mail. He began to feel the sleepless flight and jet lag weighing on him.
"Yes, sir, it is a lovely walk." Mr. DeLancey walked out from behind the counter and toward the back of the hall. Another pair of wide wooden doors stood open there, framing a postcard-perfect vista of green hills and graveled paths into a lush garden. "Follow the path to the left—I find it offers the best reception, and there is a very handsome and comfortable gazebo if you care to sit and take in the view."
Archer summoned a grim smile. "Thanks."
Phone in hand, he headed out. Wedding of the year. Yeah, right.