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Chapter 1

Grim

Grim.

It’s not the kind of name you hear every day.

Unless, of course, your name is Grim.

Grímner Hallbjörn Hafnarfjörður Magnússon, to be precise, which isn’t so much a name as it is the sort of mythological, genealogical, and geographical mash-up you end up with when your father is a Distinguished Professor of Nordic Studies.

Before he was born, Grim’s mother, who lovingly indulged her husband’s ethnographic enthusiasms, had been perfectly willing to go along with the rather unorthodox naming scheme. But when Grímner Hallbjörn Hafnarfjörður Magnússon arrived six weeks early and she held the delicate, four-pound infant in her arms, it seemed like far too hefty a name to bestow on a such tiny creature. Fearing, perhaps, that the next day’s newspaper might bear the headline, “Infant Crushed by Weight of Own Name,” she had called him Grim from the moment he was born. As if by pruning his name to a single syllable she would be lightening the load a little.

But she needn’t have worried. Despite his scrawny beginnings, Grim had grown into his name quite nicely. Now 17 years old, he was a lean 6’1″, with his father’s dark hair and olive complexion…although he’d always been a little envious of his younger brothers, Thór and Njáll, who had inherited their mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. When he looked in the mirror the only thing he had to remind him of his mother was half of his eye color. At least, that’s how he liked to think of it. When he was younger, he’d always imagined that they’d simply mixed his father’s brown eyes with his mother’s blue eyes to come up with his green.

At that moment, those green eyes were closed as Grim stood in the middle of the expansive west lawn — shirt off, arms outstretched, head back — waiting.

“Five, four, three, two…”

And there it was, one second ahead of schedule, the gurgling sound of water flooding underground pipes followed by the angry, sputtering hiss of awakening sprinkler heads. In the sweltering late afternoon heat, Grim desperately needed to cool off and the vigorous, wide spray of the west lawn’s orbital nozzles should have done that quite nicely, but after a few seconds he realized that the only thing being cooled off quite nicely was his left shin.

He opened his eyes and looked down to find that instead of a vigorous, wide spray, the nearest sprinkler head was spitting limply on his left leg. He looked around, spotted two other sprinklers with similar problems, and started making the rounds. He loved doing sprinkler work when the weather was hot. After you reach adolescence, most people think you’re too old to run through the sprinklers on a hot summer day, but if you pick up a wrench and walk through the sprinklers, you get to call it “irrigation maintenance.”

Within a few minutes, he’d taken care of the three misbehaving sprinklers and was standing back on the sidewalk, dripping water onto the hot cement where it evaporated almost as fast as it hit the ground. It was only the third week of May, but the afternoon temperatures had been hovering in the mid-90s all week. It felt like it was going to be a very long, very hot Idaho summer and Grim was almost thankful that he wasn’t going to be there to experience it.

As he stood dripping on the sidewalk, he heard the squeak of a screen door behind him, followed by the clicking of heels on cement, and he knew what was coming.

“Mr. Magnússon,” said Florence Peterson, looking down from the expansive cement patio as a queen might look down on her subjects. “Is it not bad enough that you are abandoning me for the entire summer to go traipsing around the English countryside? Apparently not, because you now seem intent on giving people the impression that I hire male strippers to do my yard work. Would you kindly put your shirt back on before one of my nosy neighbors sees you and starts another round of vicious rumor-mongering.”

Grim glanced down the hill at Agnes Johansson’s house on the valley floor below. The 98-year-old Mrs. Johansson was the only neighbor, nosy or otherwise, in a one-mile radius. And while he didn’t doubt Mrs. Johansson’s ability to lead a crack surveillance operation, he did doubt her eyesight. She’d been legally blind for the past 12 years and had to position her chair two feet from the screen if she wanted to watch TV.

“My shirt’s in the car,” he said, hitching a thumb at the small Toyota station wagon parked at the bottom of the driveway, “but I’d be happy to go get it.”

“Don’t bother,” she sniffed. “If you scratched yourself reaching into that rust bucket you’d probably get tetanus and sue me for millions. I certainly hope that when you return in the fall it will not be in a vehicle from which you’ve had to evict chickens.”

“Oh, I didn’t evict them,” Grim said with a slight grin. “I agreed that they could live in the way, way back if they helped with the car payment.”

“Has ‘ToxicTurf’ arrived?” asked Mrs. Peterson, changing the subject.

“Not yet. They won’t be here for another half hour or so. And I want to reassure you once again that I’ve talked to Mr. Nelson and he won’t be doing any spraying while I’m gone.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any chances!” she declared, turning and clicking back across the patio and disappearing into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.

Grim spent the half hour or so taking one last walk through the grounds. He’d spent all spring getting things to the point where they should be able to coast through the summer, but he still worried about what condition the grounds would be in when he returned in September. It’s not that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise… OK, it was that he didn’t have faith in Mr. Nelson and his ChemoGrass franchise, but he didn’t have much choice in the matter. ChemoGrass was the only other horticultural game in town.

ChemoGrass was a father and son concern, with Mr. Nelson handling all of the HazMat work (fertilizers, insecticides, etc) and his 14-year-old son, Michael, doing the mowing. Unfortunately, Michael was an avid comic book fan who liked to pass the tedious hours on the riding mower by reading, an activity which rendered him more like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners that travels in a straight line until it runs into an obstacle, then turns in a random direction and continues on its way, eventually covering the entire floor. Granted, he’d been a little more careful since the incident with Mrs. Knudsen’s cat, but you’d still often see Kevin ricocheting across lawns, steering with his left hand while absorbed in the graphic novel clutched in his right.

As for Mr. Nelson, he was a firm believer in ChemoGrass’ unspoken motto: “There’s no garden problem that a heavy application of petrochemicals can’t solve.” But Grim had been even more firm when he’d talked to Mr. Nelson about taking over the groundskeeping duties for the summer: There was to be no spraying. Period. It was a bitter organic pill for Mr. Nelson to swallow, but in the end he’d agreed.

Grim made a final pass through the small orchard, checking the apricot trees for any sign of the previous fall’s powdery mildew. (None, thank goodness.) He tied up a few errant canes on the climbing roses, pulled some nascent weeds from the flower beds, and was turning the compost pile one last time when he heard the diesel engine of the ChemoGrass truck sputtering its way up the hill. Grim got to the top of the driveway just as the vehicle lurched to a stop, the ChemoGrass mystery liquid sloshing back and forth in its large translucent tank.

Mr. Nelson hopped down from the cab. Michael remained slumped in the passenger seat, glued to his graphic novel, which, if the cover was to be believed, pitted an army of mechanized samurai against half a dozen Japanese schoolgirls who were apparently too busy saving the world to buy new school uniforms to replace the one’s that they’d obviously outgrown.

“Hello, Mr. Nelson. How are you today?” Grim said, shaking Mr. Nelson’s hand.

“Well,” Mr. Nelson said quietly, glancing anxiously at the house. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about meeting Mrs. Peterson.”

“Why is that?” Grim asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.

“Well, my wife met her once and she said it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life. So, I asked her if she had any advice and all she said was, ‘Be confident. She can smell fear.'”

Just then, they heard the screen door squeak open and turned to see Mrs. Peterson emerge from the house wearing a World War II-era gas mask.

Grim stifled a laugh, but he could hear Mr. Nelson chanting under his breath, “Be confident. She can smell fear. Be confident. She can smell fear…”

Grim gave him a nudge and whispered, “You can relax. With that gas mask on, she can’t smell a thing.”

Chapter 2

The Queen of St. Albans

St. Albans, Idaho, (population 2,276) is nestled on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a high, volcanic plateau about 40 miles west of the Grand Tetons and was established in 1870 by Mormon pioneers, most of whom had emigrated from Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Given those Mormon origins, it might seem odd that St. Albans was named after a Catholic saint, but the name was a borrowed one. The area had reminded one of the early explores of his hometown in Wisconsin which, as home to a large granite quarry, had been named after St. Alban of Mainz, the patron saint of hernias.

St. Albans, Idaho, didn’t have a granite quarry, but its early fortunes had been extracted from the earth, too. St. Alban’s rich, volcanic soil was nearly ideal for growing root vegetables. And while the high altitude, harsh winters, and shorter growing season had proven to be too daunting for previous settlers, the Scandinavians felt right at home. Within a decade of their arrival, the area was one of the largest potato-producing regions in the U.S.

Agriculture was still a big part of the St. Albans economy. Up until a few years ago, most people in the area had either been potato farmers, ranchers, or, like Grim’s father, taught at the college in nearby Rockford. But even though none of those occupations paid particularly well, St. Albans still managed to have one of the highest average incomes in the nation.

When one of your citizens is a billionaire it skews the numbers a bit.

Pete Peterson was born and raised in St. Albans, but after a brief stint in the Navy just after World War II, he’d headed off to Chicago to attend Northwestern’s business school on the G.I. Bill. After graduating, he married Florence Smyth-Hamilton (of the Chicago Smyth-Hamiltons) and returned to his hometown with an eye toward modernizing the potato processing business.

He noticed one day that a lot of potato scraps were wasted during processing, so he devised a way to mince the scraps, add a little seasoning, and form them into bite-sized nuggets. He called them Spud Nips and in the post-war era, when frozen foods were a symbol of Modern Advancement Through Science, Spud Nips became a fixture, along with TV dinners and chicken pot pies, on the TV trays of Americans everywhere.

Unfortunately, less than a year after the successful nationwide launch of Spud Nips, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit and the American public flew into a panic. After all, if the Russians could send a metal sphere the size of a basketball into orbit over U.S. soil, surely it was only a matter of time before nuclear warheads started raining from the sky. And since the name of that Russian satellite, Sputnik, bore an unfortunate resemblance to the name of Pete’s starchy confection, his competitors (Alma and Heber Driggs, of La Grande, Oregon) took advantage of the anti-Soviet sentiment to launch a competing product. The name of their snack, Tater Tykes, didn’t conjure up the same visions of nuclear apocalypse in the American mind, and by the end of 1959 the Driggs brothers had captured over 90% of the bite-sized potato market.

Pete lost almost everything in the Spud Nips fiasco and decided that catering to restaurants would be less risky than dealing directly with fickle consumers. So, he developed a method of parboiling and freezing thin strings of potato which could then be shipped to restaurants where they would be cooked in oil, salted, and served with a tomato-based condiment. Within a year he had a contract to be the exclusive provider of french fries for a small chain of hamburger restaurants that was experimenting with the concept of franchising. Within a decade he was one of the wealthiest men in America.

And as Pete’s fortunes rose, so did Florence’s expectations. In the late 1960s, Florence insisted that Pete’s new billionaire status warranted a move from their unassuming, ranch-style home on the outskirts of town to something a little more…prominent.

The new house, designed and built under Florence’s supervision, was a mid-century behemoth of cantilevered steel, cement, and glass, perched on top of the highest hill in the valley. And while Pete was always considered a local and made frequent trips into town in his 1958 Ford pickup, Florence worked hard to foster her outsider status. Even after Pete died, she rarely left the “Fortress of Solitude” (as it came to be called). What little interaction she did have with members of the community was usually unpleasant and there were credible rumors that she’d reduced each of the last four mayors to tears.

The only thing Florence did seem to enjoy was gardening. The Fortress was surrounded by five beautifully landscaped acres and while a commercial firm from Idaho Falls had always taken care of the lawn, she’d done everything else herself. She had a small orchard with a variety of fruit trees, a rose garden, a small vineyard, raspberry and blackberry bushes, a kitchen herb garden, and a large vegetable garden, all of it scrupulously maintained.

In the last decade, however, Florence’s arthritis had progressed to the point that she wasn’t able to get around the gardens as easily as she once had. The lawns remained in good shape, but since she was too stubborn and/or proud to ask for help with everything else, the rest of the grounds suffered.

Her situation wasn’t unusual. St. Alban’s had an surprisingly high concentration of widows, and as these women got older, health problems often limited their mobility. Getting around indoors was difficult; getting outdoors to do yard work was often impossible.

Grim’s introduction to the world of horticulture came when his neighbor, Mrs. Skarsgård broke her hip and Grim’s mother asked if he’d be willing to go over once a week and mow her lawn. Shortly thereafter, he started mowing Mrs. Stratton’s lawn, followed by Mrs. Nay’s, followed by the nearly-blind Mrs. Johansson’s. Mowing led to irrigation work, which led to flower beds, which led to vegetable gardens and soon he was the groundskeeper of a dozen of the best-looking yards in St. Albans.

When Grim turned 14, he started feeling the keen adolescent need for spending money, but money was a little tight at home, so he knew that if he wanted any disposable income he was going to have to earn it. The employment options for a 14-year-old don’t extend much beyond yard work, which was fine with Grim, but he couldn’t very well start charging the widows for his services. There was really only one person in St. Albans who could afford to pay for yard work, and that person was Florence Peterson.

So, one May afternoon, Grim hopped on his bike and made the trip out to The Fortress. He was naively unaware of how nervous he should be about meeting the Queen of St. Albans, but there are times when it pays to be young and clueless because his inadvertent confidence was one of the first things she noticed about him.

Grim had a proposal: A three weeks trial period during which he would work for free. If at the end of those three weeks she wasn’t completely satisfied with his work, she was under no obligation to keep him on. But if his work was satisfactory, she would hire him as her gardener.

If Florence had known that what she was really doing was subsidizing the yard work of a dozen of the town’s residence, she might not have agreed, but she did. The truth is that she didn’t think a 14-year-old boy would be able to do the work and she’d secretly been looking forward to firing him at the end of the first week. But he was much tougher than he looked. For three weeks, he woke at sunrise, rode his bike out to The Fortress, worked like a dog until sundown, rode back home again, and collapsed into bed, his arms, legs, and back aching like they had never ached before.

He spent his first week at The Fortress doing demolition: pruning shrubs and trees, thinning the flower beds, aerating the lawn, amending the soil, turning the garden, and weeding everything. The second week he repaired the irrigation systems, fixed the broken panels on the small greenhouse, and (with some help from his father) repaired the electrical wiring for the outdoor lighting. The third week Grim had his Mom drive him to Idaho Falls where he picked up seeds, vegetable seedlings, annuals, ground covers, a new plum tree, and some dwarf evergreens to replace the ungainly, aging junipers that flanked The Fortress’ driveway.

As he worked, Florence would make frequent trips out onto the patio to criticize Grim’s pruning technique, second-guess his plant choices, and click her tongue at every perceived horticultural misstep, but in the end even Florence had to acknowledge the results. The grounds were beautiful again, and though Florence would never admit it, they’d never looked better. Grim got the job.

He’d never worked harder than he did that first summer and the results were striking, but it wasn’t just The Fortress’ grounds that were transformed. That summer Grim went from being a scrawny teenager to being a lean, muscular young man. When he returned to school that fall, all of the girls in his class did a collective double-take. But after realizing that it was “just Grim,” they went about their business.

Grim had spent the last three years refining what he’d started that first summer at The Fortress and it had turned into a year-round job: landscaping in the summer; snow removal in the winter. The previous summer, when he turned 16, Grim purchased an old Toyota station wagon from a gentleman in Jackson Hole who had decided to abandon the high-country life in favor of a career in marketing. The car had racked up over 160,000 miles before the odometer broke and 20 years worth of road salt had taken its toll. The brown paint on the roof and hood of the car was peeling off in large sheets and parts of the floor had rusted through so that driving through large puddles usually meant getting your socks wet. Florence was so appalled by the appearance of the vehicle that she banned it from her driveway. Grim had to park at the bottom of the hill and ride the lawn mower up.

The car was not what you would call a “babe magnet,” but it ran well and the price had been right. In fact, the trailer he pulled behind the Toyota was worth double what he’d paid for the car, and the mower he carried in the trailer was worth double the value of car and trailer combined.

But now he was leaving them all behind — the car, the trailer, the mower, The Fortress, St. Albans — at least for the summer. His brother, Thór, was taking over lawn mowing duties for the widows in town and Mr. Nelson, who was at that moment receiving a lecture from Florence Peterson (still wearing the gas mask) on The Florence Peterson Immutable Laws of Horticulture, was going to be in charge of The Fortress while he was gone.

Grim waited for a pause in the lecture and excused himself. He said goodbye to Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Peterson (whose muttered response was unintelligible through the gas mask) and rode the mower down the hill to his car, loaded the mower into the trailer, slammed the tailgate shut, and looked back up the hill one last time. He was anxious about leaving the place, but this opportunity to go to England was the chance of a lifetime, and despite everything that had happened that spring, his father was still insistent that he not pass up the opportunity.

So, even though he had never in his life travelled more than 300 miles from St. Albans, tomorrow morning he was getting on a plane for the first time and flying 4,731 miles to England. Perhaps if he’d known what was in store for him that summer, he might have had second thoughts. But, as he’d learned once before, there are times in your life when it pays to be young and clueless.

Chapter 3

Hope Springs Eternal

As Grim pulled up in front of his house he saw Benji Andrus standing beside the sycamore tree that dominated the front lawn of the Magnússon’s home. At Benji’s side stood another boy, about the same age as Benji.

This could mean only one thing. Something was stuck in the tree.

This was a game that Grim and Benji played on a regular basis. Benji would lob some object into the high branches of the sycamore and it was Grim’s job to retrieve it. Grim was like a trained, tree-climbing pet monkey that Benji liked to show off whenever he had visitors.

“Hello, Benji,” Grim said as he got out of the car. “Who’s your friend?”

“He’s my cousin, Benji” Benji replied.

“Your cousin, Benji?” Grim repeated, not quite sure that he’d heard correctly.

“Yeah, my cousin, Benji.”

“You two are cousins and you’re both named Benji?” he asked incredulously, and was reflecting on the odd naming habits of some people’s parents when his reflections were interrupted by Cousin Benji.

“What’s your name?”

“Touché,” said Grim, acknowledging the hit.

“Your name is ‘Tushy?'”

“No, sorry…it’s Grim. My name is Grim. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cousin Benji,” he said, shaking Cousin Benji’s small hand.

Grim looked up into the tree.

“So, what is it this time?” he asked.

“A Nerf football,” Benji replied.

“The bright green one?”

“Yep.”

“Where is it?”

Benji pointed to a spot in the tree slightly more than halfway up.

Grim looked at Cousin Benji. “How many times did Benji have to throw it into the tree before it got stuck?”

Cousin Benji blinked twice and looked nervously at Benji. “I don’t know. About 20, I guess.”

“OK,” said Grim, taking a deep breath. “Time me!”

And with that, Benji lifted the stopwatch he was holding in his right hand and tapped the button on the top.

A few months earlier, Benji had become enamored with his father’s stopwatch. He carried it everywhere, timing everyone, doing everything. Benji’s father, a coach at the junior high school, had eventually grown tired of having to search for his stopwatch every time he left for work, so he used that as an excuse to buy himself a new, sleek digital stopwatch and relinquished the old one to Benji.

As Benji started the stopwatch, Grim took two quick steps toward the tree, leapt up, placing his foot on a large knot about three feet off the ground and kicked off, launching himself up into the tree. He grabbed the lowest branch, which was about nine feet off the ground, and used his upward momentum to swing up, grab a second branch, and disappear into the canopy. He did this with such speed that Cousin Benji, who had been looking down at the stopwatch, missed it completely.

“Where’d he go?” asked Cousin Benji.

Benji pointed to the tree, following Grim’s upward progress with his finger. The Magnússon’s sycamore was an ideal climbing tree, with a thick central trunk and large branches radiating out from the center. The branches were almost perfectly spaced, too — not too dense, not too sparse — so once you cleared that second branch you could easily climb the interior branches as if you were climbing a ladder. There was a gap about halfway up on the east side which required a jump across to the south, but from there it was a straight shot to the top.

As Grim passed the halfway point he looked around and spotted the Nerf football wedged into the crook of one of the larger branches about 12 feet out from the trunk. He grabbed a smaller branch about eight feet above the one that held the football and swung his legs up. Then, hanging upside-down, he made his way, sloth-like — hand over hand, leg over leg — toward the football.

The further he climbed out on the branch, the more it bent under his weight, so by the time he was directly above the football he only had to reach down about a foot and a half to grab it. The two Benjis were directly below him, so Grim took aim like a bombardier and let the football go. It was a perfect hit, bouncing off Benji’s head and landing at Cousin Benji’s feet.

“Hey!” Benji yelled, rubbing the top of his head.

“Oops, sorry about that!” Grim shouted less-than-sincerely. “What was my time?”

Benji glanced at the stopwatch. “15.2 seconds!” he shouted back.

“I must be getting old,” Grim muttered as he made his way back down the tree, swinging down from the last branch and dropping the final distance to the ground.

“Now, Benji, try not to get anything stuck up there while I’m gone. I don’t want to come home and find a hundred miscellaneous household items stuck in the tree.”

“OK,” Benji promised vaguely and ran off with the Nerf football in one hand and the stopwatch in the other, Cousin Benji following close behind.

Grim glanced at his watch and, realizing the late hour, dashed through the front door and up the stairs to his room where he stripped, showered, ran his fingers through his short, choppy hair (which represented the extent of his normal grooming routine), and threw on a fresh pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Then he dashed out to the car, unhitched the trailer, and drove the few blocks into town.

As he pulled into the parking lot of Ruffles Drive-In, he saw Tim’s and Brent’s cars already parked outside. He walked in and headed toward their customary booth.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had to get something out of the tree.”

“What was it this time?” Brent asked.

“A Nerf football,” Grim replied.

“Where was it?”

“A little over halfway up.”

“What was your time?”

“15.2 seconds.”

“You must be getting old,” Brent said. “You used to be able to do that in 12.”

“Give me break! It’s been a long day,” Grim said as he headed to the counter, ordered a Fresh Lime (a concoction for which Ruffles was understandably famous, consisting of two fresh lime halves, simple syrup, and soda water over pebble ice), and took it back with him to the booth.

“What time do you leave in the morning?” Brent asked as Grim flopped into the booth.

“Five o’clock. I fly from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake, then to New York, and then on to London.”

“This is your first time flying, isn’t it?” Tim asked.

“Yep,” Grim replied.

“You’ll love it,” declared Tim, the man of the world, having flown to California twice.

“I hope so. I’m going to be doing it for 18 hours.”

“They give you free peanuts, you know,” said Tim.

“Not anymore,” said Brent. “You have to pay for them now.”

“Really?” asked Tim, slightly deflated. “That takes some of the magic out of it, doesn’t it? I mean, what is this country coming to when a man can’t eat complimentary nuts at high altitude?”

“I keep forgetting the name of the castle where you’re working,” said Brent, trying to get the conversation back on track. “What’s it called? Wicker…Wicked…Wikipedia…?”

Wickham! It’s called Wickham Castle,” Grim replied.

“Never heard of it.”

“Neither had I. It’s one of the Royal Family’s…” Grim searched for the right word, “…’backup‘ castles.”

“So it’s a secondary Wickham?”

“It could be a tertiary Wickham, for all I know.”

“I had a tertiary Wickham once,” Tim interjected, “but my doctor gave me some ointment for it and it cleared right up.”

“Are you going to be handling the grounds all by yourself?” Brent asked.

“No, no…I think they have about half a dozen people on staff. I’ll be like an intern, doing all the grunt work, presumedly.”

“And will a grunt like you get to meet any members of the Royal Family while you’re there?” Tim asked, raising his eyebrows knowingly.

“Why are you raising your eyebrows knowingly?” asked Grim, but getting no response from Tim (other than the knowingly raised eyebrows) he turned to Brent, “Why is he raising his eyebrows knowingly?”

“You know…” Brent said, also raising his eyebrows knowingly. “Will you get to meet any members of the Royal Family?”

“I have no idea what you two are talking about. Is that code for something?”

Princess Victoria, you idiot!” sputtered Tim. “We’re talking about Princess Victoria!”

“No! No, of course not! Other than the occasional tour group, the place is pretty much vacant.”

“Too bad,” Tim said.

“Why do you say that?” asked Grim.

“I say that because Princess Victoria is a hot!”

“‘Hot?’ Did you just say she was ‘hot?'”

“What? Is she not hot?'” Tim asked. “I mean, sure, she’s a mess, but she is, as they say, a hot mess. And with those lips…” he added, staring off into the middle distance for a second. “…you know she’s got to be a great kisser.”

“I’ll let you know,” Grim said blithely.

“Yeah, right!” Brent said, punching Grim playfully on the arm. “You said yourself that she’s not even going to be there. Besides, you wouldn’t know a great kisser if you kissed one!”

“At least I’ve had some experience in that area!” Grim insisted.

“‘Some experience in that area?’ Talk about padding your résumé! It was one lousy kiss! One lousy kiss does not qualify as ‘some experience in that area,'” Brent countered.

“What ‘area’ are we talking about exactly?” Tim asked.

“Never mind!” Grim said, hoping to end the discussion before someone brought up the inevitable.

“‘I forgot something!‘” Brent quoted, bringing up the inevitable.

“Cut it out,” Grim objected. “Yes, it was just one kiss, but that’s one more than both of you losers combined!”

“Well, I’m saving myself,” Brent said demurely.

“For what?” Tim asked. “Your 40th birthday? I’m not saving myself. I’m just a math geek, and based on the evidence so far, calculus and kissing seem to be mutually exclusive.”

“The outlook isn’t much better for English nerds,” said Brent.

“Who knows,” Grim offered. “Maybe we’ll all get lucky this summer.” But his words lacked conviction. If his subtle charms were lost on the girls of St. Albans, he held little hope that they would be any more effective half a world away.

They stared out the window for a few seconds and then let out a long, comically-dramatic, mutual sigh.

“‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast,'” quoted the English nerd.

“‘Man never is, and never will be, kissed,'” misquoted the math geek.

Chapter 4

The Jet Set

As Grim stepped off the plane, he vowed that if someone ever invited him to become part of “The Jet Set,” he would punch them in the throat.

Contrary to Tim’s prediction, Grim had not loved flying any more than he would have loved riding in the back of one of Henry Olafson’s hog trailers for 18 hours.

Perhaps he had gone into the flight with unrealistic expectations. He’d always thought of air travel as something vaguely glamorous. He’d imagined gliding along moving walkways through soaring Pan Am Terminal-esque architectural marvels and then stepping aboard a sleek, spacious, proto-spacecraft where he would politely decline the glass of champagne that was offered to him as he took his seat in a body-hugging recliner.

Instead, he was herded through bland, beige, hospital-like environments that seemed to be constructed with the same materials and artisanal craftsmanship as Mrs. Stratton’s 40-year-old double-wide mobile home. And like Mrs. Stratton’s double-wide, everything about the airports seemed impermanent and temporary. As if nothing and nobody actually belonged there. They were just a ragtag group of solitary transients, waiting for their turn to be packed into a cramped, dark, noisy, ill-smelling, flying metal tube.

The flight from New York to London had been particularly unpleasant. Grim’s seat, which seemed to be padded with nothing but a dozen wadded-up tissues, was unbelievably narrow and when the man in front of him reclined, Grim felt like a little kid in “time out” who was required to sit with his nose against the wall for eight hours. Everyone else seemed to be coping with the situation by sleeping for the duration of the flight, but Grim had never really been able to fall asleep in cars and that turned out to be true of airplanes as well.

To make matters worse, since he was in a middle seat in the center section of the plane, whenever he needed to get up he had to gingerly step over the two sleeping travelers on either side of him, trying not to wake them in the process. So to avoid disturbing his seat mates repeatedly, he spent much of the flight pacing the aisles.

The flight attendants were brusque and officious, the $16 meal tasted like the plastic it came in, and the air in the plane’s cabin wasn’t recirculated as much as it was exhumed. By the time he staggered off the plane in London, his ears were numb, his eyes were bloodshot, and he had a raging headache.

As he made his way from the baggage claim area, he saw his Uncle Richard hanging back near the edge of the crowd that was greeting the new arrivals, but when he saw Grim he came forward with a huge smile and gave Grim a suffocating hug.

Grim’s Uncle Richard (or, to be more precise, his Great Uncle Richard) exemplified the phrase “a bear of a man.” Although with his bushy white mustache and untamable shock of white hair (which, on this particular day, appeared to be mimicking the Crab Nebula), he was more “a polar bear of a man.” Grim’s Great Aunt Barbara had first met her future husband when she was stationed in England in the early 1960s as a nurse with the United States Air Force. It was, by all accounts, love at first sight, and shortly after they married they moved to Scotland where Uncle Richard managed the estate for the Queen’s summer residence.

Since they had no children of their own, they had, in a way, “adopted” Grim’s mother (their only niece) long-distance, and had always treated Grim and his brothers as if they were their own grandchildren. For years, they’d come to the States at Christmastime, when the estate in Scotland was essentially dormant, and spent the holidays with Grim’s family.

Grim had always admired his Uncle Richard. He was a big, open, kind, and intelligent man who had one of the deepest, most soothing voices Grim had ever heard. He was the sort of man who made you feel instantly at ease and he and Grim had always gotten along famously.

This last Christmas, as Grim was leaving to plow snow from the driveway at The Fortress, his Uncle Richard asked if he could tag along and see what Grim had been working on. It was a gray, overcast day and Grim hesitated for a moment. Showing off a landscape in the winter is a little like entering your dog’s skeleton in the Westminster Dog Show. With the flowers long gone, the grass brown, and the trees bare, you can only see the bones of the garden. It’s hard for most people to imagine what it looks like in its natural, verdant state.

After he’d finished plowing, Grim took his uncle on a tour of the grounds and they talked about the work he’d done over the past three years. For over an hour Grim answered his uncle’s stream of questions about everything from Grim’s landscape design choices, his use of native plants, and the challenges of gardening at high altitude and semi-arid conditions.

As they were about to leave, his uncle said, “You know, Grim, whenever you’ve talked about your work in the past you’ve always dismissed it as mere ‘lawn mowing,’ but you’ve done yourself a disservice. This is brilliant work, really!”

Grim blushed slightly and thanked his uncle for the compliment, but he just assumed that his uncle, ever the thoughtful guest, was just being polite. But as his aunt and uncle were preparing to return to England, his uncle pulled him aside.

“Grim,” he said. “As you may have heard, your aunt and I will be moving to another of the Queen’s residences this summer. We’ve been asked to oversee the rather extensive renovations of Wickham Castle. And not only the residence, but the grounds as well. And I’ve been thinking…”

He broke off and his eyes, which were always in some state of squinting — either as a result of good humor, bright sun, keen observation, or deep thought — squinted even more.

“…what would you say to the prospect of joining us in England this summer.”

Grim blinked.

“You can’t be serious,” he stammered.

“Oh, but I am. And I can assure you that, should you accept my offer, you’d be doing me a great favor. You see, quite a few of the lads have retired this past year and with the remaining staff getting along in years, I think we could use some new blood and, more importantlly, some new muscle.”

Grim was a little off balance. “I’d…have to ask my parents,” he said hesitantly.

“I hope you don’t think I was taking a liberty, but I’ve already presented the scheme to your parents and they think it’s a brilliant idea.”

“But I’m…I’m not sure I could afford the airfare.”

“Oh, that would be taken care of,” his uncle said with a wave of the hand. “And you would be compensated, of course.”

His uncle could still see the look of doubt in Grim’s eyes.

“Grim, please understand that I am not asking for your help out of any sense of familial obligation. I’ve been thinking about it for a quite some time now and seeing your work this past week has convinced me. You’d be doing me a great favor. What do you say?”

“Yes?” Grim replied, and then, realizing that it sounded more like a question than an answer, he reiterated, “Yes!” a little more enthusiastically.

So, here he was in England: jet-lagged, red-eyed, and barely able to breathe in his uncle’s ursine embrace.

“How was your flight?” Uncle Richard asked, finally releasing him.

“Oh, fine,” Grim lied.

“Your eyes say otherwise,” his uncle said, smiling.

Grim smiled wanly. “I’m exhausted.”

“Well, let’s get you home and you can sleep it off.”

They made their way to the car park where his uncle loaded Grim’s bag into the back of a large green Land Rover pickup that had a canvas top covering the truck bed and Grim circled around to the right-side passenger door.

His uncle smiled. “Welcome to Great Britain, Grim. You’re on the other side.”

It took Grim a second to realize what his uncle was talking about. He looked in the window and saw the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the truck. He laughed, made his way to the left side, and got in.

“It’s going to take a while to get used to this. It’s strange to be sitting on the left side and not have a steering wheel in front of me.”

“Every time I visit The States it takes a few days for my brain to adapt, but you’ll get used to it soon enough.”

His uncle started the truck and they slowly made their way out of the car park. They talked idly of Idaho and Grim’s family, but once they were on one of the main thoroughfares, his uncle shifted a little in his seat and cleared his throat.

“Grim, I need to let you know that in the last day or two the situation at Wickham has changed markedly.”

“How’s that?” Grim asked.

“Do you remember when I told you that we rarely have visitors at Wickham?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we have a visitor at Wickham.”

“Who?” Grim asked.

“Princess Victoria.”

If Grim had been drinking water at that moment, he would have done a rather respectable spit take. He stifled a laugh as he remembered the conversation he’d had with his friends the night before. Or was it two nights ago? Grim shook his head as if trying to clear it. The jet lag was taking its toll.

“The princess was to spend the summer on the French Riviera,” his uncle continued, “but certain…security concerns…arose. I don’t know the specifics, but they wanted to keep a closer eye on her, so they gave her the option of staying in London or coming to Wickham, and…well…we have a visitor at Wickham.”

“I won’t overwhelm you with details until you’ve had a chance to rest,” he continued, “but I do have a favor to ask of you.”

“What is it?” Grim asked.

“Due to the heightened security, they performed thorough background checks on everyone working at the castle and it seems that Terrence, our previous stable lad, had a bit of a ‘green thumb.’ They found a few dozen cannabis plants in his flat. So, I’m going to need someone to fill in for him. You’ve worked with horses, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” Grim replied. “My friend, Brent, owns a few horses and I help him out every once in a while.”

“I just need someone to take care of the most basic of stable chores. And it hopefully shouldn’t require much work since the Princess’ horse will be the only horse in the stables. Could you do that for me?”

“Sure, no problem,” Grim replied.

“Thanks,” his uncle said, sounding relieved.

Grim thought for a moment and then said, “Wait…did they do a background check on me?”

“Yes, they did.”

“And…?”

“…And you are, apparently, a model of propriety and virtuous living,” his uncle said with a grin.

“I think that’s a euphemism for ‘boring,'” Grim laughed.

Grim looked out the window at the passing landscape. They were out of the city now and it had started to rain.

“It’s so green,” he mumbled, as the exhaustion took hold. He leaned his head against the window and tried to stay awake by mentally cataloging the trees as they flashed across his field of vision, but it was no use.

“So, so green…” he thought. And for the first time since he was a baby, he fell asleep in a moving car.

Chapter 5

Desperado

A bird woke him. Not because it was loud, but because Grim’s sleeping brain couldn’t figure out what type of bird it was. When you’re a gardener you get to know your birds. Some are your friends, eating the insects that are trying to eat your work. Others would just as soon strip your strawberries bare and leave you for dead. Grim wasn’t sure whether the bird outside his window was friend or foe, but his brain wasn’t going to let him sleep until he knew what it was.

“I need to buy a book about the birds of Britain,” he thought to himself, and then he said it out loud because a sentence with that many Bs really needs to be said aloud.

He opened his eyes and it took him a few seconds to orient himself. He’d slept most of the way from the airport, and when they’d arrived at the his aunt’s and uncle’s cottage on the estate, he’d woken up just long enough to stagger out of the Land Rover, give his Aunt Barbara a hug, and drag his bag up the stairs to his room. He had lain down on the bed with the intention of resting for just a few minutes, but that was — he checked the clock — nine hours ago.

He got up, threw on some fresh clothes, pulled on his boots, swung open the bedroom door, took a half-step into the hallway, and caught the top of the doorframe right in the forehead.

“Calvin Coolidge!” he muttered.

Now he remembered. Last night, he’d been surprised at how low the ceilings in the house were. So low that he’d had to duck through every doorframe as he made his way to his room.

He ducked through now and headed to the bathroom at the end of the hall where he splashed some water on his face and took a moment to admire the symmetry of the thin, red, indented line that was appearing about an inch above his eyebrows. He was still rubbing his forehead as he made his way down the stairs when he was stopped dead in his tracks. He tightened his grip on the handrail.

He could usually see it coming a mile away. He’d become a master at recognizing the slightly elongated pause in a conversation as the other person down-shifted clumsily from fourth to second gear, making the transition to, “I’m so sorry about your mom…” He’d developed a sixth sense for detecting when people were hovering 20 feet away at the grocery store or on the other side of the foyer at church, waiting for the right moment to come over and offer their condolences.

He appreciated the condolences. But he appreciated the pauses and the hovering even more, because they gave him a fraction of a second to steel himself. But there were still things that caught him off guard. Small, seemingly inconsequential things that hit him like…well…like a doorframe to the forehead, when he wasn’t prepared. This particular small, seemingly inconsequential door frame to the forehead was the smell of breakfast.

Nowadays, Grim and his brothers couldn’t even be bothered to make toast in the mornings, so breakfast simply wasn’t an olfactory experience. You don’t wake up to the heady aroma of Lucky Charms wafting through the house. But Grim’s mom had cooked breakfasts. Big breakfasts on Saturday mornings. Eggs, bacon, blueberry muffins, pancakes…the works. And now, here he was, thousands of miles away, and the smell of breakfast made him feel more at home than he felt when he was actually there.

He made his way to the kitchen and found his Aunt Barbara poking at some large cylindrical meat products frying in a pan.

“So, you’re finally awake, are you?” she said with a smile.

Grim loved to hear his Aunt Barbara talk. Over the past 40 years, she’d gained about half of a British accent. It was a strange combination of crisp, American consonants and round, British vowels. Rs were a toss-up. Half the time they were a soft British R; the other half were growled in the best of western American traditions.

“Morning, Aunt Barbara!” Grim said. “I’m sorry I crashed last night.”

“No need to apologize. I know exactly how you feel. It usually takes me three full days to recover from that flight.”

“Breakfast smells great! Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Sit down and eat. Your uncle had to meet some men who are doing some work on the west gate, so it’s just you and me this morning. He should be back by ten or eleven.”

Grim sat down and dished up some scrambled eggs and a few strips of bacon. Aunt Barbara brought the pan over from the stove and plopped a couple of huge sausages on his plate.

He looked at them for a second and the only thing he could think to say was, “Wow.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked in a mock-serious tone. “Haven’t you ever seen a proper sausage before? You won’t find any of the dainty sausage links you have in America over here. We take our sausages very seriously in the U.K.”

Sausages that big didn’t really qualify as a “finger food,” so Grim picked up his knife and fork and got to work. His aunt returned the pan to the stove, then came back to the table and sat opposite Grim.

And there was the pause.

“So, how are you doing, Grim?” she asked. A simple question, three miles deep.

“Oh,” he said, putting down his knife and fork and looking at his plate. “You know…”

This had become his go-to conversational crutch. He didn’t actually expect the other person to know how he was doing, but by saying, “Oh, you know…,” and trailing off vaguely, the other person was allowed to project whatever they were feeling onto him. They would nod knowingly, give his hand or arm a squeeze, and Grim would be spared the embarrassment of having to explain that he really had no idea how he was doing.

Aunt Barbara reached across the table now and gave Grim’s hand a firm squeeze, but when he looked up he could tell that she had no intention of letting him off the hook that easily.

“Oh, you Magnússon men!” she said, letting go of his hand and giving it a playful slap. “Always going on and on about your feelings!”

“I still think that maybe I should have stayed home this summer,” Grim said, hoping to deflect the conversation to the safer topics of logistics and timing.

“Oh, nonsense! Your father has the summer off, and you know your brothers. Give them a few cardboard boxes and a roll of duct tape and they could entertain themselves until Christmas.”

“Still…” Grim protested.

“Still nothing! Besides, they’re probably happy to be rid of you. Teenage boys do nothing but hoover up the contents of your fridge and make the house smell like a boxing gym.”

Grim laughed. “And you don’t mind?”

“Oh, I mind!” she said, getting up and walking around the table. “But my love for you — along with regular grocery deliveries and an ample supply of air freshener — will see me through.”

She leaned down as if to give him a hug, but smelled his hair instead. “Actually, you smell quite nice, even after that flight. I’m almost disappointed. And you haven’t made much headway on those sausages either.”

“I’m working on it!”

“You come in here smelling faintly of sandalwood and eating like a bird…” she muttered. “You’re letting the side down!”

“Look, as much as I hate to change the subject from my body odor and caloric intake…,” Grim said forcefully, “…I understand that there’s going to be someone staying here at the castle this summer after all.”

Aunt Barbara dropped the feigned disappointment and brightened considerably. “Princess Victoria. Indeed, she is.”

“Is that…um…a good thing?” he asked diplomatically.

“Oh, it’s certainly not a bad thing,” she assured him. “But I don’t think she’s very pleased to be here.”

“Uncle Richard mentioned that she was supposed to spend the summer in France?”

“And Monaco, but they cancelled those plans at the last minutes. She arrived yesterday and based on the number of house staff who were in tears last night, she doesn’t appear to be in the best of moods.”

“If she’s going to be staying here, I may need some royalty lessons,” Grim said. “I have no idea how I’m supposed to act around a princess. I mean, what am I supposed to do if I see her? Do I need to bow or anything? Am I allowed to make eye contact? Or do I just ignore her and pretend she’s not there?”

“Actually, she’ll be much more likely to ignore you, but don’t take it personally. She’s grown up surrounded by staff at all times, so to her we’re just part of the furniture and the landscape. And when you do see her, you don’t bow, per se. You do what’s called a ‘neck bow.’ Nothing grand, mind you. Just a slight tip of the head.”

“Like this?” Grim asked, nodding his head.

“No, that looks like you’ve fallen asleep. Try making it a little smaller. Yes, that’s it!”

“And what do I call her? ‘Your Majesty?'”

“No, ‘Her Majesty‘ is her grandmother, the Queen. When you first address the princess, you call her ‘Your Royal Highness.’ Then you can usually call her ‘Ma’am’ for the rest of the conversation.”

“Well, unless she’s planning on hanging out at the compost pile, I don’t see us having a lot of conversations.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. You’ll do just fine,” she said, giving his shoulder a hug and going back to the stove.

With some effort, Grim finished the rest of his breakfast. He hoped that the quantity of food that morning was in celebration of his arrival. If every meal was going to be like this, he was going to have to spend half of his salary that summer on cholesterol medication.

“Well, that was delicious,” he said as he took his dishes to the sink. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll head down to the stables and take a look around. Do you have any sugar cubes I can borrow?”

“Of course, dear. They’re right there in the sugar bowl. Take as many as you like.”

“Thanks,” Grim said, taking a small handful and shoving it in his pocket. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Grim opened the kitchen door and stepped down onto the gravel drive. Shielding his eyes from the morning sun, he looked at Wickham Castle, which stood about 50 yards to the east. He’d glimpsed the castle the night before, but he’d been so exhausted that it had barely registered. But, apparently, his lack of sleep hadn’t the issue. This morning, even with the early sun bathing it in a warm glow, it still barely registered. It was easily the least impressive castle Grim had ever seen. Not that he had a lot to compare it to, but still…

The basic structure was a drab, gray, three-story-high square, that had all the visual interest of a cinder block with windows. And perched atop that squat, unadorned base were a massive set of spires so overwrought in their gothic ornamentation that the whole thing called to mind a short, stocky troll trying to compensate for his lack of height by wearing an eight-foot-tall crown festooned with rococo foliations and razor wire.

And the grounds weren’t helping things. The featureless lawn led right up to the featureless walls of the castle and the only other greenery within 50 feet of the structure consisted of two anemic ornamental shrubs on either side of the drive, both of which had been pruned to within an inch of their lives.

The morning air was cool and damp. It hadn’t rained, but a heavy dew covered the lawn and dampened Grim’s boots as he made his way across the expanse of grass that separated the cottage from the stables. The stables were housed in a large barn-like structure with a tall stone foundation that supported timber-frame walls and a tall, arching roof. There were small, square windows lining the north and south walls, and attached to the back of the barn was what appeared to be a small paddock and, beyond that, a large pasture with a small stream running through the middle of it.

Grim grabbed the large, rusty handle on the front door, swung it open, and peered into the dim interior. It smelled of stale dirt and fresh horse. He looked on either side of the door, found an ancient light switch, and flipped it on. Three weak flood lights popped and flickered overhead, casting a dim glow on the fresh bales of straw that had been stacked just inside the door.

“Psssh, Psssh, Psssh…” Grim said softly and an equine head popped out of the next-to-the-last stall on the right.

“Well, hello there,” Grim said, as he made his way to the stall. “How are you this morning? You must be the tenant they were telling me about.”

He pulled a few sugar cubes from his pocket and held them out. “Psssh, Psssh, Psssh,” he said again as the horse nuzzled his palm and snarfed up the cubes.

“You’re a handsome devil, aren’t you?” Grim said, rubbing the horses muzzle. The thoroughbred was a dark chestnut color, with a lighter mane and tail, and had the musculature, conformation and bearing that come from impeccable genetics and a life of being very well cared for.

“How would you like to take care of the grass in the pasture for me this summer?” Grim asked. “I’d rather not have to mow it.”

He took the halter off the hook that hung outside the stall, slipped it over the horse’s head, then lead him out the back door and across the paddock to the pasture gate. As Grim unhooked the lead strap the horse nuzzled his hand again, looking for more of the sweet stuff.

“So, it’s gonna cost me, eh? OK, three more for services rendered.”

He gave the beast three sugar cubes and a pat on the rump to send him out into the pasture.

“Go! Mow!” he commanded.

Grim walked back into the stables and took a quick look around. It didn’t take him long to find everything he needed. He grabbed a manure fork from a tool rack on the back wall and started mucking out the stall, separating the clean, dry straw from the soiled straw and manure, which he shoveled into a wheelbarrow and set aside for the compost pile.

He went back to the bales of straw that were stacked just inside the front door and re-stacked them, one by one, against the side wall. Then he broke open one of the bales, took a section of straw back to the stall, and spread it across the floor, replacing the soiled straw that he’d removed. He refilled the water pail and topped off the feed bucket. Then, with the stall taken care of, Grim turned his attention to the rest of the stables.

It was obvious that they hadn’t been inhabited for quite some time. A thick layer of dust covered everything and it seemed to Grim like what the place needed, more than anything, was a good airing out. He threw open the large front and back doors and then, one by one, opened all of the side windows letting sunlight and the fresh morning breeze into a space that probably hadn’t seen either in quite some time.

He grabbed a broom and started sweeping out the empty stalls and wiping down the rails with some clean rags he found in one of the cabinets. While he worked, he started humming country-western tunes. Grim wasn’t necessarily a devotee of the genre, but it always seemed like the most appropriate choice when you were working around horses. His repertoire was limited and leaned heavily toward the classics (Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, etc) which he’d heard on the the A.M. radio stations favored by the elderly women whose lawns he mowed in St. Albans, but he knew enough to make it through the morning.

By mid-morning, the stables were immaculate and Grim was a mess. He had straw in his hair, his clothes were covered in dust, his face was smudged, and his boots still had remnants of manure on them, but he was in a great mood. He’d made his way, musically, through the 50s and 60s and somewhere along the way he’d made the transition from quiet humming to full-on singing. In fact, at that very moment, as he was making one last pass with the broom, he was belting out a fantastic cover of The Eagle’s “Desperado” and had just reached the final verse, starting very quietly so the big crescendo at the end would have the appropriate weight.

“Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate.
It may be raining, but there’s a rainbow above you,
You better let somebody love you…”

He stopped sweeping, took a deep breath, threw his head back so the sound would reverberate through the rafters, and belted out the background vocals in full falsetto:

“Let somebody love yooooooooooooooooooooo…”

And the last note slid down the scale as if it had been pushed off a cliff. Grim froze (his lips still forming the “oooo”) as he stared across the aisle at the girl who was leaning against the rails of the stall opposite him.

It took a full second for his brain to go from:

“Someone caught me singing.”

…to…

“A girl caught me singing.”

…to…

“A pretty girl caught me singing.”

…to…

“I’m pretty sure that the pretty girl who caught me singing is the princess.”

He hadn’t recognized her right away because the image of Princess Victoria that Grim carried in his head was from a magazine cover he’d seen while waiting in line at the grocery store almost a year earlier. On that cover, she’d had jet-black hair cut in a blunt bob, pale skin, dark eyes that were shooting daggers at the paparazzo who had obviously ambushed her, and lips that looked as if they were about to let go of a word beginning with the letter “F.” In short, she’d looked like a surly goth flapper.

This was in stark contrast to the girl who stood across from him now with light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, cheeks that had seen a bit of sun, eyes that were a dark, dark blue, and lips turned up in a wry grin.

“Oh…uh…I’m sorry, ma’am…” he stammered.

Wait, he wasn’t supposed to call her that! At least, not yet.

“I mean, Your Majesty…”

No, wait, that wasn’t it either!

“I mean, Your Highness…”

Stop! Back up! Add the adjective!

“…Your Royal Highness. I…I didn’t see you…”

Wait! He’d forgotten the neck bow! Was it too late to do the neck bow? Had he missed the neck bow window?

“I was just…um…I was…uh…just…”

Grim stopped, looked down at the ground, let out a sigh, and a smile spread across his face. He looked like crap, he probably smelled like crap (literally), and he must have sounded like a complete idiot. But rather than being mortified by all this, Grim was strangely relieved. He could stop worrying about making a fool of himself because he’d already done it. He regrouped.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I didn’t see you come in. If you don’t mind, I’ll just finish up my sweeping and be on my way. In the meantime, please just ignore me.”

“Is that possible?” she asked, raising one eyebrow slightly.

“Trust me,” Grim replied with a grin. “Girls have been ignoring me for years.”

Self-deprecation was almost an automatic reflex with Grim, so it came out of his mouth before he really had a chance think. It suddenly occurred to him that he was probably being much too casual, but she laughed.

“You’re American,” she said. It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“Yes, ma’am,” Grim replied, leaning against his broom. “I’m Grim.”

She looked puzzled. “Grim?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s short for Grímner. It’s Icelandic…”

She continued to look puzzled.

“Well, Old Norse, actually…”

“Wait, where are you from?” she asked.

“Idaho, ma’am.” he said, but then he thought she probably didn’t know where that was, so he continued. “It’s in the western United States. North of Utah, west of Wyoming and Montana. Famous for growing potatoes. In fact, it used to say that on the license plates: ‘Famous Potatoes.'”

But then it occurred to him that she probably wasn’t interested in a recitation of his fifth-grade geography report, so he decided to stop talking before he got to the state bird (mountain bluebird), the state motto (‘Esto perpetu’), or the state dance (square).

“So, you’re an Icelandic American from Idaho?”

“When it say it like that, it sounds kind of exotic, doesn’t it?” He smiled. “I’m Mr. Chapman’s great nephew. I’m here for the summer helping him out with the grounds.”

“And I’m the Queen’s granddaughter,” she said. “And I’m here for the summer being bored out of my mind.” ❧❧

At least that’s what Grim heard. The previous sentence had actually contained two robust pieces of profanity. The first describing the inevitable result of un-stanched hemorrhaging, and the other being a curt reference to mammalian reproductive activity. Grim just tallied them as they sailed past and mentally appended the number of expletives to the end of the sentence, as he always did.

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” Grim said, taking advantage of the opportunity to finally throw in a neck bow, although to him the gesture felt more like a cowboy tipping his hat as he passed the pretty new schoolmarm on the street. “And please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your stay this summer a little less boring.”

“The singing was a start,” she said. “Can I expect that every morning?”

“Only on Tuesdays.”

“Then I must remember to avoid you on Tuesdays.”

“If that’s how you feel, you might want to give Yodeling Fridays a wide berth, too.”

She looked at him for a second and scrunched up her nose a little, as if she she wasn’t quite sure what to make of this Icelandic American from Idaho. Then, as if suddenly remembering why she was there, she looked around and asked, “Where’s Dauntless?”

“Dauntless?”

“My horse,” she explained.

“Oh, he’s mowing the pasture for me. Would you like me to get him for you?”

“Yes,” she said, and then added, “…please.”

Grim grabbed the lead strap off the hook, went out the back door, and crossed the paddock to the gate leading to the pasture, the princess following behind.

“Psssh, Psssh, Psssh!” he said loudly. Dauntless, who had been grazing on the far side of the pasture, pricked up his ears and trotted over.

“What was that?” she asked.

“What?”

“That sound you were making.”

“Pishing,” Grim answered.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Pishing,” he emphasized. “That’s what it’s called.” He made the sound again. “Birdwatchers sometimes use it to lure birds out of hiding, but it works on other animals, too. Some people think it’s the sound St. Francis of Assisi used to attract animals.”

She looked at him sideways. “Are you having me on?”

“No, I promise,” Grim replied. “I mean, I can’t vouch for the St. Francis part, but it works. Give it a try.”

“No,” she stated flatly.

“Oh, come on…” he encouraged.

“No! Not a chance.”

“It’s easy…”

Pish off!” she said.

He laughed. “Can royalty say things like that?”

“I can do whatever I please,” she replied with mock indignation. ❧

Dauntless came right up to Grim and stood there expectantly. Grim pulled two more sugar cubes out of his pocket and fed them to the horse.

“Good boy,” he said as if he was talking to a rather large dog.

“Are you sure it was the ‘pishing’ that brought the animals to St. Francis, or did he resort to sugar cubes, too?”

“Actually, I think he used Milk Duds,” Grim replied, but then he realized she might not know the reference. “Milk Duds. They’re an American candy with chocolate and caramel and…um…,” he trailed off. He knew better than to try to explain a joke.

Grim attached the lead strap to the halter and lead Dauntless back into the stables.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” he asked, as he tied the lead to one of the rails.

“No,” she said, and then added, “…thank you. I can manage.”

“Good, because I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one those dainty English saddles anyway. I’ll…um…just get back to my sweeping,” he said, grabbing his broom. “I promise, you won’t even know that I’m here.”

Grim went back to his sweeping, stealing occasional glances at the princess as she went about saddling her horse. As she worked she spoke to Dauntless in a low, soft voice. Grim couldn’t really make out she was saying (after all, a gentleman does not intentionally eavesdrop on the conversations of others), but occasionally Dauntless would toss his head back or twitch his ears and Princess Victoria would respond with, “I know. Right?” …or… “That’s what I thought.”

As she was finishing, Grim swept his way a little closer, just in case she might need a leg up into the saddle. But when she was done, she hopped onto one of the lower rails and vaulted herself onto Dauntless’ back. Then she rode down the aisle to the front door where she stopped and turned in her saddle.

“So, will I see you later?” she asked.

“I’ll be here all summer.”

“Good,” she said with a hint of a smile, and then rode out into the late morning sun.

“‘Good,'” he repeated to himself, leaning against the broom. Then he took another deep breath, let it out, and picked up where he’d left off, sweeping and singing…but softly, this time.

“You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late…”

Chapter 6

The Second Victorian Era

The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) is considered by many to be one of the finest periods in British history. The “Victorian Era,” as it came to be called, marked the height of Britain’s power and influence on the world stage. The British navy ruled the seas and British colonies covered so much of the earth that it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”

As Britain’s second-longest-ruling monarch, she reigned during a period of world history that covered everything from the invention of the first pedaled bicycle (1839) to the Wright brothers’ first Wright Glider (1900).

Mark Twain, attending the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, wrote, “British history is two thousand years old, and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.”

Like all periods of great change, the Victorian Era was a time of stark contrasts. You had bucolic agricultural landscapes on the one hand and filthy industrial inner cities on the other. You had the rise of scientific reason on the one hand and the rise of evangelical religion on the other.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written during this period, since the need to balance contrasting and sometimes contradictory philosophies and aesthetics was one of the defining characteristics of the Victorian Era.

People often found themselves trying to balance a love of logic and reason on the one hand and a love of cloying sentimentality on the other. Or trying to balance a belief in frugality and simplicity on the one hand and a passion for excessive ornamentation on the other.

While the modern-day Princess Victoria shared a name with the former monarch, there were very few people who believed that life under her rule would require that same sort of personal rigor. In fact, the general consensus was that if Princess Victoria ever assumed the throne (and that was a very big “if”), the only thing you’d need to balance during the second Victorian Era would be a Birkin bag in one hand and a cocktail glass in the other.

This public cynicism regarding the youngest member of the Royal Family was a relatively new development. In fact, her parents’ romance and marriage had sparked a surge of great optimism in Britain. After decades of recession, labor unrest, and political gridlock, the royal wedding had been a shot in the arm that seemed to revitalize the entire country. Her father, the serious and dutiful civil servant, and her mother, the bright and vivacious society girl, were an unlikely but compelling match, and when Victoria was born a year and a half later, the picture of the happy family seemed complete.

But by the time Victoria had turned six years old, that picture had changed. Rumors of her parents’ marital troubles had filled the gossip columns for almost a year and even the respectable newspapers were finding it hard to ignore the fact that the Prince and Princess hadn’t appeared together in public in over six months. When they finally did appear together, at the funeral of a former Prime Minister, it was obvious that something was wrong.

As the Prince, the Princess, and their daughter exited the cathedral, they paused at the top of the steps, and a newspaper photographer snapped an iconic photo that seemed to say it all. It showed Princess Victoria’s parents standing about eight feet apart, both looking quite uncomfortable and avoiding each others’ gaze. Victoria stood between them, her brow furrowed, looking at the ground.

Within a week, the Palace announced that the Prince and Princess had separated:

“It is announced that, with regret, the Prince and Princess have decided to separate. Their Royal Highnesses have no plans to divorce and their constitutional positions are unaffected. This decision has been reached amicably, and they will both continue to participate fully in the upbringing of their daughter.”

Six months later, their divorce was announced in similarly dry, bureaucratic terms.

After the divorce, Princess Victoria started attending a private boarding school, away from the public eye, but she was trotted out a few times a year at press events where she would stand (with furrowed brow and unfriendly eyes) beside her sparkling and engaging mother and respond to questions from the press with monosyllabic answers.

These orchestrated press events were the result of a gentlemen’s agreement between the Royal Family and the tabloid press. The tabloids left Victoria alone during the school year and in return they were invited to official photo opportunities during school holidays and family vacations. This allowed Victoria to attend school in relative privacy…until the summer she turned fourteen when she was photographed vomiting into a bush after a night of underage binge drinking at a friend’s birthday party.

The photo, accompanied by the unfortunate headline, “PRINCESS VOMITORIA,” sold a record-breaking number of newspapers, launched a thousand memes which highlighted just how many synonyms there are for the word “vomit,” and signaled the end of any sort of restraint on the part of the tabloids. The previous gentlemen’s agreement was replaced by a new one: The paparazzi hounded Princess Victoria everywhere she went and in return she had ample opportunity to practice her impressive repertoire of rude hand gestures.

With her every move being documented, even minor changes in the Princess’ appearance and behavior became “news.” Much to the delight of clothing retailers, she seemed to completely redefine her personal style every four to six months. (Notable recent examples included a leather-pantsed punk phase, a vegan boho chic phase, and the aforementioned surly, goth flapper phase.)

The only constants in her appearance were her trademark scowl and a pair of lips that had, on more than one occasion, evoked comparisons to Shakespeare’s 145th sonnet, which begins, “Those lips that Love’s own hand did make…”

The scowl was normally reserved for the press, but since the Princess seemed to change boyfriends almost as often as she changed outfits, the lips apparently enjoyed a wider audience. In the last year alone, she’d been photographed kissing an American teen pop star, the son of the Prince of Monaco, the heir to a mobile telecommunications fortune, the star of a popular episodic television program, and, in an impressive display of completism, each and every member of a rival school’s rowing team.

Unfortunately, there was a certain segment of the British public who felt that a mercurial fashion sense and a few dozen well-documented youthful indiscretions were not appropriate résumé material for a future queen. They felt that Princess Victoria’s temperament and skills were better suited to a future in pop music. Or rehab.

But it was hard for them to get too worked up about a future scenario that was starting to seem unlikely at best. It was obvious that the Queen had no interest in handing the job off to her son, and as news items about her granddaughter became standard fare in all the wrong sections of the newspaper, it looked like the Queen was out of possible heirs. Bookmakers currently had the odds of a Queen Victoria II at 60 to 1 against, and with everyone talking about a “post-monarchy Britain,” even the most staunch anti-monarchists had started looking for a new hobby.

Granted, there were still a few aesthetes and romantics who held out hope for a second Victorian Era, but with the Princess showing absolutely no interest whatsoever in taking over the family business, they might be faced with the unenviable task of trying to pull off a second Victorian Era without a second Victoria.