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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…”