The Secret Baby, page 7
But it isn’t Seb and Skylar at the island when I open the door.
“Hello, Mr. Mercer.”
He looks up at me as he pops a piece of apple into his mouth. A piece of what appears to be at least the fourth apple he has cut up. The stick-impaled core of the eaten apples lay to the side, and he’s standing there, eyeing the rest.
“Wow,” Owen says from behind me, making me jump.
“These are delicious,” Mr. Mercer says, reaching for another apple and the knife he took from the nearby block. “The presentation would have been more effective if they were put in a place more accessible to guests, and perhaps wrapped, but they are a pleasant departure from conventional afternoon snacks. A touch plain, though.”
He cuts a large chunk off the apple and shoves it into his mouth, the expression on his face contemplative as he chews. “The addition of a topping would make them even more appealing.”
My hand tightens around the handle of my bag, and I grit my teeth to keep the smile in place.
“Thank you for the suggestions,” I force out.
He finishes the apple and takes hold of another one. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just bring this one with me. I’m going to sit on the veranda and read for a while.”
Owen leans toward me as Mr. Mercer walks through the back door. “Want me to help you make more butterscotch?”
And so sets the stage for the next two days.
“Are you seriously ironing sheets? Is that what I’m seeing right now?”
I look up at Owen and roll my eyes before reaching for a can of spray starch and giving the sheet draped across my ironing board a blast. The hot iron sliding across it sends the sweet smell of the starch into the air, and I breathe it in. It’s a smell I’ll always connect to this room, the tiny space off the laundry room where my grandmother always did her ironing.
“Apparently, Mr. GPS is very particular about his linens and has made not-so-subtle complaints the last two mornings about the state of his sheets. Even though I already ironed them. Twice.”
“Keep going like this and he might end up sleeping on a piece of plywood,” Owen says, picking up the can of starch. “I didn’t even know this stuff still existed. Maybe you can give me some pleats in my pants next.”
“I won’t be doing anything in your pants.” My hand squeezes the handle of the iron. Shit. “What are you doing in here, anyway?”
“I’m thinking about going into the village for another box lunch. You were right. That potato salad is amazing. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something different about it. You should come.”
“I’m busy, Owen.”
“The sheets are sufficiently flat. Come on. You order the cherry cupcake, I’ll order the pineapple, and we’ll mix and match.”
“It’s more than the sheets. I have to start getting tomorrow’s breakfast ready, the parlor needs dusting, I have vacuuming to do, and I’m up to my eyeballs in paperwork. And after all that, I have to work on apples for the festival.”
“Haven’t you made enough? The entire house smells like butter and sugar,” he says.
“I keep making them, and Mr. Mercer keeps eating them. I might have to padlock the kitchen door. On the other hand, when he’s scarfing them down is the only time he’s actually pleasant, so that might not be the best course of action. He actually demanded an on-the-fly, gluten-free breakfast, but then he ate two pastries. This was followed by him taking a shower and saying the special exfoliating soap I get handmade in the village is too abrasive, and the body wash is too slimy.”
“Maybe you should take that as a clue from the universe.”
“A clue from the universe?” I ask. “Suggesting what, exactly?”
“That you are working yourself up too much about all this. Nothing is going to please the man.”
“All this is my career, Owen. It’s more than that. It’s my responsibility. It’s my legacy from my grandmother. It’s my future. Maybe nothing will please him, but I have to try. Apparently, you don’t understand that.”
“I don’t understand why you put yourself through this every day,” he says dismissively.
“And by put myself through this, do you mean work hard to keep my business afloat and get another one off the ground? I think that’s fairly self-explanatory.”
I take the sheet off the ironing board, pick up the rest of the set, and head toward Mr. Mercer’s room. The door is standing open, revealing a pathologically meticulous room and a bare bed awaiting fresh sheets.
“You haven’t come to strip my bed and replace the sheets,” Owen points out.
My cheeks burn at the mention of his bed, and I scold myself. This is Owen. Frustrating, arrogant, disconnected from reality. Yep, that's Owen. That is not where my mind should be going when I think of him.
“You aren’t going to be writing a review of the bed-and-breakfast that could influence the entire future of my business,” I point out.
I set the stack of sheets down on the bench at the end of the bed and choose the fitted one.
“Maybe I am,” he says with the little cocky smile I’m sure people have told him is charismatic.
Standing at the edge of the bed, I look up at him. “Are you?”
He shakes his head and runs his fingers back through his thick brown hair. The laughter in his eyes makes the green of the hazel sparkle. This is definitely not the twelve-year-old boy who played with me in the mansion my grandparents brought me to, hiding in shadowy corners and sneaking into closed rooms to explore.
Shaking the fitted sheet, I drape it over the bed and tuck it under the nearest corner of the mattress. Owen is unmoved by the expectant look I give him.
“Are you going to help me?” I ask.
He pushes away from the doorframe and walks up to the bed. “I’m not really into the whole making beds thing.”
“Of course, you’re not.”
He watches me pull the next corner into place and walk around to the third. “So… no cupcakes, then?”
When I don’t respond, he reaches for the corner of the sheet and tucks it into place. I turn toward the stacks of sheets. Owen and I reach for the flat sheet at the same time, our hands touching, and my chest brushing across his. A shiver rolls down me, but footsteps running into the room stop me from thinking about it any further.
Owen and I step apart and turn toward Seb where he stands at the door, papers clutched in his hand and his eyes focused firmly on the ceiling.
“I guess I’ll be getting that box lunch by myself,” Owen says, walking toward the door. He looks at Seb, who continues to avoid his gaze. “Cinnamon Bun,” he says in greeting.
“Peppermint Stick,” Seb greets back.
He waits until the front door closes, then rushes toward me.
“What’s up?” I ask. “Help me with this.”
“The bed can wait,” he says, then points at the sheets. “Actually… where are the dirty sheets?”
I look at him strangely. “There are no dirty sheets. These are freshly laundered and ironed.”
“So, you’re not changing the bed because it was… recently utilized?”
His voice tells me exactly what he’s thinking, and I cringe, shaking my head at him.
“No. First, this is Mr. Mercer’s room. Second… no.”
“Good to hear. Maybe.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How well do you know Owen?”
“Why do I feel like that’s a question that was asked purely for the dramatic suspense of it?”
“Can you take a break?”
“Just let me finish this.”
I make the bed as quickly as the heightened anxiety of Seb pacing around in the bedroom allows me, smooth the blanket, and turn to him. Without a word, he turns on his heel and stalks out of the room. I follow him to the parlor, where he flings himself onto the couch. Taking the corner beside him, I prepare myself for whatever ridicu
Turns out, I’m not ready.
“Okay. Here we go. How well do you know Owen?”
“Alright, I’ll play. Not well. We met when my grandparents brought me to visit some of their friends.”
“I don’t really know. We stayed in some massive resort on an island, and when they spent time with their friends, I stayed in a different wing with the nanny. That’s where I met Owen. He was a couple years older than me, and we spent the week I was there together. Most of it was spent at each other’s throat. Pretty similar to now.”
“Why was he there?”
I shrug. “Don’t know. Never asked. I’m assuming either his family was staying at the same resort or they worked there.”
“Did they ever call him anything other than Owen?”
“Like Peppermint Stick?”
“Not exactly. Like Amadeus,” he says.
My head tilts so hard to the side it hurts my neck. “What are you going on about, Seb?”
“I was reading my favorite celeblog today…”
“That’s still not a word,” I say.
“It is a word,” he argues.
“It is not a word.”
“It is a word. Celeb... Blog... Celeblog. It’s a word.”
“Anyway,” he says insistently, “I was reading it, and there was an article about Vidalia Isle.”
This perks me up. Seb has my full attention. “Vidalia Isle? What could possibly be happening around here that would justify writing about?
“The Prince Amadeus of Calidonia. Apparently, someone thinks they spotted him at the ball.”
“Can we backtrack just a little? I think I missed a bridge somewhere.”
“Remember how I said Owen looks familiar?” Seb asks.
“Yes. But as you just pointed out, his name is also Owen.”
“His birth name, maybe, but not his royal name.”
“Still not following.”
“In Calidonia, the royal family uses official names when performing their royal duties. The name is given to them when they are two weeks old as part of a ceremony officially introducing them to the people of the nation.”
I stare back at him.
“You seem to know a lot about a rather obscure country.”
“It’s hard to miss when the gorgeous prince of said obscure country hits the headlines in your favorite celeblog every few months.”
“It’s still not a word.”
“Avery,” Seb says firmly. “Owen is Prince Amadeus.” He unfolds the papers in his hand and holds them out. “Look.”
They are printouts from his computer. Screenshots of the article he read, to be more specific. The first is an image of Vidalia Isle, a wide shot of the village that shows off the changing foliage and the bay surrounding it. The second is a formal shot of the prince in full royal regalia. It definitely looks like a polished-up version of Owen. The front door opens, and Owen comes back in, balancing a stack of twine-wrapped white boxes. Seb and I look over at him, and he notices us.
“Hey,” he says. “I brought back some options, just in case you changed your mind.”
Seb stands up and starts for the door. “I have to get back to the shop. Skylar’s going to think I died. I’m supposed to be in the stock room finding pumpkin fragrance oil right now.”
He glances at Owen as he walks past.
“Cinnamon Bun,” Owen says.
Well, that one’s uncomfortable.
Owen grins and shakes his head as he comes into the parlor, holding the boxes out toward me.
“Who the hell are you?” I ask.
He narrows his eyes at me. “I thought we already established all this,” he says, some of the friendliness dropping from his voice. “Who is it you think I am now?”
Picking up the papers Seb left, I push them toward him. “Maybe I should call you Amadeus.”
He glances at the papers, then tosses them to the coffee table. “I’d really rather you not,” he says. He walks out of the room, leaving me open-mouthed. After a second, I stomp after him.
“Are you kidding me?”
Owen walks into the kitchen and sets the boxes on the counter. “What?” he asks. “I’ve never been the biggest fan of that name, but especially when people who know my real name use it. You never called me that when we were kids.”
“Maybe because I didn’t know I was supposed to. You were just the boy who was at the same resort…” My fingertips press against the pain suddenly throbbing in my temples. “Which was actually a freaking palace. Holy shit.”
“That was actually the summer house on my parents’ private island,” he says casually.
My distaste for him is steadily growing. “Oh, right. Just the summer palace owned by your parents, the king and queen.”
“You seriously didn’t know?” Owen asks.
“No, I didn’t know. My grandparents just told me we were visiting their friends. They failed to mention they were royalty. Don’t you think that’s something I’d mention?”
“Not really. I just thought it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Look,” he continues. “I didn’t get much of a chance to spend time with other kids when I was younger. My parents did their best to keep me pretty well-contained. By the time you came, I was a master of ducking my handler, so I could do what I wanted. When you were there, what I wanted was to hang out with you.”
My mind is reeling. I snap at him. “Well, at least now I know why you are so used to getting everything you want.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” he asks.
“It’s not real, Owen. That’s not life.”
“That’s funny,” he says sarcastically. “Because I think this is my life. Seems to me that makes it real.”
“Please get out of my kitchen, Owen. This room isn’t open to guests.”
“Stop being like that, Avery.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. I know you’re probably used to everyone falling at your feet and doing everything you command of them, but not me.”
I stalk out of the kitchen, and he follows me.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
My mind is so overwhelmed with fractured thoughts and confusing emotions that I barely recognize how far I’ve walked until I’m standing at Seb’s door. Lifting the iridescent pink pineapple ornament in the corner of the porch, I peel the small key off the bottom.
That key opens the small box attached to the bottom of a bird feeder in a tree, which provides another key to a lockbox hidden under a bush. That's the key that lets me unlock the front door. When the keys are all back in their places, I let myself in the house. The figure just feet away makes me gasp, my hand pressing to my heart.
“Son of a bitch!” I shout.
Seb is standing in the middle of the living room, his arms opened wide and a sympathetic look on his face.
“Need a hug?” he asks.
“I might need a new best friend. What are you doing here?”
He glances around, his arms still in place. “It’s my house.”
“You said you were going back to work,” I say.
“I thought you might need to talk, so I took the afternoon off.”
“You let me go through all that to unlock a door you were standing behind?”
“I couldn’t be hug-ready if I had to open the door for you.”
Seeing him standing there, his arms still open, makes sudden emotion swell up in my throat. I step into Seb’s hug and let him sway me for a few seconds.
“Come on, let’s go to the kitchen. You can help me.”
I’ve been stashing caramel apples in Sebastian’s house for the last few days to protect them from GPS, and the small room is reaching capacity. Ca
“So, is it him?” Seb asks as I start a batch of caramel.
“Yes,” I say. “So, for those keeping track, my current guest roster is a bitter travel blogger who has it out for my bed-and-breakfast but also has a moderate caramel apple addiction to take the edge off, a very nice lady named Ann who brought two outfits and a bag full of books, a man I haven’t seen since check-in, and… oh yeah, a prince.”
“I mean, you have a good range there. That’s something.”
“Yeah.” I press my hands to the counter and sag my head with a deep sigh. “I feel like an idiot.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Avery. You have a really nice library, too. Miss Ann just looks smart because her books weigh about a million pounds all together.”
“Not about her,” I say. “About Owen. I confronted him, and he acted like I should have known all along. Like it’s just no big thing.”
“Is it a big thing?” Seb asks.
“That he’s a prince?” I ask incredulously.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a big deal because he’s the bad-boy prince whose naughty reputation I’ve been reading about for years, but other than that…”
“Other than that?” I shake my head and start shoving sticks into the apples spread out in front of me. “He was my first crush, Seb. I was only ten, and he was the older boy who drove me crazy by teasing me. The next summer when I went back, he wasn’t there.”
“He would have been thirteen, which means he probably went to boarding school,” Seb says.
“Well, I never saw him again. He’s always been that crush. That idealized first boy who caught my attention. Since I’d never met his parents and didn’t know anything about him, there’s always been a part of me that wanted to think of him as being like me. Maybe his parents didn’t have much to do with him, either, and the resort was his refuge from the upheaval of the rest of his life.”