The Princess and the Peonies – sneak peek!

So you know how Stella has been engaged to George Barrington since the end of Guinevere’s Revenge? Well, in Stella 4, The Princess and the Peonies, they finally cross the finish line. In more ways than one.

But don’t let me spoil it for you. How about a sneak peek at Chapter 1?

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Stella had always thought Barrington Hall looked like a fairy tale castle with its towering spires and lush green gardens. The first time she visited for her mother’s wedding to Lord Henry Barrington two years ago, she found it cold and unwelcoming, a museum full of snobs. But now, coming back to the English manor from Hollywood for her own wedding to Henry’s nephew and heir, George, she knew she was coming home.

She and George were back exactly one week before the wedding. “Ridiculous. I ought to spank both of you,” Stella’s mother said as they took off their coats and hats and handed them over to Hennessey, the butler. “I can’t believe you’ve taken so long to get here.”

“Hello, Aunt Grace,” George said. He shook Lord Barrington’s hand. “Hello, uncle.”

“My boy,” Henry said. “So good to have you home.”

“Honestly, I don’t see how on earth we can manage,” Mom went on. “You must think I’m some sort of magician. Do you realize your Granny Hart is due to arrive here tomorrow?”

“And you and Hennessey have everything well in hand,” Henry said, patting her shoulder.

Stella couldn’t speak. For more than a month, through the most horrible, disheartening, frantic weeks of her life so far, she had clung to George and dreamed of the moment when they’d finally make it home. Finishing her latest picture had been an absolute horror show with a nasty real-life murder smack dab in the middle of it. Now that the murder was solved and the movie was finished and they were finally here, all she could do was cry. “Oh Mom,” she finally choked out. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, my darling.” Mom gathered her up in a hug. “My poor sweet girl.” George put a hand on her back as she had a little weep against her mother’s shoulder. “It will all be fine now,” Mom said, stroking her hair. “It will be beautiful.”

“You must both be exhausted,” Henry said. “But no murders on the boat this time, I trust?”

“None that we knew about,” George said. Stella let go of Mom and hugged him, and he squeezed her tight. “We left strict instructions with the steward that unless the victim was Sophie, Sid, or a member of the Royal Family, we didn’t want to be disturbed.” He kissed Stella’s cheek. “All right, then, sausage?”

“Yes, thanks.” She let him go and laughed, pulling herself together. “I can’t imagine why I’m so soppy.”

“Brides are meant to be,” Henry said. “You were, weren’t you dearest?”

“All three times,” Mom said. “But come on, this is England, isn’t it? We should have some tea.”

“Actually, I was thinking of having a nap,” Stella said.

“Think again, puss,” Mom said. “You have much too much to do. Did you have lunch on the train?”

“We barely had breakfast,” Stella said.

“George, darling, you must be starving,” Mom said. “Hennessey, send down to the kitchen for some sandwiches with the tea.”

“Can’t I have a sandwich too?” Stella said.

“If you can eat while you help me plan a seating chart for the reception,” Mom said. “Come into the drawing room so we can get started.”

***

The seating chart was only the beginning. Mom spent the next hour pummeling Stella with what felt like a million details—food, flowers, clothes, guests, the whole pageant of an English society wedding. Henry slipped the leash and fled after the first cup of tea was drunk, but George, heaven bless him, stuck it out at Stella’s side.

“George, your Mr. Knox is apparently out of the country until Monday, but he has promised to be here then,” Mom said. “Though why a boys school math teacher needs to spend so much time abroad is beyond me.”

“It’s a mystery,” Stella said, exchanging a smile with George. The best man was actually a spy for His Majesty’s government, but Mom didn’t need to know that. “But why do we need him so early?”

“Early?” Mom said. “The rest of the wedding party will be here by tomorrow.”

“Rest of what wedding party?” Stella said. “You mean Oliver and Jeremy?” George’s Cousin Clara’s two boys were very much favorites of the happy couple. Jeremy, the youngest at age six, would be the ring bearer, and Oliver, who was nine, would be a very short but very handsome usher. “I thought they were coming with their parents today.”

“They are—their train is due in half an hour,” Mom said. “Clara has promised to help, bless her, and Michael is finally home from the Amazon. So he’ll be here to help wrangle the boys if nothing else, But no, puss, I meant your bridesmaids and Brooks.”

“My bridesmaids?” Stella said.

“Who is Brooks?” George said.

“Stella’s cousin, my brother’s son,” Mom said. “He and Stella were very close when they were children.”

“We spent one summer together when we were five years old, and I’ve seen him less than half a dozen times since,” Stella said. “Mater, where have you acquired bridesmaids? Central casting?” As a silent film actress who was either working or traveling all the time, Stella didn’t have many girlfriends. And she doubted the ones she did have would meet Mom’s criteria for bridesmaids. Her best female friend in all the world was her lady’s maid, Sophie, who had already politely declined the position as a duty she didn’t need.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, fussing with her pearls—a sure sign she was about to spring a trap. “Your cousin Veronica is coming with your Granny Hart.”

“I suppose that’s only to be expected,” Stella said. She hadn’t seen much of her late father’s family from Newport, Rhode Island, since she was seven. But she did remember her Aunt Julia who lived in Kentucky having a daughter, Veronica, who was about Stella’s age. “George, we should fix her up with Knox.”

“And Henry thought it would be nice if you asked Jack Pitts’s daughter, Caroline,” Mom said, obviously trying to sound innocent and just as obviously failing. “So you did—or rather, I did on your behalf.”

“Oh Mom, do you really think that’s a good idea?” Caroline Pitts’s brother, Monty, had been murdered on an ocean liner, and Stella and George had solved the case. But the killer had been a man named Charles Ferguson who had been one of George’s best friends and Caroline’s former fiancé. He had been hanged a couple of months before while Stella and George were in Hollywood.

“That does seem potentially awkward,” George agreed.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Mom said. “Jack is Henry’s oldest friend, and he’s concerned that Caroline isn’t getting out enough these days. And as it turned out, she was actually quite pleased to do it. In fact…” She trailed off, glancing over at George.

“In fact what?” Stella said.

“She asked if she could bring along a friend,” Mom said. “And I thought why not? The more the merrier. Three bridesmaids will look perfect.”

“And what is this merry friend’s name?” Stella said.

“I’ve never actually met her, but I’m sure she’s charming,” Mom said, getting up. “Hennessey, what time is it?”

“The name, Mom?” Stella said.

“Nearly three, my lady,” the butler said. “Shall I send the car to the station?”

“Yes, please,” Mom said. “Better send the big car. Heaven only knows how much luggage they’ll have brought with them. Henry told Michael to bring his things from the expedition.”

“Mom?” Stella said.

“Alisande St. John-Smythe,” Mom said. George sputtered over his teacup. “Her name is Alisande St. John-Smythe, and she’s meant to be lovely.”

George looked stricken. “Aunt Grace, why?”

“I am so sorry, darling,” she said. “I didn’t realize until it was too late to say no.”

“Didn’t realize what?’ Stella said. “What’s wrong with this girl besides her ridiculous name?”

“Nothing,” George said. He caught her hand and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, Mugsy. Let’s hit the station and round up the rest of the gang.”

“But wait,” she said.

He kissed her. “I’ll explain later,” he said with his crooked smile. “Honestly, it will be fine.”

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