First Three Chapters...


Welcome to this blog. Your visit is appreciated. May I introduce myself – I am Lord Edward, the son of the Earl of Croxley. Our home, Applebridge Hall, is in the final of the Million Dollar Mansion competition. For regular updates of our progress, please do grace this blog with your presence.

Monday 27th August
7p.m. Good evening, readers. Finally I write my first entry. Do bear with me, as I am new to blogging, which I see as a modern twist on my ancestors’ habit of keeping journals. The programme-makers insist you will be interested in my thoughts on the competition, so I shall attempt to bring honesty and some perspective to this diary.
Honest thought number one? Chaos has descended. The film crews arrived again today—cue a refresher course on camera and sound procedures. A national tabloid interviewed Father. To my irritation, the photographer suggested we both wore monocles and borrowed a cluster of the Queen’s corgis. Regardless of the fact I don’t know Her Majesty, my response equalled “over my dead body”.
Some perspective? I await a phone call from my, um, dear cousin, Abigail Croxley who, I’m sure, will confirm her intention to join us imminently. How we intend to beat the other finalist, the Baron of Marwick Castle, is still top secret. However, here is an exclusive clue: my cousin’s cooking knowledge will be an instrumental part of our tactics. I am very much looking forward to seeing her.
Best bit of today?  Right now, sitting by myself in our tranquil library.
Worst?  Gaynor, the director, handing me a DVD of Pride and Prejudice, along with a frilly white shirt and breeches. I made it quite clear that I am a down-to-earth gentleman who will never, under any circumstances, resemble some sort of romantic hero like Mr Darcy.

 Chapter 1
Abbey was born to sophistication, whereas I was more Barbara than Buckingham Palace Windsor. The two of us had just got back from a goodbye lunch with our Pizza Parlour colleagues, and were standing in front of the bathroom mirror. Having toasted each of our redundancies, I felt a bit tiddly, but still sharp enough to realize this idea was bonkers.
‘Look, Abbey, I don’t know what’s behind this plan, but seriously…’ I smiled ‘…wise up. I could never trick people into thinking I was you, a member of the aristocracy. Ask me to mimic a…a pop star or footballer’s wife, then I’d give it a shot, but even then I dunno if I could live a lie for very long.’ With a grin, I shrugged. ‘Run this idea past me again.’ Perhaps I’d misheard.
Abbey’s bottom lip quivered. ‘It’s…um, no joke, Gemma – please, pretend to be me. Just for two weeks.’ Her cheeks flushed. ‘Who else could I trust with such a mission?’
My jaw dropped. ‘Are you out of your mind? You know I’d flog all my make-up and fave shoes on eBay if it meant helping you get out of a scrape… But this? Abbey, mate…’ My eyes narrowed for a second. ‘Marcus next door hasn’t given you one of his funny-smelling cigarettes has he?’
‘Goodness, no!’ Abbey’s face broke into a smile. ‘Honestly, I quite understand your apprehension, but…’ She fiddled with the waistband of her skinny white trousers. ‘It’d only be for a fortnight and it is in a good cause.’ She took my hands and squeezed them. ‘Oh, please, Gemma. You’re the only person in the world who can pull this off. Remember when Laurence, the son of one of Mummy’s friends, stayed over a few weeks ago?’
Ooh, yeah. Hotter than Dad’s chilli con carne, he was, in that white scarf and tux.
‘He caught you fresh-faced in the morning,’ she said, ‘and insisted we looked terribly alike. If you dyed your brunette hair blonde, he joked we could pass as sisters, what with the same shape nose and blue eyes.’
‘He must have still had his beer goggles – or champers shades—on.’ I let my hands drop from her grip and looked down at my skimpy skirt, the streak of fake tan and high-heeled shoes. ‘Mind you…’ I giggled ‘…remember my first day at work?’
Abbey leant towards me and joined in the laughter. My chest glowed, glad to have cheered her up – but then it was funny, me being mistaken for her. Several members of staff had thought that Abbey – who already worked there – had suffered some sort of identity crisis and undergone a chavvy makeover. Or, in their opinion, makeunder. I should have been insulted at their relief when she’d turned up looking her usual sophisticated self.
‘Even the regular customers were fooled.’ I turned to the bathroom mirror for a moment. Personally, I couldn’t see a strong resemblance but time had taught me that the world at large occasionally considered us each other’s doppelganger.
Abbey’s grey-haired aunt came in, picked up a bottle of cleanser and passed it to me. ‘Do hurry up, Gemma – we only have ten days to complete your transformation.’
A bubble of laughter tickled the inside of my chest.  Really? I mean, really? This wasn’t a wind-up? To humour them, I removed the make-up from half of my face. Minus one false eyelash and a cheek of bronzer, I resembled an unsymmetrical Picasso portrait. 
I leant towards Abbey and whispered, ‘Come on, spill—tell me what this is really about and what she’s actually doing here.’
She has a name,’ said the old dear, who clearly had bionic hearing and a strict dinner lady stare.
‘How rude of me not to introduce my aunt formally,’ said Abbey with a sheepish smile at the old dear. ‘Gemma, this is Lady Constance Woodfold, my mother’s sister—she used to run her own finishing school.’
‘I’m sure you’ll look delightful without all that bronzer, Gemma,’ said Lady C (posh titles were too long to say in full, unless you were Lady Gaga). ‘Surely your mother would prefer to see your skin au naturel?’
‘No idea. She um…’ I cleared my throat ‘…Mum got ill when I was little and…’
Lady C’s cheeks tinged pink. ‘Do accept my apologies. Of course. Abigail told me of her demise.’ Her wrinkled face softened. ‘Was there no female relative on hand during your formative years?’
I almost chuckled. Didn’t people only speak like that on old BBC news reels?
‘Auntie Jan’s cool. If it wasn’t for her, I’d know nothing about clothes and make-up. People always mistook me for a boy, as a kid. When I hit the teen years, she intervened and even bought my first chicken fillets.’
‘She’s a proficient cook?’ said Lady C, brow furrowed.
I grinned. ‘They’re the inedible kind that you stick down your bra, to up the cup size.’
Lady C pursed her lips. ‘Those fake appendages must disappear, along with your heavy eye-liner. Then we can concentrate on the more important things you need to learn, like the art of good conversation and table manners.’
Huh? What was all this about?
The old woman glanced at Abbey. ‘Does Gemma not know yet that your Uncle James is in the final of Million Dollar Mansion?’
Whaaat?’ I almost choked on the word. ‘Your Dad’s brother? The one who inherited the family home—Apple…?’
‘Applebridge Hall?’ said Abbey. ‘Yes. That’s him.’
‘Amaaaaaazin’! I saw a clip of that programme! Castles and Tudor mansions and all sorts competing against each other to win a million dollars to set their place up as… what did they call it? A going concern… The dosh is up for grabs from some American billionaire obsessed with Downton Abbey. But how…? What…?’
‘All you need to know at this stage, dear,’ said Lady C, ‘is that Abigail is expected to help out with some catering project – no doubt serving cream teas in some shop they’ve probably constructed within a converted part of the estate. With its exciting armoury and dungeons, the Earl believes the opposition, Marwick Castle, could win. The Croxleys have owned Applebridge Hall since the sixteenth century, so must build on its strength of history, tradition and… family values.’ She stood up straighter. ‘Abbey is unable to go. That’s where you come in.’
‘Me? On the telly?’ Wow. So it wasn’t a joke. I bit my thumbnail. ‘Much as I love reality shows, the last thing I’d want is to be on screen. It’s bad enough in real life, worrying about spots and bad hair days, let alone in front of the whole nation.’
‘But people won’t know it’s you,’ said Abbey. ‘Not even my uncle, who hasn’t seen me since I was nine, when he and Daddy had words. My parents will be away on a cruise and my friends don’t watch such programmes. Even if they do, more than once, people have mistaken us for each other. It’s a foolproof plan.’
‘What about Rupert?’ I said.
‘I’ve discussed the matter with him,’ said Abbey. ‘You know my little brother – he’s jolly loyal and won’t say a word. He understands my reasons— and, by the way, thinks you’ll do a wonderful job.’
‘Didn’t your uncle ask for him to help as well?’
‘Yes, but Daddy said no way, what with his final year at university coming up. Rupe’s already left for Cambridge early. You know him – never happier than when his head is stuck in some book about the history of art.’
I stared at her. What had happened to my honest flatmate, who was straighter than hair squeezed through ceramic stylers; as upright as a sentry box guard? Although she had a point and, apart from lush Laurence, no one had seen me without make-up, for years—even boyfriends, as I lazily went to bed with my slap on. ‘But why would your dad want you to help, if he and his brother haven’t spoken for so long?’
‘You should have seen Daddy when he asked me – he blew his nose and pretended it was hay fever…’ Abbey’s voice cracked. ‘I suspect he desperately wants to end the estrangement.’
‘So why can’t you take part?’
    Subtly made-up eyes all droopy, Abbey sighed. ‘It’s a long story.’
I squeezed her arm. Bezzie mates we were, even without much in common, apart from loving novels and Scrabble. A lump formed in my throat. Abbey had never been one to veer from responsibilities, so the reason she couldn’t help her family out had to be a mega-serious one.
‘You… aren’t ill, are you?’ I said, eyes watering, trying to imagine life without my best bud. Who would listen to me wittering on about the latest lad I fancied? Who’d give me the best hugs at moments of true crisis, like last week when I missed out on getting those designer platform boots in the sales?
‘It’s Zak… He wants me to travel to Africa with him immediately. The orphanage he helped build there last year in Rwanda is in turmoil. It’s overflowing after more beastly violence. There are hundreds of children orphaned or who’ve lost their parents. Time is of the essence.’
‘But why you?’
Abbey shrugged. ‘In pockets of the community they speak French, which I’m still almost fluent in, thanks to my finishing school days. I also took a course in childcare. Zak says I’d be a useful member of the team, seeing as I have catering skills as well.’
‘Sounds dangerous to me,’ I said.
‘The organization Zak works for is very well run.’
‘But… but doesn’t Zak understand that sometimes family has to come first?’
Abbey raised an eyebrow. ‘Under these circumstances?’
I sighed. ‘No. You’re right. Most dads would be chuffed that their daughter was keen to do such charitable work.’
‘And anyway…’ oh, no – Abbey’s voice wavered again ‘…Zak already thinks I put him second – like last month when he did that sponsored marathon. I couldn’t support him because Daddy insisted I accompany him instead, on that trip to France to source new cheeses…’
I nodded. As a catering magnate, Abbey’s dad was keen for her to join him in the business. Out of his two children, she was the one interested in cooking. However, it was obvious that the trip had been an excuse. He didn’t think minimum wage Zak was good enough for his daughter.
Abbey threw her hands into the air. ‘If I go to Africa, Daddy will be forever estranged from his brother – yet, if I don’t, Zak might decide his future doesn’t include me.’
‘Look, Gemma, dear…’ Lady C straightened her navy blazer. ‘Why don’t you and I go for a walk and get to know each other? My niece says you were up for promotion at work – that you were quick to learn and showed initiative. We might both be surprised at how easily you could learn our aristocratic code of conduct. Why don’t you pay your parents a visit, Abigail, and find out some more details about this competition?’
Abbey looked at me.
‘Guess it’s only a walk,’ I said and smiled, hoping to see her eyes regain their usual twinkle.
 ‘Right,’ said Lady C and smoothed down her grey bob as Abbey left the bathroom. ‘You should change before we go out. One’s make-up and outfit should look modest and effortless.’
Surely the aim of looking good was to show you’d gone to a lot of trouble?
   With a shrug, I went into my bedroom and browsed through my wardrobe. Little did Lady C know that sometimes I’d dress up in Abbey’s new outfits. My flatmate never minded – said it was a good way of seeing what they looked like on her. KMid (translated: Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge) was her fashion hero and, I had to admit, some of her jeans with blazers looked awesome. Also, we both liked our future queen’s knee-high suede boots, high nude shoes and GORGE long layered hair. Plus Abbey had recently bought some amazin’ blusher, supposedly favoured by Kate’s sister, Pippa.
Minutes later, I emerged in old jeans, a T-shirt and my only flat pair of sandals.
‘Well, that’s a slight improvement,’ said Lady C, who was waiting in the open-plan lounge. ‘If you agree to this proposition, tomorrow we’ll go through Abigail’s clothes. You’re roughly the same size and I brought my sewing kit with me.’
Ooh, that would be a plus - perhaps I’d get to wear some of those sparkly evening dresses Abbey owned. One awesome long silver gown was a copy of something KMid had recently worn to a charity ball, following the birth of cute Prince George.
 I shook myself. Get a grip, Gemma, this was a ridiculous plan. How could a few glitzy frocks make up for spending every nerve-racking second of two weeks waiting for someone to see through my disguise?
‘Now…’ Lady C put on a bright smile ‘…how about removing the rest of that bronzer?’
I took a deep breath and went back into the bathroom. Five minutes later, just as I was taking off the second eyelash, Lady C joined me.
‘Goodness me! The likeness between you and Abigail is quite extraordinary— before me stands a glowing young woman with a flawless complexion and eyes as blue as periwinkles.’
 I shrugged and tried to familiarize myself with the bare face staring back at me from the mirror, which I usually only caught fleetingly in the morning. It was like the younger tomboy me who’d watch footie and climb trees to keep up with her brothers.
‘Auntie Jan wouldn’t approve.’ I shook my head. ‘This goes against everything she taught me. Without Mum, growing up, at least I had her to point me in the right direction.’
Lady C suddenly suffered a coughing fit. I clapped her on the back and eventually she managed a half-smile. Despite her stern words, with her crinkly eyes and lavender smell, Lady C seemed like the kind of aunt the younger me had longed for. Auntie Jan was more like a fun friend who gave mega hugs but never wanted to let go, as if they were more for her.
‘Right, let’s go for that stroll,’ she said and we headed back to the lounge.
    ‘But what if I bump into a mate, looking like this?’ I said. Not that there was much chance of that – Abbey’s flat was in one of the posher parts of London. And I know it was superficial, worrying about make-up, but the more natural look just wasn’t my thing. Even pets looked better pimped up, in my opinion, like dogs with cute bows and sparkly jackets.
‘True friends don’t care about appearances, Gemma,’ she said and picked up her Margaret Thatcher handbag. ‘What counts is your integrity, honesty and kindness.’
Yeah, right. Tell that to the women’s magazines, who filled their pages with tips on dieting and how to look younger.
We left the flat and entered the lift. Lady C didn’t seem so small now that I’d removed my stilettos. As we exited the building, I squinted in the sunshine, feeling like I was in a bad dream where you wander down the street and suddenly realize you’re naked.
‘Shoulders back, dear,’ said Abbey’s aunt. ‘Chin not too high or low and stomach pulled in. Don’t walk too fast or slow, nor appear aimless – a lady always knows where she is going. These quick tips on deportment will have to do for this excursion. What you’ll need is several hours balancing a book on your head.’
‘That only happens in the movies, right?’ I grinned.
 She arched one eyebrow, then, as we passed a hairdressing salon, tested my ability to hold what she called “a suitably civilized conversation”. We started with the weather.
‘Um…hasn’t the sunshine been lovely lately,’ I said. ‘Aren’t you mega hot in those tights and that blazer? After all, we’re still in August.’
Lady C almost choked. ‘Don’t ever mention something so personal and, whilst I think about it, also avoid religion and politics and gossip—’
‘No interrupting either. Remember people’s names, compliment them, don’t raise your voice or ever show emotion.’
Whoa! At this rate, I’d need to take notes.
‘Keep yourself informed, Gemma. Read the papers,’ she said as I stopped to look through the window of my favourite cake shop. ‘Let’s see what you know about this year’s news…’
Reluctantly, I left the yummy chocolate éclairs and we continued along the pavement.
‘Do you remember what happened with Jordan?’ said Lady C.
‘Mega disappointing, wasn’t it, when she didn’t get back with Peter André?’
Her brow wrinkled deeper than usual as we turned a corner. ‘No, Jordan’s in the Middle East; it’s a place, not a person. Let’s try something closer to home… The Double Dip.’
‘That new ride at Alton Towers?’ I said as the cheeky street cleaner pushed his trolley past and gave me polite look instead of his usual leer.
‘I was talking about the recession. Don’t you ever read the papers?’ Lady C let out a sigh as I led her off the main road and through a small park. ‘Failing current affairs, ask people questions about themselves, but nothing too probing.’
Easy. ‘So, did you really own a finishing school when you were mega younger?’
Lady C glanced sideways at me and her eyes narrowed. ‘Never allude to someone’s age. But yes, it was my own business.’
‘Amazin’!’ I said, remembering her advice to compliment people.
‘Amazinggggggg,’ she said and veered to avoid some nettles. ‘Or “wonderful” would be better. Don’t say “mega”, try, “awfully” and, instead of “wow”, how about “goodness”?’
I opened my mouth. Then shut it. Goodbye spontaneity.
‘What a thoroughly delightful place,’ said Lady C as two children ran past with nets and buckets. ‘A pied wagtail and nuthatch…Well, I never.’
Clearly, she was some kind of birdwatching buff. Perspiring now, I spotted an ice cream van. Comfort food might help me forget my nude look.
 ‘How about a choc ice?’ I said.
‘Goodness, no. It’s highly impolite to eat on the go.’
Instead, we walked onto a bridge. I picked up a twig and threw it into the stream below.
‘Now it’s my turn for some questions,’ said Lady C. ‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I am – was—a waitress at Pizza Parlour. We’ve all just been given the boot.’
Lady C raised an eyebrow.
‘Oops, sorry! I mean, made redundant.’ I coughed. ‘Such jolly bad luck but I’m sure, um, another job opportunity will arise soon.’
Lady C’s mouth upturned. ‘Good, although there’s just one problem— remember you are Abbey now. Don’t talk about your own life.’
‘Okay… I was a head chef at Pizza Parlour and, having gained experience out in the real world, will now join Daddy’s company, Croxley Catering. This will offer me a super career.’ Abbey used words like “super”. Plus “terribly”. And “silly sausage”. Lady C beamed and I felt all fuzzy inside, like when Dad gave me the thumbs-up for explaining the offside rule.
‘But what about you, Gemma?’ she said softly. ‘Tell me about your aspirations.’
I picked up another twig and lobbed it into the current. ‘Dunno— never thought about it really. Would love to be able to cook like Abbey, but, well… As long as I earn enough to pay the bills and have a good time, I’m doing okay.’
‘There must be more than that, dear. Self-esteem and self-ambition make a lady. Always aim high; consider the long plan. That’s the trouble with young girls nowadays – there’s too much living for the moment.’ She stared at me. ‘You’ve got a real chance to turn your life around, here, Gemma.’
I couldn’t help snorting. ‘What, in a fortnight?’
‘Life has a habit of throwing opportunities our way.’ She smiled. ‘Who knows what will happen?’
I shrugged and glanced at an oldish woman, further along the stream, who’d stopped to lean on her walking stick. A young teenager approached her and— oh my god! —shoved her to one side, grabbed her handbag and scarpered.
People all around did nothing and acted as if it had happened in their blind spot. Uh oh. Heart racing… I was having one of my adrenaline rushes that made me do something bonkers.
‘Oi!’ I shouted and within seconds my legs were carrying me after him. The teenager jumped over some bushes and headed into a forested area at the end of the stream. Just as I caught up, he tripped and fell. Swearing, he got to his feet.
‘Hand it over!’ I said.
‘Gonna make me, bitch?’
Er… yeah. I lunged forward. Years of wrestling my brothers, Ryan and Tom, had stood me in good stead for dealing with over-friendly blokes and now thieves. Except his eyes looked glazed and with an unexpected strength he pushed me off. I grabbed onto the handbag before tumbling onto a log. A male voice shouted behind me and the teenager swore again before running away.
‘You okay?’
I turned around to see – wow, a total hunk with an athletic build, all wrapped up in a sharp suit. He was pushing forty but flirty eyes never aged. He pulled me to my feet and, with no short skirt or cleavage to distract him, gazed right into my understated face. I held my breath. The hunk didn’t flinch or gasp in horror. In fact, he smiled and carefully examined my forehead.
‘Bit of a graze, there,’ he said and lifted up one trouser leg several inches to reveal a bandage. ‘Sprained my knee yesterday. If it wasn’t for that, I’d have nailed that young bast… basket case.’
Blimey – he hadn’t wanted to swear in front of me.
Fingers curled gently around my elbow, he guided me out of the trees. Lady C and the handbag’s owner were waiting by the edge of the stream.
‘Oh, thanks so much,’ said the woman. ‘I’m so grateful. Let me reward you.’
Yes, please! But I caught Lady C’s eye. No doubt accepting a fiver for my trouble would be the height of bad manners.
‘No, it was my, um, pleasure,’ I said and rubbed my arm.
The hot guy shook his head. ‘I’ll ring the police. I bet that thug wasn’t expecting to be collared by such a charming young lady. Really, well done,’ he said.
Gemma Goodwin, charming, without her boob enhancers and bronzer? My face broke into a grin as Lady C steered me towards a nearby bench, moved a discarded magazine and we sat down. I bit my thumbnail.
‘Mega unladylike, wasn’t it – me running like that, shouting “oi!” I just couldn’t stand by and watch that bug…that loser steal someone’s handbag. I’d do it again.’
‘Jolly glad to hear it. You seem to have this idea that minding one’s manners and dressing modestly equates with being, well, something of a lily-livered wimp.’ Lady C pulled a leaf out of my hair. ‘Whereas ladies display strength of character, they are fair and charitable.’ She beamed. ‘Quite simply, I was impressed.’
‘You, um, aren’t disappointed?’ 
Her eyes sparkled. ‘Gemma, my dear, I’m beginning to understand why you and Abigail are such good friends. With a new hair colour and clothes, you could be in with a real chance of pulling this off. I used to run intensive etiquette courses and might just be able to teach you everything you need in the next ten days until the final. Tonight we’ll start with table manners. I brought some of the more adventurous foods you might encounter, like asparagus, mussels and quail eggs.’
Urgh! She’d better teach me the etiquette for throwing up.
 I picked up the magazine. It was a TV guide for next week. Oh my God! Million Dollar Mansion was advertised on the front. I flicked through and came to a full page photo of the Earl of Croxley, a slim, grey-bearded man with a pipe, in a tweed suit. Lord Edward, his son, looked a moody so-and-so, as if the camera was his worst enemy. Yet I could forgive his Victor Meldrew expression because of those tousled honey curls and broad shoulders. Phwoaar!
On the opposite page were the other finalists. With dyed black hair greased back and an expensive suit, the divorced Baron of Marwick was in his sixties and looked like his middle name was Smug. His son, Harry Gainsworth, wore a flash tie and mega gold watch. Their family had owned Marwick Castle for less than a century. Both held glasses of champagne and in their interviews called the Earl of Croxley a ‘boring old fart’.
Whereas the Croxleys… Once more I gazed at the photo of Applebridge Hall. My eye caught tatty gardens and crumbling brickwork – talk about shabby chic. I read the Earl’s warm tales about his grandparents and Elizabethan ancestors—it must be hard for him, all that history suddenly at risk. But could little old me really help save the Croxleys’ mansion?
‘Shame, isn’t it, that Abbey’s dad and the Earl aren’t on talking terms – that Abbey and Rupert aren’t in touch with their cousin,’ I said.
‘It is, dear. I believe Edward made some attempt to contact them when he was…ooh, almost twenty. Abigail and Rupert were still at junior school. He sent them cards and the occasional book. But Richard never passed them on.’
‘That stinks! Does Abbey know?’
‘Yes. Richard told the children it was for the best. That they were too young to understand the reasons for the estrangement and what was really going on. The cards eventually stopped.’
Blimey. This was hardcore falling out, not to let the kids at least have contact. Without warning, I sneezed and sniffed loudly.
Lady C tutted and passed me her dainty lace handkerchief.
‘See?’ I said. ‘We could change my appearance – even with my own style and hair colour, I’ve been mistaken for your niece. But everything else about me is wrong. I talk while I eat and, thanks to Uncle Pete, I know more about brick-laying than cross-stitch or croquet.’
‘Ladies aren’t stuck in the nineteenth century, my dear,’ said Lady Constance. ‘Expert knowledge in any area is admirable.’
At that moment the National Anthem blared out from her handbag. That was some ringtone. Lady C took out her phone.
‘Hello, Abigail… Pardon? School? Oh, dear. Oh dearie, dearie me. No—don’t mention that. Ah, and there’s something else…?’ A pained expression deepened her wrinkles. ‘Yes, quite. What a shame. Leave it with me. Speak later, poppet…’ She ended the call.
‘Bad news?’ I said.
Lady C stared at me for a few seconds. ‘Abigail misunderstood the start date of the final. Filming actually begins on September the first.’
‘This Saturday?’ I squeaked. ‘That only gives us four days! And wasn’t there something else – about a school?’
Lady C’s shoulders sagged. ‘That’s irrelevant now, seeing as your transformation is quite impossible. Poor Abigail. You were her only chance.’
Uh oh – another adrenaline rush as my conscience pricked. Months ago, Abbey had taken me in, after I left Dad’s so that he could turn my bedroom into a nursery for his new girlfriend’s twins. Truth be told, I still owed her big time. My heart raced, meaning I was about to do something stupid… Urgh—like deceiving people and pretending to be posh. An uncomfortable twinge pinched my stomach. Yet just one look at Lady C reminded me just how important this was to Abbey. And if you couldn’t step out of your comfort zone to help mates, then I reckoned it was what Abbey would call ‘a pretty poor show’.
‘What the hell,’ I heard my sing-song voice say. ‘Let’s give it our best shot. Applebridge Hall, here I come!’
 If anyone could imitate my best bud, it was me.                                

Monday 27th August
10.30p.m. After several pleasant hours of reading, here in my beloved library, I’ve just bobbed back online to close down the laptop. How extraordinary that already several people have commented—for that I thank you.
Drunkwriter, your poem was…thought-provoking. Historybuff, Applebridge Hall was indeed built almost five hundred years ago—by the first Earl of Croxley, who fought against the Spanish Armada. EtonMess, close as cousin Abigail and myself are, I, um, don’t profess to know any of her personal measurements. Nor whether she prefers tights to stockings… For details regarding her appearance, you must wait to see her on the show. Which reminds me of terrific news, blog-readers—she just rang, to confirm her arrival this Saturday.

Chapter 2

Ever wondered how it might feel to go on one of those makeover shows where they revamp your look for The Big Reveal? Well, take it from me, you’re torn between dying to peek and fearing you won’t recognize the reflection at all. Especially when you quite liked the former you—I would miss my rub-in tan and Dairy Milk hair.
I glanced at my packed suitcase as I waited for the Million Dollar Mansion car to drive me the hour’s journey to Applebridge Hall. Lady C had pinned up my newly dyed, strawberry-blonde hair. The nail polish was clear, the chicken fillets gone and the make-up toned down. Nor did my outfit show legs or cleavage.
I hadn’t needed as much help from Lady C as I’d expected, appearance-wise. After all, I’d lived with Abbey for months now and knew just how much mascara she liked to apply to her lashes (think more wiry daddy-long-legs and less furry tarantula).
Lady C yawned and pointed towards Abbey’s full-length mirror. We’d hardly slept for the last four days. It was like suffering from an almighty hangover.
‘Time to take a look, dear,’ she said.
I tiptoed forward. ‘Shiitt!’
‘Gemma! After everything we’ve practised this week. How terribly disappointing that you still use that ghastly word.’
‘What? Oh…Sorry.’ I giggled. ‘But it’s wicked! I do look just like Abbey.’ Apart from my cuddlier tum and freckles. I swivelled from side to side, eyeing the knee-length navy skirt and red polo shirt. I wore KMid high nude shoes and gold stud earrings and a little silk red scarf around my neck… There was a definite classy air hostess vibe going on!
‘Now, you’ll have men fighting to open doors for you.’
I shrugged. ‘Why should they? Guys, girls, we’re all equals.’
‘You think that’s how men treated you, in your old clothes?’ She smiled and shook her head. ‘Right, you’ve got my mobile phone number, dear. Don’t hesitate to ring if you need me. Now, remember, cutlery…’
‘Work from the outside in…’ I said and gave a big yawn, remembering to cover my mouth.
‘And alcohol?’
‘Don’t clink glasses or get drunk.’
Carrying my suitcase, I left Abbey’s bedroom and followed Lady C into the lounge.
 ‘Pity Abbey couldn’t drop by to see me off,’ I said. ‘She wouldn’t believe what I look like now.’
‘Yes, it’s unfortunate she had to take her parents to the airport this morning.’
‘At least we spoke on the phone briefly last night. She couldn’t stop talking about her trip.’ I glanced sideways at Lady C. ‘In fact, I didn’t have time to ask her what she said to you on the phone, when we were in the park – about a school. Seeing as you can’t remember.’
Lady C blushed. ‘Oh, er, never mind. Right, let’s see… If you are expected to help in say a coffee shop,’ she said, changing the subject, ‘don’t hesitate to contact me if you’re expected to bake. I have files of recipes.’
I opened the flat’s front door. Roses in her cheeks, Lady C gave me a quick hug.
‘The best of British, dear. Now remember, most importantly…’
‘The three Ms: Modesty, Manners and no Men.’ For some reason my eyes tingled. ‘Do you, um, think we’ve done enough? In such a short time?’
‘Hard work can achieve great things, Gemma, and I’ve been incredibly impressed by your commitment. As long as you don’t dunk your bread in soup or chew your hair or—’
‘Interrupt people?’ I, um, interrupted.
We both smiled and I made my way to the lift.
 Right. Get into character, Gemma. This could, in the words of Abbey, be super fun! Little old me was going to see how the other half lived. I’d ring bells for coffee, eat off silver and servants would have to avoid eye contact and bow. For two whole weeks I wouldn’t have to clean or iron. At the most I’d serve cream teas to the The Little People (previously me!) who, in awe of the Croxley name, would hang on my every word. Although Lady C kept hinting that I might be expected to bake, I was sure the local shops would sell scones and the like – I could just raid their supplies.
As the lift approached the ground floor, I chuckled at the idea of me ordering people around. What was I like? Living like that would be the pits. Hopefully the servants (just saying that word felt wrong) would be like family and I could still make myself Cup-a-Soups and Pot Noodles. The real challenge would be resisting the temptation to tell them who I really was. I took a deep breath. Stiff upper lip, as Lady C would say.
 As for servants and bells… well, from what the Earl had told Abbey’s dad, Applebridge Hall had suffered from years of financial problems. Entering this competition was a last drastic measure. For getting to the final, the Earl had already won twenty-five thousand pounds, to put into motion plans for how the place would eventually start earning its own keep. I’d said that was a mega amount of money. Abbey soon put me right.
‘Oh, no, Gemma,’ she’d insisted. ‘That’s nothing, in terms of running a mansion. Maintenance costs for one year would see that gone – and that’s without repairing the roof or completing the rewiring. Then there’s damp, rising gardening costs and, as for the internal renovations… Tapestries and ceilings need refreshing and apparently Uncle’s desperate to reupholster much of the furniture. Metres and metres of brickwork should be re-pointed…’ 
Still, I couldn’t wait to see the place and strode out into the sunshine.
‘Yoo-hoo!’ called a voice. ‘Abigail Croxley?’
I looked at my watch again.
‘Miss Croxley?’
Eek! That was me. I shook myself to attention and looked up. A skinny woman with red hair, carrying a clipboard, waved from next to a big shiny black car, parked up by the side of the road. Chin not too high or low, shoulders back, I strolled over.
‘How do you do?’ I said in a controlled voice, and held out my hand.
‘Oh, erm, good, thanks.’ She grinned and grasped my fingers, pumping them up and down. ‘I’m Roxy—the production assistant. We spoke on the phone yesterday.’
Stomach twisting, I nodded. What if, face-to-face, my pretend accent sounded weird? But then, after all this time living with Abbey, I stood as good a chance as anyone of mimicking a posh voice.
‘We’d better get a move on,’ she continued, speaking at top-speed. ‘The TV crews at Applebridge Hall are on standby. My boss, Gaynor, the director, hates it if people are late. Footage of your arrival will have to be edited, ready for screening on tomorrow’s Sunday night show.’ She grinned. ‘Welcome aboard the roller coaster that is Million Dollar Mansion!’
 She lugged my case over to the car boot. I’d never met anyone who spoke so fast. A chauffeur in a smart cap and suit got out and opened the door for me. The only time I’d seen anyone dressed like that was at a mate’s hen night, but trusted (nay, prayed!) this old codger wouldn’t perform a striptease.
While Roxy got in around the other side, I concentrated hard to get into the car just right. The rules were… legs first, knees closed at all times… Phew. Job done. No knickers flashed.
The door closed behind me. I looked to my left and smiled at Roxy. She ended a phone call as the chauffeur loaded my luggage, got in and we pulled away.
‘When was the last time you visited Applebridge Hall?’ she asked warmly, while scribbling notes.
‘Only last year,’ I said, chest feeling all tight. I wasn’t used to telling such bare-faced lies and in my mind frantically went over what Lady C called my ‘remit’ – a mega fancy word for the task I’ve been given, namely pretending to be one of a happy Croxley clan. In an email to Abbey, Lord Edward said she should act as if the family often met up. All members of staff would play along, as the future of Applebridge Hall – and their jobs – depended on it.
 ‘Recently, I’ve been terribly busy in catering and am so looking forward to taking time out to visit my uncle again. I’d be interested to know the arrangements for when I arrive,’ I continued, articulating every word as if I was the Speaking Clock.
‘Quite a, erm, character, isn’t he, the Earl?’ she said and glanced sideways at me.
Really? I was dying to probe her further but another of Lady C’s rules was never to appear over-familiar.
‘Although Lord Edward’s not half-bad.’ She winked. ‘Definite eye-candy for the girls.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ I said stiffly. Uncomfortable as it was, good old English reserve was useful if stuck for words.
Roxy rummaged in her jeans pocket and pulled out some fruit pastilles. She held out the packet. ‘I never have time to eat these days – fancy sharing my breakfast?’
‘That’s very kind, but no, thank you,’ I said, remembering what Lady C said about never eating on the go. On the other hand, I didn’t want to offend her…
‘What a, um, charming bracelet,’ I said and pointed to her wrist.
‘Oh, ta.’ She grinned. ‘My fiancé gave it to me.’
‘Fiancé? Oh, of course, I didn’t see the ring.’  It was no Elizabeth Taylor rock, but, nevertheless, a mega diamond to me. ‘Amaaaaazin’,’ I cooed. Oops. I caught Roxy’s eye. Her lip twitched. We giggled and then quickly I recovered my stuffy act. ‘My flatmate… that’s um, one of her words,’ I said. ‘Occasionally, I pick up these things.’
Roxy examined her wedding finger. ‘My boyfriend proposed in New York. Although I don’t suppose this compares to the huge pendants and tiaras you’ve grown up with.’ 
‘The, um, setting is utterly exquisite,’ I said. ‘It’s a ring I’d be proud to wear.’
Roxy eyes crinkled at the corners. She held up her clipboard and flicked through the paperwork quick-smart. ‘The arrangements, let’s see… Late morning arrival – greetings with family and staff. Then you’ll have a little private time before, at one o’clock, your uncle and cousin make a special announcement.’
 ‘What about?’ I said.
‘The business idea they’ve come up with, to save Applebridge Hall. Lord Edward has been hinting about it on his blog.’ She grinned. ‘Gaynor had to work on him for ages before he’d agree to spill his thoughts and feelings on-line. But, to be fair, he’s gone for it with gusto and is determined it’ll attract more fans and contribute to Applebridge Hall’s success.’
Ah, yes – Edward’s E-diary. Last night Lady C and I had taken a peek. His tone sounded a bit old-fashioned but, to my surprise, he seemed mega friendly towards the blog-readers.
‘And this announcement…?’ I said airily.
Roxy’s eyes twinkled. ‘Don’t you know anything about it?’
‘No. Cousin Edward, he, um, wanted it to be a surprise.’  Better not mention the coffee shop, seeing as other people didn’t know yet.
She shrugged. ‘Even the crew and I don’t know for sure. We’ve only just returned to the properties, since the preliminary rounds.’ Roxy consulted her clipboard again. ‘Tonight, at seven, you’ll be having dinner…’  She shot me a look. ‘Look, can I give you a tip, Abigail? Woman to woman?’
‘Do call me Abbey,’ I said and squished back into the comfy seat. Thank God these media types didn’t stand on ceremony. In fact, so far, so bloomin’ good. My false accent hadn’t been rumbled. This speaking malarkey was manageable as long as I gave it more Toff than TOWIE.
‘Abbey—you seem pretty down-to-earth. If you really want your family to win…’ She threw her hands into the air. ‘For God’s sake, sex things up!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ I said in my best plummy voice. Ooh, it was hard not to laugh, but Abbey would have certainly cringed at the S word. Not that she was a prude, but once I’d read out a chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey – her eyes bulged so much, I thought she was going to croak and search for a lily pad.
‘No offence meant,’ she said and shoved another pastille in her mouth. ‘It’s just that word’s out that the Baron of Marwick has something wild planned for this evening. In contrast to your uncle, whose idea of an entertaining Saturday night is sharing good food with friends… That’s fine for an earl pushing eighty, but your average reality show viewer wants arguments, intrigue or, even better, nudity.’
‘Yes, last year’s Big Brother was jolly good,’ I said. ‘Um, so my flatmate told me.’
‘She’s right – viewing figures topped ten million. One of the housemates got pregnant and the police had to break in and stop a brawl.’
I put on a shocked voice. ‘How dreadful.’
Roxy stopped chewing for a moment. ‘As you probably know, your uncle is a bit camera-shy. But, to stand any chance of winning, he’s got to wake up to the fact that Million Dollar Mansion is more than a posh version of Come Dine With Me. Marwick Castle is a strong contender – the Baron is media savvy and doesn’t much care what he has to do to pull in votes.’ Roxy took out another sweet. ‘To be honest, the production team was amazed Applebridge Hall got this far, and can only put it down to your hunky cousin appealing to female viewers.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Not that you heard any of this from me.’
‘You can trust me,’ I said, concentrating now. ‘Thanks awfully, Roxy. I’ll do what I can. Your input’s appreciated.’
As we turned off the motorway and stopped at traffic lights, she consulted her watch. ‘We’ll be there before you know it, so here are a few tips. Try to act natural in front of the cameras—as if us TV folk are invisible. There’s me and the director, Gaynor, various camera operators and sound guys, some set up in the house. Others will follow you Croxleys around the estate doing your daily business. Just consider us part of the scenery, the fittings and fixtures – discreet, unthreatening.’ Roxy gave a wide smile. ‘There’s nothing to worry about. And you look fab – those shoes are to die for…’ Her smile broadened. ‘The viewers are going to love you.’
My stomach relaxed. Perhaps I’d been worrying about nothing, I thought, as we overtook a tractor on the dual carriageway and I took in the quaint countryside.
 ‘How many episodes will be broadcast each week?’ I asked eventually.
 ‘Three – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, at eight p.m. sharp, with the Live Final – a special Saturday show, on the fifteenth, two weeks from today. Cameramen have spent the last five days at both locations, filming a fresh load of stock shots – you know, house exteriors, the grounds…’ Roxy smiled. ‘Don’t be nervous, Abbey. I can tell that you’re really photogenic.’
If only my appearance was the main concern, now. The mega hard part would be keeping my act up from sunrise to sunset, with all those TV people around.
 Roxy texted madly on her phone for a while until, about twenty minutes later, a car cut in front of us, just as we turned into a road welcoming us to Applebridge. The chauffeur braked and Roxy’s clipboard fell on the floor. I collected up the papers as the driver sped up once more.
‘Thanks,’ mouthed Roxy, who was now on the phone to Gaynor. I gazed out of the window again. Wow. What a tiny village. At a first glance, there was nothing in Applebridge, apart from a post office, corner shop and pub called The Green Acorn – although the place was famous for staging a rock festival on some of the Earl’s land every summer. According to Lady C, that was at least one source of income for Abbey’s uncle.
I swallowed hard. Not long now to meeting my flatmate’s posh relatives and potentially being discovered, on camera, as a fraud. To distract myself, I glanced at Roxy’s papers and a list of everyone who’d be filmed at Applebridge Hall. With lots of exclamation marks, the names had been divided into two categories: ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ stairs.
I gazed at a photo of sharp-eyed Kathleen, the Scottish cook and housekeeper, and the estate manager, Mr Thompson, with a Sherlock Holmes style hat and hunting gun. Then there was a woman in her thirties, wearing cords and a T-shirt – that was Jean, apparently, the head-gardener. She looked nice. Mmm—her assistant, unshaven Nick, was about the same age as me. Sexy eyes! Not that I’d be able to get to know him well. Imagine the scandal if he and I really hit it off.
Roxy ended her call as the car turned into a drive longer than the street I’d grown up on. We drove past rows of little trees, bearing plump red apples, shinier than Snow White poisoned ones—when we were small, my brothers and I would have had heaps of fun playing hide and seek amongst them. Downhill to the right as the orchards fell behind us, was a pond with tall grasses and bulrushes on the nearside. Even the ducks were a fancy type, with purple chests and red bills.
My throat felt funny. I felt sick. How could I ever have thought this would work? What if the Croxleys saw straight through me? Perhaps they’d laugh at my choice of words or sneer at the way I walked. Or perhaps they’d be over-the-top friendly and I’d feel even worse about fooling them. Either way, I didn’t belong here. Urgh! Deep breaths. Focus, Gemma. You can do this. Think of the positives – it’s lush; what an amazin’ place to be a gardener.
Mmm, yes, talking of gardeners and that photo of Nick, with his short dark hair and eyes, all twinkly...
 Oh My God! Forget the nerves for a moment—I’d just thought of an awesome way to sex up Applebridge Hall! That’s what Roxy said I needed to do, right? It was my duty. Sorry, Lady C, but I’d have to ignore the last of the three Ms: ‘No Men’. To beat Marwick Castle, the Croxleys had to keep the viewers glued to their seats and now I had a wicked plan!
Oblivious to the scene ahead, as the car slowed, I worked hard to suppress a chuckle. Above and below stairs…The answer to winning was obvious. The nation had to believe that the Earl’s well-to-do niece and the gardener’s assistant were having a forbidden secret affair!



Saturday 1st September
11.30a.m. Today is going to be jolly busy and I’ve just been informed that my cousin’s car has pulled into the drive, so quickly… First of all, thank you to everyone who is already ‘following’ this blog. The TV company has linked us to their website and several local stations have kindly spread word of this diary. Do please connect us to other social sites – no doubt many of you belong to Facebook.
Right, on now with the business of the day—I hereby formally announce the beginning of the competition. Let me use this domain to officially throw down the gauntlet to the opposition: Baron Marwick, if you are reading this, I declare our very determined intention to win Million Dollar Mansion. In the tradition of the Croxleys’ duelling ancestors, we challenge you to beat our family’s honourable loyalty and values. Or, as a more modern opponent might say: Game on!
Just to add, I’ve done my research and apparently blogs thrive with plenty of interaction. So what about answering this poser question?
How do you think we have invested our semi-final winnings, in order to defeat Marwick Castle? On…

Machinery to produce our very own ‘Croxley Cider’?
Transforming part of the mansion into kitchens, for the ‘Applebridge Food Academy’?
Converting the old stables into the ‘Croxley Coffee Shop’?

I shall attempt to bob on here later to view responses and briefly comment. On a speedy lighter note, may I respond to bustyfanDownton: no, I don’t dye my hair, nor can I acquire Prince Harry’s phone number – apologies.

Chapter 3

Don’t call the police, Uncle… I mean, Earl…There’s a good reason I’m pretending to be your niece. Mr Thompson, put down that gun!
I took a deep breath. There was no point practising in my head what I’d say if found out. Go, girl! You can carry this off.
 I looked out of the window as the car ground to a halt. My brow relaxed. Talk about picture perfect. Clearly I’d snuffed it and this was some heavenly palace or, Mary Poppins style, I had jumped into some painting of old England. Looming before me was the mega grand Applebridge Hall.
‘Don’t know how anyone gets used to living in a place like this,’ said Roxy.
‘Me neither,’ I mumbled, eyes transfixed. Although my older brother Ryan’s gaff was a former stately home – he was staying there at, um, Her Majesty’s Pleasure! Mega stupid he’d been, crashing into a parked car while texting.
Wow. Applebridge Hall was huge. Mahoosive. Bigger than Hogwarts. My home for the next week had gardens ten times the size of the sports grounds at my old high school. I fanned myself with Roxy’s clipboard, in anticipation of stepping out of the air-conditioned car and into the sticky end-of-the-summer heat. The mansion stood three storeys high and triangular gables (I knew that word from builder Uncle Pete) lined the top, where parts of the roof came forward. Where each one peaked, twisted ornamental bits rose into the air like mini totem poles. I’d seen similar ones in the book on Elizabethan architecture that Lady C had given me to speed-read.
‘Remember,’ said Roxy. ‘Big smile as soon as the car door opens. Cameras will be rolling.’
I think I nodded in reply. Not sure. I was still gawping. Although, this close, you could see why the Earl needed those million dollars. The building was made from reddish-brown stone wall and needed a mega good clean. Mouldy patches covered large areas – lichen, I think. Slate roof tiles had slipped out of position and several of the chimneys were missing chunks of stonework.
Yet, despite the crumbling brick and odd cracked window, it was pretty impressive, from the outside at least. Green ivy sprawled across the front and around the window frames. There was a protruding arched entrance in the middle, either side of which the building stretched sideways for the length of four window bays. At each end, Applebridge Hall extended forward so that, from the air, the building looked like a capital E. A tribute, perhaps, to the seventeenth century Queen Elizabeth, in which case it was just as well English letters didn’t look like Arabic or Chinese.
 ‘Ready?’ said Roxy.
 I swallowed. ‘What’s Charlie Chingo like?’ A washed-up eighties pop star, with his trademark quiff and Blues Brothers suit, he’d reinvented himself as a chat show host and was presenting the show.
‘A total diamond.’ Roxy grinned. ‘On screen he behaves like a carefree teenager, but no one works harder—he often hovers around our outside broadcast van, helping edit footage for the next show.’

I nodded and stared at the mansion’s many windows. Vertical bars divided them into panes. It would take forever to make them all sparkle. Good thing all I had to do for this fortnight was serve cream teas.
The chauffeur opened my door and, thighs together, I slid out. In front of the car was a three-tiered fountain, overgrown with green slime and moss. Across the lawns, birds chirped and the sound of tinkling water filled the air. A line of people gathered at the entrance. Enough of admiring the estate – it was time to kick off this charade.
The cameraman and sound guy hovered like sprinters waiting for the off. Lord Edward stood in front, looking pretty lush (eek, mustn’t think that, he was supposed to be my cousin). His eyes were fixed on me. Members of staff were just behind him, with the old Earl. Nearby, hovered a tall woman with a shiny Jessie J bob, black-rimmed glasses and clipboard.
‘That’s Gaynor, the director,’ Roxy whispered.
Ooh, look at me, taking directions, eat your heart out, Hollywood. I was in the ideal reality show, where the real me wouldn’t be recognized and I didn’t have to eat kangaroo bottom or witchetty grubs. Deep breaths as I almost hyperventilated when Charlie Chingo appeared.
 ‘Come, Chat with the Chingo!’ said Charlie and led me towards Lord Edward and his dad.
How could the TV presenter wear a jacket? The forecasters had been right about an Indian summer. Hopefully, I looked around for a tray of refreshing drinks to celebrate my arrival.
‘Welcome, Miss Abigail Croxley, to Million Dollar Mansion! How ya feeling? Nervous? Excited? Thrilled to be back at the ancestral pile?’ Charlie turned to the camera. ‘This is the Earl of Croxley’s niece, the dishy daughter of his younger brother, catering magnate, The Honourable Richard Croxley.’ Charlie raised his eyebrows up and down whilst I tried mega hard not to stare at a furry microphone held above our heads. ‘So tell us, Abigail – you must just lurrrve visiting your uncle and cousin. How does it feel to be back in the bosom of your heritage?’
‘Indeed, it is, um, an enormous pleasure to return,’ I declared. Before my makeover, a friendly man like him would have winked at the word ‘bosom’ and stared at my chest. Instead, Charlie lifted my hand to his lips and gave it a kiss. The Earl stepped forward and took his pipe out of his mouth. He wore tweed trousers, a checked shirt and tweed waistcoat like in that magazine in the park. Wow. Here was a living and breathing member of the aristocracy. The only group of people I belonged to was the Facebook Primark fan club.
‘Welcome to Applebridge Hall, Abigail,’ he said gruffly.
A whiff of tobacco reminded me of visits to the pub when I was little, watching Dad play darts and fighting Tom and Ryan for the last pork scratching or peanut.
‘Um, hello,’ I muttered, feeling like FRAUD was my middle name.
‘Speak up, girl,’ he said.
‘How nice to see you again, Uncle. I do hope you are well. Mummy and Daddy send their lo—’ better not overdo it ‘—their good wishes.’ Before I knew it, I’d planted a kiss on the old man’s bristly beard.
He grunted, lifted his pipe and inhaled, then about-turned and headed into the house. Oh, dear – but surely a friendly kiss was the right move for meeting a relative? I smiled at Edward, wondering how many female viewers would swap places with me right at this moment. Not that I’d risk getting close enough to kiss his cheek – it would look so wrong, if his supposed cousin couldn’t stop herself from stroking his tousled honey hair.
My mind went blank as he approached me. If only I’d paid more attention to Lady C’s every word. Should I call him by his full title? What was short for Edward? Ted? Was that too casual?
‘Hello, Teddy,’ I stuttered. Crap! How did that nickname slip out? His cheeks flashed red before he held out his hand and squeezed my fingers a little too tight. ‘I mean… I do hope you are well. The estate looks marvellous.’
‘Pleasant journey, Cousin?’ he said, still studying my face. It was weird. He kind of had the same nose as Abbey.
‘Very, um, nice, thank you,’ I said, squirming under his intense gaze. He had the tiniest green specks in his blue eyes… Ahem. Right. Concentrate. Now, what did Lady C say about conversation? Talk about the weather…
‘No blinding blizzards or black ice, if that’s what you mean,’ I said, my voice giving a little wobble.
‘Hardly,’ he replied dryly. ‘We’re only just in September.’
Charlie came in between us and put his arms around my shoulder. ‘What a family resemblance!’ he said. ‘Honey hair! Blue eyes! And Teddy! I like it, Lord Edward! You kept that name from us. Let’s hope that Abigail—’
‘Abbey,’ I said, breaking the rule on interrupting.
Charlie grinned. ‘Let’s hope that Abbey reveals more family secrets.’
By now Lord Edward’s face had turned an ugly shade of purple. Swiftly, I moved onto the line-up of staff that stood to attention outside the arched entrance.
‘Och, it’s lovely to meet you again, Miss Croxley,’ said Kathleen, the cook. She wore a bright apron and sensible lace-up shoes. Awkwardly, she curtsied. I smiled at her, both of us knowing she’d never previously met the grown-up Abigail Croxley. It didn’t feel right, a top cook like her kowtowing to a pizza waitress.
Next were two chambermaids in black dresses and white hats, only hired for my arrival, apparently. Each one curtsied in turn until I came to the estate manager, hunting gun slung over his shoulder. He nodded, looked at his watch and seemed on the verge of leaving before he gazed behind me. I wondered if he’d caught Lord Edward’s eye.
‘Ahem, welcome back, Miss Croxley,’ he said in a voice deeper than Barry White’s.
‘Thank you, Mr Thompson,’ I said, pleased at remembering his name. Then I smiled at the gardener. ‘I hope you are keeping well, um, Jean, and look forward to a stroll around the estate with you later.’
‘Of course, Miss,’ she said. ‘We’ve worked hard on the vegetable patch this year.’
 I turned to her assistant, Nick, with his twinkly eyes and David Beckham stubble. Little did he know it, but we were actually going to be red-hot lovers! Not that I felt remotely kissable without my tan.
‘How splendid to see you again, Nick,’ I murmured, standing upright to make sure the fluffy mike caught every word. ‘I did so enjoy the weeks we spent together last year. Our time amongst the flower beds was delightful and you, um, sowed your seeds so well.’
Charlie snorted whilst Nick raised one eyebrow. I held his hand just a bit longer than Lady C would have deemed decent. His shake was firm, and his mouth twitched as if he was trying not to laugh. Nick was going to be a welcome contrast to the stuffiness of the Croxleys.
With a smile, I turned to Charlie. Drama was like my worst subject at school and I just hoped my aristocratic character came across as believable. Although a small part of me irrationally hoped to be found out, cos Jean, Nick and Kathleen seemed lovely. If only they could know the truth – but that was never going to happen. Truth, honour and loyalty were obviously important to the traditional Croxleys… I couldn’t ever imagine the old Earl being in on my secret and agreeing to fool the nation – not even to save his mansion.
‘Looks like Abigail has very fond memories of the gardens,’ said Charlie with a wink at the camera.
Lord Edward glared at me and rubbed the palm of his hand against the back of his neck.
 ‘And, with that, folks,’ said Charlie to the camera, ‘may I announce the start of the final. Two weeks from today I shall proudly announce the winner of Million Dollar Mansion. You’ve now met the cast from both here and Marwick Castle. So ready, steady go! Let the battle begin!’
He stood grinning at the camera for several seconds before Gaynor gave him the thumbs-up.
‘That’s a wrap, darlings,’ she said and lit a fag.
 Charlie turned to me. ‘Good on ya, Abbey, you’re a natural in front of the camera. Once you’re settled, Bob, the sound operator will fit you up with a lapel mic.’ He turned to Edward. ‘See you at one then, Lord Edward, for your special announcement. I believe we’ll be filming it in the orchards. You and your cousin have just got time to stretch your legs.’
 Charlie bowed and headed for Gaynor, taking a notebook out of his pocket. The staff had already gone back indoors. I glanced at Edward.
‘Um…pleasant enough man,’ I said and jerked my head towards Charlie, hands feeling clammy.
Edward scowled. ‘Don’t be naïve, cousin. These media types are only after one thing —a cheap story. Watch what you say to them. Now, come, we’ll walk to the pond. There’s a bench in the shade. I shall fill you in on today’s schedule. And it’s not Teddy. Nor Ted.’
‘So what should I call you?’
‘Edward is my name, Abigail.’
‘As you wish, but please – call me Abbey.’
I followed him down the path to the main drive and we headed across the lawns. Hands in pockets, he sauntered towards the pond.
 ‘Amaaazin’,’ I murmured, taking in my surroundings. ‘ggg,’ I added, hoping the end of the word didn’t arrive too late.
‘Landscaping costs a fortune nowadays,’ said Edward. ‘Jean was quite a find.’
We skirted the pond and headed for a bench.
 ‘And how long has Nick been in your employment?’ I asked. Ooh, listen to me, all formal. I was kind of getting the hang of talking posh, remembering everything Lady C had told me and trying to speak just like Abbey did.
Edward gave me a stare, as if to say: why so interested?
‘Don’t we all need to get our stories straight?’ I stuttered. Looked like he might already suspect something was afoot between me and Nick – I wanted the public to do that, not disapproving Teddy.
Quick. Change the subject. ‘Goodness, it’s hot.’ Without thinking, I kicked off my KMid shoes and headed towards a patch of bulrushes. I dipped a toe in the water, which was so clear it looked good enough to drink. A few small fish darted among the reeds. I plunged in the rest of my foot and squidged the sand on the bottom between my toes, just like I used to when me and Dad went fishing for tiddlers.
Ahhhh—bliss. Perhaps this would stop me feeling as if the midday sun was frazzling my brain. Lady C had offered me her sunhat, but per-lease. Wide-rimmed? Floral? Nothing was going to get me into that. Although perhaps I should have protected my grey cells, cos, aargh! What was I thinking? A lady would never complain about how she was feeling, let alone strip off and paddle in front of someone she didn’t know well. In fact, Abbey once had toothache for a whole weekend without telling me. Stoical…that was the word Lady C mentioned. Brave face. Stiff upper lip and all that.
 Quickly, I headed back to the bench and slipped on my shoes. The tall grasses hid us from the TV people hovering outside Applebridge Hall. I sat down. Edward gazed at me, a strange expression on his face.
‘Apologies,’ I muttered. ‘I think the sun has gone to my head.’
‘Don’t stop paddling on my account,’ he said, arms folded, the flicker of a smile on his lips.
‘So, about this Nick…’ I said, ignoring his comment.
‘Only just joined us,’ replied Edward. ‘As you know, Father and I have had to run the estate on a tight budget and only employed a gardening assistant for Jean temporarily, to spruce up the old place for the show. He’s a bit young. Lacks experience, but he’s all we could get at short notice.’
I bit my thumbnail – oops, better drop that unladylike habit—and admired the scenery while we sat in silence. ‘Do you think the Baron is in with a good chance?’ I said eventually.
Edward frowned. ‘Half glass full, Abbey. We have to believe we can win. One mustn’t let the ancestors down. That’s why I’m doing everything I can – like the blog. Whatever it takes…’ His shoulders sagged and he stared across the pond, all of a sudden looking older than the Earl. I wanted to hug him. No… random thought. I mean, he really wasn’t my type.
‘I’d better watch how I behave if you’re writing this online diary,’ I said and smiled.
‘Only if you are worried what people think about you. But yes, I will be doing my best to give a truthful account of what’s going on. People may not like my honesty, but I think it’s only fair to our supporters to tell it how it is.’
I tried to imagine his position. His home, his whole way of life was at stake. If the Croxleys lost this competition – everything he knew, everything he believed in would disappear.
‘I’m sure you won’t let anyone down,’ I murmured.
Another of those piercing gazes. ‘It’s…jolly good to have you here, Cousin.’ Then the brief glimpse of someone actually human disappeared and his voice hardened. ‘It doesn’t help anyone to get sentimental, though. We have our heritage to protect. Responsibilities to fulfil. Starting with an on-camera dinner at seven. Family friends are joining us – Viscount Hamilton-Brown, his wife and their daughter. Kathleen suggested Nick help her serve the food, for the cameras. We found tailcoats and a butler’s jacket in the attic that he can wear. It’s formal dress tonight.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘“Larger-than-life” seems to be Gaynor’s motto. I believe Mr Thompson shot some rabbits yesterday and, of course, dessert will include apples from the estate.’ He cleared his throat and stood up. ‘To the orchards. Father and the cameras will be waiting.’
 I got to my feet. ‘Can you let me in on the secret announcement?’
‘Haven’t I already explained everything to your father?’ He shook his head and strode off.
My mouth fell open. Almost tripping over clumps of grass, I caught him up.
He stopped and turned around, a bemused look on his face. Oh, dear. I’d raised my voice.
‘Um, I mean…’ I grabbed some long grass. ‘Hay… this will make excellent hay… And, talking of rabbits, did you know eating hay prevents them from getting fur balls in their stomach? I, um, watch a lot of nature programmes.’
The top button of Edward’s shirt had pinged open and I wondered how smooth his chest would feel if I slipped a finger through the gap. With a sigh, I realized I’d have to try a lot harder to get into character.
‘Remember, cousin, I’m here to help,’ I said, more softly. ‘If we are to carry on this pretence that the family is close, despite the Earl having banished Daddy from the estate and…’
‘Whoa! Is that what your father told you?’ His face screwed up into a frown.
‘Um, not exactly,’ I said sheepishly.
‘Then you should keep your misguided opinions to yourself.’
 ‘But, wait a minute… Edward… The fact is, we haven’t seen each other since I was nine. I demand that you keep me informed – Daddy… Daddy’s been very busy lately and probably just forgot to tell me about your plans. Remember, I’m here to do you a favour. Applebridge Hall has little to do with my life. This charade is for your benefit alone.’ Oops. I hadn’t meant to sound that harsh.
His mouth twitched. Was he bemused? Appalled? Spoilt and too used to having his own way?
‘Your father’s company, Croxley Catering, trades off our family name, doesn’t it?’ he finally muttered. ‘All things considered, helping us is the least you can do.’
Touché. Still, Edward could have shown a little gratitude if we were to get on well over the next two weeks.
‘Anyway,’ he said, a muscle in his cheek twitching, ‘I tried to keep in touch with you, years ago – sent you and Rupert gifts. Yet I never received a reply.’
‘Daddy wouldn’t let us see them – said we were too young to understand the estrangement.’ Thank God Lady C had told me about that.
Edward’s brow smoothed out for a minute. ‘Really? I mean…’ His voice kind of wavered. ‘You would have been interested in receiving them?’
I nodded. Abbey had often said what a pity it was she hardly knew Edward or the Earl – growing up, she wished they’d sometimes met up. ‘I never forgot about my cousin Edward,’ I said. ‘And Rupe would have fitted right in here. He’s studying history of art and dreams of working for the National Trust one day.’
The strangest look crossed Edward’s face and then his brow once again furrowed.
‘Let’s get going; we’ll be late,’ he muttered and headed off. Jeez! He was the one who needed a crash course in politeness. I wondered if there was a male noble’s version of PMT. The best way to get through the next fortnight was probably going to be to avoid Edward at all costs.
 His stupid announcement could wait a few minutes. I’d find myself a welcome drink. No doubt Kathleen had a jug of homemade lemonade or some country punch. However, Lord Edward had other plans.
‘This way, old girl,’ he called after me as I veered towards Applebridge Hall. ‘Do keep up.’
Cheek! He’d call me to ‘heel’ next.
Wiping perspiration from my forehead, I decided to follow him. No point causing upset on the first day of my stay. The lawns soon gave way to a path lined by brambles and nettles, as we left the overgrown area to the more orderly rows of apple trees. Out of nowhere, Roxy appeared by my side and Charlie, Gaynor and the camera crew came into view. They were set up, halfway down one row. Roxy stopped me for a moment and, before I knew it, had fitted a mic onto the collar of my blouse, threaded the wire underneath and clipped the battery pack onto the belt of my skirt.
‘Gaynor wants you to keep this on for the afternoon,’ she said, as quickly as ever. ‘The crew will follow you around while the Earl gives you a tour of the house. It’s a chance for the viewers to see all the rooms again.’
Ahead, Gaynor fitted Edward with the same equipment – except she seemed to take longer, especially threading the wire into place under his shirt, and, to my annoyance, I felt an urge to do the same.
 The Earl appeared and headed over to me, puffing on his pipe.
‘Lunch will be served after this, Abigail,’ he said. ‘It will give us the opportunity to exchange news.’ There was no smile, no crinkly smiley eyes. He looked as if I was the last person he wanted here.
‘Thank you, Uncle,’ I said and breathed in the smell of tobacco, glad I’d not said ‘ace’ or ‘ta’. Gaynor positioned me in between him and his son. I swatted away a cloud of tiny fruit flies.
‘Big smiles, everyone,’ ordered Gaynor, before giving a rusty smoker’s cough. ‘Abbey, darling, if you could pick one of those apples and hold it in front of you… Fabulous. Right, Charlie, let’s roll.’
Charlie gazed into the camera. ‘And here we are, folks, once again back at Applebridge Hall. Teddy, here…’ Edward bristled ‘… Teddy has an announcement to make. Over to you, Lord Edward,’ he said with a big smile.
The camera panned over to me, Edward and his dad.
‘The prize money we won for reaching the final has gone towards extending the kitchens, at the front of the left wing on the ground floor,’ said Edward calmly. ‘We’ve built five work-stations to start with, that will enable us to run top-notch cookery classes – residential ones eventually, we hope, that will accommodate ten students at a time.’
The Earl muttered something about not having strangers kipping in his home.
‘We already have three locals eager to be the first students,’ continued Edward. ‘On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the doors shall open to… Applebridge Food Academy.’
  ‘Classy stuff, Teddy,’ said Charlie and clapped him on the back ‘So, a kind of cookery school. And where does your cousin fit into this plan?’
  ‘With renowned caterer, the Honourable Richard Croxley, as her father,’ he said, ‘Abbey has culinary talent in her blood. Applebridge Food Academy will be a traditional, family-run affair with her at the helm.’
‘A kind of Mansion Masterchef,’ said Charlie. ‘I love it! After all, cooking is the new sex! Viewers love gastronomy programmes. Your cousin could be the next Nigella, perhaps.  So, Abbey, Chat with the Chingo – tell me what you think to teaching people how to cook posh nosh.’
 Huh? I felt dizzy. They’d got it wrong. I was only here to serve scones in a coffee shop. Waitressing, that was my experience – plus I could nuke food in the microwave, prepare cold snacks and order takeaway. But wait a minute… Cookery school? That’s what Abbey must have told Lady C about on the phone, that day in the park. The two of them knew!
 My mouth went dry, knees weak, heart fast… Me, cook from scratch and instruct other people? Please don’t say the future of Applebridge Hall depended on that!


Saturday 1st September
3p.m. Good afternoon. Time for a quick appearance whilst my, um, cousin... recuperates after her journey. Naturally, I am pleased to see her. It means…an awful lot. Family is of paramount importance to Father and me. Indeed, it is with amusement and a touch of family pride that I can again observe Abigail’s… outspokenness—a true Croxley trait. However, it’s her cooking skills which shall be most significant over the next two weeks, and I’m interested to see your comments about this morning’s poser question – do keep them coming until you discover the answer in tomorrow evening’s programme.
Some of you have even put forward your own entrepreneurial concepts for us to follow. Knityourownmansion, I’m intrigued by your idea of producing woollen earmuffs in the shape of apples. Tiarablogger, I like the idea of those cider flavours you suggested – although, utterly English as it sounds, I’m not sure about apple, sage and onion.

Time to dash, but Lovehotnoble, let me first decline your kind gift proposal. On a purely practical note, I suspect the sequinned trim would chafe in all the wrong places. I do hope my frankness isn’t offensive. I…where possible…always aim to tell the truth.

If you want to find out what happens next, why not purchase here UK or here US !