Vivian nudged her daughter as they walked out of the customs area at Heathrow Airport.
"Um, Maddie? Do you think Ms. M. Forest and Ms. V. Forest are us?"
Vivian gestured at the man in the suit, holding the sign with their names on it.
Maddie turned in the direction Vivian was looking and grinned at her mother.
"Let's do this, Mom."
Vivian looked around and laughed to herself before she grinned back at Maddie.
She still didn't exactly know how she'd gotten here. It had all started with a call from Maddie a few weeks ago.
"Hey, Mom, I need an answer fast-do you want to spend Christmas with me in England?"
Vivian had laughed. What else was there to do when your thirty-four-year-old daughter asked something so ridiculous?
"Sure, I do. I also want to spend Thanksgiving with you in Hawaii, New Year's Eve with you in Paris, and Easter with you in Rome."
But Maddie didn't laugh at that.
"No, really. I'm serious. You remember my old mentor, Amelia Samuels?"
Vivian looked away from her computer screen.
"The one who's now the stylist for the princess?"
"Duchess, but yes. Well, Amelia was supposed to go to England at Christmas to help prepare the Duchess for all of the royal Christmas festivities-apparently, there are lots of them-but Amelia is pregnant with twins and just had to go on bed rest. Her doctor says she's under too much stress and can't work at all."
"Oh no, really? Poor Amelia; I didn't know she was pregnant! Please tell her I'm thinking about her."
Vivian had only met Amelia once, that time she'd gone down to visit Maddie when she'd been living in L.A., but she'd really liked her. And Amelia had done a lot for Maddie and her own stylist career.
"I will, Mom, but let me finish. Since Amelia can't fly to England for Christmas, she wants me to fill in for her, because both she and the Duchess want someone she trusts."
Vivian dropped her pen on the floor.
"Maddie! Oh my God! Are you serious? My daughter is going to be so famous! You're going to England to work with a princess? You'll be all over People magazine! Oh my God, I can't wait to tell everybody!"
"You can't tell everybody yet, but I know, I'm blown away. But wait, we can be excited in a second-I want you to come with me."
Vivian got up and closed her office door.
"Come with you . . . to England?"
Maddie started talking faster.
"It means I'll be there for Christmas, and I don't want to be alone with a bunch of strangers at Christmas. I already asked if you could join me, and they said yes. So . . . can you?"
Vivian looked around at the piles of work on her desk, and in the direction of her boss's office, with their last conversation about his future-and hers-ringing in her ears.
"Maddie, I don't know about this-I have a ton of work at this time of year, and today is especially wild around here. What about Theo, did you already talk to him?"
Vivian already adored Maddie's boyfriend, Theo, even though they'd only officially been together for a few months.
"I told Theo about the offer, yes, and he's thrilled for me. But if you mean did I invite Theo to come to England with me already, absolutely not. I love Theo, and I can't wait to spend New Year's Eve with him, but I've never spent a Christmas without my mother, and I don't intend to start now. So, are you coming?"
Vivian grinned to herself. She couldn't deny it warmed her heart to know her daughter still wanted her mom with her for Christmas.
But to go all the way to England for Christmas? That far away from work, the rest of the family, and everything?
"I'd love to come, but I can't make a decision like this right now," she said to Maddie. "Let me think about it and we can talk about this in a few days."
Maddie's voice got louder.
"There's no 'a few days.' I have to make this decision now, and I'm going to decide for both of us. You need this. You haven't gone on a real vacation in years."
How had she managed to have a daughter who thought she could boss her around like this?
"Oh, you have to go. Life is too short not to take incredible opportunities like this! But I don't think I can-"
"I'm definitely going, and you're definitely coming with me. You never take enough time for yourself; you know I always tell you that. You spend all your time working or helping me or helping out with Aunt Jo. I know you don't want to leave Aunt Jo, but you need a break."
"Maddie . . ."
"Great, it's settled. Talk to you later!"
And with that, Maddie had hung up, and two days later they had plane tickets. Vivian hadn't even known until they were about to board the flight that they were first-class tickets.
She laughed to herself just thinking about that flight. The last time she'd been on an airplane, she'd felt lucky to be in an aisle seat. She'd had an aisle seat this time, too-a huge, futuristic, podlike seat, with room not only to stretch her legs, but to lie almost flat. With just a wave, she could summon champagne and snacks to her side, and for all she knew, there was some secret button to give her a massage, too. She and Maddie had spent the first two hours of the flight just looking around and giggling with each other.
Despite how amazing the flight had been, Vivian still wasn't sure she should be here. She was with Maddie, but what about the rest of her family? Her sisters needed her, especially her sister Jo. And she'd never been away from the Bay Area for Christmas in her life. What was Christmas going to be like without her great-aunt Shirley's ham, or her cousin Loretta's greens, or those dinner rolls her cousin Marilyn always said she made but everyone else knew she got at Safeway?
But then . . . she hated those greens. There was never enough pork in them and way too much vinegar. It might be nice to have a change of pace for Christmas, even though she had serious doubts anyone in England knew how to make a sweet potato pie.
The very polite man in the suit escorted them to a waiting SUV, and Vivian and Maddie kept making faces at each other as he offered them three different kinds of bottled water and told them how to turn on their heated seats.
Maddie opened a bottle of water and handed it to Vivian.
"It's supposed to take a few hours to get there, so . . ."
"What?" Vivian stopped her. "A few hours? Where are we going?"
"Didn't you read the email I sent you about that? The royal family always spends Christmas at Sandringham. It's up in the north of England."
Like she'd had time to read Maddie's lengthy emails. She'd gotten herself packed and to the airport, hadn't she?
"I had too much to do in the last few weeks; I had to get ready for a last-minute international trip, remember? Plus, your emails are too long."
"I should have known. Anyway, Sandringham is a big estate; there are a bunch of royal residences on it, and then lots of trees and land; at least, that's what the pictures online look like. I guess we'll see for ourselves shortly."
Vivian sat back against the plush heated seat.
"I still can't believe we're really staying with the Duke and Duchess."
Maddie had told her this for the first time about a week ago, and like everything else Maddie had told her about this trip, it sounded as though it couldn't be real.
Maddie shook her head.
"I know. The Duchess insisted. She said it would be easier if I was right on-site, and that there's plenty of room in their cottage on the estate for us. When she was so enthusiastic about you joining me, I suspected she was missing her own mom, so I think she's really looking forward to having us there."
This all seemed surreal. Vivian really couldn't believe she was about to meet someone she'd read so much about.
She was a social worker from Oakland, for God's sake! How was this happening?
Speaking of her job . . .
"So, I haven't told you this yet," Vivian said to her daughter, "because I wasn't sure if it was really going to happen, but Darren made the announcement before I left the office yesterday: he's retiring. And he wants me to get his job. He first talked to me about it a few weeks ago, and yesterday he brought it up to his boss when I was right there, so I guess he means it."
"Mom! Oh my God! I can't believe you're just telling me this now! This is so exciting! What's the title, director of social work?"
Vivian nodded slowly.
"Yep. He's leaving sometime in February, and the hospital director already told me they probably won't get the hiring process started for a few months, so they're going to make me the acting director as soon as Darren retires."
"Wow." Maddie put her water bottle down and pulled her mom into a hug. "I'm so thrilled for you; this is such great recognition after all of your hard work."
The recognition had felt satisfying, even though she was still in shock about all of this.
"That's true, though it means I'll be jumping into a job with lots of hard work, and I won't get to see patients nearly as much . . . or maybe not at all. But it's a big honor"-she grinned-"and more money."
Maddie settled back against the car seat.
"Well, I'm even more glad I made you come on this trip with me. I'm sure you'll take even fewer vacations once you're the big boss."
That was probably very true. Yes, she was glad she'd come on this trip with her daughter. She hadn't been on vacation-a real vacation, not just a few days off work-in a year and a half. The only other time she'd even been out of the country was that trip she'd taken with her friends to Mexico for her fortieth birthday, and that had been well over ten years ago.
She looked out the car window for her first glimpses of England. The sun was setting already, which surprised her, since they'd landed in the middle of the afternoon. She reminded herself how much farther north London was from the Bay Area, and it was almost the shortest day of the year; of course sunset was this early.
After about an hour and a half, the car slowed down. She and Maddie peered out the windows into the darkness-they couldn't see much, but it seemed like they were turning off the highway and onto smaller roads. Then the car slowed down even more, and it got darker outside the car windows; the streetlights had seemed to disappear, and all she could see were the outlines of trees. She and Maddie looked at each other with their eyes wide open.
Vivian reached out and grabbed her daughter's hand and squeezed hard.
"You're going to be great at this."
"Thanks, Mom. I'm so glad you're here."
Just then, the car came to a stop, and the very polite driver leaped out of his seat to open their car doors.
"Madam. Madam. Welcome to Sandringham."
Vivian turned to Maddie.
"Deep breaths," she said under her voice, before she turned to get out of the car.
"Thank you," Vivian said to the driver. She reached for her carry-on, but before she could pick it up, someone else had come running.
"Allow me, ma'am."
With nothing to carry, she and Maddie turned toward the . . . cottage? Was this a cottage? Oh God. She would have called it a mansion, but then, they did have different words for things in England. She still couldn't remember what they called a bathroom. She was going to have to ask Maddie.
They walked up to the front door, but before they got to the top step, yet another man in a suit opened it.
"Ms. Forest and Ms. Forest? Welcome."
Vivian and Maddie turned to each other and smiled before walking inside.
They'd just taken their coats off and handed them to Suit #3, when a woman came down the hall toward them.
"You're here! I'm so glad you made it! How was your flight? Was the drive here okay? I know it's so cold outside, but we've made up the fires in your rooms. Would you like a hot buttered rum to warm you up after your trip? Some sandwiches or scones, maybe?"
She was smaller in person, but even prettier than she looked on the cover of People magazine. Vivian hoped Maddie would get to find out exactly what her skin care regimen was, because the woman was glowing.
Vivian reached out her hand.
"Thank you so much, and thank you for your hospitality. Both the flight and the drive were very easy. And I can't speak for my daughter, but hot buttered rum sounds like a dream come true."
"And so do sandwiches and scones."
The Duchess ignored Vivian's hand and pulled her into a hug instead.
"Wonderful! Let me take you upstairs, show you to your rooms, and let you get freshened up, then you can come down to the sitting room for a little feast. Don't worry; I'm sure you're exhausted. I don't want to keep you up too late. I know how those flights from California to England can be!"
The Duchess led them up two flights of stairs, chattering the entire time. Vivian hadn't expected her to be so normal. She'd worried that everything here would be super formal, and she'd have to be on her best behavior for her whole vacation, but the past five minutes had reassured her.
The Duchess threw open the doors of two rooms.
"Here are your rooms, and the bathroom is right across the hall." Vivian looked inside; their bags were already in their respective rooms.
And each room really had a fireplace, with a blazing fire. Bedrooms with fireplaces-she was never going to get over this.
"The house can get really drafty; that's why I had them make up the fires in there for you. I would have put space heaters in all of the rooms, but I made that mistake early on and blew out the electricity for about half of the palace, and everyone is still talking about it, so I've had to go back to things like fires and lots of throw rugs and hot tea. Just preparing you now so you won't wake up overnight shivering."