An Eventful Christmas at Trevelver Castle

Started by Chris in Prague, December 28, 2023, 08:50:31 AM

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Chris in Prague

"Riccardo, please, listen to me. You deserve better. You deserve someone who loves you fully. Someone who respects you. Someone who stays with you. Someone like Lisa."

"I know, Gwen. I know. But I don't love Lisa. I like Lisa. I like her a lot. She wonderful girl. But I love Lola, she real woman. So much passion. Since we first met in my vineyard. I always have. I always will."

"Riccardo, please. Don't do this to yourself. Don't do this to Lisa. Lola can't be with you, Riccardo. She never could be. She never will. She has a different life. A very demanding life."

"How do you know, Gwen? How do you know what Lola wants? How do you know what Lola feels?"

"I know, Riccardo. I know because my husband, Huw, knows Lola. He knows because he has top-level secret clearance. He knows because he knows about her work. Lola is a secret agent and a very good one, Riccardo. A spy who has a duty. A spy who has a passion. A spy who has a life. A life that simply cannot include anyone else, not even you, Riccardo."

"Gwen, stop. Stop saying that. Stop hurting me. Lola is spy, yes. But she also woman. Woman with a big heart. A woman who has a big soul. A woman who has a big love. A big love that is me, Gwen. A big love that needs me. A big love that wants me."

"Riccardo, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for hurting you. I'm sorry for hurting you by telling you about Lola. But I'm telling you the truth, Riccardo. The truth that you need to hear. The truth that you need to accept. The truth that you need to live, again. Lola doesn't love you, Riccardo, in the way you want. She never did. She never will."

"Gwen, enough. Enough of this madness. Enough of this cruelty. You're cruel, Gwen. You're cruel to Lola. You're cruel to our love. You're cruel to our passion. You're cruel to our adventure. You're cruel to our life."

Gwen sighed deeply. "Riccardo, I'm not cruel. I'm not cruel to Lola. I'm not cruel about Lola's life. I'm not cruel to your love. I'm not cruel to your passion. I'm not cruel to your adventure. I'm kind, Riccardo. I'm kind to you. I want you to be kind to Lisa. We want you to be happy, Riccardo. We want you to be free. We want you to be yourself."

Riccardo, sighing, also. "Gwen, thank you. Thank you for being kind. Thank you for wanting me to be happy. Thank you for wanting me to be free. Thank you for wanting me to be myself. But I can't, Gwen. I can't be happy. I can't be free. I can't be myself. Not without Lola."

"Riccardo, please. Please be happy. Please be free. Please be yourself. Whether you're with or without Lola."

"I can't, Gwen. I can't."

"Riccardo, please. Please listen to me. We all care very much about you and your happiness. You know how much the Trevelvers care about you. You know how much Sylvia cares about you. Eli and Jeremy, too. You and Lola saved Sylvia's life, Riccardo. You and Lola gave her a miracle. You and Lola are heroes, Riccardo. Heroes who have our deepest gratitude and respect. Heroes who deserve our love and support. Heroes who deserve happiness and peace."

"Gwen, thank you. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being grateful. Thank you for being thankful. Thank you for being loving. Thank you for being supportive. But I don't feel like a hero, Gwen. I don't feel I deserve gratitude and respect. I don't feel I deserve love and support. I want happiness and peace. I feel like a fool, Gwen. A fool who fell in love with a spy. A fool who can't let go of a dream. A fool who can't face reality."

Riccardo then burst into tears.

Chris in Prague

Gwendolyn is a warm, motherly, and caring woman. She has a way of putting people at ease, and she knows just what to say to make them feel better. When she sees Riccardo struggling with his feelings for Sophie and Lisa, she knows that she has to help.

"Riccardo", she says, taking his hand. "I know that you're going through a difficult time right now. But I want you to know that you don't have to go through it alone. We're all here for you, and we're always willing to listen."

Riccardo looks up at her, his eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, Gwendolyn," he says. "I don't know what I would do without you."

Gwendolyn smiles. "You don't have to worry about that," she says. "Now, why don't you call Lisa and talk to her? I think it would do you both some good."

Riccardo nodded, and Gwendolyn left the room so he could make the call. As he dialled Lisa's number, he felt a sense of nervousness wash over him. He didn't know what he was going to say or how she would react. But he knew that he had to try.

"Hello?" Lisa's voice came over the line.

"Lisa", Riccardo said, his voice shaking. "It's me, Riccardo. I... I don't know how to say this, but I need to talk to you."

Lisa listened as Riccardo poured out his heart to her. He told her about his feelings for Lola, and how confused he was. He told her about his fears and his hopes, and he asked for her advice.

Lisa listened patiently, and when Riccardo was finished, she spoke. "Riccardo", she said, "I know that this is hard for you. But I want you to know that I'm here for you. Whatever you decide to do, I'll support you. I love you, Riccardo. And I always will."

Riccardo feels a sense of relief wash over him. He knows that he had made the right decision to call Lisa. He knows that he cares very much about Lisa and that he wants to be with her. And he knows that with her by his side, he could face anything.

Chris in Prague

After hearing Riccardo put down the telephone, Gwen returns to her office.

"How did your telephone call with Lisa, the girl you left in London, go, Riccardo?"

"Good, Gwen. Thank you."

"You're welcome. You know, you can always talk to me if something is bothering you. I've been working at Trevelver Castle for a long time, and I've seen many guests come and go. I'm a good listener, and I won't judge you."

"There is something on my mind after my telephone call with Lisa."

"How is she? She must be missing you terribly."

"She is... not very happy with me, Gwen. She feels neglected and lonely. She thinks I don't care about her and that I'm only interested in this mysterious project that brought me here.

"That's not true, is it? You do care about her, don't you?"

"Of course I do. I care about her a lot. But she doesn't understand why I'm here. She doesn't know that I'm here to be thanked for helping to save the Trevelver's daughter's life."

"I see. But Lisa cares about you very much, doesn't she, and she wants to be part of your life. She wants to share your joys and sorrows, your hopes and fears, your dreams and nightmares. She wants to be your partner, not your burden. Maybe you should trust her, Riccardo. Maybe you should tell her the truth. Or at least as much as you can. Maybe she would understand. Maybe she would support you. Maybe she would love you more."

"No, Gwen. I can't. I won't. It's too risky. Too dangerous. I can't put her in harm's way. I can't lose her. Or myself. Or both."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Riccardo. I really do. Because I don't want to see you lose Lisa. Or yourself. Or both."

"Don't worry, Gwen. I know what I'm doing. I'm doing this for a good reason."

Chris in Prague

Earlier that day, Lord and Lady Trevelver, their trusted butler and housekeeper, Huw and Gwen Jenkins, gathered in the sitting room of Trevelver Castle to discuss the situation of their two most honoured guests, Sophie Andres and Riccardo Bianchi. The couple's on-again, off-again relationship was a source of considerable concern for the hosts, and Lady Trevelver was determined to remedy the distressing situation so that both their guests would be as happy as possible during their stay from Christmas Eve to the day after New Year's Day. The meeting was held in a cordial atmosphere, with everyone expressing their views and opinions.

As they all gathered, Huw and Gwen brought a large silver tray which was covered with a white linen cloth. The tray held a silver coffee pot with matching china cups and saucers, together with a separate plate with pastries arranged neatly on it. Huw and Gwen served everyone coffee and pastries, and refilled the coffee cups as needed. They also offered 'Castle Spring' still and sparkling mineral water. The service was polite and unobtrusive, with Huw and Gwen ensuring that everyone had everything they needed during the meeting.

Once everyone had been served, Lady Trevelver quickly called the meeting to order. "As you know, my husband and I are very concerned about Sophie and Riccardo's relationship. It's been on-again, off-again for too long. We need to end it in a way that leaves them both as happy as possible."

"I agree. What do you suggest we do, my dear?" asked her husband.

"Sophie must convince Riccardo that there is no possibility of any continuing relationship between them due to her top-secret work as an agent for Admiral Tregowan. And we need to help Riccardo get over his infatuation with Sophie and be reconciled with Miss Lisa Silverwood, who does, I believe, really love him but, we also know, has been left alone in London. We need to bring the young lady here, too, snow or no snow!" Lady Penelope replied very firmly.

"I agree, Milady. It's time to put an end to this. We cannot have unhappy guests, especially when we owe them so very much. Bringing Miss Silverwood here will not be easy but consider it done", Huw responded.

"Thank you, Huw, as always, you make even the most difficult tasks easy", stated Lord Charles with a smile.

"Yes, I think it's for the best. As we discussed, Milady, I will talk with Riccardo."

"Thank you, Gwen, that's agreed then", stated Lady Penelope.

"Very well. We'll ask Sophie to break the news to Riccardo, and we'll help Riccardo get over his infatuation with Sophie and be reconciled with Miss Silverwood as quickly as possible. However, there is also the continuing problem of Turkish agents searching for the Silphion smugglers, namely our two guests and Riccardo's justified fear that should they somehow be correctly identified, the Turkish agents could get to him via Miss Silverwood and via him, Sophie", replied her husband.

"May I suggest, Milord, a quiet word with our friend in Whitehall?" responded Huw.

"A capital suggestion, Huw. We need to put an end to that, too, then Sophie need not worry about Riccardo and Riccardo about Lisa. I will call the Admiral on the secure line. He should have the latest information from his man in Istanbul."

"There is also the very important matter of the relationship between Riccardo and Lisa. Here, I think Sylvie and Eli should talk with Riccardo, being much closer to Lisa's age, and advise him on how best to put his relationship with Miss Silverwood on a firm footing. But, above all, Riccardo needs to call the young lady alone in London." Gwen shook her head. "I hope that it will not be a problem if Riccardo makes that call from my office telephone, after I have spoken with him, Milord?"

"Of course, Gwen. We'll gladly cover the cost of any such long-distance calls. It's nothing compared with saving our daughter's life!"

"Thank you, Milord. I have already taken the precaution of arranging to record Riccardo's conversation with Miss Silverwood so that Sylvie and Eli may be fully briefed before their meeting with him. I hope that I was not stepping over the line, Milord?"

"In this awkward situation where time is of the essence, Huw, I approve, but once Sylvie and Eli have studied the recording, make sure that the tape and any notes are completely and utterly destroyed, and speak of this to no one beyond us four, plus Sylvie and Eli, of course. As you all know, normally, I would not approve at all of recording a guest's private conversation, but when it comes to our honoured guests and Miss Silverwood's happiness, I gladly grant our permission. Agreed, my dear?"

"Yes, Charles, of course. My heart goes out to them all. Excellent." His wife smiled. "I'm glad we're all in agreement and if there is nothing further, let's close this meeting and return to our Christmas Eve tasks."

The meeting then ended with everyone agreeing that they had decided on the best course of action for all the parties involved. The plan went smoothly into action with the determination that both guests would leave Trevelver Castle on good terms with each other and their hosts.

Chris in Prague

Lisa had been looking forward to spending the holidays with Riccardo, her boyfriend of six months. They had met at Giles Roskrow's Chelsea wine and spirits shop, where he had offered her a glass of his 'Rossese di Dolceacqua' wine and charmed her with his smile and his eyes. He had told her that he was a winemaker who owned two vineyards and travelled the world to sell his wines, and so his visits to London and to her were far too seldom for Lisa to be happy with the situation. Lisa, who worked as a freelance graphic designer, creating logos, posters, and flyers for various clients, had been impressed by his wine and his charm. She had fallen in love with him much faster than she had expected, and he had, to her, seemed to feel the same way.

When Riccardo was in London, they had spent happy days and nights together, exploring the city, listening to music, cooking, and cuddling. Aged 23, Lisa had felt that Riccardo was the one, and she hoped that he would introduce her to his family and friends soon. She also wanted to know more about his past and his work, but he was always vague and secretive. He told her that he had to protect his business and that he did not want to involve her in his complicated affairs. Lisa trusted him and respected his privacy, but she also felt more than a little hurt and curious.

She had thought that the holidays would be a perfect opportunity to get closer to him and to share their feelings and plans for the future. She had imagined that they would celebrate Christmas at her mother's house, where she would introduce him to her family. She had also hoped that they would ring in the New Year together with a romantic kiss and a toast. She had been so excited that she had bought him a special gift: a gold-framed enlarged photo. taken of her on a beach in the South of France earlier that summer, shortly before she had met him.

But her dreams had been shattered, when Riccardo had told her his plans. He had come to her cosy little Chelsea mews with a serious expression on his face. He had said that he had something important to tell her and that she had to listen carefully. He had then explained that he had received an invitation to travel to Trevelver Castle in Cornwall, all expenses paid, as one of the two very honoured guests, the other being a woman, Miss Lola Franca, with whom he had once worked on a highly confidential mission, to attend the grand Christmas Ball and celebrate New Year there, too.

Chris in Prague

After closing the heavy oak door to his study, Lord Trevelver picked up the handset of the secure telephone line and dialled a familiar number. His call was answered immediately by a familiar voice.

"Good afternoon, Charles."

"Good afternoon. Admiral Tregowan, what's the latest news from your man in Istanbul regarding the Silphion smuggling investigation?"

"I have some good news, Charles. It appears that the search for the two Italian botanists who were alleged to have smuggled out the Silphion, but, as you know, were actually my agents, Sophie and Riccardo, has been called off."

"I see. So, the search by the Turkish authorities has come to a dead end, Admiral?"

"Yes, that's correct. The authorities in Ankara remain unaware of our covert operation."

"Excellent. So, the Turkish agents still have no idea that the smugglers were Sophie and Riccardo?"

"We're not completely certain at this point, but the probability that they do is evaluated as very low. But we have been reliably informed that the investigation to track them down has been called off as a waste of time and resources."

"I see. Please keep me informed of any developments, Admiral."

"Of course, Charles. We're doing everything to ensure our recovery of the specimen of Silphion remains secret, together with Sophie and Riccardo's role in bringing it out of Anatolia. The chaps in Kew have been informed that they cannot reveal any details of their research into the plant's properties. In return, I have ensured they receive a very generous research grant, which will enable them to pursue and publish their other activities."

"That's excellent news, Admiral. Are you still in Whitehall on Christmas Eve?"

"I am. Our enemies do not take time off." The Admiral then ended the call.

Chris in Prague

Meanwhile, in Chelsea, as it was Christmas Eve, Lisa had gone out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping to cheer herself up. She had to stay in London because of the heavy snow forecast for the southwest then, which meant that she could not get a train to Bristol to be with her mother for Christmas, as she had planned.

Her grocery shopping complete, she made her way to Giles Roskrow's Chelsea wine and spirits shop. She found Amanda Morgan, a very attractive, tall, slim, athletic young woman with shoulder-length light auburn hair, an oval face, a dusting of freckles and green eyes, the owner's new PA in charge, accompanied by her boyfriend, who Amanda introduced as a friend of Giles called Andy Tolverne. They were sharing a bottle of red wine and a cheese plate and invited Lisa to join them. Lisa had always been fascinated by the world of wine. She loved the way it could transport her to different places and times, and the way it could bring people together.

Her tongue loosened by the rich, warming red wine, Lisa found herself telling the young couple how it had been on a warm late summer day, earlier that year when she had first walked into the shop. She had been immediately struck by the rich aroma of wine and the warm, inviting atmosphere. As she made her way past the shelves and racks, she noticed a very handsome Italian man standing behind a small dark wood table, pouring glasses of a deep red wine. She was about to turn away when he looked up and caught her eye. He had smiled, and she had felt her cheeks flush.

"Oh! How romantic!" cooed Amanda.

"Yes, it was. The man looked straight at me and smiled. 'Ah, this is Rossese di Dolceacqua', he said, his accent thick and musical. 'It's a special wine from my vineyard in Italy. Would you like to try some?'"

"I nodded eagerly, and the man poured me a glass. As I took a sip, I was struck by the wine's complex flavours and the way they seemed to dance on my tongue. I looked up at the man and smiled. 'This is amazing', I said. 'I've never tasted anything like it.'"

"The man grinned at me and told me that he was glad that I liked it. Then he told me his name was Riccardo Bianchi. He opened a beautiful Italian leather wallet, carefully removed a business card, and handed it to me. It was beautifully designed and printed on a very high-quality white stock. My only possible criticism was that the design was a little too conservative for my tastes", she laughed. "I'm a graphic designer, you see."

"Do you know Elayne Guillou, Lisa? She's a graphic designer, too", asked Andy.

"Only by reputation", replied Lisa more quickly than she had intended.

"Oh, do go on", prompted Amanda. "Ignore him!" As she playfully nudged her companion.

"Only if I'm not boring you!"

"Not at all", replied Amanda.

"So, I introduced myself, and we spent the next hour talking and laughing over glasses of wine. He told me that this wine shop was owned by his friend, Giles Roskrow. Giles had told him that it was a trendy place with a cosy atmosphere and a wide selection of wines, ideal for selling his wines to discerning customers. Giles welcomed me warmly and, after congratulating Riccardo on his successful promotion, then left us alone. We discovered we had a lot in common, from our love of travel to our passion for good food and wine."

"Ooh, me, too, Lisa. I simply love good food and wine. While this chump here is happy with Navy Rum and ship's biscuits!"
Andy smiled indulgently, evidently used to Amanda's sense of humour.

"Please do continue, Lisa, and ignore Amanda, please. She's always like this after two glasses of strong red in succession!"

"Ooh! Really! But do continue, Lisa."

"As the sun began to set, Riccardo walked me to the door of the shop. 'I hope I'll see you again', he told me, his eyes sparkling. I smiled back and replied, 'I hope so too. This has been a wonderful afternoon, and it had."

"How romantic! I hope you're taking notes, Andy!" laughed Amanda.

"As I walked away, I felt that I had just experienced something magical. I did not know what the future held, but I knew that I had just met someone special."

"How absolutely... wonderful, Lisa. I think I have seen him with Giles. Please describe him. I bet you have a good visual memory, Lisa."

Lisa nodded in agreement. "He's tall and confident, with a clean-shaven face and wavy black hair. His captivating eyes are a deep, smoky hazel, and his disarming smile adds to his charm. Despite being in his early thirties, he exudes youthful vitality, balancing athleticism and strength with capability and fitness. His strong jawline and chiselled cheekbones are framed by wavy black hair, and he wore a stylish dark grey suit and a red tie that made him look like he belonged to a different era."

"Oh, yes! I know who you mean, Lisa. Lucky you! He's a real charmer, a continental... dreamboat", Amanda giggled delightfully. "Please, do go on, Lisa. So, what happened at your next meeting? I assume there was one?"

"Oh, yes, there was... Well, as you know, I love wine, but I have never been to that part of Italy where his vineyard is. As a freelance graphic designer, I spend most of my time working on projects for clients, trying to make ends meet." Lisa sighed. "I have almost no free time or money for travel, romance, or adventure."

"Well, Lisa, it looks like romance still found you!" grinned Amanda setting down her empty glass before refilling it with what was left in the bottle. "Andy, dear, please, take another bottle from the shelf over there plus a bottle of 'Castle Spring' still water and two glasses. I want to hear all of Lisa's story clearly!" Again, Amanda giggled disarmingly.

"Well, Amanda, we talked for a while, and I found out that he was 32 years old and that he owned two vineyards. The Italian one is in Liguria, on a peninsula just South of Ventimiglia. The nearest town is called Vittoria. He went on to tell me that, in west Liguria, they grow the 'Rossese', a red wine grape known as 'Tibouren' across the border, where is currently used for the production of rosé wines in the AOC Provence. Like many variants now widespread in the European continent, the rossese or tibouren grape arrived via the port of Massalia – today, Marseille – thanks to the commercial exchanges of the Greeks, from where it spread to present-day Provence and this area of Dolceacqua, thanks to the work of Benedictine monks. The influence of the Benedictine monks on winemaking was tremendous. They owned an impressive number of vineyards. Viticulture flourished largely due to monks in the medieval period.

"He continued, enthusiastically telling me that only in Italy has Rossese always been used to produce red wine. Today, it is grown in one of Italy's tiniest and most heroically farmed appellations: 'Rossese di Dolceacqua'. Although it was a thriving wine region in the Nineteenth Century, with its own vineyard classification, today, alas, only a couple of square kilometres of Rossese di Dolceacqua vines now cling to these steep, rugged mountainsides rising from the Mediterranean Sea to the Alps, at altitudes rising to close to six hundred metres. These vineyards are confined to this little peninsula plus three valleys around Dolceacqua, a charming, riverside medieval town with an impressive bridge and a picturesque castle ruin – the subject of a famous Monet painting. His other vineyard is in the Principality of Izaro."

"Where's that, Lisa?" asked Amanda.

"I've never heard of it, either", added Andy.

"The Principat d'Izaro is a large peninsula sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea at the eastern end of the Pyrénées, bordering the French/Spanish frontier to its left. It is independent of both France and Spain but has close links commercially. Riccardo's vineyard is in the south of Izaro near a town called Santa Eulalia.

"Thanks, Lisa", smiled Amanda. "I'll add Riccardo's vineyards to our map at the back of the shop."

"Riccardo said he loved his work, but he also enjoyed travelling and learning new things. He said he had been to many countries, but he had a special fondness for England. He said he liked the culture, the history, and the people. He said he liked me and asked me if I would like to join him for another glass. I hesitated and looked at my watch. As always, I had work to do. But I also felt a strong attraction to him and a desire to know more about him. So, I decided to take a chance and said yes."

"Good for you, girl! And here's Andy. Please do the honours, sweetie."

The three toasted Lisa's second meeting with Riccardo and sipped the excellent wine. Lisa tasted the rich and fruity flavour and felt a warmth spread through her body, just like she had, if not as strongly, with Riccardo.

"So, I looked at him and saw that he was looking at me with a mixture of surprise, warmth, mischief, and something else. Something that made me feel both nervous and excited. He leaned closer to me and whispered in my ear. He said he liked me and he wanted to see me again. He said he had to leave for Italy the next day, but he would be back in a week. He asked me if I would wait for him and if I would like to visit his vineyard in Liguria."

"Wow! He's a fast one, your Riccardo! Not like you, Andy. I practically had to wave you to come over to me at that party!"
Lisa laughed. "Riccardo is ... different. I felt a thrill of curiosity and anticipation and wondered what he meant. I already felt a connection to him and a sense of adventure. I decided to take another chance and said yes. He smiled and kissed me softly. He said he was glad, and he promised to call me as soon as he landed. He said he found me fascinating, and he meant it."

"Good for you, Lisa!" smiled Lisa, clinking glasses with her. "Go on!"

"I was stunned and did not know what to say. I had just met him, and he had just said he found me fascinating. I already knew that I liked him. A lot. I felt a rush of emotions and didn't know what to do. Very daringly, and not like me at all, I kissed him back and said I found him interesting. I did not know if I meant more, but I was sure that I wanted to see him again. I wanted to believe him and to trust him." Lisa blushed. "Now, you'll think me totally foolish! I wanted to share his life. I wanted to be with him and to be happy."

"Of course you did, Lisa", smiled Amanda. "Here's to love! Long may it last!" The three new friends clinked glasses.
"I'm sorry, Lisa, but we really must shut up the shop", stated Amanda.

"Yes, we have to get back to Amanda's across town. Sorry. You must be wanting to get back with your shopping before you take one of those bottles you bought to the party you're off to, too!" added Andy.

So, they finished their wine, and Andy paid Amanda the bill.

"Quick, how did it end, Lisa?"

"Oh, he kissed me goodbye. He said he would miss me, and he meant it. He said he would see me soon, and he meant it.

Chris in Prague

As Lisa disconsolately trudged back to her lonely flat with her shopping, she wondered what life in general, and Riccardo in particular, had in store for her. She wondered if he really found her fascinating. She wondered if she was making a mistake to set her sights on him or if she was making the best decision of her life. She wondered what would happen next and what the future would bring. She wondered, and she hoped. She hoped he was the one, and wondered she was right. She hoped for the best and wondered if she was right to do so.

Lisa had fallen deeply in love, but the relationship was not without its challenges. Riccardo was often away from London, tending to his vineyards and selling his wine. Lisa missed him terribly when he was gone, but she knew how important his work was to him.

To cope with Riccardo's frequent absences, Lisa threw herself into her own work. She was a talented artist, and, once her graphic work was completed to her and her client's satisfaction, she spent long hours in her studio, painting, and drawing. She found that the creative process helped her to forget her worries and focus on something positive.

When Riccardo was away, Lisa would write him long letters, telling him about her day and her latest artistic endeavours. She would describe the colours and textures of her paintings and share her thoughts and feelings with him. Riccardo would write back, telling Lisa about his own adventures and the people he had met on his travels. He would describe the vineyards and the wines he was working on, and he would send her samples of his latest creations.

Lisa had been dating Riccardo for a few months when she first heard about Lola Franca. Riccardo revealed over rather too much wine that he had gone on a secret mission to Anatolia to smuggle out a very rare lifesaving plant, and Lola Franca had been his partner in the operation, but it was top secret and he had already told her too much for her own safety.

At first, Lisa was intrigued by the story. She had always been fascinated by tales of espionage and adventure, and the idea of Riccardo as a daring secret agent was thrilling. But as she listened to the admiration in his voice whenever he talked about Lola Franca, she began to feel uneasy. All that Riccardo would tell her was that Lola was a very talented and beautiful secret agent who worked for someone very important in Whitehall. Lisa could not help but wonder what kind of other secrets he was keeping. She tried to ask Riccardo about Lola, but he was always evasive. He changed the subject or smiled and told her that there was nothing to worry about.

As time went on, Lisa became more and more uneasy about Riccardo's relationship with Lola Franca. Lisa trusted her intuition. She could not shake the feeling that there was something he was not telling her. She began to wonder if she could trust him at all.

One evening, as they sat on the sofa in Lisa's little flat, Lisa decided to confront Riccardo about Lola Franca. She asked him point-blank what was going on between them and why he was so secretive about it.

Riccardo looked at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Then he took a deep breath and began to speak.

"Lisa", he said, "Lola Franca and I have a complicated history. Yes, we were once passionate lovers, and we've been through a lot together. But that's all in the past and was before I met you!" He leaned over and kissed her passionately in the way that always sent a tingle from her very toes to the top of her head. "Now, we're just friends and sometime colleagues."

Lisa listened to Riccardo's story, feeling a mix of relief and confusion. She was relieved to know that there was a good reason for Riccardo's secrecy, but she was still confused about why he had not told her sooner.

As she thought about it more, Lisa realized that she had been too quick to judge Riccardo. She had assumed the worst about him without giving him a chance to explain. She knew that she needed to trust him more and be more open to the unexpected.

Despite the distance between them, Lisa's love for Riccardo only grew stronger. Lisa felt that they were meant to be together and was willing to do whatever it took to make their relationship work. As soon as Lisa judged the moment right, she let Riccardo sleep with her. They found they were very compatible in bed, too. Lisa had expected Riccardo to be experienced but Riccardo had not expected the same of Lisa. However, upset by Riccardo's secrecy about Sophie, she kept her former boss and lover to herself. Despite this, as the weeks turned into months, Lisa and Riccardo grew closer and closer. They would take long walks through the streets of London, holding hands and laughing together. They would share meals at cosy little restaurants, savouring the flavours of Italy and England.

Lisa and Riccardo continued to meet at the wine shop every time Riccardo was in London. Giles would warmly greet them, bring a bottle of his latest discovery and two matching wine glasses to their corner table then leave them. They would talk about their lives, their dreams, and their passions. Lisa was fascinated by Riccardo's stories of growing up in Italy, and Riccardo was enchanted by Lisa's charm, creativity, and intelligence.

Chris in Prague

Back in Trevelver Castle, Lady Trevelver had taken Sophie from the Great Hall up to her sitting room.

"Sophie, I need to talk to you about something very important", Lady Trevelver stated as they sipped from the two glasses filled with 'Castle Spring' still water Huw had brought them. Both knew they had a long night, or rather a morning, ahead of them.

"What is it, Lady Trevelver?"

"It's about Riccardo Bianchi, Sophie. I know you find him very attractive, but you must end things with him once and for all.

"But why? Riccardo's a great partner on a mission and a great lover. Probably the best I've ever had!" she grinned. "Lover, I mean. We're both single. There's no one else involved. So ..."

Lady Trevelver sighed. "Sophie, you're a very intelligent woman. You know you can't have a normal lasting relationship with anyone, not even Riccardo. You're an agent for Admiral Tregowan, and your work is top-secret. You can't risk exposing yourself or the service to anyone through Riccardo or anyone else."

"But Riccardo is not a threat. He's a good man, a vineyard owner and a wine seller. He would never betray me or the service."

"Sophie, you're being naïve, and it shocks me to say that. Riccardo is a curious and passionate man. He's always looking for new wines, new lands, new adventures. You don't know who he might meet and accidentally let something important out over too much wine."

"Yes, Riccardo is an adventurous and passionate man, Lady Trevelver. And that's what I like about him. Riccardo makes me feel alive; he makes me happy to be myself."

"Sophie, and, again, I'm shocked that I have to say this, you're fooling yourself. Riccardo is not the man for you. He doesn't even know your real name, for goodness' sake! And, yes, I know why but still... Riccardo's a potential liability, a potential danger, a charming, exciting distraction you must give up and get over, and now! You must break up with Riccardo and make sure he never tries to contact you again. You have to convince him that there is no possibility of any continuing relationship between you two. Do you understand?"

It was Sophie's turn to sigh. "But Lady Trevelver, how can I do that? How can I hurt Riccardo like that? He's still in love with me. And he saved me and the mission which helped to save your daughter when I was stricken with food poisoning in Turkey. He fought off the attackers in Istanbul when I was too weak to defend myself. Riccardo risked his life for me, for our mission, for that plant, Lady Trevelver. How can I repay him with such callousness?"

Lady Penelope gave a deep sigh. "I accept all of that. You know how grateful we are. That's why we invited you both here. But, Sophie, you must be strong. You must be brave. You have to focus on what's right, not what makes you feel good. You have a duty to the Admiral, to the service, to your country, to yourself. You can't let your emotions get in the way of your mission. You have to do what's best for everyone, even if it means hurting Riccardo deeply."

Sophie sighed again. "Lady Trevelver, I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if I have the emotional strength."

"Sophie, I know, and you know that you can do it. You have the strength. You have that steely determination in you. The Admiral has said that you're one of the best agents he's ever trained. You must do this, Sophie. You must end it with Riccardo. For your sake, for his sake, for the service's sake."

"I know. I know Lady Trevelver. My mind says yes, but my heart shouts NO!"

"I understand, Sophie. Truly I do. But infatuation is not love. It's a passion that burns brightly and then is gone. And there's another reason why you must do it, Sophie. Riccardo has a new girlfriend. An English girl named Lisa. She truly loves him, and he likes her a lot. But as long as he's infatuated with you, he'll never be able to fully love another. And Lisa deserves her happiness with Riccardo. Don't you think so, Sophie?"

"I... I don't know, Lady Trevelver. I don't know anything anymore."

Lady Penelope sighed again. "Sophie, you have to think of others, not just yourself. You must let Riccardo go. You have to let Riccardo be free so that he can be happy with Lisa. And you have to find your own happiness elsewhere. Maybe someday, you'll meet someone who can share your life, your secrets, and your passion. Someone who can love you for who you are, not for who you pretend to be. Someone who can make you forget Riccardo. But until then, you have to focus on your work, your duty, and your honour. You have to be the best agent you can be. You have to be like your parents; honour, duty, and responsibility to others all come before self. And they never gave up, never backed down, never surrendered. They were always strong. They always tried their hardest to do what was right, never thinking of themselves. You must do this, Sophie. You have to end it with Riccardo, once and for all. For your sake, for his sake, for Lisa's sake, for the service's sake."

"All right. You've convinced me. I will take Riccardo aside, sit him down with a strong drink to hand and tell him calmly and..." she swallowed "coldly, that it's all over between us. That I'll always be grateful, but we both must move on."

"I'm very delighted to hear that, Sophie. Ask Huw or Gwen for a key to a suitable room, and please don't worry. We'll all take care of Riccardo just like we'll all take care of you these next few days. We want you both to be happy. We owe you so much, but keeping Riccardo hoping is not the way to achieve lasting happiness for either of you! Now, let's rejoin the party!"

Chris in Prague

In his study, after his wife had informed him of her heart-to-heart with Sophie, Lord Trevelver picked up the telephone on the secure line and dialled the same familiar direct number.

"Good afternoon, Admiral. Thank you for your briefing earlier about the situation in Turkey. I'll get straight to the point, as time is of the essence. We need to get Miss Alice Silverwood, known as Lisa, a 23-year-old single woman living in a mews flat in Chelsea, to Trevelver Castle tomorrow by any means possible. As the cold air mass moved south, it brought with it significant snowfall, which led to the roads and railways being blocked by snow. As a result, we are currently cut off here due to the weather."

"I understand your problem, Charles. But why, on Christmas Eve, do you suddenly need this particular young lady so urgently and why are you asking me?"

"We need her here urgently. I would not ask you if it was not so important, and I know that with your extensive top-level contacts, you are the very man who can arrange it."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence, Charles. As it happens, there are far too many links to those who work in my world of secrets in your Miss Silverwood's life. She's been under observation for some time now, which is why I immediately recognised that name. However, my agents' extensive investigations have not revealed anything suspicious beyond her time spent in Germany and having studied German as a schoolgirl until she met Riccardo Bianchi, who, as you know, also has an extensive file and we also keep under close watch, for his own safety."

"I see. Interesting. So, Admiral, you want someone else to investigate Miss Silverwood. Someone whose expertise you trust. Someone who, if there is anything to be discovered, will do so. I think we can help you there", he smiled to himself; his plan was going to work.

"Yes, in fact, I do, Charles, and, as it is a matter of some urgency, I ... would appreciate your assistance. As it happens, after my overextended team here, the next best people to investigate Miss Silverwood, alias Lisa, are all very conveniently gathered at Trevelver Castle, and all have varying levels of security clearance. In descending order, they are Sophie Andres, then you and your wife, followed by Captain Jeremy Corentyn Cador, Mr. Giles Roskrow, your Head Butler, Huw Jenkins, his wife, Gwendolyn, your Castle's Housekeeper, your daughter, Sylvia, her best friend and business partner, Miss Elayne Guillou, and, finally, the other 'Chelsea Girls', as they are generally known, the 'Sisterhood' to their close friends, and the 'Karadow' to themselves. As a compromised person, Riccardo Bianchi, whose clearance is just above Mrs Jenkins but below her husband, is, of course, excluded.

"I see. You are excellently informed, as usual, I see, Admiral. Then we both have a very good reason to bring Miss Silverwood to Trevelver Castle ASAP, don't we?"

"Yes, we do, it seems. So, we are agreed. It's in both our interests that her arrival with you is expedited, although I still want to know why you want her at Trevelver Castle ASAP."

Lord Trevelver sighed inwardly. "It concerns your former agent, Riccardo Bianchi and his relationship with your top agent, Sophie Andres, known to Riccardo as Lola Franca. Full details will be given in my report, assuming that Miss Silverwood is successfully brought here, ideally, tomorrow, Christmas Day, before the evening, if we are to have the maximum success in evaluating her."

"I see. If you want this young lady brought to Trevelver Castle as quickly as possible, Charles, then I will arrange it, no matter the cost. However, in return, I will insist on a detailed report, compiled by Mr. Jenkins, based on interviews with everyone who has security clearance regarding their evaluation of Miss Silverwood. Could she be a Communist agent recruited while in Germany? If, between them, nine trusted people cannot discover anything suspicious about her, then I will have to consider myself satisfied."

"Agreed. Huw will compile the most detailed yet still concise report, omitting nothing of potential significance. I can guarantee that. Now, how are you going to arrange for Miss Silverwood to be brought here within twenty-four hours?"

"Let me make the appropriate enquiries, Charles. You may call me back in an hour."

Chris in Prague

Following Lord Trevelver's telephone call on the secure line in his compact, electrically lit Whitehall inner sanctum, its dark mahogany furnishings combining functionality with style, Admiral Tregowan sighed and pulled out a file to study after first unlocking the metal filing cabinet with his personal key. On the manila file cover under SUBJECT, the Admiral's assistant, Dorothea had typed Alice Silverwood; then under, Known Associates of Agent, Agent Riccardo Bianchi; and under Cross-Reference, Agent Sophie Andres.

The Admiral took it over to his mahogany desk and started reading.

"Alice Silverwood, known as Lisa, was born on February 20, 1939, in Bristol, England.
•    An only child.
•    Her father remarried an American woman and moved to New York; he works in advertising.
•    Has a stepsister who lives in New York.
•    Lisa and her stepsister have never met, as they were born to different mothers.
o    They only know each other's names and faces from the photos that their father sent them.
•    Lisa has always wanted to meet her stepsister, but she never had the chance or the courage.
•    Lisa is curious about her stepsister and wonders if they have anything in common.
•    She is afraid of how her stepsister might react or if she might reject her.
•    She is afraid of hurting her mother, who does not like her father's new wife.
•    She is a freelance graphic designer who creates logos, posters, and flyers for various clients.
o    She enjoys her work, as it allows her to express her creativity and showcase her skills.
•    Lisa lives in a mews flat in Chelsea, a fashionable and affluent area of London.
o    Mews are former stables that have been converted into residential properties.
o    They are often charming and cosy, with cobbled streets and colourful doors.
•    She is a little taller than average, at 5 feet 4 inches.
•    She has a slim but curvy build. Her measurements are 35-24-34.
•    She maintains her slender figure with yoga.
•    She has a heart-shaped face with big hazel eyes that sparkle with intelligence and curiosity.
•    She has shoulder-length medium blonde hair, similar to Twiggy (the fashion icon), that she likes to style in different ways.
•    She likes to dress in chic and elegant outfits that reflect her taste and personality.
•    She is ambitious and hard-working but also knows how to have fun and relax.
•    Hobbies and interests:
o    Singing
o    Dancing
o    Photography
•    She enjoys singing and dancing, as they make her feel happy and free. She has a good voice and a good sense of rhythm, and she often goes to musicals with her friends.
•    She also likes photography because it allows her to capture the beauty and the moments of life.
o    She has a camera that she always carries with her, and she likes to take pictures of the places and the people she loves.
•    She is a smart and curious woman who likes reading mystery novels and solving puzzles.
•    She is interested in learning new things and exploring new places.
•    She is not afraid to challenge herself and try new experiences.
•    She loves to travel and explore new places and cultures.
•    She has visited a few countries in Europe, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain, and she has read about many others in books and magazines.
o    She likes to immerse herself in the local life and learn from the people she meets.
•    She is open-minded and adventurous, always ready to try new things and experiences.
•    She grew up in Bristol with her childhood boyfriend Jack, who was always encouraging her to pursue her passions.
•    Jack died in a motorbike accident when he was 18 years old, which devastated Lisa.
•    She learned German at school; she went to Redmaids' High School in Bristol, where she was born and lived until 18.
•    Her father paid for her education; he is a successful businessman in advertising.
•    She studied graphic design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm, Germany, the most practitioner-oriented graphic design school.
o    She graduated in four years, when she was 22.
•    She moved to London after graduating and joined the graphics department of a leading London advertising agency, where she embarked on an affair with the unhappily married Creative Director after their relationship changed from mentor and mentee to lovers.
o    Lisa has not told Riccardo about her affair yet.
•    She did not get pregnant, thanks to Amy Cavendish, a secretary at the agency who had a crush on Lisa and helped Lisa to (illegally as Lisa is not married) get the contraceptive pill.
o    Lisa was able to maintain their friendship despite being only interested in men.
•    She met Riccardo Bianchi, the love of her life, in London, where she moved after graduating.
•    They met in Giles Roskrow's wine and spirits shop in Chelsea, where Riccardo was conducting a tasting of his 'Rossese di Dolceacqua' wine.
•    Riccardo cannot tell Lisa about the mission to Anatolia he went on with Lola Franca (as he knows Sophie Andres) to smuggle out the plant that helped to save Sylvia Trevelver's life because he knows that Turkish agents are looking for Lola and him, and Riccardo does not want to endanger Lisa.
o    Sylvia's parents are Lord Charles and Lady Penelope of Trevelver Castle, near Cant Cove, Wadebridge, Cornwall.
•    Lisa is puzzled by Riccardo's relationship with Lola Franca (Sophie Andres), one of our very best agents.
•    Lisa is a dog and not a cat lover.
•    Lisa and Eli (Elayne Guillou) know of each other and admire each other's work, but they are not friends, as they are competitors in the creative world.
•    Eli is Sylvia Trevelver's intimate friend and business partner in their advertising agency, Trevelver and Guillou (Wadebridge and London, founded in autumn 1962).
•    Lisa has a lot of connections in the creative world of London.
•    She goes to the Café Bohème, where she knows Jenny Davies, a waitress who has an intimate female friend, Angela Evans.
•    Angela is the Finance Director for Sylvie and Eli's agency, Trevelver and Guillou, which is a competitor of Lisa's former employer, the leading London advertising agency where she had an affair with the Creative Director. Before that Angela was PA to Giles Roskrow."

Admiral Tregowan sighed. Yes, exactly as he remembered. There were far too many links to those who worked in his world of secrets in Miss Silverwood's life. However, despite his agents' extensive investigations, which are documented in the detailed file, they have not found any evidence of suspicious activity beyond Lisa's time spent in Germany when the HfG was closely involved in the struggle to create democratic structures after the National Socialist era, and having studied German as a schoolgirl until she met Riccardo Bianchi, who also had an extensive file.

However, the next best people to investigate Alice, alias Lisa, were all very conveniently gathered at Trevelver Castle, and all had varying levels of security clearance, starting in descending order with Sophie Andres, then Lord and Lady Trevelver, Captain Jeremy Corentyn Cador, Giles Roskrow, their Head Butler, Huw Jenkins, his wife, Gwendolyn, the Castle's Housekeeper, Sylvia Trevelver, Elayne Guillou, and, finally, the other 'Chelsea Girls', as they were generally known, the 'Sisterhood' to their close friends, and the 'Karadow' to themselves. As a compromised subject, Riccardo Bianchi, whose clearance was just above Mrs. Jenkins but below her husband, would be excluded.

If the Trevelvers wanted this young lady brought to Trevelver Castle as quickly as possible, then he would arrange it, but, in return, he would insist on that report, compiled by Mr. Jenkins, based on interviews with everyone who had security clearance. If between them, nine people – he ignored the rest of the 'Chelsea Girls' – could not discover anything suspicious, then he would have to be satisfied.

It was not as if there was nothing else to concern him, he sighed inwardly. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still unresolved, and the USA and the Soviet Union were negotiating the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and the lifting of the US blockade. The Vietnam War was escalating, and the US increased its military and economic aid to South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong launched a series of attacks on South Vietnamese and US targets. The Cold War was heating up, and the USA and the Soviet Union competed for influence and supremacy in various parts of the world. Some of the flashpoints included the Congo, the Yemen Civil War, and the Sino-Indian War. Admiral Tregowan was well aware of the global tensions and the potential threats to US and UK interests and their allies.

Across the Channel, France was recovering from the Algerian War, which ended in the July with the independence of Algeria. France had recognised Algeria as a sovereign state and withdrew its troops by the end of the year. France was also dealing with the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war that October. France was not directly involved in the crisis but supported the US position and condemned the Soviet Union for placing missiles in Cuba.

While, across the Rhine, Germany was divided into East and West Germany, separated by the Berlin Wall, built in August of the previous year. The wall symbolised the Cold War and the division of Europe. Germany was also dealing with the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Germany was directly involved in the crisis, as the USA had deployed nuclear missiles in West Germany, which were targeted by the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The crisis was said to be resolved by a top-secret deal between the US and the Soviet Union, in which the US agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy, as well as West Germany.

And Charles wondered why he was still at the helm on Christmas Eve!

Chris in Prague

Exactly one hour later, in his study, with his Head Butler and Housekeeper sitting attentively close by, Lord Trevelver picked up the telephone on the secure line and, again, dialled the same direct number.

"Good afternoon, Admiral. I know that you're a very busy man. So, let's hear your plan."

"Good afternoon, Charles", replied Admiral Tregowan. "I have a few ideas. I can arrange for a Royal Navy Landrover with an excellent driver and navigator to collect Miss Silverwood from her Chelsea flat and then drive her to the nearest military airfield from where a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm helicopter can fly her directly to Trevelver Castle. Alternatively, I can arrange for a Royal Navy staff car to pick her up and drive her there, but that would take far longer and be more dangerous in these conditions."

"I agree. A car is out of the question given the weather conditions and time constraints."

"Therefore, I recommend the Landrover and helicopter option. Helicopters are being used to transport provisions to isolated areas in Cornwall, so I can have her put on one of those relief flights and have Trevelver Castle added to the flight plan. However, Captain Cador will need to coordinate with the local Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm station to ensure that there is a satisfactory landing area for the helicopter, and you must inform Miss Silverwood of the operational details. I will send you the pickup details once I have them from the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm Search and Rescue people. It will have to be one of the Whirlwinds introduced in 1960 powered by a 1,000 hp Bristol Siddeley Gnome turboshaft as they have a much-improved performance over the earlier piston-engined ones."

"I concur, Admiral."

"As you may know, the Whirlwind has a range of 334 miles at a speed of 86 mph, and the distance between RAF Northolt and North Cornwall is approximately 215 miles. Therefore, a Westland Whirlwind can fly from RAF Northolt to North Cornwall without refuelling, provided that the helicopter is equipped with a Gnome turboshaft engine and the weather conditions are favourable. However, this is, of course, a rough estimate, and other factors such as wind speed, altitude, and payload could affect the range of the helicopter. The payload will, principally, be relief supplies for isolated villages near you, cut off by snow, not your Miss Silverwood."

"Captain Cador will contact RNAS Culdrose using the agreed protocol. Culdrose is approximately 30 miles south of Wadebridge. How long do you estimate the flight will take, Admiral?"

"It would take approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes to cover a distance of 215 miles at a constant speed of 86 mph. However, it will not be flying at maximum speed; so, let's say, three hours. As you know, this is a rough estimate, and other factors such as wind speed, altitude, routing, and payload will affect the flight time of the helicopter."

"Understood. Thank you, Admiral. Three hours will be fine. We want Miss Silverwood here in plenty of time to change for Christmas Dinner at 7 p.m. The distance between Chelsea and RAF Northolt is approximately 10 miles. Therefore, I would estimate the driving time from Chelsea to RAF Northolt to be around half an hour, allowing for the road and traffic conditions. So, let's say around four hours in total? So, Miss Silverwood can be collected any time after her Christmas lunch. Say around 2 p.m.?"

"Yes, that would appear to be reasonable, Charles."

"So, that sounds like a plan that will work, Admiral. Thank you. I will inform Captain Cador, Mr. Jenkins and Miss Silverwood of the operational details."

"Very good. The details with the final estimated departure and arrival times will be transmitted by secure line to Mr. Jenkins's office. Have him standing by Charles. Will that be all?"

"Yes, thank you, Admiral. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Charles."

The call finished, Lord Trevelver turned to his Head Butler and Housekeeper.

"Huw, Gwen, please bring Riccardo and Jeremy to the Butler's Pantry along with Lady Trevelver. We will meet there shortly."

"Yes, Milord", replied Huw.

"Right away, Milord", added his wife as they left the study.

A few minutes later, Riccardo, Lady Trevelver, Jeremy, Huw, and Gwen arrived at the Butler's Pantry. Lord Trevelver greeted them warmly and gestured for them to sit down at the substantial aged oak desk in the centre of the room. The pantry exuded an air of efficient elegance with its oak woodwork, mellowed with age, and polished to a subtle gleam. Dark, forest green wallpaper adorned with a discreet pattern of ivy vines lent a touch of classic charm. The pantry is well-lit by a large, leaded-glass window, allowing natural light to fill it. A rotary telephone, polished to a shine, provides a direct line of communication.

"Riccardo, I have some good news. We have arranged for your young lady, Miss Silverwood, to be flown into Trevelver Castle in plenty of time for Christmas Day dinner, which is at 7 p.m. Jeremy is in charge of the arrangements. You must call her again and inform her of the details of the arrangements; she needs to be at home on Christmas Day afternoon and have one piece of hand luggage packed and ready. We can provide anything else she may need from our own extensive supplies, can't we, Gwen?"

"Yes, we certainly can, Milord. Her Ladyship ensures we are well-stocked with the finest toiletries. We have an abundant selection of bath and body products, fragrances, soaps, and grooming accessories from Floris, Yardley, and Penhaligon."

"Excellent. I'm sure the young lady will appreciate that!"

"Thank you very much, Lord Trevelver. I will call Lisa right away", smiled Riccardo.

"That's wonderful news, dear. I'm looking forward to meeting Lisa", beamed Lady Trevelver.

"I will contact Culdrose, immediately, using the previously agreed protocol", stated Jeremy.

"Shall I have a guest room prepared for Miss Silverwood, now, my lord?" asked Huw.

"Yes, please do that, Huw. And make sure that everything is perfect for our new guest."

"I'll make the necessary arrangements, Huw. There is still one empty guest room. I'll leave a selection of toiletries likely to appeal to Miss Silverwood based on what Sylvie and Eli use."

"Thank you, Gwen."

The couple then left the room, leaving Lord Trevelver, Lady Trevelver, Jeremy, and Riccardo alone.

"I'm very glad that we could arrange for Lisa to be here for Christmas dinner. It's going to be a wonderful evening", stated Lord Trevelver.

"Yes, it will be lovely to have Miss Silverwood here with us", replied his wife.

"Thank you from my heart for arranging this, Lord Trevelver, Captain Jeremy. It's... a miracle", stated Riccardo with tears forming in his hazel eyes.

"You're most welcome, Riccardo. Your happiness and that of Miss Silverwood, of course, are of our utmost concern. Now, after you've called Miss Silverwood, let's return to the Great Hall and enjoy the rest of the evening and look forward to tomorrow's festivities", smiled Lord Trevelver, patting Riccardo on his right shoulder.

Chris in Prague

Riccardo immediately called Lisa's number on Huw's telephone, but after letting it ring for a long time, there was no response.

"I'm sorry, Lord Trevelver, there's no one answering. I'll try again later."

"That's all right, Riccardo. We'll just have to be patient and wait for her to arrive home."

"Oh dear, that's rather disappointing", stated Lady Penelope. "We were hoping to inform her well before the Navy Landrover arrives."

"Yes, my dear, but it's Christmas Eve, and Miss Silverwood might be busy with other things."

"Of course, you're right, Charles. Probably doing some last-minute shopping. Still, there's no snow in London as yet."

"Well, my dear, we'll just have to wait until she arrives home. I hope everything will be all right with the young lady."

"Yes, let's hope so, Charles. It's a shame that she can't be with her mother for Christmas, but the fact that she will still be in Chelsea does make collecting her easier."

"Indeed, Penny. Let's hope Miss Silverwood has a safe journey here. In the meantime, we can focus on ensuring everything is ready for her arrival."

"Agreed, Charles. We want to make sure Miss Silverwood feels welcome and comfortable when she gets here. But how is that poor young woman going to react when unannounced two Royal Navy men turn up in a Land Rover to whisk her away to the nearest military airfield to London, Northolt?"

"Yes, it's Northolt, my dear. I'm sure she'll be surprised, but I'll make sure that someone in London informs her of the details of her flight and arrival time beforehand. We don't want to cause her any undue stress or anxiety. Now, who do we know in London who can go to Chelsea, Jeremy?"

"Preferably someone that Miss Silverwood knows, dear", added to his wife.

"Indeed, Penny."

"I have an idea", responded Jeremy with a grin. "Miss Silverwood is not the only person unexpectedly in London for Christmas."

Chris in Prague

Sometime after Sophie has agreed with Lady Trevelver that she will finally and definitively end the relationship with Riccardo, Lady Trevelver finds Sophie standing alone in a corner of the Great Hall, staring out at the moonlit snow-covered garden.

"Hello, Sophie, if you have a moment, please, I have something important to show you."

"Of course, Lady Penelope."

"Thank you, Sophie. Then follow me, please."

Lady Trevelver leads Sophie to one of the corridors leading off the Great Hall and stops in front of a large tapestry covering part of the wall. It depicts a classical stone entrance with flowering plants at the front left and right. Through the entrance, five stone steps lead to a winding path through open countryside, disappearing into the distance.

After checking that no one is watching, she lifts a corner of the heavy tapestry to shoulder height and, ducking her head, bids Sophie to take it and follow her. Sophie ducks her head and then holds the corner of the tapestry behind them. Lady Trevelver produces a pocket torch and illuminates a small rose-shaped medallion in the intricately carved wooden wall panel in front of her. She gently presses the medallion, which clicks and slides to the righthand side, revealing a keyhole. Lady Trevelver inserts an ornate key into the keyhole and turns it. The door creaks open, revealing a stone spiral staircase.

As they pass through the doorway, Sophie lets the heavy tapestry fall back into place. Lady Trevelver searches for a wall-mounted Bakelite switch to her right. The staircase is dimly lit with bare dust-covered light bulbs, and the walls are festooned with cobwebs. The air is very cold and damp. As they ascend the staircase, Sophie can hear the sound of her own breathing. Finally, they reach the top of the staircase, and Lady Trevelver uses the key to unlock a second door to reveal a large room.

"This is our covert chamber", Lady Trevelver explains as she flicks on another Bakelite light switch. "It was built over an inner part of the Great Hall to store valuable artefacts or as a hideaway for the lord or lady of the castle with or without their bodyguards in case of an emergency. While not exactly an emergency", she smiles briefly, "this is the perfect private place for you to bring Riccardo to tell him that the relationship between you two is over for good".

The walls and ceiling are adorned with intricate carvings that depict scenes from ancient mythology. The carvings are so detailed that Sophie can see every muscle and sinew on the figures. The wood-panelled walls and ceiling are made of a rich, dark wood that gives the room a warm, inviting feel. The carvings are so lifelike that she feels as if she could reach out and touch them. The floor of the room is covered with a thick, sound-deadening dark red carpet that feels soft and plush underfoot. The carpet is so thick that it muffles the sound of footsteps, making the room feel even more peaceful and serene. The dark red colour of the carpet contrasts beautifully with the rich, dark wood of the walls and ceiling, creating a sense of depth and richness in the room.

In the centre of the room, there is a round table made of dark wood with a diameter of about three feet. The table is supported by a single pedestal that is intricately carved with intertwining floral patterns. A pair of chairs, also made of the same dark wood as the table, are placed facing each other. The chairs have a high back and a cushioned seat. The backs of the chairs are also intricately carved with floral patterns. An incense holder made of polished brass is placed on the centre of the table. The holder has a clean, minimalist design centred on a single opening for the scent and is designed to collect the ashes and keep them away from the table and chair. The room is illuminated by an ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and the air is filled with a subtle scent.

"The incense was specially chosen by me to relax those who inhale it, Sophie. The room can only be accessed by this spiral staircase, which was once guarded by an armed guard at the bottom and the top to ensure that only those who were authorised were allowed to enter and reach the chamber. No one will disturb you or hear anything. Here is the key and the pocket torch. Please return them to me later."

Lady Trevelver hands Sophie the key before continuing.

"I really hope that this tête-à-tête will help you, Sophie. You both deserve lasting happiness."

Sophie takes the key and torch and thanks Lady Trevelver, who leaves to find her husband. After switching off each light, Sophie locks both doors behind her, then returns to the Great Hall to find Riccardo, first taking the precaution of collecting a large balloon glass of French Armagnac from the bar. Standing in the corridor entrance, Sophie scans the Great Hall, searching for her former lover. She spots him across the room, animatedly talking with a group of people about wine at the alcohol bar. She makes her way through the crowd, gracefully avoiding dancing couples and waiters carrying trays of food and drink.

When she reaches Riccardo, she taps him on the shoulder. He turns around, surprised to see her. Sophie softly whispers into his right ear that she needs to speak with him urgently and asks him to carry the balloon glass for her. Riccardo looks surprised, but Sophie's expression is serious, so he nods and, after excusing himself from the group of wine drinkers, follows her out of the Great Hall, carefully carrying the glass.

They make their way to one of the side corridors, where Sophie leads Riccardo to the hidden door behind the tapestry. She unlocks the door, revealing the spiral staircase. After they enter, Sophie lets the heavy tapestry fall back into place. The air is very cold and damp in the dimly lit staircase. Reaching the top of the spiral stairs, Sophie unlocks the door to reveal the secret chamber.

As they enter, Sophie says with a smile, "You have to promise to tell no one about this secret room, alright?"

Riccardo nods. "Of course, Lola. You know I can keep a secret."

"Good. Please, take a seat, Riccardo", and after placing the glass in front of him. "You might need this afterwards."

The atmosphere is tense, and the silence between them is palpable as they sit across from each other. Sophie takes a deep breath and looks into Riccardo's hazel eyes.

"Riccardo, I need to talk to you. I've been thinking a lot about you and me, and I've come to the conclusion that we can't keep doing this. We've been on-again, off-again for too long, and it's just not working."

"What are you saying, Lola?"

"I'm saying that it's over, Riccardo. For good and forever this time. We've had some incredible times together, but we've also hurt each other so much. We can't keep going through this cycle of passion and pain. You know the French expression, amour fou, don't you?"

"Yes, Lola. It mean crazy love."

"Yes, an uncontrollable or obsessive passion, a love that is intense and all-consuming. I really really need to move on from that, and so do you."

"But I love you, Lola. I can't imagine my life without you."

"I know, Riccardo. I love you too, but it's amour fou! Mutual passion just isn't enough. We need more than that to make our relationship work. I know that we respect each other, especially after what we have been through together in Turkey, but any relationship to work needs trust and stability, too. And we can never have that. My secret life makes that impossible. You and I both know that."

"Isn't there anything I can do to change your mind, Lola?"

"No, Riccardo. I'm very sorry. My mind is made up. Our lives are simply incompatible. It's time for us to say goodbye, but this time forever."

Sophie reaches across the little table and takes Riccardo's hand. They sit in silence for a few moments, both lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Sophie stands up, gives Riccardo's hand a gentle squeeze, and quietly walks out of the room and down the stairs.

Chris in Prague

The Trevelvers and their friends gathered in the Great Hall were determined to recognise that night the great success of Sophie and Riccardo's secret mission to smuggle the rare lifesaving Silphion plant out of Turkey but without revealing any details. After much discussion, it was agreed that all that could be publicly stated was that they were immensely grateful for the support which Sophie and Riccardo had given to Sylvia's recovery. That decided, Sylvia's parents were overjoyed to finally be able to show their gratitude, in person, to Sophie and Riccardo for their bravery and dedication.

Both Sophie and Riccardo felt very uncomfortable to be together again but did their best to hide their uneasiness as they stood with Lord and Lady Trevelver on the stage at one end of the Great Hall, and Huw gathered all the guests in front before signalling to Susan to stop the dance music playing through the hidden digital speakers.

"Thank you so much for all that you did to help save our only daughter's life", Sylvia's mother said, silent tears flowing down her face. "We will be forever grateful to you", she declared as she hugged Sophie and Riccardo in turn.

Sylvia's father then firmly shook Sophie and Riccardo's right hands. "You two are heroes", he said, his voice full of feeling. "We owe you everything."

Next was the turn of Sylvia's boyfriend, Jeremy, to express how very grateful he was to Sophie and Riccardo that Sylvia's life had been saved and that she was now fully recovered, and how much she meant to him.

"Thank you for bringing Sylvia back to me", he said, his voice choked with emotion as he firmly shook their right hands. "I don't know what I would do without her."

After Jeremy, Eli, Sylvia's intimate female friend and business partner, stepped forward to express her thanks. She knew that Sylvia was a fighter, but she also knew that Sylvia had needed all the help she could get to recover from her long physical and mental decline.

"Thank you for everything you've done", she said, hugging Sophie and then Riccardo. "You two are amazing. I could not imagine life without Silvie."

All of Sylvia's female friends, the 'Chelsea Girls', as they were generally known, the 'Sisterhood' to their close friends, and the 'Karadow' to themselves, then lined up on the stage. All were also determined to celebrate Sophie and Riccardo. They knew how close Sylvia had come to death and wanted to express their heartfelt gratitude to Sophie and Riccardo for their role in saving their close friend and leader. Fortunately, they had all arrived before the heavy snow blocked the railways and roads. However, not all their male friends had been able to get to Trevelver Castle in time for Christmas Eve.

"On behalf of all of us, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for all that you did to help save our dearest friend", Angela Evans said. "You two are the very best," before also hugging each of them in turn as the rest of the Sisterhood clapped long and loud.

Years later, as Riccardo sits in his Ligurian vineyard, watching the sun set over the mountains, he will think back on those days back in the 1960s with fondness. He will remember the people he has helped, the lives he has touched, and the love he has saved. And he will know, without a doubt, that he has lived a life worth living.

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