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Srebrna, Skald Arkadii (and thoughts on writing)

DPDT – Chapter 17 (part 4 of 4): And sing and dance and laugh

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“I have a question” Mina asked as they stretched on their beds after the stable cleaning and a shower.

“Fire away.”

“If I saw something yesterday – and the day before, too – then, well, aunt Georgiana…”

“Yep. Looks like it. Fancy that.”

“OK, so what do we do about it? I mean, do we… I don’t know. I don’t really know if there is a special thing we should… I mean, I don’t know about Dad. Mom is OK with… things. Stuff. But I don’t know what Dad would say.”

Rose rolled her eyes and flopped back on her bed.

“Dad is absolutely fine with this kind of things. Don’t worry.”

Mina opened her mouth to ask a question, but suddenly there was a sound of an engine going up the drive. Considering everyone was at the house – and Brian and the estate workers were taking a longer weekend off, after their hard work in the gardens – there was no reason for any cars to be coming to the mansion. Unless…

Rose was first out of the door, Mina on her heels.

In the downstairs hall, they almost crashed into their father, who reached out and stabilised them.

“Dad, who can be coming at such an hour?”

“Your birthday guests” Mom answered and threw the main door open in a wide gesture. “Come on, let’s help them with all the luggage!”

Two cars were disgorging adults and children. Mina counted six little cousins – including Jimmy, holding aunt Mary’s hand and watching everything curiously. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, holding Rose’s hand, waiting for the inevitable…

“Mommy!”

Ah-ha. Yola.

“Yes, darling?” Mina saw aunt Jane winking at her.

“Mommy, why Mina is twice?”

Everyone turned, first to look at Yola, then to where she was pointing.

While Yola was the most perceptive one, Jackie, as the eldest, was the bravest. She walked up to the twins and poked Mina in the shoulder.

“Real” she pronounced, then poked Rose. “Also real.”

The twins snorted.

“Yes, we are both real.”

“OK, so Mommy wasn’t having hal-lu-si-na-sion in the car when she was explaining this to us, right?” Isabelle joined her older sister. “There actually are two of you.”

“Yes” Rose nodded.

“So… Which one is Mina and which is not Mina?” Jackie demanded, hands on her hips. “Because…”

“I’m Rose.”

“And I am Mina.”

Jackie nodded slowly.

“So where did you come from? Because Mina is aunt Lizzy’s.”

Rose and Mina looked at each other.

“Rose is my sister” Mina said slowly. “We just… didn’t know each other for a long time.”

“How can she be your sister without you knowing? This doesn’t make sense.”

Rose sighed.

Like a lot of things around here, little cousin.

“Rose has been living here, in Derbyshire, with our father. And I’ve been living in London with our Mom.”

Bella scrunched up her nose.

“This doesn’t make sense. You don’t have a daddy. Aunt Lizzy had you on her own.”

Aunt Jane blushed.

“Bella, this isn’t so” she said quickly. “Mina and Rose have a father, see? This one here? This is your uncle William. He is your daddy’s best friend.”

Jackie frowned.

“If he is Daddy’s best friend, how come we’ve never met before?”

The adults winced.

“Let’s get this party inside?” Mom suggested, voice oh-so-bright that Mina grimaced a bit. “Girls? Pick something up? Jane, these boxes, to the fridge? Georgiana, take this down to the kitchen, please. Will, pick up these bags and take them upstairs. Everyone, follow uncle William!”

Aunt Mary, one hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and another dragging their weekend bag, moved first.

 

####

 

Elizabeth sighed, putting another container into the secondary fridge.

Georgiana looked at her, brows raised.

“That’s… a lot of people at once?” she remarked hesitantly.

“Just Jane, Charles, Mary and their little troop.”

“Mary, yes” Georgiana frowned a bit. “Jimmy…?”

“Adopted. Almost four years ago. Yes, small for his age. Expected to have development problems. FAS, low body mass at birth. Mary decided to adopt him after she had volunteered as baby-hugger in one of the small-child care centres. You wouldn’t believe the amount of fuss our parents raised when she said she doesn’t want a guy, she just wants a kid…! For a while, Jane and I were the only ones she wanted to talk to. If you want to know more, you can ask her, she’s fine with telling the story now.”

Georgiana nodded and busied herself with the tea tray, pulling pre-prepared repast from the fridge.

“I’ll call everyone to the dining room, I suppose” Elizabeth rubbed her temples. “I hope this works. I wouldn’t want for this to go too badly for the girls. It is their birthday weekend, after all.”

 

#

 

Upstairs, little Bingleys were watching curiously as their father and their new uncle tried to divide the luggage between the rooms.

“Ah, Lizzy” William sounded worried. “It seems we have miscalculated. Or, rather, underprepared. One of the windows in the last room has a substantial leak and the room isn’t heating up…” he untangled another bag from his shoulder. “I was thinking, how to rearrange everyone in the rooms that are already heated…”

She looked around and sighed, counting quickly.

“We have aunt Catherine’s old room, Mary can take it, with Jimmy in his cot. Then Anne’s old room, Jane, Charles and Jonathan in his travel cot. This is connected with the internal door to the room I sleep in now. I’ll just collect my things and Evelyn, Yola and Bella can sleep there – the bed is big enough. And then we have the field bed ready for Jackie and she will either sleep with her sisters or with Rose and Mina, which was anyway the plan.”

Jane frowned, trying to follow, but she nodded finally.

“But where will you…”

“No worries, Jane. I will set up a place for myself easily, and this way you’ll have the kids almost with you, no need to get out of the rooms if they need something. Now, better try to get your merry band downstairs for the tea and light supper. There are sandwiches and toast, some boiled eggs, a little bit of everything, cold and hot.”

“Are there any carrot sticks?” Yola asked with sudden interest.

“Yes, and I’ve put them far away from the pepper slices and the little onions, so you can eat them safely. Wash your hands!”

Jackie snagged Yola’s and Isabelle’s hands and pulled them with her, leaving the grownups to deal with little Evelyn, who was still standing in the middle of the corridor, studying the patterned rug under her feet.

Jonathan had started fussing, despite his generally calm nature, so Charles unwound the sling from his chest and eased his son to the floor.

“Pa!” the boy said happily.

“Yes, Johnny. Pa. And we’re at uncle Will’s house and we’re going to eat. Are you hungry?”

“Pa!”

“Come on. Downstairs. Evelyn, supper is waiting for us.”

“M-hm” his youngest daughter mumbled, looking at the carpet pattern again. “Look, Daddy. Flowers.”

He leaned in and followed her pointing finger.

“Flowers, definitely. I think this is some kind of rose, and this is a lily. Now, can we go and have something to eat? Evelynosaur, do you wish to hunt for your supper?”

“Yes!” the cute, round-faced tiny elf stretched her arms in front of her, bared her teeth, giving an almighty roar and running after her sisters, forcing Charles to pick up little Johnny and follow her.

Elizabeth, Jane, Mary and Jimmy joined them downstairs in a much more sedate fashion, allowing fascinated Jimmy to walk slowly, touching the flowers decorating the staircase wall.

 

#

 

The main table was quite big enough to accommodate everyone, fortunately, so once the Evelynosaur was satisfied with her prey (a grilled cheese sandwich prepared by William in the tabletop grill), Yola had located the bowl of carrots and celery, Jimmy had explained which sandwich looked the most interesting and Johnny was happily stuffing himself with a crepe filled with cottage cheese and a dribble of honey, the grownups could relax. Jackie, under Mina’s and Rose’s care, was managing quite well, warming up to Rose with every second.

“I think we should put her up in the girls’ room” Elizabeth suggested quietly. “I will take another field bed and put it in their study. They won’t need it in the morning anyway, so nobody will disturb me there.”

“Their study?” Jane raised an eyebrow.

“Well, one bedroom is the bedroom and the other is a workroom. They want to share, but they wouldn’t be able to fit two beds and two desks in one room. So, we split it by function.”

“I don’t feel very well about displacing you…” Mary began cautiously.

“Don’t worry. I’ve slept on one of these when Mina was sick” Elizabeth patted her hand. “I’ll be fine for two more days.”

“If you say so” Mary shook her head.

William snagged a bit of the cinnamon bread for himself, before children identified the treat, and was watching her intently. She tried not to look up too obviously, but, as he licked the sugar and tiny traces of cinnamon from his lower lip, she had to control a small shiver.

 

#

 

The bathing time was a bit challenging, but the appropriate usage of older cousins as guards for potential half (or completely) naked runaways had let them manage the smallest set and get them into Elizabeth’s big bed in short time. They were a bit surprised with the idea of sleeping all together, but the side door that opened to their parents’ room and the light coming from that direction – and the sounds of Johnny being put to his bed – calmed them down quickly. Elizabeth stayed for a moment longer, watching them, but the trio had actually fallen asleep by the time she had collected her things and crept out.

As she was coming back from the girls’ “study”, having dropped her things off there, she stopped by William’s door to ask him for the other field bed, but two male voices from inside gave her a pause. There was no way she was going to intrude when he was talking to Charles. They had to have a lot to discuss.

Shrugging, she turned to the staircase.

Time to start baking, now that there was finally nobody around.

In the kitchen, she loaded the dishwasher and filled in one half of the sink with soapy water, in which she had deposited the dirtiest dishes that couldn’t be put in the dishwasher.

Then, having cleared the working area and freed the shelf in the fridge, she pulled out the flour, sugar, eggs, the freshly-bought cocoa, the promised blackberry preserve and all the necessary tools, including her big mixer and a series of bowls.

“So, are we making this by the book, or are we counting on our luck?” she asked the kitchen range. “Luck? OK. I suppose that’s the best way. Just let me check the general direction…” she glanced at the proportions for her favourite chocolate cake base.

Three whites, into the mixer bowl. Put on high speed. Add sugar, single spoons…

Soon there was a rising cake base in the oven and Elizabeth was whipping the cream and pureeing the blackberry preserve.

“Hi” Mary said softly and Lizzy nearly jumped.

“Lord, Mary. You are quiet.”

“No, you were loud. Fortunately not loud enough to wake anyone, but…”

“Tea?”

“Only if you’re making for yourself, but the way you drink it. I just woke up and came down here to see if there is anything that could help me go back to sleep. Charles was driving my car, so I slept through most of the way, too…”

“I need a break anyway. Sit, sit.”

Mary placed a small baby monitor next to her on the table.

“He is still not sleeping through the night?”

Mary shrugged.

“It’s just in case. At home, he’s fine four nights out of five. Here, well. We shall see. What are you doing at this barbaric hour?”

“Birthday cake” she smiled and stretched. “I promised them blackberry jam in it, and so shall it be. And some frozen blackberries, and dulce de leche…”

“Naked, or covered?”

Elizabeth shrugged.

“Naked, probably. I don’t have the patience to fiddle with buttercream and the icing only for it to be thrown away the minute we cut the cake.”

“I’d much rather have the cake naked or in just good old whipped cream.”

“Or chocolate!”

“Definitely.”

The oven pinged softly, so Elizabeth had to get up and pull out the cake, transferring it onto a cooling rack.

“Ok, the second round now” she quickly made another batch of batter and poured it into a second, identical tin. “I bought a new brand of cream for whipping and I need to check it… rather nice, actually, hmm. And it stays up. OK, now, I need to mix the fruit puree with this and we’ll see…”

Mary sat at the table, watching her as she puttered around the kitchen.

The cake was growing.

“First round, cut in two” she mumbled, pouring tea and raspberry juice into a cup and then sprinkling the cake base with the mixture. “Soak the edges, nah nah… Dulce de leche, the fruit…And the cream. No, cream last. First, prepare all the layers. So, soaking, dulce de leche, fruit. Repeat. Aaand for the top… The rest of dulce de leche for now. The decoration can wait for the morning. Now, construction” she pulled one of the tins closer and placed the pre-prepared piece inside. Ladling out the third of the pink cream, she covered the fruit in the middle of the piece. “I hope this will hold up… Can you check if I didn’t put the rest of the cream smack in the middle of the shelf I had emptied before? I just might have, knowing myself.”

Mary confirmed the free space availability on the middle shelf, so Elizabeth could finish the cake quickly and relocate it to where it would not lose its shape.

“Once we pull it out, all icy cold, I’ll add chocolate dribbles all over it, the cream and some more fruit. This way–” yawn “–it will not get toowet.”

“Upstairs, and go to sleep, Lizzy” Mary patted her back. “If you oversleep, I think we will manage with Jane – and with our gentlemen.”

“Everything you’d need is in the pantry” Elizabeth yawned. “I hope I won’t fall asleep on the stairs. That would be inconvenient.”

 

####

 

“Only the civil ceremony?” Charles cocked his head to the side. “Does make sense, I absolutely agree with Lizzy. Mrs Bennet would be on you in seconds, and reading of the banns is one of the chief entertainments of such small communities. It makes them feel powerful – like nobody can do anything unless “the elders” allow them to.”

William nodded.

“Last thing we want is Mrs Bennet invading the venue trying to overrule our plans. No, I wouldn’t do that to Lizzy. We’ll get married at the office and then we can discuss with the parson what we can do next. I just… I just want us to be properly, lawfully married, so that nobody can bother either of us, or Rose, or Mina” he sighed. “I just want the whole world to buzz off.”

“Riiiight. So, would there be anyone else attending? Us, I’m guessing Mary?”

“Richard. You’ll have to share the dubious honour of being my best man with him.”

Charles snorted and shook his head.

“At least some entertainment is guaranteed then. Is he coming alone or…?”

“That depends, you know, getting a leave at short notice.”

“It would be nice to see them both. Still, even Richard by himself is a bright spot. And it may inspire the stupid git to finally make a move. Anyone else?”

“Georgiana will play something, the girls will bring the rings and then we’ll all come back here and have a small party. Elizabeth is already researching cake options.”

“Don’t tell me she’s baking it herself.”

“Of course she is. How could she let someone else bake it and so risk them making a mess of it?”

Charles nodded.

“If you put it like this… Absolutely. And she knows best what would suit everyone.”

“I kind of suggested the Black Forest” William smirked, seeing his friend purse his lips in a silent whistle. “Yeah, I still remember that one she made for Jane’s birthday ‘as an experiment, you know, just checking if I can’. The worst part was, she was honest – she all made it in that awful tiny kitchen they had, with an old gas oven and next to no working space. And she did it while programming something for a project.”

“I was terrified of her” Charles admitted suddenly. “She was so different from Jane, and so surprising. And she had next to no sensitivity to some social ideas, like not walking around in her t-shirt and pyjama shorts all day, or not calling one out on their walk of shame… The first time I spent the night, I was trying to sneak out and she simply sat me down at the table, put a plate of toast in front of me, poured some tea and went on to kick Jane out of her bed. Then she suggested we wash up and threatened us with bodily harm if we wake her up before noon.”

“That… that doesn’t sound like Elizabeth” William blinked.

“She was tired, sleepy and we might have been a bit loud…?” Charles cringed.

“So she…”

“She fed us and, more or less, told us to keep quiet, or else. I think there was a tyre iron being presented.”

“OK, that does sound a bit like Elizabeth.”

“She was in her flat, her own safe space, that’s what Jane said later. Out of the door – Lizzy in the safe mode. Inside – Lizzy in ‘protect the herd’ mode.”

William snorted softly at the imagery.

“OK, Will. I’ll be honoured to stand up with you – and Jane and Elizabeth had probably already agreed on the same in the first ten seconds after we arrived, so they will be taking over the control of most of the preparations and we will simply defer to their better understanding of the subject.”

“To the ladies of our lives” William raised his teacup and met his friend’s cup with a quiet ‘chink’. “May they have mercy on our failings and stay with us long enough for us to prove we’re not completely hopeless.”

“And, to paraphrase a certain musical…” Charles winked. “May heavens bless Mr and Mrs Bennet and keep them… far away from that wedding.”

“You’re a bad man, Charles.”

“You wouldn’t have loved me so if I was any different. Have you already set everything up? The date, the venue?”

“It was, in a way, rather… easy. We didn’t even check for the exact rules of how, when and who can get married. Particularly thoughtless of us, but fortune favours not only the brave, but the stupid, too.”

His friend leaned back in his seat.

“How so?”

“In order to give notice at the office, that you’re planning to marry, one has to live in the area for at least seven days. Me, it’s not a problem…”

“Elizabeth?”

“She’s been here since last Friday. That makes ten days.”

“But how do you prove it? I remember some absolute idiocy was required – like utility bills. How can one have a utility bill if they had just moved a week earlier?”

William snorted.

“Apparently a letter from the owner of the place where the person has been staying is perfectly fine, too. I didn’t want to discuss the point with the very stern young lady that had received us, because we really wanted to make sure there will be an appointment for us on the 11th of November.”

“Perfect” Charles raised his cup. “Are you two sure? I mean, this is both very quick and very…”

“Yes” he answered curtly. “We’ve discussed this, we want to do it, we don’t want to wait for something to happen again. Considering how our last two weeks went, I feel like it’s been months, not just days, since she came here…” he shook his head. “It’s been a pure adrenaline rollercoaster, starting with aunt Catherine admitting she had been burning all correspondence between Elizabeth and me…”

“What?!”

He sat back and looked at his shocked friend in silence.

“She’s been…” Charles carefully set the cup on the table next to him. “She…”

“Yes. She stole Lizzy’s letters and gifts for Rose and burnt them.”

“But… Good Lord, she had burnt all the…”

“Yes. And she did the same with my mother’s jewellery and other family mementoes which I had been sending to Mina.”

Charles raked his fingers through his sandy blonde curls.

“It was one of the reasons I could finally kick her and Anne out” William explained, letting his friend gather his thoughts. “You see, the whole thing started two weeks ago, on Friday afternoon…”

 

#

 

When Charles left, his head reeling with the story, William collected the cups and the tea service and brought them downstairs. He was a bit surprised to see Mary scrubbing one of the cake tins.

“Lizzy has baked a cake” she answered his unvoiced question. “But she was falling on her nose, so I told her to go upstairs. Jimmy is still asleep, so I can wash this and I really need something to do before I feel sleepy enough.”

“Thanks” he emptied the teapot and set the cups in the dishwasher. “I… Is there anything you’d need, Mary?”

She frowned, looking up at him.

He sighed, trying to find the right words.

“Is there anything that Jimmy needs that you can’t find, or get, or… or whatever. Anything I could help with.”

She turned to look at him fully, leaning back on the sink.

“Why?”

“Because I run a charity that has more contacts that a standard human being can” he said simply. “If there is any kind of… help. Medicine, therapy, books – even specific food that could make a difference – and you can’t get it, I suppose the foundation could.”

She shook her head, smiling.

“No, William. There is no magic wand that could fix him. He is just as he is – and I have accepted the fact that he may never be ‘healed’.”

He poured himself a glass of water, to kill the time and gather his thoughts.

“I didn’t mean it like this” he said, finally. “I know that there is no cure for certain problems. But I also know that there are easier and harder ways of resolving problems, and sometimes it’s hard to gain access to the easier methods. Maybe he would need a speech therapist who won’t just try to punch in the hours, or maybe additional swimming lessons with a trainer specialising in kids with development issues? Or maybe crayons that don’t contain certain ingredients? One of my employees has a kid who is allergic to certain dyes, so she can’t draw with normal coloured pencils. It turned out there is a company in Sweden that produces ones with alternative dyes. They wouldn’t sell to a private person, but when we made an order as a foundation…” he shrugged. “So, you know. Stuff like this. Doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but hey, if it helps, why not use it?”

She nodded slowly and turned back to the sink.

“Take a towel and dry these” she ordered simply. “Jimmy is fine, mostly. Just a bit… late, in some aspects. Mostly it’s enough if I buy more shape recognition toys, plush animals with varying surfaces, jigsaw puzzles, this kind of thing. He doesn’t need specific food, doesn’t have allergies, is not bothered by tags on his clothes or similar stuff.”

“Still, the offer stands” he said, taking a glass bowl and wiping it carefully. “I… I know it’s hard to be a single parent of a child with no development problems. I can’t imagine bringing up one that does need special consideration.”

She handed him the last piece of the cake tin.

“I wasn’t exactly a single parent in this” she said, unblocking the drain. “Elizabeth was much more than an aunt for Jimmy. The amount of time she and Mina spent with him when I needed a breath…”

“You did the same for Elizabeth and Mina at the time, right?”

“Mina was a year old and she didn’t require being carried around with full body contact 24/7.”

“But at the time neither of you had experience. When Jimmy appeared, you both already had the needed knowledge and you were both steadily employed.”

She nodded, grimacing.

“We were both terrified that she would cry and we wouldn’t hear her, or that she would wander away… Fortunately half of that wing had kids or were expecting, so they were pretty tolerant. They were more surprised with me living there as the only non-parent than with Lizzy moving in with Mina for that half year. I always explained that I prefer wailing babies to constant partying – and that was the reasoning that had worked for the Dean, too.”

He looked at her hands, wiping the sink dry.

“I’m glad you were there” he said finally. “I…”

“I hated you” she interrupted him sharply. “I hated you for hurting her, for throwing away the chance you had. I hope it will work out this time, because if you fuck this up, William Darcy…”

“They won’t find my body, yes, I know. Stand in a line. Georgiana is first.”

“I knew I liked that girl. Now, go upstairs and please, check on my sister to make sure she didn’t fall asleep in some weird place? I’ll be along in a moment, just need to make myself some tea and sit for a moment in silence.”

“Sure. Thank you, Mary.”

“It… no problem. William.”

 

#

 

Elizabeth had fallen asleep somewhere, to be sure, because there was no sign of movement from anywhere, but she wasn’t in the girls’ working room – and there was no trace of the bed that was supposed to be set up there. He stood still for a moment before he recalled that they had, in fact, only prepared the bed for Jackie in the girls’ room, but never got around to making one up for Elizabeth, and the field beds were in the closet in his room, which she had not entered… Ah.

His study was dark, barely illuminated by a small desk lamp and the dying fire in the fireplace, but the bundle of blankets on the couch had some very Lizzy-like characteristics. A mop of hair on one end and a small, thin foot on the other, for example.

“Lizzy?” he touched the foot carefully, but she only pulled it in under the blankets, escaping from his touch. “Lizzy, do you want me to set up the bed for you here?”

No answer. She was probably so tired she fell asleep waiting for him and Charles to finish talking.

There were several options.

He could take the bed out and set it up in the working room. That would require some effort and would necessitate collecting warmer blankets and another duvet, because Elizabeth had left her bed to the children just as it was.

He could set it up out here, in his study, which was a bit warmer, due to the fireplace. Also, move private than the girls’ room.

Or…

He bit the inside of his cheek for a moment.

Yeah. Why not.

He picked her up, blankets and everything, and walked into his bedroom. Setting her down, removing the blankets – she had changed into her pyjamas, good – and covering her with the duvet (not “his” duvet – that was the one that was still in her bed) was a matter of seconds. Still, it almost woke her up.

“Will?” she mumbled, burrowing deeper under the covers.

“Sleep” he touched her cheek. “I need to work on something, you can sleep here.”

“Wh’re?”

“My bedroom. It’s cold in the girls’ room, you’ll be better off here.”

“Mhm” she opened her eyes for a moment, smiled at him and immediately fell asleep again.

“OK” he whispered, patting her shoulder. “I’ll be just next door if you need something.”

“Mm.”

 

#

 

He was trying to make heads or tails of the budget proposal for yet another initiative that the foundation was supposed to support when he heard her stir. A quick glance at the clock told him he had been working for two and a half hours, so she had probably been asleep for more or less three. She’d either go back to sleep, or…

“Will?” she looked a bit lost, standing in the doorway, looking at him. “What am I…?”

“You fell asleep on the sofa” he explained. “I moved you to the bed, it’s a bit more comfortable.”

“But… I was supposed to sleep…” she frowned.

“Yes, but that room is cold. And you looked so tired I didn’t want to move you there, anyway. My bed is a bit better than that foldable monstrosity, too.”

“Yes, but, Will, we didn’t discuss…”

He took off his glasses and pulled her closer, seating her on the chair’s stuffed armrest.

“That’s why I’m here and you were there” he said simply. “Also, I needed to look over these documents and that seemed like a perfect moment.”

She sighed and leaned closer, putting her head on his shoulder and turning her face up at him.

“What are we going to do?”

“Well, you will go back to sleep” he punctuated this with a small kiss. “And I will try to conquer the budget calculation that had apparently been made with a crayon on a piece of packing paper, because it makes that little sense.”

“Or…” she turned a bit and peered at the columns of numbers. “I could help you with that and we could both catch some sleep before our guests require our attention?”

“El…”

“This” she pointed out. “This doesn’t make sense. Or someone doesn’t know how VAT is calculated. See? The way they add and then… see? The number here should be the multiplication of this one, times seventeen” she marked the places with small pieces of a torn post-it note. “And because they don’t know what the rules are…”

“Blimey” he whispered. “You’re a bloody genius, love. And I’ve been looking at the whole sum for the last ten minutes, trying to track back… How did you see it?”

She shook her head.

“You would have found it the moment you stopped focusing on the big numbers at the end. I just saw the pattern that was wrong…” she frowned. “Now that you know they can’t really count how VAT is applied, you can go back to the beginning and check all the tax and percentage calculations. Or I could help you, I’ll just need a spreadsheet to make 100% sure I’m not making a mistake myself. But definitely, first adding VAT, multiplying the number of items, and then removing VAT should give you…”

“The basic before-VAT number, multiplied. At this isn’t it.”

“I wonder if this was done by accident or on purpose” she yawned, nestling closer to him now. “Because if they had… just used twenty items… You’d have seen it much sooner” she shivered with another, suppressed yawn.

“By making it seventeen they obfuscated the outcome” he frowned and closed the folder decisively, slapping a new post-it on top and writing “CHECK THE NUMBERS” on it. “Because normally noone can calculate easily if there are no round numbers involved.”

“Or even ones. Even if it was sixteen, it would have been much more obvious.”

“For you” he pointed out, but she shrugged.

“You don’t have to see it consciously, but you’d have noticed it sooner, I’m sure. All the computer stuff is… eights and sixteens…” she shuddered again. “Can we go to bed now?”

“Sure” he started raising, but she hopped off and stretched.

“I need something to drink” she grimaced. “Not enough water during the day. I’ll be right back, you…” she paused. “I’ll be right back.”

 

It was one of the fastest showers he had ever taken and still it included shaving.

He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink, trying to stare down his reflection.

Come on, Will. Just sleeping. Hold her, make her feel safe. She…

She was there when he entered the bedroom. A glass of water, a pitcher with some lemon slices in it, on the nightstand, and Elizabeth, again completely under the covers. He slipped in on the other side and immediately there was a small ball of warmth buried into his side.

“Will” she breathed and reached out, stabilising herself against him.

“Um. Lizzy?”

She adjusted herself again, head on his shoulder, nose pressed into his t-shirt, one hand curled up under her, the other thrown across his body.

“Sleep” she said softly. “We can talk about this tomorrow.”

“I just…” he sighed. “Will you be moving back to… to the other room, when they leave?”

He felt her give something akin to a shrug.

“We can talk about this tomorrow?” she suggested. “I… It’s nice like this, hm?”

More than bloody nice.

But he was a grown man and this was Elizabeth, trusting him.

“Nice” he confirmed, gathering her closer, pulling her into a slightly better position, which she accepted with a small, warm sigh.

 

####

 

She woke up with a start.

The bed was large and empty, and she was not only fully dressed in her long sleeved shirt and yoga trousers, but carefully wrapped in a blanket and covered with a duvet. She was warm.
It wasn’t purely physical warmth, either.
She smiled to herself and fell back on the bed a bit.
There was a piece of paper propped on the pitcher of water she had brought, with “E” written on top. She pulled it towards her and unfolded it.

Lizzy,

We’re taking the kids for a walk.
Rose and Mina are managing Jackie and Isabelle.
Jane and Mary will take care of breakfast
I’ll come to fetch you once everything is ready.
Sleep in.

W.

“Oh.”
There were sounds all around her, but nothing close by. She could hear the girls outside, apparently playing on the lawn – she worried fleetingly whether the grass wouldn’t be too wet, but… She shrugged. There were enough clothes in the house to change Jackie and Bella into if they got soaked.
She relaxed into the pillow and closed her eyes.
Just for a moment.

#

“Lizzy? There is a breakfast ready… Elizabeth?”
She curled up, seeking the warmth that had been there for the whole…
…night. Argh.
She sat up, wiping her eyes and looked as William, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“What time is it?”
“Nine-ish” he smiled. “Come on, get up. Everything is almost ready and the kids are getting washed after the walk – I must admit, I forgot how much energy children have at that age.”
“Will…”
“And there is a plan for a small walk after breakfast, to let everyone see the gardens when there is still something to be seen here, before it all goes grey and empty…”
“William!”
He stopped, looking at her curiously.
“All my things are in ‘my’ room” she explained, looking away. “And there are kids there now…”
“Actually” he bit his lip. “I brought them over here.”‘
She stared mutely for a moment.
“Not everything!” he corrected quickly. “Just… a few things, so that you didn’t have to…”
Oh, God. They were now both bright red.
“Ah” she cleared her throat. “Thanks. I suppose.”
He huffed softly.
“Come on. Get dressed and come downstairs, or the kids will start gnawing on the table legs.”

#

The breakfast was lavish. Jane and Mary had prepared enough to accommodate all the varied needs and appetites, which with eight children and six grownups wasn’t that obvious. Fortunately most of the children (except for Jimmy, who preferred cereal) were happy to stuff themselves with scrambled eggs and toast, taking the pressure off their parents, except for the part of what was supposed to go on whose toast. Jackie managed by herself and Rose helped Isabelle to achieve the required level of butter on her slice. Charles was holding little Johnny away from his own fried bacon and trying to feed him something more appropriate (which meant that a sudden attack by a hungry Evelynosaur took him by surprise and deprived him of said bacon). Mary, assisted by Mina, was letting Jimmy work his way steadily, if a little sloppily, through a bowl of cornflakes.
Everyone looked at her as she entered, trying to look as unruffled as she possibly could.
“Mom, are you feeling better now?” Rose patted the chair next to her. “Dad said you needed to sleep in and we were not to make a sound upstairs.”
“Yes, thank you for this, kitten. I was up too long yesterday, I think.”
Georgiana hid her face in her oversized tea mug.

“And what were you doing so long, aunt Lizzy?” Isabelle piped up, rubbing the butter off her face with her sleeve and making Jane and Mary snicker.

“I was in the kitchen, taking care of certain preparations for today evening” she said mysteriously, sitting down next to Rose. “Now, any eggs left? And maybe a few bits of sausage?”

 

#

 

“Mom, can we go back outside? We were playing badminton with Jackie and Bella.”

“I think Dad had some grand plan for a general walk outside, but you can go, just stay on the lawn. And take your rubber boots!”

She quickly turned and ran downstairs to check the fridge. The cake looked perfect. And it was time to decorate it, as the girls were outside. She pulled out the rest of the cream and set up the mixer yet again, as Mary had cleaned a bit too thoroughly the night before.

Mary.

She froze for a moment with her hands on the jar, feeling of guilt catching up with her. They had let her sleep in, even though she was supposed to be their hostess. On the other hand, her sisters were surely more than able to tell William to piss off if he tried to make them do something they didn’t wish to. Which meant they had all conspired to let her sleep longer. She felt the heat in her cheeks raising, so she rested her face on the cool container.

“Whip this cream, Lizzy, before it goes warm” she scolded herself.

She opened the freezer and took out the box of blackberries that had been waiting there.

Pour the cream, add some proper vanilla sugar. Run the whisk. Test. Scrape the bowl, another round.

She never liked beating the whole amount at once – usually something went wrong when she was in a hurry and put the whole litre in the mixing bowl. Doing it a cup at a time let her avoid overwhipping and getting a bowl full of sweetened butter.

A small pan and bowl on the range were already heating up, melting the chocolate.

She checked around to avoid any stray children she could step on and picked the cake from the fridge. Securing it on the rotating stand went quickly and she could remove the band and start decorating.

A large, flat knife was stored in the same box as the stand, the decorating triangle and a box of piping tips next to it.

First, some more dulce de leche. Just because. And a dribble of the melted chocolate. Well, more than a dribble. More like a whole rain of it. A moment in the fridge, she had time to clean up the table. Then a big blob of whipped cream. Always decorate from the top, Lizzy. The flat knife in her right hand, she turned the stand with her left.

Ah. Bliss. No thinking, just muscle memory.

She got the top even and smooth, bringing the cream over the edges and keeping them crisp. A bit more cream at the bottom, but this didn’t have to be perfect. The piping bag, fitted with a star tip, was filled with cream and she started piping perfect little rosettes of stiff whiteness along the bottom of the cake, covering all the imperfections of the cream covering on that part. The thawed blackberries were next, so she picked the prettiest ones to put on top of the cake, in a round, and then surrounded them with another ring of cream rosettes.

“Ah” she said, throat suddenly dry.

The first cake for both of her daughters at the same time.

Very carefully, she put the piping bag in its stand and removed the cake to the fridge.

Then she took a moment to quietly break down at the table.

#

The lunch was easy – there were more than enough ingredients for a variety of tortilla fillings in the boxes brought by Jane and Mary, and even the most suspicious children were tired and hungry enough to let themselves be fed a bit of everything, including guacamole and several kinds of bean paste. Rose and Mina had to be stopped from an attempt at a Scoville scale competition and Lizzy controlled the level of spiciness of their combinations from that moment.
“You” she poked Mina in the shoulder “are supposed to sing in a week. And you know your throat is not yet up to the challenge. Actually, I shouldn’t allow you to even leave the house or eat anything spicier than a toast with cheese.”
“But, Mom!”
“I know” she kissed her younger daughter’s temple. “Still, you better pay attention to what you’re eating. And you, don’t encourage her” she mussed up Rose’s hair.
“Aunt Lizzy, how big is the garden? We were walking for hours and hours and I still didn’t see any kind of wall?” Isabelle asked around her tortilla.
“Well, that would be the question to your uncle William” she demurred. “But from what I remember, it’s at least half a mile of formal flower gardens, then another of orchards… No, orchards make a mile, I think. Then there are the vegetable gardens a bit to the left, and these change every year, and on the right there is the orangery and the glass hothouse. And there was the blackberry bramble that I’ve started… I think it is still there… Will?”
“It is” Rose confirmed. “I always liked it, and aunt Catherine always complained I’m messing up my clothes with them.”
Elizabeth grinned a bit.
“And there should be the raspberry patch, too, unless the gardeners didn’t maintain it. And the hazels, next to it, I think.”
“And the currant bushes, too” William joined her. “And we have a small foil tunnel to grow strawberries, but it’s taken down at this time of the year.”
“You have, like, your own strawberries?” Yola’s eyes widened. “Wow. Wow.”
“If you ever come here in June, you can see it” William offered, glancing at Charles.
“Mummy!?”
Jane sighed.
“Yes, well. Now we will have to, or they won’t stop reminding us! Terrible, we were planning to never come here again.”
“Mummy!!!”

#

“Mary, what are you doing?”
Mary was, in fact, flat on her back in the middle of the corridor.
“Have you ever checked the ceiling here, Liz?”
Elizabeth raised her head, trying to understand…
…ah.
She blushed.
“Seriously.”
“Yep.”
“Do you think it was commissioned…?”
“No, I rather think painter was bored to death.”
“So he drew… this man, and…”
“This is definitely not human, if you were looking for this confirmation. Neither is that” Mary pointed out another piece. “Looks like a stylised mermaid. With two tails.”
“Dear… Oh. I hope the girls didn’t see that.”
Mary snorted.
“Who do you think showed me these?”
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.

####

Mom’s surprise was the cake – not a very surprising surprise, but the girls were not expecting anything of that size. Dad’s surprise was much less expected, but received by everyone with cheer. A great bonfire, set in the remote corner of the gardens, far from both the trees and the house, was waiting for the girls to lit it when everyone made their way down there after the nap (for the younger ones) and some board games. Uncle Charles had been tasked with bringing all kinds of snacks and candy, driving the small electric car the gardeners used to transport their tools, and the cake was secured in the backseat and tended to by Mom on the way.
They set it up on a stone table installed there by some enterprising great-great-grand-father and lit four candles – two “1’s” and two “4’s”, making two “14’s” on the opposite sides of the cake, one for each of them. They eyed each other over the cream-and-berries concoction.
“Come on, girls. Each on her side, now, aaand…”
And Mom pulled a guitar from somewhere, and everyone was singing “Happy Birthday”, and then they were blowing out the candles, never breaking their gaze.
In a year, here, all of us.
In a year, here, more of us.
The candles were taken out, the cake was being cut, the slices were distributes, the groans of appreciation were voiced, the little cousins were milling around and wishing them “evelyfink beft” (Evelynosaur) “cookies!” (Jimmy) “lots of candy” (Yola) very stiff “all the best” (Jackie) and “whatever you wish, but I’d want a kitten!” (Isabelle). Johnny limited himself to hugging their knees at uncle Charles’ prompting.
And then there were the presents.

####

“And now I know why Mom had been so sleepy recently. What I don’t know is how she managed to take our sizes and make that.”
That were two dresses, identically cut, but varying in colour. Mina’s was all green, black and copper, with dark gold inserts in the skirt and an overlay of metallic green crocheted lace. Rose couldn’t decide whether to salivate over her own gown or be a bit angry at Mom for the “older sister” jibe, but the first option won. It was an Elsa dress that was better than any Elsa dress she had ever seen. Steel blue, with silver shimmer from a layer of tulle, silver bodice with blue metallic lace on the front and a blue string to lace it on the back.
“This is a gown to end all princess gowns” aunt Jane said in a worshipful tone. “This… Nobody can top *that*.”
“Next year I’ll dress them in grass skirts and we’ll claim it’s supposed to be Moana” Mom said tiredly and stretched on the bench, her head on some strategically placed cushions, allowing herself to be hugged by both of them at the same time.
“Now, from us” aunt Jane handed them two sturdy cardboard boxes. “Let’s call this… completing the set. Also, a little bird had informed me that my previous gift had been confiscated, so here’s a replacement.”
Rose’s box contained the whole set – the pliers, identical with ones that aunt Anne had taken away – the hammer and an equally outrageously pink screwdriver. Mina’s box, obviously, didn’t hold the hammer.
“Where did you get this abomination, Janey?” Mom raised her head from her place on the bench.
“There is a small shop near our place that stocks these, and a few more items like this. I saw a set of home improvement tools in fabulous purples, actually. Proper rubber handles and all. I was considering buying something for you, too.”
“I have a measuring tape with a flower pattern, nothing can beat that.”
“A purple hammer.”
“Nah.”
“Purple-handled pliers.”
“Meh.”
“Purple box-knife.”
“Double meh.”
“Purple spirit level.”
“M… ok, that’s one I haven’t seen.”
“You mean you’ve seen a purple hammer?”
“More like lilac, but yes, I have. Girl, I’ve seen a pink-handled axe.”
Dad had a weird expression on his face as he rose with two more boxes and they exchanged worried glances.
“Now, I think one gift…” he smirked. “Will be freeing you of the stable chores. I think Rose will remember from now on that she is supposed to take care of Star properly and, Mina” he gathered his younger daughter closer. “I admire your willingness to accompany Rose in this punishment, but don’t think that you had fooled me for a moment. You are perfectly petrified by being in close quarters with animals that much taller than you and you were carefully keeping away from any direct contact with them, weren’t you, ducky?”
Mina sighed and nodded.
“I…” she shrugged. “I tried, because, you know…” she shot a glance at Rose who rolled her eyes. “I didn’t want you to feel like I’m leaving you alone in there!”
Rose bumped her shoulder affectionately.
“You can still come. I mean, throwing the hay down from the loft won’t bring you in contact with Star. Or taking the wheelbarrow out. Or bringing the water in.”
“Yeah, well. I could, I suppose. As long as you don’t expect me to come any closer to Dad’s horse. Star is fine. Star is nice and she isn’t that tall. But I’d rather not get any closer to…” she made an uncertain gesture “…ah, Hector. Than necessary. Sorry, Dad.”
“Not an issue, Mina. You two don’t have to be identical. In fact, we’d rather you weren’t. Right, Lizzy?”
Mom waved a hand from her spot on the bench.
“They are annoying enough as they are. We need to have some way to tell them apart.”
“Well, then. There is a separate gift for each of you. This” he handed a box to Rose “is both for you and for Star. And this, well” he winked at Mina “I suppose your mother will want to borrow it, but stay firm. Come on. Open them.”
“Thank you, Dad” Mina frowned at the well-wrapped box and started methodically removing paper. “What…”
“A gel saddle pad! Wow, Dad! And the gloves! Perfect!”
Rose’s enthusiasm made her peek into the package, but she could only see a mass of something… dark?
“It’s a gel… pad” her sister explained, not really bringing more meaning to the previous exclamation. “This goes under the saddle. Makes it more comfortable for the horse. And grooming gloves, so I can, like, brush her without an actual brush.”
“Ah!” Mina could only nod in appreciation. Anything that made the horse more comfortable would be probably a nice thing.
“And what did you get?” Rose poked at her box.
“Ah, this…” she finally found the piece of tape Dad had secured the paper with and uncovered a gleaming blue and aluminium box with letters DREMEL printed on a side. “Dad! I… Wow. I mean… Mom, look!”
“Mina, what… Ah, a minidrill! Fabulous!”
Everyone was suddenly focused on Mina.
“Dad, how did you know?!
“I… kind of guessed?” the box was left on the grass and Mina was hugging Dad in a crushing grip. “I suppose I got this one correctly, too?”
Rose plastered herself on his other side.
“Yeah, Dad. I suppose you have. She had been mooning over this thing more than over Teddy, I think.”
“Rose!” she had to duck an attempt at a hit from Mina.
“Well, you did! And you keep their catalogue under your bed!”
“…ff!”
“Mina! Language!”
“I didn’t say anything!” Mina stuck out her tongue at Rose.
“Now, ladies, if you don’t calm down, you won’t see my gift” aunt Mary was holding something small and… tickets?
“Um” Mina coughed.
“Right” Rose straightened herself. “We’re, like, totally serious.”
“Yeah.”
“Very well. William, cover your eyes. Ladies, this is an IOU for tomorrow. You two, your mother, aunt Jane and me, we are going to Matlock, for some shopping” and with that, aunt Mary dropped a small business card with “2 perfectly fitted bras” printed on it into each of their hands.

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