The Taken: After A Fall, Chapter 6

Synopsis:

"Lots of stuff you couldn't imagine me doing."

Story:
***

Valerie wasn’t tracking well at lunch. “Pardon me?” She thought someone might have mentioned her name.

“Are you all right, Vee?” Jo asked. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week.”

“It’s only half a week,” she corrected, before remembering that was bad enough. “Havanothercookie.” They were disappearing fast. She wondered madly if Natasha could be persuaded to make more tonight.

“What is it?”

“Uh, chocolate, vanilla extract, butter, chocolate, eggs, flour–” Someone gave her shoulder a friendly shove. “Chocolate…” She started giggling, then shook herself. “Nah, I’m okay. Really.”

“I really don’t think you should try to ride home tonight,” Mary said. “Can’t you leave the bike here one night and I’ll drive you home?” ~Bad idea!~ Valerie flashed. ~So many levels.~ “Or you can crash at my place… Or someone’s… But we’ve got a spare room an’ all.” ~Hand the lady a shovel,~ Valerie thought. She thought she’d already seen Jo give them both a curious look earlier.

It wasn’t a problem for Valerie. She knew none of this crowd would have a problem with it. Danny was gay and out about it, and it just hardly even came up.

But Mary was nervous anyway. Valerie could understand that. People were going to look at her differently when it came out. It didn’t have to be bad-different to be a bit scary. And maybe it was worse, being a mother.

“No, ’m okay. I just need to…” ~Lie down. I need to lie down somewhere.~

“So how come you haven’t been sleeping?” Danny asked.

“It’s this new kid, Natasha?” Jo explained. Valerie blinked. She didn’t remember telling Jo about that. ~Oh wait. Had to say who made the damn cookies. Again.~ She hoped she got the story straight when she must have said it. It was probable. She hadn’t been as tired then.

“What new kid?” Aiden asked, swiping another cookie.

“You were there when she said,” Jo remonstrated. “This girl’s staying at Vee’s for the summer, ’cause her parents had some trouble coping with her, or something.” That sounded more or less straight to Valerie. “She’s having nightmares, right?” Valerie nodded. No need to mention her own problems. “Vee’s been up babysitting every night. That’s where these cookies you’re scoffing came from!” She grabbed the tupperware box away from Aiden’s side of the table.

“Oh that’s nice of you,” Karen said. “So she’s what, your foster sister? How old is she?”

“Is she fit?” Aiden put in, and got a thump from someone. Jo, Valerie guessed. “Hey! I was only asking!”

“Fifteen,” Valerie answered Karen, opting to ignore Aiden.

“Really?” Mary said, surprised. “You made her sound a lot younger.”

“She seems a lot younger sometimes,” Valerie admitted. ~Foster sister?~

“You’re not going to be any good to her if you crash your bike, ’cause you’re so tired, are you?” Jo said.

“Well, I’m going to go and see little one,” Mary stated. “You coming, Vee?”

“Uh, sure!”

“Mind if I tag along?” Jo asked.

To her credit, Mary didn’t hesitate, or she covered it while she was standing. “Sure.”

“We’ll look after the cookies,” Danny declared, grabbing the box back.

“Save some for the rehearsal. Lizabeth will want one.”

“Why don’t you take hers to her now?”

“Because, if I do that I’ll have to bring enough for the whole group, and then they’ll be unmanageable all afternoon and their play supervisor will hate me forever. You know there’s far too much sugar in these for children, don’t you, Vee?” she added.

“No there’s not. There’s exactly the amount there’s supposed to be.” Valerie managed a grin, then remembered she had to get up too, if she was going to see Elizabeth. She stowed the remainder of her lunch and got up. “Look, it’s a really occasional treat. It’s not going to happen often, I promise.”

“Hmm. Okay. Well, are you coming?”

“I’m coming.”

***

“Why don’t you go up and take a shower, and change, and then you can come down here and help me make lunch. How does that sound?” Marie said. She and Natasha had returned and were standing back in the kitchen.

“Okay.”

“Well, go on then, unless you need me to take your coat off as well.” She smiled wryly at the earlier scene, seeing the echo of her expression in Natasha’s face.

“No, I think I can manage. I’ll call you if I get stuck.”

Marie smiled. “Go on then.”

Natasha paused at the door. “You know, you forgot something,” she said, still with that ironic lilt.

“Oh?”

Natasha grinned. “Mittens tied together through the arms with elastic.”

Marie chuckled. “I’ll remember for next time. Go on.”

Natasha disappeared in the direction of the back stairs.

It was good to get out, Marie decided. A little air, a little light exercise. It had definitely been the right thing to do, for both of them.

She waited for the old plumbing to tell her Natasha was in the shower and went upstairs to search for Jane, not without a little trepidation. She meant to go to Jane’s bedroom, but whatever strange sense tells that there is someone behind a closed door made her gravitate to Jane’s office. She knocked, softly, and pushed the door open.

Jane was there, seated at her desk, surrounded by papers, sketched charts, a few open books, and even her laptop computer, open and facing her. She was writing quickly in a student logbook and apparently oblivious to Marie’s arrival. No sight could have given Marie more joy in that moment. She closed the door behind her and seated herself, without invitation, in the chair in front of the desk. Jane looked up momentarily, then continued with her notes. Marie noticed the large mirror from the playroom, now leaning against the stationary cupboard.

“I had a very interesting telephone conversation with Mrs. Shaw,” Jane said, still writing. Then she paused and looked up. “How was your walk?”

“Very pleasant.”

“Excellent. Did she behave herself?”

“Yes.”

“Do as she was told?”

“Ye-es?” Marie was starting to wonder what Jane was getting at.

“And didn’t huff or complain at all, I bet,” Jane said.

“A little, when I put her coat on. She wanted to do it herself.”

“But no serious resistance. And she had a good time.”

“No. And yes, we both did.”

“What’s she doing now?”

“I said she should take a shower and then she could help me with lunch.”

“Good, good. And is she?”

“I heard the shower running when I came upstairs– Jane, what’s this about?”

Jane grinned quickly and leaned back in her chair. “Can you think of a single direct instruction that she’s failed to obey since coming here?”

Marie had to think about it. “Nnnno,” she said, thoughtfully.

“Nor can I. And you can’t have failed to notice her response to nonverbal cues. Oh, she’s prevaricated on occasion, outright delayed, I’m sure of it. Ask her to get something when she doesn’t want to and she’ll take her sweet time about it, but she’ll do it.”

“I haven’t noticed her going-slow.”

Ah ha!” Jane grinned again. “Of course not. She’s your friend. She obeys me because she thinks she must. She obeys you because she likes you, and that’s far more interesting.”

“I’m a little confused, Jane. I thought that was what we wanted.”

“Yes! It is! It’s exactly what we wanted.”

“Well then–”

“It’s not what we normally get after just three days, is it? After three days I am still performing an expectation of obedience, rather than genuinely expecting it. Would you take Natasha for lunch? I won’t be joining you.” Marie’s eyes widened in surprise. “I want you to get her to help you, and see what happens. This will let you both interact informally around food. Watch what happens when she’s at ease, but be sure to give her plenty to do. Observe her moods as she carries out the tasks you set her, and report back to me with your impressions later.”

“Jane–”

“That will be all.” She grinned to take the peremptory tone from her words. “Oh, and of course we’re still expecting Harriet and Mark tonight. Harry can talk about Natasha’s schoolwork. I think that will help settle Natasha’s mind considerably about what she’s doing here. For dinner, I think I should like something very…” she smiled knowingly. Marie couldn’t help but smile in return, to see Jane so restored. “Complicated,” Jane finished. “Something labour-intensive. But I want you to take it easy. In fact, I want you to be downright lazy, and make Natasha do almost everything, particularly the complicated, difficult jobs. Just tell her what to do, and show her as necessary. Run her ragged, and if you run out of things for her to do in the kitchen, send her on errands around the house, but be very sure to praise her for her work, especially when she’s made a good effort.” Another grin. “However, I will interrupt you both to get her ready for our guests’ arrival, so you should let time run away with you.”

“Should I tell her there are guests coming?”

Jane looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. “No. I will. I may want to put her mind at rest about one matter, but in others I should like her not to get too comfortable. Let her speak English if she wants to. When I come for her I shall feign anger at finding her doing so,” she warned.

***

Jo nudged Mary. “What?” Jo just pointed behind Mary’s back. Mary turned and saw Valerie fast asleep, curled up on the floppy old sofa in the corner of the playgroup room. “Oh no. We can’t leave her there like that.” It was nearly the end of lunch-break. She remembered Valerie flopping down on one end of the sofa soon after they arrived; after that her attention had been taken up by Elizabeth.

“Why not?” Jo asked. “What’s she got next, do you know?”

“Mummy?”

“Um, I’m not sure. Maths all afternoon I think. How long has she been asleep?”

“Like she’s going to stay awake for that. She might as well stay here.”

“Mummy!”

“I think she likes Maths.”

“Ew! Sick puppy!”

“Anyway, you can’t leave someone asleep–”

Mummy!”

What dear?”

Elizabeth looked slightly startled to have her mother’s attention back. “I’ll look after her,” she suggested.

“Awww.” That was too cute for words, so Mary had to grab her and hug her for a bit.

“Tell you what, I’ll go and talk to the play supervisor.” Jo said. “Maybe she’ll be okay with her staying here for a bit.”

Mary sighed as Jo got up. “She does need the sleep.”

Elizabeth wriggled free and went towards one of the cupboards. Jo went in the other direction to find the play supervisor. If anyone could persuade her to let a student sleep on the sofa while the children were in playgroup, Jo would find a way. More of the children were returning, being dropped off by their mothers as lunch ended.

Elizabeth returned with a blanket and proceeded to drape it over Valerie where she slept, which was a complicated job for a small person, thus demonstrating her commitment for the moment, Mary supposed. She shook her head at the appalling cuteness of it all. If Aiden was here he’d probably be sick. Never mind that, she thought, if Valerie was awake, she’d be sick.

Best not to wake her then.

Jo returned. “It’s okay, at least for an hour. She’s going to read the kids a story to settle them down, then they usually lie down for a nap anyway. Aw, she looks so sweet like that, doesn’t she?”

Mary couldn’t tell if there was anything behind those words: A question, an accusation. She just shrugged and got to her feet, avoiding Jo’s eyes. “All right, Lizbeth, you’re going to look after Auntie Vee until she wakes up, okay?”

“Okay.” She grinned, full of pride. Mary picked her up and kissed her.

“I’ve got to go, love.” Elizabeth nodded. “You be good.” She nodded again and Mary put her down.

***

The phone rang again. Jane picked it up instantly. “Thompson residence, Jane–” she began.

“Janie!”

Only two people in the world still called her that. “Harry.” She smiled and relaxed. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”

“One of my girls has a brother at another school. Let us call him Bobby, for that is his name.” Jane settled in for the story. “Bobby is about to be expelled from an exclusive public boarding school for carrying a knife into school and threatening another student in the changing rooms, and for coming into school after lunch heavily drunk on vodka. He’s a bully, and a thief, and frankly a spoilt little brat. He’s been in trouble for bad behaviour many times before, but this knife incident is the last straw. Not even his parents’ money can protect him this time, and frankly they’re at their wits’ end.”

“Oh my, he sounds perfect,” Jane said, unable to keep the smile off her face. ~That was what I needed to get me back in the saddle,~ she thought to herself. ~Not one of Gina’s Geekettes. A nice straightforward bully and pig.~

“I thought you’d say so. How soon can you take him on?”

“So soon after starting with another student? Difficult, but… it might work. How old is he?”

“Fourteen. Fifteen in October.” ~Younger than Natasha. Good. Yes, it might work.~ “Oh, one small detail,” Harriet said, almost as an afterthought. “Bobbie is a nickname for Roberta, and she doesn’t have a brother. Apart from that every word is true.”

“Harry!” Jane protested. “Really.”

Jane heard a sigh from the other end of the line. “I’ve just got off the phone to the other girl’s parents. They want the police to press charges, and frankly given this girl’s history I’m inclined to agree and damn the publicity. I can’t see anything short of that making much of an impression on her. To think it should happen here! It’s not as if we’re an inner-city comprehensive.” Pause. “So come on, Janie, what about it? Give me an option I can put in front of the parents. Both sets,” she added.

Jane hesitated for a moment. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You want to send her to me?”

“Why not? You said yourself ‘Bobby’ sounded perfect for you. And you always said this whole crazy idea grew out of your work at that girls’ school in New Hampshire–”

“Yes, but… that was a quarter century ago! It won’t work.”

“I don’t see why,” Harriet pressed. “It’s based on how finishing schools used to work, isn’t it?”

“Only superfic–” Jane wrenched herself out of lecture-mode. They had talked about it a lot in the last few months. Harriet knew all the arguments by now. She was openly skeptical, but Jane was fine with that. In fact, in a way, she was counting on it. “Some of it might work, I suppose, with a little alteration,” Jane said, “but you can’t mix boys and girls in this. It’s been tried.”

She had been a young English teacher and house-mistress at Eastmore, on only her second full-time teaching job, and her first since returning from Paris in the wake of her brother’s death. As an escape from the atmosphere at her mother’s house Jane had thrown herself into her teaching with an almost obsessive zeal. She had found, after all, that the persona she had created for herself was very much to her own liking.

A couple of the girls’ parents, impressed by the change in their daughters’ behaviour attributed to her, had essentially begged her to ‘do the same thing’ with their unruly brothers, and Mrs. Bruton, the headmistress, had grudgingly agreed. It had worked too, after a fashion, and well enough that the school was starting to receive more enquiries, but she had to take the boys away from Eastmore in the end. The girls were too vicious. They had the upper hand and absolutely no mercy. When Jane thought back on those first students, she shuddered at how narrowly she must have escaped disaster, the amount of wild improvisation in which she had indulged. As everyone said, she seemed to have a peculiar talent. She shouldn’t have got away with it. But she did.

Grace, Marie called it. Jane cringed at the thought. She had been lucky. Far luckier than she had any right to be. It wasn’t good enough any more to depend on that.

“Yes, I remember you saying,” Harriet was continuing, “but it was a long time ago. Times change. And besides, this isn’t a school full of spoiled American princesses. This is one girl, separated from her clique. And frankly she’s in more trouble than she can handle.”

Jane floundered slightly, not entirely sure if Harriet was really being serious about this, or whether she should entertain the notion for entertainment’s sake. “I can’t. Not with another student just starting. Things are unsettled enough. It would be a huge unknown factor.” She hesitated. Her brain was starting to work again. ~Not now!~ “Maybe, when he’s ready to be big sister, maybe we could talk about it, but I don’t see how she could be a big-sister in turn, to a boy coming after her.” She shook her head. “She needs to form an empathic bond with the new student. Girls that age don’t have the emotional maturity to see a boy wearing a dress as anything other than a figure of ridicule.” ~And no reason, no reason at all, to keep the boy’s secret in public.~ “The boys only do because they’ve been through it. The act of transgression binds them, you see? A girl can’t share that. There’s nothing transgressive about a girl wearing a pretty dress, is there?”

Silence for a moment. Then, “I’m not sure you’re right,” Harriet said. “Clearly what I should have done is dress her up as a boy and send her to you without telling you.”

“I think I can still tell the difference, Harry,” Jane said, chuckling wryly.

“Oh I don’t know. From what you told me she’d only have to be convincing as a boy for a couple of hours–”

“And unconvincing as a girl for several days afterwards,” Jane reminded her. “Or weeks, in some cases.” ~Although God knows there have been exceptions to that.~ “Jonathan, for instance, is one of my more precocious students. That’s to say after three days he can look almost convincing as a girl already, just as long as he doesn’t take more than three steps or open his mouth to say more than a ‘yes please’ or ‘no thank you.’ We’re still in the very early days of vocal and carriage training and believe me, it does show. I would certainly have noticed if he could walk and talk convincingly too quickly.”

Harriet sighed. “Never mind. No, I don’t think I was really serious. I just wanted to soften the blow: I can’t make it this evening, for obvious reasons.”

“I’d guessed. Not to worry.”

“After I finish with you I have to go and talk to the police. By the time I’m finished there, I imagine Roberta’s parents will have arrived from London to take her home; assuming the police let them.” She sighed. “So I’m–”

“Trying to make me feel bad about this?”

“Absolutely.” Jane could tell Harriet was grinning. “I think you’re being appallingly discriminatory.”

“Says the girls’ school headmistress,” Jane pointed out.

“So how is Jonathan settling in?” It was so blatantly an attempt to change the subject that Jane chuckled again. “No, really?”

“Very interesting,” Jane reported. “I think you’ll like him. We have had some difficulties.” She took a breath and admitted, “and some misunderstandings, and I want to talk about that, but I think we’re getting on top of it now. It always takes a few days to settle in.”

“I shall look forward to meeting him. I can still come Friday afternoon, as we already planned, barring any further misadventures, and we can go over his revision and exam schedule with him then. In fact… I might be able to pop in for a couple of hours tomorrow as well.”

“Oh that would be excellent. Well, Mark will be setting off from Cheltenham soon. It’s time for me to play the wicked stepmother.”

There was a silence for a few moments from the phone. “Is that wise? If there’s only Mark coming now, mightn’t he get the wrong idea?”

“Who, Mark?” Jane queried, confused.

“No, Jonathan.”

“The encounter is intended to be a discomfiting one for him, but I need him to start having some contact with a larger world. I’m going to keep it very simple. I shall keep him by my side the entire time, and he won’t be required to do any more than sit quietly and behave. As this and other encounters pass off without incident, he should gain in confidence and understand that his fears were groundless.”

Harriet made an unconvinced noise. “Wouldn’t it be simpler to tell him his fears are groundless?”

“He has been told.” ~He should especially know after this morning,~ Jane thought. “He’s been told exactly what is to happen while he’s here. And of course he doesn’t believe a word of it, so it has to be demonstrated to him until he does. There’s little helping it, I’m afraid. It’s just a process he has to go through. The biggest help and reassurance would usually come from the big sister, who already knows this to be true. Marie’s doing her best. Of course she’s not of his peer group, but I think he’s beginning to trust her.”

***

Jane paused in the kitchen doorway. It was apparent that her approach down the stairs had not been heard by either Natasha nor Marie, to judge by the undiminished banter from around the kitchen table. Natasha was sitting there, with her back to Jane, doing something and holding forth animatedly to Marie about ‘home economics’ lessons at school. A quiet plop of something being dropped into water, and Jane realised what Natasha was doing: peeling potatoes. And, contrary to Jane’s instruction for her to be ‘lazy’, so was Marie.

Jane stayed and listened. It wasn’t Natasha’s words that held her attention, but rather her bearing, the tone of her voice, her apparent enthusiasm for both the task and the conversation.

~How do I deal with you?~ Jane worried. It felt like an age since the scene that morning. Natasha’s clumsy attempt at seduction; the slap. ~How do you face a child again after a scene like that?~

~I’ve been too gentle,~ she thought again. ~Too familiar. I haven’t earned that yet.~ She stood outside the simple friendliness she could see between Natasha and Marie. ~I have to earn this. I’ve always had to earn it, one way or another.~

~You’re being maudlin, Jane. There’s work to do. And safety in a stern manner. It’s time to be brisk, and leave her not enough leisure in which her imagination can work. It’s time to rush her, a little. Now.~ She stepped firmly into the room. “Ah, there you are.” Natasha sat bolt upright. Jane stood, and put a quieting hand on Natasha’s shoulder. “Natasha is supposed to be practicing her French, but instead I find you here speaking English. This is unacceptable.”

Marie, bless her, played her part to perfection. “Oui Madame, je suis désolée. C’est de ma faute. J’ai dá» expliquer quelque chose de compliqué, et aprá¨s j’ai oublié–”

Tu n’oublieras plus,” Jane snapped.

Non, madame.” Marie curtseyed in submission. Even with the performance done for Natasha’s benefit, to further increase her empathy for Marie, Jane could hardly help but smile.

Maybe it was as well that Natasha still kept her back to Jane. That, however, had to be remedied at once. Good. That little act of rebellion made keeping her visage of severity easier to maintain. “Et toi,” Jane pitched her voice so Natasha couldn’t doubt she was being addressed directly now. “Natasha! Regarde-moi en face!”

She stood slowly and turned to Jane. “Oui Madame.” Her voice shook.

Jane flashed again to that seductive lilt Natasha had used earlier, the knowing smile, the hand sweeping her petticoats aside to display her stockinged thigh. There was no suggestion of it in Natasha’s face now, but Jane pulsed with wilful anger. There was safety in anger. “Si Marie oublie á  l’avenir, tu lui rappelleras. Comprends-tu?” she instructed curtly.

Ou-Oui, Madame,” Natasha stammered.

~Enough French,~ Jane thought, trying to keep the mood. “Marie, I want Natasha changed for the evening. I will see to it myself. Where is the dress I said she should wear?”

“It’s in the wardrobe nearest the window, ma’am,” Marie replied. Her hand rested again on Natasha’s shoulder and held tight.

“All right. Natasha, come with me at once.”

“Is-Isn’t Marie going to help then?” Natasha asked. “She usually–”

“Marie will be busy with dinner. Come here.” She extended her hand towards him.

He was literally quaking in his heels. ~Ah, this is something approaching normal,~ Jane thought with satisfaction.

***

“She’s going to figure it out,” Mary said, meaning Jo. They were standing outside the main entrance, waiting for Mary’s mother to turn up with the car. Jo was a little distance away, playing with Elizabeth and waiting for the same lift.

“She already has,” Valerie mused.

“What? Has she said something to you?”

Valerie shook her head. “I just know. She’s waiting for you to tell her.”

“Oh God…”

“You guys are so close,” Valerie continued. “She’s your best friend. I don’t want to get in the way of that. Seriously, I’m not worth it.” She sounded sad and wistful. “Anyway, come on, this is Jo we’re talking about. This is hardly going to break her mind.”

Mary sighed. “I suppose.”

Valerie touched her hand quietly, and Mary, without words, held on.

“Are you really okay about that stage-fighting thing?” Mary asked. “You seemed a little–”

“No, it’ll be… interesting.”

Mary couldn’t get the picture out of her mind from earlier. Valerie had only been at the last few rehearsals, but ostensibly to watch Elizabeth, so that Mary could concentrate on rehearsing. Aiden and Jo had been larking about with the prop daggers; swashbuckling — badly — as a lighthearted way to settle another artistic argument, of course, when Valerie had returned with Elizabeth from the toilets. She’d taken a moment to look at them, and at Mary, Karen and Danny looking on in consternation, and stepped straight in between them and disarmed them both with shocking ease.

And there was just a moment, in the middle of it, that had given gave Mary a chill. Valerie caught the hand-guard of Jo’s dagger and twisted it out of Jo’s hand as simply as turning off a tap. Continuing the same single whirling arc begun by that movement, she turned toward Aiden and caught his wrist and stepped through. He cried out and landed hard on his back. Valerie plucked the dagger from his hand as he fell.

Aiden so hated to be shown-up doing something stupid, and as a member of Fencing Club he knew how stupid he had been, which just made him worse; but Valerie actually got him to shut up, let her put a support bandage from her first aid pack on his sprained wrist and got him to take an anti-inflammatory.

So then everyone wanted to know where she’d learned to do that, which she wouldn’t say, of course. It was Danny who asked her if she wanted to help them work out the fight scene. She had demurred, but then Jo got in on the act too. Danny was in the fight scene with Aiden, so having someone in charge of that who could actually control Aiden probably seemed like an attractive idea, and even Aiden had to agree the whole sequence would probably look a lot cooler that way. Eventually Valerie had agreed, looking surprised about it herself.

“You can go if you want,” Mary said. “You don’t have to wait. Or… you could come round. If you like.” She could feel herself blushing. Nervous, knowing what she was saying. “Mum and dad are going out later.”

“Uh… I, um–” Valerie stammered.

~Did I actually manage to shock her?~ Mary wondered. Valerie’s hand, still holding hers, was clammy.

“I can’t,” she said eventually. “There’s something I have to be home for tonight.”

“You’re sure you can’t cancel it?” ~I’m really trying here!~

Valerie hesitated, clearly undergoing some internal struggle. “Yeah,” she said eventually. “I’m really sorry. I promised.” As if to try to make it up, Valerie’s head darted forward for a kiss.

“Jo,” Mary reminded her, backing out slightly. Valerie sagged and nodded.

“Sorry.”

“I’ll tell her tomorrow,” Mary promised. “She’ll be cool.”

Valerie nodded, her eyes downturned. “I suck.”

“No…” She hated to see Valerie looking so wretched. “I just… I’m an idiot, okay? It’s just ’cause I’m nervous–”

“Not your fault,” Valerie said, her blue eyes meeting Mary’s then. “Can I see you tomorrow night?”

“I’m working.”

“Oh goo, yeah.” It made Mary giggle every time, including this time, when Valerie said ‘goo’ like that, instead of ‘God’, like the remnant of some childish habit to get around parents who refused to believe their children knew swear words. Not that Lizbeth did, of course.

“Saturday?” Mary suggested. “We can go out somewhere if you like? You know, an actual date?”

She nodded. “Yes, I’d like that.”

“And we can leave sproglet behind this time. And I’ll actually get to see you dolled up at last.” Valerie smiled, and met her eyes again, for a longer time. She looked… apprehensive. “What are you worried about? I’m the one who should be nervous.”

Valerie sighed, but she didn’t say anything.

***

~Stupid Tucker,~ Valerie thought. Just out of the shower, she was standing in her bedroom, naked, before the full-length mirror. “Stupid to get involved if you can’t see it through,” she said aloud to her reflection. ~She’ll hate me. She’ll think I’m a freak. She’ll think I’m a danger to her daughter.~ That would hurt more than anything. She knew that with absolute certainty. ~I should call it off now. Try to salvage a friendship out of this.~ “Stupid Tucker.”

~I’ll call her. Tomorrow. Before she comes out to anyone. She’ll just hate me more if I leave it that long.~

But first she had to go downstairs and do the pretty thing. Dry, she put a clean pair of knickers on and went to the dressing table to set a hairdryer to her hair. At least she’d got some sleep. Three hours in the end, waking up in the playgroup room at college to find Elizabeth sitting right there on the sofa with her, doing her colouring book, explaining how she was looking after her. Yes, that was embarrassing. Then realising she’d slept so long that she’d missed nearly the entire double Math session, leading to a run across college to catch the teacher as the class let out and give her the previous assignment she’d only set the day before, and get the next one, and do the apologies and so forth. The simple truth was good enough. It was the first Math class she’d missed since starting at the college, so it wasn’t as if she was a regular offender. It was still annoying. Math was her favourite class; she hated to miss it.

It wasn’t enough sleep, but it made a difference. It was enough to ride home on, and maybe get through this evening. She could always excuse herself early if she felt herself fading again, but if she didn’t even make an appearance Jane would Have Words, she was sure.

~Maybe take a sleeping bag down to the naíad, or out to the gatehouse if it isn’t warm enough to be under the stars without a tent.~ She didn’t feel like dealing with a tent.

Mark was already here, but she’d seen no sign of Mrs. Lawrence’s car outside. It only took her another quarter of an hour to get ready, then she headed downstairs and into the parlour.

“Hello Mark, I’m sorry I’m so late,” she excused herself. “The rehearsal overran.” He got up, and she shook his hand and found somewhere to sit down. “Good evening Jane, Natasha.” Natasha looked exactly like someone trying very hard not to look scared.

“Rehearsal?” Mark distracted her.

“Would you believe, I’ve been drafted as some kind of fight director for a play some friends are doing.”

“You? A fight director?”

“It’s not as surprising as you’d think! You should have seen the way they were holding those knives. I had to do something. Someone was going to lose an eye.”

“Valerie, Mark’s brought those forms for you to sign,” Jane cut in. Clearly the conversation had taken an insufficiently ladylike turn.

“Oh, yes. Which one is this again?”

“This is the covenant.”

~Oh, right.~ Jane had been trying to involve her in more of the finance side of things; but it was a slippery subject, pretending to be mathematical but so steeped in tradition and made-up rules that made no real sense, so her mind kept sliding off it. Trying to understand it always made her miss Debbie again; Debbie could always grasp things like this as if she was born to it.

“Why don’t you two go and finish that in the private living room. Mark, you’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?”

Valerie stood to go.

“With pleasure, if you’ll have me,” Mark replied, joining her.

“You’re welcome any time, you know that.”

Valerie led the way out of the parlour and across into the private living room. “So, what do you think?” she started, when the door was closed.

“Natasha?”

“Uh-huh. Take a seat.” She sat on one of the sofas, and Mark took the armchair opposite the coffee table.

“Well…” Mark looked a little lost for words. “She… Well, ‘he’ I suppose, looks a lot more like a girl than Jane led me to expect.”

“I’ll give them that, they’re good at what they do.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” He looked doubtful. “If he wasn’t so obviously nervous I might have forgotten. It’s really quite… remarkable. The illusion.”

“It’s best to stick with ‘she,’” Valerie said. “Consistency and all that.”

“Yes, yes, I suppose so.” He dropped his voice, as if to confide in her. “He– She, haha, she does know I wouldn’t do anything to, ah, hurt her, doesn’t she?”

Valerie looked at him steadily. It was too close to what she was thinking, seeing Natasha’s face. “She should,” she said. “Jane should have made that clear enough.”

“Jane wanted me to keep complimenting Natasha’s appearance. I must say it goes against the grain. Not that she’s not pretty… which… is bizarre when I think about it, but if I spoke like that to the girls at the office I’d be pulled up in front of an industrial tribunal I’m sure, and rightly so. It’s just not done in this day and age.”

Valerie chuckled at the plight of a modern gentleman in Jane’s museum-world. “She’s probably mostly wondering whether or not you actually know. You’re the first person outside of us three she’s seen. Talking of which, what happened to Mrs. Lawrence? She was supposed to be here tonight.”

“Jane said she couldn’t make it. She had some problem with one of her own pupils.”

“Damn.” She sighed thoughtfully. “Anyway, shall we do this? Whatever it is. I’m sorry, I don’t have a head for this stuff.”

“All right.” He opened his briefcase and brought out a few thin folders. Valerie restrained a sigh. “Jane wanted me to make sure you understood fully what this covenant entails. Do you understand what I mean by a ‘covenant?’” He must have seen Valerie’s hesitation because he carried right on. “In the simplest terms, in English common law, a covenant is a legally binding promise to do a thing, and it’s enforceable in the absence of consideration, which simply means that it’s unconditional. It’s not in return for anything from you — in fact it mustn’t be — and should she fail to honour the terms, you have a legal claim to redress.

“As you know I’m not a lawyer, I’m really just a glorified accountant. Jane’s already signed and sealed the covenant itself, and the papers are in the solicitor’s office. My job is simply to manage the funds that have been set up on your behalf until the terms of the covenant pass them over into your sole control, at which point you may of course do what you please; including, should you so wish, to continue to retain our services to help you manage your financial affairs going forward. All right, let’s look at them in turn.”

He slid the first folder across the table towards her. She picked it up. “This is your college fund, in a nutshell. It’s expected that this will be used to pay fees and living expenses for the duration of your university career.”

Valerie opened the folder. After a couple of pages of what looked like blurb and legalese that basically said it was in her name, there was a simple statement of account with just a single ‘account opening’ deposit transaction. Valerie gasped at the figure. “Oh my God…”

“As you can see it’s quite a generous opening balance. Education and medical costs aren’t taxed as inheritance, so she was able to give those accounts a large opening balance; just as well as I understand you’re planning to go to university next year?”

Valerie nodded blankly. The figure was beyond generous, it was extravagant. She couldn’t help thinking of her mother and father, who had been paying into her college fund all her life, and in one day Jane had signed over an amount to dwarf it. That was a very strange feeling, down in the bottom of her belly. And with Mom and Dad mixed up in it, it made her eyes sting.

It not only meant she could go to college, she could go to college anywhere she wanted, and for as long as she wanted, for all practical purposes. Multiple Doctorates, ~if I go that route,~ she thought. ~If I’m really that good.~

The last page had a space for her signature. “This is what I need to sign?” She saw Jane’s signature already there; her customary sweeping cursive overspilling the space available.

“That’s correct, and I can witness it, unless you want to call Marie in.”

“Uh…” She was still a little in shock. “No, that’s okay, she’s going to be busy. Do you have a pen?”

“Of course.” He pulled one out of the inside of his jacket and passed it across. It looked expensive. She bent down and signed her name. Valerie Thompson. She was getting too used to doing that. She knew there was going to be a time when even that residual dissonance would fade. She didn’t know what to think about that any more.

Mark was going on about how it therefore probably wouldn’t gain much in value before the time came for it to be used, but he had growth estimates anyway, factoring in Jane’s ongoing payments into that fund. ~So that’s not even all of it!~ Valerie was thinking, still amazed.

She passed the folder back and he re-opened it and added the witness signature.

“Moving on,” Mark said, sliding the next folder across. “This is your medical fund.” Valerie numbly picked it up. More words saying it was in her name; her money. The amount, again, was astonishing. “This is intended to pay into a private medical insurance scheme of your choice essentially in perpetuity. Although she’s chosen a scheme for you for the time being, you can change it when you’re eighteen should you feel the need. Plus, this should cover any incidental medical expenses or procedures you may need in the future that aren’t covered by medical insurance or the NHS, although I have to say that’s extremely comprehensive in its own right, but you never know what might happen, I suppose.”

“No,” Valerie breathed. “I guess not.” Her head was swimming again. Clearly Mark had no idea why Jane might think Valerie would need that money. Or at least, a fraction of it. Contingencies. Decisions she wasn’t ready to make. She signed on the line, feeling numb.

“Similarly with the education fund, there’s no tax burden on this so she was able to open with an immediately generous balance. They are ringfenced for those purposes. Now, this,” he pushed another folder towards her, “is intended as a fund to help you get into the property market.” Valerie looked through it. “At the simplest level I suppose it can go towards an enhanced deposit on a property once you start work, or on home improvements, that sort of thing, but I know she has another idea she wants to discuss with you about that sometime before you go to college anyway, and if I know Jane it’s going to be well worth listening to what she’s got in mind.

“Finally, there’s a straightforward savings and income fund.” He passed across the folder. “This pays you an income every month for your incidental and everyday expenses. The rest goes into a high-interest savings account. Obviously the lower the monthly payout the more is left to be invested on your behalf. In any case the amount is capped until you graduate from university, at which point you can do with it what you like. This,” he pointed at the folder in her hand, “replaces the allowance you’ve been getting so far, effective immediately. It also pays my fees, because as of now I’m not working for Jane, I’m working for you. I don’t have anything to do with any of her other onshore interests.” He stopped while she pretended to peruse the final folder. “Naturally as well as the regular payments, if you have any occasional requirements for a larger lump sum, we can discuss them and as long as it’s reasonable I’ll be happy to release the funds. I suppose the obvious example would be should you decide to buy a car, it’s clearly more economical to do so outright out of here than to get a loan to be paid out of your monthly income.”

He fell silent.

Valerie cleared her throat. “Um, right.” She was more than a little overwhelmed.

“Is there a problem, Valerie? Do you need something else explained.”

“Um… It’s just… It’s just so much money. I didn’t expect…” Her words ran dry. She filled the silence with signing the last two folders and passing them back. She felt dizzy. “I guess I’m not used to this.”

Mark nodded, understanding. “I believe it’s broadly in line with the provisions she’s made for your brother, expressed in UK terms.” ~He means Darryl,~ Valerie had to remind herself, after a slight stomach clench. “It’s an extremely tax-effective way of giving you the maximum benefit of your future inheritance now. Naturally she has other things going on on your behalf as well, with which I’m not involved, mostly offshore. And of course in time the remainder of the estate will pass to you and Darryl, but we don’t expect that to happen for many, many years. For the moment, Jane was very concerned that you have a stable foundation, a bedrock, as it were, for your future. No matter what happens this is yours. It’s all in your name and no-one can take it away from you, not even Jane… Valerie?”

Valerie had had to duck her head, squeezing her eyes shut. ~Dammit.~ Her hands danced a couple of words, but Mark couldn’t possibly understand them, so she stopped. “I’m sorry,” she got out.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” ~Mom and Dad worked so hard,~ and ~Everything I was worried about. She answered all of it. Like she knew. Like she understood.~ How for the last several months she’d felt like she was floating on a ramshackle raft of charity and goodwill, that might be taken away in an instant, if she ever really lost it with Jane and let her see what she was really like. She supposed Jane had tried to explain, but she couldn’t help it; she always zoned out when Jane started talking about money. It was as bad as English Lit. It took Mark, this kind and gentle man, to sit there and patiently explain what it was Jane had done; the nature and scale of the commitment Jane had made to her, and could not now unmake. “I’m sorry!” she said again, and got up. She had to get out. She was losing it, the tears coming freely now. “I’m sorry.” She escaped from the living room and dashed for the stairs, almost bumping into Natasha, for some reason coming downstairs at that moment, and ran to her room.

She still couldn’t understand why, what moved Jane to such a gesture as adopting her in the first place. Oh, she knew the reasons Jane gave, but at a deep level it still didn’t make sense. But she could no longer doubt the fact of it. Expressed in plain laser-printed numbers, she was rich.

She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling after the tears had dried.

It didn’t feel like she expected it to feel. Fantasizing with Mike what they would do with a lot of money. The gadgets, the equipment, the plans for world domination they could at last put into motion! It wasn’t that kind of rich: Jane’s self-appointed mission not to let her get ‘spoiled’ was still reflected in the terms of the covenant, but it was a practical kind of rich that told her, deeply, that unless she really badly screwed up she was never going to go hungry, she was never going to struggle to make ends meet. She was never going to have to worry about having enough money to live, and live well. The worry and the pressure that drove most people’s lives, that she always knew would drive hers in the end, lifted away with a gesture.

~Fuck.~

***

“Mmm,” Natasha enthused, finally taking a spoonfull of Marie’s lovely peach pie into her mouth. ~Is she drunk?~ Jane wondered, not for the first time. Natasha had such a light frame, and had gulped down a generous glass of a very fine wine, but it was only one glass, and two courses ago at that. Since then she hadn’t behaved badly, precisely; merely as one distracted, alternately hyperfocusing on something on the table and staring expectantly into space. Not much food had passed her lips, it almost went without saying, but she seemed to be genuinely relishing the dessert, at least. Jane began to wonder if maybe she was getting a sugar high.

“So what do you, Mark?” Natasha asked Mark as sweetly as Jane could have wished. Naturally Mark responded in kind. “Really?” Natasha replied. “That sounds very tedious.”

“Natasha!” Jane remonstrated automatically, but Mark seemed to have found the comment funny.

“You have no idea,” Mark replied, leaning forward as if to confide in her, and she smiled at him. ~What… Is she flirting with him?~ Jane realised suddenly.

“You two still haven’t convinced me it’s not a black art,” Valerie said, from across the table, breaking Jane’s line of thought.

She quipped back almost automatically, “Would that it were. You might have been a more apt student.”

“Meow,” was Valerie’s only comment to that playful barb. Jane was distracted. Something was going on between Mark and Natasha that–

But her thought was diverted again by Mark addressing Valerie. “I would have thought you’d have few problems grasping the subject, Valerie, given your background in Maths?”

Jane sighed, knowing the gist of the rant Mark would get back for that, and took the opportunity to observe Natasha for a moment and saw, while Mark’s attention was on Valerie. She saw that Natasha had frozen almost motionless again, and now, while her eyes were still fixed on Mark, they didn’t didn’t look flirtatious at all, but apprehensive; deeply afraid in fact.

But Jane found herself drawn into the argument about the mathematical virtues — or otherwise — of finance with Valerie, and missed something, to her annoyance. She knew something had happened because now Mark was looking embarrassed and discomforted and Natasha was smiling at her, looking altogether too innocent. ~What has she done?~ Jane wanted to know. ~I think I need to bring this dinner to a close sooner rather than later.~ Natasha wouldn’t be the first new student to try to flirt with a male guest, but that look of fearful anticipation told Jane all she needed to know about how willingly Natasha was doing it.

“May I say, you don’t look like someone who sits behind a desk all day,” Natasha was continuing, to Mark. “You look very fit, if I may be so bold, sir.”

“Thank you,” Mark replied. “Although I’m afraid it’s one part good fortune to two parts down to my daughter’s ponies.”

“What have they got to do with it?” Natasha actually batted her eyelashes.

This was no defiant prank; no playing up in an attempt to embarrass Jane or test her limits. She thought… ~Oh no,~ Jane realised what Natasha had been thinking. ~Jane, you idiot.~ Harriet had even warned her, without even meeting Nastasha she’d been afraid of this.

Only it was worse than Harriet suspected. Jane sat, for the moment conflicted and uncertain what to do. Anger, and send the child upstairs? ~That wasn’t a brilliant success this morning, was it?~ she berated herself. ~And to shame him with that in front of Valerie and Mark…~ Valerie laughed at something Natasha said, apparently not picking up on the undercurrents of the situation. That gave Jane another doubt. ~Am I imagining it because of what happened this morning? But how can she possibly have misinterpreted my meaning then?~ And after all, they were just talking about Mark’s daughters.

“Were you in the Brownies when you were younger, Natasha?” Mark asked suddenly. That question seemed to shake Natasha deeply, Jane thought. Jane could hardly believe it either. She could hardly believe that Mark had forgotten. Natasha simply wasn’t that good yet, and Natasha’s own confused expression betrayed her obvious uncertainty about what she thought Mark knew and didn’t know.

Finally, Natasha managed to just say “Dib dib dib,” enigmatically, and reached for the water jug to refill her glass.

“What? Oh, yes. Dib dib dib. How foolish of me, I almost forgot.”

~Oh Mark,~ Jane thought despairingly. ~What a mess.~ Aloud, she said, “You should ask Valerie to take the girls on one of her hiking expeditions,” in an attempt to change the subject. That seemed to work for a little while, and she let the conversation move on to more equestrian matters and surreptitiously watched Natasha again, and felt a hope spring from Mark’s fumbling. Natasha looked confused. Jane could almost read it. ~You’re thinking, ‘if he really thinks I’m a girl, he can’t be here to have sex with me, can he?’ So now you’re starting to figure it out, dear? Never mind whether or not you trust me, merely be calm for a moment and think this through logically, and realise it can’t possibly be what you think.~

“Miss Shaw, do you ride?” Mark was asking Natasha.

“Um–sorry Mrs. Thompson.” She glanced at Jane apologetically. “Not, like, since I was little.”

“The word ‘like’ was superfluous in that sentence, Natasha,” Jane responded, a gentle rebuke. She was pleased, though. The flirtatiousness had gone, and Natasha seemed more in the mold of a child allowed to sit at the grown-ups’ table. “You rode as a child?” she asked pleasantly. It was, after all, a much more pleasant topic of conversation, and if Natasha had ridden before, that was something else that was useful to know, perhaps.

“Only once a week,” Natasha replied, uncertainly.

“Did you enjoy it?” Mark asked her.

“It was all right. It was more Sar–” He interrupted himself and studied his dessert, blushing. ~Now, what was that about?~ Jane wondered. ~Sar-what? Sara? Who’s Sara? Someone she knew in childhood? A sister perhaps?~ She wished she knew more about Jonathan’s early years.

Mark was continuing, “Well, if Jane is amenable I’m sure we could arrange a few days for you to ride one of our horses during your stay. We don’t live so far away after all.”

Jane was distracted for a moment from worrying about Natasha. The offer from Mark had been completely unforseen. “Mark, that’s… That’s extraordinarily generous of you. Are you sure?”

“If it doesn’t interfere with your plans, of course.” He smiled.

Jane’s mind raced. ~If riding was something Natasha had done as a child before… before everything, presumably. Oh, that’s too important to pass up. And it’s a chance to get us out in the air and Natasha away from this house for a while somewhere I know she’ll be safe.~ “Natasha, thank Mr. Kingsley for his kind offer,” she said, almost absent-mindedly. She had to think about this. With half an ear, she heard Natasha thank Mark, as directed. ~And still so obedient. I never have to tell her anything twice.~ She smiled, feeling pleased with Natasha now. “That was excellent,” she said aloud, hearing Mark and Valerie agree. “Mark and I have some business to discuss now. Valerie, can we leave you two to clean up? I don’t want to leave all this to Marie.”

Valerie took it in her stride. “Yes, of course.”

“Natasha, after you’ve finished helping Valerie, you may go upstairs and get ready for bed.” ~It’s been a hard enough day for both of us,~ Jane was thinking, deciding to spare Natasha the further excruciating of having to sit up with the grown-ups after dinner while they talked over her. Besides, she was thinking, she needed a word or two with Mark to smooth things over before he left.

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

They rose. Jane was pleased to see Mark remember to go around and help Natasha up, and pleased also to see no attempt at flirtation from Natasha. She took her leave, with Mark, and crossed the hall to the private living room. Once the door was closed she could relax. She sighed with relief. “I’m so sorry, Mark.”

“Sorry? What for?”

“Didn’t you see the way she was behaving towards you?” Jane almost fell into her armchair. “As soon as I realised what she was doing…”

“Oh, that. Yes, that was a little, ah, disconcerting.

“She shook her head. ”Please, sit down. Oh… what was he thinking? I told him this morning! I don’t know how I could have said it more plainly.“ She sighed. The door opened, admitting Marie with a tray and a coffee service. ”He seems almost determined to read the worst possible motives into anything we do. Thank you Marie. Please join us, I’ve asked Valerie and Natasha to clean away dinner.“

Marie had brought four coffee cups, expecting the two teenagers to be coming into the living room to join in the after-dinner coffee with Jane and Mark, so she took one for herself and poured coffee for all three.

“I still can’t believe I actually asked him if he’d been in the Brownies,” Mark wondered.

“What?” Marie asked, surprised. She hadn’t been in the room at that moment.

“Oh yes. Actually that was quite providential,” Jane explained. “It certainly gave him something to think about. That you might not know, or not be certain, or even that you had simply forgotten that he was a boy, really took the keystone out of the whole logical edifice he’d built. You noticed he didn’t attempt to flirt with you at all after that?”

“He was flirting with you?” Marie asked Mark, astonished. Then she looked at Jane, and Jane confirmed her thought with a serious nod.

Jane watched Marie pour, letting the little ritual calm her. Finally Marie sat on the same sofa as Jane.

“We only found out earlier today,” Jane started, by way of explanation, “some disturbing news about Jonathan’s childhood. I say news, it’s supposition really. We know he was homeless for a period of time. We can only make guesses as to… as to what he had to do to survive, so perhaps in retrospect it’s not so surprising that he saw us as trying to exploit him. Doing his best to co-operate, as the least-worst option, is of course precisely what I expect of my students at this stage in the programme, but in the context of his specific expectations…” She shook her head sadly and sighed.

“Oh, the poor child,” Mark said.

“I did tell him, after this morn– We had a– an incident this morning. I told him he was wrong I… I’m afraid I lost my temper at him a little in the shock of the moment, but I can’t understand how he could still have misinterpreted me, unless he’s doing it deliberately.”

“I don’t believe that,” Marie said, after sipping her coffee.

Jane reached forwards and took hers. “No, nor do I. But he can’t have forgotten…” ~I certainly never will.~ She saw again the hand in the petticoat folds, moving them apart; the awkward, unpracticed smile. She closed her eyes sipped her own coffee. Strong and black, the way Marie knew she preferred it.

~Unpracticed.~ The thought struck her so suddenly she opened her eyes again. She stared at the coffee pot on the table, her awareness of Marie and Mark fading in a moment of clarity. ~Surely, if our worst fears for his past are true (oh, why shy away from it, Jane: you mean if he had been a prostitute), wouldn’t his attempt at seduction have been more skilful? More assured? More practiced, at least? It was as if he was imitating something he’d only seen, and not often either.~

She didn’t know if it worked that way. It was outside her experience. But it brought another unwelcome thought. ~Had he been more skilful, might he have succeeded?~

She only said aloud, “I’ve told her to go straight to bed after helping Valerie, so that’ll be an end to it tonight. She’ll be able to think about what’s happened, and realise what she was thinking just doesn’t stand up to clear thought. All we can do is continue to demonstrate that nothing of that sort is going to happen to her here. Eventually it’ll sink in. It has to.”

“She needed a big sister,” Marie commented.

“Yes.” Jane sipped again pensively. “Very much so. I can’t ask Darryl to come all the way here for this. He’s in the middle of his end-of-year exams anyway.” She sighed. “Anyway, Mark, you shouldn’t take any of this upon yourself. You did everything right. This is my responsibility.”

“Well, I hope I didn’t make anything worse. She was so clearly distressed at the sight of me–”

Marie’s mobile phone started chirrupping from somewhere about her person.

“Oh Marie, for shame, you should turn that thing off when we have company.”

“It’s only a text message…” She looked at Jane hopefully.

Marie had made few enough friends since they had moved here, Jane knew. Jane had the benefit of old friendships renewed, and Valerie had her college life, of course, but it was more difficult for Marie; so Jane was minded to be indulgent. “Go to another room to answer it, then,” she said.

Merci, Madame.” Marie rose.

Jane caught the curious look on Mark’s face and merely smiled while she waited for Marie to leave. “Anyway, Mark, yes. She was supposed to be a little discomfited by the presence and attention of a male, but I see now in this instance it was a mistake to have this encounter while she had such thoughts in her head. Certainly none of this is your fault. If only Harry–”

“Jane,” Marie cut in. She was standing at the door, her phone in her hand. “It’s Valerie.”

“Valerie?” Jane was truly surprised. “She’s right here in the house; why is she sending messages to your cellphone?”

In answer Marie returned and passed the phone to her, then leaned over to point at buttons. “Use this and this to scroll through the message,” she said.

“Yes, I know,” Jane said, a little irritably. Marie retreated and sat in her former place. Jane read the message:

Nathan has wrong idea bigtime. Removed to safe location. Send mark home asap. Reply text only

“Removed to a safe location?” Jane repeated querulously. “What’s she doing now? Where is she?” She passed the phone back to Marie. “I don’t know how to reply on this–”

“She says to only reply in text–” Marie began.

“Yes, I know. Obviously Jonathan’s with her and she doesn’t want him overhearing a conversation. Ask her where she is.”

Then something else occurred to her. “Wait,” she said aloud, to forestall Marie sending a reply. “Of course, he must have said something to her. He still believes it! How can he still believe it now?”

She got to her feet, restless and energised, and paced. ~If he thinks Mark doesn’t know about him, how can he still think–~

“He must have reasoned you do know about him after all, and just slipped,” Jane realised aloud. Then she swore. “Which is the exact truth of course. Damn it, why does he have to be so perceptive?” She parted the curtains with her hand, as if she would be able to see where Valerie had taken Jonathan, aware distantly of the pressure of the two people behind her, waiting for her to come up with an answer. “So now Valerie’s trying to reassure him, and of course she can do that much more effectively than any of us. He’ll believe her.” She released the curtain and turned back to face them. “We have to help her.”

“Um, what do you want me to send?”

Jane looked at Mark, her brain moving up another gear. ~Yes.~ “Mark, I know for a fact you’ve done nothing wrong, but we have to make a good show for Natasha. Valerie’s asked that you leave sooner rather than later, I’m guessing to prove to Natasha that you’re not here–”

“Not here for her; yes of course I’ll oblige.”

“Thank you. Marie, ask Valerie to ask Natasha if Mark did anything to her while no-one else was around. I know you didn’t, Mark,” Jane said back to him. ~Besides, he lacked the opportunity… But then, they did return to the parlour together, after he finished with Valerie…~ She froze, almost feeling her brain click up yet another gear. ~Oh, what did Natasha think Valerie was doing with Mark? I said it was to do with the covenant, but Natasha’s clearly only hearing what fits her idea of what’s happening, and discarding everything else as euphemism.~ “I want Natasha to know we take this seriously,” she said aloud. ~I do not deal in euphemism.~

~I may have been less careful with my use of language than I should have been,~ she rethought, feeling the thought clench in her belly.

“What if she says he did?” Marie asked, her thumb paused over the phone’s keypad.

Jane looked at both of them in turn. “I don’t believe she will. In fact, I’d put money on it.”

“Instinct?” Mark asked her.

Jane nodded. “In any case, the necessity of her being asked the question outweighs the risk. Marie?”

“All right, Jane.”

“And ask Valerie where she’s taken Natasha, if you would.” ~The gatehouse? The summer house? The garden? She might have taken a car and taken Natasha out of the grounds entirely…~

“I’ll get my coat,” Mark said, trying to make light of the situation.

“Finish your coffee, Mark. There’s not that much of a rush.” She was distracted by the bip-bip-bip of Marie tapping keys on her phone. “Oh what a mess, but maybe we can get something out of it, if Valerie can truly convince her where we’ve failed so dismally.”

Marie hit a button on the phone and it made a different beep, presumably sending the message. “I thought you’d be angry at her interfering again.”

“I wanted her to be more involved. It was her saying she didn’t want to. You do know she sat up with Natasha all through the first two nights because of those nightmares?”

Marie stared. “I didn’t know about the second night.”

“She can’t help herself. That’s why she wants to move out to the gatehouse. Maybe now she’ll change her mind.”

They fell silent, waiting for Valerie’s reply. When it came, the beeping made all three of them jump. Jane crossed to Marie’s side. Marie looked at it, then passed it up to Jane.

Loc classified. On site. N reports mark did not repeat did not try anything. Send mark home proves he wont later

Jane nodded. “All right. She’s thinking what I’m thinking.” She passed the phone across to Mark to read. He relaxed visibly. “It tells us something about Natasha, doesn’t it? If she wanted to make things difficult for us, she had only to say otherwise.”

“What’s it like being right all the time?” Mark asked, passing the phone back to Marie.

Jane sighed. “I honestly wish I knew.” She re-seated herself.

“The clever part happens after we make mistakes,” Marie said.

“You mean we’re good at damage control?” Jane asked her, not entirely seriously.

“I mean we’re good at learning quickly from what our mistakes reveal.”

“Hm,” Jane muttered disparagingly. “Maybe. I suspect we have a lot still to learn about Natasha.”

“Anything less would be a disappointment,” Marie said, smiling.

***

“Goodnight Mark,” Jane said, outside the front doorway. “Have a safe journey home.”

“When things have settled down, you and Valerie should bring Natasha and have lunch with us sometime, with Sophia and the brats.” Jane smiled at the description. “I think,” he shrugged, “maybe it would help clear the air. I don’t want her to go away remembering me as if I was…” ~The dear man, he can’t even say it.~

“Of course. I think that would be a lovely idea. And I may just take you up on your offer regarding the horses as well.”

“Oh, yes.” He smiled shyly. “Of course, any time. But I hope you will get your own horses again, now you’re settled here.”

~Am I settled?~ “I think I shall,” she said aloud, nodding. ~A little bloodied maybe.~ “Yes, I think I shall, sooner rather than later. I’ve come to realise how much I have missed my riding.” She was already thinking of the dusty, half-derelict stables and yard, a little removed from the house on the east side.

“Goodnight, Marie,” Mark continued, and Marie came forwards and gave him a hug. Jane envied her that simple, spontaneous expression. It had never come easily to her. ~Mother disapproved of such displays.~

“And don’t worry about Natasha,” Marie said quietly to Mark.

Finally, he was leaving, stepping down into his car and firing up the engine. Marie waved, and Jane joined her, until he was gone; only a pair of red lights and an engine growl receding towards the gate.

Jane sighed and sagged. “Oh, what a day,” she said feelingly. “What a horrible, horrible day. Everything I have done has gone awry.”

“Actually I think we’re in a far better place than we were this time yesterday,” Marie said. “Come inside. I’ll make you something calming.”

Jane nodded and started to obey. She paused, glimpsing the faint, pale light from the garage over the wall and through the trees of the garden. ~There she is. Still putting right my mistakes,~ she thought guiltily. ~So I do need her after all, Art. Natasha needs a big sister, possibly more than any child I’ve ever had.~

“The day isn’t over yet,” she said quietly, then followed Marie back into the house. Marie was waiting to close the door.

***

And she never told me her name
I still love you, the girl from Mars

“You need to stay and make this work,” Valerie finished, hardly believing what was coming out of her mouth. ~I’m actually trying to convince him this is for his own good.~

And Nathan was nodding, sitting cross-legged looking at his fingernails. He was buying it. “I-I guess.” He looked cute in that petticoat dress under her own bike jacket.

It didn’t seem to occur to him that she might be lying. She felt slightly sick. ~This is exactly what I didn’t want to end up doing.~ It was so appallingly easy to make him believe her.

“You were supposed to be afraid,” she said. “Not like this. It’s too much, and it’s all wrong. You weren’t supposed to be afraid of that.” He started shaking again, so she moved closer to him and took his hands. “It’s okay. Things aren’t always what they look like, okay? Sometimes in a good way.” He was going to start crying again, she thought, and started pulling him back into a hug.

“No I’m okay,” he objected, pushing her hands away slightly. He breathed in a few times. “I’m okay.”

Valerie sat back on her heels and nodded; impressed and a little relieved. She looked away and let him have a little space to sort himself out.

Today asleep in the chair by the window
It felt as if you’d returned.

Valerie sang along quietly to herself.

I thought that you were standing over me
When I woke there was no-one there.
I still love you, girl from Mars

Nathan started air-drumming as the song moved up-tempo again on the last syllable. He was lost to it, his hair flailing and whirling, his hands beating it out, giving the drums a hard time. Valerie joined in on the kneeboards for the final chorus, never mind the melody was carried by guitar on the track (she was never going to be caught dead playing air-guitar), and never mind Nathan had his eyes closed and couldn’t see a thing.

***

“I guess because she wanted to love him, but she was afraid to let him get to know her,” Valerie said, her mind still on the song. The music was turned down. Nathan had shed the bike jacket, flushed from the warmth from the heater and his own exertions. “She was paranoid and stupid and in the end she ran away rather than let him in. She blew it.”

Nathan nodded.

“You’re supposed to be an asshole, you know that?” Valerie commented. Nathan grinned. “That’s why you’re here.”

“I thought I was here ’cause I like playing with other people’s computers,” Nathan said.

“Yes, but that’s supposed to be ’cause you’re an asshole.”

He shrugged. “Too busy being scared, I guess.”

“Never stopped me mouthing off at someone at a really bad time.”

“Cor, I can’t imagine you doing that.”

She smiled at him sadly. “Lots of stuff you couldn’t imagine me doing.”

“I dunno, I can imagine you walking around with Arthur Conan-Doyle on your head for a while.” He grinned up at her guilelessly.

Valerie schooled her reactions right down. “What makes you say that?” She tried to make the question easy, relaxed.

He shrugged. “Just the way you do everything. You’re so elegant.”

“You really think so?”

“See? You don’t even know you’re doing it!” He grinned again. “So when girls do this, do they have to wear boy’s clothes or what?”

Valerie laughed, letting the tension out. It gave her a little time to work out a way through that didn’t involve actually lying.

“No,” she admitted. “Same kind of thing you’re wearing.”

“Stupid doll costumes.”

“Yeah. I hated it,” she added. “I felt like such a…” She ran out of words. She didn’t know.

“Plaything,” Nathan supplied quietly.

“I guess. Something like that.” She was lost in her own memories for a while. “Webster’s Dictionary,” she said then, remembering.

“What?”

She tapped the top of her head.

“Oh.”

“I guess someone dropped it one time too many.”

Notes:

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