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A Hope for Family

 
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Esmerelda Kramer
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:39 pm    Post subject: A Hope for Family Reply with quote

Late May, 1617

The next day seemed uneventful enough, the morning filled with the usual antics and games of children and household. But the afternoon brought with it a true surprise, one none of them could have foreseen happening so soon. A startlingly nondescript carriage drew along the busy street, coming to a halt outside the Kramer townhouse. The footman jumped down to knock on the door, turning back to open the carriage door and offer his hand to the occupant. A dark-haired lady - definitely a lady, not merely a woman - cloaked in fine wool with velvet flashing beneath as her gown, stepped down, heedless of the mud beneath her heel and hem.

As the door opened, the lady's face sweetened into a warm smile. "You must be Hilde," she said in a fond tone. "Avy was always so affectionate when she mentioned you."

Hilde's mouth fell open, her eyes wide in shock. "L-lady Von Ansburg?"

Leo was in his study, busy pouring over his correspondence, when the lady arrived, unaware she had accepted his invitation as he had not yet received a response, nor expected to for some days yet. He had told deVerne that he needed a little time to prepare for a visit - or had at least alluded to such - but apparently the lady could not wait. So absorbed in his work, he did not hear the sound of a carriage outside or the knock on the door, and even if he did, he was confident his housekeeper would tend to it and alert him if his presence was needed.

Indeed, the first he knew of it was his study door opening to admit a very flustered Hilde. His housekeeper shut the door behind her, waving a hand to get his attention. "Sir! Oh, sir, she's here! Lady Esmerelda, she's here, she's waiting in the parlor!"

He was about to ask who was there, when she told him and he jerked his head up from his correspondence, brows arching upwards. "Hilde, I am not in the mood for nonsense," he warned, thinking she was putting him on for some reason, though the expression on her face was convincingly flustered.

"Aye, sir, and neither am I," she informed him sharply. "I've laundry to finish, food to cook, children to watch over, and on top of it all, there's the closest thing to a duchess we have in this city sitting in our parlor! She knew my name, sir - she spoke to me just the way the poor mistress did!"

Leo returned the correspondence he'd been reading to the pile on the desk and withdrew the spectacles from his face, folding them carefully and setting those aside, too. "I only wrote her yesterday. How can she be here already?" he asked, not really a question for Hilde so much as himself.

"P'raps she was waiting, sir?" Hilde didn't know the answer herself. "P'raps she truly believes that family, blood, is more important than wealth and station. In truth, sir, I do not know, and I do not care to guess. But you must come to the parlor, before the children find her there."

Though this reunion might be a happy occasion, the look on Leo's face was annoyed. They were clearly not yet prepared for a visit, and yet, she was there. They hadn't had a chance to hire a maid or a cook to help with the chores. They hadn't even had a chance to prepare the guest room or tell the children she was coming.

"Very well," he replied, moving to his feet and pausing a moment to straighten his tunic. Duchess or not, he would just see about this.

What had he expected to find in his parlor? She was unmarried still, at twenty-four years - was she a middle-aged spinster, snooping and prying into what few secrets were kept there? Some deformed monstrosity looking down her ugly nose at the sparse furnishings? He found neither.

Lady Esmerelda was a beauty, the moon to her sister's darkened sun, possessed of shining black hair, a round smiling face, bright blue eyes that were fixed upon the portrait of her sister and brother-in-law that hung above the fireplace. She was young and pretty ... and had the decency to look extremely guilty and contrite when the master of the house entered his own parlor.

Rising, she curtsied to him. "Master Kramer, I beg your forgiveness for my haste," she rushed to explain herself before any words could be said. "I feared my father might change his mind, and I have so longed to meet you, and the children. I understand my being here is a burden, one that I would offer to alleviate if I had but the slightest idea how to offer it without causing offence." There was a brief pause. "Oh ... and I am Esmerelda Von Ansburg."

He had fully intended to give her a piece of his mind for being haughty and presumptuous and for throwing his household and housekeeper into distress, but when he saw her standing there, gazing at her late sister's portrait, his heart softened. How many times had he, too, stood in that very same spot, looking up at the face of a brother he'd never see again - a face he recognized in the boy that he was raising as his own, along with the girl that looked so much like her late mother. He lifted a hand to silence her.

"I know who you are," he replied, hoping his voice didn't sound too abrupt. "We were not expecting you for some weeks, and I'm afraid we are not properly prepared for your visit."

Her hands folded themselves together at her waist as she turned fully to face him. "I did not want to visit as ... as a duke's daughter," she said quietly. "I am more than my father, and less than my sister. I will sleep on a straw mattress in the outhouse and bless you for it, if you will only allow me to stay for just a few days. If, by then, you wish nothing more to do with our house, I will leave and abide by your wishes. You and the children will never be troubled by us again."

He frowned, his heart softening further, not so much by her beauty, though she was without a doubt beautiful, in a different way than her sister had been beautiful. No, it was not her beauty that softened his mood or his resolve, but the graciousness and honesty of her words.

"I am sure we can do better than that," he said, not only remembering his place, but his manners. He could not deny her a visit with the children who were as much her flesh and blood as they were his. He did not bother to introduce himself, as she already knew him by name, but instead, he gestured to a chair near the hearth. "Please, make yourself comfortable," he said, offering her a short bow.

The sheen of her eyes threatened tears for just a moment, a betrayal of how afraid she had been that he might just demand she leave and never return in that instant. But, for all her honesty, she was a duke's daughter, a lady of the land, and she would not shed tears openly before anyone. Instead, she conjured a faint smile, inclining her head to him as she took a seat. "Thank you, Master Kramer."

He was not, after all, without compassion for her position - the daughter of a man who had turned his back on his eldest daughter, all because she had not only dared fall in love with a commoner, but had married him and borne his children. And what had it earned Avila but an early grave? He did not quite believe that the man could have had his own daughter killed, but the carriage accident had been a little too suspicious for his liking. He said none of this to the lady, not wishing to upset her further. He had recognized the look of grief and perhaps fear on her face, but none of this was her fault.

"Not a day goes by that I do not look on that portrait and grieve their loss," he said, letting her know how much the loss of his brother and her sister still grieved him.

Her eyes rose to the portrait once again, lingering on the painted face of a sister she had not seen in the flesh since she was barely more than a child. "You are lucky to have them still here in your home," she told him quietly. "To have their likeness so close. I am ... I am so very sorry for the loss you have endured, and the troubles it brought you. And I am sorry I did not come to the funeral. I should have, but I did not. That will be on my conscience until the day I die."

He resisted the urge to shrug his shoulders, inclining his head instead to acknowledge her apology before looking back to the portrait. "It was a sad affair. It is better you remember her the way she was," he told her, moving to stoke the fire, in part simply to have something to do.
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Esmerelda Kramer
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Esmerelda was silent for a long moment, gazing up at her sister's face. Then she spoke, and her voice was calm and full of low menace. "I will discover who ordered it," she promised him quietly. "And they will hang."

Her words gave him pause. Crouched as he was over the fire, he turned his head to regard her, a look of surprise and even shock on his face. He had never heard anyone dare speak that thought aloud in his presence, not even Hilde. "I would help you in that, if I can," he assured her.

"I may need that help," she told him regretfully. "I do not entirely trust the men my father is surrounded by. We have kept the truth of things from them this long - that I am ruling in all but name - but it cannot be concealed forever. And I cannot make enquiries openly in the city. But I believe it is part of a plot to kill my father, and place our nephew on the ducal throne. To rule through him, and perhaps even strike at the royal court before the new queen produces an heir."

The expression on Leo's face darkened. He wanted nothing to do with politics and plots. He was a simple coffee merchant living a peaceful and prosperous life raising his brother's two children. He had made sacrifices of his own to raise them, unmarried as he was, but there was no greater joy in his life than his niece and nephew, and he would not allow anyone to hurt or use either one of them.

"Over my dead body," he murmured, not quite taking himself literally, though once he said it, he supposed that could be possible.

"It would be highly preferable to keep anyone else from dying in this process, Master Kramer," she pointed out softly. "My father is unwell. At first, I believed it was his grief, but I have come to suspect he is being kept ill. Without evidence, I cannot move against those I suspect. I must ask you to refuse any invitation to the ducal manor, any invitation. Even if it seems to come from me, for I will never again ask you to come while there is danger there."

He returned the poker to its place near the hearth and moved to his feet, pausing a moment to wipe his hands on his trousers. Turning to face her, his brows arched upwards at her statement. "Your letter was an invitation to visit," he pointed out - a letter he had only received the day before.

"My letter was all but dictated to me by my father's closest advisor, Earl Rivers," she told him quietly. "He allowed me to include the offer of visiting myself, purely because he does not believe you would take that offer. I am deeply grateful that you did."

"And this Earl ... Does he know you are here?" he asked, sensing a plot, though it was still unclear just who the guilty parties were. He had always suspected foul play in his brother and sister-in-law's deaths and now she seemed to be proving him right.

A certain amount of playful mischief lit up her face as she answered. "No," she said, unafraid to meet his eyes. "He believes I am visiting with a cousin in Fournier, and he won't discover otherwise unless he chooses to visit you himself."

"And what of your driver? I assume you did not drive yourself," he asked further, as he claimed a chair for himself. It would only take one servant to blab to another for word to get around as to her true whereabouts.

"My driver, my footman, they are old friends," she told him softly, her smile softening. "We played together as children; they, my sister, and I. They are loyal to me, Master Kramer. I have trusted them with my life, and they have never let me down."

Leo accepted her explanation with a quiet murmur. "And did anyone else read my response?" he asked further, needing to know if there was a chance that anyone knew she was here. If she was right, he needed to know that the children were safe, at least for the moment. "Do you suspect this Earl Rivers of plotting against your father?"

"No one but deVerne knows I planned to reach out to you, and he is a good man," she tried to assure him. "He delivered the letter into my hands, and I burned it when I was done. If any harm comes to you, the children, or my father because of this visit, I will know who to blame. He is not a fool." She paused at his second question, glancing down at her hands. "Earl Rivers is a charming man, but a hard one. His family line is not noble, but he is noble by the marriage of his parents. He is ambitious, and I fear he may wish to use the Von Ansburg affinity to the throne to try and take it from the king."

"The king?" Leo echoed, brows arching upwards. "That is ambitious." Not only ambitious, but treacherous - something he wanted nothing to do with. He was happy here in his simple life with his housekeeper and the children and had never dared strive for more. "How do you know you can trust me?" he asked, wondering how much she knew of him. He knew very little of her, other than what her sister had told him.

Those brilliant blue eyes met his without a hint of modesty or deception, her expression soft but solemn. "Because my sister trusted you," she told him simply. "Avila loved you as a brother. She told me about the way you saved her when Anna was born, the way you dragged the physician out of his offices and forced him to come to her. You saved her life that day. And I trust you because you care only for what is best for the children in your care. What little I know of you tells me that you are a good man. I hope I am never proved wrong."

He frowned, not because he was worried someone might one day prove her wrong, but because the mention of her sister made his heart hurt, not only for his own loss but for hers, as well. "I am sorry you were not at the funeral, and I am sorry for your loss. You should know that your sister always spoke well of you. She loved you very much," he told her as he reached across the small space for her hand to offer what sympathy he could, almost forgetting she was far above his station.

There was the threat of tears again as his hand closed over her own, tears she could not quite keep at bay as someone touched her without wanting anything from her. She enfolded his hand between both her own, looking down at their entwined fingers as a single tear escaped to track down her cheek. "I miss her," she whispered. "I miss them both, though I never met Ernst. I was thirteen when they met, and even then, Avila knew she loved him. Knew enough to keep it from me, the only secret she ever kept from me. The only reason I am in the position I hold now is because my sister thought protecting me from our father and his sycophants was more important than telling me she was in love."

He noticed the tear track down her cheek, but he did not dare mention it or brush it from her face. Not only was it improper, given the difference in their social standing, he did not want to embarrass her by acknowledging it. His heart went out to her though, understanding at least some of her pain, as he felt it, too, but perhaps he could give her at least a little comfort. "She was happy, Lady," he told her simply, hoping she could find some comfort in that.

"I know." She raised her eyes to his once again. "And I will forever be grateful that you and your father accepted her, and gave her a family to call her own after my own father was so cruel. It meant the world to her, to still be a sister, even after we were parted."

"It is my brother you should be thanking," he said, giving her hand a soft squeeze before letting go before that simple touch lingered too long. "I'm afraid we are not quite prepared for your visit, but if you will allow me, I can show you to your room and see that you are comfortable." He didn't think he needed to tell Hilde what was needed, now that the lady had arrived.

Esmerelda smiled faintly. If the bumpings and mutterings from the floors above them were any indication, Hilde had already bullied both driver and footman into bringing up whatever belongings the lady had brought with her and placing them into the guest room before shooing the men out once more so she could make the bed and light a fire in the hearth. "You do not need to make special provision for me," Esme promised him. "I am content to eat and sleep and live as you do for as long as I remain. I will help about the house, if your housekeeper will allow it. But I should like to see where I will be sleeping, yes."

"I hope you will find the room suitable," he said, as he stood and politely offered her a hand to help her to her feet, though she didn't seem to need his help. "If there is anything you require, you need only ask," he added further, trying hard to ignore the thumps above their heads that signaled Hilde's attempt to ready the room.

"Thank you." She did take his hand, rising smoothly to her feet to look into his eyes for a long moment. "I hope I will not disrupt your lives too much."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"The children are looking forward to meeting you," he said, offering her his arm to escort her from the room and toward the staircase that would lead to the second floor and the bedrooms.

"I am looking forward to meeting them," she admitted easily, her smile warming as she took his arm, allowing him to lead her about his home. She had never felt so quickly at ease with anyone in her life before now, offering silent thanks to her sister for the affection Avila had held for her brother-in-law and shared with Esme. It was a good beginning.

It was a strange feeling to have a woman on his arm. Leo could not remember when he had last conversed with a woman who wasn't his housekeeper, his sister-in-law, or a customer. Too long, he supposed, but he had the children to think of now - not his own wants and needs. "Anna is very much like her mother. You will find her affectionate and easy to love. Matias is the quieter of the two. You may have to work a little harder to earn his trust," he warned her as he led her up the stairs.

"I do not expect them to welcome me with open arms, Leop- Master Kramer," Esme assured him, her comfort in his presence deep enough to make her trip over how to address him in his own home. "It will take time. But at least they will be able to put a face to my name." A faint creak from the other end of the hallway as they reached the top of the stair caught her attention, her gaze flickering that way very briefly. Just in time to catch sight of two small heads ducking out of sight around a doorway.

He arched a brow as she almost called him by name, but did not make any mention of it, not only because he was unsure what to say, but because he had just spied a familiar pair of heads peeking at them from behind a doorway. "Speak of the little devils ... I do not wish to alarm you, but I believe we are being watched, my lady," he told her, with obvious amusement in his voice.

"Do you think I should brace for an attack?" she asked, perfectly aware that the children could hear every word. "And please, Master Kramer ... I should very much like to be simply Esme in the privacy of your home. I have been "my lady" for too many years already."

He did not think it proper to call her by her first name, but perhaps it would be better, for the children's sake. It wasn't even her proper name, but the shortened version, the more familiar version. The least he could do was to match her request. "Very well, but then you must call me Leo."

Her smile reappeared, warm and grateful. "Very well, Leo," she agreed, his name coming easily to her lips. She glanced over her shoulder as he lead her toward her chamber, that smile deepening as the children ducked out of sight once again. "I am beginning to think these children do not exist at all," she said then, the mischief on her face and in her voice more than evidence enough that she was playing the game they had set by hiding from her. "Tell me ... is it Magnus and Angelina, or Maximillian and Agnes? I can never recall."

Leo caught on to the fact that she was willing to play the children's game and pretend they didn't know they were being watched, and he was only too willing to follow her lead. He even offered a wink to let her know he understood, as he pretended to ignore the children and lead her on toward the guest room. "Matias and Anna," he corrected, knowing the pair was listening. "I'm sure they will make themselves known when they are ready," he said, rapping his knuckles on the guest room door to warn Hilde of their arrival.

There was a faint yelp from the other side of the door, the sound of rushing footsteps, and Hilde opened it, her arms full of dusty cloths. She bobbed a curtsy to them both, her face flushed. "I hope it's to your liking, master, m'lady."

"I am sure the lady will find it suitable, Hilde. Thank you," he replied, knowing the woman had done her best to tidy and freshen the room in a hurry. He would make sure to thank her properly in her next paycheck, knowing her worth. He could not, of course, speak for the lady, but he was also hoping she would find her room and their hospitality to her liking.

"I am very sure that I will be very comfortable here, Hilde," Esme assured the woman, releasing Leo's arm to gently touch the housekeeper's hand. "Please, do not fret yourself over my abominable bad manners in arriving unexpectedly. I am anyone else, while I am here. Try to forget who my father is."

Hilde glanced warily at Leopold, not entirely sure how to answer this.

Leo shrugged his shoulders in reply and nodded his head. What else could he do but abide by the lady's wishes? No matter if she wanted them to forget she was the duke's daughter, she was still a guest in their home and would be treated as such. "It seems we will be having a guest for supper, Hilde," he told her, though she must have assumed that already. It was his way of telling her that if there was anything she needed, she could purchase it in his name.

"Of course, sir." Hilde seemed to relax a little, bobbing a second curtsy before bustling from the room. There was a quiet round of giggling from the hallway, accompanied by a fondly scowling sound from the housekeeper.

Esme felt herself smile again as she turned from the room to Leo once again. "Thank you for allowing me to stay, Leo."

"No need to thank me. It is an honor to have you as our guest," he told her, all too aware of the little spies who were watching and giggling nearby. "I only wish the children were here to meet you," he said with a dramatic sigh. "I can't imagine where they must be."

"Ah, yes, these apparently mythical children," she agreed, that mischievous glimmer back in her eyes. "It is a shame they do not seem to exist. I had thought to share a few treasures from my childhood with their mother, but sadly it seems those treasures will have to remain in my chest."

"I am sure they will show up at some point," he said. "Hopefully before dinner. As I understand it Hilde is planning a special dessert," he added, as he escorted her into the room and out of sight of the children, but not out of range of hearing.

"Avy had nothing but praise for Hilde's cooking," Esme told him, her pleasure genuine at the prospect of trying it for herself. "I have spent many hours seething with jealousy over her descriptions of the meals she shared with all of you here."

From out in the hallway came the sound of Anna's confusion, in what the little girl probably thought was a whisper. "But she's a duckess. Doesn't she have a how's keeper like Hildy at home?"

Leo was curious what else Avila had told her sister of life in their home, and even what she might have told her of him, but even if he wanted to ask, Anna's voice drew him out of his thoughts and he smiled in amusement.

"Duchess," he heard Matias murmur back. "And be quiet or they'll hear you!" he warned her.

Inside the room, Leo was gesturing for Esme to come with him to sneak up and surprise the children, touching a finger to his lips not to tell.

As Esme bit down on a laugh, raising her skirts to move quietly with him toward the door, Anna was berating her brother for scolding her. "They're growed ups, Matty, they won't hear me 'cos I am small and little and quiet and not a clumpy boy like you!"

"An' you whisper like the crowd on market day!" the boy countered, his own voice none too quiet, but quieter than hers. "And I'm not a clumpy boy. There's no such word as clumpy!" he corrected her further, eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"There is!" There was a small thump as Anna stamped her foot, forgetting to keep her voice down. "You go clump-clumping all over the place in your big noisy boots, and I want to see Mama's sister, and if you don't want to, you can -"

"He can make his own mind up, when he is ready, little one," Esme said, unwilling to be the cause of an argument between the children so soon after arriving. She tipped her head through the doorway to offer them a smile. "Hello."

Matias was about to open his mouth with an retort of his own when the arguing was interrupted by a female voice, and suddenly there was a lady peeking at them from the doorway and smiling sweetly, and he found his face flushing with embarrassment.

Leo stepped out into the hallway to save them and introduce them to their mother's sister. "Children, say hello to your Aunt Esme. She's going to be staying with us for a little while."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Anna's little mouth dropped open as Esme stepped out into the hallway with Uncle Leo. She'd never seen a fine lady up close before, and this was all the more amazing because this fine lady was her aunt. Esme's smile only warmed at the looks of astonishment and embarrassment being pointed at her. She lowered herself down onto her knee. "It is a very great pleasure to meet you both, Matias, Anna," she told them softly. "You both look so much like your parents."

Anna was the chattier and friendlier of the two, while Matias was the quieter and shyer, hanging back a little bit while he seemingly sized his aunt up. He remained close to Anna, even going so far as to reach for her hand, but he did not yet take a step closer to this new person. In his estimation, she didn't look much like his mother - at least, not at first, though after a moment's study, he could detect a few similarities, relieved he still remembered her well enough to see that much.

"Uncle says I have my mother's eyes," he volunteered quietly. He hoped that didn't mean he looked girlish.

Esme gentled her tone a little more in the face of this shyness, tilting her head toward Matias. "You do," she agreed softly. "The same color, the same look. But you definitely have your father's nose and chin."

Anna squeezed her brother's hand tightly. "Doesn't I look like Mama and Papa, too?"

Esme laughed gently. "Of course you do, little one," she promised. "You have your father's eyes, but you look very much as your mother did when she was small."

"Mama had light hair," Matias pointed out, noting the main difference between his aunt and his mother. "I remember," he added, as if this was almost as important. He didn't want to ever forget her, if he could, though he was only six.

Leo looked on, frowning a little at this first encounter, feeling that same stab of pain in his heart - in that place that had been left empty by their deaths. If Esme was right and someone had caused their deaths, he would not rest until he found out who that someone was and made them pay.

Esme's eyes were wet as she answered. "She did," she agreed with Matias. "She looked like my mama, your grandmother, who was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. And your father was very handsome, so I have no doubt that you will be a very handsome man, too."

Anna inched closer, her hand still trapped in Matias' grasp. "I look like Mama and Grandmama?"

Matias stood a little straighter at this his aunt's praise. He wasn't so concerned about whether or not he'd be handsome, but to think he might look like his father gave him a sense of pride. He turned a glance to his uncle, as if looking for either confirmation or reassurance and Leo nodded silently, an encouraging smile on his face.

"Your hair is the same color as Mama's," Matias pointed out, regarding his sister. It hardly mattered that a few minutes earlier they'd been arguing; the bound between them was clearly seen.

Anna reached up to pull one of her curls over her shoulder, inspecting the color closely before looking at their aunt's dark hair. "But yours isn't like mine," she pointed out.

Esme shook her head. "No, it isn't," she agreed. "I look a little more like my father than my mother, and only a little bit like my sister." She looked between the two of them. "I have some things from my home, that belonged to your mama and to me when we were children. I thought perhaps you might like them now."

Leopold frowned a little again, worried he was eavesdropping now on something that should remain private between the children and their aunt. "Would you excuse me a moment?" he asked, as he backed toward the door. "There's, ah, something I need to check on. I won't be long," he said, making an excuse - any excuse - to give them that moment of privacy. He had already decided that he trusted Esme with the children and liked her even.

Matias glanced after his uncle with a brief look of panic on his face. He couldn't think what his aunt might have for him, considering the fact that he was a boy, but at a nod from his uncle, he remained obediently in place.

Leo's leaving made Esme glance up, though she didn't miss the panic on Matias' face at the thought of being left alone with her. As much as she appreciated the trust put in her, she didn't want to make the children uncomfortable in their own home. "Perhaps I should bring them down to the parlor later," she suggested. "Did my arrival interrupt lessons?"

Anna nodded, a slow smile starting to form on her face. She wasn't sure, but she thought she liked her aunt. "Numbers and letters, and Matty's real good at them!"

Matias shrugged, not wanting to brag, even if numbers and letters did come easy to him - numbers, especially. "I'm helping Anna learn to read," he said, unsure what else to say.

Leo paused before he got to the door. "Well, perhaps you should go finish your lessons then. I'm sure your aunt is tired and hungry from her journey," he suggested.

"Can I show Aunt Esme the roses after?" Anna asked hopefully. They didn't have much of a garden, but Avila had made certain to keep a portion of it for flowers, rather than dedicate all of their little piece of green for vegetables and herbs.

"Yes, of course, sweetling," Leo replied, his affection for the children evident in his voice and his expression. He touched his fingers to Anna's cheek before giving Matias' shoulder a squeeze. "Now, run along before your tutor comes looking for you!"

"Yes, Uncle Leo!" Beaming, Anna bobbed the worst curtsy Esme had ever seen, siezed her brother's hand, and took off down the hallway at a run.

Smiling, Esme rose to her feet in their wake, lifting her gaze to Leo. "Small steps," she said warmly. "And I really should not keep you from your work. I will do everything I can not to disrupt your life here, Leo."

"You are not disrupting anything, Lady," Leo replied, a far cry from how he'd first felt about her visit here. He'd thought she was coming to do exactly that - to steal the children away from him. He could see now that was not the case, at least, if she was being honest with him, and he thought she was. "To be honest, the children need a ... a female presence in their lives. They miss their mother dearly, and though Hilde loves them well enough, she does not have the time to be mother and nanny and housekeeper and cook."

"I will not force them to accept me, but I will try to become a part of the household while I am here." She reached out, hesitating just a moment before her fingers laid themselves on his arm, gentle but firm. "And please, Leo ... my name is Esme. I would like very much for you to use it."

He smiled and nodded, though he knew it would take time for him to get used to not only having her about, but calling her by name. "My apologies ... Esme. I am not terribly schooled in the art of conversation," he said, frowning contritely. He was not sure he was very good at being a substitute father either.

She squeezed his arm gently. "Then don't try to make it art," she suggested. "Just talk to me. You likely do not know how few people actually speak to me, rather than my rank and title. But here and now, I am just Esme, and I refuse to answer to any iteration of my lady. So I suppose you will simply have to get used to it." Blue eyes sparkled teasingly as she smiled.

"I see," he replied with a smile of his own, showing there was a softer side to him, even if he did keep it hidden most of the time. "I will do my best, my lady," he teased in return, all too aware of the hand on his arm.

She laughed then - not a delicate laugh, nor a polite one, but a full, rich sound that seemed to release some of the tension she held about herself. "I'm terribly sorry, I don't think I heard you," she teased straight back again, lifting her hand from his arm.

"It's not worth repeating," he replied, knowing she had heard every word, clear as day. He was still smiling, almost as if forgetting himself, before he drew back a pace. He paused a moment, as if considering. "I should probably let you rest, unless you would like me to show you the rest of the house?"

"Oh, I should very much like to see the house, if it would not inconvenience you," she agreed, glad that he wasn't so eager to leave her company as the children had seemed. Leo was very handsome - a little stern, perhaps, certainly very stiff, but there was a warmth about him that put her at her ease. It was very easy to see why her sister had fallen so deeply in love with his brother. "Give me one moment to set my cloak aside."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

He was not so very stern or stiff as he might seem, but given the circumstances, he was being careful. She was the daughter of a duke, after all, and the sister of his late brother's wife. There was an unspoken etiquette about such matters, and though they might become friends, he had to be careful he did not upset the rules of propriety. Despite those rules, he found himself eager to know her better. With a nod of his head, he backed toward the door. "Of course. I will wait for you in the hallway."

"Thank you." It took only a few moments for her to deposit her cloak in the room assigned to her, and to wash her hands. When she returned to him, she was just as friendly as she had been all along, but with the removal of her cloak, it seemed a little more intimate. "This is your family home, yes? Your grandfather owned it?"

"Yes," he replied, offering his arm once again, so that he could give her a tour of his family home. "I grew up here," he explained, trying not to notice how pretty she was. It had been a long time since he'd had the luxury of admiring a pretty face and even long since he'd had a pretty woman on his arm.

Her hand curled into the crook of his arm, the other rising to lay over her own fingers. Not the formal touch of a lady, but the familiar touch of a friend. Even a lover. It had been a familiarity that Avila had displayed as well, a sign that their mother had taught her daughters well how to be real people, as well as painted dolls for the nobility. "And did you have a happy childhood, Leo?"

"I think so," he replied, though a little sadness could be found in even the happiest childhood. "I think my mother would have liked a daughter, but she never held it against us," he told her as he led her from the room and back toward the stairs.

"My mother would have loved to have a son," Esme shared with him. "It was that wish that killed her, in the end. But she never let us feel that we were a disappointment. I'm sure she would have adored Ernst."

He frowned again at the mention of her mother's death. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said, trying to sound as sincere as he could. Though the words were mostly meaningless, the sentiment was not. "Do you really think she would have approved?" he asked, curiously, as he led her down the stairs.

"Yes, I do." Esme was very certain of that. "Mama didn't like politics. She said it got in the way of what was truly important. If she'd lived, she would never have allowed Papa to cut off all communication with Avila and Ernst. She would have visited here every week herself."

He silently took this information in, wishing things would have been different, but it was too late to change things and there was no point in regret. "It is not too late, Esme," he assured her. While it might be too late for their siblings and their parents, it was not yet too late for her father, or them, or the children.

"If I am welcome to visit, then I shall as often as I can, once the immediate danger is passed," she assured him. "But truly, Leo, only if I am welcome. I do not wish you to have to tolerate my presence. If you and the children would be happier without this connection, then I will respect that."

"Let us not speak of that now, Esme," Leo replied. She had only just arrived, after all, and they both needed time to process this all. In the end, he would let the children decide and do what he felt was best for them anyway.

"There is plenty of time to talk of that later," he added, as he started his guided tour. The house was neither small nor large, big enough to accommodate guests and yet small enough to still feel intimate and cozy. He led her through each room, one at a time, each room holding small touches that hinted at a woman's touch - her sister's touch.

It was a beautiful home, in Esme's opinion. Home was, perhaps, the right word for it - her own was grand and large, and only her own rooms felt occupied. But this house, with its functional rooms and busy noises ... it felt real in a way the ducal manor never could. It felt alive.

"What is it you actually do, Leo?" she asked curiously. "Avila could never quite tell me clearly. She said your family were merchants, then she seemed to change her mind and said you were traders. I confess, I do not understand the distinction."

He came to a halt in the parlor, coming full circle as that was the room he had first greeted her in. Hilde, Goddess bless her heart, had set out a pot of hot, fresh coffee and a plate of sandwiches in case they were hungry - or more accurately, in case the lady was hungry. He let go of her arm and gestured with a hand to the same chair she'd been seated in not long ago beside the fire, while he poured them each a cup of the richly fragrant dark liquid. "I am a coffee merchant," he told her, privately noting the irony.

The irony was not lost on her, either, but she did not draw attention to it, only smiling a little secretively as she watched him. "Do you own a shop in the city, then? Or do you trade in bulk to other stores and merchants across Meringia?"

"No, it is more like the latter. I supply stores and merchants with coffee in exchange for a fee, and they then sell it in their shops and to their customers at a mark-up for a profit," he explained. "Sugar or cream?" he asked, once the coffee was poured, filling the room with its unique fragrance.

"Neither, thank you." Taking up the cup, she breathed in the familiar bitter aroma for a long moment. "You must have contacts among the captains who trade at the docks, then," she commented, still as curious as before. "I have never visited the docks - such a place is unseemly for me to be seen in, apparently. Is it really populated by pirates and whores?"

He chuckled. He had his connections, to be sure, but he did not really want to talk about his business. "Not so much as you might think, but yes, the docks are no place for a lady. Excuse the expression," he said, a hint of a smirk on his face at the word she had asked him not to use.

A soft huff of amusement left her lips. "Then it is just as well that I am not a lady for the duration of my stay here, is it not?" she asked innocently, laying the implication that she might well go exploring while under his roof.

His expression sobered, taking her threat seriously. "I would not recommend you go there alone," he told her, not quite promising to take her there or forbidding her either. He reclaimed the seat across from her, a table between them laden with coffee and sandwiches.

"You are the only man I have ever met who has not expressly forbidden me from doing something I did not actually say aloud I might do," she murmured, her eyes growing just a little more admiring as she sipped her coffee. "Thank you for not treating me as entirely breakable."

Both brows arched upwards in curiosity at her remark. "Who am I to forbid you anything?" he asked, alluding once again to the difference in their stations, and yet, she seemed to value his judgment. "As I said, it is not a place for a lady," he repeated.

"Not a place for a lady alone, perhaps." Esme's eyes crinkled as she smiled at him over the rim of her coffee cup. "I assure you, I have no intention of inviting trouble. I do, however, express myself a little too bluntly at times to avoid it."

He still had that look on his face, a little too serious, perhaps, but he didn't take her safety lightly. "Do not ask me to take you there," he warned. At least, not yet. He was serious when he said the docks were no place for one such as she.

She held his gaze for a long moment, wondering why he was suddenly so concerned that she should not so much as see the docks. A lifetime of being forbidden everything interesting sparked a little suspicion in the back of her mind, but she dismissed it. He knew the city; she did not. "I will not ask you to take me to the docks, sir."

He thought she at least deserved to know why. She was not a child, after all, but a woman, young and sheltered as she was. "I'm sorry, Esme, but it is too dangerous there," he explained, hoping she'd understand that he was not denying her for no good reason.

"What is it that makes the docks so dangerous for a woman to visit them?" she asked, trusting him to answer her truthfully. "I am sure that some merchants must take their wives to wave them off when they leave, and the sailors' wives, too, must do the same. Why should I be in such specific danger?"

That was a good question and one that was not easy to answer. He took a sip of his coffee, then reached for one of the sandwiches, which gave him a moment or two to consider before he had to answer. "Because it is a place of transients," he started. "People who come and go and never stay in one place for very long. Not all of them, of course, but many of them. There are merchants and sailors and dock workers, yes, but there are also pickpockets and prostitutes and other unsavory types who prey on others. It is rather sad to think that some of them have never known any other life, and even sadder still to know that some of them never will, some by choice."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Esme was shocked to hear him lay it out so plainly. "Can nothing be done to help those who do not choose such a life?" she asked, leaning toward him intently. "Does no one offer them aid?"

"Some, but ..." He frowned as he contemplated the content of his cup. "I'm afraid there are too many of them and not enough people willing to help. It is a simple matter of numbers," he said, something he was good at. "When a small part of the population hoards most of the money and goods, there is not enough left for the rest." He paused, gesturing with a hand. "Consider breadcrumbs, for example. If you sprinkle breadcrumbs on the ground for the birds, but the mice get it first, there is very little if anything left for the birds."

"Hmm." She considered this for a long moment. "What would you say is the greatest impediment to these people gaining a fruitful livelihood?" she asked then, her expression thoughtful. "Education? Or is it a simple case of being unable to find work that will take them on?"

"Education is part of the problem. Everything costs money, Esme. Teachers need to eat, too. They do not teach for free. Then, there are those who are born poor and who simply do not know how to improve their lot in life," he told her, knowing how lucky they both were for having not been born in such circumstances. He believed it was his duty to help those less fortunate than himself, but he could not fix a broken system alone.

She nodded slowly. "It is not a problem that I was aware of," she admitted. "Though now I am, I am in a position to at least try and fix the system that harms these people. It may take time, though."

"These problems did not happen overnight. They will not be fixed overnight," he said. "I am sure the king is doing what he can, but his eyes cannot be everywhere," he added with a frown. Who was he to criticize the king or even the duke? He was only a merchant, albeit a well-off one.

"The king has problems of his own," she confessed quietly. "It is not common knowledge, but the new queen is with child, and in concern over the behavior of the current court, they have all been dismissed from Rift Fell for the foreseeable future. There will be a fair amount of wrangling between nobles until the king issues invitations for a new court, and some of them will not take being dismissed permanently without making trouble."

"Dismissed?" Leo echoed, blinking in surprise. "Whatever for?" he asked. It seemed he lacked as much knowledge about politics and the royals as she did about the shipping trade and business.

Esme tilted her head. "The official reason is to safeguard the queen's health in the early months of her pregnancy," she told him. "My father believes it is because the nobles who have populated the court have grown arrogant and disrespectful toward the crown; it seems that court positions are not hereditary, as they have insisted for years, but are, in fact, based upon invitations from the royal family themselves. With his sister back in the country, King George is clearly feeling strong enough and supported enough to finally take charge of his less than supportive nobility."

"I see," Leo replied, though he wasn't sure he did. What did he know of the lives of kings and queens and even dukes and duchesses, not unlike herself. He knew what Avila had told him, but for her, it seemed, her bloodline felt like more of a prison than a privilege. "Will you be invited to court?" he asked, perhaps a little more bluntly than he should have.

"I do not know." Esme seemed troubled by this. "My father was never invited to court, though he and my mother did host the King himself when he was prince once or twice. I suppose it would be considered a suitable place to seek a match for me, though I have no inclination toward marriage purely for status or wealth. I do not know if I could refuse such an invitation. I do not know if it has ever been done."

He was frowning again, though it was unclear why he was frowning. Did he not like the idea of Esme being invited to court and leaving him and the children behind, or did he not like the idea of her not being invited? "If they are ... cleaning house, so to speak ... then perhaps they are looking to invite fresh faces to court, or perhaps only those they trust and consider friends," he suggested.

"Perhaps," she agreed. "But it is all speculation at present. What is real, what is in front of me, I will deal with. And I feel very fortunate that I will not be alone in dealing with it." She didn't explicitly mention the problem before her, nor his wish to be involved, but the trusting smile and gentle touch of her hand were there to make certain he understood.

What was it she was referring to exactly, he wondered. Was she referring to the possible plot that had ended their siblings' lives, or her father's lingering illness that she seemed to suspect was part of that same plot? While he knew very little of the inner workings of the nobility, he was not so naive as to dismiss her suspicions as mere paranoia. He, too, had felt the carriage accident a little too convenient, though at the time, he had been the only one to benefit from it, financially anyway. But all of this could not be left to speculation, and there was no one there to overhear that he didn't trust.

"What exactly is it you are speaking of?" he asked, bluntly again.

She drew her hand back, surprised he needed her to spell it out. "I will protect our family," she told him firmly. "Whatever the cost to myself, no one will harm these children ever again."

"And just how do you propose to do that?" he asked further, not really surprised by her vehemence, and though he wasn't too sure what she had in mind, he knew he was going to be part of it. As guardian, the children were his responsibility, and he would do anything in his power to protect them. He noticed that she'd drawn her hand away, but he needed to know just what she had planned, if anything.

"I do not know yet," she admitted. "I need evidence, irrefutable proof of what Rivers has done, what he is doing. But my freedom is more than a little curtailed, and those who are loyal to me are almost certainly followed when they leave the manor. I will think of something."

"You realize that if he wants to replace your father, there are a few people in his way," Leo pointed out, both of them included. He was not concerned for his own life so much as for hers, but with them both out of the way, Matias and Anna would be the next in line for the duchy.

"If he was to move against the children, he would show his hand," she told him quietly. "I believe his goal may be to remove any influence over them that does not agree with his own. That means you and I, and he will convince my father to name him legal guardian of Matias and Anna before he kills him too. This is why I need evidence. If he truly does intend to destroy my family, I cannot let it happen."

"Yes, but that evidence may be hard to come by," Leo replied, unless ... The wheels in his head were starting to turn. "You said you believe your father is not truly ill," he started.

"No, I suspect he is being poisoned somehow," she admitted in a low tone. "Just enough to keep him pliant, I suspect. It will not be long before the perpetrator realizes that I am the one wielding the power in the duchy."

"If he is being poisoned, then Rivers must have a co-conspirator. Someone close enough to your father who can poison his food or his drink or ..." Leo furrowed his brows in thought. "How well do you know his physician?"

"The physician is Dr. Barry," she answered easily. "I have known him all my life, he delivered me from my mother's womb. I do not think ... I do not want to think that he would turn on my father this way. But I do not know the nurse, though she listens at keyholes and steals small items left in the open."

"I was just thinking that perhaps someone is poisoning his medicine," Leo suggested. If she was right and the duke was being poisoned, what better way than to poison the medicine he had been taking to make him better? There was little chance anyone else would take it or question its necessity.

"That is a possibility," she agreed. "How can I discover that, though? The medicine is kept by my father's bed. I do not want to alarm him with my suspicions."

"That is simple," Leo replied, a small smile playing his lips. He'd no idea he could be so deceitful and conniving as to concoct a possible plan. "We replace his medicine with another and see if he improves."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Esme blinked, tilting her head toward him. "We?" she echoed curiously. "You propose to come to the manor and leave the children here, unprotected? I will not allow you to do that, Leo."

"No, of course not, but I do not like the idea of you attempting this alone," he replied. She did forbid him from bringing the children to the ducal manor, however, for fear of their safety, and that posed a problem. "If only we could ensure their safety ..." he mused aloud.

"How would you do that?" she asked, setting her coffee cup down. "You are their guardian, you know what is best for them. At present, the risks I take are mine alone. I would rather not risk your life or theirs."

"Hmm," he murmured, quieting as his thoughts turned inward. He did not want to put her life in danger either. "There has to be a way," he said, but from the sound of footsteps above their heads, the children in question had just been released by their tutor and the rest of the conversation would have to wait until later. Leo glanced upwards at the sound of feet darting across the floor and smiled. "I believe our plotting will have to wait."

She glanced up with him, laughing a little at the enthusiastic sound of small feet on the floor above and the stairs. "So it would seem," she agreed. "Later, then?"

"Later," he agreed, moving to his feet and offering her a hand. "Shall we hide and see if they can find us?" he suggested, a playful smile on his face, proof he was not as stiff and stern as he might have seemed.

The unexpected playfulness of his smile tugged at her heart, raising her own smile in mischief in answer. "I bow to your whims, Master Kramer," she agreed, taking his hand to rise to her feet. "Dare I ask where we are going to hide away?"

"Hmm," Leo murmured as he cast a look around the room. There were few places to hide, aside from a closet, but that was too obvious. "Here!" he said, grabbing her hand with hardly a thought to propriety and tugging her across the room to hide behind a wide set of draperies that covered the window, hoping their toes didn't stick out to give them away. The evidence they had been there in the way of coffee and sandwiches remained on the table, but perhaps the children would think they had left them there.

Squashing down her desire to laugh at this sudden display of silly good humor, Esme caught her skirt in one hand as he pulled her along, shuffling behind the drapes to crowd in against him. Thankfully, the window looked out onto the garden, not the street.

Here was a hint that life in the Kramer household was not always as serious and dull as it might have seemed at first. Despite the tragedy, Leo and Hilde made sure the children were not only well cared for, but happy, and happiness included laughter and fun. It was a part of childhood he did not wish the children to miss, even if they weren't really his. He was careful to make sure the draperies covered their feet, but he couldn't help the way he and Esme were giggling, like children themselves.

It had been a very long time since Esme had done anything quite so childlike and entertaining as this, clinging to Leo's arm as she tried not to laugh too loudly. The children were not likely to be in the dark for long. Small footsteps clattered down the stairs, heading for the parlor door, and she pressed her mouth to Leo's shoulder to muffle her giggles.

Kissing her would have been an easy way to muffle those giggles, but Leo was not quite that daring or forward, especially not with someone who was so far above his station. He did smile at her as she tried to muffle her own giggles though, and laid a finger against his own lips to encourage her not to give them away. They could hear Matias and Anna's footsteps as they approached and then entered the parlor, but the children were used to their uncle's games and would likely find them before long. Leo couldn't help but savor the moment, astonished to find Esme's eyes were a startling shade of blue.

By some supreme effort, she managed to silence her laughter, raising those startling eyes to his above a wide smile, leaning into his arm with more trust than she'd ever displayed to anyone but her father. As the parlor door creaked open, mischief flared in her gaze, her eyes flickering to the drape that concealed them and back to him, sharing the sweet intimacy of this silly game just a little while longer.

It was rather silly, and yet, this was the closest Leo had come to a woman since before his brother had died and he had become the children's guardian. There was something dangerous and forbidden and exciting about being so close to her, and it wasn't just the fact that they were hiding or that she was the daughter of a duke. There was something about the way her eyes sparkled when she smiled, the scent of her perfume filling his senses. He could have easily been drawn to kiss her right then, if it wasn't for the footsteps and the whisper of voices that had just entered the parlor.

"Lunch!" Anna's immediate declaration in entering the room very nearly gave the game away entirely, as Esme bit down on her lips to try and hold back a fresh laugh at the enthusiastic sound of a little mouth making short work of the nearest sandwich.

"We just had lunch, Anna," Matias reminded her, looking a little disappointed that there were no biscuits on the tray and even more disappointed that there was no one there. "Hilde said they were here," he mused quietly, taking a slow look around the room.

"I like lunch," was Anna's answer, a little muffled through her mouthful of bread and meat. She watched her brother inspecting the room with curious eyes, not sure what he expected to find. "Matty ... do you think that Uncle Leo will marry Aunt Esme and we will be a family like we was before?"

That question made Leo raise his brows, his cheeks flushing a little in embarrassment at the little girl's very blunt but hopeful question posed to her brother. He dared not meet Esme's gaze for fear she would notice his guilty-looking embarrassment. There were worse things to hope for than marriage.

For his part, Matias seemed more puzzled by his uncle's sudden disappearance than by his sister's question. "Don't be silly, Anna. They only just met. 'Sides, Aunt Esme is gonna be a duchess someday. A real duchess. She'll probably marry someone noble, like her."

"Mama didn't marry someone nobble," the little girl pointed out. "She married Papa 'cos of love."

Behind the drape, Esme found herself blushing, unable to meet Leo's gaze but instead finding her eyes fixed on the curve of his mouth. She swallowed, knowing propriety was demanding that she step away. But she didn't want to step away.

"Mama didn't have to, 'cause of Aunt Esme, but Aunt Esme won't have a choice," Matias reasoned, knowing what little he did of noble bloodlines.

Leo shuffled a little, obviously uncomfortable about overhearing the children's banter, mostly because it was about them. What Matias was telling Anna was true, and yet, exceptions had been known to happen, but Leo doubted such an exception would be made for him. He found himself frowning again, not because the thought of marrying Esme was an unpleasant one, but just the opposite. He simply could not afford to think that way.

"Why can't Uncle Leo be a nobble?"

Innocent as the question was, the mispronounciation was enough to draw a quiet snort of laughter from Esme's lips. Or perhaps she laughed aloud deliberately, to avoid further eavesdropping on a conversation that was more than a little uncomfortable to be witness to. Matias was right, in his own way; she would never be able to marry for love. The best she could hope for was to marry a friend of the right rank, and even then, she would be pushed into the shadows while her husband took the rank intended for her.

"'Cause you have to be born to it, silly!" Matias replied, just as the tell-tale snort sounded from the direction of the windows. The boy's head swiveled that way, and a slow grin spread across his face, even as he touched a finger to his lips to silence his sister and pointed toward the windows.

"Does that mean you're a nobble, 'cos of Mama?" Anna asked, hastily slapping a hand over her mouth as he signaled for her to be quiet. She followed his pointing finger to the drapes, which seemed a little more solid than usual.

Behind those drapes, though the children could not know it, Esme had her own hand over her mouth, looking almost a mirror image of her niece in that moment.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Matias might have chosen that moment to correct his sister's mispronunciation, but his attention had been distracted by the obvious sight of their aunt and uncle hiding behind the drapes. "Doesn't look like they're here, Anna. Let's go play in the garden," he said, a little more loudly than necessary, before ducking behind a chair and waving his sister on to do the same.

There was the sound of some muffled agreement from Anna, and the brief shuffle of footsteps before silence fell. Esme's hand relaxed about her own mouth as she looked up at Leo curiously. It was his home, and his game, so what was the next move?

Leo's brows were furrowed in thought, but whether he was debating what to do next or still considering Matias and Anna's conversation was uncertain. It wasn't often he and the children played this particular game, but when they did, it was usually the children who found him out first, and he had a feeling the game wasn't over just yet. He waved her to silence, staying right where he was a moment longer to see if the children had indeed gone.

Keeping silent, Esme laid her hand against his shoulder, her eyes focusing distantly upon the line of his jaw as she strained her ears to hear whatever it was he was waiting for. In the room beyond, Anna waved a hand at her big brother, impatient for the game to be over.

Matias waved a hand back, knowing whoever remained silent the longest was going to be the winner of this game. It hardly mattered really, but he was not one to give up easily.

Leo turned his head at Esme's touch to look at her again, close enough to once again notice the blue of her eyes and the pink of her lips, his heart skipping a beat at the nearness of her, though he could hardly let her know that. Instead, he reached for her hand, touching a finger to his lips again to keep her silent, before pulling the drapes back and taking a look around the room for the children.

As the drapes were drawn back, there was no obvious sign of the children, hidden as they were behind the chairs. Esme twisted a little, though she remained in place, a suspicious smile on her face as she looked around without making a sound.

"Hmm, they must have gone," Leo said aloud, though he had his doubts. He knew them better than that, after all. "I suppose we shall have to eat all the biscuits ourselves then," he taunted. Though there was no plate of biscuits, that was easy enough to resolve. Matias held his breath, hoping Anna didn't give them away.

"I suppose we must," Esme agreed, meeting his eye with a tilt of her head toward one of the armchairs, where a pair of little girl's feet were visible from the side. "You did not tell me they had magical powers."

"They don't, but I do," Leo replied with a smirk. "Did you know I can see through things? Take those chairs, for example ..." he said, with a nod of his head toward the chair with the telltale pair of little girl's feet.

As he stepped closer, Matias signaled to Anna so that they could spring up in unison together and surprise their aunt and uncle.

"Ah, so you are the magic one, I see." Esme smiled a little wider, guessing what was about to happen as those little feet pulled out of sight.

There was a beat, and Anna sprang up, all wild curls and big grin, waving her hands as she yelled out. "We tricked you, we tricked you!"

And not to be outdone ... Esme let out a low shriek and abruptly "fainted" right into Leo's arms, deliberately hiding her face so the children couldn't see her grin.

Fortunately, Leo was right there, attentive enough to catch her and not drop her. Matias gasped as he sprung from his hiding place in time to see his mother's sister faint dead away in his uncle's arms.

"Is she dead?" he whispered, his voice fearful, a look of shock on his young face as he stepped tentatively closer.

Leo swung Esme up into his arms, forcing the amused grin from his face, and carried her across the room to deposit her gently in a chair. "I don't know. You children gave her quite the shock," he told them, as gravely as he could.

Anna's big grin disappeared into a worried "o" of concern as she pattered across the room to hover beside her apparently unconscious aunt. "Is she sick?" she asked worriedly.

On the chair, Esme let one eye crack open just far enough to see how far the children were from her. Not close enough just yet.

"I hope not," Leo replied. "If she is, she might be contagious," he said, with such a serious expression on his face, he could have been an actor.

Matias froze when his uncle used the word contagious and held out an arm to stop Anna from getting any closer. "But she seemed fine before," he reasoned aloud, looking worried.

"What if she is dead?" Anna asked worriedly. "Mama would be cross if we didn't help her."

Esme let out a pitiful little moan, playing up the part she'd given herself just to see how far these little ones could go before they realised it was a trick of her own.

"She's not dead," Matias said upon hearing that moan. His heart was beating fast, almost fearful. He had lost one mother, he did not want to lose her sister, too. If this was part of the game, he was not having fun. "Uncle?" he asked, the look on his face giving away his feelings, and Leo couldn't help but take pity on him. Perhaps the game had gone one step too far.

"Why don't you come see for yourself?" he asked the children.

Taking hold of Matias' hand, Anna inched closed, reaching out to tug on Esme's skirt. "Aunt Esme?" she ventured uncertainly. "Did we scared you to dead?"

There was a very brief pause, and suddenly Esme moved, sitting bolt upright to grasp both of them and hug them into her arms. "Only a little, sweetling," she promised Anna, kissing the giggling little girl's hair fondly. Her fingers gently stroked Matias' hair. "Serves you right for startling your guest," she added with cheerful affection, kissing his cheek. "Your mother would have enjoyed that game!"

Matias' face had gone pale, though he looked as relieved as he did startled by his aunt's sudden and unexpected recovery. He laughed a little nervously at the affectionate kiss, unsure just what to make of it all. Though he might sometimes a little too mature for his years, he was only six, after all. "I'm sorry, Aunt," he told her, contritely. It had been his idea to scare them, after all.

"I'm sorry, too," Esme apologised in her own turn. "It was a little cruel to faint on you, but I haven't had someone to play with for years. I may have got a little carried away."

Beside her, Anna cackled softly, pulling away to tug at Leo's hand. "Did you see Aunt Esme's funny trick, Uncle?"

"Yes, I did," Leo replied as Anna tugged at his hand. "I though she was quite convincing," he said, smiling warmly as he glanced at their guest. The look on Matias' face worried him though. The boy was always a little too serious, much like himself. "I thought I heard something about biscuits," he said, looking back at Anna. "Why don't we go see if we can convince Hilde a little treat won't spoil our dinner?" he suggested.

"Ooh, does she has more honey snaps?" Anna asked hopefully, swinging their joined hands back and forth. "We should go see. Matty, you stay. Sit!" Giggling, she pulled at Leo's hand, heading for the door in excitement.

"I believe she does!" Leo replied, as he and Anna stepped out of the room in search of sweets, their footsteps and voices fading down the hallway.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Though there was a scowl on his face, Matias remained obediently behind, looking a little annoyed at his sister for not only abandoning him but for talking to him like he was the family dog.

Esme watched the two go, leaving her with a scowling little boy who was not certain he should trust or even like her. She sighed softly. "They are not very subtle, are they?" she asked gently.

Matias' young forehead wrinkled in confusion. "What does subtle mean?" he asked, betraying his youthful six years. He might be bright, but he didn't know everything.

"Subtle means an action that is not obvious," she explained. "If they had arranged for Hilde to come and get them, with a good reason for it, just so they could leave us alone together, that would have been subtle."

His brows furrowed further as he tried to sort out what she meant by that explanation. "You mean, they left us alone on purpose," he said. It was not a question. But why? Why would his uncle do that? It was clearly Anna who was excited about her aunt's visit.

"Yes, I think they did." Esme sat upright, gently taking his hands in hers as she tilted her head to meet his eyes. "Matias, I know you don't know me, and you have no reason to trust me," she told him softly. "I would like to change that, but before I can even begin, I must make you this promise. Whatever I do, whatever we do, it will not take you away from your uncle, or your sister. I will not change your life if I can possibly help it."

He met her gaze with a quiet and serious gaze of his own, as if he was studying her, considering her words and her honesty. She was like his mother and unlike his mother, all at the same time. He wanted to trust her; he wanted to like her, but deep down, he was simply afraid that if he got too attached, he would lose her and have to feel the pain of that loss all over again. Still, she seemed to want something from him - his trust or his affection or both. Winning Anna's heart would be easy, but Matias was wary. Still, he was young and could not help but be hopeful.

"I 'member Mama better than Anna. She was too little when Mama died. She was pretty like you, but different somehow." He paused in his comparisons, unsure what to say to her promise. "I miss her," he admitted quietly, unable to hide the grief from his voice. He missed his father, too, but in a different way than he missed his mother.

"I miss her too," Esme told him softly, not even trying to hide her own grief from the little boy before her. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here for you when we lost your parents, but I am very glad that you have your uncle to love and care for you. I know we're strangers right now, but I would like to be your friend someday."

"I would like that, too," Matias replied without hesitation. After all, this lady was his mother's sister and the closest he would ever come to a substitute. "Were you and my mother close?" he asked, curiously. His uncle had told them stories of their father, but they'd been told few stories of their mother.

"She was my best friend, and my biggest protector," Esme told him, her smile warming as she felt a gentle rush of relief. She wasn't as far from being accepted by these little people as she had thought she might be. "You know what she loved to do? She loved to read, and to write. I have some of the stories she wrote when we were children, and her favorite storybook to read. I was hoping you might like them. She always said you were very fond of books."

Matias' eyes widened in surprise. Though she had said she had some things of his mother's she wanted to pass on, he had not expected much, assuming most of his mother's things would go to his sister. "You want to give them to me?" he asked, hardly believing his own ears.

"If you would like them, yes." She released his hand, gently touching his cheek, unaware that it was a gesture that echoed one her sister had given her children many, many times. "She was so proud of you. If you would like, I can show you her letters to me. She could fill pages about her bright boy."

He could not help the tears that filled his eyes at the thought of his mother and the shared affection they had held for each other. Though he had only been five years old when she'd died, her loss had nearly broken his young heart. He sniffled, hoping she didn't notice that he was tearing up. "I would like that, thank you."

"Oh, my little love ..." She drew in a tentative breath. "May I embrace you, Matias? I know I cannot be what she was, but I should very much like to hug my nephew. But I will not do it unless it is what you want."

He only had to consider a moment before nodding his head. He missed his mother's hugs more than he cared to admit, and though his uncle meant well, there was nothing that could replace a mother's love, except perhaps that of her sister.

Esme didn't need more encouragement than that. She reached out to draw him up onto her lap, wrapping her arms about the little boy her big sister had been so proud of. Her cheek brushed his hair as she stroked her hand against his back, silent tears escaping for the knowledge that Avila would never hold her son this way again.

He hiccuped a soft sob as she drew him in, resting his cheek against her shoulder as he wound his arms around her neck, before releasing a soft sigh. There was comfort in her embrace, and safety and security that he hadn't really felt since his mother had left them, even though his uncle had done his best. There was just no replacing a mother's touch, even if Esme wasn't really his mother.

"You won't leave us, will you?" he asked, in a quiet voice. "You won't let Uncle leave us?"

"I will do everything in my power to make sure that you never have to leave your uncle," she promised him, firm and quiet in that moment. "I can't promise to always be here myself, but I am hoping that I will be able to visit you very often, and I can promise to write to you every week, the way I did with your mother."

Somehow he knew that was going to have to be good enough. Matias nodded and lifted his head from her shoulder to wipe the tears from his face. "I would like that very much," he told her, hoping to get to know her better now that she was here. "Why-why didn't you visit before?" he asked. Despite her earlier apology and explanation, he didn't really understand.

She drew a handkerchief from her sleeve, embroidered with her initials, gently wiping his face dry. "Because my father made a lot of mistakes," she told him. "His first mistake was in letting the people around him say that your mother was wrong to love your father. Because he listened to them, because he was worried about the way that they saw him, he pretended not to have two daughters. Your mother made me promise to go along with him. That was why we only wrote letters for so many years. And now, when he is getting old, the people he thinks are his friends are giving him bad advice. To protect my father, I had to pretend not to care that my sister was gone. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and I did not know that my father wanted me to come and visit you until just a few days ago. But I am here now, and I will try to make it up to you, Matias."

Matias still had that serious look on his face, but he was no longer crying. There was almost a look of defiance or anger flashing in his eyes, angry at those who had tried to keep them apart. "But my mother loved my father. And we are family. Why would anyone want to keep us apart?" he asked, still not understanding, too young to understand plots and politics and power.

"Because a lot of the nobility in this country think that loving someone isn't as important as making sure you marry someone who is the same as you," she tried to explain. "It's very unfair, and a lot of people are made unhappy by it."

"The same as you?" he echoed, understanding at last. He'd explained as much to his sister, even if his understanding of it was imperfect. "You will be a duchess someday. Who do you have to marry?" he asked, curiously. Anna was right - it would be wonderful if Aunt Esme would marry Uncle Leo, but he didn't want to get his hopes dashed.

"These things are very complicated, Matias," Esme said gently. "I am a woman, and that means that I cannot inherit my father's title or his lands. I will never be a duchess, but I will always be a duke's daughter. If I have a son, he may be the next duke." She was careful not to mention that Matias was, in fact, the next in line for the ducal throne. It had not been decided for certain, and she would fight tooth and nail to keep him from being forced into the role herself.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

But Matias wasn't stupid or slow, and after a moment, he was able to draw that conclusion for himself. "But that means ..." he said, trailing off, unsure if he was right. His mother had married outside of nobility, and his father had not become duke. Did that mean he did not have to become the next duke? And what if Esme did have a son? Would that son then be the next duke? Did she have to marry within the nobility in order for her son to be considered for the role? It was all very confusing to a small boy of six.

She touched his lips gently with a single finger. "No one will ever force you to be anything you do not want to be," she promised him. "Not even your grandfather would make you his heir without your agreement, Matias. Don't fear that."

He nodded his head again, comforted and relieved to know he would not be forced into such a role, unsure if he would or would not even want it, but she had not answered his question - not really. "What if you marry someone who is not noble?" he asked, rephrasing his question another way.

"If I fall in love with someone who is not noble, there are three things that could happen," she told him, unwilling to lie. "The first is that my father might try to force me to give up the man I love. Now, I know my father will not do that. He made that mistake once before, and it hurt all of us. So if I were to love a man who was not noble, if I were to marry him, two things could happen. One is that I could renounce my nobility, and lower my own rank voluntarily to be able to be his wife. The other is that my father could ask the king to make my husband a noble himself. We're all very complicated when we get to wear the rich clothes."

"But then who would be duke when your father dies?" he asked further, wondering if her husband would be made duke or if that would make him duke by default.

"Well, like I said, it could be you, if you want it," she told him. "Or my son, if I have one. If not, then there are male cousins who could inherit the title. There are only two dukes in the country, and they are both related to the king, however distantly. That is why they are dukes, and no one else is."

"You are related to the king?" Matias asked, eyes widening in wonder and awe. But if she was related to the king, then weren't he and Anna, too? And what did that mean exactly?

"I am," she agreed with a nod. "My great-grandfather was his grandfather's younger brother. So you and Anna are his cousins, too."

"We are related to the king?" the little boy asked, clearly astounded. Why hadn't anyone mentioned this before, or had he just misunderstood? "Can we go meet him? Or can he come here?" he asked curiously and obviously with just a little hero worship.

"Perhaps one day we will take you to court to meet him," she offered. "He is very busy at the moment. His new queen is with child; we will have a new prince or princess when the new year begins, they're saying."

"A prince or princess who is my cousin?" Matias asked, still not quite believing what he was hearing. Why had no one told him this before? And for that matter, why had no one mentioned he might become a duke someday? He knew he was only six, but he wasn't a baby, and didn't he have a right to know? But rather than feel angry for not being told, he was merely astonished.

"Yes." His obvious astonishment was a little alarming to Esme, leaving her to wonder if telling him this truth about his bloodline had been an entirely good idea. "But not many people know that your mother was my sister, and that is to protect you and your sister from bad people who might try to hurt the king through you. Do you understand?"

He was anxious to share this information with his sister, until her warning made him pause, a small confused frown on his face as he tried to sort out what she was telling him. "How would they hurt the king through us?" he asked, unsure what she meant by that. How could hurting them hurt the king when he had never met them?

"You are a boy of the royal line, however far removed you are," she told him gently. "You have a place in the line of succession. If the man ahead of you were to die, if my father were to die, and then the king were to die without an heir, then there are many people who would want to put you on the throne, so that they could rule the country through you. I promise I will do everything I can to protect you from them."

His eyes widened further at her explanation. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected to hear he might be in the line of succession for a duchy, much less for a kingdom. "But ... I don't want to be king," he said, not really knowing much about it, but knowing it sounded like a lot of responsibility.

"Then you never will be," she promised him faithfully. "I am very sure, Matias, that I will never allow you to be forced into any role you do not want to accept, and I am more than sure that your uncle feels the same way. We will keep you safe from the people who might try to force such things on you, sweetheart, I promise you."

The little boy wasn't quite sure what to say to that or how to thank her, and so, he surged forward and threw his arms around her neck to thank her in the only way he knew how. "I'm glad you are here, Aunt Esme," he said in a quiet voice, those words for her and her only.

Tucking him close into her arms, Esme squeezed gently, feeling a strange pang of selfish delight that he was already happy to give her the embraces she'd hoped for secretly. "I'm glad to be here, too, Matias," she murmured back to him. "I've wanted to meet you for so long."

"Did you bring something for Anna, too?" he asked, pulling away a moment to meet her gaze. He had a feeling she had; she had said as much, after all, but he wanted to make sure. Though he might not say so very often, his little sister meant more to him than anyone else in the world.

"Yes, I did," Esme assured him with a fond smile. "I don't know if your mama ever made her a doll, but she made me one and gave it to me the day before she ran away to marry your father. And I made lots of different clothes for that doll. Do you think Anna would like her?"

There was a thoughtful expression on the little boy's face a moment while he considered her question, as though it was the most important thing in the world. "She has Gerdie, but her head keeps falling off," he said, alluding to the fact that she'd had Gerdie a long time and the doll was more than a little worn out. Her head had been reattached more than once, even when he wasn't trying to behead her.

"Her head falls off?" Esme did try not to laugh, but the mental image was just too funny not to at least smile at. "Maybe Gerdie should be retired, then."

"I think she would like a new doll, especially if it was one Mama made," he said, hoping his sister would agree. "Would you like me to go find her?" he asked, meaning Anna, not Gerdie.

Esme considered this for a moment. "Why don't you go and find Anna and your uncle, and I will go and get those books and doll from my chest upstairs and meet you back here?" she suggested, thinking that perhaps he might need a few minutes of normality with his sister and uncle before they came back to each other.

Matias nodded, face brightening now that she'd explained some things to him. "We were going to go for a walk in the garden, remember?" he asked. "Mama loved the garden," he added quietly.

"We will certainly do that, but I do believe biscuits were promised first," Esme agreed, her smile warming as she let him down from her lap. That smile softened at his memory. "Your mama loved flowers. One of the gardeners even grew a special rose that he named after her when we were small. I'll have to send you some."

"A rose named for Mama?" he asked curiously. No one had ever told him this either. He was learning all sorts of interesting things now that their aunt had arrived.

Esme nodded, her smile bright once again. "Your mama was a lot of people's favorite person," she told him fondly. "She touched a lot of hearts, and a lot of people remember her very fondly."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I will always remember her," he promised, though he was so young, it was likely those memories would fade with time. Thankfully, they would always have her portrait and he would have her books to remember her by. "Thank you, Aunt Esme," he said, smiling a little shyly and leaning over to touch a quick kiss to her cheek before hurrying off to find his sister.

She watched him go, her heart aching for this little boy who had been kept so safe from the world his mother had run from before he was born. She hoped she could keep him just as safe, if not for her sister then for his own sake. Rising to her feet, she slipped from the room, hitching her skirts to run up the stairs two at a time - something she hadn't done in her own home for years.

Meanwhile, Matias went in search of his uncle and Anna, who'd gone in search of biscuits. He caught up with them in the kitchen chatting with Hilde as she put a plate together and another tray of coffee for the adults and cocoa for the children. "Anna! Aunt says she will meet us in the parlor. She has a present for you!"

"For me?" Anna's eyes opened wide as she stared at her brother, glancing up at the adults as though expecting confirmation before returning her gaze to her brother. "And for you too? 'Cos it's not fair otherwise!"

Matias nodded, enthusiastically. "She's giving me some of Mama's books," he said, knowing Anna wouldn't be jealous of that, and if she really wanted to read them, he was willing to share. He grabbed hold of her hand to tug her back toward the parlor before their aunt got back. "Come on!"

Wriggling down off the chair where she had been watching the assembly of the biscuits and cocoa, Anna giggled, more than happy to be pulled about by her big brother. It was wonderful to see him excited about the same thing she was excited by, for once.

Hilde watched them go, one brow raised above a tolerant smile. "Seems the lady has made quite the impression on our young man there, sir," she commented to Leo.

"It does seem so," Leo remarked, turning to watch the two children scamper away. "It's good to see him smile again," he observed quietly. He wasn't so worried about Anna, who seemed the more light-hearted of the pair, while Matias was the serious one.

Hilde tilted her gaze toward her master for a long moment, too. "It isn't just the young man that's taken to her, is it, sir?" she commented, secure in the knowledge that she was twice his age and he couldn't get rid of her without suffering very real consequences.

Leo caught her meaning, but thankfully, he didn't blush. "Yes, Anna seems quite taken with her, too," he said, a small smirk on his face. He knew she was referring to Anna, but himself, but he let her think what she wanted.

The housekeeper nodded to herself, smiling in her knowing way. "Well, it will be nice to have a lady about the house again, if only for a few days," she admitted, stirring the cocoa into cups for the children. "She's no airs and graces I can see, either."

"I should hope she will stay for more than a few days," Leo remarked, not quite realizing how taken he was to their guest until that very moment.

"Aye, well, with your permission, I'll send my boy out to fetch a girl from the workhouse to be a third pair of hands while we've a guest with us," Hilde said, carefully not touching the fact that she hadn't seen her master this taken with anyone before. Perhaps the shine would wear off after a few days, perhaps not.

"Whatever you need, Hilde. I trust you," he assured her, though he hoped she knew that already. "Do you need help with the tray?" he asked, knowing the woman only had two hands, and he wasn't afraid of pitching in when necessary.

"Did you think I was going to carry it for you?" she asked in amusement, wiping her hands clean on her apron. "Your guest, your problem, Master Leo. You're a big strong man - I should think a small tray isn't going to trouble you greatly."

"Well played, Mistress Hilde," Leo remarked with a grin before moving to take up the tray. "Wish me luck!" he added with a sly wink before turning to rejoin the children and their guest in the parlor.

The housekeeper waved him away as she laughed, sending him back to the little gathering in the parlor. By the time he reached the room where his nephew and niece were waiting, Esme was already in there, seated on the floor with the pair of them. One arm was around Anna, gathered into her lap and playing with a familiar but unfamiliar doll; the other was stroking through Matias' hair as he perused a small stack of slender books in front of him.

Leo paused in the doorway, surprised by the sweet domesticity of the scene in front of him. Though she wasn't their mother, she couldn't imagine Avila being any more loving or affectionate with them than Esme. It wasn't the similarity to Avila that struck him so much as the possibility that perhaps they really could be a family again, but he knew it was too soon to think that way and pushed the thought from his head before stepping into the room. "I'm back with Hilde's famous honey biscuits, coffee, and cocoa," he said, announcing his presence.

"Uncle Leo, look what Aunt Esme brought me!" Anna declared as soon as he made himself known, raising up the doll in her hands happily. "Mama made her, and Aunt Esme made her lots of clothes, and she says she's for me now!"

Leo smiled, almost relieved to find Anna accepting another doll in place of Gerde, who was getting so worn out it was getting hard for Hilde to keep resewing her head back on. "If your Mama made her, she's very special indeed," he replied, as he made his way into the room and set the tray down on the table. "But she's going to need a name."

"Oooh ..." Anna hugged the doll to her chest once again, turning her eyes to Esme. "Does she got a name?"

Esme chuckled gently. "I never gave her a name," she confessed. "So you really should think of something to call her."

Anna considered this for a long moment, looking down at the yellow-haired doll in her arms. "Can I call her Amy?"

"You can call her whatever you like, sweetling," Leo assured her, as he poured two cups of cocoa into the mugs.

"What if you name her after Mama?" Matias suggested. "Papa used to call her Avy," he said, which wasn't all that different from Amy.

Leo exchanged glances with Esme, unsure whether that would be acceptable in her or Anna's eyes.

"Can I really?" Wide eyed and hopeful, Anna looked back at Esme, who laughed and kissed her hair gently.

"Of course you may, little one," she assured her niece. "She has hair like yours and your mama's, after all."

Leo exhaled a sigh, relieved that Matty's suggestion hadn't caused any anger or tears. "I think that's a fine idea," he said, though in the end it was Anna's decision. He was worried the children were so young they might forget their mother someday, especially Anna, and this was one way of helping her to remember.

"I used to talk to her all the time," Esme added, "just like I was talking to your mama. So Avy really does fit her."

Anna hugged the little doll tighter to herself, biting her lip. "T'nk you, Aunt Esme," she managed in a quiet voice. "An' Matty, 'cos of the name."

Matias smiled, glad to have pleased his sister for once and made her happy.

Leo frowned a little, saddened once again by the loss of his brother and sister-in-law, but he recovered quickly, not wanting to upset Esme or the children with his own grief. "If that's decided, the cocoa is getting cold," he reminded them.

"Oh, we has cocoa!" Abandoning Esme's lap, Anna scrambled onto her feet, turning to very carefully put the newly named Avy into her aunt's lap in her place before pattering over to the table where Leo had placed the tray.

Matias got up to join his sister at the table to enjoy the biscuits and cocoa while Leo brought a steaming cup of coffee over to Esme. "Here's what I'm famous for," he remarked as he carefully handed her the cup. "Careful, it's hot."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Famous now, are we?" she asked in amusement, taking the cup he offered her. She assumed this was coffee from his imports, rather than the home grown stuff they had shared an hour or so before. "Should I pretend to know what I'm tasting?"

"It's a special blend, a little more expensive than the usual. I'm interested to know what you think," he added, claiming a chair and sipping at a cup he'd poured for himself. It wasn't so much the blend that was different as it was the roast, this one being much deeper and richer than the one they've been drinking earlier.

Perhaps strangely, she remained on the floor, the soft velvet of her skirt spread out about her over the rug and Anna's new doll in her lap, offering Leo a warm smile over the rim of her cup. She glanced at the children, engrossed in honey snaps and cocoa. "Thank you, for that unsubtle mercy," she said quietly. "I think it helped."

He arched a brow at her as he lowered the cup from his lips, having taken another slow sip. "Which unsubtle mercy?" he asked, unsure if she was referring to the biscuits and cocoa or something else.

"Abandoning your nephew to play host in your absence," she clarified in amusement, though her smile softened gratefully. "Thank you."

"Ah, that," he replied, looking over at the two children, who were chattering away together over their cocoa, seemingly unaware of the conversation going on nearby. "I'm afraid even the most well-meaning uncle cannot take the place of a ..." He broke off before he could utter the word, "mother". Esme was not the children's mother anymore than he was their father, and yet, they were all they had left.

"I don't think anyone could." No, he didn't need to say it aloud to be understood. Esme sighed softly, sipping her coffee. She blinked, looking down into her cup. "Goodness ... that is rather richer than I was expecting it to be!"

He smiled at her reaction to the brew in her cup. "But do you like it?" he prodded further. He already knew it was richer, but he also knew it was not for everyone. "If it's too bitter, we can add a little sugar or cream."

"No, I-I like the bitterness," she was quick to assure him. "I was not expecting ..." She gestured, trying to find the word for what she was tasting. "Is that caramel?"

"Just a hint," he replied, smirking a little around his cup. He wasn't about to reveal all the secrets of his trade, after all.

Esme laughed at his playful protection of his trade secrets. "Well, it is lovely," she assured him in a warm tone. "Sugar or cream would ruin it, surely?"

He shrugged at her question. "To each his or her own," he said, though he couldn't help but agree. Coffee was naturally bitter, hence the reason for the hint of caramel. But he didn't really want to talk about coffee. "Hilde was wondering how long you plan on staying, but I want you to know that there's no rush. You're welcome to stay as long as you like."

Aware that there was suddenly intensely curious silence from beside the table, Esme was careful with her answer. "I must confess, I was hoping to stay perhaps two weeks," she admitted. "But if my presence is disruptive, I will shorten that. Truly, I have no wish to destabilise your home."

"I highly doubt your presence will be disruptive," Leo assured her, equally aware that the little people at the nearby table and turned quiet, but unworried about them overhearing, as they weren't discussing anything too sensitive. "As a matter of fact, I do believe I speak for all of us when I say that your presence is most welcome," he said, raising his voice just loud enough that the children could hear.

There was a pause as Anna nudged her brother. "Does that mean a good thing?" she asked him, in another of those terribly loud whispers of hers.

Esme bit her lips to hide her smile, raising her cup to keep from showing her amusement.

Matias nodded his head in reply, leaning toward his sister, heads almost touching. "It means we like having her here," he whispered back, better at keeping his voice low than his sister.

Leo mirrored Esme's smile behind his cup of coffee, equally amused.

Educated, Anna nodded herself, turning a big grin onto her aunt and uncle. "You should stay forever and ever and be mostest weckommed for always!"

Leo coughed to covered his shock and embarrassment at Anna's brash honesty, remembering her earlier question regarding marriage. It was far too soon to predict the future, and Leo was practical enough to know a woman as beautiful and smart as her would have her pick of suitors far more suitable than himself. "Forever is a long time," he murmured.

"I can't stay much longer than two weeks, or my papa will start to miss me," Esme tried to explain. She was not going to tell the children how dangerous the ducal manor was right now, that was for certain. "But I will come and visit you as often as I can."

After everything she had told Matias, he knew better than to suggest they visit the manor. His gaze darted to his uncle, looking at him with a look of concern and understanding that was older than his years.

"And we will look forward to those visits," Leo said, before either child could argue.

"Can't Grandpapa and you come and live with us?" Anna asked hopefully. "You can have my room. Hildy has a big bed, I can share with her."

Esme glanced at Leo, fairly sure he should be the one to field this question.

"No, sweetling," Leo replied, as gently as he could. He wished life was as simple as that, but it was far too complicated for a four year old to understand. "Grandpapa is not well, and your Aunt Esme has to go home sometimes to take care of him," he explained, though that was a very simplified explanation.

"But if he isn't well, we should go see him, shouldn't we?" Anna asked, her small face worried about a man she had never even seen, and who had spent the entirety of her life pretending she didn't exist.

"Grandpapa is a very grumpy old man when he isn't well," Esme offered. "It would not be the best way to meet him, little one."

"Perhaps when he gets better," Leo said, exchanging glances with Esme again, as if the two of them shared something between them that the children were unaware of.

"We could send him something that might make him feel better," Matias suggested, hoping his sister would concur.

"That is a very good idea," Esme agreed, turning her eyes away from Leo's. "Perhaps you could make him something I could take back with me?"

"Perhaps a letter, too," Leo suggested, though they might need help in writing one. "What do you think, Anna?" Matias asked his sister, since she was the more creative of the pair.

Anna was deep in thought as she chewed. "Is he proper sick and spewing?" she asked, as though this were somehow important to the idea rolling around in her head.

Esme blinked in surprise, glancing toward Leo for a translation. "I-I'm not sure I understand," she admitted. "Spewing?"

"Um, I think she means retching," Leo interpreted, familiar as he was with the children's way of putting things. "You don't have to be ... spewing ... to be sick, Anna," he pointed out. "Remember when you were sick with a fever last spring? You weren't spewing," he said, the word a little awkward on his tongue.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Oh, I see." Reassured, Esme looked back to the children. "He isn't ... spewing," she told them. "He is very weak, and does not often get out of bed these days. But he is not sick to his stomach."

Anna tugged on her brother's sleeve. "We could make fairy biscuits, like what Mama used to."

"We would need Hilde's help," Matias pointed out, but he saw no reason why Hilde wouldn't help them, especially since they'd be making the biscuits not to eat themselves, but to make someone else happy.

"I think that's a splendid idea," Leo said, smiling in approval.

"That is a lovely plan," Esme agreed. "And I'm sure he will like them very much."

Anna beamed, nudging her brother again. "And, and, Matty can write a lettit from us, can't you?"

Matias nodded. "I can write a letter an' you can draw some pictures," he suggested further.

"Well, it sounds like we have it all sorted out then," Leo remarked. "If you are very careful, you will find paper and writing supplies in my study."

"And it does not have to be perfect today," Esme added, her smile growing at these charming plans being laid. "I will be here a while longer, after all."

Anna beamed, sneaking another biscuit off the plate to ram it into her mouth all in one go.

"Now?" Matias asked, brows arching upwards. Their uncle's study was one place that they were normally not allowed, but it seemed he was giving them permission to go there in search of paper and writing supplies this once.

"If you wish, but I seem to recall something about a walk in the garden," Leo replied, knowing there was plenty of time to pen a letter later.

"Ah, yes, I did hear something about roses," Esme agreed, happy to take the burden of an immediate letter off the boy's mind. "I wonder, young Master Kramer, if you would do me the honor of escorting me to your garden?"

Matias' eyes widened again, and he pointed to himself, as if questioning her meaning. There were two Master Kramers - the younger and the older - and he had to assume she meant him. Upon realizing she meant him, he nodded enthusiastically. "Can Anna come, too?" he asked, not wanting to live his little sister out.

"Of course she may. Do you think a gentleman is incapable of escorting more than one lady at a time?" Esme laughed gently, setting her cup aside as she moved to rise from her seat on the floor. "Perhaps the elder Master Kramer would like to test his own manners."

"It has been a long time since anyone put my manners to the test," Leo said, unsure if she was teasing him or not, but as soon as she set her cup aside, he was out of his chair and moving to help her to her feet, proving there was nothing wrong with his manners.

As for Matias, he said nothing, but shot his sister a curious glance at whatever it was that was going on between their uncle and aunt. Anna shrugged back at Matias - it was grown ups doing grown up things, that was always just a little bit boring to her.

Hands in Leo's, Esme rose onto her feet with a soft laugh, perhaps a little startled to find herself so close to him as she raised her eyes. Faint colour bloomed in her cheeks as she smiled and stepped back, hoping her gaze had not betrayed her liking for him too much, and turned to the children. "Shall we?"

Leo smiled back, noticing a faint flush rise to her cheeks, but not sure if it had anything to do with him. Still, he clung to her hands a moment longer than necessary before letting go and releasing her into the children's care, though he intended to accompany them. It had been a long time since he'd taken a walk in the garden, perhaps too long.

"Avila loved the garden," he remarked again. "She and Ernst would sometimes have picnics there," he told her. Even before the children were born.

"Oh, she would spend hours in the garden when we were children. There was nothing she liked better than getting grubby with dirt and scratched with thorns, just to make sure a flower would grow perfectly." Esme glanced down at the children with an inviting smile. "Your mama once greeted a countess in nothing but a muddy petticoat and rubber boots, because she forgot the time."

There had been no need for a gardener when Avila had been alive. Now, Leo had to pay someone to come in and pluck the weeds and prune the roses, and yet, no matter how much attention was given it, the garden never looked as lovely as it had when Avila had been tending it.

"She used to cut flowers and bring them inside. 'Member, Anna?" Matias remarked, but it was Leo who replied first.

"She'd put a vase of flowers in every room, until we ran out of vases," he said with a faint, fond chuckle.

"Mama liked being muddy and happy," Anna offered, though she didn't truly remember much. She was still young enough that the loss of her parents might be overcome in time, if she had enough love from her guardians.

"I had wondered why there were so many empty vases about the place," Esme admitted in amusement. "We shall have to see if we can make a habit of bringing one bouquet inside every few days, won't we?"

It was a fond memory of his brother's wife, one that made him smile, even as sad as he was at her loss. "It would be nice to have flowers in the house again," he said, remembering how happy the house had been in those days and wondering if they would ever feel that happy again.

Matias slipped his hand into Esme's as though to escort her into the garden, as she'd suggested.

Mirroring her brother taking Aunt Esme's hand, Anna inserted her sticky fingers into Leo's palm, looking up at him cheerfully. "Can I learn how to make the garding grow?" she asked curiously. "Like Mama did?"

"Yes, of course, you can, sweetling," Leo replied, closing his hand around hers, despite the child's sticky fingers. "Perhaps your Aunt Esme can teach you when she is here," he suggested, as he knew very little about gardening himself.

"Really?" Anna stared at the back of the lady in front of them, apparently deep in conversation with her brother. "But she's a duckess, uncle," she pointed out in a shocked voice. "She eats off fur plates and has glass shoes and keeps a birdie in her throat to sing for her."

"What?" Leo chuckled as he glanced down at his small charge, not quite understanding what it was she was trying to say. "Is that from a story Matty read you?" he asked suspiciously.

Anna nodded enthusiastically. "It was the princess in the tower, only Aunt Esme isn't a princess, she's a duckess, so maybe she doesn't have fur plates and a birdie," she jabbered happily as they passed along the halls and through the kitchen to the garden. "Can I have glass shoes? Don't they break?"

"I'm afraid glass shoes aren't very practical, and I doubt they're very comfortable either," Leo replied, though he didn't exactly deny her outright. "Isn't there something you'd like better than a pair of shoes that will hurt your feet?" he asked further.

"A pony." The answer was immediate, and very predictable. It was also an impossibility - they had nowhere to stable a horse, much less for her to learn to ride it, even if she had been big enough to try.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

He sighed. "Anna, we've been over this before. You know you can't have a pony. We've no place to keep one and no one to take care of it. Perhaps when you're a little older, we can get a kitten or a puppy," he suggested, not wanting to disappoint her, but she couldn't have everything.

The little girl pouted, but the argument was an old one. She was still going to ask at every opportunity, but she knew the answer would always be no. Circumstances would have to change an awful lot in order for her to have a pony. She paused, watched as Matias drew Esme out into the garden, and pulled hard on Leo's hand, urging him to bend down to her. "Can we get something pretty for Aunt Esme so she won't forget us when she goes 'way again?"

Tugged to a halt, Leo turned and crouched down in front of his young niece. He didn't like to tell her no and disappoint her, but he didn't want to spoil her either, and she had to learn that she couldn't always have everything her heart desired. But this he could grant her. "I think that's a splendid idea, Anna," he replied quietly, for her ears alone. "Did you have something in mind? I don't think we have to worry about her forgetting us, but it would be nice to get her something to remember us by anyway."

Anna considered this for a moment. "We could, we could get her a necklace with our pictures in it," she suggested. "You and me and Matty, so's like we're always there even when she's long way 'way."

Leo smiled at her suggestion, reaching over to brush some blond hair away from her face. "I like that idea a lot. Would you come with me and help me pick something out?"

She nodded excitedly, but even Anna knew that this was going to be a surprise. "Can I tell Matty?" she asked hopefully. "Only, 'cos, he might have a better idea."

He doubt Matias would have a better idea, but he nodded anyway, trusting the children could keep it secret. "Yes, but not now. Later," he said, glancing over at Esme and Matias who were examining some rose bush or other. Turning back to Anna, Leo drew her close and kissed her cheek. "For now, it's our secret," he whispered, smiling warmly.

Little arms wrapped about his neck as Anna hugged him, meeting Hilde's indulgent smile over his shoulder with a grin of her own before turning her face to kiss his cheek damply. "I can keep a secret," she promised her uncle faithfully. "Can you?"

"On my honor," he promised, laying a hand against his heart, in a show of his own faithfulness, a look of sincerity on his face. "But we don't have to worry about her leaving today, sweetling. And she's promised she'll come visit us often," he reminded her.

"And that's good, isn't it? Havin' a auntie come and visit lots and lots," she said in her cheerful way. "And, and if she comes lots and lots and you like her lots and lots, you could marry her, and then she wouldn't never go 'way again!"

Leo opened his mouth to reply, but ended up coughing nervously at his niece's suggestion. She painted a pretty picture of a possible future, one in which they'd be a family again, but he wasn't so sure things would work out that way. It wasn't that he didn't like Esme or that he didn't find her attractive - just the opposite, in fact. But it was far more complicated than that. "Anna, it's too soon to wish for such things. We've only just met. Besides, life doesn't always turn out the same way as things do in storybooks."

"Why not?" It was a simple enough question, from her point of view. Everyone had a happy ending in stories; surely that was better than pretending you were happy with your bad ending. "You like her, don't you? She went red when you smileded at her."

There was that long suffering sigh again, not annoyed at her for asking her questions or even for hoping he and Esme might marry one day, but he had learned not to get his hopes too high in life. Still, he'd done well for himself, and if Esme weren't the daughter of a duke, he might seriously consider asking permission to court her. "Yes, I like her, but ..." Leo frowned. But what?

Big eyes gazed back him, unblinking. Anna honestly didn't know why it was so complicated. If people liked each other, they got married, didn't they? "Is it 'cos she is Mama's sister, and you is Papa's brother, and that's not allowed?"

"It's allowed," he replied after a moment's thought. "It just doesn't happen very often." Leo turned to glance over at Esme, who seemed enthralled with the garden and the little boy leading her through it. "Have you ever heard the saying, 'Be careful what you wish for'?" he asked, turning back to his young niece.

The little girl shook her head, fascinated by the conversation. Leo did his best, but it wasn't often Anna had him all to herself. She was definitely making the most of this.

"It means that sometimes you think you want something, but then when you get it, it's not quite what you thought you wanted," he told her. He knew all of this was difficult for a small child of four years to understand, but he was doing his best. The thought of marrying Esme wasn't an unpleasant one, just unlikely. "I don't want you to get your hopes up for something that might never happen. Do you understand?"

"You mean wishes go bad even when you make them really carefully?" she asked, guilt colouring her face and voice as she considered how hard she had been wishing for some things recently.

"Sometimes," he said. He didn't want to disappoint her, but he thought it better if she knew the truth. "All I'm asking is for you to wait and see and not get your hopes up too high. She's going to be part of our lives, no matter what, I promise you that," he told her as gently as he could.

She nodded slowly, disappointed that her brand new best wish wasn't going to come true. "But, but you is happy, Uncle Leo?" she asked then, disappointment flickering easily into concern for her uncle, whom she adored.

He wasn't telling her that her wish wasn't going to come true, only that she had to wait and see how things turned out. It wasn't only himself he was thinking of. His first responsibility and concern was for the children; it was them he was trying to think of. He frowned a moment at her question. He could have lied and told her, yes, he was happy, but he had never lied to her before, and he wasn't going to start now. "I miss your father and mother very much, sweetling, but mostly I am happy. Do you know why I'm happy?"

"I miss Mama and Papa too," she offered quietly, inserting herself close to hug him. It wasn't often that Anna showed anyone sad eyes, but when she felt safe to, she wasn't afraid to share that feeling. She nestled into Leo's arms, looking up at him. "Why is you happy?"

He closed his arms around her to hold her close and keep her safe and warm in his embrace. He knew she wouldn't stay little forever, but for now, he wanted to savor every moment of her childhood. "I'm happy because of you, Anna. You and Matias. I'd be very lonely if it wasn't for the both of you," he told her quietly, for her ears alone.

"We won't never go away, Uncle Leo," she promised in her artless, innocent way, certain in that moment that there was nothing in the world that could induce her to leave her home and the people she loved. "Never ever."

"Well, not for a long time anyway," he said, smiling and kissing both of her cheeks, just because. "Someday, you'll meet some lucky boy and fall in love and get married, just like your mama, but not yet. You'll just have to be my girl, for now."

She giggled, scrunching her nose up. "I like bein' your girl," she intimated affectionately, hugging close. Her eyes strayed across the garden curiously. "What d'you s'pose they're talkin' 'bout?"

He leaned close enough to touch his nose to hers in a show of affection. These quiet moments were all too precious and few to take for granted. He followed her glance over at Esme and Matias, his gaze lingering on the dark-haired beauty that had just entered their lives. "I don't know. Probably the roses your Mama loved so much."
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 22, 2018 12:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Beaming, Anna kissed her uncle's nose loudly, wriggling back to hold his hand. "We got to go and learn how to makes rosies growsies!"

Leo laughed as she noisily kissed his nose before moving back to his feet. "As you wish, princess," he told her, calling only one of many pet names, as he let her lead the way to re-join her brother and aunt.

Who were busily drawing tangling weeds away from one small rose bush that had brought a tearful smile to Esme's face. "Do you remember I told you that your Mama had a rose named after her?" she was saying to Matias. "This is that rose. One of the gardeners must have sent a cutting to her without us knowing."

"How can you tell?" Matias was asking, studying the roses, as if it was the most important thing in the world. Neither seemed aware that Anna and Leo had gone off on their own or that they were returning to join them.

"Because of the colour," she explained, gently tilting one of the open roses down so he could see it better. "See how it is deep, deep red at the heart and pale pink at the edges of the petals? The man who bred it wanted it to look just like that, because he said your mam had hidden depths. It's called an Avilitus rose."

"It's pretty, like Mama," Matias said, as he studied the rose, admiring the color, his heart aching at the thought that his mother would never enjoy the garden again, and suddenly he was hurtling himself forward into her arms and bursting into tears. Leo stopped in his tracks, stopping himself and Anna before the other pair knew they'd been watching. He quickly scooped the little girl up into his arms and headed for another part of the garden, allowing the boy and his aunt privacy.

Esme jumped, startled by the sudden rush and sensation of being embraced tightly about the waist by an unexpectedly sobbing small boy. She froze, though only for a moment, gently pulling his arms from about her waist to drop down onto her knees, heedless of mud and dirt on her skirt as she gathered him closer into her arms.

"Shhh, little one," she murmured, rocking him gently as tears wet her own eyes. It should have been Avila here with him, not her. If life was fair, he should never have had to know his aunt at all, because his mother would have been here.

He'd tried so hard to be brave all these months - for his uncle, for his sister, even for Hilde. He wasn't sure why it was the roses that had finally broken down the wall he'd tried to build around his heart - or maybe it wasn't the roses at all, but this caring, gentle woman who reminded him so much of his mother, even if they didn't look alike. He didn't want her to see him cry, but he just couldn't hold it inside any longer. "I miss her so much," he sobbed quietly, as he clung to her.

"Oh, my little love ..." Esme held him a little tighter, letting him cry against her shoulder for as long as he needed to. "I miss her, too, very much. We all miss her, and your papa, as well. And that is not a bad thing. It is awful that we have to live without them, but it is a wonderful thing that we have so many memories to share about them, and so much love they gave us." She stroked his hair gently. "They will never be gone, not completely, so long as we remember them and the way they touched our hearts."

Matias nodded his head against her shoulder, understanding as much as a six-year-old could. He knew his parents were gone forever, but he still had his sister and his uncle and his aunt and Hilde, and so long as he had them, he'd never be alone. Though he knew no one could ever replace his parents, it was like there was a piece of them in those they'd left behind, including himself. "What if something happens to you and Uncle Leo, like what happened to Mama and Papa?" he asked, lifting his tear-stained face to her.

"There are things we can do to make sure that if that happens, you and Anna will stay together, with people who will love you for your sake," Esme told him honestly. In the back of her mind, she was already considering writing to the king's sister. Princess Rolanda had been a friend when they were children; perhaps she would have some ideas about what to do about what was happening around the duke. "But it is very unlikely that Uncle Leo will ever be in an accident that will take him away from you," she added in a firmer tone. "I promise I will do everything I can to make sure that never happens."

He knew she was trying to make him feel better, but he was still frowning, even as she tried to assure him. He didn't want to be the king, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to be a duke either. He just wanted to be with a family who loved him; that was all he really wanted at that moment. "Will you make sure it never happens to you, too?" he asked, tearfully.

Esme bit her lip. Children asked very difficult questions. "I don't want to lie to you, Matias," she confessed softly, gently wiping his tears away with her own handkerchief. "And I don't want to make promises that I can't keep. I will do everything I can to stay in your life, but I cannot promise that I will succeed. I'm sorry."

"But ... you're my Mama's sister. No one can take you away from us! I won't let them!" he exclaimed, terrified he might lose her, too. He threw his arms around her neck again, as though he could keep her there with them so long as he hung on.

"Oh!" Startled once again, Esme fell back onto her backside with Matias in her lap, letting him cling to her all over again. Avila had always said in her letters that being honest with the children was the best thing, but she couldn't remember her sister ever mentioning that honesty lead to tears and strangulation.

"I won't let them," Matias repeated, as he clung to her, the last of his tears soaking the fabric of her shoulder.

And suddenly Leo was there to rescue her or Matias or both.

"There, now, lad, no one is taking anyone away from anywhere," he assured the boy as he pried him from Esme's neck.

Matias, in turn, clung to Leo's leg, while Leo helped Esme to her feet. While it was somewhat of a relief that the boy was finally letting some of his grief go, this wasn't quite the way Leo would have wished for it to happen.

Anna hovered behind Leo as he helped Esme back to her feet, worried eyes glancing between her brother and her aunt, uncertain if there was anything she could do to help.

Esme murmured a soft apology to Leo for upsetting the child, gently stroking her hand over Matias' hair. "No, no one will take me away," she promised, hoping it was a promise she could keep. But with so much heartache in these children, she knew she couldn't afford to waste time with her investigations. She would write to the king's sister, and perhaps there would be help at hand.

"It's all right," Leo said, crouching down and opening his arms to both Matias and Anna. He was the closest thing they had to a father now, though perhaps they had yet to realize that Esme was the closest thing they had to a mother. "It's going to be all right. I promise," he assured them both, as he took them into his embrace.

Esme watched as the children huddled into their uncle's arms, and her heart ached for them. For them, and for herself; for her sister and the man she had chosen to marry, taken from them before their time. As much as she might want justice for those deaths, what mattered was right in front of her - the happiness and well-being of two small children who had been through enough for one lifetime. She would find a way to make their lives secure, no matter the cost. She owed it to them to try.
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