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Emmaline, age 7
They were back at the big house again. The big grey one with all the steps and the man in the uniform who opened the door and stared down his nose and never said a word. Except that this time he looked past her and her mother to the chauffeur who was taking a heavy-looking grey suitcase out of the big black car. Two more suitcases followed, and her little pink school case too. “Mama, are we staying?” she whispered, trying to be polite like Governess Judy always said she must. “Mama, why is my school bag there?” And Ellie, her one-eared stuffed elephant that squeaked when she hugged it. Emmaline was too old for Ellie, Mama said, but Ellie was allowed to stay on the high shelf in her bedroom. “Mama, why is Ellie here?”
“Never mind that now.” Her mother was in one of her moods, and had been all morning. Governess Judy always said it was best not to bother her mother when she was in one of her moods. “And stop picking at your fingernails, Emmaline. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Hands by your side, child. Shoulders back. Ankles and knees together. Governess Judy didn’t even have to be there anymore for her lessons to echo in Emmaline’s ears. So there she stood, with her mother’s mood, and her new best dress on and her shiny black shoes, and tried not to rub her thumbs and fingers together while the chauffeur put her pink bag and her stuffed elephant just outside the door and silently returned to the car.
Inside, the house was the same as she remembered. Dark and wooden with the highest ceilings she’d ever seen and mirrors and paintings on the walls and thirty-seven stairs between the ground floor and the first floor, and Emmaline wondered if the butler counted them too, every time he went up or down them.
“He’s in his study,” the butler told them.
“Thank you, that will be all. I’ll take it from here,” said Mama.
The butler stopped and nodded. Feet and knees together and his hands at his side, just like her. She smiled at him and nodded too. He glanced her way. “He’s not alone.”
“He never is. Come along, Emmaline. Time to see your father.”
Her mother’s shoes clicked importantly on the fancy patterns of the wooden floor and she tried to make hers do the same.
“Must you stomp!”
Emmaline tried to make her feet make no sound at all after that, and she almost did it when she walked on the rugs, but there was so much space in between the rugs sometimes. Maybe if she jumped …
“Emmaline! What are you doing? I swear to God this is not the time to start playing up.” They reached a closed door, and her mother pushed it open with a scowl and ushered Emmaline inside.
There were two men in the room. One behind the big wooden desk, and one tucked up in one of the two big window seats like a lazy cat. Her mother pointed towards the window seat on the other side of the room. “Sit down over there and be quiet. Your father and I need to talk.”
Emmaline went and sat. Her mother turned to the pale and pointy man sitting behind the shiny wooden desk. Her father. Emmaline tried not to stare—staring was rude—but she needed to fix his image in her mind. She’d forgotten what he looked like. She’d only been six last time she saw him. She was a year older now and needed to remember.
“Didn’t you get my offer?” her father said. “I must confess, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Oh, my lawyers received it. I’m simply not interested in accommodating you.” She flicked a glance to the young man in the window. “Must we do this in public?”
Her father shrugged and crossed his legs with a smile on his face that didn’t make Emmaline feel like smiling back at all. “You’re the one who’s choosing to do it.”
“It’s time, Thurston.” Her mother spoke again. “She’s quiet. Well behaved. No trouble.”
“Then keep her.” The cold gaze of the man—her father—slid over her and made her want to scratch at her fingernails with her thumb nail all over again. “I heard she was all mouth, literally and figuratively. Ugly little thing, isn’t she? Who does she take after? Because it’s not me.”
Ugly? Emmaline took after her mother in looks, everyone said so. And Mama was pretty.
“She’s not unattractive, Thurston, regardless of the fact that she’s not blonde and not male. She’ll grow into her looks, I promise.”
They stopped looking at her, all except the man in the window who still looked all sleepy, but she had a strange feeling he might just be listening as hard as she was. She sent him her best smile and got a little smile back, before she turned to look at her father, who’d started speaking again.
“You promised me a lot of things, my dear wife. Incessant badgering was not one of them.”
Mama’s eyes hardened to flat brown pebbles. “Ex-wife, remember? I’ve seen you twice in the past six months because you were late with payments. Your daughter has seen you once a year for the past seven years as per the terms of our agreement. I do not badger. I keep my word.” Mama took a deep breath before digging into the pretty leather bag on her shoulder for a messy pile of papers that she placed on the desk and pushed towards him. “I’m sure you’re aware of the terms of our agreement, seeing you wrote it, but let me recap. Your child is seven years old tomorrow. The first seven years were mine. My responsibility—you didn’t want to be bothered, remember? My time is up. She’s yours now.”
What was Mama talking about? Whose was she? And why was her pointy father pushing the papers away from him as if they smelled bad?
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