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Authors: Meredith Moore

Fiona (8 page)

BOOK: Fiona
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Charlie finds me
one morning a week later in my usual spot in the library. I'm reading through Poppy's most recent history test, which she got a C on, so I can go over her missteps with her this evening. It looks like we'll have to do a refresher course on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Charlie's been locked up in his office the past few days, emerging only for breakfast and dinner, and since I don't want to bother Alice too often, I've gotten used to being on my own during the day again. Seeing him here, now, makes me feel as if I've been caught doing something wrong. Or maybe that's just the way he's looking at me.

“I thought I'd find you here,” he says. “You know there are other rooms in this house, right?”

“Yes, but none of them have free books,” I say with a shrug.
I'm having trouble meeting his eyes, and I take a deep breath, remembering everything Alice told me. He's just a player. I know how to deal with players. Even the ones trying to turn a new leaf.

He leans against the bookshelf next to me, boxing me in. He wears a light blue dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up his forearms. It fits him perfectly.

“How do you like your new life so far?” he asks.

“It's a bit . . . confusing,” I say, surprised at my honesty. Why does he care? Or, rather, why does he feel the need to make pointless conversation? He's probably just trying to be nice to his sister's nanny, I remind myself.

“How so?” he asks, his eyes narrowing in interest.

I try to formulate a response that won't make me sound like a complete idiot and finally settle on what Alice said. “This place is like its own little world out here.”

“It can be a bit isolating,” he agrees.

“But it seems like Poppy might tolerate me now, which is nice,” I say with a wry smile.

“And what do you think of me?” he asks, surprising me.

“I don't know,” I start, accustomed now to being so caught off guard. Accustomed to the way it makes me much too honest with him. “You're a bit . . . unknowable.”

He wrinkles his forehead a little, as if he doesn't like that I
find him unknowable, but he doesn't comment. “What do you do while Poppy's in school?” he asks after another suspended moment.

I look around, as if I'll find the answer among the shelves. “This,” I answer.

“You don't play the piano?” he asks, nodding to it, and I remember how he found me hovering over the keys that first day.

I shake my head.

“Why not?”

As I try to think of a way to explain it, I realize how ridiculous it will sound. “It seems too beautiful for me to play it.”

to be played.”

“By someone who knows what they're doing. Someone like my mom.”

He frowns. “Come on,” he says.

“Charlie—” I start to protest, but he takes my hand, and all words float out of my head.

“I have to hear you play,” he insists, while I try to get my breathing under control. It's as if his touch sears right to the core of me, making my heart race. “How about this? For every song you play, I'll tell you a secret.”

“A secret?” I repeat clumsily. He's still holding my hand.

“One secret for one song. Then maybe I won't seem so unknowable.”

He pulls me down from the windowsill and lets go of my hand, placing his own on the small of my back to propel me forward. I want to lean into it, turn and slide my arms around his neck, pull him into me, caress his lips with mine.

The impulse shocks me, and I nearly stumble. Of course.
Of course
I'm attracted to the exact wrong person.

I can't help it. He makes me feel calm, quiets that doubting voice in my head. I feel settled, present in my own skin around him. He makes me feel unsettled, too, but in a good way.

I have to stop this
, I think as he guides me toward the piano. These feelings will compromise my new life here if I let them go any further.

It's just a stupid crush
, I tell myself.
It will pass.

He stands behind me as I arrange myself on the piano bench. Gingerly, I place my fingers on the keys, wondering why the hell I thought I could do this. How am I supposed to play with him standing there, watching me? I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and before I can stop myself, the song begins. The notes of the first movement of Beethoven's
Moonlight Sonata
creep from the keys, filling the room with the language of longing and regret. A slow, quiet ache. It was the first song I ever heard my mother play, on that beautiful piano in Mrs. Alvarez's bungalow. That moment, that song and the emotion she put into it, changed my view of her forever. I understood, even then
at such a young age, that her life held secrets I would never know. That, before she was my mother, she had known a whole world of passion and heartache.

It's only when the sound of the final note fades that I remember that Charlie is standing behind me. That I have opened up this most secret part of me to his judgment. The realization makes me release a stuttered gasp.

He says nothing, and I summon the courage to turn and look at him. In his bright green eyes, I can see the same loss, the same desperation that always fills me when I hear this song.

I stand, stepping around the piano bench so that there's nothing between us.

“You should play,” he says finally. “Every day. This piano needs you.” He breaks his gaze from mine, and I cross my arms over my chest.

“I was at the pub that day because I'm a coward,” he says, and it takes me a moment to realize that he's telling me a secret, as promised. “I was supposed to catch the train to Glasgow a few hours earlier, but I couldn't.”

“You were late?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I stood on the platform and watched it leave without me. I just—I couldn't leave home just yet. I didn't feel ready to face the world. So I ducked into the pub and caught the next train.” He finally looks at me. “I must sound ridiculous.”

“No,” I say. “I can see how it would be hard to face all that responsibility after everything that happened.”

“I hated leaving Poppy, too, even if she doesn't believe it. I still don't know if I made the right choice.”

“You're here now.”

He rubs a hand across his forehead. “I don't know if that makes it any better,” he says. “And now that the board approves of me, I'll be going to Glasgow every few weeks. The paper's not doing very well—hasn't been for ages. I've got ideas on how to fix it, but that takes money we don't have, and the board's nervous. So I have to keep abandoning her.”

“She'll understand,” I say, though neither of us knows if that's true.

A knock from the open doorway startles us both, and we snap our heads to look. It's Mabel, clearing her throat, her eyes sharp as she examines both of us. “Someone at the door for you, Master Charlie,” she says.

He glances at me only once before following her out into the hallway, and I collapse back onto the piano bench.

How could I have opened myself up to him like that? I've never played in front of anyone but my mother before. Even at school in Mulespur (which had the funds for a band only thanks to the football boosters, who couldn't bear the idea of their precious varsity players going out on the field without musical
accompaniment), the music teacher let me play the piano after-hours, after everyone had gone home, so that I wouldn't have an audience.

But I can't help but admit that the brief moment when Charlie opened up to me made playing in front of him worth it. A secret for a song. I've never made such a thrilling deal.

I bury my head in my hands. I like him. I can't believe I didn't realize it before. But then again, I'd never experienced anything like that violent shiver I felt when he placed his hand on the small of my back. Everything with Charlie feels so . . . new. I don't know how I could have let this happen.

I push myself back up, determined to make it to my room before I start hyperventilating over my stupidity.

But when I hear raised voices as soon as I step out into the hall, I can't help but follow them to the front door.

Charlie stands with his back to me, facing a girl I can barely see behind his frame. But I hear her voice, loud and shrill in the empty space of the foyer. “. . . didn't mean for it to happen, but it did. And we need to deal with it.”

“Deal with it
?” Charlie says, his voice low and strained. I press myself against the hallway wall, officially eavesdropping now. I try to feel guilty about that, but my curiosity is overpowering. Who could make Charlie this upset?

“I want to keep it, Charles,” the girl answers, her voice softer,
throatier now.
Who would call him Charles? “I want
to keep it.”

There's no question now about her meaning, whoever she is. She's pregnant, and Charlie is about to become a father.

I retreat as quietly as I can, tiptoeing back down the hall. I reach the servants' staircase and sprint all the way up, flinging myself into my room.

Who is she? Could that be Blair, the ex-girlfriend, or just some random local girl he slept with once and forgot about? What will he do? I barely know him, but somehow I think that, no matter who she is, he'll step up to his responsibility and be a father to their kid, the way he's stepped up to his responsibilities with Poppy. He just doesn't seem like the deadbeat-dad type, whatever his reputation.

But I don't know that for sure. I don't know him. And he's my
, I remind myself for the millionth time. I can't be sad, because I haven't lost him. Because he was never mine to begin with. He's going to be a father, and he'll probably marry that girl, and I'll just remain the governess up in the attic who watches it all happen from the periphery. And then, at some point, I'll go back to my old life, and this flashing wound will be nothing but an amusing memory.

I hope.


I manage to avoid the girl,
whoever she is, for the entire morning. But when I go out to Albert's car to pick up Poppy from school in the afternoon, I nearly run right over her.

She's lying on her back in the stone courtyard in front of the castle, like a cat basking in the sun, her eyes closed, one hand resting on her flat stomach. She wears black skinny jeans and a loose light gray T-shirt, her dark hair spread out against the gray stones beneath her.

I must have stopped too short and noisily, because she moves her hand to shield her eyes from the sun and looks over at me. “Who are you?” she says, her voice disinterested despite the bluntness of her question. She's beautiful, in a feline sort of way. Her eyes—slate blue, a color I've never seen before—are narrow, almond-shaped, and the line of her nose is long
and straight. Her brown hair is so dark it's almost black, and it shines in long, loose waves. I'm suddenly very conscious of the ever-present frizz in my red curls.

“I'm Fee,” I say, my throat dry. I clear it. “I'm the au pair.”

She props herself up a bit more, her eyes narrowing. “I've met the au pair. She's a sixty-year-old obese woman with pockmarks.” The clipped, aristocratic tones of her accent nearly match Charlie's, but hers sounds more labored. Maybe I'm just imagining it. Or maybe it seems that way because talking to me is nothing more than a chore for her.

“I'm new,” I answer, trying to match her bored tone but managing only to make my voice a bit breathier. There's something about the way she's looking at me, examining me, that makes me nervous. I resist the urge to fidget, to shift my weight from one foot to the other.

“Hmm,” she says. “I'm Blair.”

“Oh, of course,” I say for lack of anything better. My suspicion has been confirmed. “It's nice to meet you.”

“You've heard about me?” There's something lurking in her tone that makes me think very carefully about how I'm going to answer that question.

I decide on a simple “Yes.”

She straightens her arm, lying back down and closing her eyes once more against the sun. “Nice to meet you, Dee,”
she says, deliberately misremembering my name, I'm almost positive.

I hurry to the car, feeling like I'm escaping the clutches of a tiger, and by the time I slide into the backseat, I'm shaking. How has she provoked such a response in me? Is it just because she was Charlie's girlfriend—scratch that, his
girlfriend? Or was it the look in her eyes, sharp and stormy as they pierced through me?

Albert takes one look at me in the rearview mirror then turns to face me, his eyes crinkled in concern. “What's happened to you?”

I try to clear my expression with a light smile. “Nothing. I just nearly ran over Blair is all.”

“She doing that lying-in-the-sun thing again?” he asks, starting the car and looking out his side mirror to see her, still there behind us. “Last time she came here was Christmas, bloody freezing, but she still spent half her time in the courtyard.”

I nod. “She's not really what I expected.” I press my lips closed, annoyed at myself. There I go again.

Albert just laughs. “She's a nice lass, kind to everyone,” he says, pausing a moment before continuing. “We all like her.”

I keep my lips pressed together, refusing to let any of my many questions spill out. Albert is too perceptive for me to let my guard down. He'd know in an instant that my interest in
Blair implies an interest in Charlie, and I don't really want to know what he would think—or do—about that.

We arrive at Bardwill to see a short woman in a stiff skirt suit waiting out front. It's not until we get closer that I see that it's Mabel, out of her traditional uniform and white lace cap. Albert pulls up in front of her, and she opens the passenger door.

“Mabel, I . . . what are you doing here?” I ask as politely as possible despite my surprise.

She glances at me once before settling into her seat. “I've just come from a meeting with Poppy's headmistress. She wanted to speak to her caretaker about her performance in school.”

Right. I'd been meaning to set up that meeting. I'm certainly glad not to have to talk to that woman again, but I never expected Mabel to be the one to talk to her.

“Oh? And how did it go?” I ask coolly.

“I told her we care very much for Poppy,” Mabel says, with a stiff neck and no eye contact, “and that we are doing everything we can to help her through this hard time.”

I nod and keep quiet, but I'm still confused and a bit hurt. Mabel didn't even tell me about the appointment, let alone ask me to go in with her; she just assumed the responsibility for herself. I keep underestimating how close she is to Poppy.

Poppy doesn't seem at all surprised to see Mabel, in any case. As she skips over to the car with a group of girls, I see that she's getting closer to her friends again, opening herself back up. On the way home I learn that apparently Natalie has a mad crush on a boy named Logan from the boys' school, and Poppy finds it the most fascinating news ever. I let her prattle on with a smile on my face, though I'm still distracted by this new perspective I have on Mabel and her position in Poppy's life.

Back at the castle, I expect to run into Blair again after we wave goodbye to Albert and head back across the courtyard, but she's moved from her spot, and I don't see any trace of her inside.

When Poppy and I are set up in her study, going over a math problem, I ask her, as casually as possible, “What do you think of Blair?”

Poppy looks up from her workbook. “I don't really know her. I've only met her a couple of times. Charlie was never that big on bringing her home to meet Mum and Dad. She seemed really nice, though.”

She must have been in a bad mood when I met her, then, because Albert had said the same thing. Maybe she really
nice. Maybe the pregnancy has her really stressed out. Or maybe I'm just being paranoid.

“How did she and Charlie meet?” I ask, trying my best to sound perfectly pleasant and merely curious.

Poppy shrugs. “University, I guess. They both went to St. Andrews.” She pauses, then continues, her voice lower, “Mum asked Charlie about her once, a few months ago. She wanted to know why he hardly ever brought her home, you know? So she was asking all these things, like how they met, what she wanted to do after college, if she was from a good family. Charlie went mental, said why did it matter what kind of family she came from? Mum kept asking, like why was he so defensive? And then he said something about her dad, like he was a bad guy or something. And that Blair didn't talk to her family anymore, but that didn't make her a bad person. He said that
was her family now, and then just stormed off.”

I raise my eyebrows but say nothing. I must have been wrong. If Charlie feels so strongly about her, she must not be too bad. And it sounds like her home life was a wreck.

Poppy taps the paper in front of her with the eraser of her pencil. “What's my next step?” she says. I turn my focus to the problem, but I can't seem to shake the thought of the strange feline girl with the unsettling eyes.

• • •

That night, I tell Poppy that I'm going to be eating with the other servants from now on. The thought of sitting at the table
with Charlie and Blair makes my stomach clench, and I know I wouldn't be able to eat a bite. She only nods in response, but I can tell she's confused. Maybe even disappointed. I have to remind myself that Blair probably doesn't want me at the table anyway, since she can't even remember my name.

“You'll still have breakfast and lunch with us, though, right?” Poppy says.

“Sure,” I say, unable to say no to that trace of pleading in her eyes. “Of course.”

I'm slipping away from the kitchen and up to my room after dinner with the servants when Charlie catches me. I hear his footsteps behind me in the hallway before I see him, and I know I can't escape.

“Fee, hey,” he says, his fingers brushing along my arm to stop me. I draw my arm away from his touch as subtly as I can as I turn to face him. “I'd like you to meet Blair.”

He steps aside, and I see she's been standing behind him the whole time. I can see now that she's shorter than she seemed in the front hall this morning or in the courtyard this afternoon, a few inches shorter than I am. She offers me a broad smile, but I can feel those narrow blue eyes examine me carefully once more. “We've met,” she says.

“Yes, good to see you again,” I say with the barest suggestion of a smile.

She snuggles into Charlie's side, and he places an arm around her shoulders. They stand there, a unit. Indestructible. “Charlie says you've been great with Poppy,” Blair says, her voice syrupy with politeness. What happened to the strange girl lying on the courtyard, who practically refused to remember my name?

“Well, Poppy—she's great,” I stutter. “You know,” I add quickly, “I was actually on my way up to go help her with her math homework. She's been doing so well, just got a B on a pop quiz today. I think she'll be able to pull her grade up nicely.” I'm babbling and staring at Blair like an idiot, so I press my lips shut and shift my focus to Charlie.

“Thanks, Fee,” he says softly, his expression inscrutable.

I hesitate for a moment, trying to read what he's feeling, but I snap myself out of it quickly and leave before I can make things any more awkward.

“So nice to meet you!” Blair calls brightly after me.

So maybe she is the sweet girl everyone says she is. But then I think of the calculating narrowness of her eyes as she looked at me. And Charlie's arm around her shoulder.

I need to stop thinking about her, so I dive into a night of helping Poppy with her homework. When it's Poppy's bedtime, I retreat to my room with a book about Mary, Queen of Scots, and try to lose myself in the sad tale of a woman who
had terrible luck and made some of the worst decisions in life and love.

Hours later, the whole castle is sleeping and still, but I'm still awake, trying to focus on the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary's second husband. Suddenly, a strange scraping noise starts up, right next to my head. It comes from that outside wall, the same place that the loud bang came from a few nights ago. This time, it sounds as if someone is dragging some kind of metal or wire along the wall, slowly. It can't just be an errant tree branch or something, not with that metallic screech. It must be from Keira's room, I decide. Is someone moving furniture in there?

I turn my attention back to the book, but the scraping doesn't stop. It persists and persists, until the words below me swirl into unrecognizable shapes. I slam my book shut and swing my legs out of bed, trying to think of the politest way to ask my neighbor to quit doing whatever the hell she's doing.

Thankfully, though, as soon as I reach the door, the metallic scraping stops. But now it's been replaced by that muffled whispering noise, the one that I mistook for a TV on one of my first nights here. And it's definitely coming from that outside wall. I look around, bewildered, and catch sight of an air vent on the opposite wall, which I share with Keira. Could it be that the sounds are coming from there, through some weird acoustics caused by the castle's ventilation system?

I get out of bed again and pull my desk chair up to that wall. I stand on top of it and put my ear to the vent but hear nothing. The sounds are definitely coming from that stupid outside-facing wall.

I throw myself back in bed and pull the pillow over my ear.
Worry about it in the morning, Fee
For now, just try to fall asleep

BOOK: Fiona
3.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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