Slowly, almost tentatively, Julia sat down on the end of the bed. The end of her bed. The mattress sank beneath her weight, familiar and comforting.
She stared around her room. It was exactly the way she remembered it. They hadn’t moved anything, left all her belongings as they had been when she’d walked out save for the obvious tidying up. It wasn’t even dusty – clearly mother had forewarned the staff and all rooms to be used would be pristine. That certainly explained why they hadn’t been surprised when she had appeared on the doorstep, why the car had gotten up the driveway with no trouble.
She knew that if she went in some of the other rooms, most of the furniture would be covered in sheets. It was always the case when the houses were out of use. But this room, the guest rooms, the downstairs areas… it would be just as she had left it. Everything had been the same: the walk up the stairs, the family pictures, the old trophy cabinets in the hallway filled from her various youthful hobbies. She wondered if her father had insisted, just in case she came back. Or was it more a memory?
She was almost glad the others hadn’t come to this part of the house yet. She was still not entirely ready to show everything, especially after seeing how they had reacted. She didn’t want them to discover this much of her past all in one go. Better to try and spread it out, feed it to them in manageable chunks that they could start to get their head around. Pulling up the driveway, Annie had clearly been stunned and the guys had been terrified. They had all seemed to assume there had been a mistake, that they shouldn’t be here because how could they possibly belong? And when Cal had asked her how it could be possible that her parents owned this place, because rich people had to be servants of the Wyrm… She had anticipated the question, but still. It had been like being stabbed. Thank goodness they hadn’t been going to any of the country houses. Thank goodness she hadn’t asked to take the jet.
She wandered into the bathroom and set the bath running. She knew exactly how far the taps needed to be turned to get the temperature she wanted, exactly where the products she wanted were kept. The bathroom cabinets were still stocked. It was like she’d never been gone. The water splashed loudly against the ceramic as the evening sunlight filtered in through the windows and she walked out again, shedding her bag and clothes in a pile on the floor. The carpet was plush under her bare feet, just as she remembered it. She picked up her old hairbrush from the bedside table, toying with it as she wandered around the room. It was all the same – her furniture, her pictures, her books, the walk in closet. Memories came flooding back in, too many all at once. There was a lump in her throat as she put the brush back down and went to have a bath.
She delicately climbed out of the draining water, wrapping herself in a thick white robe and towelling her hair as she headed back into the main room. She would have liked to stay and soak longer, but she had seen how freaked out her pack had been when they had arrived and she didn’t want to leave them alone any longer than necessary. Besides, if she stayed here too long Nahuel would probably come looking and then she wouldn’t get to do things on her terms like she wanted. She padded barefoot back into the bedroom.
Francoise was waiting in there, carefully unpacking the few things Julia had brought with her. The older woman had been part of the household staff for as long as she could remember. It wasn’t surprising that she would be personally attending. Julia smiled and went to sit down at the dressing table, picking up a comb and beginning to carefully tease the tangles out of her hair.
“Have you come to ask me some questions, Francoise? I’m sure everyone is curious.”
“Of course not, cherie. It is not my place.” The woman’s voice was clipped, but there was a note of humour in it. “The maids may gossip all they want in the kitchen, but we are professional and discreet. I am here to make sure that you are comfortable and well looked after, per your mother’s request, and to ensure that your presence is as concealed as you require it to be. Of course, if you wish me to go…”
“No, it’s good to see you again. I missed everyone.”
“It is so good to have you back home where you belong.” The woman bustled around the room, straightening things that didn’t need straightening. The few things Julia had brought were already neatly laid out – she hadn’t bothered with much since she had known she would be coming here. “I didn’t quite believe it when your maman told me you were really alive, but seeing you again… ah. It was a joy to open up the house after all these months and have it prepared for your homecoming.” She smiled, eyes a little tearful for a moment. “I knew it was you, even if you look like a vagabond.”
“It’s… good to be back. If just for a little while.” Julia didn’t comment on being described as a vagabond. It wasn’t entirely wrong, especially compared to how things used to be. She stared at herself in the dressing table mirror, wrapped in her old dressing gown. It really had been a while since she’d spent the time to properly take care of herself.
“What are these?” The woman picked up the clothes Julia had arrived in, a small wrinkle of disdain creasing her nose. “They smell like you have worn them for weeks. Is that… blood?” She held them between two fingers, as if they might contain some sort of disease. “How awful. Do you want me to throw them out, cherie?”
“No, just put them in the laundry room.” It was almost strange to think she wouldn’t have to wash her own clothes while she was here, wouldn’t have to clean up after herself. She hoped nobody would ask about the blood – certainly none of the normal staff, but Francoise was more than normal staff. A part of her was surprised to find the woman here instead of in First City with her parents.
“Are you sure? You have a room full of good clothes, why do you want to keep these clochard ones? Is it the fashion now?” The older woman raised an eyebrow. “Things must be very different on the west coast, if they cannot appreciate good tailoring or…” she paused and frowned, poking a finger through a hole in the shirt. “You cannot really want to keep these.”
“No, it’s OK Francoise. You can patch them if you really want, but please don’t throw them out. I might need them later.”
“If you insist.” The woman sighed and put the clothes down, coming to stand behind her. “You have grown up to be even more beautiful. But you are so scruffy! Your hair is so long now, you haven’t been taking care of it. Do they not cut hair on the west coast either?” She picked up a curl. “We will arrange a proper visit to the salon while you are here.”
“I don’t know if I’ll have time.” Julia frowned, staring at herself in the mirror. “This isn’t meant to be a holiday.”
“Your mother will have me shot if I let you leave looking like this.” Francoise’s voice brooked no argument. “Your… companions, they can come too. I’m sure they will appreciate a proper experience, especially the one with the beard. He looks like he raises birds in it.”
“I don’t… I’ll mention it. Did you put them in the guest wing?”
“Of course. The gentlemen are together in the Blue room – apparently they did not want separate rooms, but it is not my place to judge people’s lifestyle choices. The lady is in the quarters opposite the library. Irena and Michael will be waiting on them if they need it. We can provide more appropriate clothing for them while they are here as well, if you require it. I’m sure your mother will think nothing of it for guests.”
“It might be a bit far away. Do you think you could-”
“Where else will I put them, cherie? None of the other rooms are ready and we cannot possibly put them in the family quarters. If they wish to come and see you, we will happily accompany them, and you know the way to their rooms.” The woman picked up another curl critically. “Yes, I think a haircut as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning, perhaps. I will see if anyone appropriate is on call. Auguste is usually free when we ask, he can make space.”
Julia turned. “I’m just here for a little while. I’ve got some people to visit in the city and some personal business to deal with. If I can fit in the haircut, of course. But I really don’t have time immediately.” A part of her was cursing the refusal. How could she say no to something like this? But her priorities had changed somewhat in the past few years. This could wait for the moment.
The other woman gave a mildly disapproving look. “Who are these people you are visiting, who want you to come to them looking so miteux?”
“It’s a personal thing.” She didn’t elaborate.
“Will this be like when you were a teen and going through your wild phase? Will I have to pretend to your mother that I didn’t see you coming in the door in the small hours with your friends, smelling of alcohol and looking like someone tried to tear off your dress? We never got the vomit stains out of the Persian rug in the downstairs living room.” The disapproval became more pronounced. “We are not prepared for a ‘party’ at the moment, if that is what your guests were hoping for. Given notice, I suppose I could-”
“No. No parties. I’ve moved past that point.” Julia paused. She realised that the description wasn’t entirely inaccurate regarding some of the situations she still found herself in, minus the smell of alcohol and with more blood. But she would do her best to make sure none of that came home with her. “I hope so, anyway. But if it does happen… I’ll try not to let it happen. I promise my pa- companions will be well behaved. They’re a little… surprised right now. This isn’t really what they were expecting. Speaking of which, could we have dinner in the second floor dining room instead of the main one?”
“The second floor? But it is so small. You might as well eat in the kitchen.”
“It seats ten people, Francoise. There’s only four of us.”
The woman sniffed. “I suppose that is possible. I will make sure it is ready. Are there any dietary preferences?”
“Mostly meat. Quantity is generally preferable to quality in the case of the gentlemen.” The look of disapproval became even more pronounced. She smiled a little ruefully. “Just… be patient with them, Francoise. This isn’t the kind of guest we’re used to having. They’re a bit overwhelmed and they’ll need space. Please don’t go in the rooms unless invited.”
“Of course. We are professional, we know how to treat guests.” There was a trace of hurt in her voice.
“Sorry. It’s been a while.”
“Ah, you have changed in these last few years.” Francoise sighed and stepped back. “But you are still that same petite fille to me, even after it all. When we thought you were dead… you were not there, cherie. You did not see what it did to your parents.”
She paused. Julia sat in silence, the lump in her throat making it impossible to speak. What could she say to that?
“It was a difficult time. It has been harder since your father became sick, since… They have been gone a long time. Your mother tells me she is in the process of buying a property in First City to be near him. Perhaps I will follow, if they ask. Perhaps not, this is my home.” She sighed. “Still, the past is the past. You are alive, you are well and you are home now. What more can we ask?”
“Yes. I suppose I am. Thank you, Francoise.”
“Of course.” The other woman turned and left, scooping up the dirty clothes as she went.
Julia sat and stared at herself in the mirror. She turned her face critically side to side, unconsciously sitting up straighter. It was true, she really did look messier. But her lifestyle had changed so much since then. She didn’t need to have perfect hair and manicured nails – indeed, it seemed a waste of what little money she had and would only get ruined anyway.
But while she was home, this home on the other side of the country, she wanted those luxuries. She wanted the huge bed and the well fitting clothes and the proper salon treatment and everything she had missed so much when she first left. She wanted to be back here and feel like she still belonged in this house, even if only for a little while.
She glanced up at the clock. It was getting late and she was being a bad hostess for her pack. She got to her feet and went to the walk-in wardrobe. It was almost bizarre to have so many clothes to choose from. She would get dressed for dinner, and then they would talk.
Time to tell them… not everything. But time to start.