Meeting the Family

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She looked to her side, her private amusement showing only the sparkle in her eyes as she cast furtive glances at the tiny hobbit beside her. Pricilla was, if anything, Neecy in a corset, the tiny rosebud lips pressed into a pleasant expression that was not a smile, but not far from a frown. The nanny’s, no, she corrected herself, the housekeeper’s hands were folded properly in her lap, her tiny hat pinned in hair done up as neatly as any that Katherine had ever seen. Despite the wind of the morning, not a hair seemed to have moved out of place on the little hobbit woman, not a bow or a ribbon or even a stray eyelash out of place. And even though the train journey had been long, somehow the hobbit still looked fresh and clean, something that Katherine was positively certain that she herself did not look.

She could only hope that she would not embarrass her husband when she met his family. No, she corrected herself again. Only before the Host were they husband and wife. Here in England, they were merely engaged. Neecy had immediately reverted to calling her Mademoiselle as soon as their feet had hit the boards on the boat that would take them back to merry England, their marriage stripped away as neatly as it hadn’t happened. Deep down inside, it made her more furious than she would ever reveal. Not a soul beyond hers would know how very frustrated she felt; she had accepted the rules as stated and knew what rules she labored under once she was home.

And yet, it chaffed and even with her natural good humor, she was hard pressed not to be a little bitter whenever she thought of it. Ensconced in her father’s estate until Neecy sold her home in London and replaced it with something suitable, her every little luxury of freedom, her own quirks and habits like Sadif and her katars had been taken away as well as the man she had quickly grown used to waking up with. Oh, she had found things to occupy her mind. She had poured through her father’s vast library trying to read everything on Excalibur and the clues that the ancient books might have provided, ridden and walked the length and breadth of her father’s estate, anything to keep her mind occupied and happy.

Priscilla had been a new charm to engage her, but the little hobbit was as prim and distant as Neecy. And on top of her distance, the woman had a maddening habit of refusing to understand who Katherine was speaking of when she referred to Neecy as Neecy. Only when Katherine referred to him as Mr Beignet or Dionysus did Priscilla acknowledge the reference. Katherine was certain that she would win her over in time. A small frown marred her face. It had taken a while with Neecy. She did not look forward to redoing the same with Priscilla.

She drew a slow breath, trying not to sigh. Hopefully, Ezekiel would be at the train station to meet them. Maybe he would be forced to just send a carriage. Either way, the best that they could do was greet each other pleasantly, maybe a chaste kiss before Priscilla and the manservant Neecy had sent to purchase tickets and do the manly work ushered them into the carriage. It would be a far cry from the kiss she longed to give him and the thorough going over than she wanted to give him. From head to toe, she desired to make certain that he had healed as nicely as his letters had assured her. But she would not be happy or less worried until she saw his body herself and gently touched the scars. Her cheeks colored and she swallowed, her mind going to the heat of their all too few nights together. Those thoughts had to be banished. She could not meet Ezekiel’s family with such thoughts in her mind. She sent a small prayer to the Host to give her strength. It would only be a few more weeks; she had survived evil to make the weak pale and faint. She could survive the pain of her own longings and the constraints and rules of her position in society. Ezekiel was worth the wait and she would not shame him or his family.

Lost in her own thoughts, the squeal and lurch as the train began to slow for the final station shook her out of her reverie. Her stomach was suddenly alive with butterflies and she leaned forward to peer out of the window to see if Ezekiel waited for them at the station.

Ezekiel waited somewhat impatiently on the wooden platform as the train ground its way to a halt in front of him. While the actual amount of days passed had been small, the passage of time had seemed near infinite since he had left Katherine. What he had been happy with before now seemed dull and lifeless and London without Katherine had held little appeal. Not wanting to announce his wedding via letter, he had chosen to leave London a little early and head to the family's Somerset estate to give them the news.

The reactions had been, well, predictable. His mother had been happy and excited for him. Malcolm and Jacob had been first indifferent and then colder when they had learned Katherine was Eldren. When she showed up with a hobbit in tow, they might well go crazy. Let them, he thought. He had never wanted or needed their approval.

As the train finally came to a halt, Ezekiel could see Katherine's face in the window, looking for him, he assumed. Just the sight of her brought a smile to his face and he waved to her, so she would know he was here for her.

She inhaled so deeply when she saw Ezekiel waving that she almost felt lightheaded. Katherine darted up only to have a small hand catch her dress.

"Surely you have no need to be that much in a hurry, Miss Katherine," Prissy asked gently. "Let the train stop completely." There was so much of the governess in her, the tiny hobbit full of a self-possession that would have made her father jealous. Her father had already met and approved of her, Katherine reminded herself as she settled back into her seat. Any jealousy the Colonel had was certainly not enough to keep from hiring her.

Not that he had much choice, Katherine laughed silently to herself. Neecy had chosen her and so the Flemings would approve, father and daughter. She waited for the train to stop and then waited as Priscilla gathered her book and her shawl. For once, Katherine was happy to be wearing dresses again; the flounces and frills hid the impatient tapping of her foot as the little governess gathered herself and her things and lead the way out of the train. As each step took them closer to Ezekiel, she found herself getting more and more excited. Pausing at a gleaming bit of metal, she checked her hair self-consciously.

Prissy merely looked at her with a bit of quiet irritation. "Come now, don't keep the young master waiting. You are lovely enough. Vanity doesn't suit you."

Her eyes widened as her mouth quirked, but Katherine had control of her face before she looked down at the hobbit. "Yes," she stated beginning to follow the tiny woman again and then let the conductor help her to the platform. She was still trembling from holding in laughter as she spotted Ezekiel. Her heart leapt with joy and suddenly there was no one else around her. But she stayed put, now trembling with the effort of not running to him, her mind reminding her that Neecy's beloved was not to be forgotten in the crowd departing the train.

He saw Katherine depart the train and he felt that wonderful flush of excitement pour through him, that feeling of rightness. When the two of them were together, there was no obstacle they could not handle.

Ezekiel walked up to her and took her hands into his. "Katherine, you are as beautiful now as you were the first moment I laid eyes on you. Beautiful then, now, and forever." He brought her in for a soft but short kiss on the lips. Directly after the kiss, he leaned into her ear and said, "No matter what we are forced to say, you are my wife. Then, now, and forever, my love."

"Oh!" The sound came out as an exhalation, a breath formed of pure joy. She smiled at him, her eyes and face alight. "I've missed you Ezekiel." Her face abruptly grew serious, her eyes locking to his. "My eternal heart and husband," she whispered so softly that it was almost lost to the sounds of the train station, her gloved hand slipping to his cheek to caress it but for a moment. Aware that they were not alone, she turned to introduce Prissy.

"My love, this is Miss Priscilla A Wentworth, soon to be Mrs. Beignet. She is to be our new housekeeper and someday, I pray, nanny. Prissy, this is Mr Ezekiel Drake."

The little hobbit nodded her head neatly and curtsied before pinning Ezekiel with large, friendly brown eyes. Her heart-shaped face was pretty without being beautiful, but there was a sternness to it that would make a grown man take a step back. She formed a minimal, but pleasant smile. "At your service Master Drake. I am honored to make your acquaintance."

He bowed and simply said, "And I yours, Mademoiselle Wentworth."

Ezekiel turned back towards Patrick, one of the members of his family's household. Ezekiel had not had much opportunity to converse with the staff, but he did know that Patrick had been with the family for five years. And perhaps more importantly, he had a young son that caused Patrick's wide face to break into a smile at the mere mention of his name. "Patrick, please make sure that all of the ladies' baggage is secured upon the carriage," he said, as he slipped a couple of shillings into Patrick's hand. "And those are to make sure your boy gets some extra clothes, because I'm sure he will be growing quite fast." It was probably improper to tip his own family's servants, but he was no longer a regular resident of the house. If he wanted to spread a little of his wealth around to those who needed it more, then he would not let society's notion of proper stand in his way.

After gathering Katherine and Priscilla's bags from where the train porter had grabbed them from the baggage car, Ezekiel and Patrick made their way to where the family's closed carriage waited. Patrick loaded all the bags on while Ezekiel took care to help Priscilla and Katherine in, lingering perhaps a moment too long holding Katherine's hand. He then climbed in after them and closed the door behind. "The ride will not be too long," he commented as he settled in the seat across from his wife. He was not sure that he could refer to her as his fiancee and not feel uncomfortable. Perhaps he would just call her Katherine throughout the visit.

Prissy cleared her throat softly. "Dion has explained the extreme circumstances that you both labor under, Mr Drake. I brought a book that I am quite enthralled by. If perhaps you would like to aid me in trading sides, not once, but twice before we reach your home, then the ride might be more enjoyable for us all." She looked hard into the young man's eyes, hoping he would pick up on her inference as the carriage began to move. She noted the curtains and reached to draw the one nearest to her. "Miss Fleming, the sun will cause you to freckle," she lilted as Katherine frowned and then followed suit with the curtain nearest to her.

A smile broke across his face before he had a chance to realize it. He reined it in to a softer smile and nodded at Mademoiselle Wentworth in acknowledgment of her kindness and understanding. He then took her hand and stood up, helping her move into his seat before taking a seat next to Katherine. Just as he sat down, the carriage started forward with a jolt before settling into a comfortable rhythm. He then took Katherine's hands in his. "What shall we talk about, my love?" His smile grew larger again. Katherine had that effect on him.

She squeezed his hands softly, pausing to send a puzzled glance to the hobbit as Priscilla bowed her head into her book. "They are both full of surprises," she mouthed more than whispered, her eyes sparkling. Smiling, she sighed contentedly. "Tell me what you've been doing, my love. I just want to hear your voice and look at you."

"I did not spend too much time in London. It felt empty without your presence." He pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed it. "I met with Josephine briefly and then I came to the family estate to inform the family of the impending engagement."

Ezekiel leaned forward and softly whispered into Katherine's ear, "My mother knows the real truth of the matter, love. I could not bear to hide it from her."

"And she should," Katherine breathed in response. "I cannot see that your love of your mother could let you do anything less and your own honor could do nothing but tell her the truth. I feel as if I will love her because you love her so. She can only be the most wonderful of women to have had a son such as you. I only wish that my father were of the same stock as your mother." She leaned back with a rueful smile. "Or that your brothers were of the same stock as your mother. How did they respond to the news of your engagement to me?"

"At first with indifference and then with anger." Jacob had towered over him when he had first mentioned that Katherine was Eldren. Jacob's face had gone red and his voice had gotten loud. That sort of behavior had frightened him more when he was younger...had allowed Jacob to get his way. But Ezekiel was not afraid of him now.

Malcolm's anger, on the other hand, was the cold quiet anger of a predator. It was perhaps best that Malcolm was the second and not the eldest. Jacob was predictable. Controllable. And his mother had him well in hand.

He turned back from his thoughts to Katherine. "Their anger will dissipate," he reassured her. "Or at least cool down. They will not let their emotions stand in the way of hosting someone from a family as prestigious as yours. Rare are the times that I am thankful for people's slavish devotion to class and the associated rules that bind us. This is one of them."

Her eyes searched his, a moment's pause causing her face to grow solemn. "For once, I am glad of my title, then. I am sorry that they do not share our joy, my love. I can only hope that with time, I can change their minds." Tilting her head, a wry smile twisted her lips. "Maybe the business opportunities afforded them by your, ah, misfortunately placed affections, will sooth their feelings." She brought his hands to her lips. "In the end, I do not care as long as they don't stand in our way."

Shifting, she moved closer to Ezekiel, unable to keep a respectable distance anymore. "I don't know what I've missed more; our conversations, walks, or simply waking up with you, my love. I know I've missed your lips," she added with a fond smile before leaning into to kiss him properly.

The taste of her was sweet and he lingered perhaps a bit too long. Mademoiselle Wentworth had been generous in allowing them time together in the carriage and he did not wish to abuse that generosity, so he let the kiss go, smiling as he did so. "Would you like me to point out some of the landmarks as we travel, Katherine?" The thought of being able to share some of his childhood with her pleased Ezekiel greatly.

She lightly clapped her hands as her face lit. "Oh, that would be delightful, Ezekiel!" she announced with a bright smile. Katherine bit her lip trying to keep the grin from her mouth, almost dancing in the seat with the happiness that she felt. A soft sigh finally escaped her, her eyes growing soft. "I feel like I've come home again now that I'm with you," she said, sliding a hand into his. "And I would love to see the place that you call home."

So as they traveled along the bumpy road, Ezekiel would lean over and point out the window at the various landmarks that defined his world until he had left at the age of 18. Early on there was Grant's Hill, which marked the end of where he was allowed to walk to when he was younger. It had been the centerpiece of many fantastical flights of fancy, Ezekiel standing alone against the hordes which would surely take the hill if his blade was not quick enough. Later on, as they came closer to the house, they passed by the huge gnarled ancient tree that Ezekiel had simply referred to as Mister Tree his entire life. Mister Tree was a family friend to him and it gladdened his heart and his spirit to see Mister Tree still standing tall as always.

Finally, they reached the sprawling 3 story house that he had grown up in. Once, the Drake fortune had been large enough to match the magnificent house and large estate. But now, he knew, the family was land rich and capital poor. Given that fact, his brothers should be ecstatic (as Katherine surmised) to have a chance to bring more money into the Drake household. But he knew his brothers were like his father in name and in looks, but nothing like him in temperament and business acumen. It was quite possible they would cut off their noses to spite their faces in this instance. He would just have to hope that Katherine charmed them as she charmed him.

Priscilla looked up from her book as they began to close to the house and closed it with deliberate care. Clearing her throat, she gently inclined her head to the side she sat on and held out a tiny hand for Ezekiel to help her change sides with her. Beside him, Katherine sighed, a rueful smile on her face as she also reached out to steady the hobbit as she was helped back to the correct side of the carriage.

"And back to properiety," she announced ruefully, sliding back to the farthest corner from where Ezekiel sat across from them, all parties back to their proper places. But she could not resist the wink that she gave him or the soft giggle that escaped her. "As much as we can manage."

"Miss will manage quite nicely," Prissy remonstrated softly, her brown eyes cool. Looking at Ezekiel, she wrinkled her nose. "As will the Master, I presume?"

He nodded. "I understand very well the diameter of the boundaries that have been circumscribed around us and I will not cross them." As the carriage pulled to a stop, Ezekiel stepped out of the carriage and held out his hand to help Katherine step out, followed by Mademoiselle Wentworth. "Ladies, I humbly welcome you to the Drake estate. I hope you will be comfortable during your visit."

Katherine had composed her face before alighting from the carriage; she would be loathe to admit it, but she had practiced in front of a mirror the serene, pleasant face that Priscilla had informed her that she needed to achieve. She knew she was about to meet two who would judge her harshly and secretly, she hoped to keep his brothers at least content while she met his mother. She knew that the slight smile was a bit imperious, but Ezekiel had told her that his brothers knew she was of a higher social class than they. She would give them what they expected, but be charming, play the game she so loathed. It was as if she were on parade to be married, judged for every failing, every triumph that she could show.

But she had been trained by Dionysius Beignet. She could perform as society expected, be the title that she bore. Far too many parties and dances were under her young belt. And more important than his brothers was Ezekiel's mother. Ezekiel had spoken of his mother with great love during their friendship and courtship and Katherine felt as if she already knew the woman. The brothers could be managed. It was Ezekiel's mother who she was desperate to impress. A shawl of the finest silk lay wrapped in tissue in her trunks, the colors of the latest fashion in Paris. It was a simple gift, but one that Katherine hoped that Ezekiel's mother would appreciate. It was an insignificant token to give the woman who had birthed so wonderful a man as Ezekiel.

The stone of the house still rose high as Ezekiel remembered, although certain spots along the front wall were crumbling more than he remembered from his last visit. The ancient house had always intimidated him some as a child, but standing in front of it after his adventures with Katherine, it no longer held any fear for him. Or much feeling at all, he was forced to admit, other than the love he felt for the lady of the house.

As that thought crossed his mind, he looked over to see his mother standing patiently waiting in front of the large door to the front foyer. She was as he remembered her from his childhood and how, irrationally, he expected to remain his entire life - beautiful, ageless, elegant. A ray of sun glittered off her long blond hair, which dangled in ringlets in the back. She wore a beautiful green dress with ruffles that Ezekiel remembered was a favorite of hers. Phillip and Edward, her two most faithful servants were already hustling from her side to retrieve the baggage from the carriage. He smiled at them as they passed. They had always treated him well as a child.

He walked forward the few steps across the carriage round to where his mother stood and he bowed deep and then took her gloved hand in his and kissed it briefly. "Mother, you as always, look beautiful."

She smiled kindly at Ezekiel, her blue eyes sparkling in the midday sun. "And you remain strikingly handsome, my son. But please do not dally any more with affections for me. I wish to meet the woman who is to become your wife." Her voice emphasized the word become, indicating she too, was willing to play the dance that society required of them until the upcoming wedding.

"But of course, Mother." He turned back to where Katherine stood and took her hand in his. He led her forward until the centerpiece of his new life stood in front of the small blond woman who had been the centerpiece of his childhood. "Mother, my fiancee and love, the Lady Katherine Fleming. Katherine, allow me to introduce you to my mother, the Lady Miriam Drake." And he stepped back to let them speak.

I have faced monsters and wizards, machines and man, and yet I am more weak in the knees than I have ever felt in the face of battle, Katherine thought with wry humor as she waited for Ezekiel to speak with his mother. If I could run and hide in Prissy's skirts like a child, I would. She studied them discreetly as the pair spoke, hoping that their conversation would be irrationally long. But all too quickly they began to walk towards her.

The Lady Miriam Drake was a delicate bit of sunlight, her movements towards Katherine graceful and elegant. In her son, Katherine could now see her features, see the humor and quick intelligence that so attracted her to Ezekiel. Even as an older woman, his mother was beautiful, filled with a serene self-possession and inner grace that Katherine was certain that no matter how old she became, she'd never possess.

She inhaled softly to quell the butterflies fluttering in her stomach and smiled gently as they reached her. "I am very pleased to meet you, Lady Drake," Katherine stated, catching the woman's blue eyes with her own. "I cannot tell you how delighted I am to be invited to your home. Thank you." The words seemed inadequate, small, but she dared not make a misstep. She was suddenly and painfully aware of the lack of feminine influence in her life and of how little she truly understood the art of female conversation. She could only pray that Ezekiel's lovely mother could see in her eyes and face how much she truly loved her son and that he had not made a terrible mistake in his choice of wife.

Miriam smiled a knowing smile at Katherine. "You need not tread lightly with fear around me, Miss Drake. It is evident in his every movement, his every glance, what he says and what he doesn't say, in the way he holds himself and even the way he holds your hand. A mother knows. My son is desperately, utterly in love with you. And the woman that can pull him away from his commitments..." and she paused with another knowing smile as she said the word commitments before continuing on. "That is a woman that I will enjoy spending time with. And I hope you will enjoy spending time with me."

To the side, Ezekiel found himself letting go of a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. He had never had any doubts. Well, not really. But he was happy to see Katherine was well received.

The restrained, polite smile that had decorated Katherine's mouth gave way to a joyful fullness that lit her whole face. "I cannot think of anything nicer to do, Lady Drake, than spend time with you and your son." She looked to Ezekiel and then back at his mother and then to the house. "It is beautiful here," she stated, feeling the butterflies escape as her fears were banished. "You have a lovely home."

"Thank you, dear," Miriam said as Philip and Edward moved past her carrying the ladies' baggage. "Put those in the made up bedroom in the West Wing, please, gentlemen," she instructed her servants. She then turned towards Miss Wentworth and smiled. "Lady Miriam Drake. Might I have the pleasure of your name in return?"

The little hobbit curtseyed low, her head bowing for a moment before she looked up. "Miss Priscilla Wentworth, my Lady. I am honored to meet such a lovely and gracious lady."

Katherine smiled gently. "She is betrothed to my chef du maison, Dionysus. I depend on him heavily; I have already begun to depend on his bride."

Although a tiny smile tweaked at the corner of her mouth, the little hobbit had no other expression. "If the lord and ladies do not mind, I will go and supervise the disbursement of our luggage. Again, I am honored, my Lady." Curtseying again, she nodded and went with sedate dignity in the wake of Philip and Edward.

Ezekiel rejoined the ladies with a slight frown on his face as a thought crossed his mind. "Where are Jacob and Malcolm, mother? They should have been here to greet Katherine." His voice held a note of disapproval. He had thought that they had at least would've maintained the courtesies, but he should not be surprised.

Lady Drake's smile dipped slightly as Ezekiel asked after his brother's location. "There was an emergency they needed to attend to. Please forgive their absence, Ezekiel. I am sure they will greet Katherine with all the respect she is due when they return."

A nearly inaudible sigh escaped Ezekiel's lips, the only sign of his frustration.

Miriam turned to Katherine. "Would you care for tea? We can retire to the sun room and you can tell me all about the woman who has captured my son's heart, starting with how the two of you met.

"That would be lovely." Katherine darted a glance at Ezekiel, smiling. "Although the story isn't much. It all started with the most dreadfully boring museum meeting." She related the tale as she was led to the sun room, finishing as they sat down for tea. "He has been the bright spot in my life, my friend, my rock," Katherine admitted as she finished the tale. Blushing, she met the Lady's gaze. "And I was too foolish to pay attention to the fact that he had captured my heart. That was what Dionysus made inarguably plain one night after a rather unusual dinner party."

Ezekiel took that moment to chime in. "And she had captured mine well before I had realized it myself. I feel graced by God to have found her."

And his mother, upon hearing that, laughed, a sparkling sound that filled the sun room. "Then I know that the two of you are meant for each other. As the child, so is the man, focused in so tightly that you miss what floats in front of you. The Lord, as I have always said, has a sense of humor in his ways."

A servant bearing a classically styled silver tea service came in and set it down on the table in front of them, before quietly backing out, leaving the three to pour their cups of tea.

A slight strand of red hair fell over one eye as Katherine leaned forward with interest, tilting her head. "As the child?" she asked with a twinkle in the her eyes. "What was Ezekiel like as a child?" She looked sidelong at Ezekiel with a minxish smile. "What things can you tell me that he will regret that I hear?"

"Ever since his vision, Ezekiel has been as serious and focused as the adult he is today," Miriam said quietly. Her face was a bit wistful as she said it. "I always thought that he did not have enough fun. But there was one time.." And she proceeded to tell the story where Ezekiel had broken an arm when he had jumped off the carriage while playing at being Robin Hood.

She chuckled. "His father, God bless his soul, could never understand why Ezekiel wanted to play Robin Hood. Richard the Lionheart he understood, but Robin Hood? Robbing the rich? Why, we were the rich and we treated the poor suitably."

Ezekiel could hear the echo of his father in his mother's words and he reached inside his pocket to rub his watch. He and his father had often disagreed but Ezekiel still missed him.

Without thinking, Katherine caught Ezekiel's hand in her own, catching the motion out of the corner of her eyes. She knew where the watch was kept; had known its significance to Ezekiel for almost as long as they had been friends. Smiling, she answered, "Ezekiel seems to have always been guilty of considering all mankind deserving of the dignity of equal treatment and an equal standard of happiness. So lives the lowest of us all, so should live the highest."

It was a nobility of spirit that she herself was guilty of not having as consistently as she should. But knowing Ezekiel had made her strive to embrace it more, strive to be a more attentive and kind soul to her fellows on the Earth, and she told that to the Lady Miriam. Sighing, she smiledly a bit remorsefully. "He is more than I deserve. I am a wild thing, raised on the moors of Yorkshire and inclined to dance in fairy rings and pretend to be Boedicca and other warrior maidens from times long lost. That God has put us together makes me praise him all the more and know that he smiles with laughter when he sees Ezekiel trying to deal with me."

As Katherine finished talking, a young blond maid came in and whispered something in Miriam's ear. Miriam nodded and said, "Thank you, Mary." She turned back to Ezekiel and Katherine. "Mary is one of my favorites. She is a sweet child and reminds me of myself at that age. She informs me that Jacob and Malcolm have arrived and should be here shortly."

And two minutes later, in strode the two elder Drake brothers. Jacob was physically the taller of the two, standing nearly 3 inches past six feet tall. But it was clear to everyone in the room that Malcolm was the most imposing, despite being a good four inches shorter. Both had the black hair and bulky frame that marked them as sons of their father. Only Ezekiel had inherited his mother's frame and looks.

When they entered, Ezekiel stood up, still holding Katherine's hand in his as he had her rise with him. "Jacob. Malcolm. If I might introduce my fiancee, the Lady Katherine Fleming, daughter to Colonel Sir William Fleming." He made a particular emphasis on her social status, hoping that it might keep his brothers in line.

Jacob and Malcolm made short half bows to her, their eyes narrowing at the way her Eldren ears narrowed to a point. "It is a pleasure to meet the woman who my younger brother felt worthy of his Lord gifted talents. I had not thought he would find anyone worthy of him," Malcolm said first, subtle sarcasm in his tone. Jacob nodded in agreement.

Only the slightest inhalation marked her temper; years jousting with Bertie in places private and public had honed her acting skills. Katherine mustered the sweetest of smiles, looking up at Jacob, knowing the slight would annoy Malcolm when she answered his comment to Jacob. "The pleasure is all mine. You, Jacob, possess a great presence. I could do nothing but notice you when you walked into the room. Your silence must hide wisdom and great intelligence. I am pleased to meet the eldest brother of my husband. Ezekiel speaks highly of you." She turned her attention to Malcolm, the smile not breaking. "Of you both, of course. It is kind of you, Malcolm, to acknowledge that your brother is blessed. But seeing you, I know that the Lord has blessed all of the Drake brothers."

Malcolm's eyes narrowed even more but he remained silent as Jacob simply said, "Welcome to the Drake household, Miss Fleming. My mother will have you suitably arranged for, I am sure. But if you will excuse us, we have duties to attend to, unlike Ezekiel."

Ezekiel then spoke up. "Was the emergency taken care of, brothers?"

Jacob looked puzzled for a bit and then recovered. "Oh yes, that, An issue with one of the servants. It has been handled." Both brothers gave another quick bow before exiting quickly.

Shaking her head, Miriam sat back down in her chair and took another sip of her tea. "I apologize, Katherine. Their father was always lacking in the social graces. He said what he thought and Ezekiel's brothers have much of their father in them. But Jacob and Malcolm, no matter what they think, should have better manners. I raised them better than that."

The young Eldren shook her head. "No please don't apologize, my Lady. My father, aunt, multiple nannies, and one, now two very proper and dedicated hobbits can tell you that no amount of effort in raising a child will mean that that child will turn out to be what they wish. I am far from the lady that they all desire me to be. But I respect a man who says his mind. My father is like that. It has made him a very successful man in his chosen fields." She smiled brightly, finally unable to keep her eyes from lighting with mirth. "I am no shrinking violet. I'm certain that Ezekiel has shared that with you. I must apologize to you for not more politely deferring to your sons."

She shook her head. "There is no apology necessary. Defer to noone but my son and only if he will defer to you. Ezekiel's father oftentimes had no idea what to do with me and I see no reason for that to be any different now for me or for you as my son's future wife."

Standing up, she gently motioned towards the doorway. "Katherine, would you care to accompany me on a tour of the house? I will show where you are to be staying and where Ezekiel's room is, in case you have need to visit him without my presence." And she gave both of them a knowing smile.

The blush that covered her cheeks was impossible to stop and her eyes flew to the Lady Miriam's as her mouth opened. "You are gracious," she finally stammered. "I would love to see your home." She swallowed to regain her composure, and fought the sudden inappropriate need to giggle. Lady Miriam merely returned her startled look with a serene dignity even though the blue clearness of her lovely eyes were full of understanding and naughty humor. Rising to her feet , her mind caught in a befuddling storm of thoughts, she nodded as Ezekiel tucked her hand onto his arm. "Thank you," she said, glancing at her fiance husband. "You are quite the remarkable woman. I now have no question of whom your amazing son favors, my Lady. No question at all."

"He has the best parts of me and of his father. But now I will stop praising him before his head inflates to the size of one of those hot air balloons I hear so much about." And Miriam lead the two of them on a grand tour of the house, stopping every so often to tell an amusing story about Ezekiel and whatever room they happened to be in at the time. As a child, and a third child at that, Ezekiel had too much free time and much of it had been spent indoors, practicing swordplay. It seemed every room had an item of immense value and history that Ezekiel had managed to break, or so it would seem to listen to his mother.

Finally they arrived at Ezekiel's bedroom door. "Now, I must go check in with Francois, our cook. I look forward to seeing you at dinner tonight, dear." And she leaned forward to hug Katherine and then Ezekiel. And just like that, she was off down the hallway, leaving the two of them alone and unescorted.

Bemused, Katherine looked at Ezekiel. "Ah, a remarkable woman, your mother is. And very busy it seems." She shrugged innocently. "I suppose that you are to give me the tour of your bedroom since she has duties elsewhere? What furniture has survived your gallant attacks behind this door?"

He opened the door and walked her inside. "A chair." he pointed to a blue and white print chair that had been one of his favorites to curl up and read in as a lad.

"A dresser." Against one wall was a sturdy oak dresser with elaborate brass handles. That one was new to him since his arrival here.

"And a bed, of course." He pointed to the four poster bed at the center of the room, also made of oak, with a blue and white duvet on top.

"The chair looks comfortable. So what can you see outside your window?" She walked to the window, pointedly ignoring the bed. Looking back over her shoulder, she smiled. "The view is lovely."

"Yes, the orchard is visible from that window. I used to spend evenings watching the fireflies dance through the trees. When I was not studying, of course."

Ezekiel came up and stood beside her. "I am glad you like my mother," he remarked quietly.

"I cannot conceive of not liking her. She is everything that I aspire to be. I only hope that I can be half the woman that she is." As she turned to him, her face was full of admiration. "And she is still so beautiful, inside and out. Oh, my love, I would say that I am dangerously close to loving her." A sudden thought made her bite her lip. "Do you think that she will like my present? Did I choose well enough?"

"She will love it, I have no doubts." Katherine's sense of fashion was excellent and the shawl was not only beautiful, but of the latest fashion. "She will appreciate getting a reminder of the life that she no longer gets to see much of."

"We will have to remedy that for her," came Katherine's rare, stern reply. "Wherever she has wanted to travel, we will take her in grand style." She smiled, brightening up. "Now that I've met her, I just couldn't bear that she only stays here and get letters from faraway places." She slipped her hands into his, squeezing gently.

"I think she would like that. Very much." It was only really beginning to dawn on him what marrying into money could mean. He could do things for his mother that he never would have been able to as the third son, living a quiet, solitary life in London.

Katherine glanced back to see if anyone could possible see them and seeing no one, spun and wrapped his arms around her. Sighing, she leaned back into him. "I would like to show her the lands we went to. Under better circumstances. And I'd love to go to the Americas. And ride a dirigible. And have your children. And. . .grow old together." Her shoulders slumped for just a moment. "We both may die early deaths. I just hope that we are together."

"The Lord will provide. I expect to grow old. And I expect you will stay forever young. But we will enjoy every second of every minute that we spend together." He hugged her tight to him and kissed her forehead.

Katherine nodded and then grinned. "Even the fights? You haven't seen me yet in a bad mood."

"Perhaps not enjoy those," he conceded. "But I do promise to appreciate them as a sign that I married a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. You will be my equal and I would not want it any other way."

She was silent for a moment and then frowned with mock severity. "Our son will not be named Mordred." And she gave a curt nod as she spun in his arms to look out the window.

"I do not have a half sister, my love. And besides, you are my only. My soul mate here on this earth." Once he had thought he would only have a single master to serve. But now he served a master in Heaven and a mistress here in the mortal realms. But he did not find it an unpleasant thought. Not in the least bit.

She snuggled back against him again with a soft sigh and a gentle smile. "Only two brothers, thank Heaven. I may have to apologize to your brothers this evening. I was a bit----" She paused to find the right words. "A bit careless in how I addressed them. Your brother Malcolm is interesting."

"All the wits of my mother without the common sense, all the perseverance of my father without the good intentions." Ezekiel sighed slightly. Malcolm was unpredictable to him. He understood where Jacob stood - he had the best interests of the family at heart, even if he was going about expressing it in the wrong way. Malcolm, on the other hand...well, Ezekiel did not know why Malcolm was so hostile to him. He could not remember ever doing or saying anything as a boy that would have prompted Malcolm to go to the extremes that he did to torment the younger version of himself. Or to be so rude to Katherine, who had done nothing but agreed to marry him. And not be human, he reminded himself.

"Whatever you feel is appropriate, my love," he said after gathering his thoughts. "I am just sorry that they feel this way."

She swallowed, thoughtful and introspective. "I don't blame them. They are products of society." She paused with a sigh. "Do you know why I think that I fell in love with you?" she asked a moment later, her gaze locked to the beauty of the view outside his bedroom window. "Because you talked to me. Not at me, but to me. And you cared what I had to say." An abrupt giggle made her shake lightly. "Even when my addled mind forgot your name and other important facts. Even when I forgot to meet you for our teas. You were always patient with me. More than you being handsome and kind, more than you being well-read and most interesting. You talked to me. And you were my friend without motive."

"I always have found conversation to be more interesting when talking goes both ways. I even hold the Lord to that standard." And he smiled, as he looked over her shoulder at the orchard. Many of his conversations with the Lord had in fact been in that orchard. Or in front of this window on his knees. Perhaps, Ezekiel realized, that was Malcolm's problem. In his world, conversation only flowed from him to other people. And Ezekiel had never bound himself to that. He must have been a constant reminder that the world did not shape itself completely to Malcolm's needs. And now, his upcoming marriage to Katherine once again flaunted that fact. But Malcolm would adapt to Katherine or Ezekiel would make him adapt.

"I did have a motive, but not one that most of your suitors had. I, not even realizing it, was lonely. And I wanted a friend." And had gotten so much more.

She chucked softly, nodding. "Although I think He was getting frustrated with us. We seem to have cotton in our ears concerning one another. Wonder if Malcolm heard any of the scandal concerning you and I? The Lord works in mysterious ways, but the gossipers surely enjoyed His intervention in our lives."

"Jacob would not care for gossip," Ezekiel remarked, "nor really have the contacts to hear it so far from the city. But Malcolm perhaps would have. And that would only infuriate him. His weakling younger brother not only takes up with a non-human, but one that drags him into a scandal." He shook his head in disbelief. When he put it that way, he could begin to understand why Malcolm might be upset. But Ezekiel would not stop doing what was right to bend to other people's perceptions. And besides..."We will be married soon and it will all be as dust motes in the breeze, irritations quickly past."

Katherine nodded as she watched the gathering evening. "We are problem children indeed. For your brothers, my father, Neecy, and the Lord. And sadly," she paused to turn to face him and cup his cheeks in her hands, "I have no intention of changing. I would love to see all the places you played as a child. And where the Lord first called to you. I want to know what made Ezekiel Drake who he is." Pulling his face to hers, she kissed him softly on the lips, taking her time to enjoy it. There was an art to kissing, she observed absently, from the lips to the tongue, as she brushed her lips over his lightly as she let him go. She had had no cause to practice before; now it was difficult not to restrain from doing so.

He savored the kiss before reluctantly letting it and her go. "While I could spend a lifetime like that, " and hoped to, he thought before continuing, "we should both prepare for dinner. And I would not want to scandalize Mother's servants." Ezekiel offered up his arm. "Might I escort you back to your room, Mrs. Fleming-Drake?" He whispered the name, turning it into a special gift just for her hearing along.

"Oh," she breathed, her face lighting from within. "You may, my husband," came the breathed reply. "For now and forever."

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