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Afternoon Tea

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"As you can see," said Anthea, opening the front door to the Dower House and standing aside as her guests went in, "the problem of dampness was easily solved."

Lady Aurelia and Mrs Darracott paused in the middle of the entry hall at the Dower House. It certainly harboured no lingering smell of damp, neither the wallpaper nor the carpet were buckled or stained, and the air seemed dry. The afternoon sun came through the windows, now cleaned and cleared of ivy, and the room seemed almost cheerful, as much as an empty room could.

"Easily?" asked Lady Aurelia. She knew, as did Mrs Darracott, that the repairs on the Dower House had taken over two months longer than had been planned.

"Yes, so long as by 'easily', one means, 'by tearing down the wallpaper, having a fire going continuously for three months, ripping out all the ivy, clearing about a hundred overgrown trees and digging drains under the house'." Anthea wondered if she should add replacing the rotten floorboards to the list, but decided against it. The list was comprehensive enough. She wouldn't easily forget the day her foot had gone through the floor. Luckily, Hugo had been nearby to heave her unceremoniously from the hole.

Lady Aurelia's eyebrows rose. "Somewhat of an understatement then," she said.

"Well, if this is the result, perhaps it was worth all those months of you coming home quite covered in mud," said Mrs Darracott. Anthea smiled at her and squeezed her hand lightly. Her mother had been quite as interested in the restorations and renovations as she had been, and Anthea knew she didn't really grudge her one speck of mud. Mrs Darracott had come down only infrequently at the beginning, her interest in joists and dry rot being negligible, but she'd been invaluable as Anthea and Hugo had moved on to the vexed questions of carpets and wallpaper.

"Indeed, Mama, I think so. Come into the drawing room, both of you. Let us start our tour there." She ushered them both in, hoping that Hugo had followed his instructions exactly.

The Dower House was not quite finished; they had yet to put back in all the old furniture they had saved, and the new pieces they had needed, and there were, as yet, no kitchen staff. For today, however, in honour of Lady Aurelia's visit, Anthea had made special arrangements.

"It's my pleasure to entertain you both to tea," she said, gesturing to the small table that had been drawn up close to the window. "My first tea in my future house," she said. She saw, with satisfaction, that she'd surprised them both. At least, she had surprised her mother, and she assumed that Lady Aurelia's raised brows were indicative of something resembling surprise and not displeasure.

"My dear!" said Mrs Darracott. "Should you not wait and have your first tea with Hugo, after you move in?"

"Not at all," said Anthea. "We've had many a cup of tea while standing ankle-deep in sawdust and mud, arguing over the necessity of removing bits of panelling. I want my dearest mother and my aunt to share this with me." She moved forward as she spoke, pulling forward a comfortable winged chair. "Come, let's chatter, and bless ourselves, and marvel, as my Grandfather would say all women do."

"Thank you," said Lady Aurelia, moving forward to the chair that Anthea had set for her. "Although I think there will be no need for us to marvel, except perhaps at the transformation you and Hugo have achieved here. I have not seen the Dower House for some years, but my last memories of it are quite different, and very much less than satisfactory."

"There were times when I thought we would not manage it," admitted Anthea. "I was quite resigned to spending the rest of my days fighting with mould and insects."

"I had every faith in Hugo," declared Mrs Darracott, looking ready to do battle on her future son-in-law's behalf. "I am surprised to hear you lacking faith in him, my dear."

Anthea's eyes twinkled. Her mother had frequently worried that the Dower House would never be completed and that Anthea and Hugo would be at a stand forever. That was different, obviously, to doubting Hugo.

"Oh, no one could ever lack faith in Hugo," she assured her mother. He'd been a reassuring and infuriating rock during the entire process. For every time her hands had itched to box his ears, there had been several occasions when he had said or done the perfect thing to bring the entire process back into perspective and restore her faith in the project. She'd done her part too; she knew the local people well, and they knew her. She'd been able to get the best tradesmen and suppliers for each job.

"Hugo is a very capable young man," agreed Lady Aurelia. "I am sure you both managed exceedingly well. This room is quite charming." She sat back in her chair and surveyed the new wallpaper with a majestic air of approval.

Anthea smiled and poured the tea. The wallpaper in this room had been the subject of much discussion; she was relieved that Lady Aurelia approved. Passing round a plate of cakes, she noted that Hugo had managed to charm the cook into baking both Lady Aurelia and Mrs Darracott's favourites. He'd managed better than she expected, as he generally did. She didn't want to box his ears today.

The drawing room faced south, looking out over gardens that were no longer depressingly overgrown. Instead, the lawns were evenly mowed up to the edge of the box hedging that had previously been almost completely obscured by grass and weeds. Behind them, other plants were starting to grow unhampered by weeds. The gardener from the Hall had assured Anthea, herself not particularly interested in flowers, that there would even be roses soon. Anthea knew she would be required to escort her aunt over it in detail later; she hoped she could remember everything the gardener had said.

Anthea returned her attention to her guests. In a week, she'd be married, and this would be her home, and two more minor miracles would have been achieved. She was certain there would be more challenges in store after that. Life would never be dull, of that she was sure.