His right heel tapped nervously, which he didn’t realize until he heard the teacup clattering against its saucer in his hands.
He frowned down at the offending leg as he stopped; that hadn’t happened for several years. It was a tic he thought he’d trained out of himself in the service. Leaning forward, he set the tea back on the polished wooden tray atop the desk, still warm but largely untouched. Looking back over his shoulder to make sure he was still alone, he stood, stretched various muscles discreetly just in case somebody might be watching anyway, and took a turn around the library.
It was large, but not unmanageably huge. He’d read about Lord Croft’s collection, which included texts ancient and priceless. He walked slowly along one wall, pausing every so often to turn his head sideways and read the titles as high as he could see, having to stretch up on the balls of his feet a few times to see something. There were ladders, but he felt like enough of an intruder without being found hanging off of something sixteen feet up when he was called to interview. Besides – if he’d wanted up on a shelf, he really didn’t need a ladder for it. He’d climbed rock faces far taller than this wall, with just his hands and cleats.
If only everything since had gone as easily as Basic, he thought, struggling to shut the past few years out so he would remain calm for his interview. He strolled back to the desk slowly, eyeing the tea and trying to decide if he wanted the rest. He noted the service was plainly crafted, a simple red and gold border around a cream-colored cup and saucer: sturdy and practical with just enough gilt to mark it as expensive. Nothing fussy. For some reason, that put him at ease, and he turned to pace back to the tall shelves, thinking perhaps things might work out after all.
He was leaning over to read a few spines on Indian religion, halfway crouched because it was the only way one could look at the titles without getting down on all fours, his head nearly parallel to the floor, when he heard a giggle. Straightening up so fast his head swam – fortunately, Royal Marines training had given him balance enough that he didn’t think it showed – he turned and spotted a girl standing across the room, behind a settee. He hadn’t seen her before, but considering where he was and her apparent age, he guessed this was Winston’s and Duchess Henrietta Roxbury’s young charge. Swallowing, he automatically sketched a small bow and addressed her. “Lady Croft – yes?”
The girl nodded; she’d stopped giggling, but was still smiling a little. “You’re one of the candidates my aunt’s interviewing.” It was a half-question.
“Yes, ma-; I mean, miss.” He’d memorized as well as he could from his uncle’s brief tutorial regarding titles, but hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it just yet.
They both stood silently, watching each other across the room, the girl with a shy but obvious curiosity, and he falling back on the formal bearing his uncle had taught him was important for an ideal servant. Finally, the girl came around the settee. “I’m Lara,” she said by way of introduction; she transferred a couple of long sticks from her right hand to her left and put out her empty hand, then thought better, awkwardly retracting it and giving a little wave instead, stopping a few feet away. She didn’t show many teeth when she tried to smile; he caught a flash of metal, remembering just enough about being a teenager to understand why. “What’s your name?”
He fell back on his military training. “Hillary, miss. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Is that a first name?” Automatically, he shook his head. “What’s your first name?”
He nearly forgot it, since everybody used his last name, from service buddies to his own father. Only his ex-wife had used his first name. He cleared his throat, a bit embarrassed. “Edmund, miss.”
She grinned at that, braces and all. “Like the guy who climbed Everest?”
This was why he didn’t tell anyone. “Um, yes.”
She kept smiling. “So … have you climbed Everest?”
She sounded genuinely curious, with just a touch of smartassness, and he smiled. “No, miss.”
She shrugged. “You can call me Lara.” Immediately she blushed and fidgeted from one foot to the other, reaching up to scratch at the side of her nose, though to her credit she didn’t look away. She was a pretty girl, what the girls he’d gone to school with several years ago might have called chubby, but she seemed in good physical shape from what he could tell of her track shorts and long t-shirt, and borderline confident enough perhaps not to care. She was only a few inches shorter than him, and by the way she held herself, he could tell she wasn’t used to her legs yet. Long brown hair was pulled back by a couple of barrettes, she had some light acne near her chin, and he could see on the bridge of her nose two little reddish spots for the pads of glasses she must’ve taken off not long ago.
“I think I’d probably better stick to Lady Croft,” he demurred, “but thank you.”
Lara turned to look behind her back toward the door of the parlor, the same place he’d shot glances at on and off for the past half-hour. “Oh, don’t be concerned about my aunt. She tries to act all proper and aristocratic, but she’s really not that bad.” She turned back, seemed about to say something, then shrugged, holding up her sticks. “Well, I guess I’d better go – I have to practice.”
“Escrima?” he guessed, nodding at them.
“You know it?”
“I’m … passingly familiar,” he explained. “Just an amateur interest.”
“But you know how to do it? How to use these?” She brightened immediately, holding up the oversized sticks. “I’ve been reading about it, but I can’t get an instructor yet. Aunt Henry won’t let me; she thinks it’s not proper for a young lady.” Lara rolled her eyes with something of a small snort. “Father wouldn’t have been that way. She knows that.”
This all sounded terribly personal and he wondered if he should try to shut her up, but he was curious despite himself. “I took a couple of courses while I was in the military,” he offered. “I’m far from expert, miss.”
“Well – but that’s okay!” she decided, thrusting the sticks in his direction. “Please, could you just show me something? Or maybe you could tell me if I’m standing wrong, or whatever – I feel like I’ve been doing it wrong, and I don’t have anyone to work off of. It’s not like shooting at a target; I can do that just fine.” By now, she was gesturing with the sticks as she talked, more animated than she’d been, and Hillary took a discreet step back as one of them passed within two inches of his chest, hoping she hadn’t noticed. Apparently, she hadn’t, because she proceeded to tell him what she’d tried so far – but abruptly stopped talking a moment later. “I’m not shutting up, again,” she muttered, what he could see of her ears turning bright red; this time, she did aim her clear blue eyes elsewhere.
I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m supposed to be wanting a job where I have to keep her formal dresses pressed, he thought – then sighed. His own daughters were only four, and he didn’t want them to get to a point where they were hesitant to ask to learn something, for Pete’s sake; he supposed he’d better start working on their karma now. “Here,” he offered, holding out a hand, gesturing for her to hand the sticks over.
Eagerly, Lara pressed them into his open palm, and he passed one to his other hand, held them up, and began with a basic stance he remembered from his first week of class. He expected interruptions and comments, but she was an attentive pupil, and he quickly learned to stop when her brow furrowed, backing up to re-explain until her expression cleared and she nodded.
Pretty soon, she was following his stances, and he was pleased to see she was watching his feet; she’d have to learn to anticipate from expression and upper body movements, but this was normal for beginners who weren’t familiar. She picked up things quickly; he would show her a movement a few times, then hand over the sticks and watch her try. Once, he reached out to correct her, prying her fingers open and rearranging them around one of them; she didn’t pull away or stop, but he noticed the blush in her cheeks once again. He kept as much a distance as possible, the fact in the back of his mind the entire time that he was twenty-nine and she couldn’t be more than fourteen or fifteen – while this was perfectly innocent, he wanted to carefully avoid giving improper appearances.
At one point she was watching as he demonstrated something else, and spoke up. “What part of the service were you in?”
“Hmm?” He looked up. “Royal Marines.”
“Why aren’t you still there?”
He felt his hackles rise. Had she been anyone else, he would’ve felt comfortable using his age to call her on impertinence, but the question wasn’t even confrontational – it was just a curious kid. “I served for three years after university, then decided I wanted a civilian career,” he answered simply.
She eyed him, entirely too perceptive; he could tell all kinds of questions tumbled through that brain. Diplomatically, she settled on, “In domestic service?”
Not really, he resisted saying, but defense engineering just doesn’t have the same romanticism as it does before you actually go bomb people’s lives and homes. “It’s an honorable profession,” he finally settled on answering.
Unlike a lot of kids – at least him when he was that age – she got the hint that there was something he wasn’t saying, and dropped it. “Well, I hope she hires you; maybe you could help me with this some more. And guns!” She lighted up again, pushing some hair back behind her ears. “You probably know about all kinds of guns and rifles! Father left me several, but I’ve only learned how to shoot two kinds of pistols so far, and I had to do that at a shooting range in the village. Winston’s hidden the rest, he’s afraid I’ll shoot an eye out.”
He tried to tell her she shouldn’t be worrying about such things, but like everyone else, he knew what Lord Croft’s hobbies had been – tracking ancient texts and cultural treasures – and he guessed the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree. It could be dangerous work. “It’s … good to be careful,” he diplomatically replied, trying to be noncommittal.
“So, what’s that?” She pointed to the way he was holding the sticks, then shrugged. “I shouldn’t have interrupted awhile ago, I apologize.”
“It’s quite all right,” he assured her.
A few minutes later, as he was slowly demonstrating toward her yet again, the parlor door whisked open and footsteps caught his attention. Hillary straightened immediately, not sure what to do with the sticks. Acting quickly, Lara reached over, grabbing for them, and turned to face her aunt, her hands behind her back, the sticks straight up her spine and hidden there. She took a couple of steps back, standing beside him.
“My dear, shouldn’t you be finishing your homework?” Duchess Roxbury asked pleasantly.
“I needed a break,” the girl replied. “Besides, if you’re hiring someone who’ll be working for me someday, shouldn’t I get to talk to him, too?”
“Hmph.” The sound was disapproving, but not severe. She turned her attention to Hillary as Winston shuffled into place beside and slightly behind her. “We are ready to speak, if you’ve enjoyed your tea and feel ready to interview?”
He nodded, trying to keep the movement modulated, pretending he was addressing a milder form of drill commander. “Yes, ma'am, of course.” He heard an almost inaudible snort, and out of his periphery, saw the girl was trying not to laugh, coughing to cover it. He stifled the horribly improper urge to elbow her in the ribs, instead keeping his arms straight down at his sides and his expression pleasantly neutral.
“Come along, then.” The duchess turned and walked away. Winston looked between Hillary and Lara, raising an eyebrow at his young charge, then shook his head subtly as he turned and followed. Hillary pushed out a breath, relaxing slightly, and straightened his fitted vest, wondering if he’d looked at all disheveled from his earlier movements. He looked down and decided not, then set off to follow the two people deciding the next step of his life.
He made it halfway to the edge of the room when an urgent stage whisper drew his attention. He paused, turning; Lara moved her arms back in front of her, clasped the sticks in one hand and with the other, gave him a silent thumbs-up, since her aunt was still within reasonable hearing range. “Good luck!” she mouthed quietly.
Impulsively, he returned the thumbs-up. It was hardly proper – but, it seemed, neither were they.