Nora looked down at the recipe in her hands, back up at the ingredients on the bench, then back at the recipe once more.
Technicals were usually her strong suit on the show, to be sure - there had been more than one week when she’d definitely scraped through on the strength of her unseen bakes - but this one seemed… much more complex.
“You alright, Spaniel?”
Sherbourne was of course already having a delightful time, halfway through measuring out sultanas into his stand mixer and oven pre-heating to a temperature very helpfully left unlisted on the given recipe.
“Just excellent, thanks,” said Nora. She wiped a hand across her forehead, winced as the motion pulled at scar tissue. “You know I’ve no truck with patisserie, Sherry. This is somewhat above my head.”
She gestured at the array of flours arranged artfully in large preserving jars on the worktop. She had grown up in a house which came by its preserving jars honestly, rather than as a method of avoiding product placement. And a house which understood innately that flour came from wheat, not from nuts.
“Make the best of it,” said Sherry, at his supremely unhelpful best. “Good luck, old friend.”
He clapped Nora on the shoulder and returned to his own bench, reaching instantly for the butter dish.
Right, thought Nora. You have fought in wars, Captain Fleming. There is no reason for petits fours to fell you at the last hurdle.
The next time she looked up, pastry in the oven and icing sugar smeared across every surface in sight, a full hour had passed of their two and a half hour time limit.
Her hair, which had at one point that day been tightly braided, coiled, and pinned up at the back of her neck, was falling wild about her shoulders. Her hands, which she would usually use to sort out such a misfortune, were covered in a cement-like combination of icing sugar, flour, fondant and food colouring.
“Need a hand?”
Nora turned on her heel, somewhat startled, and smiled reflexively at the sight of Harriet approaching.
Harriet was going to win the whole competition. This was a conviction Nora had held for some time, perhaps as far back as the first time all the contestants had met for drinks at a pub near to the stately home that the marquee piggy backed on from.
It was also a conviction Nora had not shared with Harriet, because speaking to her was excruciatingly difficult. Every work, as far as Nora was concerned, was a risk that might reveal the depth of her feelings for the other woman.
Quite unconscionable, really. If Nora was to fall in love with her commanding officer’s sister she would literally never hear the end of it. Not least because Sherry had been joking about it for a decade.
“I should say so,” said Nora, swallowing her nerves and almost taking her tongue with it. Harriet was equally dishevelled - it was a hot day, and the marquee only amplified the wet heat of a proper English summer - but it somehow only made her more striking, to Nora’s eye. She held up her hands by way of explanation.
Harriet clucked at her and wiped her own much less cemented hands on her apron. “I’ll have that sorted for you in half a minute; my gantt chart has that much of a break built in right about now.”
“Not taking a tea break?” Nora asked, feeling somewhat constricted as Harriet stepped closer.
“I never do,” said Harriet. “Gets my nerves right up.”
Nora could relate. Harriet’s hands were now inches from the nape of Nora’s neck, having elected to stand in front of Nora while she sorted her hair out.
Absolutely baffling, is what it was.
Harriet’s breath puffed against Nora’s cheek. Nora shut her eyes with some force.
“All done,” said Harriet, from somewhat further away. Nora blinked her eyes open and patted at the newly pinned bun absently.
Harriet rolled her eyes. “Do try not to ruin my good work, Captain,” she said, warmly. “I’d simply hate to have to do that all over again.”
Nora would have replied, was in fact relishing the idea of replying, if her timer had not chosen that second to erupt into frantic beeping.
“Hell’s bloody teeth,” she hissed, and then it was back to frantic activity until somehow, impossibly, she had produced sixteen identical petits fours with precise piping, beautiful lattice work and a very pleasant flaky texture.
Nora didn’t find out about any of those comments until she watched the broadcast version; she was far too busy watching Harriet, who always spent the technical judging biting her lip. It was very distracting, in Nora’s defense.
There were only four of them left, now, and so they all fit around one table when they went for the traditional post-technical booze up at the local. It was a classic sixteenth century country pub with Tudor facings and no card reader, and Nora had grown very fond of it over the past two months.
“Winner gets in the first round, St Clair,” said Sherry, gesturing towards the bar with an imperious air.
“I seem to remember a certain ex-Major making the best financiers Paul Hollywood has ever had the pleasure of sticking in his big gob,” said St Clair, with an equally imperious air. They leaned against the back wall with arms outstretched along the top of the sofa they’d commandeered on arrival. There was just enough room for Nora to perch on the arm, which was exactly what she’d done.
She rubbed at her arm, which ached no matter the weather, and rolled her eyes. “How about we get in two rounds and you settle your differences at the bar, away from us nice civilised people. I’ll have a half of lemonade, Harriet will have - what will you have, Harriet? Spare no expense, it’s your brother paying.”
Harriet snorted. “I’ll have the same, thank you. Best keep our wits about us against such talented company.” Nora nodded acknowledgement and looked pointedly at Sherry, who yielded easy as a hot knife through butter.
“If you insist, Spaniel. Please do try not to despoil my sister while we’re gone.”
Nora hit him on the arm as he walked past, cane tapping against the hardwood floor, but couldn’t conceal the flush on her cheeks.
There was something of a crush at the bar, as it turned out, and it would be some time before St Clair and Sherry returned with their drinks.
Nora slid off the arm of the sofa and settled into the cushions, mostly for something to do. Harriet came and sat directly next to her, bare inches of space between them. Nora tensed, reflexively.
“I apologise for my brother,” said Harriet. “I know you’ve known him a long time, but --”
“Oh, he needs apologising for,” said Nora, letting some of the tension bleed out of her. This was a very safe topic of conversation. “He’s a menace. Has been ever since he recruited me.”
Harriet laughed, low and warm. Nora felt herself grin, with absolutely no consultation from her conscious mind. Even her mouth was staging a mutiny.
“He could certainly be somewhat more subtle about his matchmaking,” Harriet continued, causing Nora to immediately choke on nothing at all.
Having coughed herself out, Nora narrowed her eyes in Harriet’s direction. “I had rather hoped you hadn’t noticed,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish you to feel uncomfortable.”
“Never, Captain Fleming,” said Harriet. She caught Nora’s hand and inspected it thoughtfully, the tip of her tongue flicking out to wet her lower lip. Her eyes were lowered, such that Nora found herself actively admiring Harriet’s eyelashes. She swallowed, feeling it catch in her throat. “I’m afraid to say I don’t think you could if you tried.”
Nora could only assume that Harriet hadn’t intended to sound as if she were soothing a spooked horse, but it was a tone with which Nora was intimately familiar nonetheless.
“I don’t think this is the best place to discuss this,” was her eventual reply. She could see St Clair being handed their change - it wouldn’t be long before their drinks arrived, and company along with it. “But the sentiment is -- returned.”
“Wonderful,” said Harriet, with a sunny smile. Nora felt her insides twist at the sight. “We’ll talk later.”
It was said with such finality that Nora found herself nodding before she could think otherwise. Mutiny; complete bodily mutiny.
Sitting quietly and drinking a pint of lemonade lost some of its appeal, in contrast to conversation, but Harriet was still sat pressed up beside her, slowly moving in, so -- altogether, not bad at all.
And there was still the showstopper to come.