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"The walls have eyes, Mama." Amber tugged insistently at my hand, desperate to exit the formal dining room. "Don't like it here."
I frowned at the bright spots on the walls where paintings had once hung. The spaces did look like creepy eyes. A quick glance around the room showed some of my mother's valuable knickknacks missing too. A few pieces of the more valuable silver.
Interesting. Things had changed during the six years I'd spent in France.
"Let's go and have breakfast. Hannah said she'd make you special pancakes." I scrutinized the rooms we passed on the way to the kitchen, my quick peeks through the doorways confirming my suspicions. Something smelled like the whiff of day-old fish at Oakthorpe, the ancestral seat of Viscount Oakthorpe. Not even the sweet scent of spring flowers, arranged in a vase on the counter, could mask it. My father, Charles Fawkner, the current viscount, had some explaining to do.
Voices came from the kitchen. Heated. Vehement.
"You'll have to tell Eve," a feminine voice said.
"Morning," I said in a bright tone as we stepped into a spotlessly clean but dated kitchen.
My father and his best friend, Ben, were seated at one end of a long wooden table. Hannah, Ben's wife, stood at the stove, a Teflon spatula in one hand. Ben and Hannah had moved in after my mother died when I was a child. They were family.
Their discussion ceased abruptly on our entrance.
"Tell me what?" I asked.
My father exchanged a doubtful glance with Ben before returning his attention to me. He rubbed his chin, the guilty silence broken by the loud rasp of his whiskers.
"Maybe once Amber is at school," Hannah said, turning away to deftly flip a pancake.
The fishy stench wasn't my imagination. My narrowed gaze took in their nonchalant body language. They didn't quite pull it off. Since Amber and I had returned the day before, I'd noticed a few things. Enough to add two plus two and come up with a creditable answer.
Belligerence settled on Father's face. "What?"
"How is your arthritis today?"
Father jerked his swollen hands off the tabletop and placed them on his lap. "I don't want to talk about it." Out of sight, out of mind.
The strident ring of the phone interrupted our staring contest.
"Me! Me! I want to get it," Amber said.
I nodded. "Make sure you do it the way we practiced."
While Amber skipped over to the phone and stood on tiptoe to reach, I took a plate of pancakes from Hannah. Time was marching on, and we'd be late to school if I didn't hurry. I set the plate in the middle of the table and started to prepare a pancake for Amber. I drizzled syrup, my mind turning sharp corners and deepening my anxiety. What on earth was my father up to now? Surely he didn't intend to work with those hands?
"Hello, this is Amber Fawkner speaking."
A burst of pride replaced my worry as I listened to my daughter's polite greeting.
Her forehead creased in a frown. "No, I don't have a daddy. You could speak to Mama." She listened for a while and nodded before thrusting the phone at me. "The man wants to talk to you."
I took the phone from Amber and steered her in the direction of a chair. "Eat your breakfast. Hello?"
"Who is this?" the man asked.
His oily tone made my trouble antenna spike. I swung to face the terrible trio, as I'd dubbed Father, Ben and Hannah during my teenage years. "I'm Lady Evelyn Fawkner. Who's speaking?"
"She's crabby," Ben whispered to my father when he heard me use my full name.
Hannah's spatula flashed through the air. "Shush."