A/N: Thanks to my guest beta and net!bestie, -EHWIES. Sorry about the long time between chapters. No, I've not given up on this story, and yes, I will try to update much, much sooner this time. (A few people inspired me to write more, but this chapter is dedicated to, in particular, Scarlett88.)
The Biggest Pretend
"It was just scandalous, Mary, scandalous!" George Darling bellowed to his wife as she joined him in their bed later that night. Mrs. Darling simply sighed and made a signal to dismiss their only housemaid, Liza (or "the servants," as George had taken to calling her, even though he was quite aware they only had one), for the night.
"What was, dear?" she asked as she lay back upon her pillow.
"Why, the way your daughter behaved at the ball tonight," Mr. Darling gruffly replied. Mrs. Darling reminded herself to suppress the chuckle that was rising in her throat. Whenever one of the children misbehaved, George always referred to the culprit as her child, as if she'd simply crawled into the back alley and hatched a child one day with no contribution from him whatsoever. Of course, whenever one of their offspring did something right, he was always boasting about how it was from his genes that the child had found the resources to be successful.
She'd learned to love Mr. Darling's quirky traits, however, for one does learn to love a lot of things after almost eighteen years of marriage. He played the aggressor when it came to discipline, while she swept in like a soft wind to pick up the pieces afterwards. The two agreed on very little; in fact, they disagreed on so many things that they often joked there were only four matters they actually agreed on. One of those things was that they wanted the very best for their children, the other three being that lemon tart was the best dessert, London was determinedly dreary in the winter, and they loved each other very much.
It was for the well-being of their only daughter that Mrs. Darling did have to agree. Wendy had behaved in a most unladylike fashion at the ball, dancing with almost only one young man. (Such an act is only acceptable, as you must surely know, when the young man in question is one's husband.)
"It was downright childish," Mr. Darling continued, not noticing his wife's silence on the matter. "I will not accept it. It's the nursery incident all over again, and she was practically awarded for that when that Barrie fellow indulged her fancies and published them!"
"Maybe you're right, dear," Mrs. Darling interjected, hoping to wrap the conversation soon. She was already beginning to feel the first syrupy sweet whispers of sleep. "But perhaps the best way to turn Wendy into a lady is to treat her as such?"
"What do you mean?" her husband grumbled, raising an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting we not even punish her after that unfit display? I've never seen such a lack of manners, and I certainly have a high regard of etiquette!"
Once again, Mrs. Darling repressed a giggle when she thought back about all the "tact" George was known to display. "Oh, don't you remember what it was like to be young?" she asked instead, thinking back to the first time she'd met her husband at her own debutante ball. "If I recall correctly, you told Winston Wickham to 'bugger off' when he tried to cut in during our waltz. I'm sure we danced a few more dances together than we were supposed to."
Mr. Darling grumbled to himself. Why was it that women always had such temperamental memories? Sure, Mary could recall such a silly little incident so very long ago, but what about when it was something important, like ordering more of his favorite bread or putting her lotions and perfumes away when she was done getting ready? Her wonderful memory always seemed to be on vacation then."What do you think should be done, then?"
"Well, perhaps she could start sitting in on my Sunday visits," Mrs. Darling mused. "And maybe it is time we got Wendy her own housemaid, to help her dress and such. Liza would not be able to tend to both of us, I should think."
"Why is it that you people think I'm made of money?" Mr. Darling asked angrily, his eyes beginning to bulge. Mrs. Darling was used to her husband's looks of anger and never felt frightened. "Why, I work all day just so you ruddy people can take the money straight out of my pocket! We'll end up in the poorhouse!"
"Just think about it, darling," Mrs. Darling replied calmly, turning on her side to prepare for the oncoming sleep. "Just think about it."
A very small part of Wendy awoke the next day hoping the night before hadn't happened. Well, that's not entirely true. She wished – no, prayed – that every moment of the ball had actually existed; she still felt the butterflies in her stomach from when she'd seen her Peter again. What she dearly hoped to be a figment of her imagination was the fight that had happened afterwards. Oh, just remembering some of the things she had said hurt her heart dearly! But one look to the window confirmed everything – it was locked. Wendy knew she would never lock it unless her Peter was….
Musn't keep thinking of him as my Peter, she chided herself firmly in her head. No matter how much pain she felt now, she still meant everything she'd said to him. She still wanted to grow up, and she was done playing games with childish boys. And that is that.
Wendy began dressing herself in one of her new gowns – a birthday gift from a distant relative. The simple teal dress accented her shining golden hair rather nicely, she thought. After admiring herself in the mirror, she began steeling herself for what she knew lay before her at the breakfast table: two terrible displeased parents.
I suppose last night was not very ladylike of me. I shall do my best to prove to Mother and Father that I am a lady! she thought determinedly as she began tromping down the stairs. Remembering that tromping was not on the list of ladylike behaviors, she softened her steps to what she hoped was a ladylike glide, walking only on the balls of her toes.
"I'M GOING TO BEAT YOU, JOHN!" Wendy's younger brother Michael shouted as he began racing down the steps. He halted in his tracks as he observed Wendy's flight down the stairs.
"Why are you walking so funny, Wendy?" he asked curiously, still dressed in his red footie pajamas. Mrs. Darling had coaxed, pleaded, and begged for him to give up the childlike pajamas a year ago, but Michael doggedly refused, clinging to them as other children clung to security blankets.
"I am walking gracefully, Michael," Wendy replied, trying to find the perfect balance of snootiness in her voice.
"You look silly," he observed before continuing his race down the stairs.
When Wendy finally reached the dining room, her feet ached from all her "ladylike gliding." She sat down at her place next to her mother, who was dressed elegantly in a gown of sea-green and coral pink.
"Good morning, Mother, Father," she greeted both her parents. Although she was smiling on the outside, she was already beginning to tear up something awful on the inside. There was just no way her Father would forget about her lack of etiquette last night; although he possessed so few himself, he was always lecturing his children about the importance of fine manners.
"Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?" her mother asked serenely, delicately cutting into the eggs Liza had just delivered to the table.
"Quite well. I was terribly tired after the ball, I believe," she answered. She instantly regretted her remark; commenting on the ball was only going to give her parents a lead in to a discussion about her behavior.
"That's wonderful," Mrs. Darling simply replied.
"Wendy, there's something we need to discuss with you," Mr. Darling gruffly began. "There are going to be some changes around here, and I expect you to act accordingly."
"Yes, father," Wendy returned, bowing her head in shame. Here it came – the big lecture.
"What your father is trying to say, dear - oh!" Mrs. Darling started to add before Liza's appearance interrupted her.
"Miss Darling, a gentleman is 'ere to see you. I 'ave 'is card right 'ere," she announced in her cockney accent.
With trembling fingers –could it be? Is it Peter? – Wendy took the card from Liza's tray. Although disappointment washed through her body when she read the name, James Worthington, a flicker of something else stirred in her heart; was it a flicker of excitement?
"It is Mister Worthington," Wendy announced to no one in particular.
"Isn't it a bit early for callers?" Mr. Darling grumbled, although even an outsider could see the good-natured smile forming on his shaved face.
"Wendy, why don't we go visit with James in the front parlor?" Mrs. Darling asked in a firm tone that really indicated she had no choice. "I have had enough to eat, and I am sure if you are hungry later, Liza will be glad to provide you with a snack."
Wendy nodded, no longer caring about her almost untouched breakfast; she almost felt too nervous to eat. The two stood up from the table and walked to the parlor – Mrs. Darling gliding elegantly, Wendy trying to copy her behavior (but looking rather ridiculous, if one were to know.) Taking a deep breath, Wendy opened the doors to the green and red parlor to see James standing expectantly.
"Mrs. Darling, Miss Daring," he acknowledged. "How are you on this fine day?"
"Very good, James. Thank you for paying us a visit," Mrs. Darling returned warmly, taking a seat at the large green armchair. Wendy felt too nervous to move and instead continued standing; James seemed to mirror her sentiments, as he made no move towards any of the furniture.
"I was wondering, Miss Darling - if you're up to it, of course – whether you would be interested in taking a stroll to the park with me?" he asked a touch nervously, reaching up to pull on his hair just as he had done the other night.
"That's a very nice offer, James, but I'm afraid I do not have the time to act as your chaperone right now," Mrs. Darling replied. "I'm expecting a visit from Mrs. Lewis this morning." Wendy could see James's disappointed face from across the room, no matter how hard he was trying to hide it; although she could not trace its origin, Wendy felt a strong desire to put the smile back on his face.
"Mother," she began, timidly. "Perhaps it would be alright if we took Michael with us? He doesn't have school today, and I am sure he would love the fresh air." She gave a small smile to James at the end of her speech, hoping he would realize her suggestion was aimed to keep him smiling.
"Why, I suppose there is nothing wrong with that," Mrs. Darling granted after a few moments' thought. "Just make sure Michael doesn't get his clothes dirty." Wendy looked over at her visitor just in time to see the large grin he was trying to hide.
After grabbing her favorite hat and coaxing Michael to accompany them ("But it's too hot out!"), the trio set off down the street towards the local park. Michael, who never was very good at being still, ran five feet in front of them, whooping and hollering as he attempted to catch butterflies and wave at other pedestrians.
"Your brother certainly is a handful," James commented to Wendy as the both watched his entertaining antics.
"He certainly is, Mr. Worthington," Wendy replied; she had long given up her new walk in order to preserve her aching feet from further pain. "But we do love him nonetheless."
"You may call me James, if you remember," he reminded her, giving her a smile. "And I remember what it is like to be a lad. I am sure I was just as crazy and rambunctious."
"I can be so forgetful," Wendy admitted. "I'm sure you recall that you may call me Wendy."
"That I do, and I am glad to have your continued permission." James paused, and then began to slightly chide, "Does forgetfulness run in the family, Wendy? I do believe you forgot that second dance you promised me last night."
Wendy began to blush something furious. "Oh James, I am so terribly sor-"
"Forget it altogether," James advised kindly. "Perhaps you can grant me that promised dance at the next ball? I believe the Cecilia Dashwood and her family are holding yet another one this weekend? "
"I would love to," Wendy answered sincerely as the trio finally reached the park, although she really couldn't stand Cecilia. Cecilia Dashwood, a year old than Wendy, had always teased her when they were children and loved to flaunt her money. Another night at the Dashwoods' would mean another night of having to listen to Cecilia and her airs.
Watching Michael run off to join in a game of cricket with his school chums, the two sat on a bench that overlooked the game.
"Do you remember the games we used to play here, Wendy?" James asked. "We were the Spanish Armada, and your brothers were the pirates."
"Oh, we had so much fun back then," Wendy said fondly, remembering her youth. Had it really been so long ago? "Those games have always made me want to go to Spain!"
"Well, I shall take you one day, then!" James vowed, turning to his companion with a huge smile.
"I swear on my duty as a gentleman."
"I look forward to it," Wendy replied.
As the two continued talking, they failed to notice the young man with the reddish-brown hair and a sparkle in his eyes approaching them