August rolled by, greyer, damper, and colder than it should have been. Despite the weather, people still rolled up to the Park. Ellis and Brandon were run off their feet. All of us were pressed to help. Tom and Charlotte, fresh back from honeymoon, were given five minutes to show their photographs (nauseatingly gorgeous shots of Verona) before the staff-meeting began. Then life went on as normal. Meetings and plannings and a smattering of packing when I had a moment, and drinks out with the Dashwoods and Brandon, Charlotte and Tom, Jim and Izzy on occasions. Robbie, rarely. It would appear that I lost my chance with him. Izzy told me, several times, of the gorgeous girls he was off chasing. I suspected she intended to rile me. She failed. Utterly.
Mari still hadn't heard from Marc. She appeared to be resigned to whatever happened. She would welcome him back, faithfully, but for now, she didn't appear to have much hope. Brandon continued to simmer, his rage at Marc flickering only just below the surface. Ellis continued to tell no one, save maybe Brandon, on occasion, how she really felt. She seemed happier though. Life ticked on.
And then September came. Gloriously hot again. Colour starting to turn, leaves thinking about falling, and I packed a few more boxes and talked to Harry, a little more regularly than was really necessarily. He was arriving, he said, at about ten on the Monday. I told him that if he did that, he'd have to leave Bristol at the crack of dawn. He told me not to worry about it and that anyway, seven wasn't all that early. Comparatively. I laughed and we fell into conversation about those jobs which do require leaving the house early and how we couldn't do it, and it wasn't until I put the phone down later that I realised that I had never pinned him down over that Monday. I decided not to worry, and that I'd renegotiate the night before. Except I hadn't quite counted on my family. "A quiet family dinner," they said. "Up at the boat-house," they suggested. "Maybe a few friends."
'A few friends' turned out to be everyone I knew. I mean, everyone. Brandon and Jim and Izzy and my parents, to the Dashwoods, to the Middletons and Tom and Charlotte, Lou and her current boyfriend, right down to the postman. All of the gardeners were there. The vicar and his wife. The fish delivery guy. Mrs Knowles from the cornershop. Even Jack, who though Ellis said he had 'found a new job' after the vase incident, we all knew he was fired. Oh, and Harry.
They didn't really need to yell 'surprise' the way they did. I'm pretty sure that their success in, let's be honest, lying to me, was evident on my face. And the fact that I nearly fell down the stairs. Harry shrugged and grinned in the ensuing din of music and party blowers.
"We were never going to let you go without some massive blow-out," said Mari, grinning for the first time in a while. "Honestly, Cate. You didn't suspect it?"
"Well when you lie as proficiently as Ellis," I said, "you need never fear repercussions."
"She is alarmingly good at that." She smiled again. "Come on. You need a drink." She dragged me over to the bar, past Harry who was smiling. And past his brother, who nodded at me. I shot back a look at Harry. He shrugged again. I had yet to exchange more than a handful of words with Frederick Tilney. Why he felt the need to attend my surprise going-away party baffled me, not a little. I soon forgot my befuddlement, however, once I was given a G&T. And a sparkly hat.
"It's a good hat," said Harry, a little while later, appearing at my elbow.
I turned to him, and smiled. "You lied to me."
"I absolutely did not."
"You said you'd see me on Monday. Not a word about Saturday night. Not one word, Tilney."
He grinned. "I did say I'd see you on Monday. That is true."
"But I never said I wouldn't see you before that."
I narrowed my eyes. "Semantics, dear Watson, are elementary."
"That makes no sense."
"I rarely do." I smiled, blithely. "I'm glad you're here. You're here for the whole weekend?"
He stepped imperceptibly closer in all the noise and bustle. "I'm staying with Rick back in Plymouth. I hope it's all right that I brought him with me."
"It's fine," I said, not noticing or caring what Rick Tilney was doing. Shamelessly.
"Good," he said, and there was a moment. A definite, carvable in stone moment that felt like it was stretching on deliciously. That was, until my father broke it, gracelessly, by clamouring for a speech.
A little later, a little too hot, and definitely too flustered, I escaped out onto the deck and hiked myself onto the balustrade, next to Ellis with Brandon slumped in a chair next to her, where they were hiding from the raucous rest. The surf was louder. The sky darker. The air cooler. I breathed deeply, eyes closed.
"You all right?" asked Ellis.
"Mmm." I opened my eyes. "Good party. Well plotted."
Her eyes widened, innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Some might call this ability 'psychopathic'."
She grinned. "Thank you."
"You're thanking her for party-praise, or the insult?" asked Brandon.
"I'm very concerned," he murmured, taking a long swig of his beer.
"You should know," I said, "that this old-married-couple thing you have going on is, while delightful, misleading some people."
"What are you talking about?"
I smiled, benignly at Brandon. "Only that about a month ago Izzy Ferrars told me that your brother, Ellis," I said, turning to her, "thinks that you two are imminently heading down the aisle."
"Where on earth did he get that idea from?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Isn't Lucy working for him now?"
"Don't sound so surprised," said Brandon. "You connived to get her that job and, therefore, out of your hair."
"I knew it!" I said
"Knew what?" asked Ellis. "That I got Lucy her job and that I wasn't overly fond of her? Anyone could have guessed that."
Brandon grinned at me, smugly.
"That you connived," I said. "There's more to this."
"There's more to everything," she said. "But why Lucy should tell John that Brandon and I are a thing is baffling, unless..."
"Unless what?" I asked. "Plenty of people have told me what a great couple you two would make. She could as well."
"But she knows…" started Ellis, before abruptly stopping.
Brandon gave her a look. I tried to not jump up and down at the prospect that my going-away present from Ellis might be the revelation of what the heck was going on with her.
"Oh, uh, you know…" She sighed. "It doesn't matter. Maybe you're right. She did suggest you, Brandon, as a possible match for me, once."
Damn. Chance missed.
Brandon snorted. "We'd kill each other. I'd spend the whole time throwing spinach at you in a vain attempt to make you not get scurvy."
"Mmm," said Ellis, vaguely.
"Are you all right?" I asked, wondering if a well-broken reverie might bring the truth spilling out.
She was gazing back into the boat-house, frowning. "Yeah," she said. "Just…who's that with Izzy?"
We looked back. The place was packed. Who knew so many people knew me? Or liked me enough to turn out to say goodbye? Or who were so desperate for a party that they'd come to any old bozo's shindig? Except amongst the people and the balloons and the streamers, there was Izzy, leaning back against the wall, and Rick Tilney, very, very close to her.
"That's Harry's brother."
Brandon sat up a little. "You think I should go and, you know, menace him?" He appeared to enjoy the prospect.
Ellis frowned. "It's not like she's really putting him off."
"She's engaged," I said. "Rick knows that."
"You sure?" asked Ellis. "He's not exactly acting like he knows she has a fiancée."
Brandon drained his beer. "She's not exactly acting like she knows she has a fiancée." He stood up.
"Where are you going?" I asked. "You're not going to be all weird, are you?"
He smiled, enigmatically. "I'm just going to go and chat to my future sister-in-law."
He disappeared off into the crowd of people.
"Don't worry," said Ellis. "He won't kill him. He probably won't do anything except cruise by them with a significantly crazy look at her."
"You know him very well. You sure you're not secretly married?"
"Why is he so grim?" asked Ellis, a few minutes later when, with Izzy heading back towards Jim, Brandon reappeared, looking smug.
"Who? Rick?" I shrugged. "I don't know. Something about an accident, I think. The reason for the limping and the stick. And the scowl."
"I thought it was just an affectation aimed at those who have decided that House is hot."
I gave Brandon a look. "Maybe," I said, "but somehow, I doubt it."
He sat back down in his chair. "Job done," he said. "I can go back to enjoying this party."
"From out here?"
"I'm a social commentator."
I rolled my eyes at him. "I'm going back inside. Thanks for the party, Ellis."
"You're welcome," she said. "You'll be missed."
I paused in the doorway. "I'll be back pretty often."
"Really?" asked Brandon, disappointedly. "But I was going to turn your bedroom into a cheese larder."
I gave him a look. He shot me a rare grin back. I decided to rise above it, and went back to my party.
I found Mari sitting in the corner, chin resting on one hand, watching everyone else.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
She looked up and smiled. "Yes," she said, slowly. "I'm just…" She sighed. "I'm missing Marc."
I sat down next to her. "He'd enjoy this party."
"He'd have started a limbo-off by now." She smiled, ruefully. "He'll be back soon. I just wish I knew when."
It didn't seem to the time for brutal, ill-informed honesty, so I smiled, sympathetically. "I'm sorry. I know we haven't really had time to talk about it all, but I'll be back, and I'm on my mobile, and I'll have email. If you want to."
She smiled. "Thanks. So. That's Harry?"
I groaned. "Ellis and Brandon are a pair of old gossips."
I deliberately said nothing.
"And he seems to like you, which shows excellent character."
"He seems to like me?"
She raised an eyebrow. "He turned up two days early for your going away party when you are, in fact, going to him. He'll see you all the time. He didn't need to say goodbye."
"He likes a good party," I said, defensively.
"He likes you."
I couldn't help but smile. She, unfortunately saw it.
"And you like him? Cate! This is perfect. Just what I need to keep my mind off missing Marc."
"What? Meddling in my love life?"
"Yes. Exactly. So. I shall be emailing. And phoning. And meeting up when you're back here. But mainly for the purposes of plotting your entrapment of that cute guy. He's a vicar isn't he?"
"Something like that."
"So he has principles. This is good..."
I sighed. "Mari, I thought I was supposed to be counselling you over Marc."
She shrugged. "There's not much to say. He's gone off without any contact details for reasons I don't know, and coming back when I don't know. There's nothing else to say. If there was anything definite I could do something, but I can't, so I'll just keep ticking over for the moment and, in the meantime, plotting your epic love-life."
I groaned, lowering my head to the table. "This is an absolute disaster."
"We bought a house."
Charlotte and Tom pounced on me like some four armed Greek-mythological beast. "What?"
"A house," said Charlotte, a mad look in her eyes. Or it might have been rum. One or the other. "An actual house."
"With doors and windows?"
"You mock," said Tom, "but no. Not quite yet."
"So you bought walls?"
I found myself sitting at one of the tables. Sequestered. By crazy people. "We've got to replace all the doors and windows since they got smashed out by the last people who lived there. Or their drunk friends. Or something. Crazy people, anyway."
"I can imagine," I said, faintly.
"But it's a house," said Charlotte, "and most importantly, it's an hour closer to you."
I frowned. "Closer than what? You're sitting a foot away from me."
"North, Cate. An hour north. Towards Northanger."
Oh good grief. "It's not the north pole that I'm going to," I said. "Nor, in fact, am I leaving the county."
Charlotte covered my hand with hers. "You haven't been away for a while though…"
"You bought a house merely to pander to the fact that I haven't left home for a while? I'm not some crazy agoraphobe. I can walk around outside."
"That's not what I meant…" said Charlotte.
Tom laughed. "It's exactly what she meant. You're crazy, and we will be closer to you, should you go mad."
I kicked him. Naturally. "And you bought a house to provide for that possibility?"
"That very real possibility? Yes."
"That, and it's about ten minutes from his parents," said Charlotte.
I turned on Tom, victorious. "Who's the lame-ass home body now?"
He shrugged, maddeningly. "It's ideally suited for helping out with Dad's forestry business come the day that he needs the help. That, and houses in Barton cost a bajillion pounds."
"Rounded down." He grinned. "And I don't really think that you're a lame-ass home body."
"Yeah you do," I said, getting up.
"Yeah, I do. What is with that?"
I kissed Charlotte's cheek and smacked Tom up the back of his head. "Thank you. I will phone you when I go regretfully but inevitably insane."
"Your friends are weird."
A lot of people had left. It was understandable. It was super late and, more significantly, the really good cake had been finished. Harry, however, was still around, and materialised at my elbow again.
"They may possibly be quite a good reflection of me," I confessed.
He smiled. "I was not under any illusions that you weren't, also, weird."
"It's what you love about me." I balked. Even at myself. He, however, smiled again.
"You do have a certain muppety charm."
Mari dropped into the chair opposite. "She does, doesn't she? I've always thought that…" She smiled and held out a hand. "I'm Mari."
He shook it. "We've met."
"About three weeks ago," I offered. "Marc introduced you." She flinched and it hit me: I had been flippant, and worse, thoughtless. "Oh, Mari…" I said, wincing.
"Don't you dare apologise," she said. "He's not dead. It's not the end of the world. You can mention his name."
I made a face at her. "Fine. Then, in that case, Marc introduced you guys. If I remember correctly, he giggled that your names rhyme."
"Sounds about right," murmured Harry, flashing a smile at me. A great one. Holy mackerel.
"It's nice to see you again," she said to Harry. Then she glanced at me. Significantly.
"Cate says that you're a vicar?"
"In training. And you?"
"I'm not a vicar. I'm not holy enough."
He grinned. "None of us are."
She smiled. "I'm a semi-unemployed semi-voluntary second-hand bookshop manager."
"No it doesn't," she said, smiling again, "but it's keeping me busy until I remember that I'm not doing anything with my life and then I'll shake myself out of it and get on and, I don't know, do something."
"What do you want to do?" I asked, suddenly curious. I had never really considered that this wasn't what she wanted in life.
"Anything particular?" asked Harry.
"Something worth reading." She shrugged. "Better than the crap that Cate here reads, anyway."
"Really?" he asked, turning on me. "And what do you read?"
This was not going to end well. I could tell. "Oh, you know," I said, vaguely. "Epic works of fiction."
"Science fiction, romance, and books about teenage vampires."
Damn. She had my number.
I shrugged. "You know…they hold a certain charm?"
"Not as much as teen Greek-Gods," interrupted Mari.
She really did have me there. "That is true," I qualified to Harry. "I do love those. Vampires come and go, but those Greek-Gods…"
He grinned. "Baffled," he said. "Truly baffled."
"Aren't we all."
"Aren't we all what?" asked Brandon, clearing the empty glasses from the table.
"Baffled by Cate's choice of reading material."
"Oh, yeah," he said, wiping up the table. "Totally. To say nothing of her taste in films."
"And television," yawned Ellis as she sat down next to Mari.
"What's wrong with my taste in television?" I asked, indignant.
"You watch an exclusive diet of murder mysteries and cooking shows."
"You are weird," said Mari, reaching across the table, a hand either side of my face, "but we adore you. You're like our little tiny court jester."
"Just murder mysteries?" asked Harry.
"And cooking programmes. Why? You don't watch them?"
He pulled a face. "I'm more of a movie, documentary, quiz show kind of guy."
"Quizzes?" groaned Mari. "You're a quiz man?"
"I like a good fact."
Mari groaned again. "If you turn Cate into a quizzer, keep her there. We don't want her back."
"Quizzers are obnoxious," she said, in a tone so matter of fact that I think even Harry was about to accept it.
Ellis frowned. "But you're forever spouting poetry at us and telling us about Shakespeare and whatever," she said in the tired, bored tones of someone more than ready for bed.
Mari rolled her eyes. "That's about the drama. And finding the exact words to lighten or to illuminate…"
"Or to show off…" murmured Ellis.
"No it isn't."
"Either way," broke in Harry, a little awkwardly, "I won't send her back a quizzer."
"Not much fear of that," smirked Brandon.
I pulled a face at him.
"Are you done here?" Ellis asked Brandon. He had, around us, cleared up, leaving the bare minimum of sweeping and sorting to be done.
"Good enough," he said.
"Then sorry Cate," she yawned, "but I need bed." She stood up and, in her sleep deprived state, dragged me into a hug. "We'll miss you."
"Yeah you will," I murmured in an epic defence against crying. Like a girl. In front of Harry. Because really. Ellis had just expressed emotion and actual feelings. A break through seemed imminent and I was going to miss it by going to the north pole. Or somewhere.
Bravely, or perhaps foolishly, Harry stuck around on Sunday having crashed at Brandon's (pre-planned by M herself, no doubt). In theory, his hanging out on Sunday was to facilitate the packing thereof of the Jeep. In reality, it turned into him, sitting at the kitchen table for most of the day, being force-fed by my mother. Then, when she judged that I had a) packed enough (barely anything) and that b) Harry had eaten enough (all of the food in all of the world), she instigated games night which should be permanently subtitled as 'The Twelve Labours of Rich Uncle Pennybags' or maybe 'welcome to the Morlands: we're cracked'. Brandon (the reigning Cluedo champion) had turned up after finishing work early, and Jim (Connect 4 King) and Izzy (as yet un-crowned) arrived after a long day of probably staring at each other soulfully. They joined in to, allegedly, give me a lovely last night at home, but it appeared to be more to attempt to thoroughly display the weirdness of our family and freak out Harry (surprise consummate winner of Quizopolyaroo). They failed. He survived. In style. Then he went off to spend another night at Brandon's and Mum hovered in my doorway, watching me pack up my last few things and torn between saying how sad she was I was leaving, how happy she was I had a job, and how excited she was at the prospect of Harry as a son-in-law. Which I astutely ignored.
Monday dawned grey and chilly, which was, I thought, ominous. It felt like a scene from Twilight. I tried not to dwell on it too much. Harry was, after all, well-spoken and intelligent. See? Ominous. Never mind. I attempted to calm the weird-jitters by drinking three cups of tea and eating an enormous piece of hot-cross bun loaf. The nerves were not, however, helped much by Mum who kept trying to pack things that weren't mine, and Dad, who asked four times if I had enough money. And then Mum tried to give me one of the kittens. And a case of marmalade. And then Dad told her that I was going to be fine, to stop fussing, and then asked if I had enough money again. It was quite a relief really when Harry turned up.
"You all right?"
"Oh, fine!" I said, breezily. Airily. Ridiculously lightly.
He smiled. "OK. Mr and Mrs M," he said, turning to my parents with a piece of paper in hand. "Here is a ridiculously long list of ways you can contact Cate, should you need to and she isn't answering because of dead batteries, broken phone lines, maiming or, potentially, death."
"Oh thank you Harry!" said Mum. "So thoughtful…"
"You're not supposed to be comforted by my imminent death!"
"Sweet pea, were someone to attack you, I'm pretty sure they'd have to get past twelve rape alarms, ten pepper sprays and seventeen jabby things."
He shrugged. "Keys. Biros. A tampon…"
"OK," I said, feeling my face flame as Harry tried very hard to not laugh. "Thanks for that."
"You'll be fine."
Harry grinned. "I'm going out to the car, so you can say goodbye." He turned to my parents again. "Nice to see you again," he said.
Mum hugged him. Hard. "It was lovely to see you again. You're welcome any time."
Dad gave him some kind of manly handshake. I think he took a whack at breaking some bones. A little bit of don't-mess-with-my-daughter. And then Harry left, subtly flexing his hand, and Mum fell on me.
"Stay safe," she said. "Don't talk to strangers. Don't be too shy. Be yourself. They're sure to love you."
"Have a wonderful time," said Dad, having a bash at cracking a rib. "Come home soon."
"I will," I croaked, partly from emotion, partly from exsanguination.
Then they pushed me out of the door and followed me down the path, handed me into Harry's Jeep, wished him well, yet again, then slammed the door and waved me off and I tried to remember to a) not cry and b) breathe. In only one of them was I successful.
"You still all right?"
I sniffed in what I hoped was an elegant fashion. "Yeah. They're weird but, you know…"
He smiled. "I get it." He passed me a box of tissues and carried on driving, astutely not making too much of my epic display of home-body-sad-loserness.
He shook his head. "Don't apologise. Everyone should feel sad leaving their families. I wish I…" He trailed off and paused. The he regrouped. "If you weren't sad I'd be more worried."
Well colour me curious. "Can I ask you something?" I asked, stepping out into new and unforeseen levels of nosiness.
He smiled. "You can ask."
"What's your family really like?"
He let out a breath like a manatee, surfacing. "Hugely dysfunctional."
"Everyone's family is dysfunctional. You've seen mine first hand."
He laughed. "Yes. Mine's, uh…different."
I didn't say anything. He let out another breath, then glanced at me.
"We've struggled to be close. Dad has always been quite a stiff-upper-lip-type and Mum wasn't, really. I think he loved that about her but it always created this kind of tension." He shrugged and suddenly, it all came out. "She became a Christian and wanted us to all go to church with her, but Dad likes church as more of a social institution, you know? He's horrified if anyone suggests not going at Remembrance, but otherwise it's something that interferes with his getting his lunch at the right time. Anyway. All four of us kids went along for a while, but quite quickly the older two decided that they were too old and sophisticated and then it became kind of a thing that Nell and I went with Mum and the others didn't, and we thought they were missing out and they thought we were stupid, and it just…" He sighed. "Things unravelled a bit."
"I thought you told me that you used to be close with Rick, or he used to be fun, or something like that…"
He smiled a little. "Yeah. We were, in between fighting about faith and politics and education and the arts and the military and anything else you care to name. He thought I was an idiot and I thought he was throwing his life away with stupid decisions, but we still loved each other."
I took a breath. "So what happened?"
He pressed his lips together and didn't say anything for a few stretching seconds and then said, slowly, "Mum died."
"We were both hurt and angry, and we both said things that we shouldn't have, and Mum wasn't there to hold the family together. Sophie moved out as fast as she could, Rick disappeared back off to university and Nell and I were left on our own with a father who retreated into being even more of a stiff-upper-lipped ex-army General than he was before." He paused again. "Mum always pushed him to be less straight-laced and to care less about what everyone else thought of him. I mean," he said, shaking his head, "he never tried very hard, and their relationship strained under the pressure of each of them trying to make the other something that they weren't but after she died, he just gave all of that up. I don't know if it was that that kind of freedom reminded him of her, or if it's just that he embraced the chance to give it all up because she wasn't there anymore, but he really has got so much more formal. More obsessed with appearances. More concerned with show." He smiled, resigned. "It drives me crazy."
"Why did he ever ask me to work for him then? He should have resurrected Gertrude Jekyll."
He laughed. "From the way he talks about you, I'm pretty sure that he thinks he has." He glanced at me again. "That, or her, reincarnated."
I sighed. "I haven't got a fraction of her talent. Not one hundredth."
He grinned. "I wouldn't know. If creativity was chocolate, mine wouldn't fill a Smartie."
I laughed. I might even have snorted.
"I'm pretty sure though," he continued, looking back at me, "that yours would just about fill a warehouse."
I managed to get a reign on my laughter. Not least because of a) what he just said which whacked me right behind the knees, b) the way he was looking at me, and c) the fact that he was looking at d) me and not the e) road. Thankfully, he stopped looking. I swallowed. "I'm getting pretty excited about this job."
"You're going to be great."
"I don't have your confidence."
"Nope," he said. "It's mine. I need it for tackling flower ladies and organists."
I laughed again.
"So you live in an Abbey."
He laughed or more accurately, chortled. "Can't get over that fact, can we?"
"An abbey, Harry. You grew up in what could be said is an enormous ex-monastery."
He grinned. "Well, one, I didn't grow up in it. I lived in about forty-three gajillion other houses, being an army-brat, and two, it's not that big."
"Seriously. Oh, and three, it had nuns in it. Not monks."
"So it's a reasonably sized ex-nunnery."
He nodded. "They were monastics there. Not mendicants."
"I have no idea what that means."
He grinned. "You won't be able to live with my father for long without hearing all of this. Broadly, monastics work for their money. Mendicants rely on others."
"And the Northanger nuns were monastics?"
"So Northanger has historically been more about working and serving than relying on any feudal lords?" Seriously. I had never felt so smart. Especially then when Harry shot me an admiring glance.
"Exactly," he said. "Now you're talking the General's language." He dropped into what was, frankly, an alarmingly good impersonation of his father. "Northanger is built on hard-work, Henry. Hard-work and broken backs and none of this emotional nonsense."
I laughed again. "OK. And it's not that big?"
"Our bit was the Infirmary."
He grinned again. "After they were all dissolved, the land was bought by the Earl at Northanger Hall. He then realised that it was a little large and expensive to have just as a big old folly, so he sold off the Infirmary with about forty acres and kept the main part of the Abbey itself for his romantic jaunting and whatever else he did."
"Picnics? I've no idea. Given his reputation, I'd rather not know. His ancestors sometime in the last hundred years then sold it off to English Heritage, of which you will hear more from my Father about their cut-throat and idiotic nature."
I smiled involuntarily. "OK."
"They drive him insane by playing on the more marketable aspects of the Abbey. Hauntings. Dressing up like monks. Shakespearean theatre. None of which, as my father will explain to you, extensively, at length, have anything to do with Northanger Abbey."
"None of it?"
He grinned. "Well. Not the dressing up or the Hamlet…"
"Oh, don't do that."
He grinned again. "Don't do what, exactly?"
I squirmed. "You know I've got an over active imagination."
"I have noticed. But then I've also noticed the creaking doors. The unexplained footsteps. The swish of habits against the floor…"
I scowled at him. "You think you're very funny, don't you?"
He grinned once more. "I can't help it if I'm hilarious."
"You believe in an after-life though?"
"Yes, of course, and there's a ton of stuff that I don't understand and never will get my head around, but I'm pretty sure that in this case, dead nuns have got more important things to do in the great beyond than come back and hang out in the corridors after dark."
He shot me a smile. "Yes."
There is nothing as creepy as a flock of rooks, calling to each other. Unless it's a rookery at an old nunnery. I have proof. Go to Northanger. You'll see. We had driven north until we again saw the sea, and then followed the coast around before we turned up a valley, past a few little villages, and through a small, exceptionally dark pine forest, before finally emerging in front of the house. It rose in grey stone in front of us with a few small windows. Harry stopped the car and leant on the steering wheel.
"Welcome to Northanger Abbey."
I looked up, through the windshield and gulped. "Holy crap, I'm going to be murdered in my bed."
"I'm pretty sure that you won't."
"Sorry," I said, wincing. "I shouldn't have said…"
"I don't care," he said. "Come on. This is by far the worst view of the house." He opened the door. The smell of pine sap and damp stone pervaded the car.
"The other side is better?"
He smiled, slowly. Then he got out of the car, slamming his door, came round to my side, opened it (I considered holding it closed but thought I might look ridiculous), and held out a hand to me. "I promise," he said. "Come on."
I took a breath, then took his hand. "OK."
"OK," he said, and held on.
So had I crossed the whackadoodle line. I can admit it. It was probably bad enough that I all but cut off the circulation to Harry's hand for a few minutes until he was forced to let go upon going through the garden gate. That, or he feared that his fingers were going to fall off. Anyway, I held it together. Just about. Harry was right: the south side of the house is way less creepy than the north. Maybe it should be called Northcreepy instead. Or Northeerie. North-freaking-spine-chilling. So. The south side. It was sunny and there were rambling roses and open windows, and I all but forgot the horrific damp-smelling, shadowy, rook infested other side. Eleanor bounded out of the open French windows and hugged me. General Tilney emerged out of a door at the other end of the house and made his stately way across the lawn.
"Catherine, I hope you had a pleasant journey."
"It was very pleasant, thank you."
"Good. I have business in town to which I must attend. I hope that you'll take a few days to unpack and find your bearings, and then we shall begin on Thursday. Is that acceptable?"
"Yes, of course." I sounded all of seven.
"Good. Henry, be sure to carry Catherine's luggage for her."
He rolled his eyes. "I was going to anyway, Dad."
"Well. Good. Eleanor has insisted on putting her in the south attic, though why the guest bedroom isn't good enough, I shall never understand."
"It's a much nicer room," protested Eleanor, quickly, "and it has views of the garden. I thought it would be more conducive to inspiration." She smiled at me, winningly.
"There's another flight of stairs and a much smaller bathroom as well. Do you consider that when planning for Catherine's inspiration?"
It was awkward to say the least. "The attic sounds lovely," I said. "And I don't mind the stairs in the slightest."
"You're very gracious. Should you change your mind, Eleanor will move your belongings for you." He shot his daughter a foreboding look. "Enjoy your first day at Northanger," he concluded. "I'm afraid that I shall not be home in time for dinner. I hope you'll forgive me."
His formality terrified me. "Oh, of course," I said.
"Good. I will look forward to seeing you for breakfast. Have a good day." With that, he turned on his heel and returned into the house.
Harry let out a gusty breath. Then he smiled. "You'll note that he said he'd see you for breakfast. Not 'at'. Just to fuel your freak-out…"
"What are you talking about?" asked Eleanor.
"Cate thinks that the house is haunted. Or that she'll be murdered. Or that she'll be murdered and then she will haunt it."
"Oh, it's not, Cate. It's really not. It's perfectly normal. You've got nothing to worry about."
"ELEANOR!" the General bellowed from the door.
She whipped around.
"SHOW CATHERINE AROUND THE HOUSE!"
"I was going to anyway," she muttered. "OK," she called.
"BUT DON'T GO IN THE WEST WING!"
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