Henry & Victoria
The stuffed penguin dropped to the carpet before the head of blond curls barreled forward like a bull charging at a red flag.
Too bad Henry was the red flag that day. And he wasn’t even wearing red!
“Whoa, whoa!” He barely caught his daughter before Abigail flipped over his leg and cracked her skull open. White lace flew into the air along with her skirt flying over the top of her head. Toddlers had no sense of propriety, after all. “I know I look like a jungle gym, but come on.”
Abigail was only able to throw her head back and laugh in glee because her father had safely caught her. Otherwise, she would be screaming until the nanny waltzed in with the girl’s favorite snack and blanket. They tell me this is normal kid behavior… Henry was second only to his wife when it came to hovering over their daughter, though. Every kid looked like a sweet little puffin in need of protection when a man was six and a half feet tall.
“Papa up!” Abigail’s pipes may have been young, but they had power. This was the same girl who had screamed with gusto when she was a baby. Almost a shame to know that high society and private schools would soon fight to turn her into a proper, soft-spoken lady like her mother. (But not like her aunt. Genetics would win out, either way.) “Up! Up!”
There was no game Abigail Warren loved more than Flying, although Henry had been warned more than once to not play that game after his daughter had just eaten. When was the last time she ate? To be on the safe side, Henry held his daughter above his head but did not spin her in circles.
Good thing, because that was the moment nanny Matilda walked into the small nursery.
“Enjoying yourself, Mr. Warren?”
Abigail screamed in delight. Her blond curls bounced when her father placed her back down on the carpet. After another fit of giggles, the toddler took off across the nursery and dove into a stack of pillows.
“Quite,” Henry said. “Afraid I must get going soon, though. I hear another toddler is throwing a tantrum back at the manor and needs my assistance.”
“I do hope that Ms. Eva can figure out that account soon,” Matilda said with a wry smile. It can’t be easy holding that burden.”
Abigail burst from the pile of pillows as if she were a monster about to kill the poor populace beneath her feet. Quite the sight in her frilly white dress and patent leather shoes. Henry didn’t gush about how much the scene reminded him of his sister’s babyhood. To think, I was old enough to remember it.
“If everything is fine here, Matilda,” he said to the nanny, “I’ll be heading out. Long drive back to the city.”
She nodded. “See you soon, sir.”
Henry gave his daughter a kiss on top of her head before heading into the hallway. One of the Chateau’s maids almost bumped into him on her way into the madam’s chambers.
He had every intention of kissing his wife goodbye before heading down to his car. Not that Monica Warren would notice his coming or going on a Friday evening. The weekend was the biggest time for business at the Chateau, and she would be so busy with entertaining, planning, and socializing that she wouldn’t realize she missed her husband until he came to get her on Monday morning.
The poor maid almost bumped into someone else when she recovered her bearings from almost crashing into Mr. Warren. The guest emerging from one of the private rooms chose the worst time to make her presence known.
“Sorry! Excuse me!” The woman, dressed in nothing more special than a pair of jeans and a black jacket, offered to help the maid pick up her linens. “I wasn’t paying attention…”
Indeed, she hadn’t been. Because in the months since she became a patron at the Chateau, Victoria Nicholson had done a bang-up job avoiding her ex-boyfriend.
It was a fact Henry often forgot, since they had dated for such a short period of time so long ago. How many years? Ten? It must have been around a decade since their parents set them up in the hope of a quick, fortuitous match that would make everyone – especially the Nicholsons – richer. Until Henry went and married a commoner, he had been one of the most sought-after bachelors in the world, let alone America. Victoria was one of the only women to not have appreciated it.
Because, as it turned out, she was gay as hell. Her girlfriend was one of Monica’s employees. When Henry first heard about it months ago, his reaction had been neutral. “Oh, yes, Victoria. I remember her. Very pretty. Well-mannered. Did not appreciate my skills in the bedroom.” Then they bumped into each other for the first time since he heard the news, and remembered what made it so awkward.
To be fair, he wasn’t the one who made it awkward. It was Victoria, who turned beet red once she recognized her ex and sputtered a curt greeting. He was, after all, the madam’s husband, and was due more than the usual common courtesy. Victoria was well-bred enough to know that.
Even if she clearly did not like it.
“Fancy bumping into you here,” Henry said, his attempts to keep his voice light and polite only making Victoria redder. “I mean… I know why you are here… but… uh…” Damnit. He had known what to say a moment ago. “Good evening, Victoria.”
“Morning… I mean evening.”
They stared at one another, the air between them growing heavier with every passing second.
“Having a nice time?”
Whoops. That was also the wrong thing to ask, given where they were.
“Uh… it’s nice enough. Was just visiting with my girlfriend before heading home. I hear Fridays are busy around here.”
“They are. Hence why I am also escaping before half the men I went to college with start showing up to act like fools.”
Victoria’s eyes widened. “Same reason why I’m leaving. Only I think of them more as my father’s friends.”
Henry cleared his throat.
“So, uh… nice catching up with you…” Victoria scooted backward before turning on her heels and hustling down the hallway. “Maybe I’ll see you around!”
“Have a pleasant one,” Henry called after her. When he was alone, save for the maid still gathering linens from rooms, he realized that the problem hadn’t been him, but Victoria.
Well, not a problem per se, but Henry had approached that interaction from a man’s perspective. A polite man’s, to be precise. Regardless of Henry’s feelings about Victoria or whatever he remembered from their short time together a lifetime ago, he had to be polite to a fault. This was compounded by the fact she was one of his wife’s clients. The marriage wouldn’t last long if Henry was scaring off the few female patrons running around the Chateau.
But Victoria wasn’t thinking like him. She saw him and probably had instant flashbacks to when they dated, how it made her feel, and what kind of person she had become since then. Did she… think of sex the moment she saw me? Henry pondered that for exactly two seconds before stepping into his wife’s chambers to get her opinion – oh, and to bid adieu.
“If you bumped into one of your ex boyfriends whom you dated ages ago,” he began, once he found his wife sitting at her vanity. “What would be your first thought?”
Monica raised her eyebrows. “Depends. Is this a man I want dead?”
“Ah, no. Amicable split.”
Her grin implied she knew where this was going. “I’d probably face a few intimate details in my head, whether I wanted them there or not.”
“Would that embarrass you in front of him?”
“Only if he was making it awkward too.”
Henry contemplated this before approaching his wife and kissing her forehead. “Thanks, Princess. I must be going. Give me a call later if you feel up to it.”
Her chuckle followed him out the door. “You might want to wait a few minutes, Henry.”
“Why is that?”
“Because if I were Victoria right now, I would be more mortified that you were following me down the hill in your car. The poor dear doesn’t need your constant presence haunting her until you reach the highway.”
“How did you…”
“I figure everything out within two seconds, Henry. It’s one of my charms that made you fall in love with me.”
Well, he had her there.