Everyone has plans for Haruka’s life. They assume she’ll marry her best friend Shahzad, youngest son of Lord Bilal of Breding Manor. They assume she’s a pretty face with no mind or will of her own.
Fatima’s plans for her life had fallen apart around her ears. Her father and twin sister Zainab were at each other’s throats, no matter how Fatima tried to keep the peace.
Then Fatima’s father, Count Rafi, offered her hand in marriage to Haruka with the assumption that Haruka would be delighted to accept. After a swift, firm denial, it was up to Haruka and Fatima to craft a future together that held not just their happiness but their families’ as well.
Crafting Home is a sweet romance where patience and determination bring the rewards both girls seek.
By Meyari McFarland
Haruka waited, restraining the urge to snap at all three of them. Her tea was already cooling, the heat of the cup fading as the winter’s chill stole into the blue sitting room. Or maybe that was the sheer anger from Zainab and the corresponding stern disapproval from Count Rafi. Neither of them appeared to realize that Fatima had curled into the couch as if she wished that she could disappear entirely.
“I expect an answer,” Haruka said finally. She waved one hand as Shizuka started and stared at her. “Whatever emotions this entire situation has brought up within your family, it is irrelevant to me. If I don’t receive an answer I will simply summarily reject the offer, Count Rafi.”
His head snapped around to glare at her. “It is a serious offer.”
“Really?” Haruka asked, tapping one finger slowly and deliberately against the rim of her cup. She cocked her head to the left, knowing perfectly well that it would make her hair sweep out to frame her face even more becomingly. “Because right now all I see is a Count who has decided to add a pretty face to his court.”
Fatima gasped. Zainab gasped, staring at Haruka as if she’d just said the most incredible thing. And Shizuka, of course, sighed and raised one hand to rub at her forehead right between her eyebrows. None of which mattered as Haruka watched Count Rafi’s cheeks go blazingly red while his hands clenched on the cup of tea, then white as he nearly dropped it.
He looked away, back at the fire, as shame twisted his mouth and shut his eyes. Count Rafi swallowed hard, bowed his head, and then turned back to face Haruka squarely.
“I apologize,” Count Rafi said with exactly the sort of dignity, honor and grace that Haruka had come to expect from an Ambermarle noble. “I suppose you have had many offers of that sort but it was not my intention at all. We are… well. My wife and I just divorced. Given your sisters’ highly successful matches and their performance as the Ladies of Breding and Metchosin Manors, I believed that you would be an excellent choice for one of my daughters.”
“Not me,” Zainab declared. She tossed her head when her father glared at her. “No insult intended, Haruka, but I have no intention or desire to take over any of Father’s duties. So it wouldn’t be me.”
Haruka blinked at Zainab, squarely ignoring Fatima’s rising blush and utterly obvious embarrassment. The poor girl looked as though she was about to shrink straight through the floor which really didn’t do much for Haruka’s confidence. Rather nice, that. Every other time someone had been told in no uncertain terms that their ‘competitor’ had been ruled out they’d looked absolutely delighted.
“What do you want to do with your life then?” Haruka asked.
“Shahzad declined to participate in running the manor as well,” Shizuka explained, gently, quietly, with the sort of sly amusement that usually came from their middle sister Keiko.
“I need your help, Zainab,” Count Rafi grumbled.
“Better to have people who want the job than ones who are forced into it,” Haruka declared. “Heaven’s, the amount of disasters that happen when you make someone do a job they hate!”
Shizuka sighed and rolled her eyes, nodding sadly. Finally, thank Amida Buddha, Fatima started to uncurl, apparently from sheer curiosity. Count Rafi looked equally curious, though he still didn’t drink his tea. He just switched the cup so that it pressed against the outer edge of his knee as if the warmth was more important that drinking what he’d been given.
“Our latest apprentice has, ah, not done well with the assignments she’s been given,” Shizuka explained entirely too diplomatically.
“She’s deliberately messed up three of them,” Haruka huffed, sipping her tea and then setting it down because it had cooled to the point of being cloying. “Refused outright to do one and then so utterly misunderstood the other that we’ll be weeks, if not months, sorting out the files. Though she has done marvelously now that she’s working in the kitchen. She should have just said that she liked cooking in the beginning.”
“Oh no,” Fatima breathed, eyes wide. “Not the files!”
“And right before an audit by Their Majesties,” Shizuka said, sighing and drinking the last of her tea in one big gulp. “It’s a bit of a mess right now. That’s why Nabeela isn’t here.”
Zainab looked into the fire in a direct mirror of her father. Neither of them would look at anyone else in the room. Neither of them drank their tea or even moved for long enough that Fatima shook her head and carefully, so carefully that the cup made not a sound, put her teacup on the table.
“Zainab prefers combat,” Fatima said, her voice a whisper of wind in the middle of a gale of silence. “She doesn’t do well when confined to court. And I… do not enjoy the social aspects of being a Countess, I am afraid. I do well when dealing with the records and legal decisions but this,” she gestured towards Shizuka and the tea, “is beyond me. I do try but…”
She shrugged. Her eyes were locked on the teacup she’d set aside as if meeting anyone’s eyes was likely to set off a fierce round of shouting and recrimination. Haruka looked at Zainab’s red cheeks, Count Rafi’s white knuckles around his teacup. Perhaps it would, at that. The family didn’t seem to be working well at all. It made Shizuka wonder how well their province could be functioning when the family in charge couldn’t meet each other’s eyes.
Shizuka grunted as if she’d seen the same things that Haruka had, nodding as she turned to look at Haruka. The offer did make quite a bit of sense when considered in that light. Haruka was well known as being the most social of her three sisters and the one best able to smooth over awkward situations. She considered saying something soothing, complimenting Fatima on her attempts, praising Zainab for her warrior skills, but no.
That was what this was all about. Count Rafi wanted to draw Haruka into solving their problems, to make her responsible for knitting their broken family back together. He might not realize that was what he wanted but it was quite apparent to Haruka that he looked to her to fix whatever had gone wrong between them.
“Why did your wife leave, Count Rafi?” Haruka asked. She smacked Shizuka’s knee as Shizuka gasped and glared at her. “It’s a valid question. I’m certainly not going to replace her even though most everyone will expect me to fill her shoes. You know that, Shizuka. People sometimes make the mistake of calling you Lady Sehr, Nabeela’s mother’s name.”
“I did step almost exactly into her shoes,” Shizuka admitted with a tired sigh. She still frowned at Haruka. “Though I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”
“I know,” Haruka agreed. “But I’m not. So I feel it’s important to know what happened to your marriage and what you would expect out of me if I did consent to marrying Fatima. Which I certainly do not at this point in time.”
Count Rafi sighed. The shoulder closest to Haruka curled inward as if he wanted to hide from the question. And yes, he had cause for that. Answering such a blunt question in front of his daughters was probably a bit much but then so were his demands of his daughters and of Haruka.
“We… were very much in love,” Count Rafi said very, very slowly. Each word might as well have been torn out of his chest, bloody and dripping. “I was not supposed to be the Count. I had cousins who were to inherit. I was not even in the direct line. Then there was a mudslide and my uncle, cousins and a large portion of his staff were caught in it. None survived. It fell to me and my wife to take their place.”
He stopped, staring into the fire. This time it seemed far more that he was seeing his younger self, not avoiding Haruka’s eyes. Count Rafi looked sad enough that Haruka frowned. Could their family have been broken since before Zainab and Fatima were born?
“My wife was much like Zainab,” Count Rafi finally continued. “She hated court, hated the duties of being Countess, hated even being at Skagit Manor. Despite that, she stayed until this year so that the girls would have their mother while growing up. But.”
“She had enough finally,” Haruka completed for him when he didn’t continue.
Count Rafi nodded. “Yes.”
“What is Their Majesties’ assessment of Skagit Manor?” Haruka asked.
“Haruka!” Shizuka gasped, one hand flying to her mouth and the other waving at Count Rafi not to answer. “You don’t have the right to ask that!”
It was desperately personal and utterly rude. Their Majesties hadn’t released an assessment after they removed Lady Cantara and her husband Firas shortly before Keiko’s wedding. They still refused to release any comment on the eternal scandal of Countess Dancing Otter and her lover Sunlight on Water, even after Dancing Otter gave up the title of Countess and retired so that she could marry Sunlight on Water.
Which, sadly, hadn’t stopped the vast majority of Ambermarle from gossiping about the two of them. Haruka was relatively certain she could walk outside, grab anyone and ask them what sort of house, furniture and clothes Dancing Otter and Sunlight on Water had with a certainty of getting an accurate reply. It annoyed her that people would gossip that way, not that she had any control over what other people said and did.
By all rights, she should feel guilty about asking equally rude and invasive questions of Count Rafi but she didn’t. If Count Rafi wanted Haruka to marry Fatima then she had the right to know. Haruka would be required to clean the mess up, always presuming there was a mess to clean up.
Count Rafi smiled wryly. “Not as bad as we deserve, frankly. Fatima is very efficient and effective on her duties. And I’ve done well on the rest. I’m not getting any younger, though. I have… past injuries… that make travel difficult and it’s gotten harder over the years to make my rounds and tend to my people. Skagit district is small but steep. There is a great deal of climbing that I simply cannot do anymore.”
He glanced at Zainab for just a second but that was too long. Zainab growled, bolting to her feet to point an imperious finger at her father. Once again, Fatima cringed into herself, eyes screwed shut as if she was trying not to cry.
“There are other people who can do it!” Zainab shouted. “You don’t need me!”
“They aren’t my daughters,” Count Rafi complained.
“Why not use them?” Haruka asked, raising her voice to be heard over Zainab’s indrawn breath for the next shout. “Are they incompetent? Do they need training? Unwilling? Poor relations aren’t automatically refused places, after all.”
“They’re afraid to join us at Skagit Manor,” Fatima said in a rush that made her sister and father stare at her. She blushed, blotchy and miserable, under their stunned gazes. “They are! I’ve talked to them. And the staff. And the apprentices. Even the locals are afraid to come up to the manor lately. It’s the fighting. You’re always fighting. No one likes it.”
Her words got quieter and quieter as she went along. By the last sentence she was all but whispering, shoulders hunched inwards and eyes locked on her clenched hands half-hidden between her knees. Zainab sighed as she sat and pulled Fatima into a hug. Count Rafi pursed his lips, once again not meeting any of their eyes. He blushed just as blotchily as Fatima had, in patches on his cheeks and throat that made him look as though at one time he’d been burned as badly as Father had.
Haruka watched and waited but none of them said a word. And that said a lot, didn’t it? As sweet as Fatima seemed to be, Haruka would be walking into a home where she could expect shouting matches, cold silences and an apparent refusal to apologize or reconsider decisions. Well, that wasn’t something that she was going to deal with. Count Rafi would have to look elsewhere.
“I’m very sorry, Count Rafi,” Haruka said in a tone that hopefully conveyed that she wasn’t sorry at all. “But I’m afraid I must decline your offer. I don’t believe that I would be able to make a happy, loving home in your home. Good luck finding someone else to marry your daughters.”
She stood, prompting Fatima, Zainab and Shizuka to stand as well. Count Rafi, on the other hand, stayed in place, glaring up at Haruka as if she’d just slapped him. His breath whistled through his nose for a moment before he cleared his throat and then gripped his cane, struggling back to his feet so that he could stare at Haruka forbiddingly.
“That’s your final answer?” Count Rafi asked through gritted teeth.
“Yes, it is,” Haruka said. No apology because she wasn’t at all sorry about the decision.
“I’m sorry,” Fatima whispered.
“Oh, it’s not you, dear,” Haruka said, smiling wryly when Fatima stared at her in shock. “It’s them. I will not live in a house full of fighting. And I will not be forced into the position of ‘fixing’ everyone. They have problems that they have to sort out. Until then I suspect that anyone your father offers you to will respond in the same fashion.”
She turned to stare into Count Rafi’s very wide, very shocked eyes.
“You need to treat your family’s issues with the same seriousness as you would any issues in your province, Count Rafi,” Haruka said even though Shizuka made a choked noise as if she wanted to slap her hands over Haruka’s mouth. “They are your problems to solve. You cannot fix it by giving orders, just as you cannot simply order your staff and peasantry around.”
“Working together is the only truly effective solution,” Count Rafi sighed. He sagged, his bad leg bending so abruptly that Fatima darted to his side to support him. “Very well. We had planned on staying for a week or so.”
“Given the weather it might be longer,” Haruka replied. “No one wants to sail when a deep cold snap hits.”
“Come with me,” Shizuka said, one hand resting warningly on Haruka’s shoulder. “We have rooms that you can stay in. Would a hot bath help with your knee, Count Rafi? We have suites with private baths.”
She led Count Rafi, Zainab and a slow, embarrassed Fatima out of the sitting room. Fatima glanced back over her shoulder to nod her head apologetically. Haruka smiled and flapped her hands at her, shooing Fatima on her way. That, thankfully, prompted a smile though the smile only lasted a second.
Haruka sighed, gathering up the cups of tea. “What a mess. Definitely not a situation that I want to marry into.”
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