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
“You’re happy,” Zainab murmured as they wrapped the heavy blankets around their bodies.
Their suite had cooled dramatically during dinner. So much so that Fatima had insisted that Father take the little charcoal heater in his bedroom. She’d also insisted on hot bricks for under his blankets and that one of the servants come check on him during the night. Lady Shizuka had agreed so readily to Fatima’s requirements that Fatima suspected that every single guest would be checked over the night.
The weather was only getting colder.
Rather than waste another precious heater in their bedroom, Fatima and Zainab had combined their beds into one. Doubling the mattresses made a cocoon that all but swallowed Fatima alive as she snuggled into it. Their two layers of futon had four thinner blankets between them, plus a pair of hot bricks wrapped in beautiful cloths at their feet.
“It’s warm,” Fatima crooned. “So lovely soft and warm. I want to do this at home.”
Zainab laughed as she curled under the blankets and then sighed. “All right. It is warm. This is nicer than I expected. Except my nose.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Fatima agreed, snuggling even further down into the blankets until her nose and mouth were covered. Her breath added puffs of moist heat to the nest of blankets. “It is cold.”
Zainab laughed again. Her hand slithered through the blankets until she found Fatima’s wrist. Then her fingers crept down, then up, Fatima’s arm until she could grip Fatima’s hand. She squeezed harder than Fatima would have expected, even with the extremely obvious attention she and Haruka had gotten at dinner.
That had been unexpected. Not the attention Fatima had gotten. People paying attention to her was not unusual at all. She was heir to Skagit Manor, the future Countess. What had been odd was how closely the other dinner guests had watched Fatima and Haruka interact.
And, frankly, how much that seemed to have bothered Haruka.
Given their interactions earlier, Fatima would have assumed that Haruka would laugh and talk and smile through the dinner, charming everyone. Instead she’d been as silent as Fatima. More significantly, she’d barely eaten at all.
The food had been so good that Fatima had eaten twice what she normally would. Haruka, however, seemed to have inherited Fatima’s nervous stomach. She’d poked and prodded her food, barely met anyone’s eyes, and barely spoken. It was such a change from Haruka’s normal behavior that Fatima was unsure what had happened.
Well, that was a lie. She wanted to believe that it was because Haruka had come to care about her. That Fatima was somehow winning over Haruka’s heart. It was silly, ridiculous, and yet Fatima gave herself a moment to dream that exactly that had happened.
“You’re giggling,” Zainab murmured.
“I most certainly am not,” Fatima replied, keeping her voice low so that Father wouldn’t overhear.
“Oh, you’re giggling,” Zainab said, just as quietly, as respectfully and wasn’t that a change? She’d been so rude to Father lately that the care was shocking. “That’s what I mean. You’re happy. It’s been… I can’t even remember how long it’s been since you giggled this way.”
Fatima still, pushing up out of the covers enough that she could stare into Zainab’s eyes. Her twin was serious, smiling ever so faintly even though the lines around her mouth looked pinched and a little frown wrinkle lingered between her eyebrows, nearly hidden by the downy threads of hair there.
“Things have been hard,” Fatima whispered, clutching Zainab’s hand. “I haven’t felt like laughing.”
“None of us have,” Zainab sighed.
She shut her eyes, closing them so tightly that a spider web of wrinkles formed at the corners of her eyes. The wrinkles made Zainab look so much older, nearly as old as Mother, and sad. And lonely.
“What’s wrong?” Fatima asked as she ran a gentle finger over the web of wrinkles on Zainab’s face. “Was it something I said?”
“No!” Zainab huffed. Her eyes opened. She glared at Fatima but there was more concern in her gaze than anger. “You aren’t to blame for everything, Fati. It’s, you’re, it’s not your fault. Any of it.”
Her vehemence faded as Fatima stared. Zainab flushed, cheeks going blotchy, and then curled into herself until she was nearly hidden by the blankets. Even her eyes were hidden, leaving just a loose braid and the top of Zainab’s head poking out.
Fatima’s stomach clenched around the very good dinner. What had Zainab and Father said while Fatima was gone? Had they finally started talking? The dinner had been remarkably quiet given the battles that Fatima had gotten used to.
Frankly, she’d assumed that it was having company present combined with being in someone else’s home. Even at her angriest, Zainab usually didn’t pick fights when she was visiting someone else. That was reserved for home. This morning’s battles had as much to do with the unexpected and inappropriate marriage proposal as they did with anything else. At least Fatima had thought so.
“All right,” Fatima finally said, still somewhat stunned by Zainab hiding her face as if they’d switched places. “But that doesn’t answer my question. What’s wrong?”
Zainab groaned. She let Fatima’s hand go so that she could roll onto her belly and hide her face in the large soft pillows they’d been given. Fatima snorted a laugh despite herself. It had been a very, very long time since Zainab had hidden this way.
Rather than let it continue, Fatima poked Zainab in the side. That got a grunt so Fatima did it again, then again, each time getting another grunt. Fatima started laughing, quietly, softly, heart singing at having her beloved sister back from the raging Wendigo that had taken Zainab’s place lately.
“Fati,” Zainab groaned when Fatima tried to wiggle her fingers into the neck of Zainab’s sleep shirt.
“Tell me!” Fatima giggled.
“You’re being silly,” Zainab complained.
She sounded very serious but when she lifted her face her lips twitched with amusement and her eyes had smile wrinkles radiating from the corners. Fatima grinned and laughed as she kept gently poking and teasing Zainab.
“Oh, come here,” Zainab huffed as she held her arms open for a hug.
Fatima snuggled into Zainab’s arms, sighing happily at the warmth and comfort of being held. This hadn’t happened for entirely too long, too. Ever since Mother announced her intention to leave there hadn’t been hugs. Or laughter. Or even grieving except maybe the anger and fighting was Father and Zainab’s method of dealing with their grief for Mother leaving them all behind.
Hiding herself in paperwork had worked well for Fatima. It was quiet and calm and productive. She’d been able to contribute to everyone by making sure that Skagit Manor’s paperwork was perfect, that they were prepared for any disasters or questions that came their way. And she’d truly enjoyed making sure that the law was applied fairly, evenly, with justice for everyone in their province.
Haruka had watched Fatima with open admiration in the library, too.
The memory of Haruka’s eyes, wide and warm, prompted a groan out of Fatima. Really, she should let the crush go. In a week or two, after the cold snap passed, Fatima likely wouldn’t see Haruka again.
She would go home, back to Skagit Manor and her duties. Father would work to find someone else appropriate for Fatima to marry. And Fatima would do it, always providing that the person was kind and gentle and didn’t yell at her. No matter who they were, Fatima didn’t want to marry someone who yelled.
Haruka yelled but only a little bit, only to get her point across. But not really. She hadn’t even yelled at Father during that so-awkward first meeting. Snapped, yes, but not yelled. It had felt like yelling, bellowing even, but that was nerves, not reality.
“You really like her,” Zainab murmured into Fatima’s hair. Her arms tightened around Fatima’s back. “You never gave any of the others a second look.”
“Others?” Fatima asked, startled enough that she pulled back so that she could meet Zainab’s eyes. “What others? No one else has offered for me. And Father hasn’t offered us to anyone else.”
“Yes, there were,” Zainab said, staring at Fatima, brows twisted together so that she looked as though she had only the one brow instead of two. “Lots. Mother was always telling them to push off and set sail, that we weren’t available.”
“No,” Fatima breathed, heart skipping a beat. “Who? Zai, I had no idea anyone had offered for me! I mean, I know you had a couple of warriors interested but not me. No one has been interested in me.”
The way Zainab stared, mouth open, eyes wide and then narrowed as if Zainab wondered whether or not Fatima was teasing her, brought a blush up Fatima’s cheeks. It couldn’t be true. Haruka had said that it had to be but Fatima hadn’t believed her. She didn’t believe it now, either. No one had been interested in her. Fatima would have heard about it if they were.
Zainab shook her head, started to sit up and then hissed as she scooted back down under the covers. The aborted movement sent a wave of cold under the blankets to claw at Fatima. She squawked and pulled the blankets closer, trying to conserve the warm spot they’d built up.
Maybe telling the servants that they didn’t want a heater was a bad idea after all. A nice mass heater would be lovely right now.
“As far as I know,” Zainab mumbled into the blankets, rubbing her arms, “you’ve gotten five or six times as many offers as I have. Most of Mother’s rages were about people far too old offering for your hand. I was there last year when four separate nobles tried to convince Mother than a twenty and thirty year difference wasn’t something to object to.”
“Oh ew,” Fatima complained. “I think I remember that. Were they the ones that Mother went after with a sword?”
“No, different group,” Zainab said. She grinned. “But yes, that group offered for you, too. Didn’t she tell you about the offers?”
“No, never,” Fatima said as she rubbed the tip of her nose. It was cold. “Father never said anything, either. I thought no one had offered at all.”
Zainab shorted and shook her head as if Fatima was being ridiculous. “Of course you’ve had offers. You’re the heir. You’ll be Countess in time. Maybe soon if Father’s… well. Maybe soon.”
Her face fell so dramatically that Fatima automatically pulled Zainab into her arms. She whimpered so quietly that Fatima felt it more than heard it, even with her cheek pressed against Zainab’s hair.
Around them, the room chilled even further. Fatima’s nose ached whenever she lifted it from Zainab’s hair. Her breath formed puffs of clouds, shimmering silver in the night. It had been a bad idea to say no to the heater. And Haruka was definitely right that Breding Manor needed proper mass heaters.
Tomorrow morning, after they’d slept and eaten, possibly even bathed given that the tub had its own little heater that they could fire to get the water as hot as they liked, Fatima would tell Haruka that. She’d tell her that she was right about Fatima getting offers. And then, before lunch, Fatima was going to sit both Father and Zainab down and find out exactly how many people she’d effectively snubbed because she hadn’t realized that they’d offered for her hand in marriage.
Maybe she’d start writing apology notes in the evening. With the weather this cold there didn’t seem to be much else to do. Fatima certainly couldn’t monopolize all of Haruka’s time, as appealing as the idea was.
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