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
Fatima’s heart stopped. She stopped breathing, froze as solid as the ice that had coated the road from the port up to Breding Manor. Moving was impossible, especially as her heart abruptly started hammering against her ribs.
No. Zainab couldn’t be right. Haruka had made it perfectly clear that she didn’t want to marry Fatima, that their family wasn’t what she was looking for. Besides, they’d only known each other for three days and those three days had been filled with crisis after crisis. The two of them had barely had any time to speak to each other beyond that brief time spent drinking tea in Haruka’s private hideaway.
But Haruka winced as badly as Fatima had, curling inwards and ducking her head so that her beautiful waves of black hair tumbled around her face. A second later her head slowly rose. Even frozen in place with her eyes on Zai, Fatima could see the wonder on Haruka’s face, as if the thought of Fatima’s crush was a beautiful instead of silly thing.
“She likes me?” Haruka asked, so shocked that Fatima had to move, had to lean forward and stare into Haruka’s eyes. “Really?”
“You already turned me down,” Fatima said, just as shocked.
“No, she turned Father down,” Zainab said with such a wicked, conspiratorial grin that Fatima booted her again. “She did! It was Father’s offer and our fighting that she rejected, Fati, not you. Haruka never outright rejected you, just Father’s offer.”
“That still counts as a rejection,” Haruka said with such a tired, sad sigh that Fatima stared at her. “I can’t do anything else. The rejection has been given. I’m lower ranking. I can’t start anything else.”
And that, suddenly, was the ray of sunshine through the clouds that Fatima had needed. Wanted. Hadn’t dared to believe.
Haruka wanted to say yes.
She wanted to be with Fatima even though their family was a mess, even though Skagit Manor’s administration would be completely different from here. Even though she would be across the sound, far from her sisters and parents.
It was the answer to all Fatima’s idle dreams, her silly little fantasies so why was Fatima suddenly so suspicious of that change of heart? Granted, Fatima had fallen in love with Haruka in that first instant when she swept in out of the on-coming storm but that was Fatima. Haruka didn’t seem the sort to be so sentimental and she’d said outright that it wasn’t possible.
“What changed?” Fatima asked Haruka. She rolled her eyes at the disgusted noise Zainab made at her. “I want to know. That was a very certain rejection, no room for misunderstanding.”
Haruka groaned, setting down her mug of tea so that she could flop back on her couch with her hands over her face. It was an endearingly child-like move, as well as a tempting one. Her body truly was beautiful, long, lean with the classically beautiful small bust and wide hips. The glimpse of Haruka’s ankles under the kimono and hakama didn’t help settle Fatima’s worries. Or her suddenly worried stomach.
“I don’t believe in love at first sight!” Haruka declared dramatically enough that she could have been on stage. “I don’t. Even though Mother walked up to Father the first day they met and announced that he’d do and that she’d be back to court him. Even though Shizuka and Nabeela fell in love with each other within the first day that they knew each other. And Keiko announced that Lady Tamami was to court her, specifying the exact gifts she wanted,” Haruka thrust one finger towards the ceiling as if scolding it for her sister’s brazenness, “before they’d known each other three days.”
Fatima swallowed a giggle that tried to well up. Next to her, Zainab did no such thing. She snickered and then laughed into her hands at Haruka’s dramatics. The little waiting room with its bank of wide, comfortable couches around each wall, stacks of pillows and comforting blankets felt warmer as soon as Haruka sat up and sighed as if utterly frustrated.
Her eyes weren’t frustrated though. They sparkled with rueful amusement that pushed Fatima’s laughter out into the real world.
“I don’t,” Haruka continued, setting her elbows on her knees so that she could stare into Fatima’s eyes. “I really have always thought that love at first sight was a ridiculous idea. But even that first day, during the meeting, I felt bad for you being so worried and frightened by their fighting. And I wanted to help. I don’t do things like that, you have to understand. I’m the spoiled baby of the family, not the one of fixes thing. That’s Shizuka. But I wanted to help and I wanted to make you smile and then you were so strong and determined with the auditor and, well.”
Haruka’s cheeks went red, redder, so red that her blush crept up to her scalp and out over her ears as she talked. It was so cute, so very different from that assured young woman and yet not because Haruka kept talking, barreling through her explanation until she hit the end and stopped abruptly.
Zainab laughed, calmly pouring more water into her mug of tea and picking it up again. She sipped and watched them both, eyes wrinkled with laughter that wasn’t at all muffled by the mug of tea. Fatima drank her tea, carefully so that the tea leaves and bits of fruit didn’t get into her mouth.
“I grew on you?” Fatima asked. She passed her mug back to Zainab who refilled it and passed it back.
“Yes.” Haruka nodded, swinging her hair back over her shoulder.
“No one in our lives has had a love affair like that,” Fatima mused. “Mother and Father were childhood sweethearts, actually. And whirlwind romances just aren’t something that’s happened at Skagit Manor.”
“No, there was Bon-Hwa and In-Su,” Zainab said, waving her mug at Fatima. She straightened up and preened a little when Haruka stared at her curiously. “They Bon-Hwa was a sailor from Korea who met and fell in love with a local boy, In-Su. They ended up having this incredible romance and getting married.”
Fatima snorted. “And they got divorced a year and a half later when In-Su found out that Bon-Hwa had a wife and three children back in Korea. Not at all the same thing, Zai.”
Haruka shook her head while laughing softly. She pulled her knees up to her chest for a moment, hugging them, before tucking her legs underneath her as if kneeling formally on the soft couch cushions. There was nervousness in the twitches of her hands on her thighs as Haruka smoothed her hakama pleats until they lay perfectly and in the way she stared at the cushions.
But then she lifted her chin and met Fatima’s eyes squarely. Her eyebrows drew together and she bit her lip, driving the bright pink away to leave behind bloodless tan skin. Fatima’s stomach rolled as she realized Haruka truly was nervous. She did want this but she couldn’t make the next move according to convention.
Especially now, with just the three of them there.
Fatima might have effectively taken over as the Countess but she didn’t have the position yet. She wouldn’t for at least six months. The councilors back home would insist on a transition period. So would Their Majesties.
That meant that Fatima might have the power to make things happen but she didn’t have the authority to propose to Haruka right that second. She, they, needed witnesses other than Zainab who would be assumed to take Fatima’s side.
Lord Bilal would be very nice to have present. Even though he was retired, he held a great deal of authority in the province simply because of his long service as Lord. His children, all three of them, would need to be there, too. Shahzad because popular opinion held that he had prior claim to Haruka despite their frequently stated brotherly-sisterly affection for each other.
If she could arrange it, Fatima would like to have Haruka’s parents be present as well though that was very unlikely to happen. Yes, they lived in town but the ice covering the roads, as well as everything else, made a trip up the hill impossible for Haruka’s father. From what Haruka had said her father was even less steady on his feet than Father was with his cane. Which meant that Fatima would have to be satisfied with Lady Shizuka as the family witness to the proposal.
It would have to be very public, too. The refusal had to be private, of course. That was only proper. One didn’t embarrass a visiting Count by publicly refusing their offer of marriage. On the other hand, offering a second time for herself was something that would have to be done where as many people as possible could see it.
“How long do you think Father’s surgery will take?” Fatima asked while tapping her fingers against the rim of her mug.
“Ah, Shahzad and Shizuka said something like two hours if everything went well, more if they had to amputate after all,” Haruka said. She peered at Fatima warily.
“Hmm,” Fatima sighed. “All right then. By dinner we should have enough people around. Or maybe we should wait until breakfast tomorrow so that the auditor and his staff will be present. I do hate to put him in that sort of position but he could at least swear to Their Majesties that you were enthusiastic about saying yes this time.”
Haruka opened her mouth but all that came out was a strangled noise. When Fatima turned to look, Haruka’s grin was so wide that her back teeth showed. Tears hung in her eyes and her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.
“Did you just assume that she would say yes?” Zainab huffed. “Fati!”
“She just said that she would as me but can’t because of rank,” Fatima replied. She rolled her eyes at Zainab’s repeated huff of outrage. “Oh, stop, Zai. Maybe this won’t work out but I think with Haruka’s family history of highly successful ‘love at first sight’ matches it will be fine. We just have to convince the rest of the world that it’s real.”
Haruka burst out laughing. She toppled over on the couch so that her head ended up next to Fatima’s hip. The tears didn’t spill over even when Haruka wrinkled her nose at Fatima. The giggles shook Haruka’s body, brightened her cheeks and made her eyes shine with joy.
After a moment Fatima gently, carefully, cautiously reached down to brush Haruka’s hair away from her forehead. It lay in a shimmering black cloud around her head, so smooth and silky that Fatima did it again. This time she ran her fingers over Haruka’s scalp.
The gentle rubbing made Haruka’s breath catch and her eyes drift half-shut. It also lit a bonfire in Fatima’s belly. This woman, this beautiful, vivacious woman want to marry Fatima. She wanted to be the Countess’ consort for Skagit Manor.
“You’re beautiful,” Fatima whispered.
Haruka’s eyes opened. Her nose wrinkled again. “I know. Did you know that you are, too?”
“I think you’re the only one who would say that,” Fatima laughed a little ruefully. Well, no, a lot ruefully. She knew perfectly well what she looked like.
“No,” Haruka said, sitting up and scooting closer so that she could run her fingertips over Fatima’s stark cheekbone. “You are. It’s not the beauty that everyone likes, like a plump grain of rice or the moon. You’re the beauty of an eagle in flight, a wolf running down its prey, or maybe the sheer mountains in winter. Stark and dangerous but still beautiful.”
Fatima stared, her mouth open. Haruka was serious. Truly serious, her eyes dark and intent, her brows drawn together. That glorious mane of hair hung in a messy curtain around her face as if she’d forgotten that anyone else might be looking at her, as if the only thing that mattered was explaining what she saw when she looked at Fatima.
“I,” Fatima said and had to stop, to swallow because the word broke in her throat. She swallowed, cheeks going hot. “I’ve never heard anyone speak of me that way. Or Zai, for that matter. We do have the same face.”
“Not really,” Haruka said as her head cocked to the side and a smile curled the right corner of her mouth upwards. “Her nose is wider and your mouth is more full. Plus she has slightly darker skin that you do. And you have a mole right at the corner of you nostril that she doesn’t have at all.”
The heat in her cheeks spread, swept over Fatima’s body, down her throat, out to the tips of her fingers. She laughed, breathless and stunned, as she nodded and tried not to cry. Haruka really had paid attention. She truly did want this.
“Thank you,” Fatima whispered while Zainab chuckled at them in the background, sipping her tea.
“Thank you,” Haruka replied, low, shy about Fatima’s attention but confident in herself.
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