The morning the letter arrived in the mail, Dani thought she was going to be sick. How misleading the envelope had appeared, sealed with pink wax and doused in her mother’s perfume. She’d actually smiled when Hannah had handed it her way, her mind filling with sweet ideas of what could have been written inside.
It hadn't been strange for her to receive a letter from her mother for the first time since she'd arrived at Bly Manor. Dani had given her mother the address of her new au pair job so that she would know where to reach her if ever need be. It seemed completely harmless at the time, but now she could see where she’d been foolish for not thinking otherwise.
In the letter, her mother wished her well. Told her that she missed her dearly, and thought of her every day. She said that she was staying busy with her work and spending lots of time with Judy. Even that wasn’t enough to alarm Dani. No, the alarming part came in the last few lines of the letter, stated with such casualness that Dani herself had to wonder if she was overreacting or not.
I will be coming by to visit you at the end of next week. Judy and Edmund will be accompanying me and are delighted to see you again. Until then, take care. Mom.
Dani must have reread those words a thousand times over before she was finally able to process them. She knew her mom was not lying. If she said she was coming, she meant it. No invitation needed. Permission granted or not. Dani bet her mother didn't even consider the possibility that she wasn’t welcome on the property.
Of course, Henry would probably have no problem with her having her mother over. He wouldn’t even mind her having her ex-fiancé and his mother tag along with. Dani had been taking care of his niece and nephew for well over six months now, and the man absolutely adored her. And it wasn’t like they didn’t have the space to accommodate three extra people.
Despite the fact that her mom did actually miss her, Dani knew there was an ulterior motive hidden behind this pathetic ruse. Karen Clayton was never able to get past the fact that her daughter was gay and had called off the wedding to her beloved childhood sweetheart. Dani knew her mom still had a candle lit in hopes of it all being one big mistake and Dani actually going through with the wedding.
But it had not been a mistake. And now they were coming here. Most likely, to break Dani down and convince her to give things another go. Edmund had not moved on. Dani wondered if he ever would. Not until she gave him a reason to, and apparently being gay wasn’t reason enough for him.
“Dani? Are you alright?”
Dani looked up from the letter that was now worn with crinkles at the edges from the sweat on her hands gripping it tight. Hannah was standing at the entrance to her room, a concerned look on her face. Dani wondered how long she’d been there for. Long enough to see her spirit break?
“I’m, uh, I’m okay,” she lied.
Apparently, it wasn’t too convincing, but her lies never were.
“Are you sure? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Knowing Dani would have to tell her about her mother’s arrival eventually, she decided to just get it off her chest now. No point in beating around the bush. Especially when she was doing such a poor job of concealing her discomfort.
“My mom wrote to me. She said she’s coming to visit next week. I’m not sure for how long just yet,” Dani said, setting the letter down on the dresser in front of her. “She’s bringing her best friend and her son with her.”
“Oh,” Hannah said, smiling politely. “Well, we’d love to meet them. We’ll make them feel right at home.”
“It’s not you guys I’m worried about.” Dani stared at the floorboards beneath her, feeling more worn than them after just one letter. “Her best friend’s son and I were kind of engaged.”
“I see.” Hannah was trying her best to keep the shock from her tone, but Dani picked up on it anyway. “What happened?”
“I sort of… called it off.”
Dani felt her shoulders heave forward and realized she was crying. It hurt to think about and it hurt even worse to say aloud. Edmund had been her best friend. Always. The moment she came out to him and called it off, she saw his heart break in a way that kept her up at night. It wasn’t her fault. She had tried desperately for years to feel something other than friendship for him, but it had been pointless.
Hannah rushed over to her and brought her into a hug. Dani felt better almost instantly and allowed for the other woman to console her, steadying her breathing after a minute or two. When they broke away, Hannah grabbed her by the hand and gave her a sympathetic smile.
“Everyone is downstairs. Owen’s just made lunch. I think we should tell the others what’s going on. They may be able to help you feel better about all this,” Hannah told her.
The smile she gave her held so much hope, Dani almost believed it would all be okay. She followed the other woman down the stairs and into the dining room, taking her seat across from the children. Jamie was already seated in her usual chair at the head of the table, watching the kids with an amused look on her face. Owen had made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, but Dani didn’t have the appetite for it.
Flora and Miles talked excitedly to her about their morning by the lake. They’d been tossing stones across the water while Jamie supervised from the greenhouse. Jamie was so nice. Always offering to watch the kids to give Dani some time to herself. What Dani really wanted was to spend some time alone with her, but it would never happen. After six months, she had learned to accept that.
“Can we go play now?” Flora asked, once she’d finished the last of her soup.
“Upstairs only for now,” Hannah answered, fixing Dani with a look. “The adults have to talk about something and we don’t need you two wondering off outside on your own.”
“Okay,” Flora replied, jumping out of her seat and racing towards the staircase.
Miles followed after her with a slight roll of his eyes at her eagerness. Dani smiled at him, watching until he was out of sight before directing her attention back to the table. All three of the adults were focused on her, waiting for the implied conversation to begin. She cleared her throat.
“Um, so earlier today, I received a letter from my mom. She’s coming to visit next week and she’s bringing a couple of people with her. One of them being my ex-fiancé whose wedding I called off about a year ago.”
Jamie blew out a low whistle. “I didn’t take you for the runaway bride type, Poppins. I’m very impressed.”
Dani felt her cheeks flush and felt the need to explain herself. “I wasn’t running away. I mean, I tried to love him like that. I really did. Edmund is a great guy and I’ve known him my whole life. It just never… It was never going to work.”
“Why is your mother bringing him along with her?” Owen asked.
“His mom is the third person who’s coming. They’re best friends.” Dani paused before saying this next part, because she knew it would be alarming. “All three of them are still hoping I’ll take Edmund back. I’m worried that’s the only reason they’re visiting. I believe that if I can’t prove to Edmund that I’ve moved on, he’ll never stop trying. And it’s exhausting knowing his future relies on my choices.”
Hannah reached for her hand, offering her more sympathy. “Dani, none of that is your fault. I don’t know this Edmund fellow, but it isn’t fair to put that kind of pressure on anyone.”
“I know it isn’t fair, but it’s the reality of it. If I can’t find a way to convince them that I’ve moved on and I’m seeing someone else, they’ll never let it go. And even worse, they’ll probably try to badger me until I agree to leave with them.”
They were all silent for a minute. Hannah looked worried and Owen looked like the wheels in his head were turning a hundred miles per minute. Dani looked over to Jamie and saw the other girl deep in thought, a frown taking residence upon her soft features. it only made Dani feel worse to see her friends upset.
“Nonsense,” Owen finally said, as all eyes flew over to him. “If seeing you with someone else is what it’ll take to get them to all move on and leave you alone, then that is exactly what they’ll get.”
Hannah furrowed her brows at him. “Owen, what are you-”
“I’ll pretend to be your boyfriend,” he interrupted, leaving no room to question it. “We can say we met here and something developed rather quickly between the two of us. Lots of late nights cooking and such. I may not be as good of an actor as I am a chef, but I can promise to try my best.”
For a moment, Dani felt her eyes water as she realized how much her new friends actually cared for her. The fact that Owen was willing to put on a façade for her sake meant the world to her. Jamie seemed to find relief in the idea as well. And Hannah, who Dani knew had real feelings for the cook, even looked gleeful, willing to set her feelings aside to allow Dani to resolve this issue. There was only one problem with that plan.
“As much as I appreciate the offer, Owen, it’ll never work,” Dani said, wringing her hands as she prepared for the real conversation stopper. “The reason I broke things off with Edmund is because I’m gay. I like girls.”
The room got so quiet, a pin could have been heard dropping. Dani risked a look around the table. Hannah and Owen looked startled, but mostly understanding. Jamie looked more shocked. The gardener was looking at her as though they were strangers. And maybe after learning a piece of information like that about Dani, they were. Dani bit her lip anxiously, hoping this wouldn’t change things between them. Between her and any of them.
“That’s okay,” Hannah assured, speaking slowly. “You and I can-”
She never even finished her sentence. There would have been no point. The good intent was there, but all of them knew that they would never fool anyone with a ploy like that. The relationship between Dani and Hannah was one that resembled that of sisters or best friends. There wasn’t an ounce of attraction between the two, and Hannah was the definition of a heterosexual woman. Even an attempt at it would be laughable and only serve to make things worse.
“Don’t worry about it, you guys,” Dani said, smiling softly at them. “I appreciate you all trying to help. You’ll never know how much it means to me, but this isn’t your problem to solve. My mom is going to have to leave eventually. I can endure it until then.”
“Unless,” Jamie began, just as the breath left Dani’s lungs, “I pretend to be your girlfriend.”
See, now that would be way more believable. Aside from the fact that Jamie gave the appearance of a woman who has relations with other women, Dani also felt an embarrassing amount of attraction towards her. She wouldn’t even need to be pretending, if she were being honest with herself. But opening up that door and seeing what dating Jamie would be like - even if just for show - would surely mess with Dani’s head far beyond repair.
“I could never ask you to do that,” Dani said, attempting to get herself out of it.
“Good thing you aren’t asking, then,” Jamie replied, crossing her arms over her chest in a way that told Dani it had already been decided. “You said they’re coming next week? That should give us just enough time to prepare.”
Dani swallowed thickly. “Prepare?”
“Well, how else do you think we’re going to fool anybody, Poppins? No one’s going to believe we’re a couple if we don’t even know each other’s middle names. Favorite book. Favorite color. Favorite hobby.”
Flowers. Dani knew that Jamie loved flowers and despite it being her job, she gardened even in her free time. That was for sure her favorite hobby. But Jamie had a point. Dani had shared very minimal information about herself with the other girl, if her not even knowing she was gay was any indication. They would definitely need to work on this.
In no more than ten days, they would need to convince the three people in her life who knew her better than anyone else in the world that they were in love or else risk them never moving on from the past. No pressure.
Dani looked over to Owen and Hannah and saw them staring at one another with their eyebrows raised. They seemed to be in silent agreement about something. Dani wondered if they knew this was going to turn into a disaster like she did.