Ellie’s first glance of the inside of the manor was of a wide open space and handsome arching walls of stained dark oak, well-lit and warmly inviting. Then her attention was diverted by the sound of approaching footsteps down the hallway, and her vision was suddenly filled with the sight of a woman’s green skirts and white blouse.
“Alec-me-lad! We’ve been waitin’ for ye to come for some time now—ye’ve nearly missed dinner.”
Ellie was witness to a softening of Hardy’s expression that she had very rarely seen before—he even smiled. “As if you’d ever let me starve, Millie,” he said with a wry grin, and pulled the old woman into an embrace.
Ellie hastily closed her mouth and shook her head sharply, smoothing her expression of incredulous surprise out before the woman, laughing, pulled back from Hardy’s arms and turned now to Ellie herself. Her smile now was professional enough, but it lacked the warmth of a moment ago—a switch that most wouldn’t pick up on. “And I take it ye’re the latest of Alec’s colleagues, ma’am?” she asked genially, and Ellie heard it as the challenge it was.
“Millie,” Hardy said quietly, softly chiding. “Drop the act, aye? This is Ellie Miller.”
The change in the so-named Millie’s disposition was instantaneous; the detached professionalism vanished abruptly into genuine pleasure and welcome. “Ah, so this is who helped ye solve Sandbrook, then!” she exclaimed, and claimed Ellie’s hands in her own wizened ones. “I’ve dearly wanted to meet ye, Mrs. Miller—Alec’s told me ye’re one of the best he’s worked with!”
Ellie’s eyebrows shot up, and she shot Hardy a look. “Really?” she asked slyly, and he rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably as he stepped away. “I’m flattered, sir—now if you could say that during my evaluation, I would appreciate it even more; it’d be on record that way.” She turned back to the waiting Millie, her own expression considerably warmer than even a moment before. “I’m pleased to meet you, too—though I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a disadvantage, Mrs—?”
“Brannan,” Millie said decisively. “Millie Brannan, but ye can call me Millie.” She didn’t wait for Ellie’s answer, then, but turned smartly on her heel and strode off, talking all the way. Hardy half-grinned at Ellie’s look of surprise and hoisted his duffel in a tighter grip to follow her down the hall. Feeling half in a daze, Ellie did as well, Millie’s running commentary passing in and out of her conscious hearing as she looked around at her surroundings. “—needed someone new for the kitchens, as Auld Gary finally decided to up and die on us a month ago—”
“Gary’s died? I thought the old bastard was going to live forever.”
“Aye, that’s what we all thought, ye ken. Fell down dead of a stroke right after dinner, and left a sink full of dishes, too—!”
Just as it had on the outside, the inside of the house was grand, handsomely built—just enough to hide at the first few glances the marked deterioration that prevailed over it all. It was still livable by all means, and so much more than anything that Ellie had ever seen in Dorset before, but the ghost of what this manor had to have been before still lingered. She was hard-pressed not to openly gawk at everything, and she found it especially hard not to keep looking at Hardy’s back as she walked behind him. He had grown up here, amidst all this grandeur and pomp; undoubtedly played along these halls and eaten at the grand table that she glimpsed in one of the dining rooms. Perhaps broken one or more of the objects on display on the side tables and glass cabinets.
“We’ll get ye both settled before we go to Himself,” Millie was saying when Ellie came back to the present. “He’s been wanting to see ye for quite some time, Alec.”
“I know,” he said gruffly, and Ellie felt suddenly comforted by the fact that he was still his short, impatient self. “Will made that that very clear when he came up to Broadchurch. What does Dad need now? Another appearance by the eldest son at a banquet?”
“None of that, lad,” Millie said with a sharp look back at him. “Ye’re back in the family home now, and ye’ll show yer father due respect. At least until he opens his mouth and starts his usual spiel.”
Ellie’s respect of this woman shot upwards at an increasing rate; of course, dealing with this family that was basically Hardy times three would take someone of a steel spine. She would have to hear some pointers on how to diffuse Hardy’s temper so easily, too, because rather than become indignant or ignore the telling-off, he merely made a dubious sound deep in his throat and shook his head.
They walked in silence for a time, then, until Millie paused at the foot of a staircase. “Are ye going to settle in now, then, Alec, or did ye want to wait? Yer room is ready, and I’ve put new sheets on the bed.”
He shrugged. “I’ll peek in but I want to see to Dad before dinner. Less chance of thrown dishes that way.”
Ellie snorted, then blushed when both of them looked at her. “And here I thought my family dinners were tense,” she joked, and Millie laughed outright.
“Tense isn’t the word, dear—the kitchen staff use the cheapest dinnerware when the family is together because something is always broken when they sit for gatherings.”
Ellie wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not hearing that, even if Millie’s expression was light-hearted. Luckily, it didn’t appear she needed to respond to that because again the latter was moving on without waiting. “We’ll let ye o on ahead, then, and I’ll show Mrs. Miller her own room.”
“Call me Ellie, please,” she said quietly as they walked. “I’ve never really cared for the last-name basis habit.”
The assessing look that Millie gave her was a short one, but startlingly effective. “No,” she said quietly, as she stopped in front of a closed door halfway down the hall. “I don’t suppose ye like it at that. This here’s where ye’ll be staying, Ellie. Same as I told Alec—it’s cleaned and ready, and fresh sheets on the bed for when ye need to rest.”
“How much has he told you?” Ellie found herself asking bluntly. She would feel mortified by her distinct lack of manners later, but right now she was struggling with a sense of fury and shame that Hardy would have aired her dirty laundry out to this woman.
Millie, for her credit, didn’t feign ignorance or surprise at the question. Meeting her gaze steadily, she simply let one grey eyebrow sidle upwards. “Enough,” she said quietly, and waved Ellie through the doorway. “Now, place yer things where ye want them, and meet Alec at the foot of the staircase. Himself is waiting.”
As it turned out, Himself wasn’t waiting for them—or at least he wasn’t in the room that Hardy led them to. Millie had disappeared as effectively as she had first appeared, and Ellie was feeling distinctly wrong-footed again, and grumpy because of it. “How many more surprises am I going to have to find out about today, Hardy?” she asked as he closed the door behind them. If this room wasn’t an audience chamber, she would eat her orange parka.
“Not many more. At least for today.”
She glared at him. “You bastard, you like this, don’t you?” she demanded. “Seeing me off-guard, out of my depth—”
“As if you don’t still laugh at me when we’re at Broadchurch,” he retorted lightly, hands shoved deep in his pockets. “Or did you forget the, ‘You’re barely on the water’ bit when I first showed up there?”
That stopped her for a moment, because he had a point. She did still laugh at him when he showed that despite over three years of living in a small town he didn’t understand it. Of course, she realized, looking at her surroundings now she was beginning to suspect he likely had a good excuse for that.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time here, Miller.”
She started. “Would you stop that? It’s like you’re reading my mind, and it’s bloody freaky!”
He didn’t smile, but there was definitely amusement there in his gaze. “I can’t help it if your expression is so bloody open,” he retorted smoothly. “You’re making it easy to know what you’re thinking right now, what with your gaping at everything.”
“I’m not gaping,” she muttered, crossing her arms and intensifying her glare to hide the blush that wanted to bloom on her face. “Where did you spend your time, then, if not here?”
“Gran’s. She had a small house in Glasgow.”
That, of course, told her nothing. Seeing the size of this manor, she truly didn’t know what he constituted as small—although he had seemed comfortable enough in the little blue bungalow during his first stay in Broadchurch. So maybe the house really had been small. She decided to leave that alone and instead filed away the fact that he had had a grandmother and apparently one he was close to, if he had chosen to live with her. She wasn’t sure if she was discomfited or triumphant that she was finally learning more about his past, even if it hadn’t been his idea.
Probably discomfited. He hadn’t chosen to tell her about this, after all.
The deep voice behind them made her start again and spin on her heel, surprised that she hadn’t heard the approach of footsteps. Then she finished her turn and saw why; the man who had spoken was seated in a wheelchair. He had once been a tall man—taller than Hardy, who was no slouch in that department—and clearly powerfully built, but both atrophy and age had wizened him into a former husk of his former presence, and a quick glance at Hardy showed her the stricken look on his face, quickly smoothed away into studied indifference. Clearly this man’s condition had worsened since the last time he had seen him.
“Dad.” She was positive that only she picked up the slight tremor to his voice as he spoke. Otherwise it sounded like he was addressing a stranger.
The old man’s face creased in a half-smile, pleased and rueful at once as he looked Hardy up and down slowly. “Ye look healthier than the last time I saw ye, son.”
“You don’t,” Hardy said bluntly, stone-still. “Will didn’t tell me your condition’s worsened.”
“It’s done more than worsened. Doctor’s given me six months.”
The bluntness of that statement took even Ellie’s breath away, and she stared in consternation at him. What the hell kind of greeting was that? It was then that she finally noticed the challenging look in the man’s eyes, and the answering response in Hardy’s own stance, and she wondered who would break first.
“Six months too long, if you ask me,” Hardy said smoothly, and Ellie’s own sense of propriety snapped.
“Sir!” Her exclamation was much louder in this wide expanse of room than she would have expected. It did grab the attention of both of the men, which she was pleased to see. “You,” she pushed on fiercely, “are a knob. Don’t be an arsehole, too.”
Vulgar, she knew, but it did the trick to stop him in his tracks; it also unfortunately drew the man’s attention to her. His eyes were the same brown as Hardy’s, and just as shrewd and calculating. “So this is the famous Ellie Miller,” he said quietly. “I saw ye solved Sandbrook a few years ago, when Alec asked ye for help. I’m sorry about yer husband.”
Ellie had grown used to the remarks about Joe, both the innocent, well-meaning, and the snide—but she still felt like she’d been punched in the gut by this man’s words. She fortified her suddenly tight stomach and wet her dry mouth. “I am, too.”
She was surprised when his expression softened ever-so-slightly. “I have ye at a disadvantage. I’m Grant Wallace, Alec and William’s father and lord of this estate. I’m pleased to see ye here.”
Ellie opened her mouth to say that she didn’t really have a say in the matter, then caught Hardy’s eye and hastily cleared her throat. “I’m honored I was invited here,” she said instead, smiling widely at him, and saw how some of the tension left Hardy’s shoulders. Clearly there was a test she had just passed, because the now-named Grant Wallace nodded and glanced swiftly at his son. Something sad seemed to flicker there deep in his eyes, but then it was gone.
“I’m only sorry it was because of Will’s machinations that it happened. Ye’ll be handsomely compensated, of course, for the time ye’ll be here—”
“There’s no need, really—”
“She’ll be just fine with that, Dad,” Hardy interrupted her firmly, glaring at her briefly before turning his attention to Grant. “And she’ll appreciate it, too—won’t you, Miller?”
She had been about to slip up again; turn down an offer she couldn’t refuse. She saw the amusement in Grant’s eyes and felt a brief flare of fury at the sight—the smug bastard was laughing about it! She swallowed down an angry retort and spoke through another fixed smile. “Very much so, thank you, sir.”
This time, Grant laughed outright. “Ye’re not a good liar,” he said genially, “but I thank ye for the attempt anyway. Now—” And just like that he was on to other topics, maneuvering his wheelchair around so that he faced Hardy again, “I had Will bring ye back for a visit for the simple matter of settling the estate. And who will secede me here.”
The silence that fell immediately afterwards was chilling. Ellie felt her arms prickle with it, the sense of sudden danger too great to ignore, and she was afraid to glance over at Hardy. His stilted breath was enough answer all in its own.
When he actually spoke, his voice was strangled with fury: “You haven’t changed at all, have you, you bastard?”
With hands clenched at his sides, he turned and stalked off without another word, leaving Ellie to scramble after him. If she had felt wrong-footed before, it was nothing to how she felt now, and she was hard-pressed to dig her heels in and demand to know when the hell she had entered a family daytime drama.
‘Elaine is upping my pay after this,’ she thought grimly as the door swung shut behind them, but while Hardy kept walking on, she was in no way prepared to talk to him. He would simply lash out in frustration; better to let him walk it off, which by the direction he was going—the side door—he was clearly planning on doing.
So that left Ellie to do—what, exactly? She paused in the middle of the hallway and breathed through her own mounting frustration. She was hundreds of miles away from her home, her sons, and everything familiar, and thrust into a situation that she didn’t know how to navigate. And the only one who could help her through it was currently throwing himself a fit.
“I’m going to kill him,” she muttered to herself.
“Alec tends to have that affect on people, ye ken.” Millie Brannan looked a bit sorry when Ellie jumped, but she didn’t apologize. The truly sympathetic look on her face was enough to soothe her irritation over the unintentional fright, anyway. Millie came over from where she had stood in the shadows and sighed. “It’s verra rare any family gathering goes smoothly here, and with Himself so ill… it’s no going to be easy now, either. Now, ye go and get changed into a different set of clothes and sit for a while, dear; dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes, and ye’ll need to be ready for it.”
“What about Hardy?” she found herself asking, glancing back at the outside door. “He usually goes walking for hours.”
“Dinna worry about that,” Millie said with an odd sort of grim satisfaction. “There hasna been a day of that lad’s life I havena been able to make him listen.”
“Have you always been an employee here, then?” Ellie asked curiously.
Millie’s mouth twitched, but it wasn’t with amusement. “Since before the lad was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.”