Simon shot Chris a double-barrelled glare. All his plans for his afternoon’s entertainment had gone up in smoke thanks to his guests and now he was in the spotlight.

Chris was oblivious, deep in conversation with the other two architects, while Ally and Lexi blocked an increasingly-frustrated Marge. Actually, that was looking fun. If there was one person on the planet he really enjoyed irritating, it was petty, pretentious Marge Hamilton and she looked set to explode.

Lady Louisa followed his look and allowed herself a smirk, “More than met her match in those two, and she’s a bit too impressed by the gossip rags to cut through them.”

The three rivals had also seen the manoeuvre and took their chance, crowding around Simon and Cesca, keen to gather information from (and hopefully gain favour with) the doyenne of the house. Marge turned purple and Cesca peeled off to provide backup.

Lady Louisa watched her go, “You’d be wise to cultivate that one, she’s near as influential as the Gresham girls and I like how she doesn’t pander to you.”

Simon rolled his eyes and forcibly steered the conversation towards their frequently-conflicting visions for the house.

The three musketeers released Marge about fifteen minutes later, by which time discussion on load-bearing walls, dry rot, modern safety standards versus traditional materials and what might actually construe material change was running thick and fast and she had no openings to stall or obstruct the flow until it began to wind down and one of the group asked for her recommendation for local contractors.

She immediately launched into a litany of complaints, limits and demands for her to be personally involved at all times.

Chris looked at her quizzically, “I’m impressed by your dedication. Volunteering to be on a building site, every day for the next year is a big commitment.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t…”

Simon chimed in, “You’re right CJ, most impressive, especially with the upcoming renovations to three other listed properties in the area, all of them running to very strict deadlines. Aren’t you worried about neglecting them?”

Cesca chimed in, “Oh but she’s so dedicated and supportive, I’m sure she’ll have a fully planned schedule to keep all four of them running like clockwork.”

Marge wilted and Ally took pity, drawing her away to discuss the gardens. She’d noticed during their earlier conversation that this was potentially an area Marge genuinely did know and could add a great deal of valuable insight on.

The group around Lady Louisa dove back into talk of renovations and restrictions, drawing out ideas, concerns, limits and items not open to negotiation. There were surprisingly few of the latter and all three contestants were able to give their visions near-free rein.

Eventually, they looked around to find most of the company had debunked to the gardens. Where Marge, genuinely in her element now, was holding forth on their history, reasons for the layout and the properties and benefits of certain plants and types of co-planting. Her audience was small, but keenly interested.

Lady Louisa looked at the group and shook her head, “That Alexandra, she’s too soft.”

Chris frowned, “I disagree. She’s kind-hearted and caring, yes, but she’s also determined and stubborn as all hell. She’s just not loud about it. It’s a mistake to dismiss her as soft or weak.”

“Oh I’d never be fool enough to dismiss either of those girls, or that friend of theirs. I know their grandmother. That Alexandra just sets herself up for hurt too easily.”

This was addressed directly to Chris, with a look just one shade shy of a glare.

He grinned and bowed slightly, “I consider myself duly warned Lady Louisa.”

With that, he moved ahead and joined Ally’s conversation with Marge, his interest and considered questions drawing the normally prickly woman even further out of her shell.

As the other two architects wandered off in the direction of their partners and friends, Cesca materialised between Simon and Lady Louisa.

“I had some concerns at first. It seemed too soon, too fast. But they’re clearly taking things slowly and they are just gorgeous together. If it wasn’t Ally and I wasn’t a total romantic, I’d be completely sick.”

Simon’s snort was overridden by a question, “So you don’t think it’s a rebound thing?”

“I think Ally’s being very careful to make sure it’s not. And, let’s face it, she and Timothy were over years ago. She told him she was leaving, moving to the country. I heard her talking about it at least twice when he was there and supposedly part of the conversation. She even left a letter. It still took him three weeks to notice she was no longer living in the flat.”

“What!?”, Simon was jolted out of his studied indifference, “How? Is he a complete idiot?”

“Yes”, the three-voiced chorus was immediate, as Lexi joined them and added her voice to Cesca and Lady Louisa’s.

They had by now reached the garden group and Ally looked over questioningly.

“We were discussing village idiots.”

“Ah, do I know the village?”

“Yes, you do.”

She smiled, and let it go, instead drawing Lady Louisa’s attention to Marge’s questions about the past, and possible futures, of the rose garden.

Simon narrowed his eyes, “Can I tell her I’m planning on tearing it up for a swimming pool or a ten-car garage?”

Chris steered him away, “Not if you want to be invited to my home for a barbeque tomorrow afternoon.”

“Tomorrow? Is there a reason for this sudden barbeque?”

“Cesca’s birthday.”

Simon looked over at Cesca, “I’d be delighted. We’d better start heading back though, or the temptation is going to get too much.”

The hay wagon was summoned and delivered the whole group back to their starting point without incident.

Lexi stood by as Chris’ group got ready to leave.

He looked over at her, “You can come with us if you want you know, there’s plenty of room.”

“In your car, yes, but Ally only has one spare room.”

Ally chimed in, “Oh but we’re staying at Chris’ tonight and he’s got several.”

Lexi squealed in delight and raced indoors to grab her suitcase.

Simon watched her go and shrugged, “Well, I’ll see you all tomorrow afternoon. Is there anything in particular you’d like me to bring?”

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