As of around halfway through this chapter, I started using Ephemera’s Fresh skins (previously I was using Ephemera’s Natural skins), so you may notice a slight difference in character appearances. As always, I welcome feedback, so if you have a particularly strong opinion on the new look, please share!
In the days after Luc and I returned from our honeymoon, I in particular noticed a definite increase in time spent with the kids. This was mainly due to the fact that I was no longer working, as I would be heading back to university in a few weeks’ time to finish my degree. For now, I wanted to use the time I had to catch up on being a part of my children’s lives.
Hugo and Hope, at a little over two years old, were well on the way to learning to walk, but twin toddlers were turning out to be more of a struggle than I had anticipated. When they weren’t happy to play together, Luc and I were forced to pick one twin each to entertain on their own, which was exhausting work, to say the least. Hope – who was looking more an more like her father every day – was the more energetic of the two, and a Daddy’s girl through and through. Luc was always the one who could get her to calm down when she was upset, or pick her up when she refused to be touched by anyone else.
Hugo, on the other hand, was more quietly enthusiastic, and, in contrast to his sister, had grown into blond hair and blue eyes exactly the same shade as mine. While Hope was more adventurous, Hugo was more concentrated on achieving his own small goals, which currently included walking and learning to throw a ball. Sometimes, I felt like he and I understood each other much better than I did my whirlwind of a daughter.
Since outgrowing his crib, Gabriel had moved into Flynn’s old room, which we had not yet found the time or money to redecorate. He seemed to have inherited my passion for studying, much to Luc’s amused exasperation, and spent a good hour every evening dutifully completing his homework at the desk in his bedroom. Sometimes, if a question was particularly difficult, he could be persuaded to come downstairs and allow me or Luc to help him, but he would be proud to say that those times were few and far between.
Gabriel was a gentle child, and had adored Ash since he was a tiny baby. Now that he was old enough to help with chores around the house, he delighted in showering her in baths, brushes and cuddles whenever she needed them – and sometimes when she didn’t.
Speaking of showering people in affection, Luc still made a point of surprising me with hugs, small touches and kisses whenever we were together or even passed each other in the hallway – a habit which had increased significantly since our wedding. I had the feeling that he was missing the time on our honeymoon when it was just the two of us. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy it, but I sometimes felt a little embarrassed when he did it in front of my parents – or the maid. Still, he was an excellent kisser… so I let it slide for the most part.
The morning of my departure to university, Luc and Mum followed me and my suitcase out onto the front lawn to say goodbye. The kids were still in bed, since it was around five in the morning, but I had said goodbye to them the previous evening, promising that I loved them and would be home soon.
Which I was, relatively speaking. My second and final semester at university – I had chosen to accelerate my degree dramatically, having already wasted many more years than I would like not climbing the career ladder – sped by with little incident, especially since this time around, I had decided to devote myself entirely to achieving the best grades possible. Four months later, consequently, I returned home still wearing my graduation robes and clutching my new political science degree in one hand. I could barely believe that, after all this time, my dream was finally within my reach.
Just like the last time, Luc was waiting for me when I got back. I had barely stepped inside the door before I felt myself being swept up into his arms.
“Missed me, huh?” I grinned when we broke apart for air.
He shrugged. “Just a little,” he said nonchalantly, but ruined the effect somewhat by winking.
The kids were equally excited to see me back home again – though they did not express their enthusiasm in quite the same fashion. The twins, I discovered, had made great progress in learning to talk and use the potty while I had been away, and were currently obsessed with a xylophone and peg box in the nursery that we had bought for Gabriel when he was their age.
Gabriel, meanwhile, had approached me on the morning after my return home to discuss ‘a matter of great urgency’, as he put it.
“I was wondering whether you and Dad had thought any more about redecorating my room,” he began, carefully. “I asked Dad while you were away, but he said I should talk to you when you got back.”
I had expected this question, though this was a little sooner than I had hoped, and had my answer prepared. “Honestly, honey, we don’t have enough money right now. But I’m hoping to get a new job soon, and if that works out then I promise we’ll decorate your room however you want, and you can even come with us to help choose the wallpaper.”
Gabriel, whose face had fallen when I explained about the money, brightened up at once. “I can come with you?” he repeated eagerly. I nodded.
He nodded slowly, solemnly. “Then it’s a deal,” he said.
I smiled down at his excited face, and shook the hand he offered me. “It’s a deal.”
As it turned out, the hoped-for job arrived sooner than expected, a few weeks later, in the form of an open position as a campaign worker. According to the job description, I was to assist in planning and executing an election campaign for a woman named Amelia Jefferson, who was hoping to be elected to the town council for the fourth year running.
My first morning on the job, I was so nervous it might as well have been my first job ever. Amelia had her own office on the second floor of an office building near City Hall, which she shared with the other members of the town council. I knocked firmly on the door in an attempt to sound more confident than I felt, and a woman’s voice invited me inside. My knees were shaking badly as I approached the desk. The sooner I could sit down and get this first meeting over with, the better.
I glanced at the woman in front of me, who I presumed was Amelia, as I sank into the chair facing her. She was younger than I had expected, and undeniably beautiful, but there was a coldness in her eyes as she smiled that did nothing to ease my nervousness.
“You must be Diana.”
I did my best to return a friendly smile as I nodded. “I’m Diana Hunter. Thank you for offering me this position. I look forward to working with you.”
“For me,” she corrected.
“You will be working for me. The person you will be working with is not me but my assistant, Celia.”
I turned my head in the direction she indicated and saw a young woman with long, braided hair smiling encouragingly at me from the couch in the corner. I suppressed my sigh of relief – here was one person, at least, who appeared friendly. I was no longer alone.
“Celia will get you settled into your new working space,” Amelia went on. “The two of you will be working together over the next six months to invent and carry out a successful campaign for my re-election to town council next February. This will have as much impact on your career as it will mine – succeed, and you get to keep your job. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Ame- ma’am.” I had intended to address her by her first name, but the strictness of her manner did not invite such familiarity.
“Good. In that case, you may go and get settled in. Celia will direct you.”
I stood up and followed Celia into the next room, where two desks stood facing one another. One was crammed full of papers and personal items, the other neat and bare. “That’ll be your desk,” Celia told me, indicating the latter. I nodded and sat down, unsure what to do next.
“Have you ever worked a campaign before?” she asked me, with another reassuring smile.
I shook my head. “Never,” I admitted. “I just finished the second part of a university degree in political science. Before that I was working jobs at City Hall that didn’t need qualifications, and living out various… personal events.”
“Like marriage?” Celia asked bluntly, her eyes on my wedding ring.
I smiled, thinking of Luc as I stroked the ring absentmindedly, and nodded. “And kids. Children weren’t a part of my life plan originally. If I’d had my own way, I would have been here many years sooner.”
“But you love them. You wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“No…” I murmured, surprised at her insight. “No, I wouldn’t.” Then I started, as though coming out of a trance, and cleared my throat uncomfortably. I liked Celia, but talking about my personal life and feelings with someone I had just met was… strange, to say the least. “So, um… how does campaign management work?”
“Oh, it’s a lot easier than it seems, trust me,” she said encouragingly. “The first thing we need it a campaign plan, so we know what we’re doing. That includes stuff like our goals and aims, budget, fundraising, how we plan to get people to vote for us, etcetera. Then we can see what direction we’re going and which steps we need to take next.” She pointed to a large cork board standing near the wall. “That’s where I’ve been planning it out so far. Once we’ve got our basic idea down, we can start writing it out properly.”
I nodded, feeling the old determination to succeed rising in me as she spoke. “And it’s just the two of us working on this?”
Celia shrugged. “We can recruit other people later if we want to, to help with canvasing and that sort of thing, but for now, yep, just us! And Amelia.”
I bit my lip at the mention of our boss’ name. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “Is she always like that?”
“Like she was in your interview, you mean? Nah. She gets a bit better once you get to know her. She’s always strict with new employees. I guess she feels it’s like being a teacher, you know? Be strict at the start, and you have their respect from the get-go.”
I supposed that made sense, even if it felt quite unnecessary. Reminding myself that we had more important things to worry about, however, I tried to push Amelia’s attitude firmly from my mind.
I arrived home six hours later, feeling accomplished but also so physically and emotionally exhausted that I could easily have collapsed where I stood. Instead, I collapsed into the waiting arms of my ever-faithful husband.
“Hard day?” he asked sympathetically. Too tired to form coherent words, I nodded.
With one arm around my waist, Luc supported me up the stairs and into my bedroom, where he gently removed my dress and the mountain of pins holding my hair in place. When both of us were lying side by side on the bed, I forced myself to recount the day’s events.
“That Amelia woman sounds like a piece of work,” was Luc’s brusque comment.
I laughed and shook my head. “She’s not that bad, really. Just a bit hard to get along with. I’ll get used to it…” I yawned, “… Eventually.”
“Well, I’m glad there’s someone looking after you over there, anyway.”
I nodded, too tired to talk much more. I leaned sideways to plant a gentle kiss on his cheek. “As long as I have you looking after me here, I’ll be okay,” I told him, making him smile. I turned out the bedside light and rolled onto my side. As I drifted off, I thought I felt his hand gently stroking my hair, soothing me into sleep.