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Juggling her keys, purse and tablet in one hand, Alia managed with the other to hang onto the sticky hand of her youngest, Ollie, who was tugging impatiently, trying to get back down the steps so he could go chase a cat which had darted into the bushes. “Oliver!” She finally snapped exasperated, “Stop! We’ve got to get inside. Besides, I can’t take care of a bloody cat on top of everything else.”

When his hazel eyes filled with hurt, she was instantly stabbed with remorse. It wasn’t his fault that the divorce proceedings had left her off-kilter, and that full-time work and mostly-full-time-single-mum-hood was proving crushing. You’ll get through this, she reminded herself. She’d bloody better, not much in the way of choice.

“Sorry, pet,” she soothed, giving his hand a squeeze. “I know you want to find the cat, but let’s go inside first to put down our things.” And pre-heat the oven so she could get some sort of dinner prepped for her three boys, start the laundry, sort the bills… Door finally open, Alia let Ollie run ahead to fling himself in front of the telly, their usual after-school routine. She felt awful depending on it as a sort of nanny, but honestly what parent didn’t do that at least part of the time?

Glancing at the bench by the door, she spied Jeremy and Simon’s school things piled untidily in a heap and bit back a sharp sigh. At eleven and fifteen they weren’t any exception to how messy and frankly disgusting boys could be. Looking up, however, she blinked in shock; not only was the house tidy, for once, it also smelled pleasantly of lemon-scented cleaner, and aside from the school things, was shining with spotlessness. A state it hadn’t achieved since they’d moved in, essentially.

Overriding the smell of lemon was an even more amazing aroma: fragrant Indian food. “What…?”

Jeremy looked up from where he was sprawled on the sofa, eyes glued to his mobile, although the television was on. “I sat on Si until he agreed not to tear into the food…it’s in the oven keeping warm.”

“You ordered in?” Alia asked, bewildered, “And cleaned?”

Looking at her as if she were mental, he snorted, “Naw, mum, it was the cleaning service. And the food arrived just a while ago…”

“Cleaning service?”

His look said he thought she was ready for a care home. “The one you hired?”

“I…didn’t hire anyone.” She didn’t have the spare cash right now, although it would be a blessing to have a helping hand now and then. “Christ, there’s been a mix-up, I hope the bill doesn’t come here!” Not with football boots to buy, council fees due, winter coming and all three boys bursting out of their clothes. “Are you sure the food wasn’t delivered by mistake?”

He shrugged, already going back to his phone. Alia peeked in the oven and was hit by a wave of delicious food smells; the oven was crammed with enough containers to feed all four of them at least twice. Even with the appetites of a teen and almost teen. Utterly confused, but grateful, Alia washed her hands and started putting food on the table. The sound of the doorbell made her raise her head, “Jeremy, will you see who that is?” Licking cilantro chutney off of her thumb, she hoped it wasn’t the delivery driver come to take this bounty away. “Who..?”

Jeremy appeared in the doorway, a gift basket in his arms, smirking, “Got a new boyfriend, mum?”

She stared at the high-end bath products visible through the iridescent cellophane, confusion and embarrassment warring with pleasure. “No…” She blushed betrayingly, although thankfully he was too self-absorbed to notice.

Dinner was boisterous, as usual, and highly satisfactory. Leftovers put away, boys reasonably clean, homework sorted and with them all finally in bed (although the elder two weren’t asleep and she knew it), Alia finally delved into her gift. There were bottles of bubble bath, shower gel and bath oil, bath bombs, lotions, scrubs…it was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of luxurious spa products. Locking the bathroom door, she filled the gleaming tub with bubbles and oil and slipped into the hot water, hissing softly. Reaching for her mobile, she queued up some soothing music on her Spotify “relaxation” playlist and then set it on the towel folded next to the tub and wrapped greedy, grateful hands around the wineglass she’d brought with her.

Floating in the steaming, scented water, she forgot her worries, let her tension drift away. The aches and pains of a hard-working forty-six year old dissipated, as did a good deal of her mental turmoil. It was enough just to exist for now, suspended in comfort between one duty and another.

Just as the water began to cool and she was considering refilling the bath, her phone pinged softly. Pulled away from her relaxed haze, Alia nearly ignored it. But the boys had been almost suspiciously quiet, only having come to knock on the door and whinge about something three times since she’d been in here. 

It wasn’t anything awful though. Quite the contrary.

Good evening my dear, read the text from Mycroft. I do hope you’ve had a chance to enjoy our gifts. My understanding from Gregory is that parenthood can be exhausting quite aside from everything else. We wanted to grant you a chance to release your responsibilities and enjoy yourself. Forgive our intrusion…as always, our care comes with no expectations beyond what you’re comfortable giving.

This was followed immediately by another text, from Greg. Hey sweetheart, My is trying to snag my phone, lecturing me about “pressuring you unduly” but… Dinner? This weekend?

The decision she’d been struggling with for several weeks now, whether or not to enter into a relationship with Mycroft and Greg, to become part of their already established dynamic, suddenly seemed crystal clear. Sod the potential gossip, should it become public, the condemnation she would no doubt get from some quarters. I deserve love, she thought, eyes misty with a sudden influx of emotion, I deserve their care. She could feel their love around her like a hug, and craved more.

Smiling, she sent a group text back to them both. I’m starving for you both…see you Saturday.