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With a final smile at Josie’s news, she left the young nursemaid to finish preparing Ellie’s bath and went in search of her daughter. She knew she wouldn’t have to look for long; the time between supper and bath was always reserved for reading with Jack. Since they weren’t in the nursery, they could only be in the parlor, and as she neared the doorway she could hear Jack’s rumbles interspersed with Ellie’s more piping tones.

“Toady likes cars like Penny, Daddy. “

“He certainly does. Toad is a bit like your Penny, you’re right, Sprite, although she’s certainly a better driver than he is. But we mustn’t tell her that, all right? Shhh.”

Phryne grinned as Ellie echoed the “shhhh” right back at Jack. “Penny” had come from Ellie's mispronunciation of Phryne years ago, and Phryne had encouraged it to the point that the entire household now used it in reference to her when speaking with Ellie. But it seemed that Ellie and Jack were reading The Wind in the Willows again. It was a particular favorite with their daughter. Jack had sent to London for an early copy of the new edition illustrated by Ernest Shepard, as a gift for Ellie’s third birthday. It had been more than six months since then, and Phryne wondered whether Jack regretted his choice, as he had since read the book so many times that both he and Ellie had to know it by heart by now.

She stuck her head around the parlor door, already fairly certain of what she would see. Ellie was comfortably ensconced on Jack’s lap, clad in a smock dress and cardigan. The little girl always wore simple clothes like these, Phryne failing to see the point in more elaborate outfits that one had to worry about keeping clean. Between Josie and Dot, Ellie still had rather an extensive wardrobe, though, which made Phryne rather hope that the next little Collins would be a girl, simply so they’d have someone to pass everything down to! Ellie did wear dungarees on occasion, so even if the baby due to arrive within the next six months was a boy, those at least could be worn by any of the Collins brood. Aunt Prudence pretended to be horrified when Ellie wore them, of course, but even she had to admit they were practical since Ellie’s favorite activity, other than reading or swimming, was grubbing about in the garden. Today, though, her dress was green and covered with flowers. The cardigan she wore over it was cream, and her unruly curls were neatly pulled back for the moment. She had one hand curled possessively around the neck of her favorite doll, Peter, which had been a gift from Guy Stanley. Ellie hadn’t been particularly fond of dolls, other than the one Concetta had made for her, but one look at the doll Guy had sent from New York and she’d been enchanted.

Ellie’s other hand, however, pointed out various things in the book, and it was as she once again exclaimed over Toad’s car that Phryne made her presence known. “What’s this I hear? Did someone call me a toad?” she asked, intentionally emphasizing the last word.

Both Jack and Ellie looked up. While Jack’s expression was somewhat chagrined, Ellie looked delighted. “Not me, Penny. Was Daddy,” she giggled. “We’s reading Windy Willows.”

Again?”

“ ‘Gain,” the little girl said, nodding in satisfaction. Seeing her daughter like this, it always struck Phryne as particularly amusing that so many people thought Ellie a timid, biddable child upon first meeting. She supposed she could understand why; Ellie did have a tendency to hang back at first, but it was more from a cautious, considering nature than any real timidity, Phryne felt. And goodness knows, as Jack’s daughter she came by that honestly enough! Once the little girl trusted someone, however, her joy in their company was boundless.

Even after more than three years, Phryne sometimes still felt surprised to be counted among her daughter’s favorite companions. She considered herself a good enough mother, of course, even if story time was almost exclusively Jack’s domain (although she did enjoy doing the voices on occasion), and she’d attended far fewer tea parties than Bert, Cec and Dot (Bert took his duties as godfather very seriously—how she wished she’d had a camera the first time she’d seen the cabbie solemnly accept a tiny porcelain cup!) She did enjoy playing pirates; she made a rather fetching Captain Hook, she thought (although her favorite memory was of the first time she’d come upon Ellie and Jack playing the game, both of them wearing newspaper hats and Ellie trying to heft a wooden sword that was still a touch too big for her). She tried to take her daughter on as many “adventures” as she could, as well: trips to Millie’s garage and meetings of the Adventuresses’ Club; Luna Park and the St. Kilda Pier. She’d even arranged a visit to the airbase with Lyle Compton, and although his repeated incredulous looks between her and Ellie had become extremely irritating over the course of the day, Ellie herself had been entirely satisfied with being lifted into the cockpit of a fighter plane and then given a miniature one to take home. Bert was good with outings too, though: Ellie loved going for rides in the cab, and he’d even taken her to the docks a few times, although the first time hadn’t been planned and he’d needed a shot of whiskey in his tea upon arriving back at the Esplanade. (“Never held onto someone’s hand so tight, miss,” he’d croaked, mopping the sweat from his brow.)

The latest outing had been Phryne’s idea, though. She’d taken Ellie to the Fitzroy Gardens to see Ola Kohn’s nearly completed Fairies’ Tree, and Ellie hadn’t yet stopped talking about it. That might have been more Jack’s fault, though; he’d come along as well, and quoted liberally from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as he hunted for fairies with a delighted Ellie on his shoulders.

Taking all that into consideration, she supposed she could understand why her daughter enjoyed her company, even though Phryne was usually more than happy to turn her back over to Josie when they arrived home after an adventure, Ellie tired and out of sorts; and goodness knows she’d been grateful a time or two that Ellie usually wanted Jack after waking from a nightmare, rather than herself. She was human, after all, but Ellie didn’t seem to think any the less of her for it.

“Well,” she said, concentrating once again on her daughter, “if Daddy thinks Penny is like Toad, who’s Daddy like then, hmmm, little star?”

Ellie cocked her head to the side and considered for a moment before she declared, “Badgey,” with a satisfied nod.

“You mean ‘Badger,’ darling,” Phryne said with a smile.

“I said so! Badgey!” she returned indignantly.

Apart from any problems with pronunciation, it was rather an astute comparison. “Full of wisdom, with a gruff exterior hiding a heart of gold”… such a description fit both Jack and Ellie’s beloved Badger equally well. Clever girl.

As Phryne shared an amused look with Jack, he asked Ellie, “What about you, then, Sprite?”

“Ratty!” Ellie shouted triumphantly.

The Water Rat. Of course. Aunt Prudence’s observation about Ellie’s early fascination with water had proven quite accurate. Her baths and visits to Aunt Prudence’s pool were bad enough. The Yarra had left her transfixed, and her first sight of the ocean had been enough for her to cast aside her customary caution and toddle straight towards it. What a time Phryne and Jack had had keeping watch!

“Well then, Water Rat, don’t you think it’s time you got ready for bed? I saw Josie preparing a lovely bath for you,” Phryne cajoled.

Ellie nestled more firmly against Jack’s chest. “Wanna stay and read more with Daddy,” she hedged, looking beguilingly at first Jack, then Phryne from under lowered lashes.

Hmmm. That was slightly unusual. Phryne glanced at Jack, who merely shrugged his shoulders slightly, his eyes terribly amused. She raised a challenging eyebrow at him, but then simply nodded. Well, they did try and stick to the policy of having whoever began an “argument” with Ellie finish it, barring extraordinary circumstances, so…

“Oh, I see. Well then,” Phryne addressed her daughter, placing her hands on her hips, “I suppose I’ll have to go across to the cottage and ask Auntie Dot whether the twins would like a nice bath filled with bubbles.” As the little girl quickly sat up, Phryne continued, “I’m sure the boys will love playing with all of your boats.”

For a few moments, Ellie simply stared at her, clearly nonplussed. Phryne stared right back, though she had to work to keep her lips from twitching. Suddenly, without any warning, Ellie scrambled off Jack’s lap, screeching “Jo-sie!” as she ran up the stairs at full tilt, hanging on to poor Peter by one arm.

Jack inclined his head at her, his eyes twinkling, as she came further into the room. “Well done,” he acknowledged, his mouth tilting upwards into a smile.

“Sometimes adding an element of competition works wonders, I’ve found,” she said.

That she gets entirely from you,” Jack said dryly, getting up to pour them both a drink.

“Not quite, I don’t think, but even if she did, it’s only fair she get something from me,” Phryne teased back.

As usual when she joked about him and Ellie being two peas in a pod, Jack simply rolled his eyes. “Someday, she’s going to drop that doll, dragging it about like that,” he said, changing the subject.

“Oh, don’t even suggest it,” she groaned. “I shudder to think.”

“Perhaps you should ask Guy to look out another, the next time he’s in New York. Just in case.”

“I’d rather not; he’ll just take it as an excuse to send her another enormous parcel.” Guy did love to send his young cousin the most ridiculously large parcels; to his credit, though, Phryne suspected it was only partially because she’d specifically asked him not to. “Or worse, he’ll send it to Aunt Prudence,” she continued, “because he knows I can never refuse that way.” Ellie had already acquired several more dolls in precisely that fashion, as Aunt Prudence loved spoiling her great-niece.

“Well, I suppose we’d better hope for the best, then,” Jack said, settling down on the sofa. “Has Josie spoken to you?”

Phryne nodded. “Teacher’s college. She’s terribly excited.” She smiled, then paused. “Though heaven knows how we’re going to explain it to Ellie.”

Jack grimaced. “She’ll be inconsolable,” he agreed. “And you’re sure you’d rather hire a governess? She’s still so young.”

“You know she’s clever enough to start with a few lessons now, at least; you’re the one who started teaching her her letters. I’d hate to hire another nursemaid and then have to look for a governess in a year or so.”

“You’re certain you’d rather not just send her to school?”

“There will be time enough for her to be regimented and organized once she goes to grammar school,” Phryne said. “I’d much rather she find learning a bit more fun at the moment, wouldn’t you? Though I am not looking forward to the process of finding a governess who shares that view,” she said with a sigh, dropping down next to him on the sofa.

“I’m sure your aunt would be more than happy to help.”

“Oh, I’m sure. But no doubt all of Aunt Prudence’s candidates will be so crushingly sensible. Of course, I’d rather the person looking after our daughter be more sensible than not, but I just hope we can find someone who approves of a bit of adventure on occasion as well.”

“If anyone can, you can, Phryne.” He paused. “Actually, if you are certain… well, Rodney called and asked me to drop by today, so I went on my way home. Apparently he and Concetta are having a hard time finding a school for Teddy. They knew they would, that’s why they started looking so early, but it’s not going well.”

Teddy was Concetta’s young stepson. A year older than Ellie, he had been definitively diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after the two had become engaged. Although he had numerous physical challenges to contend with, he was a cheerful little boy, cheeky and frighteningly clever, and a terror on his tiny crutches. Given that Teddy’s grandmother had been inclined to fussing and fretting over him when he had been in her care, Phryne put a good deal of the boy’s good-natured determination down to Concetta’s influence, although Rodney was quite sensible on that score as well. But as far as not finding a school… “Really? But he’s reading already, Jack!”

“I know, but his speech still gets a bit tangled at times, and apparently he’s had some difficulties with writing as well. They’re not sure how long they’ll take to resolve, or if they will, or what new things will crop up, and apparently none of the schools Rodney and Concetta have visited want to take a chance on that. Added to which, they say he’ll disrupt things for the other students,” Jack finished with a grimace.

“Fools,” Phryne muttered. “And how is Concetta taking that?”

“Just about as you might expect,” Jack said wryly. “She was rather incensed. Kept muttering frightening things under her breath in Italian.” Phryne could imagine. Concetta loved her stepson fiercely, and did everything she could to keep him from being treated differently from other children. “Rodney was just as upset, although he hid it better,” Jack continued. Phryne heartily approved of Concetta’s husband. Although his booming voice, tall stature, and piratical eyepatch were intimidating in the court room, he adored his wife and children and would do anything to help a friend. “They wondered if we had any ideas. They thought of teaching him at home for the moment, but Rodney’s busier than ever and Concetta’s certain she won’t be able to keep up with Teddy, and she has the new baby besides. So if we’re hiring a governess for Ellie anyway…”

“…Then Teddy shall come for lessons, too,” Phryne finished with satisfaction.

“At least until they come up with something else,” Jack agreed.

“No need to hurry about that. Ellie will be thrilled. She loves Teddy.” It was true. The two children were fast friends. Apart from playing together at Saturday teas and normal outings, Teddy often accompanied Ellie and Josie to Aunt Prudence’s to swim. Mac had suggested that swimming might be as helpful in developing Teddy’s muscles as it had been for improving Josie’s strength, so they visited quite regularly, with Charlie Street or Mac to supervise the exercises and Phryne or one of the red raggers along to keep an eye on Ellie. Bert was particularly fond of Teddy as well, and had taken him along on quite a few of the excursions with Ellie, to the boy’s delight. Given all this, the two were turning into rather terrifying miniature “partners in crime.”

“You’d have a captive audience of two for story time then, Jack. Although I’ve been wondering something, Mr. Badger,” she said archly, tapping her fingers against Jack’s chest. He rolled his eyes. “Would you have given in and read her more?”

“Probably, but only a bit more,” Jack admitted.

“Oh, I knew it!” Phryne crowed. “Jack Robinson, that child has you entirely wrapped around her finger!”

Jack smiled somewhat sheepishly. “Has that ever been in dispute? Besides,” he said, clearing his throat, “look who she’s learned from, Miss Fisher.”

“Oh, come now, Jack, you know my wiles aren’t half so effective, worse luck,” she teased.

He surprised her then, pulling her onto his lap. “Why don’t you try me?” he husked.

Needless to say, neither Phryne nor Jack gave a thought to Ellie’s beloved Toad or Badger for quite a while after that.