When everyone took their seats on the plush couches and armchairs, Birdie squirmed in an effort to escape his hold, but was caught tighter around the middle. It was impossible for her to leave his lap.
She glared at his sweat-stained face and hissed low enough for Louis-Charles to hear, "You will unhand me at once!"
She was met with a tight-lipped smile and his equally quiet reply of, "Not a chance in Hell, sweetheart."
Birdie gasped at his response, seething at his gall to cuss in her presence. "Mother—!"
Louis-Charles interrupted, "Would you all like to hear of how Regulus and I scoured the country in search of you?"
"Oh, yes! That would be just wonderful."
The passing hours consisted of Louis-Charles, having taken a storyteller's role with ease, stringing one tall tale after another. He had Marietta and Oswald positively captivated.
Birdie showed little interest as he spoke of the luxuries on the East Coast. She yawned at the mention of savage natives camping in the mountains.
She was more focused on the fact that her great-great-uncle still had not let her get up from his hold, and that Marietta and Oswald were oblivious to her discomfort.
"My, my! Look at the time, Bridgewater. My poor great-niece and her family must be starved. I've been talking well past their supper time," Louis-Charles cried. He pointed at the towering grandfather clock, which displayed six thirty-seven.
His partner squinted hard, clearly unable to read it.
"Do not feel too guilty, Oncle. We have thoroughly enjoyed your stories," Marietta smiled and then called for the maid. "Dinah, please have supper ready for five instead of three tonight. I would like my great-uncle and his friend to join us. And fetch Lucy so she can show our guests to the washroom. They must be ready to jump out of their skins in this heat."
Louis-Charles opened his mouth to argue.
"Ah, ah! Come now, Oncle. Don't give me that look. It's no trouble at all. We would appreciate it greatly if you and Regulus stay for supper. I insist."
"Well, how could I say 'No' to a pretty face like yours?" he said and turned to Birdie. "Or yours?"
For once, Birdie bit down hard on her tongue. But this didn't stop her from rolling her eyes until they reached the back of her skull.
Though she would never admit it, her mother was enjoying Birdie's silence and was going to snag an opportunity to take advantage of it. Especially when she said, "On second thought, Birdie, you can show them. You should freshen yourself up as well. Go on now."
Birdie was close to pointing out how Marietta's dear great-uncle refused to let go of her, but – to her surprise – Louis-Charles loosened his arms around her waist. She hopped up without a second thought. Her eyes darted between the grinning man and her expectant parents. Defeated, she mumbled, "This way."
The two guests trailed behind as she trudged up the staircase to the third floor. Neither man made an attempt at conversation with Birdie, for it was a short walk before she wheeled around a corner to the nearest washroom. She stopped in front of their destination. "Right in there. You'll find everything you need," she said.
"Didn't your mère also tell you to freshen up?" Louis-Charles inquired.
"Yes, in my own washroom."
"Now that wouldn't be fair for us to make you walk all the way to your own washroom when there's a perfectly good one right here," he balked. "And we wouldn't mind sharing."
"We wouldn't?" said Regulus.
Birdie sneered, "As generous as that offer sounds, I would much rather use my own. I'm the only one with a private washroom. You understand, don't you?"
"Ah, yes. Ladies and their desired privacy. How could I neglect such an afflictin' detail?"
"Yes. Well, if you would excuse me," she said and started down the corridor, trying to shake the undeniable feeling of being watched.
The servants had set the expansive dining table for five plates. A sheer white tablecloth reached from one end to the other. Each dish, cup, and utensil was crafted from the most beautiful porcelain, glass, and metal. A heaping roast waited amongst bowls of cooked vegetables and pitchers filled with alcohol-infused juice.
Despite the present heat, candles gleamed orange in the darkened hall. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the sun slowly setting beyond the hills.
Having splashed handful after handful of water onto her glowing cheeks, Birdie felt a bit calmer, as she was fully prepared to have a bite to eat and bid farewell to Louis-Charles and Regulus afterward. She took a seat near the middle of the table. Oswald was sitting at the head with Marietta on the opposite. Their guests placed themselves directly across from Birdie.
She glanced at Louis-Charles, who was leering at her with his deep cocoa eyes. She saw that he had cleaned a substantial amount of dirt off his face, and his skin was no longer shining with sweat. For that, she was thankful because he didn't quite remind her of a brute anymore.
And yet, as he smiled at her, she couldn't help but feel a bubble of apprehension build in her stomach. She chalked it up to hunger.
"This meal looks mighty fine, Marietta. Fit for a king. You spoil me," Louis-Charles hummed.
Her mother giggled and encouraged them to take their share. Soon enough, the five of them were digging into their own plates, some more heavily than others. Birdie sipped her water while the adults sipped their whiskey. There was a comfortable silence that was occasionally interrupted by the sounds of gnashing teeth, utensils scraping against porcelain, and swallowing.
"So, Birdie, you must have plenty of leisure activities. Particularly in a manor such as this and in the midst of summer vacation. What do you like to do in your spare time?" Louis-Charles spoke up after gulping down his drink.
The young girl was almost struck dumb by his question. Not many people were curious about her interests; she was but a spoiled Southern belle with horrible manners – nothing more, nothing less.
She quickly steeled herself and answered, "I don't like to do anything."
"Birdie," Oswald said in warning.
Louis-Charles didn't appear deterred. The corners of his mouth twitched as though he was fighting a smile. "Come now. You truly don't find pleasure in anything?"
There was something in the way he phrased his words that made Birdie's skin itch. She growled, "I like to sit in the garden and look at the flowers."
"I was trying to convince her to enroll in piano lessons when you arrived, Oncle," Marietta interjected. "But she absolutely scorns the idea. She says that children are taught the piano, not 'grown-ups' like her. The girl is downright impossible. I think she finds joy in it. Being impossible, I mean."
Birdie attempted to ignore the conversation by slicing into her piece of roast with more force than needed. Ripping the meat off her fork, she gnashed her teeth and huffed.
"That's rather funny. I was given lessons on how to play the violin when I was about Birdie's age. Taught by the finest instructor of New Orleans for three years. I found that performing was a satisfying recreation for a boy of my background. I believe you would fancy the lessons as much as I did," said Louis-Charles.
Her resolve was slipping, and the entire table became aware of the firecracker that was ready to pop. Birdie dropped her utensils onto her plate, so vexed that she didn't hear the loud crash her display caused. "And I believe you should keep that nose of yours out of other people's business," she spat. "Especially if you happened to walk into their life just mere hours beforehand."
Cocking his head to one side, Louis-Charles continued to grin and raised his open palms in mock surrender. "I do apologize, Birdie. I am only trying to get to know you, my beloved great-great-niece, better. I thought that it would be possible to have shared enthusiasm for—"
"It would be wise to end any and all thoughts that involve you and I sharing anything more than a civil handshake!"
Marietta exclaimed, "Birdie Antonia!"
"I think it's past her bedtime," her father prompted.
"Oh, yes, that reminds me. Where are the two of you staying for the time being?"
The men looked at each other and then at her parents as though the answer was obvious. "Nowhere," Regulus grunted.
"What he means is–" Louis-Charles jumped. "– I had been so enveloped in meeting the last remaining family I have that I had not taken the prospect of a place to stay into consideration."
Marietta clutched her heart. She pushed, "Then I will have rooms arranged for you immediately! No relative of mine is going to spend their nights sleeping on the cold ground like a beggar."
"I agree. That wouldn't be in good conscience on our parts," said Oswald. "Dinah, can you have two rooms prepared for our guests? And bring their luggage as well. Oncle can have Pearl and Tallulah's old bedroom, and Regulus can have Marie and Annabelle's. As fast as you can, please."
"Of course, Monsieur Liddell."
Their guests jolted to a stand, all but ran to Marietta and Oswald, and grabbed their hands in thanks. "Oh, I am blessed to belong to a family as kind and giving as you! Oh, Marietta! Oh, Oswald! How could we ever repay you for your generosity?" Louis-Charles cried, practically on the verge of tears.
Halting the exchange of sentiments, Birdie leaped to her feet and knocked her chair backward. She screeched, "This is lunacy! Are you going to hand them the entire manor tomorrow? And the deed to the property the day after that?"
"Birdie, please. Have you no heart?" her mother choked.
Oswald, a generally peaceful man of God, pulled his napkin from his lap and slapped it onto the table. "Young lady, I want you to wish your uncle and Regulus 'Goodnight' and go to the nursery at once," he snarled like a dog.
"I would rather cut off my own tongue!"
She sprinted from the dining hall. After a brief scuttle up the two arched staircases, she made it to her bedroom and slammed the door shut, tuning out the sounds of her agitated parents and supposed great-great-uncle.
Birdie collapsed onto her mattress and vowed that she would raise Hell on earth for her parents, allowing those men to set foot on their estate.