Dani Clayton did not sign up for this.
Dani Clayton had signed up for a lot of things, sure.
Dani Clayton had signed up to leave an entire life behind––it had never been her life, she thinks, not really––a family and a fiancé and a fully furnished home, superlative and suburban and absolutely suffocating, in favor of giving her own, long neglected, room to breathe. Room to, if it would survive in the world outside Iowa City, Iowa, grow. Flourish. If it could.
Dani Clayton had signed up to be an au pair to the Wingrave children, Flora and Miles, just over three months ago, had promptly moved into their family’s townhouse, the whole of her life, uprooted and in flux as it had been, packed neatly into two suitcases, toted carefully up the stairs, and tucked away under a new bed, into a new wardrobe, in a new closet.
(The irony of which, Dani thinks, rueful and indulgent, is not lost on her.)
Dani Clayton had signed on to stay on with the Wingraves beyond her three-month probationary period, Miles and especially Flora happily acclimated to her, their uncle Henry’s approval begrudging and benevolent, baths and bedtime stories such regular staples of Dani’s daily routine now she’s not sure she could imagine a life without them.
Dani runs through the list in her head, sandwiched between Flora and Miles in the backseat of an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar countryside, Flora staring dreamily out the window to her right, Miles preoccupied with the grease-stained pages of a comic book on her left.
It’s calming to Dani, for whom, under any other circumstance, a long car ride would be a welcome reprieve, the serenity of backseats and blurred windows the souvenir of an otherwise intermittent childhood, the simplicity of distance measured, not in metric or imperial, but in time, constant and reassuring. Under any other circumstance, Dani thinks, between the cool air from the cracked windows and the easy silence from Owen, the near stranger up front, she may have even fallen asleep.
Instead, she’s anxious and claustrophobic, wedged between Flora and Miles, who, despite their small size, press in on her, boxing her in at all angles, except:
She leans forward, seizing the empty space in front of her as her own, breathing in deeply. “So, Owen,” she says, and Dani can feel the relief flowing into her already, steady and fluid, “how’d, uh… How’d you get roped into all this?”
“All this?” Owen cranes his head back towards Dani, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Yeah,” Dani glances nervously back at Flora and Miles, happily distracted behind her, and lowers her voice, “helping Henry. At the manor. Right now, with… Everything that’s been going on.”
“Ah,” recognition flickers across Owen’s face, and his eyes dart briefly to his rearview mirror, meeting Dani’s, before sliding back to the road, “that. Well,” he lifts his shoulders, shrugging, “I’ve been employed at Bly for a while now. Henry’s a good boss, if a little absent, but I trust him. Besides,” his mustache twitches, and Dani leans forward, discerning, “Bly’s home, isn’t it?”
“Home?” Dani blinks. “I didn’t realize… I didn’t realize anyone lived at Bly. Henry didn’t say––”
“The town, I mean,” Owen clarifies quickly, waving an explanatory hand, “not the manor. I escaped for a bit,” he continues, and Dani smiles, appreciative and eager, “spent some time in France”––his shoulders straighten, proud, at Dani’s subsequent “what?”, impressed and delighted, and he grins––“studying to be a chef.”
“Yet here I was,” Dani’s smile softens, curious, “just thinking you were a driver.”
“No, no, no,” Owen chuckles, “only sometimes, when Henry asks me.”
“Miss Clayton,” Flora breathes then, reaching up to tug lightly on Dani’s sleeve, her face pressed against the window, “look. Cows.”
“Cows,” Dani agrees amiably, leaning over to look with her, the excited puffs of Flora’s breath fogging up the window in front of them. “Y’know,” she offers, eyes tracking the low wooden fencing sweeping by them as Owen drives, “I always liked to look out for cows when I’d be in the car growing up, too. Still do, really.”
“Really?” Flora’s head whips around to look at Dani, her eyes bright.
“Really,” Dani laughs, leaning back against the seat behind her as Flora finds her hand, threading their fingers together happily. “We had a lot more corn, though,” she adds absently, glancing over at Miles, rubbing the sleeve of his sweater fretfully over the fingerprints decorating, staining, the seventh issue of Star Wars: Droids.
“Corn,” Flora echoes.
Dani’s quiet, and eventually Flora turns back to the window, her forehead pressing back against the glass, her eyes darting, catching across the landscape as they go.
“You said…” Dani looks back up at Owen, meeting his eyes momentarily in the rearview mirror. “You said you’ve worked at Bly––at the manor, I mean––for a while?”
Owen hums his assent, nodding. “About…” he squints, “three years or so now?”
“What do you do…” Dani pauses, tugging her bottom lip between her teeth, thinking. “What do you do there, if you don’t mind my asking? Not,” she supplements quickly, her voice stumbling, wavering, “to be rude or anything, I just mean… Well, I thought… Since Henry doesn’t…”
Owen tosses his head back, offering Dani a reassuring smile before turning back to the road. “Doesn’t live there, you mean? It’s not rude at all, Miss Clayton. A good question, really”––Dani smiles gratefully––“I live in Bly, the town, with my mum, but there’s, uh,” his mustache twitches again, “there’s a housekeeper, Hannah Grose, who lives at the manor full-time. Looks after the place, takes care of it. Takes her job seriously,” his voice is quieter now, Dani thinks, almost tender, “Hannah does. The manor is her home, after all. It’s just been her, since,” he glances back at Dani in the rearview mirror again, jerking his head towards Miles, then Flora, “you know. Anyway,” Owen clears his throat, “I cook. I’m…” The car jerks, shuddering over a pothole in the road, and he grimaces. “I’m a rubbish driver,” he glances at his side mirror, eyes landing on the pitted pavement already disappearing behind them, “but not a bad cook, it turns out.”
“So you’re the cook,” Dani leans forward again, her fingers slipping out of Flora’s, and crosses her arms, leaning on the seatback in front of her. “Does it ever get lonely out here, just the two of you? You and…”
“Mrs. Grose,” Owen supplies.
“Mrs. Grose,” Dani finishes. “I can only imagine, the two of you out here, alone…”
Owen flushes, ducking his head, and it’s the first time, Dani notes, he’s taken his eyes off of the road for this long.
Next to her, Flora, having taken a sudden interest in the conversation at hand, listening intently, tilts her head to the side.
“The good news is,” he finally says, and from the way his shoulders slump, Dani’s not sure she believes him, “we’re not alone anymore, are we? We’ve got you, and Flora,” his eyes find Flora’s in the rearview mirror and she beams, wide and bright, her eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun, “and Miles, and Jamie now, too.”
“Yeah,” Owen shifts in his seat, “she’s the, uh…” he waves a hand, at once vague and clarifying as he turns, the steering wheel gliding smoothly beneath his other, “the… Security specialist? The one Henry hired.”
Right, Dani thinks dumbly, the trappings of circumstance rushing back to her, that.
It’s this, this, that Dani hadn’t signed up for.
Dani Clayton had not signed up for a… Jamie.
Dani understands that things happen, understands that it’s the way of the world. She understands Henry Wingrave’s high profile, had understood, immediately upon interviewing for her job, taking in the breadth Henry’s office, wide-eyed and gaping, exactly the value of the man, prosperous and precise, for whom she would come to work.
She understands disgruntled employees––she had been one of them, once, sixteen years old in a Dairy Queen polo, pressing, smearing a cherry-dipped cone into Richard Johnson’s sweater, breathless and ecstatic and so alive––and understands it’s not Henry’s fault, that he, so blinded by bourbon and grief, couldn’t have foreseen it.
The only person whose fault it is, Dani knows, is Peter Quint.
Peter Quint, who’d robbed Henry blind; Peter Quint, who’d disappeared, leaving a cacophony of chaos in his wake; Peter Quint, who’d eventually, inevitably, circled back for more, a shark smelling blood in the water, his face, pale and gaunt, leering at her through the front window of the Wingraves’ townhouse.
It’s not that Dani doesn’t appreciate the protective measures Henry’s taken, because she does. More than she thinks he could know, had he capacity enough to pay attention.
She’d appreciated the added security in London, appreciated Henry’s choice to contract a private firm rather than rely on the police, remembering bitterly the sergeant who’d told her, dismissive and bland, “I’m not sure what else you’d like me to do.”
She appreciates Henry moving herself and the children out to his family’s country home in Bly for added safety, appreciates the opportunity to, Flora and Miles’ private school in London abruptly abandoned, their tuition unrefunded, take on the burden of their education. (Dani appreciates, too, the generous salary increase Henry had given her to compensate for the added responsibility, appreciates more than ever her own training, ten years’ of teaching experience behind her.)
More than anything, Dani appreciates Henry’s dedication to his niece and nephew, his determination to protect them at––quite literally––all costs. She would do the same, is doing the same, for Flora and Miles, immediately and without doubt, plunging head first into icy waters if only to ensure them a semblance of safety. To ensure them a chance.
Which is why, Dani thinks, annoyance blurring and proud at the edges of her temperance, she doesn’t need this. Doesn’t need private security when they’re already miles away from London. Doesn’t need a… Jamie.
Dani can, she thinks, and Dani will, take care of Flora and Miles herself.
Dani has, happily, handily, spent her entire life taking care of other people. Her childhood had been dedicated to her mother (three parts hydrogen peroxide to one part dishwashing detergent could lift even the most stubborn of red wine stains; it was seven steps, her mother’s arm slung over her shoulder or her hand wrapped sloppily around Dani’s, from the garage to the basement, thirteen more up the stairs, and another twenty-three to her mother’s bed), her adolescence to Eddie (the tiny pocket screwdriver, used exclusively to tighten Eddie’s glasses, had lived in the front pocket of Dani’s bookbag from middle school onward; her planner had detailed due dates for both his assignments and hers, Dani’s own extracurricular endeavors filled in later, an afterthought), and her adulthood––as much as she’d experienced of it so far––had been to her students.
And now it was to Flora and Miles.
I could make a difference, Dani had told Henry after her interview had concluded, the words spilling out of her mouth in a jumble, a real difference.
Dani’s eyes flit to Flora, to Miles, and she leans further forward, her seatbelt pressing into her chest. “This… Jamie. She’s there already?”
“Mmhmm,” Owen nods, leaning forward, squinting through the windshield at the road ahead. “Got in yesterday afternoon. Did a whole sweep of the property already. Nicked a couple of my biscuits,” he adds, voice cheerful and something akin to a grumble, “while she was at it.”
Dani purses her lips, pensive, admiring, as she watches the road narrow, concrete yielding to gravel, watches the greenery around them spread, disperse, giving way to stone spires and chimneys, a checked roof and gleaming windows.
“D’you think,” she finally says, turning back to Owen, her voice low, furtive, “we really need it? Security, all the way out here?”
Owen pauses, considering. “I think,” he says, guiding the car around the gentle bend of the drive, “Henry thinks we do. And that,” the car rolls to a stop, the front of the manor emerging, looming and full, before them, “is enough for me. Here we are.”
It’s beautiful, Dani finds herself thinking, momentarily distracted, all of it. The manor, the grounds… She wishes, almost, that she hadn’t been so preoccupied as they’d arrived, that she could have taken so much more of Bly in, musing that she might have even liked to walk up the drive on foot, taking in the whole of the property as she’d gone.
What was it Owen had said? A sweep.
She might have, even, liked to have done her own sweep.
“What did she find?” Dani angles her head towards Owen, otherwise unmoving, Flora and Miles rushing to unbuckle their seatbelts beside her.
“What did who find?” Owen shifts the gear into park, sliding the key out of the ignition and slipping it into a pocket, turning to Dani.
“Jamie,” Dani says, dimly aware of the weight of the name on her tongue, the way it’s taken root in her brain, already, “what did she find? On her sweep.”
Owen looks at her for a second, brow furrowed.
His head whirls back around, a wide smile cracking his face as he sees a woman, tall and elegant, making her way towards the car. “That’ll be Hannah,” he announces warmly, undoing his own seatbelt and peering through the windshield. “As for Jamie,” he pauses, squinting, then nods as a second woman, noticeably shorter, slips between the yawning doors of the estate, “I’m not sure, actually. But you can ask her yourself, now. Here,” he slides out of the car, taking a step backwards to pull the door open for Flora, helping her out with a flourish, “m’lady.”
“Thank you, Owen,” Flora beams up at him.
Owen smiles. “Anytime, miss.”
Dani scrambles out after Flora, all warm determination and no grace, her eyes snapping, intent, to the woman making her way slowly, lazily, towards them.
Dani Clayton definitely did not sign up for this.
There are, Jamie knows with no uncertainty, worse gigs.
There are worse gigs than spending a month, at least, at a beautiful manor on beautiful grounds in the beautiful countryside, so far away from anyone else that the tiny pub in the adjoining town is the only one for hours in any direction.
There are worse gigs than spending most of her time outside, patrolling along rambling hedges and an overgrown lakefront, slipping, unnoticed, through knotted trees and trailing vines.
There are, Jamie thinks, watching Dani Clayton bumble out of Owen’s car, bumping her head softly against the door as she does, Dani’s eyes flying to Jamie, wide and startled and blue, so blue, in the golden afternoon light, much worse gigs.
They hold each other’s eyes and, just for a moment, Jamie forgets about sweeps. Forgets about the children, shoving each other and giggling, rushing around her, Hannah shepherding them inside. Forgets about anything other than the woman, blinding and certain, in front of her.
And then Dani’s straightening, taking a breath, and, all proud shoulders and stubborn jaw, crossing immediately to Jamie.
Jamie watches her as she walks, the soft gravel of the drive crunching under Dani’s boots, Dani’s arms pumping, strained, her fists clenched at her sides. “Dani Clayton,” she says when she reaches Jamie, forcing a splayed hand out between them, her smile warm, tight.
Jamie stares at her for a minute, deciding, carefully, how she wants to let this play out. She lets a smirk hover at the corner of her lips.
“I know,” she finally says, reaching a hand out to take Dani’s. Dani’s hands are smooth and perfect and Jamie’s willing to bet there’s at least two tubes of overpriced hand cream hidden somewhere in that overstuffed backpack of hers.
“I know,” Jamie says again, mild and matter-of-fact. “Our shared boss Lord Henry Wingrave shared your information with me ahead of your arrival today. Background check and all. Your Italy patch is backwards, by the way.”
Dani’s brow furrows, and Jamie can feel Dani’s body, across from her, tense. “Background check?”
She ignores, Jamie notices, pointedly, Jamie's critique about her backpack.
“Standard procedure,” Jamie grins. “Nothing personal, promise.”
Dani huffs, and Jamie watches as a few flyaway strands of hair flutter up and against her forehead. “Maybe not,” she says, “but you don't think a heads up would’ve been nice?”
“Giving you one now, aren’t I?”
Dani only stares at her.
Jamie still hasn’t, she realizes dumbly, let go of Dani’s hand.
She lets it drop, and Dani shivers at the loss of contact, a small jolt through her spine that has Dani blinking, shaking her head, and Jamie feeling as if Dani’s only just now there with her, as if she’d disappeared for a moment, Jamie realizing her absence solely upon her return.
“Jamie Taylor, by the way,” Jamie shoves her hands into the pockets of her overalls, inclining her head towards Dani, “Lloyd Security Enterprises.”
“I know,” Dani chirps. Dani’s tone is friendly, placid, and Jamie has the nagging suspicion that, somewhere between the shine of her eyes and the curling pout of her lips, Dani is smug all the same. There’s a confidence to Dani Clayton, Jamie’s observed, a surety that feels somehow both improbable and absolute, Dani digging her heels in, but digging them into a mudslide, capricious and roiling.
“I may have told her,” Owen slips past them, Dani’s bags tucked under his arms, and Dani smiles after him, obliged, “a bit about you on the way.”
Jamie laughs, turning to call after him. “All good things, yeah?”
“If being a biscuit thief is a good thing…” Owen’s voice, echoing from the entryway, fades into the foyer, and Jamie shakes her head, grinning after him, before turning back to Dani.
“Not what you were expecting, then?” Jamie rocks forward on the balls of her feet, and, waiting for Dani to lean back, to maintain the distance between them, raises an eyebrow when she doesn’t.
“Not really, no.”
“What?” Jamie cocks her head, her jaw jutting forward, curious and proud. “Weren’t expecting a girl?”
Dani scoffs, and she sounds almost bored, Jamie thinks, when she offers a cool “no, not that” in response.
Dani’s quiet again, watching her, eyes discerning and darting as they dance around Jamie’s face, and it should be unsettling––it would be easier, clearer for Jamie, if it were––but Jamie can’t look away.
Dani blinks then, and it’s like her entire body relaxes, her mouth quirking up into an apologetic smile. “Look,” she says, smoothing three hours' worth of wrinkles from the front of her skirt, “I’m… I’m glad you’re here. Really, I am. I… Appreciate the work you do, and I’m glad Henry’s looking out for us.”
Jamie can tell Dani’s been practicing this speech in her head for at least the last five minutes, has been practicing it, maybe, since before they’d met, when all Jamie had been to Dani was a mere suggestion, a name rolling off of Owen’s tongue.
It is, as far as attempted letdowns go, painfully average.
“But…” Dani bites her lip, glances down at her hands, clenching, unclenching, at the material of her skirt.
Dani glances back up at her, and when their eyes meet, Jamie’s taken aback by how clear Dani’s are. “Thank you,” Dani says next, voice confident and perfectly collected, and it’s already maddening, Jamie wonders, how nothing about Dani Clayton adds up, “but I’m not sure we’ll be needing your help.”
“No,” Dani’s hands find her hips, proud, “I can take care of myself.”
Jamie doesn't respond, sweeping, instead, her eyes down Dani’s figure and back up again, lingering, catching on Dani’s chest, at the hitch of Dani’s breath under the weight of Jamie’s gaze.
“Can I what?”
“Take care of yourself.”
Dani blinks, and Jamie’s pleased with the surprise she sees there. “I…” Dani flushes, her brows pressing together. “I… Yes.” The single syllable is stubborn and staunch and Jamie can't decide if she wants to hear it over and over or ever again.
“You sure?” Jamie asks, relishing in Dani’s deepening flush, at the soft crease that springs up between her brows. “Because right now, I see smooth-soled boots on gravel, an off-kilter center of gravity––probably not even very consistent to begin with, mind you-–thanks to that backpack weighing you down, and a body so tense that you might just shatter the second anyone so much as touches you.”
Jamie watches Dani’s nostrils flair, grinning at the tension that springs to her jaw, Dani’s fists clenching, again, at her sides.
“Is that why you were looking at me?” Dani breathes, her voice quiet, tight.
“Why else,” Jamie lowers her voice to match Dani’s, “would I be looking at you?”
Dani's eyelids flutter.
Jamie grins then, leaning back, and takes several springing steps backward towards the manor. “Trust me, Dani Clayton. You need me. So let me do my job, and I’ll let you do yours. Though,” she stops briefly, grin widening, “if I can give you a bit of advice”––she doesn’t wait for Dani to respond, doesn’t even pause––“lighten up a bit, yeah? I mean, Christ, Poppins.”
Jamie’s turned on her heel and is halfway through the front doors when––
“Maybe you should take your own advice,” she hears Dani call after her, “lighten up a bit yourself!”
This, this, might be a problem.
There may not, Jamie’s realizing, be worse gigs after all.