Location: Dalrington Ranch • Date: Summer 2023

Somewhere between dinner and Jude serving the digestif, Louis had discretely excused himself. The Darlingtons and the Daltons were lovely, but between the enthusiastic curiosity about their play and the truly personal questions, the young man needed a moment to recharge.

After a quick stop at the loo, he had instinctively wandered into Lidia's study. Though quadruple the size of her office at WADA, it was just as neat. His finger traced the edge of her desk. They had kissed here once, he remembered a draft of their play falling on the ground, leaving the floors covered with papers as he had lifted her on the desk. She had pulled away shortly after and had started picking up the papers leaving him slightly frustrated though he had not insisted.

Leaning on the desk he looked at the library, smiling when he noticed a few titles he had suggested. He took one of the books and opened it at random.
"You know, snooping isn't very polite," Ava murmured from where she leaned against the door jamb, a glass of wine in her hand. She had lost track of how many she'd had during the course of the day, but she had yet to slow done. Jude had made a comment earlier in the evening, but her little brother had always been wimp and he had shut up very quickly with one pointed look. Charlotte had been watching her with a disapproving gaze all evening, and William had barely looked at her, but she didn't care. They were only here because of tradition, and after this, they would go back to their lives and forget she existed. Geoffrey said she had made her bed, and now she had to lie in it. Perhaps he was right, though she would never admit that out loud.
Funny how Lidia seemed to have folded the corner of the page on which his favorite poem could be read.

Startled by the voice behind him, Louis closed the book mid-verse. "Oh," he looked at the book in his hand as if it would offer an excuse for his presence. "I wasn't snooping," he started as he nervously fiddled with the corner of the book's cover. "I Just..." he scratched the back of his neck. It seemed impolite to admit to needing a moment to himself, but it was better than being accused of snooping. "I'm hiding," he whispered with a shy smile.
Stepping into the study, Ava moved slowly across the room, her gaze never leaving the boy who stood fidgeting against one of her sister-in-laws vast bookshelves. Once upon a time this had been her father's study, before everything had happened, before the war, and she had spent the majority of her childhood in here, reading everything and anything she could get her hands on. Now the only thing left in here that belonged to her father was his desk, a great hulking oak antique passed down from his father before. It had been passed on to Jude in her parents will but he'd had no use for it and instead of giving it to Ava, he'd given it to Lidia. This had always been a sore spot for the blonde, and even now as she moved pasted it, she was unable to look at the papers scattered across it.

"Hiding?" She inquired with a raised brow. "From whom? Your hostess?"
"No, of course not," he answered a little too quickly. "Your brother and sister in law are great hosts. I am grateful that they invited me."

Being around Lidia while her entire family surrounded them had not been easy. Feeling her fingers brush against his as she had passed him the various dishes had been more excruciating than Louis had anticipated. Feeling as though her son would realize their subterfuge every time he had addressed her had layered their interactions with an awkwardness that reminded him of the first few weeks during which they had worked together.

"So many people, so many questions," he explained with a slight shrug. "I suppose I'm an introvert. I just needed a moment to recharge." He smiled shyly.
"An introvert?" Ava laughed, "This day must be excruciating for you then. The only other introvert here is the wife of Lidia's lesbian friend and she seems to be fairing better than you. " Though to be fair, Margot was married to Marley and had been coming to Easter weekends at the Darlington Ranch for years now. Margot was used to the hustle and bustle, this boy was not.

Taking a sip of her wine, she peered at Louis over the top of the rim, "Lidia has quite the personality. How do you deal with her every day?"
"Not excruciating," the young man interjected as he didn't want his feelings to be misinterpreted. "A small challenge perhaps, but it's worth it." Minus a few minor mishaps Louis had enjoyed himself.

It wasn't the question that bothered him, it was the tone with which it was asked. "She has high expectations and she doesn't accept anything less," he admitted through he was not willing to let that be qualified as a bad trait. "Working with her means achieving excellence, she is the best mentor I could ask for."
Apparently Louis was a lot more taken with her sister-in-law than Ava had initially realized. The boy obviously had some weird mix of hero-worship slash work-place crush going on here and it made Ava smile gleefully on the inside.

“I met your mother once before,” Ava said, changing the subject drastically, “Evelyn Winters is quite the woman. I’m surprised she doesn’t have you chained to your desk at the prophet.”
Strange how everyone felt compelled to tell him about their encounters with Evelyn when his namesake was just as well known. He supposed the ex-editor in chief offered more memorable encounters than Vera who had always been a people pleaser.

"She makes sure I complete all my duties and then some," he shared while he put the book back on its shelf. Empty handed and self-conscious he placed his hands in his pockets. "I'm hoping the play will help her understand that this is something I should pursue."
Ava nodded in slight understanding, "Of course, why wouldn't your mother understand how much passion and interest you have in the arts." Of course, Ava wouldn't have let William pursue such a thing, but Louis didn't need to know that.

Taking a sip of her wine, she stepped in closer, "Your a handsome boy. You definitely don't take after your father."
Louis frowned, his father had always been a troublesome topic. People who told him they could see a resemblance disconcerted him and those who said they did not were just as upsetting.

"Thank you," he said nonetheless, as he had been raised to humbly accept compliments. Louis would have taken a step away from her, but the desk trapped him. "I expect you'll come to the prem, premier," he stuttered attempting to make conversation.
She lifted a shoulder in a half shrug, "Perhaps," Ava wasn't really inclined to do so, but if she got to see Louis again, maybe it would be worth it. He really was quite handsome. He had a boyish charm about him she'd always found quite attractive. It was what drew her to Geoffrey many years ago.

"I haven't really been invited. Not officially."
"Oh well, I'd be happy to give you one of my tickets," he offered with an apologetic smile. Other than his mothers and a few friends Louis did not intend to have that many guests for the premiere.

Hopefully, Lidia wouldn't mind. Apparently, she had yet to invite her sister in law to the event.
Ava smiled, all teeth and all shark, "Good," She replied, inching closer and then lifting a hand swiftly so that she cupped his jaw tightly. Tilting his chin to the side, she eyed him keenly, "So very handsome." She turned his head to the other side and ran her thumb across his jawline.
His eyes widened, but otherwise, his body seemed to become unresponsive. Why was she so close to him? Why was she touching him? He wanted to wank his head away from her grip but didn't want to upset her.

"Miss Darlington," he stammered. Her icy eyes sent a shiver down his spine. She was beautiful, but sadness veiled over her allure. "We should go back," he added before a thick swallow caught in his throat.