“Well!” Sandra smiled, taking a deep breath of salt air as the carriage rolled away. “Here we are!”
She cast a quick glance at her traveling companion. Nicole had her brows faintly furrowed, her nose twitching. But when she saw Sandra watching, she flashed a quick smile.
“You’ll like Dannie and Cressida,” Sandra stumbled on. “Really. They’re both very …” Well, nice wasn’t quite the word for it. Not that they weren’t nice, but to say that a person was nice … well, it was a bit of a bland descriptor, and Dannie and Cressida together were anything but bland. Individually, they were both a cart full of exotic spices from Takemizu-way — together? Together, they were a boatful.
But how to put that to Nicole without scaring her off?
“They’re both very good Sims,” Sandra settled for, which was true enough, if not quite as zesty a descriptor she wanted. Still, it was better than “nice.” “And you’ll like them,” she repeated.
“Maybe I’m worried about whether they’ll like me,” replied Nicole, still smiling, but more faintly than ever before.
“Oh, they will! Don’t you worry about that!” Sandra rushed to say. Not that there was anything wrong with rushing when what was said was true — was there? And it was true. It had to be true. Dannie and Cressida could be acerbic at times — if always amusing — but they wouldn’t do that to Nicole. More than anything, it seemed to be lack of sense or intelligence that set them off, and Nicole seemed to have plenty of both. Yes, she would be fine.
“I’m not even a mother, though. Yet, that is.” Nicole blushed and kicked the grass below her feet.
But of course Sandra couldn’t let that go — not and still claim to be a woman in company. “O-oh?”
“Oh!” Nicole looked up and blushed. “Oh, that — that wasn’t meant as an announcement! But I’m sure I will have one. Soon,” she grinned. She looked fairly confident, too.
And why not? Milo had mentioned to Christopher who had mentioned to Sandra that Nicole was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. There probably would be an announcement soon.
“Well, if the girls give you a hard time — not that they will — but if they tease, you can always pretend, and I won’t tell on you. But — but let’s go inside, shall we?” Sandra gestured to the pub, brittle smile at the ready. She could feel her courage fleeing her with every heartbeat — who knew how Nicole must have felt.
“Let’s,” Nicole answered, and the two of them hurried across the cobblestones and up the steps.
Sandra took a deep breath, steeling herself for the inevitable moment of opening the doors. The tearoom where they were to meet Dannie and Cressida was upstairs, but that meant they had to get through the downstairs first.
And downstairs was the sailor’s pub.
But if Sandra was expecting Nicole to react as she first had when entering this pub — quailing back from the door, sure she was in the wrong place, only steered forward by Cressida who swore this was the place — she was quite mistaken. Nicole’s eyebrows went up slightly, but other than that, she gave no reaction. But then, maybe she wouldn’t. Sandra had heard that the Spring Onion, where Nicole had worked before her marriage, was a much more down-at-heel place than this.
“In-teresting,” Nicole murmured, glancing at the worn woods, the ramshackle stools and chairs, and the couple sailors nursing their drinks no little curiosity. “This is the place?”
“Aye, aye,” Sandra replied, linking arms with Nicole and hurrying her to the steps. “The tearoom is upstairs. And nobody will bother us,” she added in a lower voice. “Baron Ferreira’s warehouse is just across the way. His wife and Dannie have come to this place for years.”
Sandra shot her a grateful smile as they hurried up the last of the steps. They quickly deposited their cloaks in the cloakroom, rounded the corner …
And there were Dannie and Cressida, colonizing the couch closest to the fire.
“Ladies!” Sandra began.
“So here she is!” Dannie interrupted.
“The famous Nicole!” chimed in Cressida.
“We’ve heard so much about you,” gushed Dannie. Except … Dannie only usually gushed when she was being ironic …
“All to the good, of course,” added Cressida, gushing just as much — and Cressida doubly didn’t gush!
“Indeed! Why, according to Sandra, you’re a virtual paragon — why, you sly thing, you!” Dannie actually batted her eyelashes at the last bit!
“Dannie?” asked Sandra.
“All right, that was definitely overdoing it,” chuckled Cressida. “Now Sandra’s afraid you’re not really you, Dannie.” She flashed a smile at Nicole. “And pleased to meet you, Nicole. I’m Cressida Tabard, and this is Dannie Ferreira.”
“Hey! The Vice President doesn’t get to do the introductions!”
“She does when the President is too busy trying to frighten the newest member to be sensible,” Cressida retorted. As Nicole continued to stand there, gaze volleying from one to the other, eyebrow raised — Sandra sure she was looking just as confused — Cressida added, “Well, have a seat, ladies, we don’t bite!”
“Most of the time,” Dannie snickered as Sandra waved Nicole over to the ottoman and stole a seat from a nearby table for herself.
“For the last time, Dannie, we do not need to know exactly how you and Rob went about conceiving the new baby! We can fill in the blanks ourselves, I assure you!”
“Miss Cressida!” Dannie gasped, her hand fluttering protectively over her stomach. “The baby has a name, I’ll have you know!”
“Oh, stop saying that, Dannie,” Cressida chuckled. “You know the baby will be a boy if you keep going on like that.”
“And what of it? He’s known my plans for him ever since he was just a bit of sick in the mornings.” Dannie tossed her head. “It’s on his head if he decides he still wants to be boy, knowing very well that he’s going to be named Maude either way.”
That finally coaxed Nicole into speech. Generally Dannie had that effect on other Sims. She shocked you into speechlessness at first, and then she kept going until she said something so outrageous that you had to protest. And Sandra had to hand it to Nicole; it had taken Sandra twice as long to find her voice. “You … would name your boy Maude? Truly?”
“For our grandmother,” Cressida answered.
“And I honestly think she’d get far more of a kick out of a boy being named Maude than a girl being named Maude,” Dannie added. Nicole looked hardly more clear, and Sandra’s heart swelled. She would have to explain to Nicole later. “Anyway!” Dannie threw her hands up in the air. “Nicole — you don’t mind if I call you Nicole, do you? — you never said! How did we do?”
“How did you … do?” Nicole shot another quizzical glance at Sandra, but this time Sandra could only shrug and shake her head.
“Our imitation! We were trying to out-Babette Babette! And since you’re her nearest neighbor … well, we thought you’d be able to judge our performance!” Dannie’s hand came to rest over her heart. “Were we that bad? Truly?”
“… Who is Babette?” Nicole asked.
“Lady Gwynedd?” Cressida filled in. “Dannie’s sister-in-law?”
“Lady — oh! We … we still haven’t been introduced.” Nicole flushed, but a smile tried valiantly to fight its way through it, warring to be the dominant expression on Nicole’s face.
It lost. Dannie’s hands fell to the cushions. “You’re joking.”
“Give her time,” Cressida stepped in, even leaning forward a bit — probably so Nicole couldn’t see the exact expression on Dannie’s face. Sandra would bet it was somewhere between “irate” and “fuming.” “That whole family is going through some tough … tough times right now.” And don’t you start, Cressida added to Dannie in a glance Sandra couldn’t help overhearing.
Dannie started anyway. “That’s no excuse! When — when Granny was dying, I hardly went crawling under a rock! And –”
Cressida laid her hand on Dannie’s knee. “It’s different when it’s your parent. It is,” she added before Dannie could snap again. “Leave Babette be. She’ll probably be feeling more … social when … when things calm down.”
Dannie raised an eyebrow at Cressida, but Cressida stared her down as always. Sandra watched, impressed as ever. But Cressida’s stare did the trick. Dannie leaned back, sighed, shook her head, and grumbled, “I doubt she’d be any more friendly if things were calm,” before she turned back to Nicole. “So, tell us about yourself, Lady Carpenter! How did you and Sir Milo meet?”
Nicole blinked, cast a quick glance at Sandra, but to her credit she answered quickly. “We … well, the first time we met was when I was working at the Onion — the Spring Onion,” she clarified, reddening. “He was … with some friends. In commoner clothes, so I didn’t recognize him. It must have been — oh, almost three years ago now!”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Cressida smirked.
But Dannie had other thoughts. “Three years ago? When we were still in Camford?”
Nicole tilted her head to one side. “In — Camford? You were there, too?”
Dannie nodded. “Oh, aye. Your Milo and I were in the same year. And since he was always keeping company with Prince Tom — and I was always keeping company with Princess Jessie, we used to run into each other a lot.”
Nicole’s jaw fell — then it righted itself, and she smiled. “Sandra mentioned that you knew the Princess and the Crown Princess.”
“Oh, she did, did she?” Dannie asked, raising an eyebrow in Sandra’s direction.
“Well,” Nicole laughed, “maybe Cora did, technically.”
“Ah, Cora! That adorable little lady! Well, if she mentioned it, all is forgiven.”
“Forgiven?” guffawed Cressida. “What, you’re not bragging about them every chance you get?”
“Cressida! Bite your tongue! Unlike some people of our mutual acquaintance, I don’t see the need to brag about every notable I meet.” Dannie fluffed her hair and Cressida sniggered. “Besides, they brag about knowing me.”
“What?” gasped Sandra.
“Dannie!” Cressida smacked her arm. “Stop! Now you really are sounding like Babette!”
“I protest!” Dannie gasped, her hand coming to rest on her breast, blinking in amazed innocence. If you didn’t know her well, you could almost believe the performance. Almost. “Babette would never say such a thing!”
“Oh, she’d just think it, is that what you’re saying?” Cressida snorted.
“Yes,” replied Dannie. “And what’s worse, she might even believe it. While I will say it morning, noon, and night, but I would never make the mistake of believing a word that came out of my own mouth.”
“And you shouldn’t, either,” Cressida added to Nicole.
Nicole replied, “I will keep that in mind.” Sandra couldn’t begin to guess how she kept a straight face. They must have bred amazing poker players in Reme.
“But — Cressida! Sandra! Nicole!” Dannie pretended to gasp. “We haven’t finished grilling Nicole yet! So, Nicole, where are you from?”
Even as Nicole answered, Sandra knit her brows. This was … not like Dannie. Even she didn’t bounce off the walls this much, as a rule. Sandra leaned from one side to the other, trying to get a closer look at Cressida.
Cressida caught her glance. Helena, she mouthed. Worse.
Oh, no! Sandra leaned back. No wonder Dannie was bouncing around like a grasshopper with far too much coffee in him. She must have been doing everything she could to keep the thoughts at bay.
Sandra wished — almost — that she could empathize. But Christopher had never been close to his mother, and his grandfather, to whom he had been close, had died before Sandra and Christopher even met. So there was nothing and no one —
Perhaps not nothing and no one. Certainly Christopher’s mood on the day they had received the news of Vortigern had been the blackest she’d ever seen it. Not just black, either, but … sad. And sometimes, when Sandra was least expecting it, the dark cloud would steal over Christopher again, and the only sunshine that could dispel it was to play with the children.
Still, all that had to be nothing compared to what Dannie and her family were going through now. If she hadn’t known Dannie, Sandra would have claimed it to be amazing that she found it in her to go out and enjoy herself with her friends at all. Since she did know Dannie, Sandra could only suppose that this was her way of keeping sane.
“So, Reme itself?” Dannie was saying, drawing Sandra back into the conversation. “With the Emperor’s palace and everything?”
Even Sandra, Ludenwic girl that she was, had to blink; and Cressida’s jaw was falling as Cressida watched. “Did — did you ever see it?” Cressida gasped.
“What? The Emperor’s palace?” Nicole asked.
“Everyone’s seen it,” Nicole replied, clearly mystified. “Well — the outside of it, that is. It’s rather hard to miss.”
“Inside?” Dannie asked, almost wistfully.
“I …” Nicole opened her mouth, shut it, and shrugged. “Well, um, some parts are open to the public. But I never saw them.”
“Can you believe this girl?” Dannie asked of the ceiling. “Grew up a stone’s throw away from the Emperor’s palace, and she never went inside!”
“I didn’t say I was a stone’s throw!”
“Metaphorically speaking,” Dannie waved her hand.
“Well — er — Sandra, you grew up in — Ludenwic, didn’t you?” Nicole asked.
“And parts of King Vortigern’s castle are opened to the public, aren’t they?”
“Aye,” replied Sandra, guessing where this was going.
“Hey!” Dannie interjected. “Not fair! She wouldn’t go into the palace when she was married — not if she — er, that is to say, from everything I’ve heard of King Vortigern, I highly doubt Sandra would have been welcome.”
“Which was King Vortigern’s loss, of course,” Cressida interjected.
Dannie glared at her. “You know that I was just about to say that.”
“Indeed,” Cressida grinned brightly, “I do.”
Dannie rolled her eyes, Sandra snickered, and Nicole managed a quick smile before Dannie resumed the conversation. “Anyway, I maintain that asking Sandra’s opinion on the matter is hardly fair, given the state of that family and that king — meaning no offense to either of your in-laws, of course.”
“You just insulted King Vortigern and you expect us not to take offense?” Sandra interrupted.
“Well … do you?”
“… No,” Sandra admitted. Nicole only shook her head.
“See! I was right!” Dannie grinned. “Although maybe I should have said, meaning no offense to either of your husbands. I think I can get away with insulting King Vortigern and any of his bastards who care to live up to the name — which your husbands most certainly don’t — don’t you?”
“We’re probably far enough away,” Cressida replied drily.
“Excellent! So, Nicole, you must admit that I’m right.”
“No,” replied Nicole.
“No?” Dannie gasped.
“Because Sandra wasn’t always married.” Nicole grinned at Sandra. “Were you, Sandra?”
“No,” Sandra chuckled, grinning back, “I most certainly wasn’t!”
“And yet you never found your way into the public parts of the palace,” Nicole replied, leaning back and almost … smirking?
“Well, the palace was hardly for folks like — us,” Sandra replied, shrugging. “You know, the poor.”
“Oh — oh, aye,” Nicole agreed, nodding so hard Sandra briefly wondered if she would give herself neck strain.
“Really, when they said public …” Sandra glanced at Dannie and shrugged. “They meant more the gentry, or the wealthy burghers. The ones who could sit in the wings and watch His Majesty feast and not look too out of place.”
Cressida sighed. “I always wanted to go to one of those … just once, just to see … everything.” She glanced at Nicole. “Did you ever?”
“The Emperor never feasts in public,” replied Nicole, “but … I think I know what you mean.”
“Trust the Remans to spoil all of our fun,” Dannie replied, her tongue clacking as she shook her head, slow and sure as an old matron tut-tutting over the news of some other Sim’s misfortune — news that had secretly made her day.
“Well … even if they have, Cressida, Nicole — me, for that matter! — we can always manage something here, can’t we?” Sandra bit her lip. “Dannie, don’t you think the King is bound to have a public feast eventually?”
Dannie frowned. “You know … I don’t know. I truly don’t.” Sandra breathed a sigh of relief; here was the real Dannie, not the girl who had been jumping from wall to wall earlier. Perhaps she had put Helena far enough into the back of her mind so that her real self could emerge. “I might ask Princess Jess …” She bit her lip. “When she gets back.”
“She’s with her husband,” Cressida added, winking at Nicole, “off in Glasonland, so Dannie is reduced to slumming it with us.”
“Slumming it! I am not slumming it! If you think I would start my very own club with Sims who I would only slum it with … although speaking of that, Nicole, how’s your handwriting?”
Nicole blinked, spreading her hands in confusion. “Good enough, I suppose?”
Sandra barely staved off a blink. She hadn’t been certain Nicole could write, even if she must have been able to read. Not that Nicole was unintelligent, but how much cause did an average tavern maid with a decent enough memory have to write?
“Excellent!” Dannie answered. “We need a secretary. You’re it, Nicole.”
“And what will you do for the next person to join?” laughed Cressida. “We still haven’t gotten any money for Sandra to keep track of!”
“Money is coming! I promise, I promise. Once I figure out how to set up a revenue stream,” Dannie replied.
“And what is Nicole going to do?”
“Take minutes at the meetings, of course! You can start next time,” Dannie added charitably to Nicole.
“Meetings? We don’t have meetings! We have gossip sessions!” laughed Cressida.
“Ah, Cressida,” Dannie replied, shaking her head and beginning to rise, “that’s your problem. You seem to think that a meeting needs to be more than that. Anyway!” She slowly straightened, wincing as she rubbed her back. “Now that we have a secretary, I say that this calls for a celebration!”
“A celebration? Oh, what kind?” asked Cressida.
Dannie turned to Cressida and grinned. “The slumming kind.”
And — naturally — since she was Dannie — she wasn’t kidding.
Still, as they all sat around the ancient and battered card tables and Nicole shuffled, Sandra had to admit to herself that it had been a good first meeting with Nicole. The club now had a secretary, and what was better, Nicole seemed to have taken to Dannie and Cressida, once she got used to them. Yes, things were looking up.
And who knew? Maybe if the other girls lost enough … Sandra could begin to set up a revenue stream for the club.