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Sphinx looked at her stonily for a moment, then, calling up all his powers of tact (and having become very aware of Millie, who was hovering anxiously in the background, apparently waiting to tell Charlie something but evidently eavesdropping for all that she was worth) managed to keep his voice neutral as he replied,

“They are good children, it is just that they can sometimes become a little overenthusiastic. However, I shall be sure to see that they control themselves whilst around your family – if, of course, you can bear to continue our acquaintance.”

“There's no need for that!” exclaimed Millie quickly, coming forward. With an exasperated glance at her mother, she added, “Actually, it was dad who said that he didn't want the little kids getting involved anymore – but he meant with the searching for Hilda and everything. He's worried about them, just like he's worried about all of us, just like he's worried about Hilda, just like he's worried about whether or not he'll have a job to go back to, just like he's worried by the fact that Hilda's family aren't being allowed to fly out and join us for security reasons but they still keep ringing every couple of hours.”

Neither of them noticed Charlie, who, although she hadn't physically moved, had suddenly become silent, with a strange smile playing at the sides of her mouth. She tried to remain stern and disapproving, tried her best to remember her children and remain indignant on their behalf, but she'd never entirely agreed with Charles anyway, and as she watched her eldest daughter she had the undeniable sense of being something of a third and most unwanted party.

“We would be best to leave you alone, then,” managed Sphinx, turning on his heel. Millie flushed and bit her lip, evidently not wanting him to disappear on such an ending but neither wanting to admit a weakness and call him back. The dilemma was solved by the appearance, at the back door, of Augusta, looking her usual robust and cheerful self.

“Where do you think you're going?” she demanded of her son.

“We are not exactly welcome here.”

“Nonsense!” beamed Augusta, looking to Charlie for help. “I met the kids and they told me what had happened. No need to get all worked up, though, your father was looking for them anyway. The police came over last night to talk to us, and I think that they might have had a word about not interfering too much in the investigation, he was muttering something about it anyway. So he was going to take them up hunting for mountain deer today, to keep them occupied. I'm sorry, Charlie, but he said it might be better without Ashley and Stacia, because they don't know how long they'll be and it might wear them out.”

“Oh, they're grounded anyway,” replied Charlie, unable to keep a note of relief out of her voice. “Look, I'm sorry about all of this, it's just Chas being a grump, as I've told him. Why don't I make us a coffee? You were only halfway through telling me about how you once got the better of Matey when all this kicked off.”

Considering this to be diplomacy, Sphinx decided that his best course of action was to retrieve Amy on some fictitious reason and leave, while his icy disapproval could still be felt. He got three steps into this plan when a hand on his arm made him stop and turn around, meeting Millie's eyes fearlessly. But there was something in them that appealed to his better nature, and despite himself he felt his cheeks grow warmer at the ungentlemanly thoughts he had been entertaining a moment previously.

“Please don't let this make it awkward between us,” she murmured, awkwardly. Lowering her eyes, she searched for words, and eventually stammered “You – I mean, your family – you – you've all made the holiday so fun. Don't ruin that. Dad'll get over it in a couple of days when they find Auntie Hilda, and he's being like this with everyone at the moment, honest.”

“We were thinking of going to the nearest city tomorrow,” said Sphinx after what felt like a long silence. “Just Phoebe and Amy and I, perhaps Constance Rose as well if Bat doesn't need her. You and John and Will would be welcome to join us.”

“That would be nice,” replied Millie with a smile. Deciding that it would be more tactful to leave the conversation on this olive branch, she finished with, “I promised dad I'd take him in his elevenses, he's in the study talking to various diplomats about when we can go home and things. I'll tell him that we're likely to be out tomorrow.”

Sphinx nodded, once, and went back to the salon, from which issued an excited conversation on the merits or otherwise of various means of execution. Millie went into the kitchen to put together the tray that she always delighted in taking to Charles' study. For as long as she could remember, now, this had been her chance to talk to him, to have half an hour to themselves where she could unburden her problems or share her joys. He tried to find time like this for all of the children, but for Millie, especially, closer to him than the rest, it was precious.

She'd just finished pouring out the pot of tea when there was a shriek from upstairs, followed by the sound of excited footsteps culminating in somebody positively falling down the last few stairs. Charlie and Augusta, who'd been talking happily at the table, got as far as turning around to see what the fuss was when Stacia burst through the door. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair flew wildly around her – she also had a magnificent bruise appearing on one cheek, presumably from her fall. Her eyes sparkled, and she flung herself onto Charlie's lap.

“Mum,” she shrieked breathlessly. “Mum, we were playing in the nursery and Mary-Lou came in and she dropped something and it looked like sweets so Poppy was going to try it and that's when we found out she'd dropped it 'cause only Poppy knew 'till then, then Will came and he said I was to come and tell you but quietly and without a fuss 'cause he thinks that it's – it's – drugs!”

And, with a flourish, she produced the small bag of powder.

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