The laughter that filled the room came unexpectedly from Helen's mother. "Holiday? Well, there you are. Problem sorted."
Her father frowned. "What the devil do you mean?"
"It's a holiday. So that means you will enjoy yourself, you will not have to do any work, and you will leave Helen to manage her own work."
Fairfax looked disappointed. "Can we at least finalise the details on the Leeds project before you go off gallivanting across the channel?"
"Yes, yes, all right. But while I'm gone your mother will have to be consulted. And yes," he added with a smile that was perhaps a little too pleased, "You will probably have to explain some of the finer points to her."
"As I know nothing about the project," the mother in question added dryly.
"But she's got a great head for figures and far more sense than I have." As usual when he was complimenting his wife, Rochester's voice got gruffer as he went on.
Someone unfamiliar with him could easily assume that his tone indicated anger. His fire-ravaged visage recoiled with something that appeared to mimic pain, yet signaled something far different.
A fact his wife had long been aware of, naturally. She crossed over to his side and sat on the arm of his chair. "You need to get away. It's been far too long since you've wandered further than York."
"I don't need to wander," he said, putting a rough hand on top of her smaller one.
"Perhaps not, but I think you will find that you do need to get out into the world a little and stretch those long legs of yours somewhere other than this library."
"It will be a terrific adventure, Papa." Helen added. "You will find many things to amuse you and cause all manner of trouble."
He made a rumbling sound that was not easy to interpret. "But I can't bring the dog."
"Oh, all right." Though he frowned theatrically, both his wife and daughter knew he was pleased.
In the morning, preparations began. Helen hopped out of bed at an early hour, waving away her maid Edith's well-intentioned attempts to help her dress. "I will have to dress myself on this trip, Edith. Only simple clothes, things I can easily slip in and out of."
The maid tutted. "You make it sound positively indecent."
Helen laughed. "There will be no possibility of anything indelicate with Papa along."
"Oh, Miss Helen, he's going to be no end of trouble to you, I expect."
"Nonsense," Helen said as she rubbed a smudge off her favourite goggles. "Papa will lend a sense of gravity to the adventure."
"And to the gondola," Edith added.
Helen threw back her head and laughed. "The ship has plenty of lift. It won't be a problem."
She was still chuckling when she headed out to the stables. Her father's voice rose in the distance, remonstrating with Thompson about some doubtless meaningful detail of Belial's maintenance in his absence.
"Not the common oats," he warned with severity. "The pressed oats with honey. Don't forget!"
"Of course not, sir," Thompson said. After many years he had become inured to the imperious demands of his employer and remained as phlegmatic as the elderly bay gelding he generally rode on errands. "The oats with honey."
"Mind you, don't over feed him. He can be a greedy beggar." Rochester thumped the huge stallion's neck affectionately and the horse nosed him just as roughly, forcing him to take a step back.
"Right, sir, not over fed," Thompson repeated.
"Papa, we really must get going." Helen pulled at his sleeve. "Signor Romano has the ship ready to fly."
"Yes, I suppose." He swung up on the horse as Helen climbed aboard her fat grey mare. "Did you say farewell to your mother?"
"Yes, of course. Did you?" Helen enjoyed seeing her father blush.
"Don't be impertinent. Let's go." Belial wheeled around and the two of them clattered off through the courtyard in the early morning light.