It turns out the original version I posted of this chapter was incomplete. Before we move on, here's the complete version which sets up a very important "change" of direction for one of our characters...
Hattie made sure that Reggie went through to the drawing room to wait for her, prodding the little boy with her big hands on his tiny shoulders.
She closed the door after him, straightening, and got another real sense of how big she was now; not just tall but broad as well. The man’s suit on her form was still unfamiliar but it perfectly accentuated her new shape. She liked it. It offered a different sense of freedom than she was used to. Normally, her long dresses dragged on the floor and generally made her feel slowed and hindered. This wasn’t like that at all.
She wandered back through the house, looking for the Countess, hands clasped loosely behind her back. It wasn’t until after she’d been doing that for a while that she noticed how uncharacteristic the posture was for her but how natural it would have been for her father. When she recognised that she stopped and unclasped her hands, examining them.
Was she... becoming her father too quickly or too much?
She didn’t want to risk losing herself in this game – not at all – but on the other hand, everything was going so splendidly well, it would be a shame to shy away now. It was true that she felt more comfortable as a middle-aged man than she thought she would, but that might only be because she didn’t understand the nature of trading places. She was Howard Neville now, physically. Why shouldn’t it feel normal after a brief period of acclimatisation. She hadn’t become an animal or a bird. She was still human. Being male wasn’t so awfully different from being female.
She shrugged it off and went on, clasping her hands behind her back and humming to herself.
Her mother was in the back hallway, talking to Meg, the housekeeper. Normally Hattie would have waited until the conversation was finished before speaking to her mother but with a confident swagger she raised her voice immediately and said, “Ah there you are Elizabeth. How long before we depart on this dashed picnic of yours?”
“Not long now dear,” she replied. “Everything is organised. We just need to get everyone gathered in the hall. The coach is on its way as well as an extra cart for the servants and supplies.
“Good. Good,” said Hattie, pleased with how well her father’s turns of phrase were coming to her without her even needing to try too hard. “I was just heading for the drawing room. Would you care to join me?”
“Not now Howard,” said Elizabeth, Hattie’s new name startling her somewhat. “There isn’t really time.”
Hattie frowned. “Surely you can spare five minutes.”
The Countess looked flustered for a moment then melted somewhat and said, “Of course darling. Lead the way.” She broke off from the housekeeper with a few more words and the two of them walked through toward the front of the house.
Hattie sniggered to herself to think of what was coming and the expression her mother would have when she realised her fate. It was going to be hilarious. She strode along, swinging her long manly arms and beside her Elizabeth hurried to keep up making dainty feminine steps. Hattie noticed the contrast in their modes of ambulation and raised an eyebrow, smirking. There were certainly benefits to being a man. She didn’t like the idea of being older or bald but it was surprising how many good points she was discovering.
When they entered the drawing room, Reggie was already in there, playing with his toy soldiers on the window ledge. Elizabeth tutted to herself in anticipation of his mischief. Part of her thought that perhaps she was a little tough on the boy but his immaturity and irresponsibility really grated on her. He was six now; more than old enough to put aside silly toys and start to act with maturity and decorum. She opened her mouth to snap at him about not waiting in the hall to leave for the picnic but her husband spoke first, cutting her off.
“Ah, there’s little Reggie,” said the apparent Earl. “Always enjoying himself, the little scamp.”
“Yes,” replied Elizabeth dryly.
“Have a seat dear,” said Hattie, perfectly emulating her father’s tone.
“I think we ought to be preparing to leave,” she replied, but did as she was instructed anyway.
“It’s remarkable isn’t it,” said Hattie, gesturing at the little boy, “how much energy and enthusiasm youths have.”
“Yes. I suppose it is.”
“Do you remember being that young? How wonderful it was to have your life stretching out before you?”
Elizabeth giggled. “Howard really, you’ll make me feel old.”
“Well you are old my dear,” replied Hattie, earning a scowl, “compared to Reggie. He has decades of life before him that is sadly in your past. He has a long life of health and potential before him that’s sadly long gone for you and er, for me.”
Elizabeth regarded the child soberly, contemplating that. In turn, Hattie regarded her former mother and smiled.
“Don’t you ever wish you could go back to being a child again?” asked Hattie. “Live a carefree life? Have someone else to make decisions while you play and run around? What would you give to have a whole life to live again, knowing what you know now?”
Reggie stopped playing and looked at Elizabeth. He looked at Hattie in the Earl’s imperious body.
“Don’t you wish you were a child again sometimes darling?” asked Hattie.
“Sometimes, yes,” replied Elizabeth after a pause. “I suppose I do.”
And at that Hattie gave Reggie her signal and the little boy jumped up onto Elizabeth’s lap, putting his arms round her. “I wish I was a grown up too auntie!”
And as they came together the pendant about his neck touched them both, skin to skin and Elizabeth gave a little cry of alarm as she felt a ripple run through her.