Hattie was enjoying herself immensely.
The picnic blankets had been laid out and the sumptuous meal spread out across them as the servants scurried round. Her father, the Earl, trapped in the body of the maid, Nellie, had been one of them and it had been so gratifying to see him forced to work and get snapped at when he acted clumsily. The mighty and pompous man had been reduced to a pitiful creature and it was so funny to see the accusing glances he threw her way. Hattie was the Earl now and that couldn’t be denied.
Both her and Uncle Patrick’s family had taken their seats, little Reggie, the former countess, called back from his childish game. Again Hattie smirked to see it. Her mother was just as trapped as her father was in a new body and life. She had no power or control over her actions anymore; no choice but to follow the bidding of her new father. It was clear that Patrick was quick to anger when it came to the discipline of his children and Hattie’s former mother had quickly understood where her limits lay. She was nothing but a small child now. She took a seat on the edge of the blanket looking sullen and cowed. She too stole glances at Hattie, probably in the hopes of being given a reprieve from this new life of hers, but Hattie showed her no sign of even knowing the truth. It was too amusing to leave her squirming.
For her own part, Hattie sat on the picnic blanket far less decorously than she would have been forced to in the past when she was a young woman. The new Lady Harriet, the former maid, was forced to sit daintily in her tight dress and corset. Now that she was a man, Hattie didn’t have such problems. She could sit back, leaning on her arm, one leg out, the other crooked up. She was so much more comfortable and free than she would have been.
It was remarkable how different she felt now. She had been such a slip of a girl before, slim and dainty. Now her torso was thick and muscular. Her shoulders were strong and broad. She was the tallest by far out of everyone and that gave her a sense of power over and above what she knew came from her esteemed position. Society and wealth made her the Earl, but her physical presence made her the alpha male here and gave her the swell of confidence that came with that.
There were many advantages to being a woman that she missed and was eager to get back to, but she was starting to see some benefits of being a man.
She hadn’t been her father for long (been her father!) but already she had developed the odd habit of casually stroking her thick moustache and running her paddle-sized hand back across her bald head. She enjoyed the subconscious actions because they brought home, each time she did them, the nature of her new identity. It reminded her she was a man now. She was the Earl. She was her father. It had felt alarming to do it at first. Now it jogged her memory of who she was and that filled her with confidence.
It was so funny. Becoming her father had only been a necessary annoyance of achieving her plan for revenge on her parents and Ann but it had turned out to be diverting in its own right.
“Capital picnic Howard,” said Patrick.
Hattie smiled to hear herself addressed by that name. “Well tuck in my good man,” she replied, taking up a chicken leg in her meaty hand and chomping into it. “I told you coming out was a good idea.”
Aunt Geraldine tutted at that and Hattie remembered the scorn she had shown toward it at breakfast. She gave a bark of a chuckle. It only felt natural to take credit for the spread now that she was here enjoying it. As long as she was the Earl then it was effectively thanks to her that anything got done.
She finished the chicken leg and took up another along with a hefty chunk of bread. She took great bites out of each and then reached for a pork pie, taking a chunk from that. Nellie, in her former body, was nibbling delicately from a cucumber sandwich. Hattie sneered at that and guzzled some wine. It was hilarious. She had never had the chance to eat like a man before. She could eat any and all of the food put before her without worry now. There was little need for decorum and her appetite was huge.
While she gobbled up as much food as she could she chatted to Patrick more about the mine. Still she found it rather tedious but she was able to get enjoyment from the ruse she was playing on all of them. Nevertheless, this was one aspect of playing the part of her father that illustrated how little she would truly want to be a man. It was diverting to pretend to be interested in these matters but business and management were hardly topics that fascinated her. Geraldine was talking to the apparent Harriet about a new dress she was planning to buy and part of Hattie wished she could be engaged in that conversation instead.
That was impossible for now though. The Earl obviously couldn’t show interest in such women’s things and she had to go on playing the part she was given.
“I say,” said Patrick, pointing. “Isn’t Elizabeth going to join us?”
Hattie looked where Patrick was pointing and frowned in irritation.
Little Reggie was in her mother’s body and his childish restraint was proving limited, no matter what instructions he had been given.
He had run off to the water’s edge just before the food was served and was now jumping in and out of the shallows, kicking up spray and squealing with delight.
Hattie and Nellie shared a glance of concern then Hattie clambered to her feet, briefly enjoying the ease with which she could move unencumbered now.
“Is Elizabeth alright?” asked Geraldine. “She doesn’t seem quite herself.”
Hattie’s face flushed slightly. She didn’t like the position she was suddenly in. Her fake mother’s actions reflected badly on her and jeopardised exposing the series of swaps she had put in place. What if Reggie started calling Geraldine Mummy or started telling people who he really was?
Hattie hurried across to him and took the woman who looked like her mother’s arms in her hands. “Reggie,” she hissed. “You’re acting childishly. Stop it.”
Behind his aunt’s face, Reggie looked startled and chastised. “I’m shorry Uncle Howard. I should have been more careful.”
“Shush!” snapped Hattie urgently. “Don’t call me Uncle Howard,” she whispered. “You’re meant to be Elizabeth Neville now. You’re an adult. While you are in that body, I am your husband. Is that clear?”
Reggie pouted, tears forming in his eyes.
“Oh for God’s sake,” muttered Hattie. Reggie clearly couldn’t be trusted in the least. He could ruin everything.
Hattie turned back to the family. “Bad news I’m afraid,” she said, her plum voice an exact match to her father’s. “Elizabeth is feeling rather under the weather. I think I’d better take her back to the hall.”
“Oh dear,” replied Geraldine.
“Bad luck for you Howard,” chuckled Patrick. “You’re going to miss out on all this grub!”
Hattie gazed at the spread of food sadly. That was a shame. She would have liked to tuck in some more.
“Why don’t you get one of the servants to run her back?” said Patrick.
“No. I’d better go with her,” said Hattie, taking Reggie by the hand. “She needs someone to look after her, not some blithering simpleton.”
She started pulling Reggie toward the main carriage and snapped her fingers for a driver to attend. The coachman sprang forward and opened the carriage door for them.
“Get inside,” muttered Hattie, pushing Reggie up into the carriage.
She sat stormily down opposite the woman who looked like her mother and scratched her bald head.
This problem had to be taken in hand quickly. She couldn’t allow Reggie to ruin everything. What she needed was some way to moderate his behaviour and encourage him to act more maturely.
Being so childish was not going to work.