His Burden

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Chapter Twenty-Seven

Back in Maidenhead, our Sunday night sleepover was well and truly underway. Leila and I had both undergone a hydration mask and we’d somehow managed to get one on Spencer too. Her nails were pained blood-red and were half way through drying as I checked on our dinner– homemade chicken and leek pie. I’d followed the recipe dead on as those two watched another movie and had to admit, so far so good. It both looked and smelled good.

“Do you need a hand, baby?” asked Spencer, shouting through to the kitchen.

The need to be alone for a moment was strong. “No, thanks!”

Today had taken its toll on me. It was fair to assume the absence of my mum was to blame for my decline in mood. Ironically, I hadn’t had a conversation with her in years, yet felt oddly alone now that she was officially gone. Spencer regularly checked in with me but I didn’t want to take his focus away from Leila too much. She wasn’t here that often and I didn’t want to ruin their time together by demanding his assistance for my own selfish needs.

“Jess! I smudged my nails!” cried Leila, acting as though the world around her was coming to an end.

Her urgency made me smile. “Okay, princess! I’ll be through in a minute!”

I quickly turned off the heat and disposed of my oven gloves, making my way into the living room shortly after. Gatto lay on the rug beside the fire, sleeping the night away with nothing but the distant sound of Disney films keeping him company. Leila and Spencer snuggled like two penguins on the sofa but with the dramatic six-year-old insisting on flapping her hands around, Spencer could only but do his best to hold onto the arm for fear of falling off all together.

“Shall we fix your nails?” I asked, gaining her attention.

She nodded and settled herself onto my lap. I quickly painted over the smudges and blew on her hands, hoping to quicken the process of getting them dry.

“Food smells lovely.” Spencer informed, kissing me lightly on the lips. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”

“Just waiting for the vegetables now. You can do the dishes,” I teased, nudging his side.

“Okay.” He grinned, “Leila can help.”

“BORING!” she accused, giggling.

At this, Gatto woke up and came sauntering over, no doubt desperate to see what all the fuss was about. He jumped up onto Leila’s lap and snuggled further into her pink dressing gown, purring his appreciation.

“He misses me when I’m not here,” she explained, seconds away from stroking his fur.

“Your nails,” I warned, patting him for her.

“Oops. I keep forgetting.” She laughed, facing her father. “Do you miss me when I’m not here, Daddy?”

“Every second,” he admitted, pulling us both closer to his body. “But nights like these make it worth it.”

Leila smiled and rested her head on Spencer’s arm.

“I miss you when I’m not here,” she said, sounding slightly sad in her revelation. “But I know you’re trying your best to see me more.”

“It won’t always be like this, baby. I promise,” he replied, hugging her tightly. “I’ll always fight for you. Never forget that.”

“I won’t, Daddy. I won’t forget.”

Feeling like an intruder on their moment, I attempted to move but was stopped upon Leila’s gentle hand touching my arm.

“You too, Jess. I miss you when I’m not here.”

My heart skipped a beat. “And I miss you, princess.”

Spencer shifted in his position, likely noticing my wary tone. He took hold of my hand and landed kiss after gentle kiss to each knuckle, initiating comfort.

“I better check on the pie,” I muttered, leaving the living room in a mad dash before tears could arrive.

In the kitchen, I regained my composure by dishing up our food and did so with utmost precision. Lightly seasoned, the boiled potatoes smelled gorgeous, as did the freshly steamed vegetables. The pie was wholesome and fresh, gifting the kitchen a heavenly scent and my cooking skills the confidence boost it had long gone without.

“Dinner’s ready!” I called, prompting the pair to come hurrying through.

We ended up eating at the dining room table, where both passed comment on the deliciousness of the pie. I acknowledged their praise and for the most part, held my emotional state together. Even if doing so was hard.

“How about a quick bath and a story before bed?” suggested Spencer, aiming his excitement towards Leila.

“Okay papὰ!” she nodded, finishing off a carrot. “But after we’ve done the dishes. Remember?”

He chuckled. “Of course.”

The two held true to their domestic duties and proceeded to wash the dishes, all awhile I prepared Leila’s bath upstairs. From the bathroom, I could hear them both talking and did my best not to laugh at their comical ways.

“I think you should marry Jess, Daddy,” informed Leila, splashing her hands in what I assumed was the dish water.

“Do you now?”

By complete coincidence, I somehow managed to find a pink bath bomb in one of the many cabinets and quickly added it to my concoction of already present bubbles. Leila struck me as the type to enjoy a glamorous bath and I just knew she’d appreciate my efforts.

“Yes! We both love her very much and I know she loves us.”

“Maybe one day, bambina,” he appeased, making my heart melt.

Maybe one day.

“For now, you’ll have to make do with her being my girlfriend,” he added, doing something to make her giggle.

“Leila! Your bath is ready!” I called, gaining myself an immediate, “Coming!” followed by little feet running up the stairs.

She joined me at the side of her bath and immediately stripped off. Her mouth hung open when she realised the water was pink and glimmering, desperate to get in.

“Oh wow!”

“Do you like it?” I smirked, helping her get in.

“I love it!”

As her body lowered towards the water, I made sure to conduct a thorough inspection of her skin and almost jumped for joy when no bruises presented themselves to me. I’d been a little on edge with regards to approaching the topic but made peace with myself upon seeing her mark-free body. She was safe in the care of Isy and for now, that was all the assurance I needed. Roger had yet to get in touch and I couldn’t rush him. He said he’d call with news and as a non-paying customer, I had no right chasing him up.
“It’s a princess bath,” expressed Leila, interrupting my thoughts.

“I think you’re right,” I replied, positioning the shampoo and conditioner nearby. “Do you usually wash your own hair?”

“Yes but I don’t always rinse it out properly. You might have to help,” she stated, scooping up a handful of pink liquid.

Her eyes grew wide as glitter lingered on her fingers, glistening under the bright light. She wiped it on her arms and happily smiled, proud as ever.

“You know, when I was your age I had roll on glitter.”

“Roll on glitter? What’s that?” she asked, fiercely intrigued.

I gestured for her to lie back. “You roll glitter up and down your arms and legs and it stays there all day!”

Her head emerged from the water, causing her light brown hair to darken and stick to her cheeks like glue. I proceeded to pump a healthy amount of shampoo onto my hands and lathered it into her head.

“You’re much better at this than what Daddy is,” she admitted, lovingly complaining. “He’s a bit rough.”

Tell me about it…

“I suppose you’ll want me to wash your hair from here on out then?” I smiled, rinsing it carefully with the jug.

Her enthusiastic head nod was the only confirmation I needed. “Yes, please.”

Once I finished with the conditioner, I let her have some time to play and brought her pyjamas through from her packed bag. It didn’t take long to dry her hair and have her settled for bed. Before I knew it, both Spencer and I were cuddled up on either side of her single mattress, reading her a story. But not in the conventional way. No. Apparently, Spencer and Leila did things a little differently. She would read to him and stopped whenever tiredness made it difficult to continue. It was incredible to see how the two adapted to change whilst bringing out the best in each other. They tackled obstacles together and worked through a problem until a solution presented itself. Leila had such a complex mind for a six-year-old and I had no doubt that came from a good upbringing. Both Spencer and Isy doted on their daughter and that was something I could never deny. It sickened me to think of what she was going through. Who knew what went on behind closed doors? We still didn’t know for sure but Alister was likely manipulating her mind. Like Karen, did she think she deserved all of her beatings? The more I thought about it, the more unsettled I felt.

For Spencer, it was difficult. He couldn’t see but I could. I saw how reluctant she was that day in the toilets and how little control she actually had. These past few weeks had given me time to reflect and if there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that Isy needed our help. I just hoped Roger had the skills to uncover something substantial because he was our last hope. Without proof, we had no argument and without an argument, we had nothing. We had no way of contacting her and the longer we left it, the greater risk she was in.

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