"It's not ... your parents, is it?" I asked.
"It is," Arthur said grimly. He looked directly at me. "You know I didn't plan for this, right? I meant what I said about intending that you never met them."
"Of course," I said, becoming slightly stressed because he was in such distress. There was a wildness in his eyes that made me nervous.
"Kids? Are you going to come say ‘Hi'?"
Arthur took my hand and squeezed it before leading me out into the hall.
Standing in the centre of the space between the door and the stairs were two striking people.
The woman had rich, glossy, dark brown hair, sparkling green eyes, and full lips with a body that reminded me of an opera singer: strong, able to lend the support required for a powerful voice yet perfectly capable of appearing beautiful. She had the air of a goddess: wise, authoritative and imposing. Even though she wasn't tremendously tall, this was one woman I didn't want to end up in an argument with.
The man was taller, had jet black hair and deep blue eyes with a lean body and an aura of power. He looked intelligent - I almost would expect him to be a scientist if he didn't take such good care of his looks.
Both had an acute fashion sense: Arthur's mum was wearing a long emerald green satin dress which brought out the colour in her eyes, and green sandals with small heels. She wore matching eye shadow and ruby red lipstick, and a light shawl the colour of Henry's eyes. Her husband was wearing a black suit with silver cufflinks and a black tie with thin, almost indiscernible blue stripes.
"Arthur!" Mrs Mesmerising called, spotting us handing back in the shadows of the central staircase. "Are you going to introduce us to your friend?"
We stepped forwards into the light and Arthur murmured "This is Harriet."
I noticed Arthur's dad inspecting me in silence while his wife continued to speak. "Where did you meet her? When?"
"I met her in the park last month." Arthur's answer was curt, his voice clipped.
His mother strode forwards, beaming. She held out a hand to me, saying "I'm Arthur's mother. Call me Caroline."
I cautiously took her hand and shook it.
Caroline gave a short tinkling laugh. "Timid little creature, isn't she?" she said to Arthur. He took my now shaking hand back and squeezed it tightly.
"I think she's wonderful, mother," he replied coldly.
Footsteps from above alerted the three of us to the presence of Jack, Shaun, Simon and Henry, though Mr Mesmerising continued to watch me with a thoughtful gaze. I was surprised to see a girl standing behind Jack with auburn hair and a slight build. I figured she must be Mia.
"Oh, Jack, you have a lady-friend too!" Mrs Mesmerising cried delightedly.
To my surprise, Jack beamed and hurried downstairs, pulling Mia along behind him.
"Mum! Dad! You're back!" Jack stopped, breathing heavily in front of us. With a proud smile on his face, he gestured to his girlfriend. "This is Mia. We've been going out since August."
"Wow, that's brilliant, darling. It was high time a girl appreciated your kind and charming personality."
Jack's cheeks reddened slightly. "Thanks Mum," he mumbled.
"You have a wonderful son," Mia said, smiling.
"Why thank you, dear." Mrs Mesmerising turned to Jack, nodding approvingly. "She's polite, this one."
"She is," Jack replied warmly, kissing Mia's cheek.
Mia blushed, averting her gaze. "I think Jack's personality is infectious, that's all," she mumbled.
"How sweet." Mrs Mesmerising turned to the three stationary sons at the top of the staircase. "Boys, we're having guests round tonight so dinner will be a formal affair. Dress up smartly, comb your hair and remember your manners."
Shaun coughed loudly. In a hoarse voice, he said "I don't think Simon or I can dine with everyone else tonight. We're really ill."
Simon coughed too.
Mrs Mesmerising looked shocked. "Well, you both must go to bed immediately. We don't want our guests catching anything."
Shaun and Simon nodded. "Night, Mum," they said before disappearing.
Henry walked downstairs. When he reached our level, he said "Andrew, Matt and Ryan are out, Mother. This visit was totally unexpected. And it's a great shame but Mia actually has to be back at home before six."
"What?" Jack asked. "I thought it was..."
Henry gave him a look. Jack looked confused but shut up.
"Come on, Mia - let's call your parents. I'm sure Jack needs some time alone to get ready."
"Not that long," Jack protested.
But Mia seemed to get a hint. "No, it's fine, Jack." She smiled. "I'll see you at school tomorrow."
"See you," he murmured, looking bemused. I barely understood Henry's actions myself.
Mrs Mesmerising seemed to have been oblivious to everything that had happened. She was sorting out several pieces of white card.
She handed these to Arthur, saying "Set the table for eight, darling."
I did a mental count as I followed Arthur back to the kitchen. I concluded that either there were two guests and she had been listening while Henry had sorted Jack and Mia out or there was only one and she hadn't.
"Two guests," Arthur muttered to himself as if reading my mind. He looked at me and frowned. "Maybe you should go home too."
"Why? Who are they?"
"Michael and Anna."
"No! Your parents associate with Captivators who have propriuses?"
"Proprii," Arthur corrected distractedly. "And yeah. In fact, they see it as a sign of power. Before they turned 20, they'd had about three each."
"You can have more than one proprius at a time?"
"Theoretically. But what my parents did was stop the proprius feeling bound to them when they got bored."
"How do you do that?" I asked, curious. I was so focused on the conversation that I hardly noticed we were descending some steps which had been hidden under a trapdoor. They led to a basement in which, once illuminated by electric light, could be seen to contain a long wooden table around which there were ten high-backed chairs.
Arthur paused and then quietly said "You deprive them of your company for a fortnight. It hurts them. A lot."
He stopped there and I sensed it was unwise to press him.
"Right, now," he said abruptly, startling me. "Could you get me eight knives and eight forks?"
"Okay," I said, happy to help. I caught Arthur shaking his head in amused wonder before I went into the kitchen.
While I was removing cutlery from one of the drawers, the chef I had seen yesterday walked in, quite unexpectedly.
"You're not one of this family," he said accusingly in an Italian accent.
I turned and explained. "I'm Arthur's girlfriend. I'm helping him set the table."
"And where is Arthur?" he asked suspiciously.
"In the basement."
The chef watched me with a wary look in his eyes as I descended the steps and rejoined Arthur.