Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen
Rebellion in Bloom, Part 2

A few months later. London.

Aurora had been so preoccupied with her father’s budding romance with Jacqueline Gannon that she had forgotten about her own life. As her brother had pointed out during that quarrel-ridden dinner several weeks ago, she hadn’t figured out what was going to do with the rest of her life.

For her, it was crucial—so crucial that her choice had to be perfect. She didn’t want to live in the limelight. She’d had enough of that being Orlando Bloom’s eldest daughter. She wanted to do something that no one expected her to do. She’d flirted with the prospect of being a doctor, or even a lawyer. She loved playing soccer, but she wasn’t going to do it for the rest of her life. She wanted to use her mind, not her body.

But there were so many things that interested her! She loved all of her classes. She enjoyed the straightforwardness of silence, the ambiguity of literature. She was such a good pupil that all of her teachers liked her. So how could she choose?

During one study hall period a couple of months before her eighteenth birthday, Aurora tapped her pen against her chin thoughtfully, not able to commit herself to any work. In front of her, Rory paused in his struggling with biology and stared at her.

“Is there something wrong with you?” Rory asked.

Aurora lifted preoccupied brown eyes to his and blinked for several seconds. “Did you say something?”

Rory rolled his eyes and threw his pen aside. “Alright, Princess,” he began, “there’s something going on in that pretty little head of yours.”

Eyes narrowed, Aurora kicked him under the table, and none too softly either. Rory winced, then hissed in pain.

“Dammit,” he swore. The study hall monitor walked past with an irritated shh! for his benefit. As his shin throbbed, Rory stared angrily across the table at Aurora.

“What the hell was that for?” Rory inquired, managing to keep his voice at a stage whisper.

“Calling me Princess. I told you to stop with that bloody Princess Aurora bullshit.”

“You didn’t have to kick me!”

“Yes,” Aurora disagreed tersely. “Yes, I did. You deserve a good kick every now and again.”

“Oh ha ha,” Rory retorted sarcastically. “This is what I get for being the least bit worried about you.”

He had been worried about her. Guilt crept up her spine, and Aurora groaned. “Alright, mate. You want to know what eating me?”

“It’s not your dad dating—” Aurora kicked him again to shut him up. “Goddammit! Would you stop kicking me?”

“Keep your voice down!” Aurora said in a stage whisper. “Not many people know they’re going out, and there’s no sense in you making a spectacle about it.” She sat back in her chair. “Not mention I would absolutely die from embarrassment if anyone knew.”

Rory reached down involuntarily to rub his twice-injured shin. “Duly noted. So it’s not about pops dating the blonde?”

“No. It’s about me.” Aurora frowned at her ink pen. “I am hopelessly misguided. I am stuck living out the rest of my days in utter and complete abeyance.”

Rory merely blinked. “You could work at the grocery store, you know.”

Aurora barely resisted the urge to throw her pen at him. Barely. “I am not working at some bleeding market bagging apples and oranges. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.”

Rory rolled his blue-green eyes. Not Princess Aurora? Right. “Fine. Why don’t you sing like your mom?”

Aurora looked up at him, shock in her brown eyes. The mention of her dead mother was like a jolt with live electric wire, and it was not a pleasant feeling. “Sing? Like my mum? Why?”

“Why not? You certainly sound like her. You would be like Lisa-Marie Presley or something. And I’m sure people would be lining up to sign Della Henderson’s eldest daughter.”

“So you don’t think I can do it on my own, on my own merit?”

Rory dropped his head to the table. He had the urge to bang it, repeatedly, on the table top, but squashed it. There was no sense in getting more bruises over Aurora Bloom. This girl was more confusing than Vanilla Sky. “You know what I mean.” When Aurora just looked at him, he lifted his head and added, “Look, just talk to your dad about it. I’m sure he can help you figure things out.”

Aurora sighed, thinking about her father now. He had been very distracted over the past few weeks it seemed. She had heard (meaning he had yet to come to her, Gus, and Ariel to confirm, but he would eventually) that he was getting ready to direct another film, and that Keira was going to play the female lead, but they hadn’t found a male lead yet. Not to mention, he went out with Jacqueline frequently. She had missed the evening last week where Jacqueline was their honored guest during dinner. She’d opted to get her third meal of the day at Bridget’s dinner table, where no one bothered her about anything. She didn’t give a bleeding rat’s arse about honor in Jacqueline Gannon’s case.

“I’ll just talk to my aunt about it,” Aurora contended. “My dad’s a little…unfocused at the moment.”

“You know, maybe you should just get a job somewhere. Figure out what you’re good at. Not bagging groceries,” he added hastily. “Maybe…” His sentence trailed off as he thought of something. “Maybe you could try out singing a little. I know a place where you could work…that is, if you want to take that route.”

Singing? In public? On a stage? Hm… Suddenly a thought began to bloom in her head. Yeah—what did she need her father’s approval for? She was adult enough to make her own decisions, not to mention he was busy with his own life. A pang speared through her heart, but she hastily shook it off. It was time to dip her toe in, take a peek at what was behind that heavy curtain that separated her from independence.

“Fine,” Aurora said. “I’ll do it.”

“Good. We’ll talk to my boss. I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige me this one time.”

Aurora shifted her pen, intending to write something when the meaning of his last statement dawned on her. When she looked at him, jaw slack from shock, he gave her an electric grin.

“You can thank me later, Princess,” Rory remarked. She was too shocked to kick him again.

* * *

It was ten fifteen that Friday night Orlando when rose from his seat on the couch, brow knit.

He had been in the living room, watching television with Ariel and Gus and taking a break from preparing for his next project. Gus, who was free of his posh eye candy for the night due to an unexpected family trip, decided he was more than welcome to play Monopoly with his baby sister. He figured he could wheedle her out of her money better than he could his twin, who was conspicuously absent—once again—from the comfy familial scene.

Her absence had been noted as expected. Orlando had posed a few questions to his son and remaining daughter. Gus had supplied his theory that maybe she was out with Bridget and Lana, as she would on a whim on some Friday nights. But as they had gone through the dinner ritual without her presence (which was strange since Jacqueline was otherwise occupied and was not expected to grace the Bloom dinner table), Orlando had found himself becoming irritated.

He kept it to himself. As much as he could anyway. But Gus and Ariel could feel the storm coming by the aggravated look in their father’s eyes.

It was at nine fifteen, tired of giving his usually responsible daughter the benefit of the doubt, that he climbed to his feet. He intended to make a few phone calls, and get to the bottom of things.

Ariel watched her father walk out of the room, alarmed, the looked to Gus, blue eyes huge. “Gus! Dad looks like he’s ready to chew glass!” she said in a stage whisper.

Gus sighed. “It’s just Aurora that’s got him all wound up,” he told his baby sister. “As soon as he gets to yell at her, he’ll be in a better mood.”

Ariel frowned at the Monopoly board. She nudged at her little top hat (she always chose the top hat because she thought it was adorable) sitting on B&B Railroad. “Well, truthfully, Gus, they’ve both been acting queer.”

“Dad’s been busy, that’s all,” Gus responded, feeling the urge to defend his father at the moment. He didn’t know what to say about his twin. Her behavior as far as Jacqueline had not gone past him or Orlando. The night Jacqueline had come over for dinner Orlando had pulled his son aside for a good, long talk. Gus felt much better about his father dating Jacqueline than Aurora did, and Gus expressed that fact. Unfortunately, Aurora had been doing a good job of avoiding Orlando lately, which wasn’t too arduous of a task given the fact that his workload was starting to become heavier.

“Well, he’s been going out with Jacqueline a lot,” Ariel observed. She glanced out in the hallway to make sure her father wasn’t nearby, leaned in, and asked in that same stage whisper, “Do you think he’ll marry her?”

It was an echo of a question he’d been asking himself for some time. He remembered what he had told Aurora some weeks ago and had always believed it. His father was a resilient and unselfish creature, sticking steadfastly to the promise of a good, stable life for his children—which inevitably meant little to no sex life, but Gus had a feeling that Jacqueline was going to change that for his father. If she wasn’t already. Smirking, Gus figured she was.

Wondering what had put that smirk on her brother’s face, Ariel waved her hand in front of her brother’s face to get his attention. “Gus? Are you listening?”

Gus blinked a bit and brought himself back to the scene. “Oh. Well, I suppose they will,” he replied. “I think they’ve got a good thing going. Not to mention they’re good together.”

Ariel frowned a little. “I don’t know. I guess they’re pretty good together. I just… Well…” She exhaled, clearly in distress. “Aurora won’t like it.”

“Aurora probably won’t like the next Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, but you don’t see them stopping the presses, now do you?”

“No…but…” Ariel managed.

It was at that moment that the front door opened. Ariel and Gus shared a look before climbing to their feet and rushing to the doorway.

They saw their big sister walking through the foyer to the staircase. She looked tired, but happier than she had been in weeks. Her long black hair was pulled down from its customary ponytail and she wore a leather jacket that obviously was not a part of her wardrobe. Her usual scent was accompanied by the telltale stench of alcohol and cigarette smoke. Gus raised an eyebrow. Where had she been?

Aurora glanced at them. “Good night, all,” she addressed them and kept walking.

Ariel’s mouth dropped open. She tilted her head up at Gus as Orlando came out of his study where he had just concluded a phone call with Bridget Moorland’s mother, who had confirmed his suspicions: Aurora had been nowhere near her house that night. But Bridget had gone out with Lana and Aurora, and Mrs. Moorland had assumed…well, you can probably guess what she had assumed.

He opened his mouth to speak but saw Aurora climbing the stairs. Relief and fury fought for precedence inside of him. Because Aurora didn’t stop to address him, fury gave relief a vicious body slam.

“Aurora Rosalind Bloom, you come back down those stairs right this instant,” Orlando said in a low, dangerous voice.

Aurora paused on the ninth step, hand on the banister. She turned, mutiny in her eyes. She stared at her father as he came around to the bottom of the stairs, his footsteps sounding loud in the quiet of the house.

“Where have you been, Aurora?” Orlando demanded. “It’s been several hours since school ended. I know you weren’t over your friends’ houses. So where were you, Aurora?”

A few humming moments passed.

“I was out,” she said simply, and with such calm that it baffled Orlando.

“Out?” The one word erupted from Orlando’s lungs like a geyser spurting forth hot water. “You were out? I was worried about you because you decided that you were going to disregard the fact that you live under my roof by my rules by not calling me and telling me where you were and the only bloody thing you can say to explain to yourself is that you were out?!”

Pause.

“Yes,” Aurora confirmed, calm as still lake.

Ariel unconsciously gripped her brother’s arm. Gus’s jaw clenched. This scene felt familiar, brought back a familiar twinge of anger and sadness.

“How dare you—?” Orlando began.

“No,” Aurora interrupted sharply. “How dare you? I go out for one night and you act like I’ve slept with the whole bleeding group of footballers. But you can go gallivanting around town with that…that woman you’ve attached yourself to beyond reproach? Not to mention, you’ve been burying yourself in work when you’re not doing that in her lovely blond hair. Now who’s disregarding whom?”

Ariel’s eyes filled with tears, and Orlando stood there in shock for a couple of minutes. That sharp barb had obviously met its fleshy mark inside and pierced straight through to Orlando’s cracking heart. He stared up at his oldest daughter, feeling old, tired, ashamed, and furious.

“I have never ever abandoned you or your brother and sister,” Orlando said in a low tone that belied his churning stomach and conflicting emotions. “My relationship with Jacqueline has never taken my focus from you three.”

“Oh?” Aurora voice was laced with sarcasm. “It doesn’t seem that way to me, then.”

“Perhaps you’ve been looking in the wrong direction, Aurora. I am fully aware of the significance that my dating Jacqueline could have. I want nothing more than all of you getting along because you all are very, very important to me.”

“I don’t think Jacqueline feels the same way,” Aurora commented. “She certainly didn’t a few years ago when you called her and called her and called her and she didn’t return even one bleeding phone call. She’s just going to disappoint you again. You need to wake up and smell the bloody roses, Dad.”

Blind with anger, Orlando blurted, “I have smelt the roses, Aurora. The reality is, I’m not getting any younger. I’m enjoying my time with Jacqueline because I like her company. It’s been a long time since I’ve dated anyone and you know that.” When Aurora diverted her gaze, Orlando, softening, mounted a couple of steps to be closer to her. “You and Gus and Ariel will grow up and leave me. I don’t want that, but it’s coming. That also means I need to have a life for myself, and I’m starting to do that a little. Can you let me?”

“No, not with her. She’s not good enough for you. Can’t you see that?” As Orlando’s shoulders slumped, Aurora went on. “Wait, Dad. Just you wait and see. When things get tough, she won’t stick it out. She’s not made that way.”

Defeated and weary, Orlando reached out for his daughter. “Why can’t you be happy for me?”

Emotion swimming in her eyes, Aurora shook her head. “I’m going to shower and go to bed,” she muttered, turning to ascend the steps.

Orlando exhaled. “Aurora, please…”

“Good night,” Aurora said abruptly, ending the exchange.

As Aurora clomped up the stairs, Orlando watched her retreating back. He called her one more time, voice bouncing off the walls. The response was Aurora’s door quietly meeting the doorframe upstairs, startling in its composed finality.

* * *

It was like an angel had whispered in his ear and told him to wake up. Wake up, Johnny.

Orlando had gone to bed with a heavy heart that night. Ariel had tried to make him feel better with an extra peck on the cheek and a little supportive squeeze. It had eased the pain some, but he had still felt an impossible ache because of Aurora’s words.

Had she been right? Was there something he was missing? Was Jacqueline going to leave him again? Those questions had plagued him as he restlessly drifted off to a dreamless sleep. Very much like he’d wanted to do when Ariel was born, Orlando wanted to reassure Aurora that there was nothing amiss. However, he felt like he couldn’t because he felt too close to it all. He agonized over this in the shower, and then in bed, where the dream fairy didn’t bestow nightmares upon him.

In the twilight after a blank four hours of sleep, Orlando’s eyes fluttered open.

He felt someone in the room with him. He couldn’t explain it; it was that strange sixth sense that picked it up, like an invisible antenna vibrating. But he was very sure that he was awake, it was three forty in the morning, and he was not alone.

Then came the whisper: “Johnny. Johnny—you awake?”

Shock burned the fatigue from Orlando’s head as he whipped around in his bed. In the eerie bluish light that filled his bedroom, he spied a familiar white shirt that asked the enduring question: You Just Don’t Know Do You?

It seemed, that even as a ghost, his late wife still had her sense of humor.

If Orlando hadn’t been so awestruck by the sight of her, he would have laughed at the whole ordeal. Hysterically. Crazily until you couldn’t quite tell if he was laughing or crying. But he was stricken to speechlessness because a part of him knew it was real.

“Della,” he uttered. It was the only thing he could say.

“Johnny,” Della said simply. She stepped closer and came to the edge of his bed. In the half-darkness, her deep blue eyes glowed like jewels and her black hair framed her face like silken midnight. Her hands were clasped in front of her. Orlando looked down at them, saw the wedding band and engagement ring set winking at him in the dim light. Death had not dulled their shine in the slightest. She watched him for a moment, face serene. Then, without warning, she reached out and touched his hair.

It was the touch of her hand that made the tears fall. It unlocked years and years of unrequited love, endless hours of heartbreak, thousands of heartbeats filled with misery and loneliness. He heard Della take in a sharply indrawn breath before she pulled him close. He buried his face into her shirt underneath the You? They stood like that for several minutes, him softly weeping, and her holding him. The wetness he felt in his scalp told him she was crying, too.

He lifted his head to look at her and said, “I’ve missed you, Tiny. There isn’t a day that goes by, love.”

Della nodded and wiped tears away. “I know. I miss you, too. You and my babies. They’ve grown up so fast.” Her eyes clouded with sadness. “Aurora the most.” She lowered herself to the bed and sat beside him. Again, he remembered how small she was as she wrapped her hands around one of his. Fairy hands. “That’s why I’m here.”

Orlando exhaled, and it was slightly painful. “I realize that now. I…” He shook his head. “I should have understood her feelings, just as much as she should have understood mine.”

Della nodded again, but slowly this time. “She’s going through a strange time in her life, Orlando. She’s growing up, on the cusp of womanhood. She doesn’t know how to take it, what to do with the power she has. Her brain, her talent, her personality—all very powerful things. And in the midst of all this, everything’s changing. Not just herself, but you too, Orlando. You’re doing that you do, and you’re getting out on the dating scene again. I think that doesn’t bother her as much as whom you’re spending your time with.” Della lifted her chin, making herself look more stern. “I’m not going to judge Jacqueline. I haven’t the right, what, with me being dead and all.” Della paused and searched his eyes with hers. Her gaze was so penetrating that it disconcerted Orlando a little.

“What, love?” Orlando asked.

“Does she make you happy?” Della simply wanted to know. “Just answer me that. If she makes you happy, I can’t say anything at all.”

Orlando sighed with relief. “Oh Della…” With his free hand, he brought her close, relishing in the way their bodies melded together. “Why aren’t you yelling at me?”

Della’s lips curved. “Because there are other ways to get your meaning across without yelling. Besides,” she added somberly, “I haven’t any time to argue with you. I may have an eternity in the afterlife, but you’ve only a few hours before sunrise.”

Orlando chuckled. “Too bad that didn’t work while we were dating. Would have kept the peace, eh?”

“Funny, funny boy you are, Johnny.” She shifted so that she looked up into his face. “You never answered my question. Does Jacqueline make you happy, Orlando?”

Because she knew him, loved him, he responded, “Yes. She makes me happy.”

Della smiled. “Then you have my blessing.”

He looked down as love washed over him. Because it seemed like the right thing to do, he lowered his lips to hers. It was like the comfort of an old shoe, soft and warm like a tender embrace. As much as he wished it could never end, he knew that Della would only be with him for a short time more.

“Is this going to be like Ghost and we get to have sex and everything?” Orlando asked against Della’s lips.

Della couldn’t help but laugh, it was so out of the blue. “Oh, you. You wish we could do it. Though, Jacqueline would be very jealous of you doing the chunky monkey with a ghost, even if it is the ghost of your dead wife.”

Orlando choked on his laughter until a thought occurred to him, and then he went beet red. He suddenly didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “Um, Adelaide…”

Della snorted. “Ho boy. Are you about to ask me what I think you’re about to ask me?”

Orlando just looked at her, feeling immensely uncomfortable. When he said nothing, discomfort alive on his face, she laughed, that glorious laughter filling his ears and some of the hollowed out places inside of him.

“Oh God. This is too funny. No, really it is. Do you really think I would watch you two having sex? Oh, God. That just caps it. That just about caps it.” She hesitated to catch her breath. “I’m a ghost, dammit, not a voyeur. Your private moments with Jacqueline are none of my business.”

Orlando looked relieved. It tickled Della to no end. “Really, love? You mean…”

“Yes,” Della said patiently. She glanced at the clock over his shoulder. “I think you should go back to sleep. You have a long day tomorrow.”

Orlando’s eyebrows lifted. “I do?”

“Yes,” Della repeated. “You’re going to witness something extraordinary.” She kissed him on the end of his nose. “Now get in bed, Johnny, and Tiny will tuck you in.”

Orlando obeyed. He got under the covers and rested his head on his pillow. She sat next to him on the bed, playing with his hair. It had gotten long. She loved his hair long. It made him look so sexy and adorable and, oddly, young. She gazed down at his face as he gazed into hers.

“Tell Ariel I’m proud of her,” Della said softly. “She plays the piano like a dream. And Gus, my little man. He’s made his mama proud.” She traced his eyebrow with a fingertip. “And Aurora. She knows where she needs to be. She just doesn’t realize it yet. You’ll be there for them.”

“Like always, my love,” Orlando murmured, feeling very sleepy.

“Like always.” She pressed her lips to his forehead. “I love you, Orlando Bloom. Every obstinate inch of you.”

“I love you too, Adelaide Henderson. For the rest of my life.”

They sat in silence, enjoying each other’s company. Finally, because he wanted to know before he fell asleep, Orlando asked Della one more question.

“Will I ever see you again?”

“We’ll see each other again,” she promised as sleep overtook him. Though, she wasn’t going to add when, where, or how.

* * *

“I’m sorry,” Keira and Penny both said in unison after Orlando had told them what had happened the night before.

They sat in his study, ironically both wearing black dresses. Keira was clad in a simple, formfitting dress and a belt clinching her tiny waist and Penny sported a wraparound dress with simple silver jewelry. Orlando was behind his desk, expression only slightly grim. Gus was out with Ariel. Apparently, after last night’s events, Gus decided a trip for some ice cream would do his little sister well. Aurora had yet to make an appearance that morning.

Truthfully, Orlando felt better, particularly after the interlude with Della. For a split second, he had woken up with the sun shining, almost expecting Della to be beside him. Then, when it dawned it him, he’d experienced a bit of sadness, but it soon passed. He’d remembered her smile, her laugh and it soothed the hurt that never completely healed inside of him.

Orlando waved off their apologies. “There’s nothing that you can do. I’ve got to sit down and talk to her, get to the bottom of her resentment.”

Keira’s eyebrow twitched. “In my opinion, it’s pretty straightforward. She doesn’t trust Jacqueline because of what happened nine years ago. What is there to get to the bottom of?”

Penny glanced at Keira, then turned back to Orlando. “Everyone has a period of rebellion in their lives. Hell, I even went through it. I’m sure Keira did, too.”

“But that’s the thing, Penny,” Orlando countered. “When hasn’t she been rebelling? And if this is some so-called rebellion, what the hell is she rebelling against? Me and my rules? What?”

Penny threw up her hands in the air. “I don’t know, Orlando. All I know is, she obviously doesn’t feel comfortable with you dating Jacqueline.” She glanced at the clock hanging on the wall. “Has she gotten up yet?”

Orlando shook his head. “I have yet to see her,” he replied. “I would like her to come down here herself and talk to me.”

Keira nodded, shifted to stand. “I’ll go see if I can talk to her,” she offered. Orlando passed her a look of thanks, and she stopped at the desk to pat his hand reassuringly. He squeezed her hand briefly and watched her as she left the room.

There was a bit of silence when Keira left the room. Penny and Orlando looked at each other for a long moment, waiting for the other to speak. Tired of the silence, Penny decided she would be the one to break it.

“I went to the doctor last month,” Penny revealed. “She’d given me a clean bill of health and said I’m ready to get pregnant.” She blushed a little as Orlando chuckled. “Of course, it makes it a little less awkward when it’s your twin sister you’re telling this to.”

Happy to be concerned about someone other than himself, he asked, “How did Laine take it?”

“Well,” Penny began slowly, “her exact words were, Thank God you aren’t having a baby with that psycho Harold.”

Orlando laughed, imagining Elaine Henderson making such a remark. The demure, temperate doctor Laine chose to say nothing if she hadn’t anything good to say about someone. To hear that she thought lowly of Harold Templeton was comedic. And it convinced him that she was as smart as he’d always thought she was.

“Have you talked to him?” Orlando wanted to know.

Penny rolled her eyes. “When you’re trying to flee from a walking disaster, do you ever stop to talk to it?” When Orlando shook his head amusedly, Penny added, “He’s been calling me regularly for a while and leaving me messages. I haven’t told him what we’re doing.” She looked down at her hands, suddenly bashful. “I, uh…” She cleared her throat. “I’ve been…well, inseminated. Two weeks ago.” She glanced at her watch. “And speaking of, I have to go to the doctor.”

She stood, and Orlando rounded his desk. They faced each other, and Orlando saw the nerves alive on her face. She was nervous, because she was going to the doctor and feared being disappointed. She wanted so badly to be pregnant. But what if she wasn’t?

“I’m sure everything went smoothly, love,” Orlando assured her, affectionately touching her long black hair.

Penny shook her head. “Orlando, honestly…”

The tone of her voice indicated that he’d read her signals wrong. She was nervous—that much he gathered—but it was not about the baby. (Well, if she was pregnant.) It was something else entirely.

“All this talk about Jacqueline,” Penny rambled on, “just makes me think, is all. I mean, do you think it’s a good idea not to tell her? What if one of the children slips and says something? What if you do? Or I do?”

Orlando sighed and didn’t resist the urge to hug her. He could hear the edges of panic in her voice. Penny was adept at keeping her control, but these days, she was quite emotional. He wanted to make her feel better about things, as was the custom between the two of them.

“Listen, love,” he murmured against her ear. “I will tell Jacqueline. I think it would be better to be up front with her. But you will let me handle it. Understood?”

Penny stepped back and looked into Orlando’s face, cornflower blue eyes serene, but relieved. “I’ll trust you to take care of it because it’s what you do, Orlando. You take care of things.” She leaned in, kissed him softly, platonically. “That’s what makes you a wonderful father.”

Orlando thanked her and hugged her again. They heard footsteps coming down the hallway and assumed it was Keira and Aurora. Perhaps they lingered too long in their embrace. They weren’t going to admit it anyone but themselves. But the union of their bodies, even though it was hardly sexual, made Jacqueline’s blood run cold. It told her that something was growing in-between them, whether they knew it or not.

Jacqueline made a sound without realizing it, and Penny and Orlando jumped apart like two kids caught making out in a darkened closet. However, Penny recovered smoothly, turning and greeting Jacqueline with a welcoming, dazzling grin.

“Nice to see you, again, Jacqueline,” Penny said brightly.

* * *

Aurora and Keira, out of Orlando and Penny’s line of sight, watched the scene with varying degrees of interest and satisfaction. Ariel ran from behind Jacqueline to hug her favorite aunt, and Gus greeted Penny. Keira smirked as Jacqueline lifted her chin. Her eyes blazed with a barely veiled fury. Keira was tempted to ask, What’s the matter, Jacqueline? Feeling a little…green?

“Hello, Penny,” Jacqueline responded, a bit stiffly. Shifting her gaze to the bemused Orlando, she walked up to him…and kissed him with uncharacteristic passion.

Gus observed the kiss in shock, mouth opening and closing like a fish deprived of air. Penny raised a quizzical eyebrow, sensing the reason for the sudden display of affection but not fully understanding the need for it. She looked down at Ariel, who just shrugged with that teenage nonchalance. Adults, right? Mirthfully, Penny covered her eyes and she started to giggle.

Meanwhile, Aurora was far from amused. “I think I’m going to vomit,” she muttered under her breath.

Keira choked on her laughter. Jacqueline broke away from Orlando and looked at her suspiciously, and Keira met her gaze with defiance.

“I suppose since greetings have been exchanged,” Aurora began, raising her voice a couple of decibels to get everyone’s attention, “no one will mind if I borrow my father for a moment.”

“Have at him,” Penny told her niece. “I’m sure no one will mind.”

“Yes,” Keira quipped brightly. She looked pointedly at Jacqueline. “Aurora and Orlando are past due for chat.”

Ignoring Keira, Jacqueline placed her hand on Orlando’s shoulder and nodded. “I agree. Take all the time you need.”

* * *

Outside, Aurora could feel spring creeping up on them. She felt a lessening in the chill in the air that had dominated the winter months and sent them for shelter and warmth. The trees were slowly blooming, their buds shedding their green coverings. She also felt that this change inside of her, this shedding of protective covering.

She walked a few feet in front of her father, trying to find the right words to convey this feeling. She didn’t want to hurt her father’s feelings anymore than she already had, and everything she thought of seemed to. Irritated with herself, she whirled around to face him. She was going to say whatever came out. And hope that she wouldn’t have to apologize for it later.

But her father’s expression stopped her cold. She took one long look at him, at the face of the man she had adored since birth, and her jaw dropped.

He was laughing. Her father, the man she’d unceremoniously disobeyed, was laughing.

Aurora was afraid. Aurora was very, very afraid.

“Dad?” she said uncertainly.

She stared at Orlando as he caught his breath and regained his composure with wide brown eyes.

“Oh, love,” he managed. “I’m sorry. I just…” He paused a moment and calmed his breathing. “I know that was quite unwarranted. But the way you were just a moment ago reminded me so much of this time when your mum and I had this fight, and she was trying to make up with me…”

“Oh,” Aurora said, a sudden lump in her throat. “Well. I suppose that makes sense with me being her daughter and all…” Without her consent, tears filled her eyes. She tried to fight them back, found that she couldn’t. The mirth fled her father’s eyes and was replaced by concern and empathy. She sniffled despite herself. “Oh Dad,” she continued, voice quavering. “I’m so sorry for being so evil. I had no right. I really didn’t.” She looked at him in earnest as he came closer to her. “Please don’t hate me. I…”

He pulled her close, much in the manner he’d hugged Penny before. He could feel her thumping heart, hear her ragged breathing as she tried to stop crying. Meanwhile, he was calm. No, he was reassured. He found serenity knowing his daughter had not changed drastically overnight. She was still his little girl.

“You were trying to look out for me,” Orlando remarked. “I understand that now.” He pulled her away from him so that he could gaze into her face. “And even though I don’t appreciate the way you did it, I understand.” He thumbed a couple of tears away. “You’ve got spine, love. But please try not to ram it down Daddy’s throat like that again.”

Aurora laughed tearfully. “Right, Dad.” She punched him playfully in the shoulder. “I think I know what your next question is.”

Orlando raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?” he said dubiously.

“Mhmm.” Aurora reached up and picked an imaginary speck of dust from her father’s pewter shirt. “And I can’t answer you now. I…” Her cheeks pinkened as she raised uncharacteristically apprehensive eyes to his. “I’ll have to show you. But not right this second. Later.” She patted his chest. “You’ll have to trust me, Dad.”

“Trust? Hm… What a concept. This coming from the young woman who came in late last night without calling me…”

“Dad?!” Aurora exclaimed in exasperation. “Are you going to trust me on this or not?”

He threw an arm around her shoulder and ruffled her curly black hair. “I was just messing you about, love. Of course, I trust you on this.” He looked down at her inquisitively. “It isn’t belly dancing, is it?”

backhomenext

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