Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen
Romance in Bloom

That evening. The Bloom House. London.

Luckily for Gus and Aurora and Ariel, their father had not turned into a stuffy patriarch. While he wasn’t trying to be their best friend, he realized it wouldn’t do well for the household if he tried to be their biggest enemy.

So, that night at the dinner table, Orlando allowed for his two younger children to talk about their day while Aurora poked at her pasta in silence. The warm family practice kept his mind off of the thing that had been bothering him all day. Not to mention, he didn’t feel the need to give Aurora a lecture in front of her sister and brother, therefore deepening her embarrassment and shame over the situation that afternoon.

Gus, of course, dominated the conversation with his excitement over the auditions for yet another school play. They ate spaghetti with meatballs (Ariel’s favorite) with salad (Orlando’s contribution) and Gus’s world famous cheese toast. Usually Aurora didn’t mind eating spaghetti, but today she didn’t really feel like eating. Unlike her father, she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened that afternoon.

Noticing that her big sister was distracted, Ariel frowned at her and said when the talking was at a lull, “Aurora, is something wrong?”

Gus paused as he twirled pasta on a fork. Orlando slid his eyes in his eldest’s direction as Aurora herself caught their looks and then looked down at her nearly full plate.

“I’m fine,” she told them, lying through her teeth. “I’m…just a little tired, that’s all.”

Gus snickered, brown eyes glittering with mischief and mirth, and gave her a knowing look. “Maybe you’re tired from your big fight today,” he suggested when Aurora lifted her irritated brown eyes to his.

“August,” Orlando began in a tone of warning.

“You got into a fight, Aurora?” Ariel asked, blue eyes huge. She was continually fascinated with her older sister and openly wished to be just like her. Ariel was the opposite of her sister: quiet, demure, and naïve, and she wished to be different. Orlando, on the other hand, wanted her to stay the same. It would save him the indignity of growing more gray hairs.

“It wasn’t a fight, exactly,” Aurora responded, wanting desperately to change the subject. She narrowed her eyes at Gus.

“Of course it wasn’t a fight. A fight implies that there were two people involved, and I hear you did all the work,” Gus commented easily, earning a glare from Aurora.

“That’s only when I fight with you, August,” Aurora shot back, the fighting gleam coming back into her eyes. “But we wouldn’t call that a fight either, now would we?”

“I only pull my punches because you’re a girl,” Gus insisted, taking another piece of toast from the plate.

“And I only pull mine because you’re a boy,” Aurora countered, earning a snicker from Ariel.

Orlando had to fight a sigh, but he was secretly relieved that Aurora was regaining some of her usual spunk. “Alright, you two. Enough fighting at the dinner table.”

Things were quiet for a moment, and nothing more was heard except for the sound of metal scraping china. Gus looked at his father as Orlando went back to his plate, then to Ariel as she broke a piece of toast in half. He waited a beat, then spoke again.

“I’ve got a class with that bloke Aurora beat up,” Gus informed everyone. “Rory—isn’t that his name? Anyway, he seems like a nice sort of fellow. Very witty. Though, Nora doesn’t like him. Says he isn’t posh enough.”

“Victoria Beckham’s not posh enough for that snooty girl you call your girlfriend,” Aurora retorted. “Nora thinks she’s the queen of the bloody universe.”

It was Gus’s turn to be irritated. “She does not!” he argued.

Ariel wrinkled her nose in teenaged distaste. “I don’t like Nora. She’s not very nice to me.”

Aurora gazed at Gus was a satisfied look as if to say, See there? Didn’t I tell you so? Then she nodded at her little sister and remarked, “Of course you don’t like Nora, Ariel.” She looked pointedly at her brother. “Only spineless people with nothing better to do with their lives like Nora James.”

Gus’s brown eyes went dark with anger. Orlando, seeing what was about to come out of his opening mouth, shot him a warning look. Gus shut his mouth, but there were still signs of anger in his eyes. Orlando then shifted his gaze to Aurora. Aurora shifted in her seat and went silent, too.

“Since I think we ought to change the subject,” Orlando started, “I’ll mention that I heard from your grandmother today.”

Rosalind had gone back to Canterbury after the twins had entered adolescence. Orlando had advocated the move, and had funded it, too—much to his mother’s chagrin. She lived in a two-story house by herself, with a flourishing garden and neighboring friends to keep her company. It was, Orlando had said at the time, the least he could do for her. She came on occasion to visit with her grandchildren and her only child.

The trio broke out in chatter about their grandmother, how they missed, wondering what she’d said. It seemed that Nora James and fights with Rory St. James were forgotten. Life was better that way.

Orlando smiled. “She says she misses us, but her life is far from boring. She assures me she has an active social life. There was this one friend of hers she kept talking about…”

Ariel looked on innocently, but Gus and Aurora shared a look. They were thinking the same thing, and the amusement showed on their nearly identical faces. Their expressions prompted a frown from their father.

“What are you two smirking about?” Orlando asked, a bit suspicious.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it, Dad?” Gus inquired. “Nana’s got herself a boyfriend.”

The front door opened, and moments later, Penny breezed into the dining room. She wore the same royal blue wraparound dress she’d been wearing earlier that afternoon when she’d visited Orlando in his office. Her long black hair was pulled back this time. When she entered the room, she kissed Ariel on the forehead then addressed Orlando, Aurora, and Gus.

“Hello all,” she greeted them. She looked down at the table, observed the meal. “Spaghetti again?”

There was a lull before Orlando blurted, “How the bloody hell does my mum have a boyfriend?”

Gus and Aurora laughed at him into their drinking glasses. Penny pursed her lips together and tried not to laugh. She didn’t know what was going on, but she was getting an idea on what that was. And whatever that thing was, it was making Orlando pink.

“Um, she’s a girl, and she met a boy,” Gus said in the calmest tone he could muster. “And she must like him. Maybe they even go on dates and hold hands. And maybe even”—Orlando was fast turning the color of the uncovered pasta on his plate—“he comes in for a nightcap and they have breakfast in the morning.”

Aurora choked on her juice (she preferred juice over the soft drinks Gus craved; he had long gotten over his cranberry juice phase) trying not to laugh. Orlando didn’t bother to help her since he was too busy glaring at Gus. Penny came over to her and patted her on the back as Aurora coughed up juice and sounded suspiciously like she was laughing.

“August,” Orlando said to his son, “that was low. Even for you.”

Gus preened, a devilish look in his eyes. “Oh, I do love being low.” That provoked a squeal of laughter from his twin.

Penny sighed, trying not to laugh herself, and took the seat between Aurora and Ariel. She reached out and patted Orlando’s hand. Her mouth twitched when she saw his right eyebrow do the same.

“Oh, now Orlando,” she said. “Your mother is a grown woman. She’s allowed to have a relationship with someone of the opposite sex if she wants. Would you expect Gus and Aurora to restrict you if you wanted to have a relationship with…say…Jacqueline Gannon?”

This time, Orlando’s cheeks reddened. Ah, Penny thought. Bullseye.

Gus and Aurora were old enough to take note and understand the reason behind their father’s sudden bashfulness.

Gus’s brown eyes widened in awe. “Dad, are you going to ask Ms. Gannon out on a date?”

Silence hung over the table like a heavy red curtain. Everyone stared at Orlando, waiting for him to respond. When the curtain lifted, Orlando laughed—too loudly in Aurora’s opinion—and responded, “Why in the world would I do that? She’s your principal. That would be awkward.”

Gus snorted. “That’s bollocks! She’s a bleeding fox in my opinion.” Orlando’s eyebrows arched in reproach and Gus laughed nervously. “Well, just stating my opinion.”

“And it’s duly noted, August,” Aurora broke in stiffly. “But I don’t think Dad should ask Ms. Gannon out. He’s right. It’d be too awkward.”

“You’re making it sound like she’s the nanny or something. And besides, we’re on the way out of there anyway. By the time things get serious, we’d be out of school. Though,” he added with a meaningful look at his twin sister, “at least some of us know what we’re gonna do with the rest of our lives.”

Penny opened her mouth to admonish him, but Aurora fired back, eyes flashing with indignation. “Oh—you call aspiring to be big screen eye candy something to do for the rest of your life? How clever of you, August Rutherford.”

To stop the argument, Orlando turned to Penny and said in an ironic tone, “See what wonderful children I raised? I think they’re going to start pulling hair in a second.” Gus opened his mouth and Orlando turned his mouth. “Don’t even say it.” He leveled a stern look upon his eldest, then upon Gus again. “Aurora, August, I don’t want to hear anymore arguing. Nothing out of the two of you.” He wiped his mouth, then threw aside his napkin. “Dinner is over. You three are excused to go finish your homework. I need to talk to your Aunt Penelope alone.”

The Bloom children rose from the dinner table, chastised. Ariel went to her aunt for a hug before she followed Aurora and Gus out. Penny ruffled her hair, and she bounded out behind a sullen Aurora and Gus. A door slammed upstairs, then rock music filled the second floor. They heard Gus yell, and the music decreased in volume. Another door slammed. That must have been Gus.

Orlando exhaled, then climbed to his feet. Penny watched him gather the dinner plates for a minute before she lent her hands. She picked up whatever he had left and followed her to the kitchen. Just when Penny was beginning to wonder what was wrong with him, Orlando spoke while standing over the trash can and emptying out the last of the spaghetti.

“Penny,” Orlando said in a soft, astounded voice, “I heard her sing.”

Penny blinked, nonplussed, and paused with the dishes in her arms. “Sing? Heard who sing, Orlando?”

He turned, eyes shadowed. “Aurora. She…she sounds like Della when she sings.”

Inside, a corner of Penny’s heart chipped whenever it did when she saw that look in Orlando’s eyes. It was a bit of hope, a bit of nostalgia, a bit of grief. Hope that he would have some living, breathing piece of Della near; nostalgia for the old times; grief for the woman he had lost before he had truly begun to love her. She hated to rehash it, but he wanted to share the moment with her. She had no choice.

“What…what did she sing?” Penny inquired, moving so that she could be closer to him.

“You know that song from Sleeping Beauty?” Orlando sang a couple of bars, and Penny nodded, remembering. “She was arguing with that bloke Rory St. James and—”

Penny waved a free hand wildly to get him to stop. “Hold on a minute. Who?”

Orlando sighed, backed up a bit, and explained what it was that Aurora had done. Because it reminded her so much of Della that it hurt, Penny dropped the dishes in the sink with a clatter and laughed to ease the pain. That’s what Della would have said, she realized now. Laugh till your sides hurt, and the heart won’t ache.

“Oh shit, Orlando,” Penny said as she caught her breath. “She’s just like her. And she pushed the guy? Wow. It…” She sighed expansively as the sadness descended again. “It hurts, you know? Thinking about how she isn’t here to see this.”

“I know,” Orlando murmured. “I know more than anyone.”

Because she comprehended that, she turned away from the sink and leaned up against it, arms crossed over her chest. She had decided something in that instant, and because it went against what she wanted for herself, it hurt, but she knew that it would be better for everyone. She hoped it would.

“Orlando,” she began in a voice that had Orlando on alert, “I’ve been thinking.”

Orlando’s brows furrowed and he came to her at the sink. “About…?”

“What I said earlier. About…”

A moment passed. Orlando’s eyebrows separated, the crease in-between them smoothing. Yeah, he knew what she was talking about.

“And what have you been thinking?”

“I…” She lifted her eyes to his. “I can’t ask you do that for me.” Orlando started to protest, but she raised a hand. “Look, Orlando, you’re…” She chuckled, finding herself at a loss for words. “It’s hard to describe what our relationship is. We’re like family, closer than blood, I think—if that’s possible. We’re more than friends. More than brother and sister. Even still, it might be awkward to reckon with the concept of having a baby with me.”

“Penny…”

“I’m not budging on this,” Penny told him. She offered him a smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I’m old and set in my ways. You can’t get me to change my mind.”

Orlando considered this a moment. Then he said, “What if I told you that I was thinking about taking you up on your offer?”

Penny’s eyes glittered with hope and shock, but she kept her voice steady and calm as she talked. “Then I would tell you to shelve it. It wouldn’t be right.”

“So why’d you ask then?”

“Because I’m nuts! That’s why.”

Not knowing what to say, Orlando shifted and brought her close for a hug. She was exactly his height in her flat shoes, so her forehead brushed his. He inhaled, taking in her scent of freesia, and willed himself to find some peace for a moment. After the day he’d had, he needed it.

Penny was exactly right, which is why he had decided to help Penny have a baby in the first place. They were like family, roles undefined but important. She had always been there for him, taking care of Gus, Aurora, and Ariel—and even Orlando himself when the circumstances warranted it. Sometimes she put her plans on hold to nurse Ariel through a cold or help Aurora with a particularly bad bout of menstrual cramps. But she never tried to take Della’s place, instead being Aunt Pen—the person she was anyway.

“You’ve helped continuously for twelve years,” Orlando murmured against Penny’s temple. “Now let me help you. Like you said, it’s not like we’re actually…copulating, you know.”

“It’ll be of the clinical sort,” Penny murmured back. Then she smiled. “Just remember, we’ll have to explain this to the twins and Ariel…” She bit back a chuckle for the last part. “And possibly to Jacqueline Gannon.”

Orlando pulled back from her, eyes wide with shock. “How do you figure—?”

Penny looked at him with dancing blue eyes. “Orlando, my dearest friend—you are so transparent I could put my best drapes on you.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Just don’t bungle it, or don’t let her run away. Okay?”

Orlando sighed, embarrassed that he was—how did she put it?—so transparent she could put her best drapes on him. “I promise, love.” As a thought occurred to him, his eyebrows lifted. “And what about you and Harold?”

She punched him in the shoulder and he winced, holding his shoulder. She glared at him with her hands on her hips. “Now that was low. Even for you, Bloom.”

* * *

Meanwhile, Aurora slapped her ink pen on her desk in frustration.

This whole thing was making her sick. Her father—with Jacqueline Gannon? Imagining them together was making her so sick that the little dinner that she did eat threatened to spill all over her calculus homework. She pushed back from her chair as Amy Lee’s voice poured out from her speakers. She definitely had to let off some steam before she ruined something.

She flicked off the stereo and stalked out, the room falling into silence. She headed for her backyard where she was sure to get some fresh air and blow off some steam all at the same time.

A little voice in her head told her she was crazy. That she was overreacting. After all, her father was an adult, and he was free to date whomever he wished. Far be it for her to tell him that he was forbidden to date Jacqueline Gannon. As if she was some kind of authority in the situation. Or his mother.

Aurora stopped short in the hallway. She pursed her lips together, clenched her fists, and whirled on her foot toward the sound of her father’s voice. No—she was going to go the distance in this case. This had to be stopped.

As if it were ordained by a higher power, when Aurora turned around, she found her little sister staring at her quizzically.

“Aurora?” Ariel asked, her piano music in one hand. Her blue eyes were wide with uncertainty, her feet poised to run in the other direction if Aurora did indeed strike as her expression indicated she would.

Aurora stood there for a long time, not saying a word. Then she sighed and unclenched her fists.

“Never mind,” Aurora muttered, and sidestepped Ariel to go outside.

Ariel turned to watch her sister’s retreating back, frowning. She had no idea what was wrong with Aurora, but she was going to find out. Well, once Aurora burned the anger out of her system. She didn’t have a death wish.

Aurora kicked the soccer ball violently and it went flying across the ground. Her foot stung in protest, but she hardly noticed, hardly cared. The slight burn under her breastbone even escaped her notice. It just became part of the great mass of misery she called her life.

Wanting to keep moving, Aurora walked across the spacious backyard toward the ball she’d kicked. She knew where the root of her resentment toward Jacqueline Gannon lay. It wasn’t just that afternoon when Jacqueline had the nerve to stick Aurora and Rory together like a couple of quarrelling tots. They’d been quarrelling, but that had been beside the point! Aurora would have had no problem owning up to her mistake—but to have to do it for the rest of the school year? What the bloody hell was that? Torture, it was. Yes. That was the suitable word.

It still rankled a bit that Jacqueline hadn’t stuck up for her nine years ago. Nia had stepped forward and taken that task, and Aurora never stopped being grateful to her for that. It helped, but it still hadn’t been the same. Jacqueline had been, in some sense, the closest thing her father had had to a girlfriend since her mother died. (That little rumor about the blonde—airheaded, Aurora added silently—model that she’d abhorred when she was ten didn’t count.) Nia also didn’t break her father’s heart nine years ago by pushing him away either. She knew who to blame for that.

Aurora leaned down and picked up the ball as someone yelled at her from the house. Recognizing her twin’s voice, she groaned, then turned around.

“What the hell do you want?” Aurora yelled.

“I just wanted to see what was wrong with you, that’s all!” came the call back. “Can’t I be worried about you?”

“Not without an ulterior motive,” Aurora shot back.

Gus rolled his eyes and heaved a gusty sigh. “Fine. I’ll just go back inside—”

It was Aurora’s turn to sigh. She tucked the ball under her arm and walked to her brother. She felt bad about doubting his motives, but things had changed over the past few years. When they had been children, Aurora and Gus had been playmates, friends. Now they could barely stand each other, like two sniping canines after a coveted bone.

“Don’t go, Gus,” Aurora said as she came closer. “I…” She paused, inhaled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so evil to you before, at dinner.”

“Of course you meant it,” Gus retorted. “You’re just sorry for it now.” Aurora’s eyes narrowed to brown slits. “Okay, okay. I accept your apology and offer one of my own.”

“Accepted.” Aurora dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it around. She had practice that next afternoon, and a game in a week. It occurred to her that this would be a good way for her to work through her anger. Besides, she and Gus had just mended fences for the fourth time that week. It wouldn’t help if she kicked his face in to appease her now-lessening fury.

“You know, you don’t have to get all upset about Dad dating,” Gus remarked as he watched his sister drive the ball across the yard. “We’ll be out of the house before you know it.”

“I don’t care who he dates, Gus,” Aurora admitted, puffing a bit from the exertion. “I just would rather him stay away from Jacqueline Gannon. She’s nothing but trouble, and you know she’s going to mess him about the first chance she gets.” Aurora stopped the ball with the toe of her foot. “You remember what happened back then. Don’t act like you’ve suddenly developed amnesia.”

Gus shrugged, crossed his arms over his chest. “So Jacqueline had some issues. Big fucking deal. It wasn’t right then, but it might be now.”

“It was never right, August,” Aurora insisted, dribbling the ball back toward him. Gus rolled his eyes at the use of her abrupt-sounding August. “And it’s even more wrong now. She’s our principal. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” When Gus didn’t answer, Aurora paused and picked up the ball. “Dad’s been alone all this time, so he can’t be blamed for his romantic choices. Perhaps this is just a passing fancy and he will move on to another woman.”

“He hasn’t been alone all this time,” Gus said without thinking. “I mean, he’s gone out with some women.”

“Bleeding bobble heads, they were,” Aurora put in.

“Not all of them were bobble heads,” Gus disagreed. “Jacqueline definitely isn’t a bobble head, nor is Aunt Pen. But Dad didn’t sleep with Jacqueline like he did Aunt Pen so—”

Shock lanced through Aurora like lightning as her twin snapped his mouth shut. Gus could see it happening in her wide brown eyes and tried not to wince, cursing himself for opening his big mouth and spilling something his father had told him in confidence. Aurora fumed and heaved the soccer ball at him. Gus, knowing his twin’s temper, ducked and caught it in one move.

“What the bloody hell are you talking about they slept together?!” Aurora demanded angrily, cutting him off.

Gus sighed and cursed under his breath. To his sister, he simply said, “First of all, Dad’s a big boy. Secondly, you shouldn’t be worried about other people’s business.” He threw the ball up in the air and caught it on its way down. “Besides, it was just one night, and Dad said they never did it again. They’re like family for fuck’s sake.”

Aurora’s mind raced as she pieced it all together. God, she could just throttle him! How could he have been so bloody thickheaded? Only a man, she thought, as her teeth started to grind together. It seemed the world was filled with horny, insatiable men. And it appeared her father led the pack.

“I don’t know why you’re so pissed off, Aurora,” Gus continued. “If you haven’t noticed, Dad is single.”

“He went out with my principal for pete’s sake! Who knows what they did when they were alone?”

Gus sighed again, prayed for patience. “She wasn’t your principal at the time, Aurora.”

Dammit, she hated when he made sense. Why couldn’t he be stupid for once? “But he slept with Aunt Pen,” Aurora pointed out. “That’s gotta be like incest or something. You just don’t sleep with your dead wife’s older sister!”

“Dad is just like any bloke. And blokes have needs, Aurora. It’s been twelve years since Mum died. Do you think he just gonna sit around whacking off for the rest of his life? Mum wouldn’t have wanted that.”

“Dammit, Gus—do you have to be so crude?” she demanded, mortified.

“Well…” Gus shrugged and bounced the ball on his thigh. “You get my point. Dad’s needs love. Romantic love. Wake-up-next-to-you-for-the-rest-of-my-life kind of love. The man’s pushing forty. He’s flirting with middle age!”

“Thank you for your mighty insight, O Great and Wonderful August Bloom,” Aurora said sarcastically. “I think Dad’s fine the way he is. What in the bloody hell does he need a woman for?”

“Just like I said, Aurora. Just because you’re too thickheaded to see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And it is.” He threw the ball back to Aurora, and she had to move quickly to catch it. “You just wait until it happens to you.”

Aurora, eyes bright with fury, could only watch as her brother sauntered back into the house. She was mad, and he knew it. He was probably reveling in it, the bleeding wanker. Her eyes narrowed, waiting for him to come back. Silence. He kept on walking.

“And what in the bloody hell do you know about love?” Aurora questioned her brother’s back. He didn’t answer.

* * *

Much to Aurora’s chagrin, Orlando ended up asking Jacqueline out on a date that following week. And she accepted.

“Your father did what?!” Lana blurted as she, Bridget, and Aurora talked on the phone on a Tuesday night—the night Orlando was going to go out with Jacqueline.

Aurora balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder as she worked her graphing calculator. “Exactly what I said.” She looked at her screen, picked up her pencil, and recorded the answer the calculator gave on her homework. “He somehow got her on the phone and talked to her a while. He claimed to be getting a progress report on me.”

Lana made an exasperated sound. “Like hell. Progress report, my arse.”

Bridget sighed, wanting to keep the peace. “I think that is Mr. Bloom wants to date Ms. Gannon, he is more than welcome to do so. They are two unattached adults.”

Aurora almost threw her calculator across the room. “She left him high and dry, Bridge. Remember that? Remember that bollocks about her not sticking up for me? Or have you forgotten that, too?”

Holding her anger in check, even though it cost her dearly, Bridget responded calmly, “I have not forgotten. But Ms. Gannon had been going through an abusive relationship. I can understand her backing out of the relationship. You forget, Aurora,” she added, an edge to her voice now, “what you all were going through at the time. Who could blame her for not wanting to be a hanger-on?”

“I do!” Aurora blurted. She pounded a fist on her thigh. “I bloody do! She could have stuck. She could have stuck for him. But instead she ran away and left him confused and wanting to help her. Not to mention she wouldn’t return his calls or messages. She doesn’t deserve him, dammit.”

On the other line, Lana voiced her agreement. “I absolutely agree. She’s not good enough.”

Bridget groaned. “Come on, you two. Live and let live, remember? We can’t do anything if he’s happy with her. If she breaks his heart, then we can go to her house, drag her out by the hair, and knock her around a bit.”

Lana and Aurora both spoke at the same time. “Could we really?” they asked in perfect accord.

Bridget shook her head in disbelief. “I think it’s time to change the subject…”

“Yes, it is,” Lana declared. “And I know who we should talk about.” She let the sentence fall, pausing for effect. “Rory St. James.”

It was Aurora’s turn to groan. She picked up her pencil and made a couple of doodles in her calc book. “This isn’t going to turn into some session of Girl Talk where we talk about how smashing Rory’s eyes are, is it?”

“No,” Lana said. “But I do have to admit, the bloke certainly makes for interesting company.”

“You’re not planning on going out with him, are you?”

Lana made a pssh sound. “Like hell! He’s a good mate to have around, but I can’t see myself snogging him. Though…” Lana paused thoughtfully. “He does have a nice mouth…”

“Not as nice as Gus’s though,” Bridget said in a breathy voice that had Aurora’s finger itching for the off button.

“Can we talk about something normal, please?” Aurora demanded.

“This is normal!” Bridget and Lana said in unison. Aurora made a growling noise in her throat and bore the girl talk in disgruntled silence. She thought about going downstairs. Nope, Jacqueline was on her way over. Like hell she’d face that woman again.

* * *

Downstairs, Keira watched as the man she had made movies with, had produced films beside, was as nervous as a virgin on her wedding night. He had wielded sharp metal as a weapon, fought pirates, soldiers, and goblins, braved cold and ice, and yet a date with a dainty blonde scared him senseless. Keira crossed her arms over her chest as she fought her disapproval down to a reasonable level. She loved him, and he was a good friend of hers, so she wasn’t going to rain on his parade. Yet.

Orlando stood in front of the mirror in the living room, fixing the collar of the blue collared shirt he wore. Keira shared a look with a bemused Ariel, then they turned back to look at Orlando.

“How do you think this shirt looks?” Orlando asked. “Do you think it goes with these pants?”

“You look fine, Dad,” Ariel assured him. “I don’t think you should be so worried about how you look, anyway. It’s not your first date with her.”

Keira watched him for a moment, then commented, “Ariel has a point, Orlando. I don’t see why this is such a big deal. It’s just dinner.”

Orlando scrutinized himself in the mirror without replying. Then with a forget it, he turned away from the mirror and walked toward them as he fixed his shirt cuffs.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been out on a date,” Orlando responded. Ariel quirked an eyebrow at him and he ruffled her black hair. She giggled and ducked out from under his hand. The movement made him smile, which made Keira feel a little better. And more bold.

“So are you thinking seriously about this Jacqueline Gannon?” Keira inquired. Orlando rolled his eyes much like Gus would roll his eyes at Aurora. Keira just stared at him. “Orlando, I’m serious.”

“I know,” Orlando answered, appearing a little irked. “Don’t you think I realize what you’re thinking, love? That I know you think I’m a complete nutter?”

Keira dropped her arms to her sides. “You are a complete nutter,” she shot back, relieved at the humor dancing in his eyes. “But it would reassure me if you were a little cooler about this.”

“You want cool?”

“Yes.”

“Fine.” Orlando kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be cool.” He turned to Ariel, who was staring amusedly at him. “And just what are you looking at, young lady?”

Ariel grinned at him sassily. “I don’t know,” she retorted, and earned a tickle from her father. As Ariel tried to dodge Orlando, the doorbell rang. Orlando lifted his eyes to Keira’s, and her gesture told him she would answer the door.

“Are you sure?” Orlando inquired, pausing.

Keira flashed him a smile. An idea brewed in her head, and she half-hoped that Orlando didn’t notice the gleam in her brown eyes. “Of course. You just stay here and I’ll show her in.”

But Orlando did notice the look in her eyes, and watched her carefully as she sauntered out of the living room.

“Be good, Keira,” Orlando called after her.

Keira looked over her shoulder with a spunky grin. “I’m always good, Orlando.”

Orlando sighed as the door opened and he heard Keira greet Jacqueline. He groaned as the door closed again—and the sound of footsteps coming down the hall was not heard.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” Ariel asked, eyebrows furrowed.

Orlando shook his head as he patted her on the shoulder. “Nothing, love. Just as long as Keira lets Jacqueline inside the house without chewing her up and spitting her out first, we’ll be just fine.”

Meanwhile, outside on the porch, Keira appraised the woman before her, taking in her jeans and dressy embroidered top. Her blond hair was loose and fell past her shoulders in loose waves. The two women stared at each other warily, and Keira waited a couple of moments before making a move. She wanted to make Jacqueline squirm as much as she possibly could. She hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her own jeans, watching as Jacqueline hitched the bag a little farther up her shoulder.

“I figure I shouldn’t waste time on small talk, so I’m going to get right to the point,” Keira said. “I don’t particularly like the fact that you’ve come back into Orlando’s life, given the way you left it before.”

Lifting her chin, Jacqueline shot back. “I had my reasons for doing what I did. Orlando understands that.”

“Good for him, because quite frankly I don’t give a shit about your reasons. Orlando deserves better than you, and I don’t give a damn if you know that or not.” Keira stepped forward, taking the advantage of her height to try to intimidate Jacqueline. As Jacqueline drew up to make herself look taller, Keira figured she was at least partly successful. The girl had spine. Admirable. To a certain extent.

“I don’t think Orlando would appreciate you intimidating me like this,” Jacqueline said quietly. “I know I made a mistake with him before. But that’s no reason for you to badger me.”

Keira lifted an eyebrow. “You think I’m badgering you?”

“Yes,” Jacqueline replied. “Yes I do.”

“You think me talking to you right this very second is badgering.”

Jacqueline crossed her arms over her chest. “You said it, not me.”

Mouth twisted up in a sneer, Keira leaned in and told her, “Oh Jacqueline darling, you have yet to see me badger you.” Keira leaned back as anger flashed in Jacqueline’s eyes. “If you even so much as think about hurting him again, I will hunt you down, drag you out by the roots of your hair, and make your life a living hell in every way humanly possible. And believe me, I know some very inventive ways to be completely and utterly unpleasant.” She switched her stance, her voice deceptively friendly. “Is that crystal enough for you, Jackie?”

Jacqueline didn’t blink. “Crystal.”

The door opened at that moment and Orlando and Ariel appeared in the doorway. Keira turned around innocently and gave him a welcoming grin when she saw him standing there. Orlando’s eyebrows lifted at the gesture. Ariel remained silent and watched, sensing the tension in the air.

“Oh hello, Orlando,” Keira greeted him in an easy tone. “Don’t mind us. We were just having a little girl talk. But I’m done with Jacqueline now.” She turned again, looked at the blonde with sharp brown eyes. “You’re more than welcome to have her, if you want.”

Behind her, Orlando closed the door behind him, and Ariel lingered on the doorstep. Orlando came up to Keira and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t wait up, love,” he told her.

There was a hint of something that Keira could not quite read in Orlando’s eyes as he kissed Ariel goodbye and linked hands with Jacqueline. Irritation? Disapproval? Well, she didn’t care. She had done what she intended, and she knew things would be better because of it.

“Don’t stay out too late,” Keira called after them. Jacqueline looked back at her at that moment and gave her an icy stare. Keira lips curved slightly.

Fully aware of the look that had passed between Jacqueline and Keira, Ariel asked, “Aunt Keira, what exactly did you say to Jacqueline?”

Keira shifted to go back into the house as Orlando and Jacqueline got into Jacqueline’s car and backed out of the driveway. Yes, Aurora would love to hear this one. “Oh, nothing much. Just some things she needed to hear.” She wrapped an arm around Ariel’s slender shoulders. “Why don’t we go get your sister and watch some movies?”

Ariel happily agreed, and they went back into the house, Jacqueline forgotten. Momentarily.

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