Chapter One

Chapter One
Christmas in Bloom

Four years and eight months later. December 24. The Bloom House. Canterbury, England.

She was so excited she couldn’t sit down. The house was abuzz with Christmas cheer, with the warmth of hot chocolate and fresh sugar cookies and the comfort of loved ones and good conversation, but she was looking outside at the snowy landscape, willing time to hurry. Hurry—hurry and bring her daddy home.

Behind her, her twin was playing with his building blocks. Once he got a construction good and high, he’d swipe at it like a wrecking ball with a giggle and a squeal. “Again, again,” he’d say to himself and then start building. He didn’t seem insulted that his usual playmate was looking out the window.

Rosalind Bloom walked into the living room and observed the scene. The twins’ mother was on the couch nearby with some of her family and friends. One of them—Nicholas Barton, Rosalind guessed—came over to little August Rutherford Bloom and helped him build a skyscraper. She frowned when she didn’t find her granddaughter next to her grandson.

It didn’t take her long to locate her. Four-year-old (four and three quarters Aurora would hasten to add) Aurora Rosalind Bloom was perched on her knees in the chair near the window facing the front yard, eagerly watching for any change in the expanse of white.

Rosalind placed the fresh sugar cookies on the coffee table before walking over to the window. She laid a hand on Aurora’s shoulder and was rewarded with a bright-eyed, yet distracted, smile. She couldn’t help returning it, and lifted her eyes to the window. Snow fell softly, but there was no change yet.

“Are you waiting for Daddy to get home, too, Nana?” Aurora asked.

Rosalind’s lips curved upward. “Yes I am, sweetheart,” she replied. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon. They have to be really careful because of the snow, so it might be a little longer than we thought.”

Aurora nodded and accepted that explanation. After all, Daddy always came home when he promised he would. This time would be no different, right?

“But he will come home,” Rosalind promised Aurora, as if she could read her granddaughter’s mind. It wasn’t a hard task; the four-year-old was an extremely focused individual. Very much like her father.

It was scary the way the two of them were alike. Gus had inherited his father’s sense of adventure while Aurora had gotten his determination and innate stubbornness. Aurora was definitely Daddy’s Little Girl, but Rosalind was inclined to believe that the distinction would cause trouble later on in life. Especially since stubbornness only got worse as one aged. She knew from experience as being Orlando Bloom’s mother.

Rosalind dropped a kiss on her granddaughter’s forehead and decided to allow her to wait in relative peace alone for her father to come home. As she shifted away from the window to check on Aurora’s mother, Gus started giggling as he and Nick acted like a two-man demolition team. Rosalind smiled faintly, stepped around them, and sat down on the couch next to Adelaide Henderson.

She was growing to like the young woman. Even though Rosalind had been less than happy at first when her son had informed her that he was going to be a father out of wedlock, over the course of five years, the disappointment and anger had diminished.

Della looked up at Rosalind wearily and smiled. “I appreciate you coming here for Christmas, Rosalind. Orlando and I weren’t sure you would make it.”

“And miss all of this?” Rosalind made an expansive gesture with her hands, including the sounds of laughter from Gus and Nick, the chatter from Della’s sisters and friends, and the Christmas music playing on low in the background of it all.

Della had to laugh. “Well, I guess you have a point.” She shifted a bit to make herself more comfortable. “It would be a tragic holiday without happiness and home.” She glanced at Gus, playing with her bandmate. The jubilance in her son’s eyes made her smile faintly. Then her eyes fell on Aurora, sitting near the window. Her heart lurched, and she felt touched and sad all at the same time. Yeah, I miss him, too, sweetheart, she said silently. And hoped that wherever he was, he was safe and thinking of them, too.

* * *

Meanwhile, in a car slowly and steadily coming toward the Bloom house, twenty-five-year-old Penelope Henderson turned the windshield wipers up again and sighed.

The car was mostly quiet, save for the sound of the radio playing Top 40 hits, the hum of the heat on the highest setting, and the drumming of Orlando Bloom’s fingertips on the dashboard. Irritated at the noise, Penny cocked an eyebrow, glanced at him balefully, and the drumming stopped.

“Sorry, love,” Orlando apologized, sheepish. “I guess I’m a little over-anxious.”

Sympathetic and sensing his impatience, Penny remarked, “I understand you want to go home, Bloom. You haven’t been home in months, and this whole trip has been nothing but dreadful on the both of us. I would do a spread in Playboy if it would get me a decent cup of coffee right now.”

Orlando’s eyebrows arched. “Not that that’s much of a stretch, Pen, since you did one last year.”

The dark-haired model grinned as she tapped the brakes lightly. “Oh yeah. I did, didn’t I?” She paused. “And I’m guessing you got a look at them.”

A smile tugged at his mouth. “A passing glance. Nothing more, love. Though, I do have to tell you that Elijah Wood is your new biggest fan.”

Penny laughed, cornflower blue eyes twinkling with mirth. “How flattering is that? Frodo Baggins is my biggest fan! Wait till I tell Della. She’ll get a kick out of that.”

Orlando’s wistful sigh was audible over the hum of the heater. “She’ll find that utterly hilarious.”

“Aw shit, Bloom,” Penny groaned. “Didn’t we talk about this? No gloominess on the ride home, remember? The last thing we need is one of us jumping out the window and committing suicide from the sheer dreariness of it all.” When Orlando didn’t speak, she continued. “You miss Aurora and Gus and Della.”

The simple truth of the statement had him swallowing hard. “The last time I saw my baby girl, she was blowing out all four of her candles. Gus had been giggling too much and couldn’t catch his breath so she did it for them both.” He chuckled, thinking of his lively son and strong-minded daughter. The possibility of gathering them up into a big hug when finally he got home was the only thing that kept him from—how did Penny put it?—jumping out the window and committing suicide from the sheer dreariness of it all.

Penny shook her head. “Time flies when you’re making movies, doesn’t it?”

Perhaps that was part of the problem. “Maybe I should quit,” Orlando murmured.

Penny was so stunned that she almost lost control of the steering wheel. Of course, given the conditions, it didn’t take much. “You crazy Brit. Are you nuts? Della would skin you alive. You know how much you doing what you love means to her. Just as much as you want her to pursue her music. What would make you want to do that?”

“I just hate the fact that I can’t boast to the world that my daughter and son are the most amazing children alive. What kind of father does that make me?”

“A damn smart one,” Penny told him. “Orlando, if I had a child, much less two, I would do exactly what you and Della are doing. Besides, it’s not like anyone has come out and asked you if you have kids. And technically you’re single because you’re not married.”

“Maybe it’s about time that changed, too.”

Penny exhaled heavily and flicked the volume dial. She loved this song, knew it by heart. It was unfortunate life could not be the same way. “Changes, changes, changes.” She glanced at him, all she could spare at the moment. “You sure you’re ready for that, Bloom?”

“It’s a challenge I’m ready to face head on,” Orlando said. Penny looked dubious. “What, you don’t believe me, love?”

“Believe it when I see it, Bloom. Believe it when I see it.” She joined in singing along with the song on the radio, breaking the contemplative silence between them. “Whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll be there, with open arms and open eyes, yeah…” she sang softly.

Orlando felt the same way. Tomorrow would come. And he would embrace it, along with his children.

* * *
It was nearly four a.m. when Della’s head rose from the pillow. Her eyes were gritty and her head seemed no less heavy than it had been at midnight when Nick and Rosalind had forced her into bed.

It was a strange awareness that woke her up. It was like the time she’d caught her brother going through her Jolly Rancher stash when she was ten. She felt someone in the room with her—and that was what had woken her up.

She sat up and rubbed her eyes. It took a moment before she made out the shadow in front of the window.

Her eyes widened. She knew that body…

“Orlando?” she said aloud, voice still scratchy from sleep.

The shadow silently moved closer, onto the bed. In the twilight she saw his tired but twinkling brown eyes and the dazzling white of his impish grin. Before she could say another word, he placed his lips on hers and brought her close.

After he had indulged in a welcome-home kiss, she pushed him away a little. She opened her mouth to speak but his hand on her belly made her eyes water. She forgot what she was going to say as he replaced his hand with his head, his ear on the top bend of her bloated abdomen. He, too, was overwhelmed at the feeling of the life growing inside Della’s body at that moment—the life they had created together.

“I’m sorry it took so long, love,” he murmured, sounding sleepy.

Della shook her head vigorously, overcome with emotion. “It’s okay. All that matters is that you’re home now.”

Feeling at peace, Orlando remembered his talk with Penny earlier and began to speak. He wanted so badly to share with her what he thought. But she shushed him. And shushed him again when he began to protest. Finally, he decided to give up and succumb to the fatigue he had been fighting for hours.

She ran her fingertips through his thick, long dark hair. It had grown since they had last seen each other about seven months ago. They said nothing more to each other, enveloped in the balming silence that lulled them both to a peaceful slumber.
* * *

Orlando made sure he woke up first. He knew that Della had spent the better part of the night before worrying about him because of the paleness of her skin in the morning light and let her sleep a little longer.

It was nearly nine o’clock when Orlando padded out of his and Della’s bedroom on Christmas morning. The house felt still as if everyone was still in bed. Not that he blamed them, though. Long trips often tired him out, too. So he bypassed the guest bedrooms and went downstairs to the kitchen.

The smell of sizzling bacon and scrambled eggs awakened a sense of awareness much like the one Della had experienced earlier that morning. With his lips curving at the sound of the familiar humming, he stepped into the doorway of the kitchen and waited for recognition.

His mother was standing at the stove. Behind her on the counter was a platter of bacon, sausage, and pancakes. In another bowl there was fruit salad sitting beside another platter of hash browns. There seemed enough food to feed an army.

When made that particular remark to his mother’s back, she whirled around, almost dropping the spatula she was holding. Her hazel green eyes lit up with happiness as she gathered her only son, her only child, in her arms. It was a minute before she let him go. He wasn’t surprised to see the tears in her eyes as she turned back to the bacon on the stove top.

“It feels good to be home, Mum,” Orlando remarked simply.

Rosalind looked at him again, her hazel-green eyes misty. “It’s good to have you home, love.” And she reached out and touched his cheek, just to make sure he was really there. “The best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten.”

Before Rosalind could finish the sentence adequately, a little voice exclaimed, “Daddy!”

Orlando whirled around as a dark-haired blur attached itself to his legs. His heart warmed over as he knelt down and those little arms came around his neck. He indulged himself in her unconditional love for a few moments as his mother watched, eyes filling. When those little arms loosened, he got a good look at the face his daughter had inherited from him and her mother.

“You’re home,” Aurora said, excitedly, and as if she still couldn’t believe it.

“I am,” Orlando confirmed. Meanwhile, the smell of food had awakened everyone else. Heart in her throat, Rosalind left Orlando and Aurora alone so she could tell everyone about breakfast.

Orlando lifted her up and stood with her in his arms, much to her delight. Gus’s familiar laugh could be heard from down the hall, and he couldn’t wait to hug him, too. Maybe give him a noogie. He turned to her, a conspiring gleam in his eye. It was mirrored in hers.

“How about we go open our Christmas presents?” Orlando suggested. “And then we can go make snow people and bury Gus and Nick in snowballs. What do you say?”

Aurora’s response to that was giddy, enthused…and loud.

“That’s my girl,” Orlando said proudly. And just for the hell of it, he hugged her again.
 

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