Rosemary in Bloom
April 6. Penny’s House. Chelsea, London, England.
Aurora wanted badly for her little sister to walk. It had more to do with the fact that she wanted something to show for her endless hours of coaching than wanting a break from picking her up. Though, that would be nice, too.
Her father was currently working, and because she had to go to school, she and Gus couldn’t be with him. It was her goal to unveil a walking Ariel when he came home again. Like a woman with a deadline, Aurora worked tirelessly. Well, as much as the capricious one-year-old and schoolwork allowed.
Because her sister’s children were closer to home, Penny watched them while she ordered Rosalind to take a vacation. Under Orlando’s nose, she waved Rosalind off to a sunny climate where it was likely she’d get rubbed down by a couple of bronzed, well-oiled gods and sigh blissfully over a mixed drink.
While Aurora played with her little sister in the living room, Penny, as she was in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, exhaled lustily at the mind’s eye image, wishing she could do the same. But she couldn’t at the moment. She turned and looked at Gus, who was standing on the chair next to her with his sandwich. (He’d claimed to be helping her, but how much can help can a five-year-old really be? Honestly!) The five-year-old turned and gazed back with a peanut-butter-and-jellified grin.
“You’re gonna break some hearts one of these days,” Penny told him, nipping his nose.
“My son had better be a heartbreaker, or I’m blaming it all on you, Penelope Henderson.”
The familiar voice had Gus jumping off of the chair before Penny could stop him. She sighed again, watching as Gus bequeathed some of his peanut butter and jelly goodness upon his father. Well, she reasoned silently, as least it was washable.
“Daddy!” Gus cried in a stage whisper. “You’re home!”
“Yeah, I am, mate,” Orlando responded, speaking in the same stage whisper as his son. “So why are we whispering?”
Gus glanced over his shoulder to make sure it was just Aunt Pen in earshot before he turned back to his father. “Well, Sissy’s been acting queer. Like she’s totally bonkers!”
Orlando’s eyebrows arched. “Bonkers? How?”
“She’s trying to get Ariel to walk!” Gus exclaimed in the same incredulous tone someone else would say, She’s trying to get Ariel to moonwalk!
Orlando considered this a moment. After he mulled over the new piece of information, he ruffled his son’s curly raven hair and gave him a conspiring grin. “Well, girls are always doing silly stuff.” He caught Penny’s eye over Gus’s head and her expression indicated, since she was of the female species, that she didn’t agree with that sentiment. He tried to keep his grin from turning into a smirk. “Why don’t you go check up on your sisters? Maybe you can give Aurora a few pointers.” He added, with an index finger up, “Wait. Don’t tell your sisters I’m here yet. I want to surprise them.”
Giddy with the clandestine knowledge of his father’s presence, Gus bounded out of the room. Down the hall, they heard him call for Aurora. Aurora yelled back, sounding mildly irritated. Orlando exhaled and straightened. Perhaps the walking lessons weren’t going so well.
“They’ve been at it for a couple of hours now,” Penny informed him. “She’s done all of her homework, and it’s been checked.” She reached up into the cabinet in front of her and pulled out two plates as Orlando came over to the counter and leaned up against it. “I’m about to give them lunch. Gus claimed he was helping me and has already downed his sandwich.”
Orlando couldn’t smother the smirk. “That’s my boy. Can’t carry on my name unless he can wheedle a woman properly.”
In response, Penny elbowed him in the side.
“Well, I guess I won’t be asking you to make me a sandwich then.”
Penny gave him a feral smile. “Not unless you value your life.”
Penny walked into the dining room with Aurora and Ariel’s lunches. Orlando followed her, making sure to also listen out for sounds of mutiny coming from the living room. He leaned on the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He watched her for a moment, marveling at how much she looked like Della. Of course, Della didn’t have Penny’s model carriage or tall, statuesque frame. She had been built like a fairy. A raven-haired, blue-eyed, guitar-playing fairy.
When Penny looked up into Orlando’s eyes, she saw that he had that glazed look he got whenever his thoughts had strayed to Della. Penny fought a sigh and walked up to him. It took thirty seconds, a punch to the shoulder, and a hasty kiss before his eyes shot back into focus again.
“What?” Orlando asked.
Penny shook her head and turned back to the table. “You zoned out again. You were thinking about Della, I could tell.”
“Bloody hell,” Orlando swore. “Can’t I think about my own bloody wife without you messing me about?”
“Of course you can,” Penny responded. “That is, if she was alive.” When Orlando opened his mouth to speak, she talked over him. “It’s been a year. I know that doesn’t seem like long enough to you, but Della probably thinks it is.”
“Oh, and how would you know? It’s not like she bloody came and…” Orlando’s eyebrows furrowed. He saw the flicker in Penny’s eyes, and that stopped him cold. “Penelope Henderson, do you have something to tell me?”
Penny shrugged. “That depends. Do you really want to hear what you’re afraid to say aloud?”
Orlando gazed at her with intense brown eyes. A lesser woman would have buckled under his powerful stare, but Penelope Henderson was not just any woman. So she held.
“Oh, don’t take that head of British household tone with me, Bloom,” Penny snapped out. “It was just a dream, that’s all.” She said that as if she were trying to convince herself more than him. “She just told me that she misses everyone and you’re doing a good job so far.”
Sensing that there was more to tell, Orlando took her by the shoulders. “But?”
“But you have to start getting out there and dating again,” Penny finished, and shook herself from his grasp. “It isn’t right that you’re alone in a cold bed every night, feeling lonely because you’re pining for the one thing you can’t have.”
“I don’t need a woman to make me happy, Penny,” Orlando insisted. “I’m quite content with my children and their happiness. Romance isn’t everything.”
The side of Penny’s mouth curved upward. “Well,” she began, “I don’t think Della wants you to self-service for the rest of your life either. It would be cruel and unusual punishment.”
Orlando’s head snapped up as he placed Aurora’s napkin on the side of her plate. “Are we talking about sex, Penny?”
The other side of her mouth followed the other one upward. “Is that what we were talking about?”
“Stop being coy, Penny. Why don’t you just come out and say it? You think I need to get laid, don’t you?”
“It might improve your attitude,” Penny answered.
Before Orlando could dignify that with a reply, a shout came from the living room. Both frowning, Penny and Orlando rushed to the living room. Standing in the doorway, they witnessed as an argument was brewing between Gus and Aurora. Meanwhile, Ariel contented herself with untying Gus’s shoelaces while her presence went unnoticed.
“He is too here Aurora,” Gus was saying. “I just saw him. He’s in the kitchen with Aunt Pen.”
Orlando sighed inwardly. Just couldn’t keep it to yourself could you, mate? he asked Gus silently. Not that he blamed him, but still. He wanted to surprise his little Roaring Bloom.
Aurora, her feet spread apart as if she were digging in for the fight and her back to the door, crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re just playing a trick on me again. You’re so mean. It’s not April Fools’ Day anymore, Gus.”
“I am not!” Gus cried. “Daddy is here!” Noticing Penny and Orlando in the doorway, he paused and blushed, sheepish. Aurora stared at him hard. A millisecond after she saw her father reflected in her twin’s eyes, she felt a hand on her shoulder. A familiar hand.
Aurora whirled around, brown eyes full of shock. Before she could speak, Ariel looked up from her brother’s loose shoelaces. They brightened with happiness.
“Da!” she exclaimed jubilantly. Using her older brother, Ariel climbed to her feet and stood on her shaky one-year-old legs.
Aurora took in a sharp breath. Everyone in the room held their breaths as Ariel took one step.
And another. And another. And another until she was holding on to the leg of her father’s jeans.
She looked up at him with her mother’s cornflower blue eyes and said, “Hi!”
There was a slight pause as everyone comprehended what had just happened. The room collapsed into cheers and clapping. Orlando scooped up his youngest child and smothered her in kisses, which made her giggle. Aurora and Penny jumped up and down while Gus congratulated his little sister.
Aurora turned and gave her brother a smug look. “See? Told you I could do it.”
“Only because Daddy’s here,” Gus countered. “She wouldn’t walk to you because she doesn’t like you.”
Aurora glared and stuck her tongue out at him. Gus mirrored the movement.
Penny sighed and announced it was time for lunch. She really didn’t want Gus and Aurora killing each other in front of their father. And then to top things off Della would probably come back from the dead and kill her for it. Oh, the perils of being an aunt.
* * *
Later on that night, Orlando held his youngest daughter in his arms and read her a bedtime story. He could hear Gus’s laugh as he watched his last episode of Spongebob Squarepants before a bath and bed. Aurora helped Penny in the kitchen as they went over spelling words. It was the kind of homey environment that Orlando had missed the last few weeks while filming the second Pirates film. And seeing his daughter take her first steps seemed like a blessing. Looking down at her drooping blue eyes and the fisted hand that rested on his chest, he suddenly felt glad to be home.
Even after the story was over and she fell asleep, he held her in his arms. She’s growing so much, he marveled silently. The cap of black hair she had been born with now flirted with her small shoulders, curling much like his own. Her features were refining themselves, and her resemblance to her mother became more and more uncanny.
“Oh Della,” he murmured aloud. “You would be so proud of our little girl.”
He thought about his conversation he’d had with Penny earlier that day. Was it really so bad to want the presence of a female—a female that was over eighteen? He loved his children. They were his heart and soul. But Penny had struck a nerve with her comment about his loneliness. Work was consuming his life at the moment and his children kept his feet firmly planted on the ground when hordes of screaming fans shouted his name with adoration. Even still, there was something missing. A little part of him that needed to be fulfilled.
Sighing, he rose from the rocking chair and went to Ariel’s crib. He laid her down gently, relieved when she remained in that blissful state of sleep. After patting her back gently one last time, he left the room.
Penny’s house was quiet. Orlando realized it was because Aurora and Gus were in bed already. Stopping at a door with a sign that declared, Aurora’s Room, Orlando listened for a moment. All he heard was quiet, and he pushed the door open wide enough for him to see.
The darkened room was bathed in a dim golden glow. While most girls her age liked pink, Aurora preferred a bolder red, but Penny had offset the passionate color with white and yellow. She slept under a white-and-red-checked comforter, and Orlando decided not to disturb her too much.
“I’m proud of you, love,” he whispered as if she could hear. He touched her dark wavy hair, taking in her peaceful features. “Daddy loves you. Very much.”
He lingered a moment, then left the room. When the door closed, Aurora’s eyes opened a crack and she smiled to herself.
“I love you, too, Daddy,” she murmured, then fell asleep.
Meanwhile, Orlando did the same in his son’s room, then ventured off to find Penny.
She found her sitting at her grand piano, a half-full glass of what looked like brandy, playing an old familiar song. He had forgotten that Emma Solinger Henderson had made sure all of her daughters had training in the arts, but still jolted him to hear Penny playing. It jolted him even more to hear her sing.
Shadows grow so long before my eyes
And they’re moving across the page
Suddenly the day turns into night
Far away from the city
But don’t hesitate
‘Cause your love won’t wait
Because he couldn’t resist, he spoke and had the pleasure of startling her. “So this is what you do after the kids have gone off to Dreamland?”
Once she recovered, she smiled and shook her head, still playing. “No, actually, I invite my strapping boyfriends over and have a drug-induced orgy in my bedroom until dawn.” She gazed at him, and had to hold back a laugh at the horrified look in his brown eyes. When he recognized the twinkle in her eyes, the horrified look became one of exasperation.
“That’s what you get for scaring me,” Penny remarked. She turned back to the piano as Orlando crossed the room and sat on the piano bench beside her. “Ariel sleeping?”
Orlando nodded, looking down at his hands. “She’s such a happy child.” He looked at Penny, but at the moment all he could see was the side of her head. “I have you to thank for that. You and Mum. You’ve dropped everything to help me out, Pen.” She turned her head to gaze at him, blue eyes inscrutable. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I know you didn’t buy this house just to please yourself.”
Penny stopped playing and placed her left hand on Orlando’s. “They’re my sister’s children, Orlando. I told you I’d help in every way I could.” She forced a shrug. “Besides, I like working from home anyway. And your mom’s made sacrifices, too.”
Orlando put in a reminder to thank her again before speaking. “I realize that. But I know why she’s sitting on the beach right now, working on her tan.” He covered the hand that was covering his left one with his right one. “I’m thanking you, Penelope. Could you let me?”
Penny rolled her eyes, but Orlando could tell she had forced that, too. “Oh, alright. I guess it wouldn’t hurt.” She stared at the piano keys for a long moment. She pressed middle C down idly. Orlando could see the tears pooling in the corner of her eye before she rested her head on his shoulder. She slipped her hand from between his and started to play “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”
Leaning his head on Penny’s, Orlando closed his eyes and let himself drift on the music. Something in his blood stirred and warmed. The tightening in his gut was as much welcome as it was unexpected. For a moment, he was a man, enjoying the presence of a beautiful woman and lovely music.
After a few moments, Penny stopped abruptly. And his blood went cold, realizing what could have happened. He cleared his throat and bade his sister-in-law (see, it would have been like incest, then!) good night.
In Heaven, Adelaide Henderson sighed and shook her head. Her blue eyes were filled with disquietude, but this disquietude was not spawned from jealousy. It was disappointment.
“Come on, Orlando,” she murmured. “Let it go, would you?”
“They just need to screw each other’s brains out and get it over with,” said the guy Della had the unfortunate luck of being stuck with since her arrival. He had died body wrestling with two blondes worthy of a Playboy spread—at least that’s what he told Della. She couldn’t have cared less.
But at the moment, Della didn’t even bother glaring at him. “Oh, Johnny,” she said to herself as she watched Orlando ready for bed. “I love you so much. But you need to love someone else now.”