Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen
Voice in Bloom

One week later. London.

She was sitting in the afternoon lull after lunch at her new job, so to speak, when Aurora realized how much of an escape music was for her.

She sat on the piano bench next to the short-haired Jamie Cook, the piano player at Killigan’s, and listened as he played a familiar song. Jamie was what Rory had called a “piano geek.” He breathed, ate, and drank his music notes. Despite his good looks and quick wit, Jamie was notoriously shy around members of the opposite sex, except for those who were humble enough to sit beside him on his piano bench and croak out a few bars. He was thoroughly used to Aurora now, even after only a few hours and one night playing with her on stage. It was a relationship that was going to form into something long-lasting and strong very quickly. Aurora was not used to it, but it gave her a thrill.

Tapping her foot idly to the beat, Aurora sang along with Jamie’s tinkering on the piano. (Of course, he’d he horrified to have such high art be referred to as tinkering.)

When you were young
And your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we’re livin’
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die

Live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die

The few patrons in the restaurant at the time looked up at the small stage, waiting for the crescendo. Aurora and Jamie glanced at each other, then laughed.

“Aw hell,” Rory boomed from the front of the dining room. “You’re just going to leave us hanging at the best part of the song?”

“We’re just messing around, that’s all,” Jamie told Rory. “Besides, I have something different in mind for tonight’s set.”

Aurora rolled her eyes as Rory came toward them, clad in jeans and a T-shirt that brought the blue out of his blue-green eyes and a dark blazer. “I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of the fact that my dad’s going to be in the audience tonight. It’s just my dad.”

“He’s Orlando Bloom,” Jamie corrected. “He’s done all kinds of films. That’s almost as exciting as having the Queen Mother in attendance.”

Rory snorted. “If you’d like her to come, I’m sure she’d be happy to oblige you, James.”

“I’d call her myself, but I’ve lost her telephone number.” Jamie ruffled Aurora’s mane of raven hair and moved skillfully away before she could elbow him in the side. “So what’s on the itinerary for tonight? A little bit of rock and roll? Some blues? I hear your dad likes Jeff Buckley. You could always do one of his songs.”

“Maybe,” Aurora said thoughtfully. “Though, I had another song in mind…”

“Gee, does it have anything to do with a certain blond principal?” Rory asked. Aurora’s face darkened. “I suppose not, then.”

“It annoys me immensely that he has asked her to be here tonight as his date,” Aurora admitted as Jamie started playing “Maybe.” “I wish he would find someone else to bring with him, like Aunt Pen for instance. Or Keira.”

“Maybe it’s nothing,” Jamie sang softly as his fingers traveled over the ivories. Rory and Aurora both thought he had a good voice, but he insisted on only singing backup or not at all. “Maybe it’s all just in my mind. Maybe I’m foolish. Maybe it’s just a waste of time…”

Aurora rolled her eyes at the lyrics. Rory quipped, “I wouldn’t mind getting close to Keira Knightley myself.”

“Oh, get in bloody line,” Aurora snapped. “I think every bloke this side of the English Channel has a crush on Keira Knightley, my twin included.”

“Jealous, Aurora?” Rory inquired, a bit of ironic humor in his voice.

Aurora let out a bark of a laugh, which startled some of the patrons and made some of them drop their forks with a clamorous clatter. The burst of laughter from Aurora was genuine, which made Jamie chuckle and give Rory a look that said, Now don’t you feel stupid, mate? And indeed, he did. But he wasn’t about to admit that aloud.

“Jealous of a woman that’s practically family to me?” Aurora scoffed. Jamie shook his head, amused, and began playing a piano version of “Real Love.” “Of course not. The notion is utterly ridiculous.”

“Whatever,” Rory said, waving it off. He chose to change the subject before Aurora lopped his head off. He quite liked his head where it was, thank you. “I still say, no matter how much you dislike the blonde your pops is dating, you’re going to have to come to some understanding or you’ll be at each other’s throats for the rest of your lives.”

Irritated that Rory didn’t see it her way, Aurora fumed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Thank you for that little kernel of wisdom, Roland.” Her Roland was so biting that Rory had to grin. “But I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“Don’t be afraid of the way you feel,” Jamie sang gently. “Open your heart and you’ll see it’s clear. It’s real love…”

Aurora shifted and slid Jamie a brown-eyed glare. “Would you stop it with your little background musical commentary? It’s driving me bleeding batty.”

Jamie obligingly switched to “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Aurora couldn’t help but laugh as a smirk spread across his features. A yell came from the front of the restaurant. It was the charismatic Cameron Byrne, the owner of Killigan’s. Cameron had called out to Rory; apparently they had some business to discuss. In his absence, Aurora listened to Jamie play, something occupying her mind.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Jamie queried.

Aurora chuckled. “Oh you know the price of thoughts has gone up due to inflation and demand. I suspect a penny wouldn’t get you a bleeding letter.” Then she exhaled. “But I do have to admit, Jamie, I am a little nervous about my father coming tonight.”

Jamie shook his head. “Aurora, he’s your dad. He’ll love you even if you get up there and totally blow your set. Trust me. I know this.”

After a moment, she turned and placed her hand on Jamie’s shoulder, her eyes startlingly vulnerable. Jamie was struck by a feeling so unexpected that he had to hold down the urge to look away. “It would mean a lot to me if you could help me with it.”

Jamie stared into her eyes for a bit, then smiled reassuringly. “For you, Bloom? We can do it.” Then he frowned. “Just as long as it isn’t a Spice Girl song.”

Aurora shoved him and didn’t miss this time. “Bleeding wanker!” she exclaimed as he laughed. “You’re a bigger Spice Girl than I am.”

“Damn right,” Jamie agreed, fingers moving over the keys. There was a lull as what Aurora had said dawned on him. He turned to her, eyes wide. “Hey!”

* * *

Meanwhile, in the airy and bright sunroom at Jacqueline’s home, Orlando sipped lemonade and thought about the future.

He was sure of it now, more than ever. He was going to put an end to his loneliness once and for all by asking Jacqueline to marry him. He was in love with her, with her tender heart and sharp wit. He wanted to wake up to her for the rest of his life, to her twinkling, intelligent blue eyes, her captivating grin. She wasn’t Della; Della would always be his first love. But Jacqueline would be just as special to him.

Jacqueline sat down next to Orlando on the blue velvet chaise lounge that she loved so much with her own glass of lemonade. Her long blond hair was loose, and she wore a gauzy peasant top with jeans. It was a causal outfit, but she still oozed elegance. She leaned in and placed a soft kiss on his lips before she leaned into him and relaxed. It was a wonderful feeling being next to someone, especially Jacqueline. It was so natural now that he couldn’t imagine anything but.

As his fingers were entwined in her blond hair, Orlando murmured, “Jacqueline, I’m glad I came and saw you today.”

She smiled. “Me, too.” She shifted and took his glass, placing their lemonade on a nearby table. Then she turned back to him. They kissed again, and embraced for several minutes. Orlando savored the scent and texture of her during this time, trying to work up the courage to say what he needed to say to her.

Suddenly, Jacqueline murmured with a gusty sigh, “You know that I would like, Orlando?”

“What’s that, love?”

“I would like to have a baby,” Jacqueline revealed. She traced circles on Orlando’s chest. “I would really like to be a mum to some wriggling, beloved little bundle of baby.”

“Baby,” Orlando repeated idly, mind foggy.

I would like to have a baby. It took a moment, but Orlando eventually reacted. For some reason, the word baby filled him with trepidation, so much so that he sat up abruptly.

Nearly thrown off of the chaise lounge by Orlando’s sudden movement, Jacqueline stared at Orlando inquisitively. Orlando felt exasperated at himself at the silly reaction he’d had. What was wrong with him?

“Orlando?” Jacqueline asked, not knowing whether to be irritated or worried. “Is there something wrong?”

Well. Was there really something wrong?

I want to have a baby. Baby. Ah…yes. Baby. An unborn child. Or at least one that was thought of.

Yes, that was what was bothering him. A baby. No—the baby. It wasn’t just a random child he was thinking about now. He was thinking about the child that he would eventually father with Penelope Henderson.

And the baby that Jacqueline, at this point, had no idea about.

This is bad, Orlando suddenly thought. This is really bad. You wanker! How could you even consider talking about marriage with her without telling her about you and Penny? You can’t! You absolutely cannot.

Meanwhile, Jacqueline was getting irritated. He wasn’t listening to her. But then a thought occurred to her and she throttled back a little. After all, she did just drop a major bombshell on him. So she changed her tone so that she sounded a bit more understanding.

“I’m sorry,” Jacqueline began as Orlando shifted and placed his feet on the floor. She watched him as he walked toward the window and paused at it. “I know that we’ve been talking about going to the next level many times, but that gives me no excuse to bring up having a baby…”

Orlando had to resist choking on his own spit. How complicated could this become?

“I really want you to know how I feel about this,” Jacqueline continued. “I can see us living the rest of our lives together, Orlando.”

“Not after you kill me,” Orlando muttered, dread at the pit of his belly.

Jacqueline frowned. “What was that?”

Jacqueline’s house phone rang at that moment, saving Orlando from having to concoct a reply. Orlando turned away from the window to see a confused Jacqueline walk to her telephone and pick it up. She greeted the unknown caller politely, and Orlando walked to his lemonade and took a big gulp.

“Oh,” Jacqueline said in a dry, humorless voice. “Hello, Mother. Nice to hear from you again.”

Orlando swallowed and frowned, nervousness diminishing. It was being replaced by a growing sense of concern.

Constance Gannon was not Mommy Dearest by any means; she and Jacqueline—according to Jacqueline herself, that is—had fought bitterly after Jacqueline’s failed engagement to Ian Ballard and her eventual marriage to a family friend—something that had been akin to an arranged marriage Jacqueline had once admitted—and now barely spoke to each other.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Mother?” Jacqueline asked. There was a pause, and Orlando saw Jacqueline’s back stiffen. “And if they are, is that supposed to mean something to me? You cannot believe everything you read, Mother. That’s why they call them tabloids.”

Tabloids? Orlando felt his own back stiffen as he thought about him. It was about him, he was sure of it. And if it included the tabs, it sounded like nothing he wanted to hear.

“Orlando and I are just fine. Whatever you heard is probably just a rumor, even though I know you would like it to be true. Is that all you wanted?” Jacqueline listened for a moment, then said harshly, “Good then. Goodbye, Mother.” She slammed down the phone as if it were her mother’s hard head.

Orlando took a step forward as Jacqueline turned around. Her blue eyes were stormy, face flushed. Orlando remained rooted in place.

“What was that all about?” Orlando asked cautiously.

Jacqueline sighed, suddenly weary. He reached out for her, wanting to soothe. She walked into his arms, and he felt calm again as he rubbed her back. Of course, he knew that was the calm before the storm.

“My mother took it upon herself to call me about some bloody tabloid fodder she’d heard about from a friend,” Jacqueline replied. “Apparently there was a story that you and Keira Knightley are going over her boyfriend’s head to have a baby together.”

This time, Orlando really did choke.

Jacqueline stepped away from the embrace and patted him on the back. “Are you okay?”

Talk about hitting too close to home! Orlando tried to catch his breath with Jacqueline staring at him intently. They had to talk about this. And it had to be now before she found out about it from some other than him.

“I’m fine,” Orlando said, voice still a little ragged. “But you and I need to talk about something, Jacqueline. It’s very important…”

As if on cue, the phone rang again. Jacqueline growled, apologized to Orlando as she walked over to the phone to answer it. Orlando sighed and tried to bank his impatience.

This time, Jacqueline sounded happy to hear the person on the other end. “Oh, it’s been so long since I’ve heard from you! How are you?” There was a pause, and Orlando could make out a tinny female voice speaking rapidly against Jacqueline’s ear. “I know. I figured you would ask about him. Yes, he’s right here now.” Pause. “Not like that! Why do you want me having sex all the time? You are so lewd, Nia.”

Ah, Orlando thought with a little smile. It’s Nia. It had been a couple of years since he had seen Nia. They had kept in loose touch since Aurora had gotten into that fight with Genifer Doogan about nine years ago, and she made sporadic appearances whenever she could. As far as Orlando knew, she was working at another school in London.

“Yeah, they’re fine,” Jacqueline was saying. She looked at Orlando and gestured for him to come over. He obliged. “But I think their father can tell you better. Let me put him on.” Jacqueline, eyes twinkling, handed the receiver to Orlando.

“Nia, love,” Orlando greeted her. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m just fine,” Nia responded. “How are you, gorgeous?”

Orlando chuckled at the gorgeous. “I’m fine. Getting old, but other than that, I’m fine.”

“Well, from the way it sounds, you might be spending your years very occupied with a certain blonde with all love and adore. How’re the kids?”

Orlando spent a little time updating her on Ariel and Gus. By the time he got to Aurora, an idea popped into his head.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Aurora has invited us out to listen to her sing tonight. I don’t much about the kind of music she’s doing, just that she’s doing it. Would you like to come out with us?”

“Would I? Boy, I’ll be there with bells and signs on. You tell that girl I’ll be there.”

“I will. We’ll save a seat for you, Nia.”

He and Nia talked for a little longer, then ended the call. Jacqueline was sitting on the chaise lounge again, sipping on her water-saturated lemonade. Orlando picked up his own and took a big gulp, not minding the tartness the melted ice gave it.

“So what was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Jacqueline asked as she stretched out on the lounge.

Orlando placed his drink back down on the little side table after a moment. His anxiety had been replaced with a keen sense understanding. He thought about Aurora, his Roaring Bloom, doing the thing her mother loved. He thought about his eldest singing and how important this day was to her, to him, to their family. To be witness to something extraordinary was not something that came along everyday. So today, he would focus on his daughter. Then tomorrow, because tomorrow would be so much better, he would talk to Jacqueline about him and Penny. And someday soon, he would ask Jacqueline to be his wife.

“Oh, nothing,” Orlando said smoothly, rubbing her arms. “We can just talk about it later.”

* * *

Penny met up with Orlando, Ariel, and Jacqueline at Killigan’s with feeling blissfully happy. The good news she had just received put a noticeable glow into her eyes, her cheeks. However, once she had been around Orlando and Jacqueline for several minutes, something occurred to her.

She didn’t want to do this alone. This meaning the rest of her natural life.

Penny had grown up in a household filled with strong women. She considered herself one and asserted her independence from men as soon as she was able to. But now, as she watched Orlando and Jacqueline holding hands, she realized that she didn’t want to be alone anymore. She wasn’t going to settle for Harold, though. She wasn’t that desperate. No, she wasn’t desperate at all. She just wanted to be with someone, to share the joys and sorrows of life with someone.

When the waiter brought them their drinks, Penny took her mineral water and sipped on it. Yeah, she mused, the best way to overcome a problem is to recognize it, right? So I’ve taken the first step. She watched as Ariel teased her father and Jacqueline laughed at Orlando’s strangled expression. But not tonight. I’ll do it tomorrow. This night was about Aurora, and no one else. So she would bank her emotions and be the dutiful, always dependable Aunt Pen. It wasn’t so hard, was it?

Cameron Byrne was a handsome bloke with honey-colored hair and olive green eyes. He reminded Penny of Jude Law in his Alfie days. As Cameron made his rounds of the dining room in his stylish designer blazer and witty repartee, Penny noticed that Ariel stared at him with stars in her cornflower blue eyes like a young woman smitten. Penny smiled into her mineral water and hoped Orlando wouldn’t notice. She didn’t want him to have a heart attack. Yet.

“I suppose Gus and Keira are on their way,” Jacqueline said idly, trying to start a conversation. “Isn’t that what he said, Ariel?”

Because she was so intent on Cameron’s movements, it was a few humming moments before Ariel noted that the silence was supposed to be filled with her response. Once she had realized this, she looked around at her father, her aunt, and her father’s girlfriend in confusion.

“What? Did you say something?” Ariel inquired. Penny tried mightily not to snicker.

Jacqueline sighed and repeated her statement.

“Oh!” Ariel nodded vigorously. “Gus said that he had something he needed to do first. I don’t know what Keira is doing, but I know she’ll be here. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“I know!” Penny agreed, the closest she could get to giddy at her age. “Aurora is going to do great. She’s gonna be a rockstar or something. I can’t wait to see her in fishnet and leather…”

Orlando tried to breathe as Pepsi nearly slid down his windpipe. What was it about choke-inducing comments and happenings today? “Excuse me? Fishnet and leather?!”

Ariel giggled. “Oh Dad. Please do calm down before that vein pops in your forehead bursts from the pressure.”

Orlando didn’t get a chance to respond because Cameron Byrne chose that moment to stop by their table. Ariel went slack-jawed, and Penny couldn’t resist the urge to just stare at the handsome man herself.

“You must be the lovely Penelope Henderson I keep hearing about,” Cameron said to Penny. She extended a hand, and he brought it to his lips gallantly. Snake charmer, Penny thought with a bit of amusement. Ariel looked on as if she wished it were her own hand Cameron was giving a palm buss.

“Yes,” Penny confirmed. “The one and only.” She gestured toward Orlando. “This is my brother-in-law, Orlando Bloom, his girlfriend Jacqueline, and his daughter Ariel.”

Cameron greeted Orlando and Jacqueline. Afterwards, he turned to Ariel and said, “Hello, Princess.”

Ariel emitted her hello on a little sigh that had her father clearing his throat. Ariel straightened abruptly and tried to be cool. Penny patted her on the shoulder and turned to Cameron.

“You’ll have to forgive my niece,” Penny remarked to him. “She’s not used to gentlemen of your caliber giving her the time of day.” She tweaked Ariel’s nose despite her protests. “She’ll get used to it, though, I’m sure.”

“You are right about that. I say, she definitely takes after her aunt, and she’s a showstopper.”

Penny’s lips curved. “You are a charmer. How would you like to take a seat by me?”

“Who wouldn’t like sitting beside a beautiful woman?” Cameron quipped. He pulled up a chair from another table and sat in-between Ariel and Penny. They chatted for half an hour, and then Cameron rose to his feet, glancing at his expensive watch.

“Well, I hate to leave this wonderful company, but I must run along,” Cameron told them. “I have the distinct pleasure of introducing our musical act tonight.” He smiled. “And I am most certain that you will enjoy the show.”

Jacqueline, sensing Orlando’s nerves as Cameron walked away, took her boyfriend’s hand. Ariel took Orlando’s other hand, and Penny sent him a reassuring look across the table.

“I can’t believe it,” Orlando said with wonder in his voice. “My little Roaring Bloom is going to be up on stage…”

“Too bad her mother isn’t here to see this,” Jacqueline remarked. “I know she would be very proud of her daughter.”

Orlando shared a look with Penny, who both knew better. Della may not have been visible to them, but she was here somewhere. She wouldn’t miss this for worlds.

A few moments later, the house lights dimmed, but didn’t lower completely. Ariel squeezed Orlando’s hand in anticipation. Penny shifted so that she could see and had to remind herself to breathe. This was it!

In the semi-darkness, they heard a clear voice, sweet and gritty all at the same time. It was like a beacon, gently covering the audience in its glow. Orlando felt himself go still at the sound of it. If it had been eighteen years earlier, this could have been Della Henderson on stage singing. But since it wasn’t, it was not.

Let me know, let me know
Ah – ha, let me know, let me know
Let me know

Then the spotlight shone down on Aurora Bloom. She wore a simple black dress with a v-neck and a silver chain that glinted under the spotlight. Sparse makeup enhanced her natural beauty and her long black hair was pulled back from her face, revealing diamond studs at her ears.

When I feel what I feel
Sometimes it’s hard to tell you so
You may not be in the mood to learn what you think you know

Penny sat, astounded at her eldest niece. Orlando had been right. She did sound like Della. And the realization made her a little teary-eyed.

But at your best you are love
You’re a positive motivating force within my life
Should you ever feel the need to wonder why
Let me know, let me know. . .

“She’s going to be a hit!” Ariel said in a stage whisper, eyes bright with happiness.

Since Orlando and Penny didn’t respond, Jacqueline did. “I think she already is,” she commented. “At least where it counts.”

* * *
Keira was running late.

She knew she was late for Aurora’s set at Killigan’s, and it bothered her. Aurora was the closest she had to a daughter at the moment, and she didn’t want to disappoint her by missing one of the most important moments of her life. Furthermore, she didn’t want to disappoint herself. She knew from the years past how disappointment was a bitter pill to swallow.

Keira had been in Los Angeles up until some hours ago. She had been meeting an American script writer and a couple of producers about a movie role she’d be interested in. As she rushed into her bathroom and slammed the door, she thought about Orlando’s reaction when he found out that the producers wanted to cast his only son in the movie, and ironically as her lover. As she lathered her hair, a laugh bubbled from her lips. It was going to be an interesting moment.

A rumble of thunder shook her windows when she emerged from her bathroom, fully dressed, with a towel on her hair. She frowned and went to a window, sighing as she spied the world on the other side of the glass bathed in rain.

Before she could grumble about that turn of events, there was an insistent knock on her door.

“I’m coming!” Keira yelled. Keira hastily wrapped her head with the towel turban-style, and the knocking continued. She groaned and stomped toward the door. “Bloody hell! Could you just wait a minute?”

She threw open the door, the look in her brown eyes enough to kill in an instant. Standing on her doorstep were a harried-looking Gus Bloom and a drenched Nia. As Nia shook the water from her long black hair, Gus froze at the sight of Keira. It was apparent that the young man still harbored his childhood crush on the gorgeous actress, and seeing her with a towel wrapped turban-style upon her head was absurdly sexy.

Keira’s glare dropped a touch as Gus stood there nearly gaping at her. “Gus?” Nia straightened then, brown eyes filled with annoyance because of her wet hair. “Nia? What are you two doing here?”

“I’d promised I’d pick up Nia on the way to Killigan’s tonight,” Gus explained. “We came by to see if you wanted to catch a ride with us.”

Keira shifted and crossed her arms over her chest. “And how did you know that I’d be here?”

“He was channeling Dionne Warwick and her psychic friends,” Nia quipped. Keira snickered. “No, really—we just came by to see if you were even here, and we got lucky.”

“Alright,” Keira said. She turned and walked away, and Gus and Nia took that as their signal to follow her into her house. “Just let me fix my hair and then we can be on our way.”

Ten minutes later, Keira (with dry hair), Gus, and Nia (with only a slightly drier, but curlier mane) left for Killigan’s. Sharing one measly umbrella that was nearly obliterated by the wind, the trio barely managed to get inside of Gus’s Volkswagen Jetta without being totally drenched by the heavy rain.

Nia climbed into the backseat with a heavy sigh. “Man.” She fastened her seatbelt as Gus backed out of Keira’s driveway. “That rain is ruining my hair. I don’t know why I moved to England with all the rain that you get here. It’s hell on my scalp. I hate to see what I look like right now.”

“Well, you seem to be handling it just fine,” Gus commented. “And you’re no worse for the wear, trust me, love.”

Nia rolled her eyes. “And this from a bloke who’s dating a girl who sneers with contempt at Victoria Beckham as if she’s outfitted from the Queen of England’s own personal fashion line.”

“Hey!” Gus cried defensively. “Nora’s a pretty girl. There’s nothing wrong with an affection for pretty things.”

“Oh right, August,” Keira said, shaking her head in amusement. She flicked a glance at the scenery of London passing them by. “What time is it, by the way?”

Gus sighed. “A little too late for my liking. Unfortunately I’d gotten a bit lost on the way to Nia’s new flat.”

Nia snickered from the backseat. “Oh yeah. Sure. Just a bit lost, he says. And why didn’t you ask for directions, my dear August?”

“Because he’s a bloke, and the only things that blokes are better at than women are stupid things,” Keira retorted, earning a laugh from Nia and a glare from Gus. Keira fielded the glare with a raised eyebrow, staring at Gus until his eyes shifted back to the road. Yes, it couldn’t be said that Keira Knightley was a woman who couldn’t stand her ground.

“You know you two could get out and walk,” Gus muttered as he put on the brakes.

Nia’s eyebrows lifted. “Mhmm. Right.” She noticed that there were a great many cars in front of them, and that the procession of them was moving awfully slow. “Though, it might be faster to walk in this junk than drive.”

Gus sighed in frustration and hit the steering wheel. “Bloody hell,” he swore. “I’ll bet some plastered wanker has run himself into the back of someone else’s car and caused a bleeding headache for the rest of us.”

“And for the people he ran into, no doubt,” Nia pointed out. Wanting to fill what could be a lengthy car ride with a better topic of conversation, Nia turned to Keira and asked, “So what have you been up to? I hear you were in SoCal talking the talk in Hollywood.”

Keira chuckled. “It was nothing. Though, our intrepid chauffeur might be intrigued to hear that his name came up in several conversations…”

Gus brightened instantly. “Really? Are you messing me about, love?”

“Would I lie to you, Gus Bloom?” Keira said this with a smirk, which indicated, that under certain circumstances, she probably would. But would she this time? Gus didn’t know. It was her little secret.

“Oh, please don’t play with my emotions, Keira,” Gus pleaded as they crawled along the road with the other cars. “Tell me that you’re serious. It would make my bloody evening.”

“Well…since you feel so strongly about it…” Keira waited a beat, looked out of the window for effect. “They want to cast you as the male lead—the young, guileless lover of an older woman.”

Gus was so stunned that he stopped suddenly, earning irritated horn-blasts from the other drivers behind him. Of course, he didn’t care, because he was in the throes of Keira-induced rapture. His imagination was developed and active enough to read between the lines…and create of few of its own…

“Do we get to have on-screen sex and everything?” Gus inquired hopefully.

“Aw hell,” Nia said, throwing up her arms in consternation. “Orlando’s going to be so flabbergasted that he won’t know whether to pitch a cow or have a fit.”

“I’m eighteen!” Gus exclaimed. “What’s the big deal? Besides, it would be make-believe. We really wouldn’t be having sex.” He turned to Keira, hope alive in his eyes. “Oh please tell me that there’s a love scene in there somehow, somewhere…”

“Gus!” Keira cried, shoving him. “Would you please just put your bleeding hormones on pause for a moment and drive?!”

Gus turned back to the road as if he had forgotten he was behind the wheel. “Oh!” he managed, and sped forward as the horns started their discordant symphony.

Indeed it was a bad accident that held up traffic, they eventually saw. A black car of some unknown make and model was wrapped around a light pole a block or two from Killigan’s, its hood pushed in and the windshield shattered. They passed by it at a snail’s pace, so there were plenty of chances to look, wonder if anyone had gotten hurt (or died, given the severity of the accident), and be thankful that they were still intact.

“That looks awfully bad,” Nia remarked. “I knew this rain was nothing but a bad omen.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re going to have to stay up all night fixing your hair,” Gus teased.

Nia crossed her arms over her chest. “Ain’t that the truth?” She sighed. “But I feel bad for whomever’s family that is. I don’t know if you could get out of something like that unscathed, much less alive.”

“I feel bad for that car, too,” Gus remarked. “It looks like it was a beaut.” He shook his head as he tapped his brakes. “Kind of reminds me of Dad’s car.”

The lone remark was made idly, but it filled Keira with a trepidation that she could not explain. She found herself suddenly craning her neck to get a better look at the scene. She was waiting for some sign that her deepest fears had not be manifested in this horror in front of her. She never got one.

And in the glare of the flashing lights, Keira spied a familiar item lying in the middle of the street. It was like a relic from another scene, and it didn’t belong in this chaotic jumble of action. But that part didn’t make her sad. It was the realization that the item belonged to someone she knew. Someone she adored.

Eyes on the road, Keira instinctively placed a hand on Gus’s shoulder.

“Keira?” Gus asked, frowning. “What’s the matter—?”

“We need to stop,” Keira said tersely, voice sounding foreign to her own ears as panic clawed its way up her throat.

“But it’s a bleeding mess right here,” Gus insisted. Keira didn’t reply. Instead, she unlocked her door, opened it and got out.

Since the car was still moving, her exit wasn’t as graceful as it could have been. Gus called out her name, his dread wafting out of the open passenger door. Keira ignored him. Pushing past serious-faced police officers trying to hold her back, Keira stumbled to the lost, forlorn item and stood staring down at it.

The purse, with its contents spilling out onto the pavement, sparked a memory from her brain. It was from a day a couple of weeks ago, during a lunch she’d had with Penny. Penny was notorious for her huge, hide-a-toddler-inside designer purses and the plethora of things that she insisted she could never do without. During this particular meal, Penny had been searching for her lipstick and had accidentally pulled out a picture from the previous Christmas of her and Orlando. Keira recalled the look in Penny’s eyes as she’d teased Penny about the picture. While she had been cool enough not to blush, Penny could never cover her eyes around Keira. Keira knew her better than that.

The woman was madly in love with Orlando Bloom, always had been, it seemed. But she never ever could do anything about it.

Keira bent down and picked up the mangled, rain-drenched picture from the melee of items on the ground, eyes welling with tears. An officer came to her, his expression somber and sympathetic. Numbness washed over her as she lifted her eyes to him and rainwater mingled with the first tears that had spilled over onto her cheeks.

“Miss?” the officer began, as if he didn’t recognize the fact that he was talking to Keira Knightley. “You should be back there, behind the barriers.”

“What happened here?” Keira asked quietly, trying to put a clamp on the fear and hysteria that threatened to break free.

The officer appraised the beautiful woman in front of him with the picture in her fist and sighed. “Miss, you really should be—”

“What the bloody hell happened here?” Keira demanded. With her free hand, Keira grabbed the man’s collar and pulled him close. “Don’t give me anymore of that bleeding bullshit. You will tell me what happened here or I will—”

“Aunt Keira, no!” cried a familiar female voice.

The sound of Ariel Bloom’s voice in the middle of all this did not reassure her in the slightest. She froze, her fingers instinctively releasing the man’s collar. As she turned slowly to face Ariel, her knees began to buckle. She knew then. No one had to tell her anything because she knew the worst had happened. Only the worst would put that sorrowful look in Ariel’s cornflower blue eyes.

Gus, who happened to be nearby, rushed forward and caught her before she collapsed to the pavement. Keira leaned on him while she righted herself, numb with shock. After a moment, she looked into the young man’s face, which was very much like his father’s. That fact was not reassuring at the moment.

“Where’s everyone else, Gus?” Keira asked, voice not completely steady. “Please tell me…”

“Aurora just finished her set,” Gus revealed. “So she’s still inside. She doesn’t know…”

She doesn’t know. “She doesn’t know what, Gus? What happened that Aurora doesn’t know and you won’t tell me?”

Gus spoke in an even tone that belied the grief in his brown eyes. “Dad was taking Aunt Pen home when they got into an accident.” He gestured to the mangled black car. “And those are the remains of what used to be Dad’s car.”

“At Your Best (You Are Love)” originally performed by the Isley Brothers. Written by Chris Jasper, Ernie Isley, Marvin Isley, O’Kelly Isley, and Ronald Isley.




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