Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen
Rebellion in Bloom

Nine years later. London.

As Aurora climbed the levels in her new school, she gained an effective reputation—a reputation that had her father shaking her head in half-consternation, half-pride and her young male schoolmates shielding their loins whenever she passed.

No, she had not turned into a perky social climber with a different boyfriend for every month of the year. That was the kind of girl she had learned to loathe and avoid when all possible. She was quite the opposite. She was the genius jock female with sports and college on the brain who had grown into her tall, lanky figure. While gossip mags speculated whether Orlando’s Roaring Bloom was going to find herself playing professional football—soccer the Americans called it—Aurora ignored it and went on with her life. She had learned to tune such things out. She had become quite adept at it.

Her brother was the complete opposite. He loved the adoration, the enraptured girls hanging on his arm. Armed with the acting chops he’d inherited from his talented dad (not to mention the good looks from the gene pool he had the good fortune of being borne from), August Rutherford Bloom had become one of the popular crowd at school. This fact didn’t fail to annoy his older sister every time he felt the need to rub it in her face. Which, since they argued frequently, was quite a lot.

The only thing that saved Aurora from begging for home school was the fact that she had Lana and Bridget going through the drudgery of it all right beside her. Another small mercy.

“You know, it could be worse,” Lana pointed out, running a hand through her spiky bright red hair as they walked up the steps to their school building. “Your brother could be ugly and socially inept.”

Bridget shifted her messenger bag and adjusted her eye glasses. “I don’t see how that helps the situation, Lana.”

“Which is the lesser of the two evils? Think about it.” Lana reached into her pocket and felt for her post-lunch cigarette. Ah, yes. There it was. All was right in the world. “At least he’s not hanging all over you, Ror, and messing you about.”

“No, he’s hanging all over Nora James and messing me about,” Aurora corrected. “There’s a fundamental difference. And that’s just the way he likes it. I think he lives to make my life a living hell, not to mention he’s dating a girl who fits the description of a demon bride.”

Bridget, who had never lost her childhood crush on Gus, shook her head and narrowed her eyes. “She’s not good enough for him. She just wants the prestige that comes with dating Gus Bloom and not Gus Bloom himself.”

Aurora looked at her best friend. Her hazel green eyes were filled with fury as if she had a good reason to be mad. Amused, Aurora couldn’t choke down the chuckle that escaped. Bridget, cheeks flaming, looked at her.

“What?” Bridget asked defensively.

“Could you be anymore obvious, Bridge?” Aurora asked. “I mean, honestly. My brother’s such a bloody wanker sometimes. I don’t see why you like him.”

“Most of the blokes in this bloody school are,” Lana contributed, eyeing a couple of guys warily as watched the trio pass them by. “I don’t think I’ve met one I’ve been able to stand for more than three minutes yet.”

“I heard that there’s a new student in Mr. Briggs’ literature class,” Bridget informed her two best friends. Her eyebrow quirked as Aurora and Lana looked at her in disbelief. “And he’s absolutely male.”

“Well, I’d hate for him to be half-male,” Aurora quipped as they entered the building. Lana snickered at that.

Bridget, who did not think that was funny because it was an indication of a deeper problem, rolled her eyes. “Aw come on, Aurora. I’ve had more successful dates in the past two years than you have. And you know how pitiful that is, considering I’ve only gone on a grand total of three of them.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I’ve developed a general distrust for any fellow that’s not my father.” She didn’t mention Gus. She knew him all too well to trust him—not too much, anyway. “The last bloke I went out with tried to reach under my skirt and called me sweetie pie. I enjoyed kneeing him in the crotch as much as I enjoyed watching him limp away afterwards.”

Lana swung an arm around Aurora’s shoulders and peered at Bridget around Aurora. “Do you see why this lass is so wonderful? She takes no shit. You gotta love that.”

“As admirable as that is, Flana,” Bridget began in what Lana and Aurora called her “junior professor” voice, “Aurora cannot scare off all the members of the male species for the rest of her life. She’ll end up alone in a flat in Chelsea with a cat named Leicester in her golden years.”

“That’s bollocks!” Aurora blurted. “I hate Leicester. He was a bloody boil on the bum of Queen Elizabeth the first. Like hell I’d name my beloved pet after such a fellow.”

Aurora’s reaction was so unexpected that both Lana and Bridget laughed. Aurora sighed and shook her head in disbelief as they walked ahead of her. She was so dismayed that she nearly ran headlong into a tall guy with sandy hair and aqua eyes. She opened her mouth to apologize but the guy gave her an irritated look and bumped past her. Aurora whirled around but he kept on walking.

“Hey!” Aurora shouted after him. “You ought to watch where you’re bloody going, mate! I was standing right there!”

The guy turned his head but didn’t stop or turn around. Aurora glared at his back with furious brown eyes, boring holes into his retreating spine. Bridget calling her diverted her attention from the rude guy she’d never seen before.

“Blokes these days,” Aurora muttered to herself as she caught up with her friends. “They’re exactly why I don’t date.”

* * *

Orlando Bloom had entered a space of his life that he had dreaded since entering adulthood: middle age.

It had all felt so sudden! It seemed like yesterday he was celebrating his eighteenth birthday, then turning thirty. And now that he was close to turning forty, it realized it was time to take stock of his life.

His two oldest children would be entering college soon. While Ariel had about six years before she followed in their footsteps, it would be strange getting used to only having her around. Not to mention she would eventually learn to hate the extra attention from her father, as teenagers did.

But he did have his work to think about. After Penny had starred in Cover Girls alongside Keira, she had decided to fully get into the movie business, but she did more producing than acting on-screen. Five years ago, Penny, Orlando, and Keira started their own production company, and last year, Orlando had directed his first film with the company’s backing. Most had predicted it would be a flop, but the movie had done very well, and at the moment, Orlando was considering more scripts to direct and a couple to take a role in himself.

Normally, while the twins and Ariel were in school during the day, Orlando would be reading scripts. But today… Well, today was different. Today he had a visitor. One of his partners, to be exact.

Orlando sat behind the desk in his study and watched as Penny paced back and forth, wringing her hands like she was Lady Macbeth. He watched her walk the same eight steps in and out before speaking.

“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, Penny,” Orlando said. “It’s just a date. And you like the bloke.”

Growling, Penny raked a hand through her long black hair and stopped at the desk. She had been dating a slightly older man, some entertainment lawyer she’d met six months before, and she was afraid he was starting to think seriously. Penny had hardly thought the relationship would progress into marriage. In fact, that was one of her prerequisites for the relationship, and it seemed lately he was trying to change it.

“It is a big deal, Orlando,” she disagreed. “I can see it in his beady eyes that he wants to slap me in irons and make me his wife.”

Orlando had to stifle the laugh that nearly bubbled out. He covered it by clearing his throat. “And don’t you want to settle down and have kids, Pen? Wouldn’t this be the best thing?”

Penny threw up her hands in the air. “God, have you been listening? I don’t want to marry this guy!” Orlando couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing and had Penny glowering at him, hands on hips. “What the hell is so funny, Bloom?”

“You,” Orlando replied after he had regained his composure. “You’re acting like he’s got some bloody disease or something. Or you’ve got one.”

Penny sighed heavily and collapsed dramatically into a chair. “I don’t want to marry some guy to have kids. I don’t need some guy to plant a ring on me so I can have a baby.” She leaned forward then, cornflower blue eyes blazing with fervor. “Goddammit, Orlando! I’m thirty-nine years old! My biological clock is chiming so hard I can hear my teeth rattle.”

Orlando gave her a bland stare and picked up his glass of now-lukewarm water to take a sip. “If you’d wanted sperm, all you had to do was say so. I’m sure any guy in his right mind would love to collaborate with you on a bundle of joy.”

Penny didn’t blink. “Okay, then. I want your sperm.”

Orlando choked on his water at the simple, blunt statement. “Shit, Penny,” he managed when he had cleared the liquid from his air passages. “Where did that come from? I mean, wh-where did you get that idea?”

“My head, of course. Do you think I’ve lost my mind?” She settled back into her chair, gratified that she’d caught him off guard. That’s what he got for laughing at her. Hmph. “I’ve thought about this for a long time, Orlando. I can’t think of anyone more who I’d rather have a child with.”

“Are you sure Harold wouldn’t want a child with you?” Penny glared at him again. “I was just asking, Pen. It makes more sense than you and I…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to. She knew what he was getting at, as it had happened before. An accident, he reminded himself as he thought of that passionate night. We’d just had a little too much to drink is all. And it never happened again. His stomach tightened at the thought of it happening again. Though he didn’t know whether it was from disgust—or lust.

“I don’t want a child with him,” Penny insisted. “He’s not the type of man I want to propagate the species with. I just like having a little dinner and a conversation with him.” At that moment, she stood, rounded the desk and sat on the edge of it so that she was facing him. It dimly reminded him of those reruns of The Nanny Della used to love to watch. Was he turning into Mr. Sheffield? Good God, he hoped not. Then that would make Penny…

“So you’re telling me I’m the man you want to propagate the species with,” Orlando said, trying to get things straight in his head before he started imagining Penny as Fran Drescher—laugh, nasal voice, and all.

“Well, sort of,” Penny responded, giggling nervously. “I just want you to make a baby with me, that’s all.”

Orlando just merely blinked at her. “Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Well, no, silly,” she said in the same tone she would use to correct a befuddled five-year-old. “All you have to do is give me your sperm. We wouldn’t have to…you know. Sleep together. That would be awkward, you know?”

“That’s not what you said the last time.”

Penny narrowed her eyes at him. “I thought we made a pact—”

They did indeed, after…what happened had happened. So Orlando cut her off. “I know we did. So I’ll keep it.” The phone on his desk rang and his hand moved toward it but he kept his eyes on Penny for the time being. “I’ll think about it, Penny. And you do realize that I’ll have to talk to Aurora, Gus, and Ariel about this, don’t you?”

“Of course! I would never believe one moment that we could keep something like that from them.” But then she sighed. “I hope they don’t get the wrong idea…”

Orlando turned away from her and answered the phone. “Hello? Bloom residence.” There was a pause, and Penny watched as Orlando’s expression changed from one of casual, every-day curiosity to one of quirked-brow disbelief. “Yes, this is Aurora’s father. Is there a problem?” Then came the narrowing of the eyes. Penny straightened. Aurora had done something, she had a feeling. “Alright. Alright, I’m on my way.”

Penny let out a long breath as Orlando hung up the phone and massaged his temples. She waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. He just kept massaging his temples as if he had a splitting headache.

She spoke first. The suspense was killing her. “What did Aurora do this time?”

* * *

“You did what in study hall?!” Orlando demanded.

Aurora sighed, shame in the pit of her belly. She and her father were sitting in the principal’s office, waiting to see the principal. Aurora knew they’d gotten rid of the old principal and had yet to meet the new one. She supposed she would meet him—or her—now. She shook her head in disbelief. It had been so silly…

“I just got into a little argument with a classmate,” Aurora responded, looking into her father’s furious eyes. “That’s all, Dad.”

Orlando threw his hands in the air in disbelief. “That’s all, she says,” he muttered to no one in particular. Exasperated, he turned back to his eldest child. “So why did they call me up here for something so trivial?”

Aurora looked away and bit her lip. Orlando took one look at her and dropped his head into his hands. After a few moments of silence between them, Orlando lifted his head.

“Aurora, do I even want to know?” Orlando wanted to know.

“Probably not,” Aurora admitted hesitantly. “But I think I’d better tell you anyway.”

FLASHBACK. Study hall, two hours, thirty-six minutes ago.

Aurora was a good student, which was something she took pride in. She enjoyed every class she took, savored every piece of information her greedy mind devoured. So study hall was a moment of bliss in the middle of the day before she met her friends for lunch.

Everyone else sat with their friends, but Aurora didn’t have any friends in study hall so she sat by herself. She quite preferred it that way, and her fellow classmates knew not to cross Aurora Bloom. It was mostly the name she’d made for herself that had started the precedent rather than the one that she had stepped into at birth.

In the middle of Christina Rossetti, Aurora noticed the guy she’d bumped into that morning in the hallway. She watched him wander amid the student-filled tables for a moment, but then turned back to her assigned poetry for British literature that afternoon.

So she wasn’t paying him any attention when his gaze stopped on her, sitting by herself with her British literature anthology.

Much to her surprise—and dismay—he pulled out a chair at her table and took the seat across from her.

Aggravated, she lifted her brown eyes to his for one searing look. He just stared at her, lips curved so imperceptibly that another could hardly notice.

“I know you mind me sitting here, so I’m not going to waste time asking,” the guy said to Aurora. His accent was American, which indicated that was not merely “not from here.” For some reason, the fact that he was American really irritated Aurora. She didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unruffled, sitting there as self-assured as a well-fed predator observing his prey. Most men were slightly put-off by her, but he was not. Yes, that was the problem.

“Yes, let’s not waste time,” Aurora shot back, and lowered her eyes to “Goblin Market.”

A long moment passed. Aurora could hear him take out a book, but was interested only in Christina Rossetti’s poetry at the moment. Besides, that would only amuse him if she hung all over his every move, every word. She didn’t like catering to men’s egos. She felt like that was worse than smoking a cigarette in a California forest during a drought. It just made things worse.

He turned pages wildly. Just when she thought he was doing it to annoy her, he stopped. Aurora exhaled and took out her notebook as he spoke again.

“You’re Aurora Bloom, aren’t you?” he asked her.

She bit back an oath and answered. “That’s what it says on my knickers,” she responded coolly.

The guy laughed as the study hall monitor passed by and eyed him warily. He cleared his throat, gave the monitor a quick, contrite curving of the lips, and turned to his textbook. Aurora went back to her reading assignment and hoped that would be that. Thought, she had a feeling it wouldn’t be.

And, sure enough, as Aurora finished “Goblin Market,” the guy spoke again.

“The name’s Dante St. James,” he told her. (As if she cared.) “But mostly everyone calls me Rory.”

“Good for you, then. Now that we’ve gotten those pleasantries out of the way, I suppose we can both be quiet now, can’t we?”

“I guess.” Rory looked down at his book for a second then back up to her as if he remembered that he needed to ask her something. “You know what? Your middle name’s Rosalind, isn’t it? That’s from As You Like It.”

Aurora didn’t look up. “I guess,” she mimicked.

There was another pause. Aurora wasn’t sure that he was going to respond until his voice broke the precious silence she adored.

“So what does that make you—a cross-dresser or something?” Rory asked.

Aurora’s pen paused on the paper, the ink pooling into a growing dot. Aurora’s narrowed eyes lifted to his half-amused ones as her right foot itched to kick him under the table. Damned if she was going to lose her temper over this git. He wanted to spar? Fine. She’d do it with words—instead of fists…or feet…

“As much as it makes you a philandering, womanizing artist,” Aurora shot back in a tone that was deceptively even.

“You forget there’s Dante Alighieri, the author of the Inferno,” Rory reminded her. “I could have easily been named after him.”

“I think the picture of a Pre-Raphaelite suits you better,” Aurora corrected, seeing the flicker in his blue-green eyes—and liking it. As a smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth, she scribbled some notes in her literature notebook. Score one round for the Roaring Bloom.

“What makes you think I’m the twenty-first century incarnation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti?”

She chuckled sardonically. “Oh—how about that? You know who I’m talking about.” She glanced at a passage number, not meeting his eyes. “I trust you can figure that one out yourself.” Considering the exchange over, Aurora took notes of her impressions of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” for her next class. She had better things to do than converse with the likes of that bloke.

Unfortunately for her, Dante Roland St. James did not share her sentiment on the situation.

“Not all guys are after a girl so they can get laid,” Rory said, a slight edge to his smooth drawl. “Sometimes guys like to have intelligent conversations with intelligent girls without getting their heads bitten off.”

Beyond irritation and well into fury, Aurora slammed her pen down on the notebook, placed her palms on the wood, and rose to her feet so that she was towering over Rory like a merciless brunette goddess of war.

“That’s it. That’s bloody it. I’m so sick of you blathering on and on. I don’t want to talk to you. As far as I’m concerned, you can just jump into the bleeding Thames and see if you can find a bloody fish to chatter with.” She snarled as the study hall monitor came rushing to the table and shushed her.

Rory, still in his chair, met her gaze with unexpected and infuriating composure (at least in Aurora’s opinion). Except for the gleam of annoyance in his eyes, no one could tell he was anything but cool. And believe me, they were watching. With rapt interest.

“Oh yeah,” he countered. “I’ll go right and do that, Miss Bloom. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that you have issues. You want to have a dick? Is that what it is, Aurora? Or are you just afraid to be proven wrong when you find out that no man is exactly how you think they are?”

Aurora lifted her chin. “I am not afraid of men. You simply irritate me with your lewd and simple minds. You are a despicable species and if I could I’d do away with the lot of you!”

“Oh, and I’m sure with your bleeding hearts and revolving-door emotional stability you women are much better.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Pre-Raphaelite.”

His right eyebrow twitched. “Cross-dresser.”

Before she could put a clamp on her fury, it got the best of her. She couldn’t stop herself from flinging out with her hands and pushing Rory back. The move was so unexpected that he stumbled backward and onto the ground.

“Aurora!” the study hall monitor bellowed.

Aurora sighed and put her head in her hands. “Oh bloody hell,” she said to herself. “I’ve done it again.”

* * *

When Aurora concluded the narrative, Orlando could have sworn he could hear another hair on his head going gray. The sound of brown going gray was a merciless, stress-induced sucking sound.

“Is this Rory St. James hurt in any way?” Orlando asked, trying to keep his teeth from grinding together.

“I suppose so,” Aurora responded. “Though I don’t know for sure.” She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her brown eyes. “That’s what he gets for calling me a bloody cross-dresser.”

Orlando caught himself before he sighed in exasperation. A part of him admired his daughter and was proud of the way his daughter handled herself. However, sooner or later, something—or someone—was going to have to amend their ways. He hated to have to tell his daughter to change, but that time was coming.

“Aurora, love, listen to me,” Orlando began, covering his daughter’s hand with his own. “You can’t go on a personal crusade to alienate every member of the male species you cross. Granted, I can understand that the bloke was messing you about a bit, but you didn’t have to knock him over.”

Feeling foolishness creep up her spine like a snake, Aurora lowered her head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.” Eyes glittering with contrition, Aurora looked into her father’s face. “I just…lost my temper. Before I knew it, I was shoving him and he went stumbling to the ground.”

The door to the principal office opened. Orlando flicked a glance in that direction, but then looked at his daughter as he stood.

“Maybe if you show some remorse, you can get a lighter punishment,” Orlando suggested. “And when we get home, we’ll talk about this a little more.”

Aurora nodded grudgingly as her father stood. She followed suit, lifting her head as she rose. She met Rory St. James’s irritated blue-green eyes with her own and met them steadily as he came out of the principal’s office. He seemed to be unhurt but less than happy with her. It wasn’t like she cared. Perhaps it would teach him not to mess her about anymore.

As Rory walked past her, her eyes fell on the person behind him, and realization hit like a ton of bricks.

Her hair was shorter but she still had that sheen of glamour she always had. Her dark blue eyes were grim but resigned. Her pewter gray suit was well-kept, the pearls at her ears and around her neck adding a mature sophistication. All in all, Aurora mused, nothing had changed. Except there was something different behind the eyes. A guardedness, she recognized now that she was old enough to understand.

Beside Aurora Orlando went slightly pale and said in a slightly breathless voice, “Jacqueline?”

Jacqueline held her poise as she addressed Orlando and Aurora. “Nice to see you both again. Unfortunately it has to be under these circumstances.” She gestured behind her. “Why don’t we step into my office?”

Aurora looked to where she was gesturing. Dread pooled in her belly. Just as she had feared. Jacqueline Gannon was her new principal.

* * *

In Jacqueline’s office a little later, Orlando, Aurora, and Rory sat down in chairs as she took her place behind her desk. Orlando, making sure nothing would ensue, sat in-between his daughter and the tall young man. Orlando noticed that Rory had no parents to defend him and dimly wondered about the young man’s home. But he didn’t wonder too much. After all, the young man had goaded his daughter.

“I’m going to get right to the point. Usually a matter such as this one would have been handled by another, but I have decided to handle it personally,” Jacqueline explained. “Because I know you, Mr. Bloom, and your daughter, I feel like my influence on the situation will help matters.”

Orlando sat up straighter, hearing the formality in her voice. Mr. Bloom, she’d called him. There would be no Orlando and Jacqueline here.

“Aurora, Roland, I would like you to apologize to each other.” Rory began to grumble but Jacqueline spoke over him. “The story is that you both are responsible for what happened. It seems, Mr. St. James, that you are as much to blame for Aurora shoving you as she is. And I demand that you apologize to each other.”

After a few grumbles, Aurora and Rory obeyed. Deeming that satisfactory, Jacqueline decided to move on.

“Aurora,” she began, looking to the young woman, “your records indicate that you have sterling grades but some behavioral problems. I’m not suggesting that you suddenly become a social butterfly. We all know that it is not your way. But I do suggest—and I am asking you to take my suggestion in lieu of disciplinary action—that you become more sociable.” She looked to Rory. “And you will begin with Mr. St. James.”

Rory opened his mouth to protest but Jacqueline raised a hand to silence him. “There will be no argument from either of you. I observed from your schedules that you have a class together. British literature?” They both nodded. “More chances for you to become better acquainted with one another.” She folded her hands on the desktop. “I believe this will be a better solution than suspension or some other form of punishment.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Rory muttered under his breath. Jacqueline looked at him and he sobered instantly.

“It is my hope that things will start to improve,” Jacqueline said. “If not, I will be forced to give you a harsher punishment.” She gazed at Rory. “Roland, I understand your circumstances also, but I will not hesitate to give you a harsher punishment if it is due.” She locked gazes with them both. “Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes,” Aurora and Rory said in unison.

“Good,” Jacqueline said with a slight nod. She looked at Orlando a moment, considered. Then she spoke again. “Could you excuse me and Mr. Bloom a moment, Aurora, Roland?”

Aurora and Rory both looked at Orlando, then stood. When the door closed behind them, the temperature dropped a few degrees, and the air suddenly seemed to deplete. Orlando cleared his throat and figured the best approach would be the most direct one.

“How have you been, Jacqueline?” Orlando inquired in a polite tone.

“I’ll have better days,” Jacqueline answered truthfully. “Particularly now that my divorce is final.”

Orlando’s eyebrows arched. This came as a shock to him. He hadn’t known she was married. “Divorce?”

Jacqueline looked down at her hands. “About five years ago, I got married. The son of a friend of my mother’s.” She glanced at a picture of her mother on her desk. It still felt as if she was watching, even now. “I thought he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but I was sadly mistaken.” She gazed at Orlando. “And it seems that you’ve avoided getting married over the past nine years. We all thought you’d marry Keira Knightley.”

Orlando chuckled, imagining the spectacle. Keira would have laughed, too. “Keira and I are just friends, Jacqueline,” he told her. “Besides, I don’t think her current boyfriend would like it if we got married.”

“No, I suppose not.” She fiddled idly with bracelet on her wrist. “Do you think my solution to the problem will help?”

“I hope so. I don’t want to have to come here again.” He leaned forward slightly. “I trust Aurora, but I’m not entirely sure I trust that young man.”

“That young man has a lot of potential. I can see it in his eyes.” She paused, measuring Orlando then continued. “He came here to London three years ago on his own. He had been in an abusive home for most of his adolescence. His mother had been an alcoholic and his stepfather was less than kind to him. To be quite blunt, he beat Roland. Roland had a little stepsister but…” Jacqueline sighed, dark eyes filled with pain. She waved a hand, indicating she didn’t want to reveal and ultimately revisit the circumstances of Rory St. James’s family. “He had nothing but the clothes on his back and a few dollars when he came here. Since then, he’s bought and maintained a flat, gotten a job, and is taking very good care of himself. I convinced him to come here to finish school. No matter what anyone thinks, he needs an education and the structure and stability the institution can offer. Not to mention, Orlando, I think Aurora could be a good influence on him and vice versa.”

“We’ll see,” Orlando said, a little sympathetic but not altogether convinced. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

* * *

In the main office, Aurora looked at Rory warily as she faced him. Her stare was met with wariness in kind.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” Aurora demanded. “You just wanted to push me.”

“Maybe I did,” Rory responded. “But I wasn’t the only one who did the pushing.”

“When someone pushes me, I push back. I think we’d better get that straight right off.”

“Fine. Got it straight.” He stepped up closer, the toes of his scuffed boots meeting the toes of her Nikes. “But we’ve gotta get something else straight. If we’re gonna hang out together, you’ve gotta loosen up. Stop looking like you wanna chew someone’s bones into dust.”

Aurora bounced on the balls of her feet. “Maybe I look like that because I do wanna chew someone’s bones into dust. You better be lucky I can’t do yours.” When he just looked at her, she asked, because she felt like picking with him, “And the hell kind of name is Roland anyway? Everybody calls you Rory.”

“They call me Rory because that’s what I tell them to call me.” There was a flicker of something in his eyes that made her want to step back, reconsider, take another look at him. Had that been pain? She didn’t know. “Besides, it’s none of your business. I wouldn’t talk about names. Especially since your name’s Aurora.” With a nasty grin, he started circling her and singing. “I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream…”

Aurora growled. She remembered the song from the movies she used to watch as a child. Sleeping Beauty. She was old enough to be embarrassed by it. But that was what he wanted, wasn’t it? To mess her about, to get her all angry again. Narrowing her eyes, she shocked him by whirling around to face him and singing along.

“I know you, the gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam,” she shot back. The smirk on Rory’s face died, and he paused and gazed down at her in awe. “And I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem. But if I know you, I know what you’ll do. You’ll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.”

She crossed her arms over her chest after the last note had died out. She didn’t notice the secretary had completely abandoned her work to observe. Her eyes were on Rory. “There. Not what you expected, huh?”

Rory just shook his head absently as if his brain was suddenly slow to function. Aurora turned to walk away and saw Orlando and Jacqueline in the doorway of Jacqueline’s office watching them. She stopped dead at the haunted look in her father’s eyes.

“Dad?” she said aloud, not saying more because she wasn’t sure she could trust her voice. Orlando said nothing.

“That was good,” Rory said from behind her. “Real good. Where did you learn to sing like that?”

The look in Orlando’s eyes had told her, but Aurora wasn’t about to say it. The pain would have been immense.

“Nowhere,” Aurora murmured, understanding. She strode to her father and took his hand in hers. She bade Jacqueline goodbye as the bell rang in the hallway, signaling the end of the school day. She led her father out, surrounded by the ghost of Della Henderson.

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