Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight
You Know, We Just Might Want to Elope After This

Later, Orlando reappeared, dressed and presentable. He introduced himself formally to the blonde and the black-haired woman, who turned out to be the mothers Samantha and Gretchen had been grumbling about, Rebecca Dunne and Irene Thomas, the soon-to-be Mrs. David Wolfe. They were perched on the couch with books in their laps.

“Are you okay?” asked Irene, worriedly looking him over as he sat down in-between her and Rebecca. She had insisted that she sit down there.

Orlando smiled and nodded. “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

A smirk turned up a corner of Rebecca’s mouth. “You know, you turned out pretty lucky,” she remarked. “If Gretchen hadn’t saved you from imminent death—”

“Mom!” Jennifer exclaimed, horrified. “Don’t scare him. Jess’s not always like that.”

Samantha snickered. Jessica had not entered the room since leaving several minutes before and would have been in danger herself if Jessica had heard. Jessica had been upstairs taking a shower trying to wake herself up. She was probably getting dressed by now.

“I was being jocular, mija,” Rebecca told Jennifer. She turned to Orlando. “Our Jessica is quite protective of the people she loves—”

“And her bed,” added Samantha.

“It was an accident,” Orlando explained.

“And it’s over,” Irene said hastily, covering Orlando’s hand with her own to reassure him. “We’re glad to have you here, Orlando. It’s reassuring when I see my girls meeting nice guys like you and Chris. It lets me know they have some sense.”

In the doorway, Jessica yawned, her auburn hair up in a ponytail, still wet from the shower. She wore a teal shirt and jeans, looking fresh and dewy. And non-threatening.

“They have sense, and plenty of it,” Jessica remarked, stretching. “At least most of them.”

Irene exhaled slowly. “Jessica—we will not talk about—” Orlando sat up straighter, wondering if he was going to find out what was going on. It was then that he noticed that there was an undercurrent of tension in the room. It was as if something unwelcome had made itself at home along with them. Irene caught herself before she could finish the sentence. “We should talk about the wedding.”

“Fine.” Jessica sat down on the arm of the loveseat. “Talk away.”

The tension eased but didn’t completely eradicate itself. Irene opened the book in her lap, and Orlando found that it was actually not a book; it was a catalogue. He spied tablecloths, wine glasses, champagne flutes, centerpieces, and other things in such quick succession that it made him dizzy.

“We have to decide on the tablecloths, Irene,” Rebecca was saying. “I think that’s the only thing left. Oh, wait! Never mind. I lied. You still have to decide…about you-know-who…”

“I say screw him,” Jessica contributed staunchly.

“But that’s not really fair,” Jennifer said. “It was in the past.”

“I agree with Jessica,” Samantha commented. “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”

Seeing a sort of stalemate, Rebecca turned to Orlando. “What do you think, Orlando?”

Pause.

“Um—who are we talking about?” Orlando inquired.

“My bastard father,” Jessica told him. “Mom’s trying to figure out whether or not she wants to invite him to the wedding.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t think he should come.”

“Well,” Orlando began, trying to search for a way to be diplomatic, “I think it’s up to the bride.”

“She can’t decide,” Rebecca informed him. “That’s the problem. That’s why we’re asking you to weigh in on the situation.”

Orlando looked around at the women in the room. Rebecca, Samantha and Jennifer looked eagerly expectant. Irene looked uncomfortable. Jessica’s look indicated she’d go to jail if looks could kill. Gulp.

He swallowed his fear and remembered the conversation he’d had with Gretchen. The look in her eyes when she mentioned her father haunted him some. Then he had his answer.

“Honestly? I don’t think he should be allowed into the wedding. After all,” he added, turning to Irene and focusing only on her, “this is your special day, your foray into the future with the man you’re going to spend the rest of your life, not the other man who broke your heart and left you disappointed and caring for six bewildered children. Do you really want the past hanging over your head as you recite your vows? It’s your second time, and you have to make it count. You should have the people around you whom you need most, not a reminder of a failed union. It should be a happy day signifying the beginning of a wonderful bond with a man you truly love and not a farce for the man who induced your divorce.” He patted her hand. “He shouldn’t come.”

Silence.

Samantha’s mouth was wide open. Jennifer and Rebecca were misty-eyed. Jessica would have been triumphant if she hadn’t been so surprised.

“That was so sweet!” Rebecca burst out.

“Wouldn’t be nice if Orlando spoke at the wedding?” Jennifer remarked.

“That would be so sweet,” Rebecca agreed. “Irene—it would be wonderful! He would know just the right thing to say. And he has that charming British accent…”

They looked to him again, awaiting his answer.

“Orlando?” Jennifer asked.

Crickets.

“Can…I think about it and get back to you?” Orlando wanted to know.

* * *

A few moments later, Orlando was standing in his bedroom, pacing.

After Orlando had left the room, the mothers, Samantha, Jennifer, and Jessica, who were now joined by Gretchen, went to sit outside by the pool. He could hear them now as they chattered. But that only made him feel worse.

“I can’t stay here,” he muttered aloud. “This has all been too much. Already I’ve nearly gotten my head lopped off and my arm nearly broken. I have to tell Chris and Sam and Gretchen that I want to go back. I’ll go bloody bonkers if I don’t.”

Shoulders square, Orlando opened the door, resolved to tell his friends what was on his mind. He walked out into the hall—only to walk into another person.

The person gasped and fell backwards. A golden retriever barked once, standing protectively by the young woman as she stared up at a startled Orlando.

Orlando had Danie’s name on his lips—but this girl didn’t have her eyes. And they weren’t Gretchen’s either.

Neither Gretchen nor Danie wore glasses.

“Who are you?” Orlando inquired.

The dog barked in warning.

“Artemis,” she chided. The dog sat on her haunches, subdued. She still watched him warily, though. The young woman shifted, and Orlando could see the fading scar running the length of her breastbone under her baggy pajamas before her long black hair covered it. Realization dawned at that moment.

“You’re Moira-Selene,” Orlando commented. He held out a hand to help her up. “Nice to finally meet you. I’m Orlando.”

Moira-Selene nodded. “I know who you are. I have seen you outside. Nice to meet you.” She glanced around, listened as her mother and big sister argued over table settings. “I suppose you can guess why I have been hiding out.”

“Believe me, you’re not the only one who wants to bury their head in the sand,” Orlando remarked.

Artemis barked in agreement. Moira-Selene rubbed the dog’s head with a slight smile.

“I came down to get something to eat,” Moira-Selene explained. “I am running out of food options upstairs. I was hoping not to run into anyone…” She sighed.

“Your secret is safe with me, love,” Orlando assured her.

“Thank you.” She started to walk away with the dog but paused to look back at him. “It was nice meeting you.”

“Likewise,” Orlando remarked.

“If you ever want to come up and hide from the melee, just knock on my door,” Moira-Selene told him before descending the staircase with Artemis.

A few moments later, Chris emerged from his room, yawning. He looked well-rested and rumpled. He scratched his stomach and turned to his friend.

“What’re you standing here for? Where’re the girls?” Chris inquired sleepily.

“They’re outside,” Orlando replied. He sighed heavily and headed back into his room. Chris followed slowly, perplexed. “I don’t think I can handle much more of this, mate. I mean, I almost got bloody killed this morning!”

Chris blinked. “What?”

“Yeah. I’m not messing you about. Jessica? The one you’re so keen on? She almost lopped off my bloody head with a baseball bat.”

Orlando could hardly finish the sentence before Chris was laughing and gulping for breath.

“What the hell is so funny?” Orlando demanded. “She almost rendered me dead.”

“And you lived to tell about it, so you’re lucky,” Chris told him once he had caught his breath. “Most men never do.”

“And that’s exactly why I want to go back,” Orlando said. “I want to live the rest of my life without this trauma.”

Chris placed his hands on Orlando’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Look, mate. I didn’t say this would be easy.”

“Damn right you didn’t!” Orlando cried. “I hardly find attempted murder easy to swallow…!”

“Just cool your jets and listen, mate. You’ve jumped a big hurdle. You’ve met Jessica. Now that’s out of the way, and you can enjoy the rest of the break. After all, it is Sunday. We’ve got another seven days before we go back. Things could get considerably better.”

At that moment, the front door opened downstairs. They heard Artemis bark animatedly and a female voice call out. Orlando and Chris drifted out onto the landing to find a blonde standing below. When she saw Chris, she grinned.

“Christopher Harding Parker,” said the woman. “Is that you standing there?”

“The one and only, Cassie love,” Chris responded, coming down the steps.

Yes, since the woman’s smile only brightened, Orlando figured that this was the last cousin, Cassandra. No, wait—there was still one left. Claudia-Michelle. He wondered as he came down the stairs when she was coming. Wouldn’t blame her if she caught the sickly sweet scent of wedding planning and ran.

After Cassandra and Chris had hugged, Cassandra turned to Orlando, still smiling. “You must be Orlando. I’m Cassandra.”

“Nice to meet you,” Orlando said.

“Good.” Cassandra gave a nod. “You two young men look like you’re sick of this wedding business.”

Orlando’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re tired of this, too?”

Cassandra threw up her hands in exasperation, still smiling. “Well, let’s just say I’ll be having some margaritas once Aunt Irene goes off on the honeymoon.”

“And we’ll be joining you,” Chris remarked as a din filled the hallway.

At that moment, Jessica was entering the house behind her mother. Cassandra, Chris, and Orlando watched in confusion as Jessica and a tearful Irene argued. Jennifer, Samantha, Gretchen, and Rebecca came following behind not long after.

“You’ve been eating like a bird and looking sickly,” Jessica was saying. “I know when my mother is sick, and I would appreciate it greatly that she didn’t lie to me.”

Eyes traveled to Irene.

“I am fine, mija,” Irene insisted. “It’s this whole wedding business that’s making me so tired.”

Eyes switched to Jessica.

“Oh, like hell it’s just the wedding,” Jessica snapped. She stood back a little and crossed her arms. “I know my mother. And I know when she’s over-taxed herself. But this isn’t just simply over-taxing yourself.” She paused as Irene shifted nervously. “What’s wrong, Mama?”

Irene looked down at the floor and her eyes filled with tears. Alarmed, Gretchen rushed to her side as a door opened on the second floor and Danie emerged from her room. Everyone watched in rapt interest as Irene lifted her eyes and opened her mouth.

“I’m pregnant,” she announced quietly.

Astonished silence.

“What?” Rebecca said breathlessly.

“But you can’t be…it doesn’t make…” As it dawned on Jennifer that she was going to have to spend all night re-altering the dress that she had spent weeks on, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted.

Everyone rushed to Jennifer, even the dog. That is, except for Cassandra, Chris and Orlando, who could only watch in growing astonishment and horror.

“Or,” Chris said in an undertone to Orlando, “they could get considerably worse.”

Cassandra’s smile was replaced with a weary look. “I think I want to have some of that margarita right about now.”

* * *

The women convened in the dining room with Orlando and Chris watching at the doorway. Somehow, the idea of having the wedding sooner came up. Jessica was fervently against it.

“It’s not possible,” she pointed out. “Look at all of the arrangements we’ve made—”

“So we can make some changes and remake some small ones,” Rebecca postulated. “We could probably have the wedding here, if possible. I mean, Irene wants something small in the first place anyway.”

Jessica sighed, frustrated, as everyone talked over her. When she held up a hand for silence, everyone went quiet.

“And just when would we have this wedding?” Jessica asked in an even tone.

There was a thoughtful silence.

“Well,” Samantha began, “finals aren’t until the end of April.”

“But I have to be in Florence at the end of April,” Rebecca said. “I don’t want to miss this. It’s my sister’s wedding, and I want to be there.”

“We resume class next week,” Gretchen offered.

“Are you saying it should be after the semester ends?” Samantha asked Gretchen.

“We can’t very well have it next weekend,” Gretchen said with a chuckle.

The others shared a glance. Some faces were anxious, some were bright with the prospect of having a wedding within the next seven days. Jessica shook her head vigorously.

“No,” Jessica said firmly. “Absolutely not. Besides, what would David say about this? You have to talk to him about this before you just make a weighty decision like that.”

Irene, assuming her role as mother, crossed her arms over her chest. “Young lady, do not tell me what to do. Who spent eighteen hours in labor with you? Who bought you your first pair of ballet shoes and took you to see the Nutcracker when you begged and begged?”

“I am quite aware of your contribution to my existence,” Jessica said tightly, “but you have to think rationally, Mother. You can’t haul off and having a wedding in a week.”

Irene stared at her defiantly. Now everyone knew where Jessica had gotten her insolence. “Just watch me.”

Everyone’s mouth’s dropped open. Gretchen winced and gulped down her water. Chris and Orlando shared a look, then Orlando left the room. A little anxious but happy at the chance to leave the tension between her mother and big sister behind, Gretchen leapt from her chair and followed.

She found him on the porch, back to her and the front door. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t think it’d be like this.”

Orlando didn’t turn around. “I think I might want to go back.”

Gretchen nodded. “I understand.” She swallowed a sigh. “Just as least come to the gathering tomorrow. It won’t be so bad. No frills. And we’ll be outside and we can hang and eat hot dogs—and you won’t have to worry about being attacked with a baseball bat or worse. Because the focus will be on Mom and David.” She nudged him. “Come on. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you beer and wings for a whole year.”

Orlando turned around and offered a hand. “Done.”

backhomenext

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