Back for the Very First Time
The drive home was mercifully short. With Samantha behind the wheel of her white Jeep Wrangler, they traveled the fifteen-mile distance in less than twenty minutes.
Gretchen was pleading chest pains and the loss of ten years off her life when they pulled into the driveway of a two-and-a-half story house with a sign out front that dubbed it, The Tiger House.
Samantha slapped her on the back hard enough to have her kissing the grass below. “Oh stop whining. My driving’s not that bad.”
Gretchen muttered something unintelligible about the sanctity of Samantha’s driving skills.
Meanwhile, Chris observed that Orlando was studying the list he had made for him. He seemed to be coaching himself on each member of the list like he was studying for a midterm. Coming up to him, Chris patted his dear mate on the back.
“How’s it coming?” Chris inquired.
“Fine, I suppose,” Orlando replied. “I’m still a little flummoxed, but that’s to be expected, right?”
“Well, you’ll get over that feeling soon enough,” Chris assured him, taking his duffel bag out of the cargo area. Orlando did the same, and followed Gretchen and Samantha up the walkway with Chris at his side. “Once you meet them, it’ll be hard to mix them up.”
“Whose house is this?”
“It belongs to Cassandra and Jessica,” Samantha responded. “Jen and Moira live here, too. There are extra rooms so that we have a place to sleep when we come to visit.” She shared a glance with Gretchen. “Mom and Aunt Irene live nearby.”
“That’s going to be fun,” Gretchen muttered.
Samantha did not knock. Instead, she took out a key from her pocket and unlocked the front door.
They walked into the foyer and were greeted by no one. There were signs of life in the blinking light on the answering machine placed on a table near the staircase and the microwave humming from the kitchen off to the right. The living room, decorated in shades of brown, maroon and teal, was off to their left. Orlando observed that the furniture looked comfortable and lived in in an orderly sort of way.
A door opened upstairs, and a moment later, a blonde appeared. She wore jeans and a peasant top along with measuring tape around her neck, her long tawny hair flowing down her shoulders. As she descended the staircase, Orlando noticed the resemblance to Samantha instantly.
She grinned and hugged Chris first, who proclaimed that she was more beautiful than she had been the last time he saw her. Blushing, she turned to hug her sister and cousin, chattering about mundane things. It took a moment before she noticed Orlando.
When she did, she clasped his hands in hers and gave him a disarming smile. “You must be Orlando,” she said. “I’m Jennifer, Sam’s sister. Glad you could come and spend the week with us.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the bloke’s overjoyed,” Chris said meaningfully, and Jennifer gave him a look, but her eyes were still twinkling with mirth.
Orlando brought her attention back to him. “It’s nice to meet you, Jennifer.” He gestured to the measuring tape. “In the middle of a design?”
Jennifer was pleasantly surprised that Orlando was so observant. Her smile never dimmed. “I am, actually,” she replied. “Aunt Irene asked me to make the dresses for the blessed event. That was what I was doing before you guys got here.”
Behind her, Samantha and Gretchen looked distinctly uncomfortable, fearing that they could be draped in fabric within the next few seconds. The microwave sent out a shrill beep.
“Oh yeah, that must be my popcorn,” Jennifer said. She smiled apologetically at everyone, but mostly Orlando, who didn’t know her habits. “The breakfast of champions. Well, while that’s cooling in the microwave, I’ll show you where you can put your things.”
The quartet followed Jennifer upstairs. Samantha and Gretchen already had rooms so they unpacked while Jennifer showed Orlando around. Glancing in the rooms, she frowned.
“That’s funny,” she muttered. “I was sure we had a room for you, Orlando. Maybe I got my wires crossed or something.” She scratched her head.
“He can put his stuff in my room,” Chris offered. “Though, I do have to say it right now—I refuse to share the same bed with you in this house.”
“Oh, gee thanks, mate,” Orlando commented wryly. “Maybe I’ll just sleep on the floor.”
“Nonsense,” Jennifer said. “I’ll have to ask Cassandra which room we picked out for you when she comes home later.” Since things were settled for the moment, her smile reappeared. It seemed that Jennifer smiled a lot, too. “Since Chris is already acquainted with the other girls—”
A loud noise from over his head made Orlando jump. “What the bloody hell was that?” he queried.
“That’s just Moira,” Jennifer assured him. “She lives in the attic.” Orlando’s eyebrows furrowed. “It’s where she wanted to stay. It’s very private and quiet up there.” Jennifer then lowered her voice as if Moira herself were listening. “She’s recovering from heart surgery. She had a heart defect when she was born and they just now completely fixed it. She’s on house arrest for a couple more days.”
Orlando nodded. “Oh, right. So does she ever come down from the attic?”
“Sometimes. When she feels like it.”
“Which is almost never,” Chris added. “She likes time to herself. And around here, quiet is hard to find sometimes.”
Before Jennifer could refute that claim, the door behind her creaked open. A tall, statuesque girl with raven hair and eyes Orlando could not tell the color of posed in the doorway stretching. She wore a nightshirt that flirted with her thighs and her hair was tousled, as if she had been sleeping. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. Already knowing Chris, her sharp eyes rested upon Orlando.
“Who are you?” she asked sleepily.
“I’m Chris’s roommate,” Orlando told her. “Orlando.”
“Oh.” She yawned again, a little more delicately this time. Then her mouth curved in what he would later know as the Danie smile. “Nice to meet you. Hope you have a nice time here.” Then her eyes darkened. “But if you’re a Capricorn, I can’t deal with you. I can’t stand Capricorns.”
Orlando just stared at her, mouth agape.
“Danie,” Jennifer warned, voice mild but firm. Danie looked to her leisurely. “Leave him alone. Not every man in the world is as corrupt as you think they are.”
Danie shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She walked away in barefeet and descended the staircase.
Chris and Orlando shared a glance. “I suppose things have changed since a year and a half ago,” Chris remarked.
Jennifer sighed wearily. “If only you knew,” she said, but didn’t elaborate. Attempting to break the silence, she grinned again, smile at full wattage, and pulled Chris and Orlando along with her as she ventured back to her room. “How would you guys like to help me design the dresses?”
Trying to be nice, Chris said hesitantly, “Are you sure you need our help? I mean, we’re regular old blokes with no fashion sense…”
“Oh nonsense,” Jennifer chattered. “You two would make the perfect models. You’re good looking enough.”
Chris gave Orlando a See what I mean? look and Orlando just sighed.
“Do you have any yellow?” Orlando asked, trying to make the best of it. “It’s my favorite color.”
Orlando and Chris spent two masculinity-challenged hours with the bubbly Jennifer. Once he got over the fact that he was wearing a dress, Orlando found himself having fun.
Jennifer asked him about himself and told him things about herself. Chris punctuated the conversation with his witty remarks. Of course, Orlando did feel a little itchy when Samantha strode in and saw him standing on a stool wearing purple silk.
“Ahem,” she said, pursing her lips. Then she tilted her head. “Orlando—have you ever been told that you look resplendent in purple?”
“Very funny, love,” he responded. “I think you look even better in pink.”
Pause. Chris snorted so hard that it was a wonder that his brain didn’t come sailing out of his nose. Samantha glowered, still a little touchy about the pink hair incident.
Without a word to Orlando, she walked to her sister and asked with a tight smile, “Can I have a pin?”
Orlando shook his head vigorously. “Oh bloody hell. Don’t do it, Samantha. I was kidding. I was messing around, really I was.”
Jennifer put her hands on her hips. “Samantha Brittany…” she chided.
Samantha ignored her and grabbed a pin. Orlando stumbled off of the stool and Samantha chased him down the hall and into Gretchen’s room where he slammed the door and locked it.
Meanwhile, Gretchen was perched on her bed listening to music, eyes wide with shock.
When she got over her shock, Gretchen slipped off her earphones and off of the bed.
“Should I ask?” Gretchen asked.
“You probably can figure what happened.” Orlando looked down at himself and groaned. “And here I am in this bloody purple.”
“It does look good on you,” Gretchen told him. “It’s not a prissy color, honest,” she added at his dubious expression. She frowned at the door when Samantha started to bang on it and curse Orlando in very colorful ways. “Um, would you like to escape and save your life?”
Orlando sighed with relief. “Gladly.”
Gretchen walked to her bed and reached for something under it. Orlando carefully peeled off the royal purple silk and placed it on Gretchen’s bed. When Gretchen emerged from the depths, she held a large scrapbook. She put the scrapbook in a messenger bag and wore it across her body.
“Come on,” she urged. “You can climb, can you?”
“Climb?” What Orlando didn’t understand was that they were going out the window.
“Of course,” Gretchen said. “We can’t very well take the stairs.”
Dubiously, Orlando followed Gretchen out her bedroom window and down a tree. She led him around the pool and into the trees. Gretchen paused and plopped down under a tree after a minute. Orlando lowered himself next to her as she extracted the scrapbook.
“I figured you could use some help before you met everyone else,” Gretchen explained. “I mean, Chris can give you his perspective, but it’s only one of many.” She opened the album. “I want to give you mine.”
For the next hour, she pointed at pictures and told stories. Orlando found himself riveted and stunned that a family could be so complex. From the pictures, he found a family full of vivacious, multi-faceted women. He found a group of women who loved passionately and loyally.
When he asked about her father because she didn’t have any pictures of him, Gretchen faltered a bit. “Um…well, my father wasn’t the best of people.” She looked at him, eyes troubled. “He cheated on my mother and they divorced.”
“How old were you?” Orlando asked.
“I was eight,” Gretchen revealed. She sighed heavily and closed the book. “It was hard on us. We were so young, you know? And the home we always knew became broken.” She shook her head at the memories. “Funny thing was, we became whole when they broke up. It was like the sun came out or something. Mama never wanted us to do what we didn’t want to. Well, as far as aspirations and stuff. My father was always telling us what to do, what to study.” She shuddered. “I still hate biology to this day because of that man.”
Things went silent for a long time. The wind fluttered and ruffled their hair, and Orlando basked in the comfortable silence.
Finally he said, “Perhaps it was for the best.”
“Yes, it was.” She stared at him sidelong. “You know, this is going to sound sappy or something, but I’m glad I met you.” She stared at her hands. “Most guys don’t listen to me, at least not for long. They find my sisters more diverting. Or their ex-girlfriends.”
Orlando frowned. He stared back, and found a vibrant young woman sitting beside him that any man should be honored to keep company with. “That can’t be true, love. You are all each different and alluring in your own ways. Any guy would be taken—overwhelmed—by each one of you. Even you.”
Gretchen laughed nervously as her heart fluttered. “I guess I haven’t met a guy like that yet.”
“Except me,” Orlando corrected.
“Except you,” Gretchen agreed. In a gesture of affection, she punched him lightly on the arm. “You’re one of a kind, Orlando.”
“I know.” She gave him a nudge for that comment. He looked at the sky, saw that the midday sun was shining upon them. “We’d better get back before they wonder where they are.”
“Yeah.” Then suddenly, her lips curved in a mischievous grin. “Hey—wanna go jump in the pool with our clothes on? It’ll be fun.” Without waiting for him to answer, she stuffed the scrapbook back into the messenger bag and climbed to her feet. “Come on!”
From the attic window, a pair of green eyes watched the two friends as they cannonballed into the backyard pool. Orlando surfaced and then dunked Gretchen when she emerged from the water. Soon Chris and Samantha joined them, Jennifer scolding them all the way with her hands on her small hips. Danie paused to look but walked away. Chris teased Jennifer and lured her close enough to him to pull her into the water. When she surfaced, sputtering, she and Samantha ganged up on him. Orlando cheered for his roommate, as Gretchen climbed on his back.
Gretchen stuck to Orlando like a barnacle, keeping him from helping Chris. Chris chased the Dunne sisters around the pool. Those same green eyes watching from the attic filled with laughter at the scene—and longing. Someday, when the healing was done, she would be with them.
* * *
After their short-lived Water Wars, Orlando hopped into the shower. When he came out of the shower, he found this note on the door:
Hair dripping, Gretchen emerged from her room and leaned on the doorframe of the bathroom as Orlando dried his hair with a towel.
“I see you got Jen’s note,” she said. “You up for going out?”
“Not only am I up for it, but I am counting the hours, my dear Gretchen,” he responded.
“Good.” She started to walk away but then paused. “Oh yeah. I almost forgot. Danie might be coming with us.”
Orlando’s arm dropped to his side. “Should I be afraid?”
“Of course not. She’ll be in her own stratosphere and away from us.” She patted his shoulder. “She won’t ruin our night, promise.”