Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
The United States of Nicole Smith

Most of the Thomas sisters were out of the house when Orlando woke up for the day Monday. He was half-relieved at their absence but figured it was all for the best. He would be able to see them eventually.

It had been a strange night after Jessica and Irene had their disagreement. Irene and Rebecca had left not long after Gretchen and Orlando came back into the house. Jessica went to bed without talking to anyone, and Cassandra had sat up worriedly with everyone else, drinking wine. Danie had not made an official appearance all day, and Moira-Selene was back in the attic. Orlando and Chris had joined Cassandra with her wine when Orlando learned that Cassandra had been an actress. When they had been finished for the night and readying themselves for bed, Orlando nearly forgot about leaving early. Nearly.

After pulling on a shirt, Orlando descended the stairs and was greeted by Artemis with the usual chirping bark. The golden retriever, enamored with the attention she was getting, allowed her tongue to hang out in canine ecstasy, and Orlando, being charmed by her, rubbed her belly when she offered it.

The dog’s attention was diverted by a sound from the den. It was not noise; the sound was soft, lilting, flowing. The notes were slightly staccato, and Orlando identified the instrument as a piano. In the next instant, another sound filled the air and progressed into notes flowing into one another like a river to an ocean. A violin, Orlando mused. He remembered that some of the Thomas sisters possessed musical capability. Jennifer admitted that she couldn’t figure out how to play an instrument but she had a fairly good voice. Sam and Gretchen were guitarists and played nothing more; Jessica could pound away at the drums, and that was no surprise, but she had never displayed any singing prowess. Cassandra enjoyed music but said she could not produce it. Evie was delightfully poetic. Danie, of course, was an enigma that he had yet to discern. Orlando postulated that the raven-haired enamoress would reveal her insides sooner or later. However, neither of these musicians were Danie. Orlando was sure of it.

Wandering into the den, he noticed the painting above the fireplace. The only thing that struck him other than there was a fireplace in a house in California was the size of the portrait. It was about four feet wide, two feet high. Coming closer, Orlando saw that the picture was produced by a rather skillful hand. MSE was scrawled in the corner of the painting.

The music flowed over him as he examined the painting of nine young women. He had long known that it had such an effect, but this melody was thoroughly calming, almost like a lullaby.

And then, suddenly, it stopped. He found himself face to face with a curly-haired girl with twinkling green eyes.

“Bonjour,” she greeted him.

A bit awed by her resemblance to Gretchen, he could only take her outstretched hand and repeat the foreign greeting. “Bonjour.”

“I’m Claudia-Michelle, but you can just call me Claudia.” The piano tinkered on as the girl placed the violin and bow back into its case nearby. “You must be Orlando. I’ve already heard so much about you.”

The tone of Claudia-Michelle’s voice was not presumptuous, so Orlando assumed that Gretchen had told her the basics. He had brown hair, brown eyes, two arms, and two legs. The usual stuff. Claudia-Michelle’s aura was disconcerting him. Gretchen and her quadruplet sisters were eighteen, but Claudia-Michelle seemed so much older, otherworldly.

The piano stopped. A young woman swiveled around on the bench and turned to them. Orlando blinked at the resemblance. Uncanny. That must be Moira-Selene, then.

“Jessica told Claudia to take you to Gracia Park when you woke up,” Moira-Selene told Orlando. “There’s a little get together at Gracia Park in Mom and David’s honor.”

“Why didn’t Jessica throw it here?” Claudia-Michelle asked her younger sister.

Moira-Selene shrugged. “I suppose she did not want Mom to see us running around in our bathing suits.”

Claudia-Michelle snickered. “Isn’t that what people do in California?”

Moira just shrugged again and turned back to the ivories. Claudia, meanwhile, shifted to Orlando, smiling. Even the softening of her eyes in that smile still made her seem older than he was. He hadn’t had time to ponder on it when Claudia ushered him out of the den and into the hallway. She told him that he would need to wear something loose and cool for they would be in the park amid the springtime heat as she sashayed past him up the stairs in her flowered sundress with expensive-looking sandals, Orlando thought that they all should just go naked. It would leave nothing to the imagination. He counted the lilies twitching on her bottom as she walked. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Ah, no—seventeen.

As if feeling his stare, Claudia paused in front of the door that he had left open when he had gotten up not too long ago, and smiled again, this time staring at him with electric green eyes before she spoke.

“I’ll leave you to change,” she told him, fingering a lock of curly raven hair behind her ear. “When you get done, meet me downstairs.”

“Alright, thanks” was all Orlando could get out before his ego smushed a potential Freudian slip. No, Gretchen would hate him if he asked her older quadruplet sister if she could sleep with him after one meeting. That would totally repulse her.

* * *

A few moments later, after a few calming breaths and a few cold thoughts about Camilla Parker Bowles, Orlando emerged with enough readiness to take on a hundred Claudia-Michelle Thomases.

Each of the Thomas women was all beautiful and charming in her own way. Jessica and Danie’s beauty came at you with the force of a bullet (or a baseball bat in Jessica’s case); Moira probably didn’t know that she was good-looking; Gretchen didn’t even care. But Claudia… Claudia-Michelle was different. She was subtle and powerful at the same time. The first thing one noticed about her was the air of maturity that billowed around her, then her beauty.

Claudia-Michelle had pulled some of her hair back when Orlando saw her again. A cloud of floral scent surrounded her, and he felt his control slip. What was it about a woman that made them wear scents and clothes that went straight to a man’s gut? And at eighteen!

“Ready to go?” she asked.

“Um, yeah” and a nod completed his affirmation. After calling goodbye to Moira, who still had one more week of house rest, Claudia-Michelle locked up the house and led him to a white Jeep Wrangler.

“Sam let me borrow her car for today,” she explained as they climbed inside. “I think everyone went in Jess’s car.”

As Claudia-Michelle started the engine, Orlando decided that the only way to get through the awkwardness with Claudia-Michelle was to have a conversation with her. It would help the overwhelming feeling of lust that was growing inside of him if he knew some of her flaws. Yes, that was the way out of this mess. He would talk to her and would find out that she had an unhealthy obsession with sewer rats. And that would turn him off.

“Gretchen told me you’re from England,” Claudia-Michelle said once they were on the road. “Perhaps if you had decided to stay a little longer we probably would have run into each other.”

“You lived in England?” Orlando asked, stunned.

“Oh no—I played there. My school traveled to London for a performance.” Then she sighed and braked at a red light. “It’s a nice school, but I’m glad to be home.”

Orlando was amused. It was endearing to find out that little piece of information, so he focused on that instead of desire. “You mean you would give up the exotic, transient life of a concert violinist for a visit home?”

Claudia-Michelle caught the mock-surprise in his voice and smiled. “Well, Paris, Milan, and London are nice, but I suppose I’m just a family girl.” She glanced at him. “So how about you? You seem like a normal young man to me. Or maybe I’ve misjudged you.” When he was finding an answer, she flicked her eyes briefly at him again. “However, I have heard that it takes a strong man to divert Jessica.”

Orlando winced. That certainly put a choke hold on lust. He was half-grateful. “I suppose the gods were with me on that one.”

Claudia-Michelle laughed, a sound that nearly obliterated the calm imposed by the mind’s eye image of Camilla Parker Bowles in scant clothing. “I wouldn’t worry about it happening again,” she assured him. “Jessica may seem mean sometimes, but she’s just protective of herself and of us. She wouldn’t be quite Jessica if she didn’t run around with a baseball bat.” She patted Orlando’s thigh. “Don’t worry about Jessica. I think she’ll be easy on you from now on.”

Yeah, but his lust was about to kill him.

Was it possible to die from sexual frustration?

There had been times when women had zapped him of considerable mental activity, but this was ridiculous! She was nearly three years younger than he, but she seemed as old as her sister Jessica. (Luckily, that seemed to be all the similarities between them.) He had to find her flaws. That was the only way.

“So what do you do for fun?” Orlando asked.

Claudia-Michelle made a left turn at a traffic light. “Well, while I was in Europe, I went to the theater and high-class musical events. That sort of thing. Occasionally, we’d develop an adventurous streak and go to a club or bar for a couple of hours.” Then the corners of her mouth turned up. “But when I’m at home, I like…” She paused to give a dramatic effect. “To dust.”

“To dust?” Orlando was flabbergasted.

“Yes,” Claudia-Michelle confirmed. “I just turn on one of my favorite CDs of the moment and dust my apartment, open the windows, and let all the wonderful sunlight inside…”

And all Orlando could imagine was Claudia-Michelle in an apron…naked. The lilies on her bottom now were absent.

When they parked, Orlando exhaled and turned to Claudia-Michelle. “Well. I suppose we ought to go now, shall we?”

* * *

When he and Claudia-Michelle approached the long picnic table where Danie, Gretchen, Jennifer, and Samantha were chatting at one end with their friends, the conversation stopped for a moment. A brunette with a large gardenia in her hair glanced him up and down. A mocha-skinned young woman—Melanie—beside her nudged her and smiled politely. The Japanese girl—Megami—gaped for a moment. Samantha and Gretchen shared a glance. Danie just raised an eyebrow.

“¿Mira, quién es este muchacho, chica?” The brunette directed the question at Danie.

Danie gave Orlando a strange look, then turned to the brunette. “Este es el amigo de Gretchen. Es el muchacho que Jessica busco en su cuarto ayer.”

The brunette looked at him again, then laughed hysterically.

“¡No me digas! ¿Es verdad? Cuando me dijiste, creí que Josefina tiene un novio nuevo pero este muchacho…”

“Estoy de acuerdo, ¿no?” Danie joined the brunette in her laughter.

Claudia-Michelle frowned and gave them a disapproving look. “Hey!” she exclaimed. Danie and the brunette stopped laughing. “Cierren las bocas, ahora.”

There was silence for a long moment. Orlando only understood part of what was said (thanks to a quick perusal of Spanish for Dummies), but he got that Claudia told Danie and the brunette to shut up.

“Um, guys,” Gretchen said to the girls, “this is Orlando. The guy I was telling you about.”

“Hi, mates,” Orlando greeted them with a wave.

“How’s the arm?” Melanie asked.

“All better. Thanks for asking.” Gretchen gestured toward a free spot beside her and another empty space. He slid in and took a plate from Samantha. Claudia-Michelle went drifting off to talk to a man standing at the grill, flipping burgers. He tried not to watch her walk away.

“Um, that’s Miranda,” Gretchen said, gesturing to the brunette with the gardenia in her hair. “She’s Danie’s best friend.” Miranda gave Orlando a nod but didn’t say anything. “I think she’s the only one of us you haven’t met.” Gretchen turned and gestured toward the grill. Claudia-Michelle was now talking with another guy with auburn hair and green eyes. As they laughed and joked, Orlando saw the resemblance. A brother? In this family?

“Who’s that?” Orlando wanted to know.

Gretchen followed his finger. “Oh!” she cried. “We forgot to tell you about him. That’s our brother Eric. He just came in from New York from working with his band.” They watched as Claudia-Michelle pointed to the table and Eric nodded. A few moments later, Eric and Claudia-Michelle sauntered over.

Eric stopped at the far end of the table where Cassandra was talking with two other women for a moment before he came up to them. Gretchen slid hastily from the table and glomped her older brother. They hugged for a long time before Gretchen disentangled herself.

“Orlando,” she began excitedly, “this is my big brother Eric.”

The two men exchanged handshakes. Meanwhile, a petite young woman with black hair came meandering to the table. She stopped and grinned up at Eric who grinned back.

“Well, well, well,” said the young woman. “If it ain’t Eric. What’s up, man?”

“Nothing much, just the same old thing.” Eric gestured to Orlando. “Have you met the new guy in town? This is Orlando.”

“Orlando?” the young woman whirled around to stare at Orlando. Her eyebrows arched. “Well,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Orlando.” She stretched out the syllables of his name and had her sister rolling her eyes. “Say…I guess you ain’t around here.”

“You guess right,” Orlando confirmed. “And what’s your name?”

“The name’s Nicole, Miss Smith if you’re nasty,” Nicole replied saucily.

“Oh shut up and sit down,” Melanie snapped. “And stop channeling Janet Jackson. It’s getting annoying.”

Nicole glared at her older sister. “Well damn.”

“And watch your mouth.”

Nicole said nothing to that and took a seat beside Orlando. Gretchen and Eric sat down at the table. Rebecca came by with a platter of chicken. They passed it around, and it came to Nicole sitting beside Orlando. Without thinking, Orlando reached out for a piece of chicken…

…and got his hand slapped away.

“What the…?” Orlando uttered.*

“Whatchu doing, boy?” Nicole demanded. “I don’t know how they do it in Merry Ol’ England, but here you can get shot messing with a piece of chicken like that.”

“I was not aware that things were any different around here,” Orlando said, a little irritated.

“Of course they are!” Nicole exclaimed. She leaned in. “Look, this is the way things work around here. This here is the United States of Nicole Smith. I’m the empress, the president, the queen. I’m Michael Jackson, and you’re Tito.”

Melanie didn’t even think about it; she just picked up her balled up napkin and threw it at her little sister. It bounced off Nicole’s head, and, knowing where it came from, she glared at Melanie.

Before the Smith sisters could embark on another legendary fight, Eric turned to Orlando and asked with a straight face, “So…Orlando? Which one of my sisters are you planning on banging this week?”

Danie choked on her lemonade and Miranda had to pat her on the back.

Gretchen was horrified. “Dammit, Eric! Stop joking around.”

Eric just blinked at her, not saying a word.

Gretchen huffed. “For your information, Orlando’s not sleeping with anyone this week, least of all one of your sisters.”

“Well, either I ask or Jessica asks,” Eric shot back. “Which is the lesser of the two evils?”

Orlando cleared his throat. “Um, I have no plans to…” He had to clear his throat again. Why was his throat dry? “Sleep with one of your sisters.”

Eric patted him on the back. “That’s why you’ll do fine, my friend. You’re a good guy.” He gave Orlando a meaningful look. “We understand each other?”

“Perfectly,” Orlando affirmed, feeling a little disconcerted. It seemed that Jessica had taught her younger brother a bit of her approach. But as a guy, he understood that he was protecting his sisters. He could respect that.

Unfortunately, it bothered Gretchen.

“You shouldn’t have asked him that stupid question,” Gretchen reprimanded Eric as everyone ate. “It’s not your business—”

“Hey,” Eric said abruptly, cutting her off before she could finish her sentence. “Don’t go there. It is my business. Remember who came and wiped away your tears when that guy was in the Ferrari with his ex?” Gretchen’s expression grew mutinous. “Or that time that guy ditched you—”

“You know, the whole park doesn’t need to know my romantic failures,” Gretchen interrupted.

“Could the two of you calm down?” Claudia-Michelle said mildly. “We’re trying to have a family moment here. We don’t need the two of you fighting.” She turned to Orlando with an apologetic smile. “We’re sorry. We’re not usually this bad. Can you forgive us?”

Claudia-Michelle’s sheepish look made something in Orlando’s gut tighten. Was that lust? Yep.

Something told him he would be proving himself a liar soon.

*See Rush Hour; Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan car scene.

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