Jack’s olive green eyes alighted with comprehension for a split second. Orlando and Gretchen jumped apart as if they’d been caught with their hands down each other’s shirts. Gretchen stood abruptly and grabbed the gauze from Jack’s motionless hand. Jack stared at her wordlessly as she began to wrap her wounded hand as she strode past him and out of the bathroom. At a loss for words, Jack then switched his gaze to Orlando.
“Alright, mate—what was that all about?” Jack demanded. Orlando started to massage his forehead with his fingertips and didn’t reply. “Is there something going on between you and Gretchen?”
“It was nothing,” Orlando responded, voice barely over a mutter.
“Orlando Bloom, don’t you lie to me,” Jack said in a voice that made you remember the dominating Commodore Norrington. Or, if you’ve seen the trailers for Mistress, the snide, dictatorial Alain Pascal. “I have eyes and I knew what I saw when I walked into this room.”
“Well maybe you should figure it out and leave me alone,” Orlando snapped, blurting it out before he could stop himself. He was being defensive again, and he didn’t know why. He sighed, shaking his head, and stood, facing the taller man with a bit of sheepishness. Jack merely gazed at him, waiting for him to speak again. Hoping Orlando wouldn’t put his foot in his mouth again.
“Listen, Jack,” Orlando began in a calmer tone, “I’m sorry for being cross with you. It’s just that…”
Jack placed a hand on Orlando’s shoulder. “I can tell that there’s something going on between you and Gretchen.”
Orlando chuckled sardonically. “There’s nothing going on yet, mate.”
Jack’s eyebrows arched. “And that seems to be the problem…”
Orlando waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “Whatever the case, I know I have to talk to her. This has gotten a bit out of hand.”
“That I will agree with you on,” Jack remarked. “You two have started acting like a couple of love-stricken teenagers who like each other but don’t know how to admit it. It’s like watching a terribly scripted chick flick, only with better looking actors.”
“Gee, thanks, Jack,” Orlando said sarcastically. Then he sobered and added, “I do plan to talk to her. We need to sort out…our feelings.”
“Before or after the amorous making-out, mate?” Jack pressed, earning a punch on his right arm from Orlando.
They did not continue the conversation because they heard footsteps coming down the hallway. The sound of heels clacking on the ruthlessly polished hardwood indicated that it was either Sienna or Emma. The lithe, stylishly dressed figure that came behind Jack in the doorway turned out to be Sienna.
She peered around the bathroom with her shrewd dark blue eyes, taking in the scene before her: two men having a serious heart-to-heart in another man’s bathroom with blood on the side of the tub and an opened bottle of rubbing alcohol on its side in the sink. She frowned at Jack and Orlando, eyebrows furrowed.
“Is everything okay in here?” Sienna inquired. She looked from Orlando to Jack, suspicions aroused. “Is there something that you need to tell me?”
“I don’t think you want to know what we really think about your snow boots,” Jack said, earning a punch on the arm from Sienna.
“Wanker,” Sienna muttered, earning a chuckle from Jack. She turned back to Orlando, who still remained serious. “Listen, is this about Gretchen? Did you two fight or something while you were in here?”
“Why would you think that?” Orlando asked.
“Because Gretchen just left,” Sienna told him, watching as some of the blood left his face. “She came in and said goodbye to everyone just a moment ago…”
At that point, Orlando was halfway down the hallway. Desperation that came from nowhere gnawed at him, and all he could think about was Gretchen and talking to her about what had just happened. He passed by an astonished Ace, issuing him a hasty goodbye and thank you. Then he got behind the wheel of his car and took himself to Gretchen’s apartment as fast as the Fates and the Law would allow.
* * *
Gretchen turned the key in the lock, feeling glad to be home.
Her hand was sore because she had to use it to drive. It turned out that she couldn’t drive very well with one hand, so she had to bear the pain and use them both. She closed the door behind her and locked it, intending on washing down an over-the-counter pain medication cocktail with a bit of chicken noodle soup. She was probably going to share it with her cat and plan the rest of her lonely, love-doomed life to the soundtrack of John Mayer’s Continuum.
That is, until she spied her mother coming out her kitchenette.
Irene Thomas-Wolfe wore a pair of navy slacks and a pale blue blouse that brought out the color of her eyes. Those aforementioned blue eyes were shining as she emerged holding a wooden spoon. She smiled at the shell-shocked Gretchen.
“Mija!” Irene exclaimed. “You’re home!”
Gretchen just goggled at her.
Irene drifted back into the kitchen, not at all deflated by her daughter’s reaction. (Well, non-reaction, really.) She talked brightly as the cat, knowing that the possibility of food was imminent, wove her way around her moving feet. And Gretchen stood there, motionless, wondering if she had walked into the Twilight Zone.
“This is too surreal,” Gretchen muttered.
Gretchen knew that her mother worried intensely about her since the accident, and she tried to understand. She knew that if her daughter had been in her shoes, she would be just as concerned, as watchful. Gretchen remembered those nights immediately afterward, those hellish nightmares. Gretchen recalled those days after Jamie Stewart had left her broken and tired of her life. Her mother had been there to offer her love and a nice bowl of soup from her arsenal of recipes. She sniffed the air and suddenly felt thankful that her mother was sweet enough to think about her. But another part of her was a bit annoyed that she’d let herself into her apartment.
“You gave her a key, estupida,” Gretchen muttered to herself as she trudged past the kitchenette and into her bedroom to change into more comfortable clothing. When she was in a loose white T-shirt and shorts, she came out of her room to see what her mother was up to.
Irene stood at the counter chopping celery while vegetables, chicken, and penne simmered in a savory homemade chicken broth. (Gretchen had this strange thing for penne noodles and her mother knew it.) Her sleeves were up and her hands moved swiftly with the knife. Irene glanced up and saw her daughter but did not pause. Gretchen leaned against the doorway and watched.
“What made you come here?” Gretchen asked as Aisuru padded over to her.
Irene shrugged. “Just an urge, I guess.” She stopped dicing and tossed the celery in to boil. “I was listening to the radio on the way home and they mentioned the premiere.” Irene spooned up a bit of soup to taste, and then, after a moment, added some spices.
“Where are David, Lina, and the triplets?” Gretchen wanted to know. She was referring to her stepfather and her little sisters, the triplets Angelica, Angela, and Angelique, and Evangelina (a.k.a. Lina).
“David took the girls to the movies,” Irene responded as she stirred the soup. “David really didn’t get the time to spend with them that he wanted to while he was mayor of Gracia, so he’s been making it up to them lately. And so, instead of enjoying a night to myself, I found myself here, making chicken soup.” She paused and gazed at Gretchen for a long time. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” Gretchen found herself saying despite herself. “How could I mind?”
“I’m sure you were a bit shocked to see me, mija…”
Gretchen laughed nervously, trying to hide her discomfort. You don’t know the half… “Well…”
When Gretchen brought her wounded hand up to play with her hair, Irene noticed the bandage. She dropped the knife with a clang and rounded the corner faster than you could say Ay yi yi! She picked up Gretchen’s hand and started to lavish her motherly concern upon her daughter.
“Mama—” Gretchen started, wincing from pain.
But Irene was on a roll and could not be stopped. “Dios Mio…how did this happen, mija? How did you hurt yourself? Did you do this on purpose?”
“But Mama—” Gretchen began futilely.
“Can’t you see this is wrong to do this to yourself? Making yourself bleed will not make things better!”
Gretchen froze in place as her blood ran cold. Flashbacks of old times ran though her brain as she understood why her mother was concerned. Before she could stop herself, and her mother, she spoke in a tone hardened by resentment.
“You think I’ve been hurting myself don’t you?” Gretchen demanded, stopping her mother in the middle of her next sentence. She held up her bandaged hand. “You think I care that less of myself that I would do this?”
Irene started to speak, but there was a knock on the door. Gretchen sighed, wondering who that would be for a moment before looking at her mother again.
“Look, Mama—” she attempted.
“You get the door, and I’ll get you aspirin for your hand,” Irene said, her voice a bit thicker than before. Gretchen exhaled, trudging away in her socks, feeling like a heel.
She crossed the living room hastily, self-anger quickening her movements. She could not believe that she had been that callous to her own mother. She was only being her mother! But then again, what Gretchen had said came out because there was an element of truth in it. You think I care that less of myself that I would do this? Hurt fissioned up from inside as she considered it, placing her hand on the doorknob.
She was so deep in her musing that it took longer than usual to comprehend who was standing on her doorstep.
Eyes wide with shock, she could only utter, “Orlando…”
Orlando stuffed his hands in his pockets and appeared anxious—more anxious than she’d ever seen him. Backlit by moonlight and humbled by sheepishness, Orlando inquired, “Could I come in? I need to talk to you.”
Wordlessly, Gretchen stepped back from the door to allow him to come in. After she’d closed the door and turned to face him, they still stood, feeling uncomfortably awkward. Gretchen stepped closer to him, curious to know why he’d left the party…and came here.
Orlando looked at her as she moved, and she could tell he was trying to find the right thing to say. Finally, when he’d settled upon it, he remarked, “I think it’s about time we discussed our feelings for one another.”
Gretchen could have disagreed, but she didn’t feel like it. She simply nodded.
“I like you, Gretchen. I like you a lot. And it’s been hard for me to admit that, I suppose, because of the fact that we were working together on Mistress. I remember when you’d told me that you never wanted to get involved with one of your co-stars…”
Oh yeah, Gretchen thought, I did say that. It was shortly after Brad Pitt, who kept in loose touch with Orlando, had his first child with Angelina Jolie that she had made that comment. She’d expressed her fear of such media scrutiny and didn’t want to bring it on with a high-profile relationship with a co-worker, especially a famous one.
“Now that filming is over, and we’re not working together, I guess the feelings I tried to hide came to the surface,” Orlando was saying. He stared into her eyes then, those brown orbs filled with vulnerability. It softened Gretchen and also made her feel a little bit better about her own feelings.
Coming closer, Gretchen nodded and agreed, “I feel the same way. And you are right—we’re not working together anymore. So what does that mean?”
Orlando didn’t get to answer because Irene emerged from the kitchen again, but this time, she held up a bottle of aspirin and a glass of cranberry-apple juice. When she saw who it was standing in her daughter’s living room, wariness came into her eyes, and her lips tightened around her teeth.
“Hello, Orlando,” Irene said stiffly.
Orlando frowned under Irene’s intense blue-eyed gaze. Where had this come from? “Hello, Mrs. Wolfe.”
Instinctively, Gretchen stepped in-between them, shifting her mother’s attention from Orlando to herself. “Orlando came here because he was worried about me,” Gretchen explained. Irene raised an eyebrow. “Could you please excuse us? I would like to talk to him in private.”
Irene hesitated a little too long for Gretchen’s liking. Finally, Irene responded, “I will be in the kitchen if you need me.”
Gretchen watched as her mother turned and walked back into the kitchenette. She didn’t understand where her mother’s attitude was coming from. She knew why her mother was acting this way—after all, Irene was her mother and Irene was entitled to display some maternal protectiveness—but she couldn’t understand it. Orlando was a good guy, much better than the jerks and Neanderthals that she had encountered over the years. Chalking it up to circumstances, Gretchen vowed not to worry about it anymore and led Orlando to the couch so they could sit down.
Her heart threatened to leap out of her chest but she managed to display a modicum of nonchalance when she spoke again.
“Listen, I’m sorry for what happened back there,” Gretchen said, smiling sheepishly. “I don’t think—”
Orlando held up a hand and effectively stopped her in the middle of her sentence. “Don’t apologize for something that was so obviously not your fault. I mean, you were acting on your feelings and so was I.” As Gretchen bit her lip and looked down, Orlando shifted to look her in the eye and added, “You do have feelings for me, don’t you?”
Gretchen laughed, a nervous sound. “I do. I honestly do.” She brought her eyes to his. “I don’t know what those feelings mean, or if they mean anything at all yet.”
Orlando placed his hand on her knee. The contact made her sigh at herself. She would have to get used to his touching her like this.
“That’s the beauty of it, love,” Orlando commented. “We get to spend some time together and find out.”
Gretchen fought a chuckle because she was trying to be serious. “Oh, is this going to lead into you asking me out on a date?”
“Who says I’m to do the asking? It is the twenty-first century, you know. Equal rights and all that bollocks.”
“Bollocks?!” Gretchen exclaimed, not able to suppress her indignation. “How could you call equal rights bollocks in that sanctimonious male tone of yours? Orlando Bloom, I cannot believe you would have the gall—”
Gretchen halted abruptly in her tirade…because Orlando was laughing at her. He was leaning back on the arm of the couch and laughing, brown eyes filled with tears of mirth. Her ire up, Gretchen reached for a throw pillow and threw it at him. It bounced off his forehead and fell into his lap. The laughter had stopped, but Orlando still looked at her, grinning.
“I fail to see what is so amusing to you,” Gretchen said tersely.
“You, love,” Orlando replied.
“You. You looked so beautiful then, all aroused and angry. Not to mention, you’re predicable as English weather, love. I knew that equal rights and all that bollocks comment would mess you about and it did.”
“Much to your amusement,” Gretchen said acidly, not even caring that he’d just called her beautiful. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. He reached out and placed a hand on her cheek, and that softened her a little. He ran his thumb along the curve of her cheekbone, making her blush, look down, and smile a little.
They sat like that for several moments. Gretchen finally reached up and clasped his wrist. Orlando shifted his hand to grasp hers and brought their conjoined hands down to her lap. For that maneuver, he had to come closer, making his intoxicating scent unavoidable. They gazed into each other’s eyes for another moment until Orlando spoke.
“I know it won’t be good right now, love, but I would like to go out on a date with you,” Orlando murmured. “We have promotion to do for Mistress, and I know it would be more comfortable for the both of us if we got that out of the way.”
Gretchen gave a nod. “I agree.” Her lips curved. “It’ll be interesting to see how long we can keep it from the general public.”
“Very interesting, indeed.”
As if she were trying to break up what was going on, Irene came back into the living room at that moment, appearing decidedly aggravated. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she boomed, causing them to break apart, “but Gretchen needs her rest. I would appreciate it if you said goodnight now and left, Orlando.”
“Mother—” Gretchen began to protest, jumping to her feet.
“Wait.” It was Orlando who shielded this time, standing slowly and turning to face Gretchen. “Your mum has a right to take care of you. Even I cannot argue with that.” He then faced Irene. “I will leave now if you think it’s best for Gretchen.”
Not knowing what else to say since she expected him to argue, Irene managed, “Thank you, Orlando.”
With that, he shifted back to Gretchen, his gaze on her and only her. Without another word, he leaned in and kissed her softly on the lips. It was so tender that it made her heart sigh. She didn’t care that her mother was a witness to this private moment; she only cared that it had finally happened, that Orlando was kissing Gretchen—and not Armand was kissing Genevieve. There was a difference.
He murmured good night, love against her lips before showing himself out. She watched him leave with a mix of regret and anticipation. She wished he could have stayed but he was too much of a gentleman to go against her mother’s wishes. She couldn’t believe that they’d kissed right here in her own living room! Their first kiss. Wow. Who would have thought?
“Gretchen?” Irene asked.
Gretchen didn’t answer. She glanced down at the couch were Orlando had been sitting with a faint curve of her lips. She trailed her fingertips along the arm of the couch on which Orlando had leaned when he had laughed at her and could almost smell him there beside her again.
“Gretchen? Are you going to answer me?”
“Yes, Mother,” Gretchen murmured dazedly.
“What’s the matter with you? I hope you’re not…” Irene’s eyes followed Gretchen as Gretchen padded past her. “Gretchen Ashleigh Amanda Thomas, where are you going?” Irene stared hard at her daughter’s retreating back, hoping she would feel her mother’s eyes boring into her back and she would turn around. “What about this soup I made for you, Gretchen? Aren’t you going to eat it?”
Gretchen drifted down the hall to her room, savoring the phantom sensation of Orlando’s lips on hers and passing her flabbergasted mother. She was in another world where soup-making mothers did not exist. They stayed at their own homes and made chicken and penne soup where they belonged.
“Oh—that? Just wrap it up and I’ll eat it later.”
And with that, Gretchen enclosed herself in her bedroom where she could think about Orlando in peace.