The Beginning of a Beautiful Affair
On Monday morning, Gretchen got a not-so-welcome visitor at the Sakura School.
She recognized the long blond hair and the cockroach eyebrows from pictures. Pictures from tabloids to be more exact. And the tabloids were the ones who were being nice about their descriptions. Word of mouth was much, much less flattering.
According to reports, Dorothy Catalonia was the daughter of the head of Catalonia Industries Incorporated, which entitled her to get away with some very extreme behavior. Making up that long list were several acts of stalking directed toward the wealthy Quatre Winner.
Yes, our blonde heiress mistakenly thought that she was first in line to be the future Mrs. Winner. And she let everyone else know whether they asked (or wanted to know) or not. Needless to say, she was quite infuriated when reports surfaced that linked Quatre with a nimble-toed musician with no breeding whatsoever.
Gretchen Thomas had some breeding, but dammit, she wasn’t going to mention that to impress some sociopathic chick who didn’t bother to get her eyebrows tweezed even though she had enough dollar bills to line the borders of the continental U.S. many times over. So she kept that to herself and walked into her classroom where Dorothy waited for her. She dropped her duffel bag with a loud bang. Dorothy turned around, her eyes blazing.
“I have a class in ten minutes,” Gretchen told her in a voice that would have made big sister Jess proud. “If you have something to say, then you had better make it quick.”
Dorothy eyed her scathingly. “Don’t act high and mighty with me. Don’t you know who I am?”
Gretchen crossed her arms over her chest. “Of course I do. The tabloids were very accurate in their descriptions of you.” Dorothy glowered. “Though, they left out the fact that you didn’t have help for your little eyebrow problem.”
Dorothy didn’t hold back a growl. “You low-class bitch. You know very well that my Quatre is too good for you. You ought to do him a favor and drop off the face of the Earth.”
Gretchen worked up a sardonic chuckle that was channeling the insolent Danie. “Dorothy, I think you should save us the trouble and do that yourself. No one would miss you. Least of all Quatre. Did you know he gets this disgusted expression when he talks about you, Dorothy?” Dorothy’s eyes narrowed. “Just thought you’d like to know that.”
Teeth bared, Dorothy stepped forward and slapped Gretchen across the face. Shocked, Gretchen stumbled into the wall. Before she could move to knock Dorothy’s lights out, there was a voice from the door.
“What the bloody hell is going on here?”
Dorothy looked up in surprise. Chris Parker was boring holes into her head with a hot look. Gretchen exhaled, her cheek stinging. Chris crossed the threshold and stopped beside Gretchen. He gazed at her wide green eyes and reddened cheek. And had to suffocate the wave of violence that would have been directed toward Dorothy Catalonia. He had no doubt Gretchen would have taken care of herself, but he would rather have his best friend out of a jail cell for now. There were better ways to get revenge, and if his hunch was right, the kill shot had already been inflicted. That explained Dorothy’s appearance.
“I believe this meeting is over,” Dorothy said in a snooty tone, smoothing out her maroon suit with a huff.
Chris eyed her, letting the potential for bodily harm gleam in his eyes. A young man didn’t survive on the streets without knowing how to inflict maximum physical pain—and letting everyone he knew how. “And I agree. I think your family would like for you to see your next birthday, Ms. Catalonia.”
Needless to say, Dorothy got the hell out without as much as a goodbye.
Allowing for the anger seep out of him bit by bit, Chris hesitated a moment before turning to Gretchen. The redness had faded a bit, but he was sure she was going to have a shiner afterwards. He sighed, and touched her face gingerly on the cheekbone. She sighed, and shifted so that she was standing upright.
“I’m okay, Chris,” Gretchen insisted. She tightened her ponytail and picked up her duffel. “I’m just—”
“Rattled like a virgin at a strip joint, is what you are,” Chris interrupted. He slung an arm around her shoulder. “I know you’re going to argue with me, but I think you need to take your lunch break a little early today.”
Those green eyes turned hot with indignation. “Don’t treat me like a baby, Chris.”
The tone made him smile. “So that Wicked Witch of the West didn’t get to you after all,” Chris remarked. “We’ll have Luna Burgers and Meteor Milkshakes to celebrate. I’m in a meaty mood.”
Gretchen rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you are.”
In the hall, they passed Megami and got her to cover Gretchen’s next class. Gretchen clocked out and Chris dragged her out the doors of the Sakura School.
Dorothy was standing nearby, but Gretchen didn’t see her. Chris did. He gave Dorothy a warning look that would have had the bowels of a street thug going to water, and led Gretchen in the opposite direction.
* * *
As Chris and Gretchen walked off, Dorothy glowered again.
How dare they? She was Dorothy Catalonia! She didn’t deserve to be threatened and discarded by a couple of…of commoners. She had more class in her whole entire pinkie finger than they had in their whole group. They were rascals, they were. Bumping and grinding at some nightclub, then luring well-respected, otherwise sane members of the upper class into their milieu! They ought to be sent to Jupiter, the lot of them.
Dorothy set her jaw in a line and turned to go to her car when she bumped into a redhead.
“Oh!” The redhead exhaled and was prepared to unleash a verbal attack of biblical proportions when she recognized just who she’d just run into. Her eyes calmed, and widened. “Ohmigosh. You are, like, the Dorothy Catalonia.”
Pleased that someone had the grace to know who she was, Dorothy all but forgot the uncomfortable instance of bumping into the young woman. She smiled smoothly at her. “Oh yes.” She tilted her head a bit, remembering the face. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
“Maybe. My father owns Spencer Industries. He did business with your father a few months ago.”
Dorothy’s eyes alighted in comprehension. “Yes, I remember you. Johanna, is it?”
“Fancy we would meet each other here.” She glanced around, finding nothing worthy for two rich girls like herself and Johanna. It was all so…regular. “So what is a high-class young woman like you doing near a place like this?”
Johanna’s eyes went hard. “Oh, this isn’t for pleasure. I was here to see someone who worked here.”
The base of Dorothy’s spine began to tingle. “Really? And who, might I ask, could warrant the attention of such a classy woman as yourself?”
Johanna’s eyes narrowed this time. “Just this half-breed bitch named Gretchen Thomas.”
Well. This was Fate, pure and simple. Dorothy smiled, feral and cat-like. She hooked her arm with Johanna’s and began to walk in the direction of Gracia Park. “This is going to sound quite odd, but I think you and I have a lot to talk about, Johanna.”
* * *
Meanwhile, Orlando found himself at Gracia Park on his lunch break enjoying the company of the fascinating Claudia-Michelle Thomas.
Orlando remembered everything Claudia-Michelle had told him about herself. She was the third child of six children, the oldest of the Thomas quadruplets. She had told him she tended to be a cross between Danie and Moira, if there was such a medium. She had studied music at the Madrid Conservatory for two years after high school, during which she became acquainted with some fellow music students and formed a small band. The band broke up amicably, and Claudia-Michelle returned to America to attend her mother’s wedding. Of course, that had been when they had met.
And at the moment, that was what they were laughing about.
“I knew you were checking me out,” Claudia-Michelle told him. “I could feel your eyes on me.”
A little nervous that she could be so astute, Orlando laughed. “Of course I was looking at you. You looked almost exactly like Gretchen. I was stunned, that’s all.”
Claudia-Michelle stared at him dubiously. “I don’t think so. Let’s recount the events as they really happened, shall we?”
* * *
Gracia, twenty-six months earlier*
Most of the Thomas sisters were out of the house when Orlando woke up for the day. He was half-relieved and half-disappointed at their absence but figured it was all for the best. He would be able to see them eventually.
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’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’s aura was disconcerting him. Gretchen and her quadruplet sisters were seventeen, but Claudia seemed so much older, otherworldly.
The piano stopped. A young woman swiveled around on the bench and turned to them. Orlando blinked. Uncanny. That must be Moira-Selene, then.
“Jessica told Claudia to take you to Gracia Park when you woke up,” Moira told Orlando. “There’s a little engagement party being thrown at Gracia Park in Mom and David’s honor.”
“Why didn’t Jessica throw it here?” Claudia asked her younger sister.
Moira shrugged. “I suppose she did not want Mom to see us running around in our bathing suits.”
Claudia 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 wars 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.
The Thomas women were all beautiful and charming in their own way. Jessica and Danie’s beauty came at you with the force of a bullet (or a baseball bat); Moira probably didn’t know that she was good-looking; Gretchen didn’t even care. But Claudia… Claudia 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 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?
“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 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 started the engine, Orlando decided that the only way to get through the awkwardness with Claudia 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 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 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, the Madrid Conservatory, 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 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 laughed, a sound that nearly obliterated the calm imposed by the mind’s eye image of Camilla Parker Bowles. “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 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 made a left turn at a traffic light. “Well, while I was in Spain, 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 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 with a duster…naked. The lilies on her bottom now were absent.
When they parked, Orlando exhaled and turned to Claudia. “Well. I suppose we ought to go now, shall we?”
* * *
“You were hot for me,” Claudia-Michelle teased. “Admit it.”
“Well…” The fact that Orlando’s sentence trailed off into mirthful silence proved Claudia-Michelle’s statement true. They laughed again. Around them, life continued normally as they were seated at a picnic table at the T Squad’s “spot.” Orlando had only twenty minutes, but he couldn’t think of anyone he’d rather spend the time with.
After their conversation Friday night (or, rather, early Saturday morning), it had taken three days for Claudia-Michelle to track him down at work. With a smile and subs from a shop down the street, Claudia-Michelle had lured Orlando out with her. Though, Orlando had to admit, it hadn’t taken much for him to follow the raven-haired musician to Gracia Park. Today, she had her long hair pulled in a stylish chignon, and jeans along with a flowing pale-green peasant top completed her elegantly causal look.
“Okay, I’ll stop teasing you,” Claudia-Michelle said. “But you have to admit your addiction for me.”
“You are not serious.”
Claudia-Michelle’s expression indicated that she indeed was.
“Alright, alright. Fine. I admit it.” Somehow he managed to look into Claudia-Michelle’s amused face without laughing or looking away. “I was, and still am, ridiculously attracted to you.”
Claudia-Michelle gave a short nod. “And so then, the first step in conquering an addiction is admitting you have it.”
“In some circles, the first step to conquering an addiction is to get more of it.”
Claudia-Michelle’s right eyebrow arched. “Oh? Do we want to venture into that territory yet?” Even though her voice was faintly jocular, there was seriousness in her eyes.
And Orlando understood. While their relationship had been fueled by lust, there was an underlying affection that was sacred. Neither one of them wanted to ruin it at this point with sex. But the physical attraction was still there—and pulling mercilessly.
“I think we just better see what happens,” Orlando responded. “I’d rather spend my time on something real than something that isn’t.”
Claudia-Michelle nodded. Their conversation over the weekend had unearthed the fact that Johanna Spencer had gone into the category of something that isn’t. She was relieved that her initial estimation of him was correct, that he wasn’t completely fueled by hormones. He had his moments, though.
“Well, it’s getting late.” Claudia-Michelle rose to her feet and smiled down at him. “As much as I enjoy your company, you have to get back.”
Sighing, Orlando joined her. “You are very much right, Claudia.” He wrapped an arm around her. “We must continue this sometime.”
“How about tonight after work?”
“Your place or mine?”
Orlando held up his hands in a gesture of goodwill. “I will be a good little lad. I promise.”
“Oh alright. You bring the wine, and I’ll make dinner. And promise me you’ll keep your hands to yourself.”
Orlando paused in mock-thoughtfulness and pretended to consider that. “Agreed. But what if my hands get a mind of their own?”
Claudia-Michelle shoved him playfully. Orlando apologized and placed his arm around her shoulders again as mirth bubbled up between then once again. And while they laughed and strolled toward the Merrell Enterprises building, a camera snapped their every move.
*The flashback is from Meet the Sisters, the prequel to the Tetragon.