By S. Faith, © 2010
This chapter: 4,519
Rating: T / PG-13
Summary, Disclaimer, Notes: See Chapter 1.
Chapter 9: New York State of Mind
I wasn't able to arrange everything for that weekend, but instead for two weeks later, arriving on the Wednesday just before Bonfire Night. Part of my delay too was that I had to lay down the roadmap for the Aghani case, which I then left in Jeremy's very capable hands. I was confident he would prevail on my behalf. On touchdown I was completely fatigued from the long flight, which made the forty-minute drive in my rental car even more challenging (Keep to the right, I chanted to myself like a mantra). I went straight for the room I'd taken in a bed and breakfast near to the river. I figured after a meal and a lie down I could go about trying to find her parents' abode.
The peace and quiet of the room gave me time to think. My friends and colleagues had thought me mad. My parents also wondered where my sanity had gone, but only wanted my happiness, and they had seen how much I loved her, so they wished me luck but told me to brace myself for an answer I didn't want to hear. I wondered too if her parents were typically bothered by the media, if rumours of her staying here in New York had spread and if paparazzi were crawling around in the bushes hoping for a candid shot. I hoped they thought better of me than that.
The rental car I had was equipped with a GPS navigational device. I was able to punch in the address Xavier had given to me, found that it was not terribly far from where I was staying. As I drove, my heart was pounding. Twilight was already falling upon the town, and as I approached the humble two-story brick building, I could see figures moving on the other side of the sheer curtains hanging in the window.
Before I could rationally think about it, I was standing on the front stoop pressing the doorbell. I hadn't meant to do it that night. Despite my nap and having had something to eat, I knew I probably did not look my best. Through the frosted glass of the front door I could see a ghostly shape approaching.
"Who's there?" It was a firm male voice. Father, possibly brother?
I cleared my throat. "My name's Mark. I'm here to see Bridget."
Silence, then the door swung open to reveal a man who must have been her father. Same blue eyes as Bridget behind those spectacles; grey hair clipped short; and an obviously genial face beneath the confusion. I thought he would look absolutely at home in a university classroom. "Mark. English Mark."
I nodded. "Yes, sir."
"You're a long way from home."
"Yes, sir, I am."
"And you think she's here why, exactly?"
"Xavier told me."
He raised an eyebrow. "Did he, now?"
"Yes," I reaffirmed.
From behind her father I heard a male voice call out. "Dad? Who's there?" Two men came out from the back of the house, tall, brown-haired and blue-eyed. Must have been her brothers, Tom and Jude. One had close-cropped hair, and I guessed that was Jude, the English teacher; the other's hair was a bit longer, a bit shaggier, long enough to draw into a ponytail if he wanted to. That seemed to suit a flight instructor better; that must have been Tom.
"It's Mark," said her father, Richard.
Tom and Jude exchanged glances. "That Mark?" the one I supposed was Jude asked; their father nodded.
With the way they were all eyeing me, I was beginning to feel ganged up on. "Is Bridget here?" I asked.
"She's with her mother," said Richard.
"Does she know you're here in the States?" asked the other brother, the one I thought was probably Tom.
"Well," said Richard. "It's chilly out there. Might as well come in."
I stepped in. "Thank you."
Richard closed the door behind me. I divested myself of my overcoat, waited for the inevitable onslaught of questions.
"You must have heard her divorce only became final," said her father as he sat in what was probably his usual spot on a suede leather sofa.
"Yes, sir," I said. "Xavier told me that as well."
"Is that why you're here?" Jude asked protectively.
"No," I said. "It may sound ridiculous, but it was the only way I could think of to get her to speak to me. She won't take my calls. She won't return my calls."
"Maybe there's a reason for that."
I sighed. "I haven't done anything wrong," I said. I considered my words carefully. "We were happy. And then she split up with me because of the distance, because she didn't want me sabotaging my career for her. I thought when she left that if that's what she wanted, then that's the way it would have to be… but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it didn't matter what I did, didn't care if I cleaned dustbins for a living… I won't be happy without her. But I can't make her understand that if she doesn't let me talk to her."
They seemed to be contemplating what I'd said, didn't speak for several minutes.
"You understand why we feel the way we do," said Richard. "She always comes to us when she needs to feel safe, so she's obviously feeling vulnerable right now. And… well, no two ways about it, she's a wealthy woman, and I can't say we aren't aware that there are some who might be out to take advantage of her."
"We've always looked out for our little sister," said Tom.
"I can appreciate that, and understand completely," I said. "I know we have only just met, that you don't know me from any other stranger on the street, but I can assure you I am not trying to take advantage of her emotionally or financially."
"I think she mentioned you're a lawyer?" asked Jude.
"Essentially, yes," I said, not wanting to get into the distinction of barrister versus solicitor. "I specialise in the area of human rights."
"That must pay well," Jude said with a hint of a smile. Was I winning them over?
"I own a house near Holland Park," I said by way of example, then realised this probably meant nothing to them, that I would have to draw upon a more localised example from my experience with colleagues here in the New World. "Um. Sort of like Fifth Avenue. Upper East Side of New York City."
I wasn't trying to brag. I was only trying to demonstrate that I was not interested in her money. They, however, could not hide that they were impressed.
"A house?" asked Jude.
"A house," I said.
Tom actually whistled under his breath. I saw her father outright smile as a result.
"I hate to sound like some kind of seventeenth-century Austenian patriarch," said Richard, "but what exactly are your intentions regarding my daughter?"
"I love her," I said without hesitation, "and I want only to make her happy."
"And what if what makes her happy is for you to go away?"
The muscles in my jaw tensed. It was a possibility I did not want to consider, but had to. "If she can listen to what I have to say and still insist she'd be happiest without me—in a way I find completely believable and honest—then I will have to accept it. That's all there is to it."
Richard regarded me thoughtfully. "And it was Xavier of all people who sent you this way," he said.
"Yes." This fact seemed to trouble them all. "Why?"
"We think of him as family," explained Tom. "We've known him since Bridget was seventeen and he was twenty. It's just strange to us that he'd be involved in aiding and abetting the man—" He stopped short. "Well, her new boyfriend."
I knew what they were thinking, that I'd been the one to precipitate the divorce, despite what the public story was. "I did not break up their marriage," I said in defence of myself. "They had already made that decision without me."
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that I had made a terrible mistake coming to her family home, invading her place of safety and security; what if she thought my plan was to work my way into her family by winning over her father and brothers to my side? It had never been my intention…
"Look, I should leave," I said, rising to my feet. "I'm staying at the Blue Angel. If you could at least tell her I'm here—"
I stopped because I could hear the lock on the front door click, the knob twist open. "Side trip to DiCamillo's before they closed!" called out a female voice I didn't recognise; it must have been her mother Betty. "Who wants toast?"
Then she came into the sitting room where the four of us were.
"Oh!" said Betty.
The latter was Bridget herself, following close to her mother. She'd gone white as a sheet.
"I'm sorry, I was just going," I said, slipping past the two women for where I'd hung my coat.
"Mark? London Mark?"
If not for the circumstance I might have started to chuckle at the nicknames they'd given me: English Mark, That Mark, London Mark. "Yes, ma'am." I reached for my overcoat, slipped it on. "Good night."
I reached for the doorknob, turned it.
"Wait," Bridget said. I looked to her. She was obviously distraught. "Why are you here?"
"Bridget, why do you think he's here?" said her mother with a smile. She looked so much like her daughter might look in thirty years' time it broke my heart to think I might not be around to see her then: dark blonde hair going silver, blue eyes with generous laugh lines in the corners, open and warm and generally happy. She hadn't even needed to hear me plead my case to speak kindly to me. "Mark, stay for some toast and tea. This is the very best bread, bar none."
"I don't think I should," I said, meeting Bridget's eyes.
"I insist." Her father, calling from the sitting room. Without another word, he rose, passed us in the entryway, heading off to what I presumed was the kitchen. Betty, Tom and Jude followed, leaving Bridget and me on our own.
"How did you know where—oh, Xavier," she said, the light dawning. "He told you, didn't he?"
She looked up at me, brows slightly knit. "Well, you're stuck here having some toast now. Might as well take your coat off." She went into the sitting room. I did as she suggested then joined her.
"Believe me when I say I only meant to come and see you," I said, sitting in a chair that put me diagonally facing her. "I wasn't trying to… wage a guerrilla campaign with your family. It's just that… you wouldn't take my call."
"I thought I made my feelings clear," she said quietly.
"No," I said sharply. She looked at me querulously, and a little startled. This was my chance to plead my case. "You told me what you thought you needed to say to get me to go away, and I didn't argue because I thought what you really needed was some space. I didn't expect you to cut me out of your life altogether." I took in a breath. She broke the gaze, looked to her hands. "Bridget, I don't buy for a second that you no longer have feelings for me. You may be a good actress, but you're lousy at hiding that." She still did not look at me. "You don't have to protect me, my career, my life in London. I'm perfectly capable of looking out for myself; I've thought about it long and hard, I can work just about anywhere… and what I want is to be with you. Besides, what good is any of it—my work, my house—without someone to love? Without you?"
"Your family," she offered. "I can't take you away from them."
"It's true that my parents aren't keen on me living a half a world away from them," I said. "but they also want me to be happy, and that's what you do. Make me happy."
I saw a tear drop down onto her folded hands. "You're right. I am lousy at hiding it," she admitted, looking at me at last. I reached and brushed the tears from her cheek. She closed her eyes, though her expression still looked pained. "I'm sorry," she whispered, then began to cry, bringing her hands to her face.
I got down on my knees directly in front of her chair and wrapped my arms around her. "It's all right, darling," I murmured.
"It isn't," she lamented. "I caused both of us such unnecessary pain."
"The thing about loving someone," I said gently, "is how easy it is to forgive them."
She sobbed and laughed at the same instant, then put her arms around my neck.
"Toast!" called Betty from the back of the house. We broke apart from our hug and laughed. I got to my feet and pulled her to hers, taking her in my arms for a proper embrace, holding her tight. I was elated. I had never imagined it would be this easy.
"When did you get here?" she asked.
"About ten minutes before you came back."
"No, I meant here. In Lewiston."
"Sometime early this afternoon," I said. "I went to the bed and breakfast to check in, had a short nap, had something to eat." I felt embarrassed as I admitted, "I hadn't intended on doing anything but drive by tonight."
"I'm glad you came in," she said, as she led me by the hand to the kitchen. "I wouldn't have enjoyed my toast nearly as much without you."
I was ushered to a place at the table next to Bridget, given a cup of hot black tea with plenty of milk and sugar—not my favourite, particularly in the typically weaker American tea blends, but I wasn't going to be rude—and a plate heaped with slices of buttered toast. I had to admit that the toast was very tasty; part of it could have also been that the most I'd had to eat today was a mealy pre-packaged sandwich from a corner market.
"What do you think, Mark?" Betty asked.
I nodded. "Delicious."
"I miss this bread so much when I'm in LA," said Bridget, picking up a slice and taking a great big bite. I just about choked on my tea; it was not a particularly ladylike action.
"I hope the tea's okay," said Betty.
I pulled the teabag out of the mug. "It's fine."
"So everything's patched up?" Tom asked.
This time I did choke on my tea. Bridget answered for us as she patted my back. "Yes."
"Good," said her father. "Now let's stop trying to kill the man. Between what I've heard and what I've seen, I'm growing rather fond of him."
I felt quite pleased with myself.
Her family asked about the flight, asked a bit more about what my work entailed, and we generally had a very nice time. I felt quite satiated by the buttered toast and tea; I actually felt a bit sleepy.
I heard someone come into the house, which perplexed me, because as far as I knew, her family was accounted for. "We're in here," called Jude.
Into the room came a table-high flash of lightning, one which glommed onto Bridget's leg and hugged tight. "My favourite little man," she said, pulling him up onto her lap and giving him a tight hug. "Mmm, I so need to recharge on you!" He giggled and buried his curly-haired head into her shoulder.
A woman that I presumed was this boy's mother stood at the kitchen door; the presumption was confirmed when Betty asked how the birthday party had been that she'd taken him to. Her name was evidently Allison, his was Connor, and Allison happily detailed to Betty everything that had occurred at this birthday party for one of Connor's little friends.
Connor turned his head, noticed I was there, and stared hard at the strange man sitting beside him.
"Hi," I said to him, offering a smile.
"Oh, Connor," said Bridget, pushing him to sit up. "Allie. This is Mark."
"Mark…" Allie had long wavy reddish-brown hair, hazel eyes, and was very pretty. I wondered to which brother she was partnered. "Oh! Lawyer Mark, from England!"
At this I did chuckle outright. I stood and offered my hand to her. "Yes," I confirmed.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to offend," she said, turning bright red as she accepted the handshake.
"No, I'm not offended," I said. "Just amused."
"Mark, this is Jude's wife Allie. And my adorable little nephew Connor."
"I'm four," declared Connor, then added with a furrowed brow, "You talk weird." Everyone laughed but tried to stifle it.
"Mark is from England," said Bridget to Connor, smiling a little as her gaze flitted up to me. "I met him when I was there. Remember before when I had to talk like that, and be far away for work?"
He nodded, shaking those curls of his to and fro. "Over the ocean. Is… Engle-land close by where Uncle X comes from?"
"Yes," said Bridget patiently. "Actually, it is close by."
"Why isn't he here too? I miss him."
I felt very, very self-conscious.
"We talked about that already, little man," said Bridget, running her hand over his head. "Uncle X and Auntie B don't live together now like your mommy and daddy do. He still loves you though, and he always will."
"Can we call him?"
Bridget met my gaze again. I nodded. "Sure, sweetie," she said. "You know where my phone is, right? In my purse?" He nodded, then jumped down and ran out of the room.
"We'll make it fast, I promise," said Bridget to Allie, then turned to me. "Mark, I'm sorry about that."
"It's all right. He's a curious child with questions. No point in not answering them."
In the meantime, Allie had taken a seat in the chair her husband had vacated for her and Betty had made her a few slices of toast of her own, serving them with a glass of juice. She looked a little tired; with a child as boisterous as Connor, it was hardly unexpected. She met my eyes. I smiled at her then reached to finish my tea.
Connor was back in no time flat with Bridget's mobile. She punched a few buttons and within a few moment evidently got Xavier on the line. "Connor wanted to say hi," she said to Xavier. Connor was jumping up and down, straining to reach the mobile. After a beat, her eyes flashed to me again. "Not much else is up, except, well… I got an unexpected visitor today." She blinked in surprise. "Yes. How did you know he was already here?" She grinned. "I suppose I should have guessed… well, Connor's climbing me like a tree. Here he is."
Connor took the mobile with both hands and a look of glee. "Uncle X! Are you in LA?" he asked as he ran towards his mother.
I felt Bridget place her hand on where mine rested on my knee. "He was the one who suggested you come?" she asked me quietly.
"Yes," I said.
She smiled. I saw her tear up again.
"Don't you dare apologise," I scolded with a smile. She laughed. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be alone with her.
As Connor concluded his call, he brought the phone back to his aunt, then Jude, Allie and Connor said their goodbyes and goodnights before filing out, followed shortly by Tom. "I have an early lesson in the morning," he explained. "Mark, a pleasure to meet you." He offered a hand for me to shake, and I accepted it.
"There isn't much to do around these parts," said Betty. "We don't have as much going on as LA or London, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a walk or a drive." Bless her soul, she was suggesting we go out together. Alone.
"I'm up for it if you are," she said, looking at me. "I'm not the one who flew over an ocean."
I nodded. "Well, not today, anyway."
"Don't wait up," Bridget said playfully as she picked up her purse and I put my coat on.
"Bye, darling," they called in return.
We were met by the brisk autumnal air. "What'll it be?" I asked.
"The biggest thing around here is… well… the Falls."
I turned my eyes to her. "I'm not really interested in sightseeing," I said quietly.
She smiled almost bashfully. "Me, neither. Besides, the Falls aren't going anywhere."
I took her hand, led her to my rental car. "How about if you come and tell me what you think of my room at the bed and breakfast?"
I could hear a quiet little chuckle. "Okay."
As I drove, following the GPS unit's instructions back to where I was staying, she asked, "So how long are you here?"
"For the week, at least."
"You have to stay through my birthday," she said. "I mean, if you can."
I smiled. "Wouldn't dream of missing it," I said.
We didn't say anything more until we got to my room, and even then we didn't speak with words. It was only afterward, in the still of the night and the dark of the room, that she asked me what would happen next. I told her I wasn't entirely sure, but I was certain I would find plenty to do in Los Angeles professionally.
"If we need a change of scenery," I said, kissing the hair just at her temple, "London has plenty of theatres and, as you've seen, film studios."
She sighed. It was the happiest sound I think I'd ever heard, at least until I made one of my own.
It was very strange to spend Christmas Day breakfast outside by a swimming pool in the sunshine (well, under a patio umbrella) with nothing on but swim trunks. We had just fixed a late breakfast for ourselves; I did the eggs and bacon, and Bridget was responsible for the toast, which she brought out in a hurry in a covered basket, a butter dish in her other hand. We were partaking of her favourite bread from her hometown, shipped with many Xs and Os from her mother.
"Here you go," she said. "Get it buttered before it cools off."
I have never quite understood the American habit of piping hot toast at breakfast, but she insisted on bringing it this way every time we had toast in the morning. "You do know, Bridget, that the English don't do hot toast for breakfast, only for tea," I said. I was the brownest I think I'd ever been, which wasn't really saying much. I supposed the novelty of constant sunshine would wear off eventually.
"I'm not researching a role anymore," she retorted, smiling at me from behind her pink sunglasses, "and you're not in England."
"Too right," I said. I supposed also that I would learn to like hot buttered toast for breakfast. "I'll have to insist on the toast rack when we're back in old Blighty."
She smiled, returning to her magazine. "Deal."
I sipped my coffee, ate my breakfast while reading the London Times. We had already spoken to my family and hers, eight and three hours ahead of us on the clock respectively, but the most enjoyable call had to be with little Connor. Nothing's quite as smile-inducing as a child so excited about his gifts on Christmas morning to the point of incoherence. We had a busy week in front of us; we'd be leaving on Sunday night for London for the premiere of Double Take that following Wednesday. We could stay in my house, which I had decided to retain for just such occasions. The film premiere was to be our first public appearance after our engagement.
That reminded me of a task left undone.
I lowered the newspaper down just as she was rising for more coffee. "Want some more?" she asked, reaching for her cup.
"Yes, please," I said. "Oh, and I'm fancying that strawberry jam from my mother on this toast. If you could get that for me out of the fridge, I would appreciate it."
She went inside. I carefully closed and folded up the paper, waited for the shriek I thought was sure to come. It didn't. Instead, she came out sans sunglasses, holding in her hand what I'd hoped she'd find: the little velvet clamshell box I'd planted in the bin where we kept the jams.
"Mark," she said breathlessly; her eyes were wide. "What's this?"
"What do you think it is?" I got to my feet, took the box in my hand, and pulled it open to reveal its contents.
She gasped. "Oh my God."
"Marry me, Bridget," I said, taking the ring from the box, holding my hand out for hers. I saw her lips start to tremble, tears forming in the corners of her eyes, but she was smiling. I did not doubt what her answer would be for a moment. "I love you and want you to be my wife." With a smile I added, "How am I supposed to get my green card otherwise?"
She burst out with a laugh. "You jerk," she said, threw her arms around me and kissed me; she nearly knocked the ring from my fingers in the process.
"Careful," I said. "If that ring goes into the pool, you're going in for it."
She pushed back and held up her hand. "On with it, then," she said with a sniff. I threaded the ring onto her finger before she tackled me with another hug. "Of course I'll marry you. I wouldn't let you get your green card with anyone else."
"Glad to hear it," I said, sliding my hands down over her own biscuit-browned skin. I liked the fact she was wearing a bikini even more than spending Christmas morning poolside in the sun. "What do you say to a dip in the water?" I murmured, grazing my fingernails down the valley of her spine.
"I say… 'last one in is a rotten egg'." She pushed herself away from me, tore off the wrap around her waist and sprinted the few feet to the pool, jumping in; I was hot on her heels. When we surfaced we were both laughing, then embracing, then kissing. We might not have had the paddling pool in Grafton Underwood during childhood years ago, but I thought this was infinitely better.
It was a far cry from a year ago, with cold London snow, grey skies, miserable loneliness, nary a smile to be found and nothing but work to occupy my days. I wouldn't have it any other way.