The Fox and the Rose
By S. Faith, © 2010
Words: 52,845 (total)
Rating: T / PG-13
(I did not feel eight instances of the F-Bomb (scattered throughout eleven chapters) warranted a more mature rating. )
Summary: Bridget's newest acquaintance brings with him a bit of a surprise.
Disclaimer: This universe and these characters belong to Ms. Fielding. However, these words in this order belong to me.
Notes: How did I never read The Little Prince as a child? Shocking. Many thanks to C. for the inspiration for this story.
Spring couldn't have come a moment sooner. The seemingly unrelenting and overwhelming grey of winter was finally starting to abate; snow and sleet were beginning to be replaced by refreshing rain; the little green buds on the trees and the burgeoning shoots of grass told of longer days, warmer days, sunnier days to come.
Being outside in the fresh air of the country at this, one of her favourite times of year, was the only reason she'd agreed to go to her parents' house at all. Certainly she had no interest in her parents' parties; the last one she'd attended had been a nightmare and a half, forced to meet a horribly rude, badly dressed man while suffering a vile, near-crippling hangover, an insult to her already present injury. Her mother Pam had promised her she could keep to herself, that no further attempts would be made to set her up with anyone.
"You promise?" she had asked.
"I promise," her mother had replied. "Cross my heart."
She took a taxi from the train station to her parents' place just as she had countless times before. She rapped upon the front door but no one answered. Figuring they were probably in the garden enjoying the delightfully warm weather, if the shrieks of children playing nearby were any indication, she gave the knob a turn on the off-chance it was not locked. It was indeed open, unusual for her mother, and she ventured inside. Before she even had a chance to set her bag down, though, her attention was drawn by a most peculiar sound: a child's voice.
For the briefest of moments she had a panic that perhaps she had gone into the wrong house altogether; but no, there was the gaudy wallpaper and the horrible framed artwork she knew to be among her mother's favourite things. She focused on the sound of the voice, followed it into the sitting room, and was duly surprised by what she saw, or rather, by whom.
In the centre of the sofa was a child, likely no more than six or seven, lanky and wearing long trousers and a dress shirt; his feet, clad in strangely shiny patent leather shoes, dangled above the ground. His hair was dark brown, his skin, pale, and at the sound of her footsteps into the room he looked up with wide chestnut eyes, his face thin and tiny-looking under that mop of hair. His expression bespoke the horror one might feel at being caught robbing a house, not simply sitting and reading a book in one.
"Hi," she said gently. "What are you doing in here, all on your own?"
He didn't respond. She drew nearer.
"I'm Bridget. What's your name?"
"M-M," he began unsurely. "Martin."
"Martin. Well, Martin, it's very nice to meet you, though it seems strange you're in here all alone. Are you here with someone?"
He nodded shyly. "My dad."
"Ah." She glanced up, saw the lot of party-goers through the windows in the dining room, saw a few pint-sized kids run back and forth, obviously having fun out there. "So why aren't you playing with the others?"
He shrugged, looking down at the book once more. "They always tease me about my shoes."
"They're nice," she said, glancing to the oddly dressy shoes. "I suppose they're probably not suitable for running around outside, anyway. They'd get all scuffed up."
"So what have you found there?"
He held up the book; she saw it was her childhood copy of The Little Prince.
"Oh, one of my very favourites," she said. "Have you read it before?"
He shook his head. "Some of the words are hard, but I like it. And he's six like me, at least at the start."
"You're six, are you," she said matter-of-factly. He nodded again, and she thought she saw a hint of a proud smile.
"I haven't gotten very far, though," he said dolefully. "I'm afraid I won't finish before we have to go."
"Oh." She had come ostensibly to spend some time out of doors, had dressed in her favourite floral sundress and mules, but in the very short time since had met little Martin she was oddly drawn to his serious nature, was sympathetic to the teasing from the other children, and really relished the idea of coaxing a real, full smile out of him. "Well, how about if I read it to you?"
He blinked, then nodded, then offered a bit more of a grin. "Can you read really well?"
"Well enough," she said.
"Oh! Can you do different voices?" he asked, enthusiasm in his voice.
She chuckled. "I'll do my best."
She took a seat beside him, then asked him to hand her the book. She saw he hadn't made it very far in, so she said, flipping back to the first chapter, "Well, we'll just begin at the beginning, shall we?"
He nodded again, and this time he did give her a full smile, revealing that he was missing one of his front teeth. He seemed to realise she'd noticed, though, and quickly clamped his mouth shut.
"Oh, don't be embarrassed," she said. "We've all been there, all of us." She settled back and, cleared her throat; she could hardly believe she was doing this instead of having a Pimm's and a ciggie. "Well. Chapter one."
Within minutes the young boy had sidled up close to her, eager to follow along with her speaking the words, eager too to see the drawings as they fit in with the words, and craning in a rather uncomfortable-looking manner to do so.
"I have an idea," she said, stopping for a moment. "How about we put the book half on your lap, half on mine? You might be able to see better."
She raised her arm up to place it around his shoulders as his small hand took hold of the left edge of the book.
"That's better," he declared.
She read, doing as much variety in the voices as she could. Raptly he listened, asking thoughtful questions about the larger words and talking about the story in general. She didn't know how long they had been in there. Since they had spent some time talking and generally having a nice time of it, she knew it had taken a lot longer than a strict read-through would have; they had not even finished chapter eight. In the middle of the story about the prince and his flower, Martin's head popped up and he exclaimed, "Dad!"
As the boy bounced up and off the sofa, she looked on in astonishment. Martin's dad was the very same rude and insulting man her mother had tried to foist upon her at the last party at New Year's: one Mark Darcy.
It seemed that Martin had an uncanny ability to lose himself just about everywhere, but Mark wasn't worried. The last time Mark had seen his son was out by the children's table, picking at the corner of a sandwich and sipping a glass of juice. Whenever at an outdoor event, Martin inevitably ended up back inside, which was where Mark was heading now after a quick canvass of the garden.
As he stepped into the house, he heard a distinct peal of laughter he knew to be his son's. He went towards the sound and was amazed at what he discovered in the sitting room: his boy was sitting with someone, a woman he did not know, studiously reading text he recognised to be from The Little Prince, and reading the prince's prized flower with great vocal effect. He was stunned at the sight of his normally reticent, introverted child showing so much eagerness, engaging himself so well with a stranger. It did not escape his notice that she was attractively dressed in a floral dress that accentuated her shapely legs, her hair shiny and golden, full lashes beneath fine brows—
That was when Martin noticed and ran to him. When she looked up, her mouth literally dropped open, her blue eyes went wide with surprise. "He's your dad?" she asked.
"Yes! Dad, this nice lady Bridget was reading to me," Martin said animatedly, taking his father's hand. "Doesn't she do a good flower voice?"
Bridget. The woman he'd met at the Turkey Curry Buffet who'd been smoking and drinking to assuage a hangover, the one who'd generally demonstrated a distinct lack of maturity, was the woman reading to his child. He struggled to contain his true feelings regarding the 'nice lady' even as he scrutinised her stunned expression. "Yes. Very good." To Bridget he said, "He hasn't been bothering you, has he?"
"No," she said, her eyes challenging his as she stood, closing the book. "In fact, he's provided me with the most interesting conversation I've had all day."
He cleared his throat and looked back to his son, who was looking up at Bridget with a worrying amount of adoration. "Come on, Martin, it's time to leave. I've been looking all over for you."
"He's been here the whole time," said Bridget, not without sharpness to her voice.
"But we haven't finished," Martin said balefully.
"Martin," she said kindly, holding the book out towards him, "why don't you go ahead and keep it? Then you can finish it on your own."
"But you said it was a favourite of yours," he said. "I don't want to take it from you."
She grinned. "Why don't we call it a loan, then?" Her eyes flashed to Mark. "If that's okay with your dad."
His jaw tensed. He wasn't about to deny Martin this, but he did not want to prolong their association. "That's fine."
Reluctantly Martin smiled. "Okay." He accepted the book with a bright smile to his father, which turned to a frown. "Oh, but we're going home tonight and I don't think I can read it all before then."
"It's all right," said Bridget. "You don't have to finish before you leave. You can always bring it back the next time you're here in Grafton Underwood."
"But that might be months and months," he said with concern. "I don't want to borrow it so long. You might want to read it again."
Mark saw she was trying not to smile. "Well, let me think. You live in London, right?" Martin nodded. "So do I. And, if I remember correctly," she said, giving Mark a steady look, "you actually live 'round the corner from me." Glancing back to Martin, she added, "You could return it to me any time you like."
An even brighter smile and a fond clutching of the book to his chest was the only reply she got, until he asked, "Where do you live? So we know where to go."
"Um," she said, glancing between father and son. "I'll jot it down." She strode over to a writing desk, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, and wrote quickly on it. She folded it and handed it to Mark. "There you are."
"Martin, go find your grandmother and grandfather and tell them it's time we head back to the house now," Mark said in a touch more commanding tone than he intended as he tucked her note into his jacket pocket.
"Yes, Dad." Martin hesitated, though; he looked like he was mulling something over in his head before making his decision: he ran over to Bridget with his arms out (hand still clasping the book) and embraced her around the legs. "'Bye, Bridget," he said. "I'm really glad I met you."
Bridget flushed bright red, and turned her eyes to Mark before glancing down again. "I'm really glad to have met you too." With that he released her and dashed out of the room, leaving a palpable awkwardness behind.
"That was very generous of you," Mark said, an edge of coolness to his voice.
"Well, he really seems to enjoy the story," she said. "Maybe you could finish reading it to him."
"I doubt my flower voice could compare," he said stiffly. "Well. Goodbye."
With that, he strode out of the room. His departure was a bit brusque, but his thoughts were jumbled. He considered that Bridget had been talking to Martin as if he were a person and not cooing and fawning over him like so many other women did to try to ingratiate themselves to him, and grudgingly he had to admit the point in her favour. It wasn't until they were all together at the car and driving back to his parents' house that Mark snapped back to his present surroundings, when Martin was asked where the book had come from.
"A nice lady called Bridget read it to me," Martin said proudly.
Mark glanced up into the rear view mirror just in time to see his mother Elaine's surprised look. "Really?" she asked.
"Mm-hmm," Martin went on. "She did voices, too. She did a great flower voice."
"A… flower voice?"
"It's The Little Prince, Mother," supplied Mark.
"Ah, yes," she said. "And she did a nice job of it, did she?"
"Yes!" Martin said. "I wish she could've finish reading it for me. She was really nice."
"Is that so?" asked Elaine, meeting Mark's gaze in the mirror again. He did not like the smile on her face, or rather, what that smile suggested.
"Yes," Martin affirmed. "Plus, she's really pretty, too. You thought so too, Dad, right?"
Mark looked away, back to the road, feeling heat creep over his cheek.
When they got to the house, Martin holed himself up in the window seat overlooking the front garden, cracked the book open to the page with the drawing of the beautiful flower, and began reading aloud to himself, doing a higher-pitched voice for the flower as Bridget had done.
"My word," said Elaine quietly. "I think that boy is quite taken with his new book."
"It's been lent to him," said Mark.
"I think he's equally taken with his new friend."
Mark said nothing, just pursed his lips.
"You should be thankful he's taken such an interest," she said. "He's so hard to draw out of his shell sometimes."
Mark could not help but agree. "I know. I am."
She patted him affectionately on the shoulder. "Well, I'll go check on supper. I know you'll have to be on the road soon."
As his mother left, he watched his son and reflected on what had occurred that day. Mark knew it was hard on Martin to be without a mother. After a marriage of convenience that had occurred only because she'd become unexpectedly pregnant, she had pretty much abandoned them shortly after his birth; she'd decided motherhood was not for her and had also taken to sleeping with his best friend. She had not contested anything about custody during the divorce, and had not once come to see her son since leaving them for the continent. She had made it very clear she wanted nothing to do with her child, and though Mark had never told Martin in so many words, he knew it had to hurt the boy to never get so much as a letter, a card, a telephone call. He was very bright, extremely perceptive, and knew that most of his schoolmates had a dad and a mum. He had the love of his grandparents and the care of his nanny, and of course he had Mark's own love which was unconditional and fierce, but it seemed the one thing Martin wanted most was the one thing Mark had to date been unable to provide.
"Dad? What's this word?"
He snapped to attention and went to see to which word Martin had gotten stuck on, taking a seat beside his son, looking to the word to which his little finger was pointing.
"'Reproaches'," said Mark.
"Re-pro-chess," repeated Martin with deliberation. "What does that mean?"
"Well, to reproach something is to disapprove or be disappointed by something." His eyes scanned over the prior text. "In this case, the prince is surprised that the flower is not expressing her disappointment because he's leaving."
"Oh," he said. "Why wouldn't she be disappointed, though?"
Mark's eyes skimmed down. "You'll need to keep reading."
"Read it to me?" he asked. "You're faster."
He did as his son asked, and at the final two sentences of the chapter, when Mark revealed to him that the flower did not want him to stay just for her, Martin made a sound of surprise.
"She's proud? Like when you're proud of me for high marks?"
Mark smiled. "Not exactly. To be proud in this sense is to… not want to reveal how sad and weak she felt."
"She doesn't want him to go at all!" he said.
Mark nodded. "That's right."
"He just goes because he wants to get away from her?"
"He wants to find other company, too," explained Mark. "But yes."
"Oh," he said, staring downward. In a small voice, he added, "Sometimes people go even if you don't want them to."
"Yes," said Mark. The conversation was veering dangerously towards serious topics, ones which were obviously upsetting the boy. Mark reached for the book and took it from him, closing it. "And sometimes people come into your life when you least expect it, and they end up being the best thing that happens to you."
Mark was referring to the great gift he'd been given in the form of his son, but Martin chose to interpret it differently: "Oh, you mean like Bridget!"
Still wanting to reassure the boy, Mark agreed, then rose to his feet. "Come on. Let's go see if Gran wants some help with setting the table."
"Okay," he said, further recovering his happy mood at the thought of supper. "By the way, Dad, your flower voice is really terrible."
Mark chuckled, running his hand over Martin's wild hair. "Come on," he said again, helping him down off of the seat. His own words kept turning around in his head, though:
…sometimes people come into your life when you least expect it, and they end up being the best thing that happens to you.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
The party was over; after her interaction with Martin and Mark she'd gotten herself nice and squiffy on both Pimm's and wine (which she was sure to regret), had managed to avoid Geoffrey Alconbury, and had even got a bit of sun. As she dressed in her jacket to wait for her father Colin to come down to drive her to the train station, she demanded this of her mother.
"Tell you? Tell you what?" asked Pam, genuinely confused.
"That Mark Bloody Darcy has a kid! Didn't you think it was important when you were trying to set me up with him?" At least they had told her he was divorced.
"Oh, that," she replied. "Well, I didn't think it important and I didn't want it influencing you."
"How would it influence me any less than a terrible reindeer jumper?"
"Well, that I had no control over." Pam sighed. "I just didn't want you to… well, some women are put off by a man who already has a child. I thought you should give him a fair shake."
She rolled her eyes.
Her mother went on. "Martin's a darling child, though, very like his father at that age. Too thoughtful and introspective."
"He was very sweet," Bridget agreed. "I enjoyed talking to him."
"But I thought you arrived after they'd gone."
"No, when I came in I found him reading The Little Prince."
"Oh," she said cooingly. "That doesn't surprise me. He loves those shoes of his and the other children can be so ghastly."
"Wait, what about the shoes?" She'd assumed the overly dressy shoes were something his father or grandmother had made him wear.
"Well, you know," said Pam. "He just idolises his father and loves that their shoes match."
"Oh," said Bridget.
"So you talked to him?" pressed Pam.
"I… read to him from the book. Then let him borrow the book."
"Oh, Bridget," she said with a smile. "That's the way to win his heart, through his son."
"What?" she asked, realising what her mother was insinuating. "No, it wasn't that at all. I didn't even know that was his kid."
Her mother made a clucking sound. "But you liked him."
"Martin? Yes, very much," she admitted with a sigh.
Her mother only smiled smugly, but before further conversation could occur and aggravate her, her father came into the room.
"Found the keys at last," he said. "Come on, love, you've got a train to catch."
"Goodbye, darling," said her mother, air-kissing over her cheeks in her usual way.
As they left the drive and headed towards the station, her father said, "Sorry about that, love. You know your mother just wants you to find happiness. As do I."
"You at least aren't trying to force it on me."
He chuckled. "Well, that's your mum. Being proactive."
She smiled too.
"Your mum says that's when his wife left him, at Christmastime, so she's willing to give him the benefit of the doubt." He snorted. "I still don't like the way he treated you though."
"Hm," she said. She'd had no idea that he, and presumably their child, had been abandoned at such an emotionally charged time of year. "You're right," she murmured, though she felt somewhat more charitable towards him having been given this knowledge.
"I do feel for the child, though," her father continued. "Martin was just an infant, no more than a couple of months old when she stepped out on her own husband with his best friend. And she apparently won't have a thing to do with the poor lad."
"That is too bad," she said, then added before she could think better of it: "She sounds like kind of a bitch, though, so maybe he's better off."
He laughed. "Probably, dumpling. Well. Here we are. Safe travels back to town, glad you're not driving. Talk to you soon."
She bent forward and kissed his cheek before stepping up and out of the car, then waved to her dad as she trudged into the station and onto the train. She had brought a book to occupy her thoughts during the two hour ride, but instead she felt herself thinking of her time with young Martin Darcy.