Alright, so crazy departure from Harry Potter. Wasn't even planning on posting this up. Then I figured, 'Hey, I spent a whole lot of time writing this. Might as well.' So here it is.
InsaneOrange: One of my favorite, if not my most favorite movie of all time.
And no way am I editing this! It's freaking 30,000 words! I don't have the patience for this.
The large oval field was awash with anticipation as the bowler spun the ball in his palm. The fielders shifted their weight unconsciously. The non-striker watched his counterpart tapping the ground with his bat.
The batter let everything fall away – everything but the bowler and the ball that would be their final shot at winning. He felt his heart racing and his stomach churning. He took a deep breath, swallowing hard and staring straight ahead.
Listen to your heart... If you want to do the best that you can do, listen to your heart. And if your heart is silent, think of Mum and Dad. They'll always be right. You'll see… Nothing seems impossible then.
The bowler took off on long strides, picking up his speed as he neared the crease. His arm wound around a full circle. With a quick snap of his wrist, the ball rushed towards the batter. With a sharp bounce, it sped towards the wickets. The batter tightened the grip on his bat, took a step and swung. A resounding crack sounded. The ball soared well above the fielders.
Even before the umpires' calls, the crowd went wild as the ball flew past the boundaries, into the crowd – a healthy six runs. "University of Cambridge takes the cup, breaking Oxford's three year streak!" the announcer boomed.
The batter threw down his bat and jerked off his helmet in time for the rush of his teammates. "We won, Noah! We won!"
The dorms were crowding with celebratory visitors and champagne. Being the men of the hour, Cambridge cricket team was wanted everywhere at once. It's how Noah Warner found himself backed into a corner with three, slightly intoxicated, girls.
"You know, that's really great and all," he said, his blue eyes betraying amusement as he kept a straight face. "But I don't think I'm up for a – um…"
"Right. Foursome," he said with an unbidden smile.
"Aw, come one," one of them said loudly, latching onto his jacket and pulling him off the couch. Which wouldn't have been much of a problem if her friend weren't perched on his lap. She tumbled unceremoniously onto the carpet. The third guffawed as the two girls glared at each other. So the second decided to land a loud smooch on Noah's startled lips. Not wanting to be outdone, the first pushed her friend away and replaced the lips wantonly, hands dipping dangerously low before Noah got a hold on her wrists. "I'm serious. No," he said, trying to reason. The third squeezed herself between the second and Noah, catching him off guard and pushing him back onto the couch with a kiss.
"Ladies, ladies, ladies." The third was lifted off of Noah. "The gentleman said no," Brad Lindman chided, holding the women off as Noah sat up in a daze.
"We could always make him say yes," one of them said coyly.
"Oh, I don't doubt it," Brad responded, grinning with charm.
"You can join in if you'd like."
Noah groaned as he hid behind his best friend. "Help," he murmured pitifully.
"If you insist," Brad whispered, grabbing Noah and pulling him into a kiss. Before Noah could push away, Brad let go and stared at the girls pointedly. They pouted, glancing from Noah to Brad, before flouncing off to find another cricketer to assault. "There," Brad said triumphantly. "Also, what's wrong with a foursome?"
"Nothing wrong with it. I don't want one, is all," Noah muttered. "You really need to stop kissing me," he added, brushing fingers against his sore lips.
"Where's the fun in that?" Brad asked, winking as he grabbed Noah's arm and pulled him through the crowd. They waded past congratulating shakes and grinning faces. Next day, the dorm was to be emptied in lieu of summer. A night of partying was sure to precede it. They stumbled out of the lounge, cooler air flowing in from the corridor.
"Oh, thank god," Noah sighed. "Thought I was going to end up in the sorority house."
"Priorities, man. Get it straight," Brad said. Noah raised his aristocratic brow. "It's the last day. You could get away with murder," Brad smirked, winking. "So, plans for summer. What are they? Other than, hanging out at home, because that's fucking all you do every summer."
"I miss Mum," Noah said, shrugging. "So, nothing else. Hanging out at home."
"You always miss Mum," Brad said, nudging Noah. "It's sweet."
"I'm just saying," Brad joked as Noah pushed the door open.
"Ugh, I'm so tired," Noah grumbled, falling onto his bed without bothering to change.
Brad headed to the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar so he could talk. "While you're swatting flies at home, I'll be in France getting myself some sweet French lovin'," he said, laughing devilishly.
"They'll run you out," Noah answered over the running water, stretching his long, lean limbs over his bed while trying to keep his thoughts from being drowned in the alcohol.
"And I'll be learning some smooth French moves."
"Smooth… Should be your middle name."
Brad laughed, shutting off the faucet. "It should, huh?"
"I'll miss you, man," Noah yawned, turning on his side to look at the bathroom door.
"No, you won't," Brad said. "You say that every year."
"So? I mean it every year."
"Hmm…" Brad murmured, flicking off the lights as he got out of the bathroom. "I guess I'll try to miss you too, then," he said nonchalantly, finding his way in the dark. "You're my best friend, you know that?" he asked, sitting down on Noah's bed. Noah nodded. "I've known you forever, right?" Noah nodded again. "If I ask you something, you won't get mad?" Noah shook his head. "It's about… Nate." Noah stiffened. Brad felt it, yet he couldn't help but continue. "Where did he go?"
Noah flicked his eyes away, shaking his head. "I don't know," he said.
"Haven't you asked?" Brad wondered. "Asked Mum or Dad?"
"He said not to."
Brad frowned. "It's been years. You haven't heard anything! He's your brother. Why…"
"I don't know," Noah said again. "Let's not – let's talk about something else, okay?"
"Like?" Brad asked, uneasy because of Noah's heavy words.
"Like… how you manage to kiss me almost every month?"
Brad narrowed his eyes. "I'm gay, remember?" Brad deadpanned, slipping off of Noah's mattress. "You being so damn hot doesn't help the situation."
"I remember all too well," Noah laughed. "Who needs a brother when they can have you," he murmured. Brad could sense the hurt in Noah's voice, but he didn't say anything. He chose to get in his bed silently, letting Noah drop off into dreams.
"Guess who?" Noah said cheekily, using his hands to cover Jane Goven's eyes.
"Like I'll ever have to guess," she said fondly, pulling her grandson's hands away and turning around to give him a long hug. "We missed you, honey."
"And you think I didn't?" he asked, kissing her cheek.
"You're getting too big!" she said dismally.
"Don't lie, Grandmum. You love it," he said with a grin.
The busy airport was filled with family and passengers, hugging and crying over each other. Apparently, Elise Warner insisted on being one of them. "I'm so glad you're back," she said, trying not to cry all over her grandson.
Noah raised his brows and looked at Jane questioningly. She frowned good-naturedly. "What, is she crying?" she asked. Noah nodded. "That's good. I get worried when she doesn't."
"Look at what I have to put up with," Elise grumbled, kissing both of Noah's cheeks. "You're looking so handsome," she said, brushing back his ruffled hair. "Just like your father."
Noah blushed, shifting his weight bashfully. Jane rolled her eyes at the display. "Well, ready to get out of here?" she asked, jerking her head towards the doors.
Once in the Goven bungalow, neither grandmother was willing to leave Noah alone for a minute, lest they miss something grandeur. He didn't mind. He had missed his family. Everyone was so close and loving. He often felt blessed when he caught Grandmum's proud smile or Grandma's tears that refused to stop.
"Alright, leave the poor child alone, Elise," Jane chided hypocritically.
"No," Elise muttered, letting go of Noah nonetheless.
"Go get freshened up, honey. We'll be here," Jane said. Noah winked at her gratefully before untangling his legs from under him and traipsing up to his room.
Elise let her head fall back on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling as she willed her eyes to stay dry. "I miss Nate, Jane… After seeing Noah, I miss him so much more," she said, choking on her words.
"I know," Jane said empathically as she moved to sit beside her friend. "I miss him too."
"I just – I just wish I knew where he was. I want to see him, just once…"
"He'll come back, Elise. Please, stop worrying. He's just – stubborn… Like your son," Jane said.
"Why can't they see that they're hurting everyone by being so stubborn?" Elise asked helplessly. "Je ne comprends pas. Ma famille –"
"It's been ten years! What do you want us to do?" Jane asked, starting to grow impatient.
"No one's even tried to look for him. I think we should tell Noah what –"
"No! You know Michael's temper. Noah doesn't even know about…"
"Then we tell him that too. I don't think I can stand it anymore. Why do we have these secrets?" Elise asked in desperation.
"What secrets?" Noah asked softly, clenching his hands into fists.
Both women started as they turned around, guilty expressions flickering over their faces. Neither made an effort to speak.
Noah shook his head, swallowing. "What aren't you telling me?" he asked. "Why isn't anyone telling me anything?"
"We… it's nothing, Noah," Jane said uneasily.
"Please. I want to know," Noah pleaded, moving closer. "I've wanted to know for so long."
"We can't – I don't…" she murmured, her eyes glazing over. "I think your parents should –"
"Nathan is adopted," Elise said, her tone impassive.
Noah frowned, frozen at the words. "He's what?"
"Elise…" Jane said sadly, squeezing her friend's hand to make her stop.
Jane shook her head in response. "I've been quiet for too long. I just – I need him to know. I need him to find Nathan for me," she said.
"Find – he's… does he know?" Noah asked breathlessly.
"Of course," Jane said, nodding. "Of course he knows…"
"I don't understand. What does this have to do with him?" he asked, sitting down shakily.
"Michael and Julie adopted him because… they were unsuccessful with children. We don't know about his real parents," Elise said distantly.
"D – did he leave because he… found out?" Noah asked, not able to look at his grandmothers any longer for fear that he too burst into tears.
"No," both women said, breathing out forcefully. "No, no," Jane reiterated. "He knew when he was ten. He found out before we could tell him."
"Oh god," Noah murmured, wiping away his unwanted tears. "Why didn't – why didn't he tell me? Why didn't Mum tell me?"
"Michael didn't want anyone to know. He loves Nathan as though he were part of our blood family, Noah. You have to understand. Nathan knows this. He knows how much you love him. No one was to mention it. Not even in passing. We whole-heartedly agreed. But…" Jane stopped.
"Something happened. It was brought up again."
"What?" Noah asked. "Tell me what happened…"
Ten years earlier…
The New Year's Eve party was in full force in the Warner family estate. The large stone mansion was decorated with white sparkling lights, poinsettias, and wreaths. The sweeping and winding driveway was filled with elegant cars. The light snow was trampled from the many dress shoes and heels. Soft instrumental music sounded through the manor, bouncing the sound against white marble. A large fir tree stood in the middle of the fifteen-foot entryway, covered with pale blue and silver ornaments. Tinkling of champagne glasses and chatter from friends wafted from the foyer to the drawing room, even into the busy kitchen. Mingling guests perpetually surrounded the buffet table.
Julie Warner swept through the crowd elegantly, every inch the beautiful hostess she was playing. Her gentle laugh and quick smile lit up the friends around her. She moved from one group to the next, conversing and joking.
"You're looking much too beautiful tonight."
Julie yelped as an arm wound around her waist, tickling her. She swatted at her husband, laughing nonetheless. "I had to compete with you, didn't I?" she asked, looking up at Michael Warner. He leaned down to give her a soft kiss.
"Ew!" Noah groaned, scowling at his parents. "Stop doing that."
Michael tried to hide his smile as he said, "We'll think about it."
Doris Joe Craner ran up to Noah, grabbing onto his chubby hand. "Don't you dare run away!" she scolded, smiling apologetically at her employers. She had been in charge of the children for ten years, which was almost all of Noah's life. She took care of the mansion, with its numerous maids and butlers, the food, and the boys. She was like a second mother to Noah.
"I want to eat," Noah grumbled, pouting at Doris.
"You always want to eat," she grumbled back, pulling her charge away. "It's why you're so fat."
Noah looked at his au pair horrifically. "I'm not fat!" he whined as he was dragged out of the room, his jiggling belly proving otherwise.
"Oh god, I love him," Michael laughed, tightening his hold on his wife. She lifted up the cuff of his dinner jacket and peeked at the watch. He sighed in amusement. "He'll be here. He's always here."
Julie rolled her eyes. "He better," she murmured heatedly.
"You worry too much," Michael said, letting go of her. "Have some fun. You look like you need it. Wonderful party, by the way."
"Why, thank you," she said graciously, dipping down in a mock curtsy.
The hours ticked by quickly. Each passing hour, Julie grew more and more agitated. The guests sensed this, knowing full well why. They just smiled at Michael, who grinned back helplessly. She was now checking the clock every minute.
"One minute!" a guest shouted at the top of her lungs.
"Hi, Mrs. Warner," Emma Macey said cheerily, wrenching Julie out of her stupor.
"Oh, hi! I hadn't seen you all night!" Julie said, hugging the petite blond. "How have you been?"
"Great! It's so nice to have a break from med school. You won't believe how much sleep I'm getting," she said, smiling with relief. The Maceys were close friends of the Warners. Michael and Emma's father were business partners and self-sufficient multi millionaires.
"I'm so glad," Julie smiled. "Are your parents here too?"
"Yes. With Mr. Warner, I believe."
"Talking business, as always, I presume," Julie said.
Emma rolled her eyes. "Always," she agreed.
"Twenty seconds!" someone yelled out. Everyone turned to the large clock displayed splendidly on the wall as the lights dimmed. The counting down began, getting louder every second.
Julie bit her lip, turning slightly towards the door. She shook her head, getting jostled around as people moved quickly to get to their significant other. She looked back at the door again, frowning. She quietly made her way to it, weaving past grinning men and women.
"Where are you going?" Emma called out.
"Just a minute," Julie said, her steps quickening as she moved towards the entrance.
The door burst open.
"Happy New Year!" the crowd cheered, pops of champagne bottles sounding through the room, along with obnoxious kisses and rambunctious laughter.
Nathan Warner was bent over double, panting as he grabbed the doorjamb to keep steady. He flicked his grey eyes up, snow dripping down his brown hair and soaking into his suit. A small smile hooked on his lips as he tilted his head at his mother. She smiled back. "You always seem to know," he said softly, his smile turning into a roguish grin.
"Of course I know," she replied, pulling her son in, away from the cold. He wrapped his arms around her waist, hoisting her small frame into a twirling hug.
"Happy New Year, Mum," he said, planting a kiss on her cheek. "I missed you so much."
"I missed you even more," she said with an easy laugh, holding him tight.
"Where's my kiss?" Michael asked, coming up from behind Julie.
Nathan chuckled, rising on his toes to kiss his father as well. "Happy?" he asked.
Michael grinned back. "I meant from her, smartass," he said, as Julie wrapped her arms around her husband. They kissed lovingly, smiles on their lips.
"Aw. Well, isn't that cute? I think I'm about to gag," Nathan muttered, sidestepping his parents. He was nearly bowled over by Emma.
"You're here! I ought to smack you one for being late!" she exclaimed, hugging him.
"Whoa, sweetheart. Easy," he laughed, hugging her back.
"Where's my kiss, then?" she asked, smiling at him wickedly.
"Right here," he said, looking just as wicked. She elbowed his ribs while he pulled her hair.
"Ow!" they yelped in unison, splitting apart.
"You're getting too good," Nathan complained, rubbing his sore chest.
"You pulled my hair!" Emma said in astonishment. "You never pull my hair!"
He stuck his tongue out at her before losing her in the crowd. His smile was still on him when he was nearly bowled over again, this time by a smaller person. He laughed and pulled Noah up. "Holy hell, you're getting fat!" he exclaimed, staggering from the weight.
"I hate you, too," Noah said, crossing his arms and frowning fiercely.
"And I love you," Nathan said, hugging his brother close. The short arms wrapped around Nathan's neck.
"Don't leave, okay?" Noah whispered urgently.
"Just for you," Nathan said. "Missed you, bud. You and more of you."
"Stop making fun of me," Noah moaned pitifully. "Mummy says I'm a growing boy."
"Yeah, growing the wrong way," Nathan remarked, putting his brother down. He received a sharp kick on the shin for that comment. He got another kick on his shin from a suddenly appearing Emma. "You little fu –"
"Nathan," Emma's father said loudly. Nathan snapped up, a charming smile on him as he shook hands with Mr. Macey. "Good to see you after all these months."
"You too. How have you been?" Nathan asked.
"Can't complain. Not with all the progress we've made. I hope you're ready to take over, Nathan, because I'm quite sure Michael wants to hand the business over to you as soon as possible," Mr. Macey hinted heavily.
"Dad likes to jump the gun," Nathan said.
"Well, don't let me keep you. It's your party, after all. Mingle," Mr. Macey said, grinning as he flicked his eyes from his daughter to Nathan. The older man was no more than ten steps away when Nathan's smile slipped from his lips and turned into a vicious frown. "That bloody hurt," he hissed, bending down to rub his sore shins.
"Serves you right," Emma said smugly. "When do you plan on proposing?"
"At this rate, never," he said, narrowing his eyes.
"Good. Because I'd hate to be your damned wife," she said, snubbing him with a flick of her curls.
Nathan bit his lip to keep from grinning. It felt great to be home.
"So," Emma exhaled, slowing from her jog to a walk. Nathan followed her lead, their shoes squeaking on the indoor track. "You're telling me you missed me."
"Of course," Nathan said nonchalantly, wiping the sweat off his brow. "Always."
"And yet," Emma said, tapping her finger on her chin, "you never returned a single e-mail or phone call. Seems rather strange, doesn't it?"
"Strange," Nathan murmured, pursing his lips to keep the corners from twitching up. "What do you think?"
"What do you think, Em?"
"I think that…"
"What do you think?"
"I think that… not a single girl gave you a second look and you spent all your days moping in your room," she deadpanned.
"And thus, all my secrets are revealed," he moaned dramatically, slumping.
"And I bet you were spending all those days in your bed dreaming about me."
Nathan laughed, wrapping an arm around Emma's shoulder. "You are much too good," he said. "Enough about me. Tell me about you. Found any mad boys chasing after you yet?"
"What do you think?" Emma asked, looking up at Nathan.
"What do you think?"
"I think that…"
"What do you think, Nate?"
"I think that… I can beat you around this oval in a full sprint," he said, grinning down at her.
Her brows shot up. "Don't count on it," she said, elbowing Nathan in the stomach before taking off down the lane.
"You're such a cheater," he shouted, racing after her.
Michael opened the door to his office, letting Nathan in. It was a spacious windowed room with expensive wood and an imposing desk. "This is going to be yours, Nathan," Michael said grandly, sweeping his arms at the skyline view out the wall of glass. With a light blanket of snow, downtown looked marvelous. Nathan moved towards the window, his eyes sweeping the multitude of buildings around him. He heard a soft pop of champagne and turned around. Michael was pouring two glasses. Nathan took one as it was handed to him. "To you, Nathan. The Warner Empire is now yours," Michael said with a proud grin. Nathan blushed and ducked his head, sipping his drink.
Michael's eyes flicked to his desk. "Hmm…" he murmured.
"Pardon?" Nathan asked.
"Your grandfather," Michael said vaguely, staring at the photograph on the desk. "he was a great man, Nathan. Such power. Such stature… Sometimes I – well, all my life, I wanted to be just like him. I'd like to think that I have become at least half the man he once was," he said with a distant smile. "You know, it's been thirty years since he gave me everything. He gave me advice and I think it's my duty to pass it on to you."
Nathan nodded solemnly, waiting for his dad to continue.
"He said life gives you many paths. You need to choose the right ones. You need to choose the ones that will not make you stumble or fall. Never choose the path that could taint your family. Anyone can earn money. But earning respect… It takes time and it takes work. Earning honor is how you get ahead in life. You must never bring shame to your family. You must always live up to your own standards, no matter how high they are." Michael suddenly smiled and shook his head. "It's been so long and I still haven't forgotten his words. I hope you never forget, Nathan," he said, looking at his son.
Nathan nodded slowly. "I promise to do the same, Dad," he said. "I promise to earn respect for our family. I'll never fail you. You'll always be happy."
Michael smiled as he pulled his son into a hug. "I love you so much, son," he said.
"I know, Dad. I love you too," Nathan said.
"Out, out, out! NO!" Noah crowed, one hand holding his burger while the other was clenched into a fist that he was now shaking at the TV. The cricket match was blaring in the room.
"You're going to be late," Doris said, grabbing the burger from Noah's hand. "Get ready!"
Noah stared after his food hungrily. Nathan walked in, toweling his hair dry. "Oh, let him eat, Doris," he said, snatching the burger from her hand before she could protest. He held it out for Noah. Just as the boy reached out for it, Nathan pulled his arm back. "Psych," he said, taking a bite. Noah scowled as Nathan sat down on the bed. "What's the score?"
Noah's eyes lit up. "A hundred and four for six. Isn't that amazing?" he asked, bouncing on his bed.
"How many overs?"
Before Noah could respond, England managed to garner another out. "Yes, yes, yes!" the brothers yelled in unison, jumping up in their excitement.
"We're going to win this one, Nate!" Noah cheered.
"Oh, don't jinx it!" Nathan said quickly. "Anything can change in the last instant. You can't trust them. You never know with England, Noah," he said, handing the burger back to Noah.
Doris tsked as she pulled Noah back onto the bed. "I don't understand you boys and your cricket. It's just a bunch of men trying to hit a ball and catch it. No sense at all," she muttered, pulling Noah's leg onto her lap.
Nathan barked with laughter. "What, he still hasn't learnt to tie his shoes?"
"DJ," Noah whined, glaring at his brother.
"So what if he hasn't learnt yet. He's still my little angel," she said, pinching Noah's cheeks until he grinned at her. She went back to tying the shoes for him while Nathan laughed behind his palm.
"What's all the ruckus?" Julie asked, bringing in a glass of milk for Noah.
"I can't believe he can't tie his shoes yet!" Nathan said, kissing his mother good morning. "You're babying him too much. If you don't let him do it, how do you expect him to learn?"
"Nathan," Julie scolded, all the while trying to keep from laughing at Noah's murderous expression. She handed the glass over to the boy. "Drink up."
"And how on Earth have you kept him as fat as a pumpkin?" Nathan asked, hiding behind Julie as he said it.
Noah sputtered, milk spraying everywhere. "DJ! He's making fun of me," he said, looking at Doris piteously. "Make him stop."
"He's a growing boy. He can eat when he wants," Doris said.
This time Julie started giggling with Nathan, causing Noah's face to fall. "Yeah, yeah, you can laugh now. Wait 'til I go to boarding school. You're gonna wish you were never mean to me," he said, pouting at Doris. "Nobody loves me," he griped, hugging his au pair.
"By the way, fatty, Mum loves me more than you," Nathan taunted, kissing Julie.
"DJ, did you see that? Did you see?" Noah wailed louder, shaking Doris and pointing at his brother.
"Don't mind him, honey. He's just jealous of you," Doris cooed lovingly.
Nathan laughed quietly, wrapping his arms around his mother. "Oh, I missed you guys," he said.
"I missed you too, Nate," she said, their foreheads touching. "Promise me you'll never leave me again."
"I promise," Nathan said with his impish grin. "But only if you promise not to feed me like that pumpkin over there," he whispered.
Julie swatted her son over the head. "How rude," she remarked, her laugh returning nonetheless.
"Oh," Nathan and Julie gasped, looking at each other with raised brows and matching smiles.
"Coming," Julie called back, taking the empty glass from Noah's hand before leaving the room.
Michael was in the master suite, fumbling with his tie, as Julie walked in. "Your son's back and now you've forgotten about your husband?" he asked with a smirk.
"I could never," she said, swatting his hands away. "You can't even tie a tie without me?" she asked, glancing up at him.
"Not even that," he murmured, running his fingers down Julie's cheeks. "You're looking beautiful today, Mrs. Julie Warner."
"Only for you," she said, finishing the tie with one last tug. "Perfect."
"We won! Oh my fucking gosh, we won!"
"We won the match!" Leila Murray shouted to her customers, holding up her radio. The coffee shop erupted with cheers and loud banging on the table. "Free coffee!" she added, causing louder whoops. "Oi, you guys stay here," she said, snapping her fingers at the three kids behind the counter. "And get your grubby hands out of the biscuits. I know how many there are," she threatened, untying her apron and glaring at them. They stuck their fingers out at her as she left the shop. She went across the busy promenade and wound through the side streets, holding her skirt up to keep from falling. She reached a modest home with a white fence, her home. She jumped over the hedges and stuck her face against the window.
"Marie!" she shouted, wondering if her friend could hear.
Meanwhile Doris and her daughter, Marie, were serving tea in the drawing room. Their guests were Marie's soon to be in-laws. "Well, when my son told me about her, you can imagine how happy I was," Mrs. Durnby said, smiling politely.
Marie blushed appropriately, keeping her eyes averted. "As you can imagine, I wasn't pleased that they kept their… relationship so private," Doris said. "But I'm glad to see some good come of it."
"Of course, of course," Mr. Durnby nodded.
"I assure you she will be an amazing daughter-in-law," Doris said with a proud grin. Marie chose that moment to look up past the couple sitting in front of her. She found Leila waving at her like mad.
"We won!" Leila shouted from the loud street.
"We won?" Marie shouted back, clapping her hands together in delight. Everyone jumped in surprise, staring at the girl incredulously.
"Fuck," Leila swore, dropping to the ground just as Mr. and Mrs. Durnby turned around to look out the window.
Doris pinched her daughter's arm, glaring at her. Marie bit her lip in embarrassment, ducking her head again. "I'm so sorry about that. She gets excited at times," Doris stammered.
"It's… quite alright," Mrs. Durnby said hesitantly while her husband bit back a smile.
"Let's get back to the wedding, shall we?" Doris said quickly. "How many guests would your side bring in?"
Leila peeked into the house, brushing back her red fringes with her flour-dusted hands. When she realized that the coast was clear, she started waving like mad again while her bright green eyes shone with mischief. Much to Marie's unfortunate timing, she looked up in time to see Leila miming, 'A hundred runs!'
"A hundred?" Marie squealed, her eyes wide with animation.
"Marie!" Doris exclaimed in horror as Mr. and Mrs. Durnby turned around to look out the window again. They caught a flurry of movement. Leila covered her mouth with her hand when she saw the mortified look on Doris' face. She crouched on the ground, counting up to twenty before pulling herself up again.
"I am so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Durnby. Marie is usually very quiet. Don't know what's gotten into her," Doris said helplessly.
"Sorry," Marie said, coloring prettily as she fingered her cup and silently cursed her best friend.
"Are you alright, dear?" Mrs. Durnby asked patronizingly.
"Y – yes… Carry on," Marie stammered.
Leila popped up with a grin. Once she'd managed to get Marie's attention again, she mouthed, 'Kevin Pieterson.'
"Kevin?" Marie all but screeched in excitement.
"Kevin?" Mrs. Durnby asked in disbelief.
"Kevin?" Doris asked in horror.
"Kevin who?" Mr. Durnby asked, frowning.
Marie clapped her hand to her mouth. "Oh god. I am – I am so sorry! I – it's… just Kevin Pieterson," she stuttered in mortification.
Mr. Durnby laughed heartily while Mrs. Durnby stared at him in distaste. "Cricket, dear. You wouldn't understand," he said, turning around.
Leila jerked back when amused faces turned to stare at her without warning. She smiled sheepishly, stumbling around until she decided to go about her way as nonchalantly as possible while whistling.
Fifteen minutes later, Doris was boxing Leila's ear red. "You're such an evil child!" the woman said, shaking a disapproving head. "Do you have any idea how embarrassed I was?"
"I'm sorry," Leila said, trying to get away from the woman.
"Serves you right," Isabella said, making a face at Leila as she munched away at her lunch.
"Shut up, you," Leila growled, finally pulling free and rubbing her sore ear. "Besides, they didn't care."
"Mrs. Durnby looked like she thought Marie had gone mad!" Doris exclaimed, her hands on his wide hips. "Sometimes I wonder about you," she sighed despondently, throwing her hands up in defeat and walking away.
"And you," Leila said, scowling at Isabella. "You were absolutely no help!"
"Well, seems like my job here is done," the twelve-year-old said proudly, jumping off of the counter with a smug smile.
Leila was about to start on a heated rant when Marie walked into the coffee shop as though on a cloud. Her distant and lovesick smile made both Isabella and Marie gag. "Where's your beloved prince?" Leila asked, cocking a brow.
"He'll be here in a couple days," Marie sighed, sitting down with a goofy grin.
"I can't believe you wouldn't tell me about him," Leila said begrudgingly.
"I'm really sorry, Lei. It's just… well, I wasn't sure about anything myself. And then he proposed. Oh god, it was so romantic. He's a poet, you know?" Marie said excitedly.
Leila looked impressed. "A poet. Really? Any money in that?"
"Who needs money when we've got love?" Marie said like a true Juliet.
"Yeah… Come around here saying that when you haven't had a full meal all day and I won't hesitate to kick your arse," Leila said.
Marie turned to look at her best friend. "Look, Leila, I love you and all, but I have a feeling you're going to die an old maid," she said sarcastically.
"At least I'll be an old maid with a full stomach," Leila said, thumbing her nose in defiance. "And your sister is mooching too much off of me," she added, glaring at Isabella.
"She gets if from you, not me."
Doris had taken Leila in when the girl was no older than ten. Doris now told everyone that she had three daughters, not two. Marie and Isabella were Leila's best friends and family. While the daughters ran the coffee shop, Doris worked at the Warner mansion. They may struggle to make ends meet, but they were the happiest family on West End. Everyone knew Leila and her antics.
"This lover boy. What's his name, again?" the redhead asked.
"Stop calling him lover boy," Marie said grumpily. "It's James."
"Right, right. James Durnby. Has a nice ring to it. Marie Durnby. Not bad," Leila said, thinking out loud.
"Of course it's not bad. It's amazing! I'm getting married!" Marie said excitedly.
"You're leaving us, is what you're doing," Isabella said, pouting.
"Yeah, but I'm also getting married," Marie said, cheekily glazing over her sister's comment. "Anyways, I've told him to come to the shop. That way you can get a first glimpse of him. Tell me what you think."
"Sounds like a plan," Leila said with a musical laugh.
Emma pulled the car to a stop in front the mansion, her expression showing utter discontent and anger. "You were so rude at that party," she said, whipping her head at Nathan.
He rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry. Is that why you wouldn't speak to me until now?" he asked, hitting his head against the backrest.
"Yes. That is exactly why I haven't been talking to you," she said, scowling at him. "You didn't talk to anyone, didn't eat anything, didn't dance… Poor form."
"I'm really sorry. I just don't like parties, Em. You know that," he explained apologetically.
"And you didn't tell me, even once, that I looked beautiful tonight."
"You look beautiful tonight."
She smirked. "Why, thank you," she said, looking down her nose at him.
He turned his head towards her slightly. "I also lie very well," he said with a smirk that equaled hers.
She started scowling again. "Get out."
"Alright, alright, sorry. I swear, you look gorgeous today," he said sincerely, looking at her with his puppy dog eyes.
"Are you lying or telling the truth?"
"What do you think?" Nathan asked.
"What do you think, Emma?"
I think that…"
"What do you think?"
"I think, Nathan, that you should get out of my car right now."
Nathan laughed as he undid his seatbelt. "Wasn't planning on coming home with you, anyway. Thanks for the offer though," he said as he got out.
"Idiot," Emma muttered before screeching out of his driveway.
Nathan shook his head at the fast disappearing car before going into his house. Julie and Elise were conspiring on the couch, as women often tend to do. Michael and Noah were at the table, playing Monopoly. Nathan threw his jacket on the couch and sat down beside his mother. "What're you two ladies up to?" he asked, taking a piece of chocolate from the bowl.
"Oh, nothing," Noah murmured absently. "Just planning Dad's surprise birthday party." Then he looked up in sudden realization. "Oh." Michael started snickering behind his hand while Nathan threw a piece of candy at his brother, catching him on the head.
"Noah," Elise groaned.
"Oh god, nothing stays in him," Julie grumbled, closing her notebook while sulking.
"There's so much in him already, did you really expect he could keep it all inside?" Nathan asked sardonically, laughing at his brother.
Julie couldn't help chuckling as she tucked her book away. "What're you doing home so early?" she asked, brushing down Nathan's hair.
"Mum, you know how terribly boring those society parties are. I never know what to do. So I threw a silent fit and Emma brought me home," he said, draping his legs over the coffee table.
"Really?" Julie asked. "Then you're nothing like your dad when it comes to parties."
"Julie," Michael said, his tone slightly threatening.
"What? I'm just educating our son," Julie said, flicking amused eyes at her husband. "Do you know why he liked them?"
"Why?" Nathan asked.
"For the girls."
Michael groaned, dropping his face in his hands, as everyone laughed. "He used to get very happy seeing those girls," Julie muttered to Nathan, causing him to laugh even louder.
"Julie, if I hadn't gone to those parties, how would I have ever met you?" Michael asked.
Elise scoffed. "Right. What did you do? Nothing. We had to do half the work for you," she remarked. She looked at Nathan and said, "He was so shy when he saw her. But I could tell he was more than pleased." Soft chuckles rose from the family. "It's a good tradition," Elise said, "finding a girl your family approves of. You can't trust these kids."
"Oh, I don't know, Elise. It's a different generation now," Julie said causally. "Let them choose for themselves. They don't like us interfering. Everything's changed these days."
"Nothing's changed," Michael said.
"No, I was just saying –"
"Nothing's changed, Julie."
"Kids these days have –"
"Nothing's changed," Michael said with a soft smile.
Nathan and Noah exchanged surprised glances as they watched their mother and father face off. Julie clicked her mouth shut and glared at her husband before getting up and leaving the room.
"That went well," Nathan murmured.
"Oi, stop dreaming," Leila barked, pinching Marie.
"Ouch! Leila!" Marie chided, rubbing her sore arm. "I have every right to dream."
"Spoken like a true poet's wife," the redhead muttered, sitting down the windowsill next to Marie.
"He's coming today. So behave, alright?"
"When don't I behave?" Leila asked slyly. "Besides, I have a feeling we'll get along just fine."
"Oh? How so?"
"Well, turns out I have a knack for poetry too. Want to hear it?"
"Of course, of course," Marie said.
Leila cleared her throat. "Roses are wilting, violets are dead. The sugar bowl is empty, just like your head."
"Why, you little –"
Doris rushed into the drawing room with the Gazette in her hand. "Guess what? Mr. Warner and his son's in the paper today," she said.
"Ooh, let me see!" Leila said, grabbing for the paper.
"Ugh, clean your hands first," Doris said, holding the newspaper away from Leila.
"Aw, come on," she said. "Anyway, why's he in the paper?"
"Tomorrow's his birthday. Turning fifty! They're having the huge party. And guess what?"
"What?" Leila asked excitedly.
"I asked Mrs. Warner if it'd be alright if we made the dessert."
"She said yes?" Leila squealed.
"Oh my gosh, did you hear that, Marie? We get to go to the party!" she said, twirling on the spot. "This is so exciting!"
"I can finally wear that new dress I bought!" Marie said with a healthy grin.
"Oh, yeah. Go ahead and wear it. That's what everyone at the party's going to be wondering. 'Hmm? What would Marie be wearing tonight?'"
"Pfft," Leila huffed, swatting her friend over the head.
Doris heaved a dramatic sigh and plopped onto the couch. "I don't feel so good," she said loudly. "Flu's been going around."
"Aw," Marie said sympathetically. "I'll bring the thermometer." She left the room while Leila sat next to Doris and felt her forehead.
"Am I warm?" Doris asked.
"Nope. You're right as day," Leila said cheerily.
Doris elbowed Leila. "What do you know?" she muttered as Leila laughed.
"Anyways, I've got to go now," Leila said, getting up. "You better have stopped faking it when I get back from work," she said snidely, narrowly escaping the flying cushion as she ran out of the house.
"And make sure you hand it to Doris, okay?" Julie said, holding out the container of soup.
Nathan took it with a roll of his eyes. "I'm quite certain she can make this herself, Mum," he said.
Julie tsked at her son. "She's not feeling well, Nate. Of course she can't make it herself. Just give it to her and tell her that she doesn't have to come in until she feels right as day."
"You coddle us too much," Nathan said. "Not that I'm complaining. I love coddling."
"Oh, I know," Julie said with a smile.
"I'll take that fatty with me too."
"Hey!" Noah exclaimed, looking up from the TV.
"Come on, dude. We'll take the convertible," Nathan said, beckoning for his brother to follow him.
It took them half-hour to get to the West End. "Ew, it's so gross!" Noah said, holding his nose closed.
"No shame," Nathan muttered, shaking his head at his brother. With a few close calls from pedestrians who refused to acknowledge the red Mercedes, he finally managed to park the car in front of Doris' house. "Stay," he said, glaring at Noah.
"I'm not going anywhere," Noah said, pulling a face at the dirt-covered pavement.
Nathan pushed open the creaking gate and headed up the stairs to the landing. Finding the door ajar, he walked in cautiously. He didn't have to look far. Doris was fast asleep on the couch, her head resting on Marie's lap. The young woman looked up in shock, her book nearly dropping on Doris' face in fright. Nathan held a finger to his lips and motioned at the soup. Marie smiled gratefully and waved him towards the kitchen table in the next room. Nathan left the container on the table and waved goodbye before shutting the front door behind him. He looked at his car and frowned. Noah was missing. "Dumbass," he muttered, looking up and down the street.
After thirty seconds of sitting in the car, Noah had grown tired of waiting. Which is how he found himself surrounded by ruffians a few blocks from Doris' house.
"Where's the toll?" Isabella asked, her hands on her hips.
"Wh – what toll?" Noah stammered, flicking his eyes at the girl's three lackeys who were considerably bigger than him.
"You need a toll to pass."
"I don't have any money."
Isabella shook her head in disappointment. "Alright, since you're new here, all you need to do is say this tongue twister. Listen carefully."
"Huh?" Noah asked helplessly.
"Betty bought a bit of butter, but the bit of butter Betty bought was bitter. So Betty bought a better bit of butter, to make the bitter butter better. Your turn."
Noah blinked at her piteously.
"Go on," she said, shoving him.
"Um… Betty bought a – butter and… um – bitter – ah…"
"Wrong," Isabella said smugly.
"Betty – um… bitter butter – was – dang it!"
"Not part of the twister."
Noah wrung his hands in distress. "Look, a cow," he said loudly, pointing over Isabella's shoulder. Everyone turned to look. Noah conveniently disappeared down the street.
Meanwhile, Nathan was being jostled as he wandered the marketplace aimlessly. He figured he had at least a small chance of bumping into Noah this way. Faint sounds of clapping and music drew him to a wide courtyard surrounded by people. He heard guitars and drumming as he pushed his way in.
Street performers were playing folk music in the centre. Children were dancing their hearts out in front of the musicians, laughing and singing along. Nathan smiled in disbelief. He had never seen such an enthusiastic performance in his life. This was his first time down in West End. He found his toe tapping to the fast beats as the fiddler started playing. Loud whoops and claps sounded around him, adding to the festive atmosphere.
Then he saw her.
Her green skirt flared out as she twirled. Her red locks flew everywhere, in time with the beats. Her dazzling grin complimented her dancing. And her free laugh…
Nathan's heart skipped a beat as he followed her with his eyes. She was dragging more and more people into the circle, egging them on to dance with her. She was light on her feet, almost soaring from one person to the next as she spread the laughter. Nathan found himself laughing breathlessly as she grabbed a surprised grandfather by the waist and started jiving. Nathan didn't know how long he had been there. He didn't really care how long he'd been there.
Leila's eyes flicked at her watch and she started. "Crap," she muttered, looking at the band wistfully. She grabbed a handful of change from her bag and threw it into the bucket. "I'll be back later!" she shouted over the racket before sprinting away. Nathan was quick to follow.
He waited outside the coffee shop she had run into. He stuffed his hands into his pockets nervously, scuffing his toe against the step. With a deep breath and firm nod to himself, he trudged in.
Leila was busily starting up the coffee machines when she heard the footsteps behind her. "Store opens at ten," she called out.
"Oh… Okay," Nathan stammered.
Leila froze and looked up at the wall. Then she whipped around with a crafty grin. She eyed him from head to toe, looking at him as though he was the most adorable thing she had seen. He smiled back uncomfortably, squirming under her inspection. She wiggled her eyebrows knowingly. He looked back questioningly, jerking his head and mouthing 'what?' "Okay, hear this," she said, clearing her throat. "So what if evil wishes to harm us all?"
Nathan shrugged. "I don't know… What?"
"What?" Leila muttered, losing her train of thought. "Oh yeah," she said, "So what if evil wishes to harm us all? Hear the birds' chimes and rise to its call. Eh? How was that?" she asked, wiggling her eyebrows again.
"Um… Good?" Nathan said uncertainly.
"Okay, now your turn."
"Oh…" Nathan murmured. He ran his fingers through his hair thoughtfully. "Exactly what did you want me to say?" he asked haltingly.
Leila gaped at him indignantly. "What do you – never mind, don't say anything. Listen to one more of mine, okay?"
"The path to love is not for the faint of heart… It is a road of fire and hurt that can tear us apart," she said dramatically, staring off into space. Then she snapped her eyes back at Nathan. "Good one, right? Came up with that all by myself," she said, walking up to him. "I'm a natural, huh?" she asked, nudging him on the shoulder.
"Quite," Nathan said, trying to hide his awestruck smile.
She looked at him slyly, twirling her hair. "Came all the way here to meet me, haven't you?" she asked, smirking widely.
"Actually, I just came here to see DJ," Nathan answered.
A wider grin spread across her face. "Oh, you've even got nicknames for each other! How sweet?"
"Well, yeah… She brought me up, didn't she?"
"Brought you up?" Leila murmured in confusion. Then she snickered. "Well, then you must have spent a lot of time on her lap, eh?" she asked, poking Nathan's arm and laughing maniacally.
"Right…" Nathan said, biting his lip.
"So, when's the wedding?" Leila asked, hooking her arm around Nathan's and pulling him towards the tables.
"Whose?" Nathan asked.
"Yours and hers, of course," she said coyly.
"I could never marry DJ!"
Leila giggled. "Oh, you make me laugh! And you're cute too! I'm going to tell Marie and that I approve of this James Durnby character."
Leila's laugh grew louder. "You're such a sweetheart," she said, swatting Nathan's shoulder and making him sit down. "Oh, do you know?"
"No. I don't know. I'm sure you'll tell me. You seem to know everything," Nathan said in bewilderment.
"Of course I do. Anyways, you know your mother-in-law? Well, she works for the Warner family. Rich folks, rich parties. Mr. Warner's birthday is tomorrow. And guess what?"
"I'm bringing dessert," she said proudly, puffing up her chest.
"Er… That's… great?"
"You don't know half of it," she said. "His photo is in today's newspaper. Did you know that? It's a big deal, bringing dessert to that party. Wait here, I'll show you."
"You don't –"
"No, no. I'll show you," she said, grabbing the rolled up newspaper on the counter and snapping off the elastic. She dropped the paper on the table in front of Nathan. "See, that's Michael Warner. A big snob, if you ask me," she said.
"And I guess this is his son?" she murmured, picking up the paper with a frown. "Whoa, that's weird… He looks – just… like you… Oh…"
"Really? Let's see?" Nathan said, turning the paper towards him as Leila's jaw dropped. "Ah, yes… James Durnby," he nodded, pointing at the photo of himself.
"Fuck," she swore quietly, her face draining of all color.
"Not at all," Nathan said in amusement. "You've just got a great sense of humor," he added sarcastically.
She gulped painfully. At that moment, Noah rushed into the shop. "Oh, thank god. There are goons after me, Nate! Help!" he exclaimed, running out of the shop.
"My brother," Nathan said with a grin as he stood up to follow the boy. Leila made no effort to return it, still in shock from the looks of it. He stopped short at the door and glanced back with a smile. "You have a beautiful laugh," he said. He was met with a scowl that made his smile even wider. "Beautiful," he murmured to himself, walking away.
She got up huffily, stomping her feet and wrenching at her hair. She felt a touch on her shoulder and she whipped around with a murderous frown.
"Hi, I'm James Durnby," a lanky man said shyly.
"And I'm the Queen of England," she snapped, causing him to stagger back.
Nathan cleared his throat and stood on the stairs, garnering the party's attention. "I just wanted to make a toast," he said loudly.
Michael, who was conversing with Emma and her father, turned to face his son in surprise. The chatter died down as the guests listened.
"To my dad," Nathan said, raising his champagne flute. "All my life I've tried to become everything he is. The way he walks, sits, stands, smiles… Everything. It's difficult though. I know I can't do it. And maybe I'll never be able to do it. I am so blessed to be able to call you my father. Because there's no one else like you. You're one of a kind. I love you, Dad. Happy birthday."
Applause and cheers followed as the guests drank their champagne. Michael shook his head at his son and flicked his teary eyes away. "Now look at what he's done," he said to Emma, who laughed and wiped away his tears.
The 'surprise' party was a huge success, thanks to Julie's excellent planning. A magnificent five-tiered pearl cake was the centerpiece. Presents were piled in a corner, wrapped in elegant paper and ribbons. Of course, Nathan only had eyes on one thing – the dessert table.
When Leila finally strolled in, hands full of platters, Nathan's smile grew foolishly wide. Marie and Leila were prepping the table when Nathan finally brought up the courage to walk up to them. "You weren't kidding," he said, eyeing the pastries.
She started and looked up. Her eyes narrowed when she found Nathan smiling at her. "No, I wasn't," she said, tight-lipped.
"Are they any good?" he asked.
"Try it for yourself."
He did just that with the eclair. He nodded in appreciation. "Quite good, actually."
"No need to sound so surprise," she muttered, earning a jab in the ribs by Marie.
"Didn't know if you were all talk," he quipped.
"Hardy har har," she scowled.
By now, Marie was pulling at Leila. "We have to go," she said as she dragged her frowning friend away.
"Oh, already?" Nathan asked before he could stop himself.
"Yes," Leila snapped.
"Stay for a dance?"
Nathan smiled at the biting response. "Fine. I'll just dance with Marie then," he said, pulling an astonished Marie towards the dance floor. Leila was left sputtering in fury. "You don't mind, do you?" Nathan murmured to Marie, who responded with a terrified shake of her head. He grinned at her as he swept her into the crowd. "Congratulations on the engagement, by the way," he said.
"Thanks," Marie said, blushing.
"John Durnby, huh?" he asked.
"How did you know?"
Nathan laughed. "Let's just say I had a chance encounter with him not too long ago," he said.
"Hmm…" Marie mumbled. "Why are you dancing with me?"
"Right to the point, are we?" Nathan asked jokingly. "Isn't it quite obvious?"
"No. Not really," she said, blinking at the blond.
"To make her jealous," he said honestly.
Marie's eyes widened comically. "Who? Leila?"
"Leila… Yes, Leila," he said softly, flicking his eyes at the redhead who was fuming by the tables.
"You like her?" Marie couldn't help asking.
"Something like that," he said vaguely. He thought he heard her say, 'touched in the head,' but he might have been wrong. "How do you know each other?" he asked.
"Sisters," she said.
Nathan frowned. "You look nothing like each other," he said.
"Oh… Well, not related like that. But yeah, she's my sister," Marie said, shrugging.
They danced in silent thought for a minute, Nathan leading expertly. They drew a few stares, but Nathan was blissfully oblivious to them. Marie finally stirred. "You know, if you really want to rile her up you should ask her out," she said.
"She'd say no," Nathan said.
"Yeah, but if you don't give her a chance to say no, she won't leave you high and dry."
"She rarely breaks a promise."
"Good to know…" Nathan murmured just as the song ended. "Pleasure dancing with you, Marie," he said graciously, kissing her knuckles. She giggled bashfully before running towards Leila, who was no doubt about to interrogate her friend. Nathan watched the two flit out of the room in seconds.
"Nate –" Julie started to say.
Nathan interrupted his mother's words with a roll of his eyes. "Don't worry, Mum. She's engaged," he said.
Julie laughed at her son, rolling her eyes as well. "Yes, because that's such great news," she remarked sarcastically. "That's not what I wanted to know."
"Oh…" Nathan said, now feeling awkward.
"I just wanted to know when the caterers needed to leave."
"Hey, you," Noah called out, storming towards Isabella. She turned around with her usual scowl. Her eyes quickly widened when she saw Noah followed by his posse.
"What?" she asked.
Noah turned to Brad and said, "She's the one I was telling you about."
"Ah, yes. The girl from West End, huh?" Brad remarked, taking a circle to inspect her. "You can tell by the way she dresses." His friends laughed at this.
"At least I don't have to worry about my nail chipping everyt ime I pick up my books," she taunted.
"Oh? I guess you don't. Who cares about looks down there, right?" one of the girls said with a smirk. "Look at her hair, so stringy. Does she take baths?"
"Shut up," Isabella snarled shakily.
"And her shoes. Has holes in them," another boy noted, looking at her with distaste.
"How poor are you?"
"She even smells like the West End, doesn't she?"
Noah's laughs died down when he saw tears in Isabella's eyes. "Hey, guys…" he said uneasily. But once started, it was quite hard to stop his friends. Noah's heart sank when he saw the tears starting to streak down her cheek. "Guys, stop," he said helplessly. No one heard him. He hesitantly reached forward and touched Isabella's hand. She whipped her fiery eyes up at him and pushed through the crowd, running down the street.
"And you just stood there?" Leila fumed, pacing her drawing room.
"I couldn't do anything," Isabella wailed. "There were so many of them."
Leila laughed humorlessly. "You're all that at home and you couldn't even defend yourself out there? You're all talk, Bella. For shame."
"Leila," she whined pitifully.
"What, Leila? If I ever get my hands on that little rascal and his numbnut brother –"
"Leila," Doris warned, her eyes wide.
"I can't even speak my own mind in my house?" she asked, oblivious to the stunned expression on her family's faces. "Just because they're all rich and posh, they think they can boss us around, do they?" She threw her hands up in defeat. "If I were there, I'd have bashed them all up one by one," she scowled at Isabella.
"Oh god, Leila, he's –"
"Why not? He hurt my little sister, and you think I'll just stand for it? They have money, but no heart! I'll teach them to –"
"We really are sorry," Nathan interrupted.
Leila jerked around in fright, blanching. Nathan was leaning against the wall, looking thoroughly amused, while Noah was standing uncomfortably on the carpet, eyes downturned. "You!" she exclaimed, eyes wide as she took a threatening step towards him. He staggered upright and pulled Noah in front of him as a shield. "You have some nerve!"
"It did take a lot of nerve," he said. "Sorry for interrupting your rant. Came up with it all by yourself, did you?"
"Yeah, I did," she growled, causing Noah to shrink back.
"Hi, Marie," Nathan said with a smile, nodding at the nervous girl behind Leila. "And DJ."
"We – we weren't expecting you," Doris said anxiously.
"Sorry for dropping in," Nathan shrugged, easily sidestepping Leila's murderous frown.
"Leila," Doris said tightly. "We have guests. Go get them something to eat."
"Oh, I'm sure they've already eaten," she said, eyeing Noah with disdain. "Don't you see the size of him?"
"Leila!" Marie reproached in horror while Nathan and Isabella tried not to laugh.
"It's fine, DJ. We've already eaten," Nathan said to ease the tension.
"Oh, it's no trouble, Nate. I'll be right back," Doris said, staggering towards the kitchen. Marie mumbled an excuse, quickly disappearing from the room.
"Okay then," Nathan murmured to himself as Leila stormed off towards the fireplace, evidently looking for something to throw at the boys. Then he caught sight of Isabella sitting on the sofa. He bent down and whispered into Noah's ear, "Name?"
"Noah," he said as a matter of fact.
Nathan smacked his brother on the head. "Not yours, idiot. Hers."
"Oh," Noah muttered, rubbing his head. "I don't know."
Nathan rolled his eyes before pushing Noah towards Isabella. He knelt down beside the girl. "Hi, I'm Nate. What's your name?" he asked.
"Isabella," she said, flicking her eyes up at Nathan.
He gasped theatrically. "You have such pretty eyes," he said. She smiled and blushed, looking away. Leila gaped widely, clenching her fingers into fists. Nathan looked at Noah. "You should never hurt anyone's feelings, okay?" he scolded. Noah nodded sadly, chastised. "Especially not a beautiful, young lady's," he added for Isabella's benefit. She giggled bashfully, twisting her shirt in her hands. Nathan smiled and glanced at his brother again. "Go on, say sorry."
"I'm sorry, Isabella," he said, hazarding a look at the girl.
"It's okay," she said begrudgingly.
"Friends?" he asked, holding out his hand tentatively.
She looked down at it wondrously. After a second's thought, she reached out and shook his hand. "Okay, friends," she said, smiling at the boy.
Noah smiled back and landed a kiss on her cheek.
Nathan looked up when he heard Leila's loud gasp. When she caught him looking, her astonished expression was dropped in an instant to reveal a scathing frown. He got up and walked over to her nonchalantly. "Hey," he said with a cheeky grin. She snubbed him with a turn of her head. "I was just thinking… If those two are friends and all, don't you think we should be friends too?" he asked, nudging her shoulder.
She moved away and asked, "Friends?"
"Yeah. Just friends. That can't be much a problem, right?"
"Just friends?" she asked suspiciously.
"Oh, come on. What's the worst that could happen?" he asked with a sly smile as he held out his hand.
She contemplated his words for a few moments before sighing in defeat and shaking his hand. "Fine. Just friends. I'm not going to enjoy it," she grumbled.
"That's fine," he said with a grave nod. "I'll try not to enjoy it too." She made a noise of exasperation. "When's DJ coming back out?" he asked.
She looked towards the kitchen and said, "Well, she should –"
Nathan brushed his lips against her cheek. She stumbled back, her mouth open in reproach. "Let her know we're going," he grinned, jerking his head at his brother as he left the drawing room.
"He kissed you?" Isabella asked in awe while Leila looked like she had seen a ghost.
Marie and Doris chose that instant to walk in. "What?" they exclaimed.
"I'm telling you, Marie. There's something fishy about him," Leila said conspiringly as she closed up for the day.
Marie nodded thoughtfully. "Leila, do you think he's…"
"I think he may be –"
"Yes! That's exactly what I was thinking," Leila interrupted firmly, wringing the washcloth in her hands with vengeance.
"Oh, you think so?" Marie asked.
"I am sure of it."
"Hmm… Thought I was seeing things for a second," Marie remarked.
Leila threw the cloth on the ground. "He's after my shop!" she snarled.
Marie looked at her friend in disbelief. "What?" she exclaimed.
"Well, I'm not going to give it to him. He's already got enough money, why would he want to take my shop away too?" she asked, stomping to the back room.
Marie groaned and dropped her head on the counter. "How dense is she?" she muttered helplessly. "Leila, come back here," she called out.
"What?" Leila asked, walking back to Marie.
"I meant that he's in love with you."
"Love?" Leila blurted out incredulously. "With me? Whoa, Marie, head stuck in the clouds much? With all the girls practically flocking to him, he decides to fall in love with me?" She pouted dramatically. "No one in West End has ever loved me. And you think a Warner would? Pfft."
"Just because you're oblivious doesn't mean I am," Marie said decisively. "And I think he's in love with you."
"Shut up, you," Leila frowned, throwing a stale muffin at Marie. The phone rang obnoxiously. "Not another word," Leila threatened, picking up the phone. "West End Coffee and Pastries. Can I help you? We deliver at all events – birthdays, engagements and weddings."
"Rather soon to be talking about engagements and weddings, isn't it?"
Leila frowned in confusion. "Huh? Who's this?"
"Who? It's me." Nathan said, stretching his legs over his bed.
"Who's me?" Leila asked suspiciously.
"Your new friend. Who else?"
Leila nearly dropped the phone. She waved wildly at Marie. "Oh, yeah. What do you want?" she asked indifferently.
Nathan bit his lip to keep from chuckling. "You see, Noah and some of his friends wanted to go to the carnival. If you could come with, I think it'd be fun," he said, winking at Noah.
"What carnival?" Leila asked, shrugging at Marie.
"You know, the one on West End."
"What?" she asked in astonishment. "This fair? I mean, we don't have caviar or golden chairs. Don't you think you being there will make the carnival all fancy schmancy?"
Nathan laughed softly. "I don't think I have ever been to a carnival with caviar and golden chairs," he said. "And besides, if you came with me, I think that'd be enough to make the carnival all fancy schmancy…" Leila's smile dropped in an instant, replaced with uncertainty. "Next Saturday at four? We'll meet you there. Bye," Nathan said.
"Yeah, bye," she muttered, clicking the phone off. She turned her narrowed eyes at Marie, who was busy wiggling her eyebrows like a know-it-all.
"Nathan's got a girlfriend," Noah sang out. Nathan kicked him off the bed.
The carnival drew in crowds from all around the city. The loud music from the rides and the chatter from the people added to the festive spirit. It was the beginning of spring and the folk festival was off to a swinging start. Street vendors sold corndogs and cotton candy. Musicians and singers were scattered around the fairgrounds, surrounded by appreciating crowds. Circus acts were drawing in more people with their oddities and animals. Game stalls were set up to grab all the hard-earned money from the children.
Leila was walking awkwardly beside Nathan, eating her hotdog. She eyed his spotless jeans and polo shirt with a critical eye. "Can't even dress for a bloody carnival," she muttered.
"Did you say something?" Nathan asked.
"Oh… Er… Do you always wear clothes – like this?" she asked.
Nathan shrugged. "Yeah. Whenever I wear clothes, I wear them like this. I prefer none at all, but –"
"No, no, no, no!" she said in horror, holding up her hands to make him stop. He hid his smile behind his drink. "I meant… You know, dress for the occasion. You don't have to wear such nice clothes when you're down here."
"Mhm. Good to know," he said, flicking his eyes at her. "By the way, you look amazing when you leave your hair down…"
She stumbled over her feet. "Oh… R – right," she stuttered, squirming under his scrutiny. She pulled her hair over one shoulder self-consciously.
"Let it be," Nathan murmured, leaning in. "It looks perfect."
Her breath caught in her throat from his proximity. Her eyes shifted to a stall past Nathan's shoulder. "B – bangles," she stammered, moving away from Nathan's gaze. He watched her stop at the stall and busily look at the cheap jewelry. He followed her. "Those green ones, please," she said, pointing at a dozen that was on display. She felt Nathan behind her and slumped slightly. She looked up at him uncomfortably. "Look, Nate – oh, I mean, um… Mr. Warner –"
"Nate's fine," Nathan said. "Makes us feel closer."
"Closer?" she muttered to herself before shaking the thought out of her head. "Look, Mr. Warner, I wanted to tell you something," she said.
"I'm listening," Nathan nodded, moving in.
"Well, the thing is," she said, pushing him back, "I can't give you what you want."
Nathan blinked at her. "Oh? You can't?"
"No, I can't."
She sputtered. "I just can't," she said indignantly.
"Well, you haven't even tried," Nathan argued.
"I – I said I can't give it to you. Doris won't let me."
"I'll ask Doris for you," Nathan said.
"She won't let you have my shop!" she said, turning towards the bangles furiously.
"Why can't you – wait… Your shop?" Nathan asked incredulously.
"Look, this friend business was all fine and dandy. But now you're trying to get something out of it. You sneak into my house, kiss me. If you think you can seduce me into giving up my shop, you have another thing coming. There's a limit to friendship! God knows –"
Nathan grabbed her arm and spun her around. "You should stop talking now," he said softly, noticing the bangles that were resting on her knuckles. "There are relationships other than friendship… Some of it we won't understand. Some of it we aren't meant to understand," he murmured, pushing the bangles down. "I'm not hurting you, am I?" he asked. Leila gazed at him and shook her head. "Hmm… And some relationships you just need to experience for yourself," he continued, working the bangles down. "I'm not hurting you, am I?" She shook her head, her eyes unblinking. "Some relationships have no boundaries. Just hearts talking to each other. No limits… I'm not hurting you, am I?" She couldn't move. "These relationships… They're not just friendship. There's passion. There's love," he murmured, dragging the bangles down to her wrist. She gasped, her eyes flickering with recognition. "That didn't hurt, did it?" he asked. She nodded silently. "It hurt me too," he whispered.
She moved away, blushing. He held onto her hand and pulled her back, an arm wrapping around her waist. "And one thing's for certain," he added, his cheek pressed against hers. "I'll be buying that shop of yours." He pressed his lips against hers gently. He felt a hand on his chest, pushing him back. He let go of her waist, stepping away with his fingers still entwined in hers.
She smiled shyly and slipped her hand from his before disappearing into the crowd. He sighed in rapture, leaning against the stall with his fingers against his lips.
Nathan laid his head on Julie's lap and looked up at her. She glanced away from her magazine and frowned down questioningly. "I'm in love, Mum," he said, hiding his blushing head against her stomach.
"You're what?" she asked in disbelief.
"In love," he said, his words muffled.
Julie blinked at her son's sudden bashfulness. She forced him to look at her. "Leila?" she asked wickedly.
"Mum," he whined, blushing even brighter as he closed his eyes.
"Tell me about her."
He sighed loudly, a dreamy smile on his lips. "She makes me laugh. Even when she doesn't mean to… She's so – she speaks her mind. No formalities, no pretenses. She's just – Leila. So beautiful." He opened his eyes to look up at his mother. "She's as beautiful as you, Mum. I didn't think there was anyone as beautiful as you."
Now it was Julie's turn to blush as she swatted her son. "You're in love, alright," she said with a smirk.
"I know," he groaned.
"Doris' daughter is getting married," Julie said during breakfast.
"Mhm," Michael murmured, flipping through the newspaper.
"She wants us to go."
"Are you even listening to me?" Julie asked, frowning.
She sighed and looked at Nathan, who was half-asleep anyway. "Guys," she snapped. Both her sons jerked, Noah nearly knocking over his orange juice as he blinked awake. "It's like I'm talking to a wall," she muttered. "Michael, it's Marie's wedding. Doris asked us to be there."
"Meetings, dear. Can't postpone them."
"But her daughter is –"
"Julie, I can't."
"It's only a few –"
"Jules… I said I can't," Michael said definitively, looking at her pointedly. She sighed and rolled her eyes. "I'm sure Doris will be fine if Nathan went instead of all of us."
"A wedding?" Nathan whined, looking at her mother with piteous eyes. "Don't make me…" He was silenced by his mother's death stare. Noah snickered behind his hand. Nathan kicked him in the shin. "Shut up, fatty."
Leila looked over her shoulder to find Nathan. "Oh," she breathed with an awkward smile. "Hi," she replied, turning around.
The reception was moving in full force. There were young men and women dancing by the speakers, the bride and groom in the middle. Small tables surrounded the dance floor, complete with half-eaten plates of food and strewn jackets. Leila had been the maid of honor at the wedding. Nathan had had eyes for no one else at the ceremony. When he finally got the chance to talk to her alone, he didn't plan on passing it up.
"It was a wonderful ceremony," he said.
"Yes, it was…"
They stood in silence for a moment before Nathan blinked out of his reverie. "Dance with me?" he asked, holding out his hand.
"Okay," Leila said distantly, placing her hand in his. A brilliant grin shone on his face as he pulled her towards the other couples. He slid his arm around her waist and pulled her close. She rested her hand over Nathan's chest, feeling his heart. She looked up at him as he moved with the soft beats. "Hi…"
He smiled warmly, running his finger down her cheek. "Hi…"
"Love, huh?" she asked.
She smiled back, then placed her head against his chest. "I can live with that," she murmured.
They giggled behind their hands as they tiptoed through the dark foyer. "You're in so much trouble!" Leila whispered, her heels swinging in her hand while the other clutched Nathan's arm.
"You wanted to see," he responded indignantly.
"I didn't mean right now!"
"No time like the present." They ran up the marble stairs silently, occasional snickers escaping them. "Quick," he said quietly, pulling her down the corridor and opening the door. She ran in and he closed the door behind her, holding his ear to it to make sure no one had woken up.
He looked back at her to find her frozen on the spot. "What?" he asked.
"It's huge!" she exclaimed, turning back to him with wide eyes. "It's as big as my home!"
"Stop exaggerating," he said. "It's just my room."
"When you said it was big, I didn't think you meant this big! You could house an entire family in here, Nate!"
"Nope. Just me," he remarked with a shrug.
She wandered the span of his room, running her fingers over his bookshelf, computer, TV, and paintings. "Holy hell, you're loaded!" she murmured.
"Yeah. Guess I am."
"Wow…" she breathed, turning back to face Nathan. "I can't believe you fell for me!"
"I can't believe it either," he said with a wan smile.
Her lips were against his a second later, pushing forcibly. He fell onto his bed, a surprised yelp escaping him. He pushed her away. "Are you drunk?" he asked breathlessly.
"I don't drink," she said, tangling her fingers into his hair and kissing him furiously. His hands slid over the back of her dress, lingering against the hint of skin.
"Leila," he mumbled against her urgent lips.
"Hmm?" she asked.
"What are you doing?"
She giggled, her lips moving to his neck. "I don't know," she whispered, her fingers undoing his tie.
"I don't think we should…"
Her lips stilled. "Oh," she said, raising herself to look at him. "You don't want to…"
"N – no, it's not that," he said quickly, shaking his head. "It's just – are you sure?" he asked.
"Oh god, Nate," she rolled her eyes. "Stop thinking and kiss me." She pressed against him, lips tugging against his.
He sighed and rolled them over, their tongues dancing against each other. "I love you," he whispered. She smiled against his lips and nodded. He felt her fingers fumbling with the buttons on his shirt. Not wanting to be outdone, he felt for the opening to her dress. "Beautiful," he murmured.
"Perfect," she answered.
Nathan jerked awake when he heard the pounding on his door. "Nate, open up," Noah whined, resorting to kicking the door.
"Shit," Leila and Nathan swore, glancing at each other. She looked like she was about to burst into her usual maniacal laughter while he seemed about ready to tear his hair out.
"Stay. Here," he said emphatically, pushing Leila back onto the bed. "And don't make a sound."
"Fine, fine," she said, curling into the blanket.
Nathan groaned and kissed her hungrily, caressing skin wherever he could. She chuckled before gently pushing him away. "I'll be here. Take care of the brat," she whispered.
"Right," he muttered, cursing his brother. He grabbed his boxers from the pile of clothes by the bed and pulled them on, blushing when he heard the whistle of appreciation from Leila. "Shut up!" he hissed, grinning nonetheless. She pulled the blanket over her head and bit her knuckles to keep from laughing.
He opened the door a smidge and stuck his head out. "What do you want?" he asked, scowling at Noah.
"Whoa, what happened to you?" Noah asked.
"Late night," Nathan said dismissively. "What do you want?"
"Right, right. Mum's throwing a fit, so come downstairs for breakfast. Now. As in now now."
"Fine, sheesh. Just let me get dressed."
"I'll let her know," Noah said, bounding down the hallway towards the stairs.
Nathan quickly shut the door and turned around to look at Leila. She had a sly smile on her lips. He winked and ran back, jumping onto the bed with her in his arms. "You look ravishing," he said, kissing her soundly.
"It's the 'I just had sex' look. Everyone looks ravishing afterwards."
"Amazing sex, by the way."
"Oh? Thanks. I've had practice."
Nathan laughed, pinning her down by the shoulders. "You're such a prick," he said, trailing kisses down her neck.
"Your mum's going to wonder," Leila reminded.
"Damn it," Nathan said in frustration, stilling over her. "Fine. Don't go anywhere. I'll slip out when I can."
"Don't worry. I don't think I can ever get enough of this room," she said. "Where's the remote?"
He pointed to his bedside table while getting off of bed again. "We need to figure out how to get you out of here," he said, rifling through his closet to find some pajamas. He paused for a moment before pulling out a shirt and plaid pajamas. He tossed them at the redhead. "More comfortable than your dress," he added, pulling a set out for himself and slipping them on.
"Yeah, thanks," she muttered, trying to work the remote.
"If someone comes in, hide. Dad's gonna kill me if he finds out about us," he said, looking at the mirror and flinching when he realized why Noah was so surprised by his appearance. He had lipstick smeared over his lips and a flurry of red welts across his neck. His hair stuck out on all ends and he had a dazed look in his eyes. "What the hell, Leila? Mum's going to know!" he groaned while touching the bite marks.
"Don't be such a baby," she responded. "So what if she knows about us?"
"No, I mean, she'll know about last night! She already knows about us…"
The remote fell from her hand. "Wh – what?" she stammered, paling.
Nathan flicked his eyes at her. "I told her about us."
"When?" she asked incredulously.
He blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I – er… After the fair. I kind of… spilled the beans, so to speak," he said.
Nathan frowned in confusion. "And she what?"
"And she didn't – mind?"
"No, of course not," he said incredulously. "Why would she?"
Leila pulled the shirt over her head. "Because you're you and I'm – me."
He walked back to her and sat on the bed. "I don't understand," he murmured.
"We're – different. You're so… important, and I'm just –"
"You're important to me, Leila," he interjected, holding her hand. "I love you. We don't have to change."
"You don't. I should…"
"No," he breathed, kissing her softly. "Please don't change. I like Leila." They held the kiss for a long while, reveling in the warmth. It was only when the knocking on the door resumed that they pulled apart. "I have to go now," he said, brushing at Leila's ruined make-up. "Love you."
"I know," she said, smiling at him.
Noah sat between Michael and Nathan, staring at his shoes. Nathan was absently playing with a cricket ball while Michael was looking down at his youngest son expectantly.
"Why are you sending me away?" Noah asked quietly.
Nathan fumbled and dropped the ball. "We aren't," he exclaimed, wrapping an arm around his brother. "Dad went to boarding school. I went to boarding school. And now you're going. We aren't sending you away."
"It's traditions, Noah," Michael said, patting his son's hair.
"But I'll miss you."
Nathan stifled a groan as he hugged his brother. "I'll miss you too, bud. But it's only for a few months. After the first week, you won't ever want to come home. You'll have so much fun."
"I don't want to go," Noah said, tears running down his cheeks and soaking into Nathan's shirt. "Don't make me go."
Nathan looked at his father helplessly. "How about we make a deal?" Michael asked. Noah didn't turn away from his brother, but his sobs grew quieter. "If you don't like it within the year, you won't have to go back."
"No, you won't."
Noah contemplated this for a few moments. "Did you like it, Nate?" he asked.
"I loved it," Nathan murmured, giving Noah a reassuring squeeze.
Noah nodded. "Then I'll try it for a year too," he said.
"Betty bought a bit of butter, but the bit of butter Betty bought was bitter. So Betty bought a better bit of butter, to make the bitter butter better. Learn it," Isabella said.
Noah nodded silently, keeping his eyes on the grass.
"When you come back, tell me, okay?" she asked, her tone softening.
She sighed, his despondences flooding into her too. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Stop moping. It's only five months…"
Nathan threw the keys on the table, whistling as he took off his jacket. A polite cough caught his attention. "Hey," he greeted Emma and Mr. Macey. "I didn't know you were coming over."
"We need to talk," Michael said.
"Oh. Okay," Nathan said, looking at Emma questioningly. She didn't respond with words, choosing to give him a brilliant grin instead. He smiled back in confusion. "About business?"
"Not everything's about business, Nathan," Mr. Macey said with a jovial laugh.
"It always seems to be with the two of you," Nathan remarked, earning a quiet laugh from his father.
"Not this time, Nate," Michael said with a soft smile. "You're in love, aren't you?"
Nathan froze, his smile disappearing and his eyes guarded. He flicked his eyes at Emma, who was looking at him expectantly. He looked back at his father. "I – I am… Yes," he murmured in a daze.
Michael looked triumphant now. "What did I tell you, John? Do I know my son or what?" he asked proudly.
Nathan looked shell-shocked now. He blinked at his father, unsure of what had just happened. "How did you know?" he asked distantly.
"It's hard not to notice," Michael said. He smiled at Nathan for a moment before pulling him into a hug. "You've made me so happy, Nate. And I hope you make her happy too."
Nathan felt his heart skip a beat. "Really?" he breathed, still in his father's arms.
"Yes. Keep Emma happy."
Nathan's eyes flickered with recognition and horror as they fell upon Emma. Her smile slipped.
"You look as though we've already had our first fight," Emma said, sitting down beside Nathan. He glanced at her with a weak smile. "What's wrong, Nate?" she asked. He shook his head. "What's her name?"
He closed his eyes. "Emma…"
She smiled and placed her head on his shoulder. "I wish… I wish that were her name. But I know it isn't," she said wistfully.
He sighed in defeat. "Emma, I –"
"Nathan, ever since I remember you, I've loved you. I don't remember loving anyone but you," she said, placing her hand over his. "But it's not your fault. Just because I've dreamt of marrying you, doesn't mean you have to marry me." She tilted down Nathan's face with a soft touch of her fingers. "And if you're worried that I'm going to be miserable, then yes. I will be. I'll feel miserable. I'll feel hurt. But that's life, isn't it? And who knows, in a few years, I'll be laughing at how foolish we were. Promise me this, though. Be happy, Nate. That's all I want for you. You deserve to be happy." Nathan nodded silently, his breath coming in short gasps. She shook her head. "Say something quick, or I'll start crying," she murmured.
"Me too," he answered, tears falling. "Can I get a hug?"
"No," she said.
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. "I love you so much, Emma," he said brokenly. "Thank you."
She nodded, burying her teary face against his shoulder.
"You're throwing it all away on a simple girl from the gutters?" Michael shouted.
"Please, Dad –" Nathan pleaded.
"Did you even think about where she came from? Her background? Her capabilities? Her family?"
"She's not –"
"Have you ever thought of how difficult it will be for our society to accept a girl like this? Do you think she will ever be able to understand the way our world works?"
"But I –"
"Did you really think that she could be a part of our family? My family? What were you thinking?" Michael asked, his tone now deathly calm.
"I didn't," Nathan said shakily, wiping away his tears vehemently. "I just love her. I don't – I love her, Dad. Please…"
Michael turned away from his son. "And I thought I was the one person who knew his son better than anyone else," he murmured, suddenly sounding tired. "I gave you everything. I taught you everything. I was so proud of you. But it's like you're intent on leaving me. And it hurts."
"No…" Nathan sobbed, stumbling towards his father. "Dad, I'm so sorry," he said. "I didn't – I didn't meant to hurt you. I'm so sorry." He hugged Michael desperately. "I didn't mean to. I would never – if – if you want me to forget her, I will. I'd do anything."
Michael held his shaking son in his arms and nodded. "I know," he murmured. "I know, Nate."
They met halfway, lips against lips and fingers against fingers. Nathan clung onto the taste, wanting to remember it forever. He needed to remember it forever. He held her close and poured in all his love. He wished he could give more. He wished he didn't have to leave her. "I love you, Leila," he whispered, embracing her.
He let go of her in an instant. "What?" he gasped.
She brushed away her tears. "I'm sorry. I just – I shouldn't have sprung it on you. I don't know what to do. I needed you to know. I – I'm sorry," she said helplessly, hugging him fiercely for a second before letting him go and walking backward. "Y – you don't have to do anything, okay? You don't –"
"Pregnant?" he breathed while staggering forward and scooping Leila in his arms. "Oh god," he murmured, pressing his lips to her cheeks, lashes, nose, and temple. "I love you so much," he said in disbelief. "We're having a baby!"
Leila felt fresh tears in her eyes as she held onto his love, strengthening herself again. She thought she had lost him. But he was never going to leave. "Thank you," she cried, looping her arms around him. "I love you too."
Leila halted, her grip slackening. "Wh – what?" she asked.
"I – you want to marry me?" she asked uncertainly.
"You don't want to…" he said quietly.
"N – no, it's not that," she said in a rush, not letting go of him. "It's just – are you sure?" she asked.
"Shut up and kiss me," Nathan murmured, pulling up Leila's lips towards his. Leila complied without a second argument, melting into Nathan's warmth.
"Yes," she replied.
"She's what?" Julie asked, sitting down heavily.
"And we're engaged."
"Oh god," she murmured, a hand pressed against her lips and her eyes clenched shut.
Nathan swallowed painfully, clutching Leila's hand for resolve. "I love her, Mum. I want to marry her," he said. "Please, try to understand."
"You don't even know her!" Michael exclaimed, slamming his hands against the table and standing up. "You're throwing your life away for a goddamned –"
"Don't you dare!" Nathan interrupted, letting go of Leila's hand. "You have no right to –"
"I have no right? You are my son, and you're telling me I have no right?" Michael asked in disbelief. "I raised you under my roof and gave you all of my love and you're telling me I have no right? I have every right! If I tell you to leave her, you will!"
"Why do you keep insisting –"
"Because that is your only choice. How do you know this – marriage is going to last? How do you know she won't leave you after she gets all the money? How do you know it's your child?"
"Michael!" Julie said in shock.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Nathan shouted, closing the distance between himself and his father in two strides. "Fuck your philosophy! So what if she isn't the same as us? So what if she doesn't understand our traditions? I love her. You will not disrespect her, understand? If you don't give her a chance, how would you know she wouldn't fit in? Don't you dare make accusations! You may have rights over me, but not over what you say about her."
"I want you out of my house."
Nathan blinked blankly. "What?"
"I don't… I haven't –"
"If you want to live by your own rules, then you are not welcome in my house. You will leave."
"Dad, please –"
"If you think I have no right over how you live your life, then you have no right calling me your father."
Nathan let out a strangled moan. "I'm sorry, Dad. But I can't leave her. Please, try –"
"If you can't leave her, then I have one son and only one."
Julie stepped between the two men and looked at Michael pleadingly. "What are you saying? Don't say that," she begged.
"We give him anything and everything, and this is how he repays us? No. I don't have another son," Michael said passively, turning away.
Nathan felt a trembling hand on his shoulder and he turned around. Leila was shaking her head, tears streaming down her face. "Please, Nate, just – don't do this. I'll – I'll leave. Okay? You don't – I'm so sorry. Don't –" she broke off, unable to choke out more words.
He embraced her fiercely. "No. Don't leave. I'll – I don't know what I'll do if you leave," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm so sorry you had to hear this, Leila. I'll always love you, okay?"
"But your father… He's right. You don't know anything about me. What if we – what if we don't last?" she asked, unable to keep the fear out of her words.
"Then I'll try really had. I'll try really hard to make you happy. I don't need anything else. You're such a good person. That's all I need to know," he said softly. He closed his eyes and willed his voice to stop shaking. He let go of her and turned to his parents again. "I'll leave," he said.
"No," Julie cried, turning to her son. "Nate, please, don't."
"Mum. I can't – please, don't make this harder than it already is," he said, hugging Julie. "I love you so much. But if you can't have Leila in your family, then I – I can't be here either."
"You said you wouldn't leave me again," she sobbed. Nathan stifled his own sob, silently holding Julie because he had no more words of comfort for her. "I love you, Nathan," she said. He nodded. She unwound her arms from around him and reached up to brush away his tears. She kissed him on both cheeks and nodded. "I have something for Leila," she murmured, gasping between words. She twisted her own engagement ring off of her finger. "Now you can make it official," she said with a sad smile. He took it from her hand and held it tight.
Julie flicked her eyes at Leila, who was standing apart with her hands to her mouth as though trying to catch all sound before it could escape. Julie walked up to the crying girl and gently pulled the hands down. Leila pursed her lips, clenching her jaw. "Chin up," Julie said. Leila looked up at her. "Nathan had said you were beautiful. I can see he wasn't exaggerating," Julie remarked, wrapping Leila in a warm hug. "Look after him for me, okay? He's my life. Look after him." Leila nodded, hiding her face in Julie's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Leila said. "I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't know…"
"It's life, Leila. It's harder on some than others," Julie said.
"Go with him, Doris. He's never been out there on his own," Julie said, clutching Doris' hands. "He needs a mother."
Doris smiled comfortingly. "Of course, I'll go. He'll be safe with me, Julie. I'll take care of him," she said.
Noah sat close to Nathan on the bench overlooking the lake at the boarding school. Nathan's arm was around Noah's shoulder, hugging him close.
"You have to remember this, okay?" Nathan said, waiting for Noah to nod. "Listen to your heart... If you want to do the best that you can do, listen to your heart. And if your heart is silent, think of Mum and Dad. They'll always be right. You'll see… Nothing seems impossible then."
Noah felt tears escaping him. "Why are you doing this? Why are you going away? Don't go, Nate, please…" he said haltingly, clenching Nathan's shirt in his fists.
"Please, don't cry, Noah. If you start, I'll start too," he said, kissing Noah's head. "Do me a favor. Don't ask them where I went. They don't know. Maybe… maybe they're better off without me…"
"Don't say that," Noah whispered.
"I'm sorry. Just – don't ask them, okay? Mum's already disappointed in me. If you – if you ask her, she'll just… She'll just start crying again. Just listen to me."
"Make Mum happy, Noah. Happier than I could have made her. Take care of her for me," Nathan said thickly. Noah nodded. "And – get good grades in school. Just like Dad did." Noah felt a sob rattle through him. Nathan tightened his grip. "Get into the cricket team, okay?" Noah gave a weak smile and nodded again. "And please, lose some weight."
"Nate," Noah whined.
Nathan laughed shakily. "I love you, Noah."
"I love you, Nate."
Ten years later…
Noah pushed the large double doors open and walked into his quiet home. He left his bags in the foyer and went into the drawing room.
"Hey, Mum," he said softly.
Julie started and looked up from her book in wonder. "Noah!" she exclaimed in surprise, getting up from the couch quickly. "You didn't call!" she said, a warm smile on her lips as she hugged him close.
"I thought I'd surprise you," he said.
"Surprise me you did," she murmured. "I missed you, honey."
"Missed you too, Mum."
Julie moved back and narrowed her eyes. "Okay, what's up? You're leaving me again, aren't you?" she asked.
Noah sighed and grinned. "Mum," he rolled his eyes. "Just for a few months. I'll be back before you know it."
"Why?" she asked.
"But you just got here," she all but pouted.
"I know, I know. Like I said, a few months. I have to go. What's a couple more months, right?" he asked, crossing his fingers in his pocket.
"And where is this internship of yours?"
"California?" Michael asked, raising his brows.
"Aw, come on, Dad. Why are you guys so against it?" Noah whined, resolving to resort to groveling if need be.
"No, no, we aren't against it at all. It's just – a surprise. That's all," Michael said quickly.
"Well, you did you internship at Oxford. Nate did his in Cambridge. I want to do mine in Stanford. That's alright, isn't it?" Noah asked.
"So why don't you do your internship here?"
Noah made a sound of frustration. "Because I've been here all my life. I want to study abroad now. Just a few months, Dad. Let me go? Please?" he begged, making full use of his charms.
Michael smiled wryly. "How could I resist those eyes?" he asked, nodding.
"Yes!" Noah crowed, running up to his father and hugging him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"You're rather excited about this, aren't you?"
"You have no idea, Dad," he said, feeling ready to burst with happiness.
It hurts when he moves miles away…
It hurts more when she creates those miles between them…
As his bags were being stowed inside the car, Noah hugged his mother goodbye. "So, what should I bring you?" he asked, kissing her cheek.
"Oh, don't bother, darling. As long as you're happy, I'll be happy," she said, unbidden tears in her eyes nonetheless.
"That's good. Because when you're happy, I'm happy too," Noah said with a sad smile. "And when I come back home, I'll make sure you're happier than ever, okay?"
Julie blinked at her son. "O – okay," she stammered, trying to read his silent conversation.
"I'll call you guys everyday," he said, looking at Michael. "It'll be like I was never gone."
"Have fun," Michael said, hugging his son.
Noah laughed. "When have I not?" he asked cheekily. "Love you guys. I'll call you when I get there!"
"Bye," they said, waving at Noah as he got into the car.
Nathan groaned in his sleep and turned around, bumping into a soft body. Something awful was interrupting his amazing dream. He scowled in utter discontent as he fluttered his eyes open. He stared into bright green ones, frowning back at him.
"No," he groaned, hugging his son close to him while pulling the blanket over their heads.
"She won't stop," Jaden grumbled, sticking fingers into his ears.
Nathan did the same, trying to stop the loud crooning from reaching him. They blinked at each other piteously before sitting up.
"Mum! Stop singing!" they shouted down.
"No," Leila shouted back up from the kitchen, resorting to singing even louder.
The two fell back onto the mattress, looking miserable. "Good morning, Dad," Jaden groused, rolling off of bed and padding blearily to the bathroom.
"Ugh," Nathan sighed, pulling pillows over his head to keep the out.
Meanwhile, Doris and Leila were in the kitchen preparing lunches for everyone. "I know you're doing that to get on their nerves, Lei, but it's getting on mine too," Doris mumbled.
"My house, my rules. If I want to sing, I'll sing," Leila said candidly, spreading peanut butter. "Besides, it's time for them to wake up. Speaking of which." She took a deep breath and hollered, "Bells! Wake the hell up!"
"I'm up! Sheesh," Isabella called back down.
The Warner residence in Newark was the attraction of the neighborhood. The home itself was a large three-storey bungalow with generous rooms and a spacious yard. While the men had their eyes on the black BMW, the women had their eyes on the beautifully decorated interiors. Something both envied was the atmosphere in the house.
Breakfast almost always ended up a mess in the house. While Leila and Doris scrambled to get through packing lunch, Jaden and Nathan were scrambling to get ready for the day. The boy came running down the stairs, shoes and tie in hand. "Mum, mum," he said hurriedly.
"What, what?" she asked, ladle in one hand and the other on her hip.
"Tie my tie!"
"Learn to do it yourself," she said, making a face at him.
"Mum," he whined, before turning to Doris. "DJ will do it for me, so hah," he said smugly, holding out tie.
"Of course, I will. Your mum's just being a meanie," Doris said, kneeling down and helping the boy with his uniform.
"You're so soft, Doris," Leila said, rolling her eyes.
Nathan came sliding into the kitchen. "Damn it, I'm going to be late," he swore, grabbing a piece of buttered toast from the plate while trying to shove on his shoes. "Good morning," he added, kissing Leila on the cheek. "Morning, Doris."
"Coffee," Leila indicated, handing Nathan the mug. "And no, you won't be late. You always say that."
"So? I always mean it," he said, quickly munching down the bite of toast and downing it with some coffee. "Ow! Hot!"
"Well, yeah, it's coffee," Leila said sarcastically. "Bells! Now!" she shouted, nearly causing Nathan to upset the drink.
"Sheesh, do you have to shout?" he asked, putting the mug down quickly.
"It's the only way she hears me over her darned music," Leila said, shrugging. "Also, don't forget to get the groceries before you come home. List's on the fridge."
"Hmm," he said, his mouth full.
"And Jay's practice is earlier today, so if I don't get back in time, do you think you could pick him up?"
"The landscaper might be here in the evening. Let him in, will you?"
Nathan nodded, drinking his coffee.
"And what?" he asked absently, opening the fridge to get the juice. He was whipped around and dipped down into an extravagant kiss. He yelped and held onto the counter to keep from falling down.
Leila let go with a wet smack and an impish grin. "And you're looking extra hot today," she said with a wink.
"Ew!" Jaden gagged, running away with Doris tagging along.
Nathan laughed and asked, "I am?"
"You know it," she answered, zipping up Jaden's backpack.
He came up behind her and hugged her close. "Well, I'm glad someone thinks so," he murmured, trailing kisses down Leila's neck. Leila all but purred as she turned her head and kissed him chastely. He broke off with a small chuckle. "I'll expect the rest of that tonight," he said, grabbing his keys from the counter. "Love you."
"Love you more," she said, blowing a kiss.
Nathan found Jaden on the couch in the drawing room, flicking through the morning toons. "No TV," Nathan said, grabbing the remote from the boy and clicking it off.
"Aw, Dad," he whined.
"Give me a kiss. I've got to go," Nathan said, bending down. Jaden gave Nathan a quick kiss before going back to frowning. "Better not have that frown when I get home," he said, waving goodbye to Doris. He stopped in the foyer, leading up to the stairs. "Bells, get down here right now!" he shouted up.
"Oh my gosh, what is it with you guys?" Isabella carped, opening the door to her bedroom. "I'll be down there when I'm ready," she called out.
"Lei's going to throw a fit," Nathan added before leaving the house.
"I know," Isabella muttered, rolling her eyes. It took another half-hour for her to clamber down to the kitchen. "Running late, gotta go, bye," she said, grabbing a muffin from the plate and running out the kitchen.
"Wait! Lunch!" Leila called out.
"I'll buy it, sis," she said. She wacked Jaden on the head and said, "Later, short stuff." Jaden made a face at her before turning to the blaring TV again. "Bye, Mum," she shouted. Doris made a vague response from somewhere inside the house. Isabella nudged on her shoes before Leila could storm into the foyer. With a slam of the door she ran out the house, pulling her curled hair into a ponytail.
Noah sighed for the umpteenth time, nervously drumming the steering wheel with his fingers as he flicked his eyes at the house. He had been sitting there for the past fifteen minutes, trying to bring up the courage to just walk in there. "Fuck, I can't do this," he muttered, banging his head against the backrest. He had gotten the address from Marie, which hadn't been all that difficult. But actually going in proved to be a challenge unto itself.
Noah opened his eyes and turned his head despondently. "What?" he asked tiredly.
"Nice car," Isabella remarked, eyeing the Ferrari.
"Thanks," he sighed.
"Okay then," she muttered to herself, getting an eyeful of red convertible before walking away.
Noah blinked at his dash. "Holy shit," he swore, scrambling with the door and nearly tripping on his face as he got out. He sprinted towards her and forced her around. "You!"
She jerked away from him. "What the hell?" she asked fiercely.
"Wow…" Noah breathed, taking her in. She looked nothing like the girl from West End. Gone were the frizzy brown hair and awkward limbs. Her dusty face and ragtag clothes were gone. This girl was elegant, styled to look effortless. Everything on her flattered her complexion and eyes – her clothes, her make-up, her scowl. "Hi…" Noah murmured.
"Screw off," she muttered, turning to leave.
"No, wait!" he said, panicking, as he grabbed her hand. She made a sound of frustration, but stayed put. He felt a bubble of euphoria growing as memories flooded him. He leaned forward and brushed his lips against her cheek. She was too stunned to move away. "You said next time I see you, I'd better have this memorized. I do," he said with a vague smile. "Betty bought a bit of butter, but the bit of butter Betty bought was bitter. So Betty bought a better bit of butter, to make the bitter butter better. I got it right this time, didn't I?"
Isabella's eyes widened as she searched Noah's smile. "Y – you? Noah?" she breathed.
"Yeah," Noah said excitedly.
"Oh my gosh!" she squealed, throwing her arms around him. "Oh my gosh! You're here! Nate's going to kill you!"
"No, I'm serious! If he finds out you're here, he'll kill you!" she said. "Also, what the hell happened to you? You're so… hot!"
"I could say the same about you," Noah laughed.
Isabella snorted and stepped away from Noah, inspecting him in full. "Weird," she said with an awestruck grin. "It's like I'm in twilight zone, or something. What're you doing here?" she asked.
"To bring you guys home, why else?"
"Oh…" she murmured, letting her eyes rest on his hopeful eyes. "He won't come, Noah. Not until…"
"But when Dad sees him again –"
"He doesn't even talk about his dad," Isabella interrupted.
Noah pursed his lips and shook his head. "Doesn't matter. He'll come home with me and then we'll all be happy again," he said.
"Noah," Isabella groaned, hugging him again. "It doesn't work that way."
"Why not?" he asked, wrapping his arms around her.
"Because I know Nate. He's stubborn as a mule. And – if he found out you're here…"
"I have to do something, Bella. I'm so tired of just sitting around and wondering about this and that. I just want to do something."
"Oi!" Leila shouted out from her driveway, storming towards the two. "Get your hands off of her," she fumed.
"Damn it," Isabella muttered as Noah pushed her away quickly.
"Who the hell is this?" Leila asked, pointing at Noah.
"I'm –" Noah started saying before Isabella rudely interrupted him with a jab on the ribs.
"My boyfriend," Isabella snubbed. "Got a problem with that?"
Leila's eyes widened. "Yes, I have a goddamned problem with that! You've never told me about him! That's a goddamned problem!" she spat out, shooting daggers at Noah.
"Mum," Jaden whined by the car. "I'm gonna be late."
Leila looked like she had half a mind to leave her son there and take the time to beat up Noah. She narrowed her eyes at Isabella in a way that showed that the girl was in a heap of trouble when she got home from school. "Stay away from her," she growled, looking at Noah. He gulped and nodded quickly. Leila strode off to her house again.
"What the hell?" Noah breathed, feeling faint.
"Come on, before she throws another fit," Isabella muttered, pulling Noah down the street.
"I don't get it," he said pitifully.
She sighed. "Look, if you're serious about getting Nathan to come back with you, you'll need to work with some tact. Not just go up to our house, ring the doorbell and say, 'Hey, I'm Noah. Let's all go home and become one big happy family.'"
"So you want me to do what? Pretend to be your boyfriend?" he asked incredulously.
"It'll get you in the house, won't it?"
"From the looks of it, no," Noah muttered. "I can get in the house just as easily as not your boyfriend."
"You can't stay on as not my boyfriend. Suck it up, princess," she said.
"I'm oddly offended," he said, smiling wryly. "At least I found you guys. Never thought I would."
"Practically ripping each others clothes off! What the hell is she thinking?" Leila ranted, pacing the drawing room.
"You're exaggerating," Nathan muttered, looking up from his laptop.
"They weren't ripping each others clothes off, Mum. They were hugging," Jaden said sensibly.
"What do you know?" she said, glaring at her son. "Just wait 'til she gets home. I'm going to give her a piece of my mind."
"Honey, so what if she has a boyfriend?" Nathan asked. "She's had dozens before."
"Dozens she's always told us about! We don't even know this kid. I don't even know where they met! God knows what they're up to."
"Oh god, Leila. They aren't up to anything. Just give her a chance to explain before tearing her apart, okay?"
"No," Leila snapped. "Not okay."
Unfortunately for Isabella, she took that moment to walk into the drawing room. "Hey, guys," she said.
"You! You have some nerve!" Leila nearly shouted, stomping towards Isabella. The latter stumbled back from the waves of wrath. She quickly sidestepped Leila's gaze and cowered next to Nathan. "How dare you hide something like him from us!" Leila fumed. "I want to know everything – where you met him, when you met him, what he does, what his intentions are, how long you've been together, everything!"
"Leila," Nathan said, pressing a comforting hand on Isabella's shoulder. "She will. Only if you let her, though. So, shut up."
Leila snapped her mouth shut, glowering at her husband while Jaden snickered behind his hand. Isabella shrugged. "I just came here to say that he's outside…" she said.
"Oh…" Leila said, blinking at Nathan.
"See?" Nathan asked, raising a derisive brow and getting up. "Alright, show me this dreaded boyfriend of yours."
Isabella got up with him, steering clear of Leila. "He's not really my boyfriend," she whispered into Nathan's ear.
"I just said that to rile her up."
"Well, it certainly worked," Nathan muttered, flicking his eyes at his wife.
Isabella smiled faintly. "I'll bring him in," she said, frowning at Leila before walking to the foyer. She stuck her head out the front door only to find Noah trying not to hyperventilate on the porch. "Hey, pull it together, will you?" she asked.
"I can't do this. Bad idea. I'm gonna go now," he said, turning to leave.
Isabella caught his arm and spun him around. "No way are you backing out now. Come on," she hissed, pulling him in. He stumbled into the house, blushing furiously.
Nathan's heart faltered when the 'boyfriend' staggered in. He took in the ruffled blond hair and handsome face. He caught the uncertain shuffle and downturned eyes. It was all too familiar.
"Everybody, this is Mike. Mike, this is everybody," Isabella said, waving her hands expressively.
Noah looked up finally, nearly gasping when he found Nathan silently watching him. He wanted to do nothing but throw himself at his brother. He resorted to clutching Isabella's hand instead.
"Mike from where?" Leila asked suspiciously.
"Copeland… Cumbria," he murmured.
Nathan blinked at him. "From England?" he asked in disbelief. Noah nodded, unable to take his eyes off of Nathan.
"How do you know Bella?" Leila asked, her tone softening a tad.
Isabella decided to take it from there. "He moved a week ago. Seemed nice enough, so I let him tag along. So, don't be rude," she said, scowling at Leila.
"Your parents are back home?" Nathan asked.
Nathan nodded, unwilling to look away. "Stay for dinner?" he asked.
Noah's eyes widened. "Really?" he asked, before he could help himself.
Nathan felt a smile on his lips. "Yes, really," he said.
"Oh… okay," Noah said hesitantly, flicking his eyes at Leila, who looked ready to murder him now. "If it's okay with Mrs. Warner," he added quickly, about to use Isabella as a shield if need be.
"Don't mind her. Sorry if she gave you a fright," Nathan said with a laugh. "She isn't always like this."
"Oh, isn't she?" Noah squeaked when her death glare turned to Nathan.
"Surprisingly enough, no," he said, rolling his eyes at his wife. "We'll talk in the drawing room," he added, dragging Leila away.
"Oh god, I'm going to faint," Noah murmured shakily.
"Grow up," Isabella said, leaving him to gather his wits and nudge off his shoes in the foyer. He didn't notice Doris and Jaden inching towards him surreptitiously.
"Hi," Jaden said brightly, causing Noah to jump in fright. He looked up and nearly fell back when he found Doris staring down at him.
"H – Hi," he stammered, noticing Doris pale considerably.
"I'm Jaden. What's your name?"
Noah looked at the boy finally. "Mike," he said distantly, looking at his nephew in awe. "Isabella's friend."
"Hey, I'm Bella's friend too," Jaden said with a grin. "That means we're friends."
"Right, it does," Noah said with a soft chuckle.
"Mum's angry with you," Jaden whispered loudly.
"I know," Noah whispered back. "What should I do?"
"You should be nice to her. Then she'll be nice to you too," Jaden advised gravely.
"Good to know," Noah said with a solemn nod.
"She really likes it when you tell her that the house looks pretty," the boy added.
Noah had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing. He just nodded again. Jaden nodded back and walked away, leaving Noah with Doris. The blond straightened up awkwardly. "I'm Mike," he said.
"Doris," she murmured uneasily.
He stared at her for a moment longer before following Jaden into the drawing room. He heard the heated chatter dying to a standstill as he walked in. Leila's mouth was pursed indignantly while Isabella and Nathan looked wildly amused. Noah sat beside Isabella on the couch, unsure of where to look. He wondered if now was a good time to compliment the house. When he realized that they were waiting for him to start talking, he couldn't think of anything else to say. "You have a beautiful house, Mrs. Warner," he said quietly, hazarding a look at Leila.
The change was instantaneous. A surprised smile came over her. "Really?"
"Thank you," she said. "That's really quite sweet of you to notice. Decorated it myself." With a contented sigh, she got up. "I'll go check on dinner," she said, walking to the kitchen.
Once Leila was out of earshot, Nathan and Isabella crowed with laughter. "That was amazing!" she said, smacking Noah on the head.
"Natural," Nathan chuckled. "Couldn't have done better myself."
"I helped," Jaden said proudly. This only caused Nathan to laugh even harder.
"Quick learner, huh?" Nathan said. "So, what are you studying?"
"He's in business," Isabella answered.
Nathan turned a sarcastic eye at Isabella. "Are you going to be answering all his questions for him today?"
"Yes," she smirked.
Nathan rolled his eyes. "So, Mike," he said emphatically, effectively silencing the girl. "Where are you living?"
"I – er… the W Silicon?"
"You aren't sure?"
"No. I meant, um… I do live there."
"How come?" Nathan asked. "Not in residence?"
"I'm interning. So… Not in residence," Noah said.
"Oh, I see. Interning where?"
Nathan nodded in appreciation. "Impressive!"
"Thanks," Noah murmured, blushing.
"Dinner's ready," Leila called out.
Once everyone was seated and eating, Nathan looked up at Noah and frowned. "Wait, you're living at the W?" he asked incredulously.
"Y – yeah," Noah stammered, looking at Isabella for a rescue. She shrugged, turning back to her stirfry.
"W?" Leila asked. "Why?"
"I – er… Where else – um… I don't have anywhere else to stay?"
"Oh…" Nathan murmured thoughtfully.
Isabella looked up with arched brows. "Oh, I know! You could stay here!" she exclaimed, causing Leila to drop her fork and Nathan to choke on his food.
Noah kicked Isabella on the shin. "No, of course I can't," he said through gritted teeth, motioning for her to quit talking.
"Why not? We have a guest room," she said, kicking Noah back.
"Bella," he hissed. "Shut up."
"Yeah, he can stay here!" Jaden said, grinning at Isabella.
"Oh god," Noah groaned. "Look, N – Mr. Warner, don't – she's just kidding," he said weakly.
"How long are you here for?" Nathan asked.
Noah shook his head. "I don't think –"
"A couple months, maybe more," Isabella interrupted.
Leila looked at Nathan. He shrugged back. "Well, seeing as how you don't have any family here, I'm sure we can put up with you for a few months," Nathan said.
Noah felt relieved and terrified at the prospect. "I shouldn't. I – I wouldn't want to impose," he said.
"Nathan," Leila said, her tone implying her need to talk to him.
"And seeing as how you aren't really Bella's boyfriend, I'm sure Leila won't mind either," Nathan added.
"What?" Leila and Doris exclaimed.
Noah blushed, wanting to disappear from sight. Isabella looked nonchalant. "Well, you were having a hissy fit because I hugged him. Figured I'd give you a reason to have a fit," she said, taking a drink from her glass to hide her smile.
"Why, you little –"
"See, no big deal," Nathan interrupted before profanities could be heard. "If it makes you feel any better," he added, winking at Noah, "you could pay us rent."
Noah flicked his eyes at Leila, who was having a silent war with Isabella. "I don't think I should," he said quietly, staring back at his plate.
"Leila," Nathan muttered.
"What?" she snapped, turning her glare at him. He jerked his head at Noah, who had suddenly lost his appetite. "Oh. No, Mike, it's not – I mean, we would love to have you," she said. "I just have a loud mouth. If you don't mind putting up with that, we won't mind if you lived here."
Noah smiled faintly. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Leila said.
"Great," Isabella said. "We'll move –"
"Not another peep out of you," Doris interjected.
"What Bella meant to say was, we'll move you in tomorrow," Nathan said.
Why is it that sometimes your own family feels like strangers?
"How has your day been?" Julie asked after dinner.
"Fine. All the meeting went well. Looks like the Robertson deal is going to go through," Michael said.
He bit his lip uncertainly as he stared at his wife busily straightening the drawing room. He sighed and walked up to her, gently touching her shoulder. "How was your day?" he asked.
She blinked at him. "Fine. Didn't do much," she said with a soft smile.
He moved to walk away when he felt her hand slip into his. "Hey," she said quietly.
She reached up and kissed him. "Thanks for asking," she murmured.
Nathan groaned as he turned in bed. "Too early," he grumbled, letting his arm flop down.
"Ow," Leila said, kicking Nathan.
"What the heck?" he started, pulling back. "You're here?"
"Where else would I be?" Leila asked, curling into Nathan.
Leila stopped her rearranging. "Not… me?" she said, listening.
They frowned at each other. "Bella?"
They sat up in shock, Leila fumbling on the bedside for the clock and Nathan cocking his head to the side to listen better. "It's eight! What's she doing up?" Leila asked incredulously.
"And why's she singing Christmas music?" Nathan asked.
It was all fine and dandy until the voice turned tenor. "Holy shit," they swore, nearly falling out of the bed in their haste to be the first ones out of the room.
When Isabella had insisted on putting on Christmas music, Noah had been more than slightly confused. But he figured it best to play along with her whim than to question it. It had been her idea to cook breakfast, after all. "It'd be a great way to win them over, don't you think?" she had asked the night before. He had shrugged. So that's how he found himself in the kitchen with her, making French toast and scrambled eggs. And then she began humming with Margaret Whiting…
He had looked at her with mild surprise, stopping short while buttering the pan. She had smiled back, going back to humming. Which quickly escaladed to singing.
"The neighbors might think… Say, what's in this drink?" she sang, cracking the eggs. "I wish I knew how… To break this spell," she accompanied Johnny Mercer.
"Early for Christmas, isn't it?" Noah asked.
"I ought to say no, no, no sir," she said, shaking her head with a smile and a wink. "At least I'm gonna say that I tried… I really can't stay. Ah, but it's cold outside."
Noah chuckled, taking out the bread. She grabbed the bowl and whisk, moving closer to him. "I simply must go," she sang. He shook his head. "The answer is no…" He dipped the bread in the mix. "This welcome has been..." He jerked his brows. "So nice and warm," she sang loudly, nudging him. "My sister will be suspicious."
"Man, your lips look delicious."
Isabella laughed excitedly. "Oh, so you do sing," she said cheekily.
"When the occasion calls for it, yes," he said.
"It's more fun if two people sing this song, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," he said, letting the bread sizzle on the pan.
"So, sing with me! I've got to go home," she sang, adding in the onions.
"Oh baby, you'll freeze out there…"
"Say, lend me your coat."
"But it's up to your knees out there," he responded, chopping up the mushrooms.
"You've really been grand." She wrapped an arm around his waist and grabbed his hand, pulling him into a dance.
He laughed incredulously. "I thrill when you touch my hand."
"But don't you see?" she asked, spinning in wide circles with him.
"How can you do this thing to me?" he asked, dipping her down.
"Whoo, there's bound to be talk tomorrow," she said, giving him a surprised grin.
"But think of my lifelong sorrow," he said, pouting.
She giggled and shook her head. "At least there'll be plenty implied."
"If you caught pneumonia and died…"
"I really can't stay."
"Get over that hold out," he sang, rocking gently.
"Ah, but it's cold outside," they finished, grinning at each other. Noah felt a warm flutter in his heart. He wondered if she did too. By the way their grins were slipping, he figured she did. They colored and broke apart, flustered.
"Oh, the toast," Noah exclaimed, quickly rescuing the bread from burning to a crisp. Isabella kept her head down, trying to keep the shy smile at bay.
"Oh my gosh, that was awkward," Nathan whispered into Leila's ear as he hugged her from behind.
She swatted his hand. "That was so cute!" she murmured.
Nathan shook his head at his romantic wife before clearing his throat loudly. Noah and Isabella jumped and turned around quickly. "Oh, s – sorry," Noah stammered, looking mortified. "Were we loud?"
"It's fine," Leila said warmly. "You both sang beautifully."
Isabella's eyes went wide. "You – wait, how long have you been there?"
Nathan concealed his smile against Leila's hair. She shrugged and said, "Oh, just since you two started dancing," she said casually.
"Oh no," Noah muttered, hiding his blushing face in his hands.
"Lei!" Isabella whined pitifully. "That's so not cool!"
"What? Why not? It thought it was an adorable performance," she said.
Nathan said, "I think that's enough embarrassment for today, dear. Let's go," before leading Leila out of the kitchen.
The kitchen was deathly quiet. "Well," Isabella said, turning to Noah. "At least you won them over."
Noah groaned and glared at her.
Why is it that sometimes strangers feel closer to you than your family?
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit," Nathan muttered, punching his flat tire. Leila was kneeling beside him, biting her cheek to keep from laughing. "Who did this?" he asked, scowling at her.
"I did. I love puncturing tires. Didn't you know?" she asked, getting up. "Now you won't have to go for work," she added with a defiant grin.
"All part of your plan, I see," he muttered, smiling nonetheless.
"Need a ride?" Noah asked, walking up to them.
"No," Leila answered.
"Don't listen to her. Yeah, I do," Nathan said, laughing when Leila made a face at him. "I'll catch you later, sweetheart," he said, pulling her into a dramatic kiss while turning Noah the other way.
"Yeah, yeah," she grumbled after he steadied her.
Nathan pushed Noah towards the Ferrari. "I've been looking for an excuse to ride in this," he said, eyeing it enviously.
"Want to drive?" Noah asked.
"Oh, no. Just sitting in it will be enough," Nathan said, getting into the passenger seat. He fiddled with the radio while Noah pulled out of the driveway. "And how on Earth can you afford this?"
"Dad's rich," Noah said, smirking at Nathan.
"Don't doubt it," Nathan responded.
"So… How'd you two meet?" Noah asked, motioning for Nathan to put on his seatbelt.
"We – bumped into each other," Nathan said after a moment of thought. "Purely accidental."
"You seem very happy," Noah murmured, keeping his eyes on the road.
Nathan laughed. "Oh? What gave us away? Of course we're happy. We're in love," he said.
Noah smiled. "Why did you move here?" he asked, flicking his eyes at Nathan.
The man shrugged. "Work. Life. Stuff."
Nathan turned to Noah. "What, hmm?"
"I was just hmm-ing. Nothing to it," Noah said, turning up the music quickly. Nathan chuckled and shook his head at the blond.
Nathan found Noah gazing at the wall of photographs by the stairs. "Hey," he said.
Noah looked up, startled. "Oh, hi," he said. He went back to looking at the pictures. "You don't have any photos of your family," he murmured.
"My… family?" Nathan asked.
"Mum and Dad."
Nathan felt a pang in his chest. He glanced at the pictures on the wall. "No… Guess not," he said.
"I haven't got any to put up," Nathan said, swallowing down the sadness.
Noah nodded. "Doesn't matter," he said. "They know you love them." With a wistful smile, he walked away.
Nathan stared at his son's pictures. "They do…" he whispered thickly.
"Who's playing?" Noah asked as he plopped on the couch next to Nathan and Jaden.
"England and Australia," Nathan murmured, watching the large TV intently. "We're winning," he added.
The Australian batter lobed the ball not quite far enough. "Yes, yes, yes!" Jaden and Noah said in anticipation. The ball landed safely in the fielder's hand. "Out!" the three shouted, clapping in excitement.
"We're going to win this one, Nate!" Noah laughed.
"Oh, don't jinx it!" Nathan said. "Anything can change in the last instant. You can't trust them. You never know with England, Noah…" he trailed off. Noah frowned in recognition and turned to Nathan. "Did you just call me Nate?" Nathan asked, searching Noah's face.
Noah gaped at his brother. "I – Did I? I don't – sorry," he stammered.
"No, no… Nate's fine," Nathan said distantly.
Doris saw the light filtering through the crack in Jaden's room. She sighed and pushed the door open, intent on scolding the boy. She was met with Noah and Jaden on the bed on their stomach, pouring over books.
"What are you two doing?" she asked.
Noah looked up in surprise before glancing at his watch. "Oh, shoot! It's late!" she exclaimed, scrambling off of bed. "Sorry. Lost track of time," he stammered.
"Aw, I want to stay up," Jaden said, pouting.
"Not on a school night," Doris scolded. "That goes for both of you." She closed all the books and placed it on the study table. "Good night, Jaden," she said, kissing the boy after he was bundled up in bed. "See you tomorrow."
"Yeah," he said. "Good night."
"Night," Noah said, winking at the boy. "I'll see you tomorrow, D – Doris." He almost let slip there. He blushed and quickly exited the room, leaving Doris to stare after him.
"Club?" Noah asked derisively. "Um… No, thanks."
"Yeah, which means you should stay home too," Nathan said, looking at Isabella pointedly.
She silenced Nathan with a glare before turning to Noah again. "Come on, it'll be fun. You know, dancing and singing, and drinks and all. Besides, I can't very well go alone," she said, trying to convince him.
"What did you do before I came here?" Noah asked.
"You don't want to know," Nathan mumbled, keeping his eyes on the newspaper.
"Please," she groveled.
"Does that mean I'm the designated driver?" he asked.
Nathan snorted with stifled laughter. Isabella wiggled her eyebrows and said, "Well, you have the car. So… yeah!"
"That's just great," Noah muttered.
Evening came and, sure enough, Noah was dragged out of the house. "Is this part of your plan to win them over or part of your other plan to mooch rides off of me?" he asked.
"The second plan," she said honestly.
Noah sighed as he started the car. "You owe me a bunch. Like, a lifetime of IOUs. Got it?"
"We'll see," she laughed.
An hour into the night, Noah found himself sitting on the couches alone while Isabella and her friends disappeared into the dance floor. "That's just great," he muttered, drinking his coke miserably. It didn't help his mood when he noticed Isabella dancing a little too close to a few men. He silenced the green monster of envy inside him, kicking the table to get rid of the tension.
Noah looked up at the pretty blond in front of him. "Hi," he greeted.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked. He shrugged, scooting over. "Couldn't help noticing that you were alone tonight," she said.
"Not alone. Abandoned," he said.
"Ooh, from England! Fancy," she said, looking dazzled.
"Seems to be a turn on," he said without thinking. Before he could be mortified, she started laughing.
"It is! Most accents are," she said, grinning at him. "Want to dance? Or, can you dance?"
"Not with an accent, but yes, I can dance," he said, holding out his hand.
"It just keeps getting better," she said, letting him lead her to the crowded dance floor.
Apparently a club can be fun without alcohol. Noah didn't even notice the hours pass as he danced. The thumping music was energizing. He held his own against the pushing bodies and sloshing drinks. It was only when the slightly more intoxicated girls insisted on kissing him that he put a stop to it. Other than that, the night was fun and tiring. When Isabella pulled him aside and said it was time to go, he merely nodded and waved goodbye to the current girl he had been dancing with.
"You were right," he said. "That was fun."
It was only halfway through the ride home that Noah noticed Isabella's unusual silence. "You alright?" he asked.
"Yeah, fine, fine," she said dismissively.
"Why are you so quiet?"
"What's wrong with being quiet?" she asked.
"Nothing. Nothing wrong with being quiet," he said with a shrug, unsure of what was wrong. They rode in silence the rest of the way, Noah peeking glances at Isabella while she stared out her window. It was only when they got out of the car that Noah tried again. "Hey, are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm fine, Noah," she snapped.
Noah frowned and stopped her before she could go any further. "No, you aren't. What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," she grumbled.
"Did I do something?"
"No. You didn't do anything," she said.
"You didn't do anything. You didn't ask me to dance."
Noah's eyes widened. "Oh…" he said lamely. "I – I'm sorry. I didn't – I didn't know if you wanted me to…"
"Whatever," she said, walking towards the house.
Noah smiled faintly and caught her hand, spinning her around. "Beautiful, what's your hurry?" he sang, wrapping an arm around her waist. She frowned up at him. "Listen to the fireplace roar… Beautiful, please don't hurry," he whispered, leading her onto the lawn. "Put some music on while I pour."
Isabella smiled with a shake of her head. "The neighbors might think…"
"Baby, it's cold out there," Noah sang.
"Say, what's in this drink?"
"No cabs to be had out there."
"I wish I knew how," she murmured.
"Your eyes are like starlight," he answered, grazing her cheek with his thumb.
"To break this spell…"
"I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell," he chuckled, spinning her around.
"I ought to say no, no, no, sir."
"Mind if I move closer?" he asked, kissing her cheek.
"At least I'm gonna say I tried," she whispered.
"What's the sense in hurting my pride?" he wondered, his heart drumming faster.
"I really can't stay."
"Baby, don't hold out."
"Ah, but it's cold outside."
They spun to a stop, panting slightly. She looked awestruck as she looked up at him. "What?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said, shaking her head and looking away.
"No, tell me," he urged, wondering if he'd done something wrong again.
She smiled as she let go of him. "I was just – I was just thinking how different you are from before. And how similar you are from before," she said with a shrug. "Just thinking," she echoed, pulling him toward the house again.
Noah pulled her back and kissed her desperately. She gasped and pushed into him, hands against his cheeks as she held him still. His hands pressed against the small of her back, nearly groaning when she nibbled on his lip. Her taste was enough to cause him to sway. He didn't even notice when she broke the kiss. His eyes remained closed as they gently swayed against each other. He smiled vaguely, pressing his forehead against Isabella's. He opened his eyes to look at her unblinking ones.
"Hi…" he whispered.
"What?" Nathan groaned as Leila dragged him down the stairs.
"Be quiet," she said conspiringly, trying not to giggle.
"I want to sleep."
"Not after you see this," she said, a wicked gleam in her eye. "Okay, quietly now." She tiptoed to the drawing while Nathan shuffled in, yawning.
He stopped short and his eyes widened. "Holy –" Leila's hand clamped his mouth closed.
Noah frowned in his sleep and sighed, pulling Isabella closer. Her head was against his chest, rising and falling with his breath. His arms were wrapped around her, holding her close. The throw had fallen off of them sometime during the night. They seemed to have curled into each other to keep warm.
Leila pulled Nathan back before letting go of his mouth. "How – what – when – oh my gosh," he stammered softly, glancing from them to Leila.
"Should we… wake them up?" she asked.
On cue, Noah jerked in his sleep as though falling. He instinctively held onto Isabella when he opened his eyes. He blinked at the fireplace in confusion before looking down. "Oh," he breathed, looking at Isabella's sleeping face. An unbidden smile escaped him as he hugged her. Then he proceeded to untangle himself from the winding arms and legs on him. She whined and grumbled as he jostled her, never waking up as he slid off of the couch. He grabbed the fallen blanket and tucked her in it. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before straightening up and stretching. Which was exactly when he noticed Leila and Nathan staring at him.
He blinked in puzzlement, unsure of what was registering in his mind. Then his sleep-addled brain righted itself. "Oh…"
"What was that all about?" Nathan couldn't help asking.
Noah looked down at Isabella, as though seeing her for the first time. "I – we fell asleep," he murmured, feeling sick. "I'm – so sorry. I – we…" he trailed off, troubled.
Leila shook her head at her husband. "It's fine, Mike," she said.
That only made Noah uneasier. "I – I think I should leave," he said, unable to look at his brother.
"Leave what?" Nathan asked incredulously.
"Leave… your house," Noah murmured, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "I'll – I'll just – um…" He decided to forgo words and awkwardly walk away instead.
"Whoa there, mister," Leila said, frowning at Noah and stopping him with a hand on his chest. "Don't you think you owe us an explanation?" she asked.
"R – right," he stammered. "We – um… we got in late and –"
"No, Mike. An explanation on why you're leaving," Leila interrupted. "Because if you're planning on breaking my little sister's heart then you have another thing coming."
"What?" Noah asked in confusion.
"Why are you leaving?" Nathan asked.
Noah had never been in such an uncomfortable situation before. "I – um… Because I – well, you said if she –" He took a breath and tried again. "You said if I were her boyfriend, you wouldn't let me stay here," he said quickly.
Leila's brows went up. "That's why you're leaving?" she asked in disbelief, which was mirrored in Nathan.
"I wasn't – I didn't mean to – it just sort of happened. Sorry," he said.
Nathan and Leila looked at each other. "Wow…"
Noah waited for them to continue because they looked like they wanted to. Nathan shook his head to wake up from his trance. He looked at Noah in wonder. "I'm sure we can trust you to keep your hands to yourself, can't we?" he asked.
Noah nodded quickly. Leila rolled her eyes. "Sure he will. What about her?" she asked, jerking her thumb at Isabella.
"She can control herself," Nathan said, winking at Noah. "Go freshen up. We'll make breakfast."
Leila and Doris were in the kitchen, washing up after lunch. Finally fed up with Doris' silence, Leila put down the plate with a clatter and turned to look at her pointedly. "Why haven't you said anything about Mike and Isabella?" she asked.
Doris flicked her eyes at Leila. "What's there to say?" she asked.
Leila sputtered. "What's – they're – they're living in the same house and they are crushing on each other. That's something to say, isn't it?" Doris didn't say anything, stowing away the clean and dry dished into the cupboards. "What?" Leila asked.
Doris sighed. "Isn't there something about Mike?" she asked.
"What about him?"
"I don't know. I can't put my finger on it."
"Like something bad?" Leila asked incredulously.
"No, not bad. Don't think the kid has a bad bone in hm. I meant about him. I don't know what. Reminds me of…"
"Who?" Leila asked.
Leila froze. "Oh…"
"You think so too!" Doris said.
Leila stared out the window for a brief moment before shaking his head. "No. No way. He does not look like Noah," she said decisively.
Doris scowled and swatted Leila's hand. "And you'd know better than me, I suppose," she said, going to back to putting away the dishes.
Noah was on the floor of the landing staring despondently at his shoes. Jaden had thought it hilarious to untie them and then tie the laces of both of his shoes together. After five minutes of painstakingly untying them, he had managed to slip them on. Tying them back up, however…
"Okay, no big deal," he muttered to himself, taking the two ends. "Everyone does it. I can do it too." He tried to remember the rhyme he had heard so often. "How did it go?" He crossed the laces. "Over and under." Then he rolled his eyes. "That's the easy part."
Doris knelt beside Noah, taking the laces from his hand. "Haven't learnt to tie your laces yet, have you?" she asked softly.
He blinked at her downturned face. "Wh – what are you doing?" he asked, trying to push her hands away.
"Maybe Nate was right," she said with a sad smile. "Maybe I babied you a bit too much."
"I can do it, DJ. It just – takes longer…"
"Hmm…" Doris murmured, finishing up the shoes and looking at Noah. "Much too long," she said, wrapping him in a loving hug. "I missed you, Noah," she whispered.
Everything about her reminded him of his childhood – her perfume, her words, her love. "I missed you too," he said, his voice cracking. "I missed you so much. I never knew why you had left me."
"I'm so sorry," she said. "Nathan needed me more than you did, Noah."
Noah nodded. "I'm going to bring you all home, you know that?" he asked.
"I know, honey. You were always up to no good," she laughed. "Didn't I tell you, Leila? I knew it was him the moment I saw him."
Noah looked up to find Leila gaping at them. "Oh," he said, blushing and wiping away his tears vehemently. "I – I didn't… Will he get mad?"
"You little punk," she said, walking up to him and kneeling down to box his ears. "Who were you calling Mrs. Warner?" she asked. "I should smack your teeth out of you."
"It's Bella's fault!" he said helplessly. "It's always her fault."
Leila let go of Noah. "Whoa, wait! You're going out with Bella! Holy crap!" she exclaimed, nearly falling over.
"I – I'm sorry?"
Nathan was, as always, oblivious to the looks he was getting from Leila and Doris. Noah couldn't help wondering what exactly he was doing now, considering all that had happened. Not that he could think all that well with Isabella hanging around him all the time.
Noah was minding his own business while munching on an apple when he was pulled into Isabella's room and assaulted by her hungry lips.
"Hey, hey, hey. Stop," he said, his words muffled against her.
"No," she said, pushing him against the wall.
"Someone's gonna come in," he said, trying to reason with her while pushing her away.
She pulled away for a short moment. "That's supposed to be my line," she muttered glumly.
He took that short moment to slip out of her grip. "Now it's mine," he said, backing out of the room warily.
"Oh no, you don't," she said impishly, pulling him into a sloppy kiss.
"Mph, let go," he said, arching back.
She did just that, causing him to stumble backwards into the hall, crashing into Nathan. Isabella's eyes grew wide before she slammed the door in their faces. Noah whipped around, blushing. Nathan's eyes were narrowed, but he had a glint of amusement in them. He looked at Noah expectantly.
"I – she was – um… Sorry," Noah muttered, ducking his head and walking away as quickly as he could without running.
Nathan rolled his eyes and knocked on Isabella's room.
"What?" she barked.
He stuck his head in and said, "Stop torturing the poor kid."
"And now presenting the next great debater of the Warner family, Jaden!" Isabella crowed, clapping. The family followed suit while Jaden beamed proudly, showing off his ribbon and bowing. "How do you feel, good sir?" she asked.
"Good!" Jaden said, hugging her. "Because I won," he explained decisively. Nathan shook his head as he chuckled while Leila wiggled her brows at him.
"So, you must have a lot nervous in front of those people, huh?" Isabella asked, sitting down on the couch and pulling Jaden onto her lap.
"Maybe a little," he said nonchalantly. "But that's okay, Mike said. He said if I was really nervous, I'd just have to take a few deep breaths and say what feels right."
"Ah, yes, sage advice," Isabella said, nodding importantly.
"And he said if that doesn't work, I'd just have to think of Mum and Dad."
Nathan's smile slipped.
"Because they're always right. And they'll tell me what to say. That way, nothing's impossible," Jaden said, looking at Isabella.
"Well, isn't that sweet?" she laughed, kissing Jaden on the nose. "It worked, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it –"
Nathan stifled a strangled groan against his hand as he staggered up. Leila looked up in alarm. "What?" she asked.
"I – I have to –"
Noah was shrugging off his jacket as he walked in. "Hey guys," he said. He spotted Jaden holding his red ribbon. "Oh, no way! You won?" he asked.
"Yes!" Jaden shouted, jumping off of Isabella's lap and racing over to Noah. "First place," he said, hugging Noah tight. "Awesome, huh?"
"Awesome," Noah agreed wholeheartedly, grinning at Isabella. She wasn't looking at him though. He flicked his eyes at Nathan.
"Oh god," Nathan gasped, stumbling forward. "Noah?" he asked breathlessly.
Noah blinked at Nathan, unsure of what was happening. Nathan stopped short, roving his eyes over his brother. Noah felt his heart racing as Nathan felt his hands turn cold. The older brother stepped closer uncertainly, his breath coming in bursts. He gently touched Noah's cheek in wonder. Noah felt his full eyes overflowing.
"Don't cry," Nathan said, his voice breaking off. "If you start, I'll start too…"
Noah let out a hard sob and wrapped his arms around Nathan. He felt uncertain arms around his back, holding him. "I love you, Nate," Noah exhaled.
The arms tightened around him. "You're here… Oh my gosh," Nathan said, clenching his eyes shut to keep the moment near in case it was a dream. "I love you so much, Noah," he said urgently.
Noah nodded, euphoria bubbling through him. "I never knew why… I'd have found you so much sooner if I knew why," he cried, hiding his face in Nathan's shirt.
A half-hour later, they were alone on the couch with Noah refusing to let go of Nathan's hand. Nathan absently drew circles with his thumb on the back on Noah's knuckles.
"Took care of Mum?" he asked. Noah nodded, staring at his lap.
"Made it into the cricket team?" Nathan asked. Noah gave a teary smile and nodded.
Nathan smiled back, poking Noah's stomach. "How'd you lose all that weight?" he asked with a shaky laugh. Noah felt the tears slipping as he curled into his brother, wrapping an arm around him. "Why didn't you tell me?" Nathan asked jerkily. "Why the hell wouldn't you tell me?"
"Please come back, Nate. We're all so sad without you. Please," he begged.
Nathan pulled away from Noah. "D – did Dad send you?" he asked, wiping away his tears.
"Yes," Noah said. Nathan turned to glare at his brother. Noah looked away and shook his head.
"This is my family now, Noah. This is my world," Nathan said, trying to make Noah understand. "Back there… It wasn't even my home in the first place. I don't know if it will ever be my home."
Noah shook his head helplessly, looking at Nathan again. "Please…"
"You should go back, Noah. B- back home," Nathan stammered, taking a deep breath. "I've – I'm so glad you came. But you should go home now."
Noah wiped away his tears and swallowed down his sadness. "Do you remember how – when I was little, how you always teased me and said Mum loves you more than me?" he asked. Nathan glanced away, nodding. "I – I hated it when you said that. You have no idea how much… But – you were right, Nate," Noah sobbed. "She loves you too much. And she'll always love you too much."
Nathan groaned and pulled Noah into a fierce hug. "I know," he gasped, never wanting to let go.
"He won't come back," Noah said, twisting Isabella's long hair in his fingers as he sat on her bed with her. "He won't come back until Dad says something. And Dad won't do anything until Nathan comes back. Why can't they just – I mean, when Dad sees Jaden, he'll – that's all that needs to happen, you know?"
"So… Bring your dad here. Get him to meet Jaden," Isabella said.
"He won't come."
"We could trick him into coming."
Noah looked at Isabella with a helpless smile. "Really?"
"Had the craziest dream last night, Dad," Noah said, swinging his legs off of Isabella's bed.
"Oh? What about?" Michael asked.
"I dreamt that you two came over here and surprised me. It was awesome," he said, winking at Isabella.
"And then nothing. The alarm rang and I woke up. Besides, why would you ever hop on a plane to visit me, right?" Noah asked, nodding at the girl.
"Noah," she called out.
"Oh, I got to go now, Dad. I'll talk to you later," Noah said hurriedly.
"Hmm…" Michael murmured.
"Love you. Miss you guys. Bye." After he hung up, Noah cocked his brow at his girlfriend. She smiled back mischievously.
Michael sighed as he put the phone down. He started pacing the study thoughtfully.
Noah's phone rang in the middle of breakfast. He excused himself after looking at the caller ID, making wild eyes at Isabella as he left the dining room. She surreptitiously escaped right on after him.
"Hey, Dad. Didn't expect a call from you," Noah said, pulling Isabella towards the far corner of the living room, away from the rest of the family.
"Well, that dream of yours got us thinking. So we're here," Michael said.
"No way," Noah said, faking his surprise. "What? Where?" he asked.
"Well, we just got in. Where are you right now?" he asked.
"I'm having breakfast with some friends. You should come over! They'd be so happy to meet you guys."
"Really?" Michael asked.
"Yes, Dad. Really. Got a pen handy?" Noah asked, pumping the air with his fist while Isabella hopped around in excitement.
Two hours later, the family was sprawled all over the living room, watching TV lazily. Noah and Isabella kept glancing at the clock, but no one noticed it. And no one noticed when them jumped a mile as the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," they said in unison, drawing surprised expressions out of Nathan and Leila. They scrambled off of the sofa and nearly sprinted to the foyer.
"I am so dead, Bella," Noah whispered.
"I know! This is so exciting!" she replied, brushing her hair flat and straightening her shirt. "How do I look?" she asked.
"Beautiful," he murmured, giving her a quick kiss. "Here goes," he said, opening the door.
Julie and Michael beamed at their son from the porch. Noah grinned back, hugging them both fiercely. "I can't believe you're here," he said.
"Surprise," Julie smiled, her eyes flicking towards Isabella. "Hi, I'm Julie," she said, looking at the girl questioningly.
"Isabella," she waved, grinning at Julie and Michael. "I've wanted to meet you guys for so long!"
Michael and Julie looked at each other. "Really?"
Noah glared at her before turning to his parents again. "Okay, don't be mad. But I might have done something…" he said, wincing.
"Bells, you better not have – oh…" Leila stopped short, blinking in confusion.
Julie stared at the redhead in wonder. This was a face she would never forget. But she hadn't even dreamed that she'd see it again. "You…" she breathed, taking an uncertain step forward. "What are you –" she broke off and spun to look at Noah. "This is what you did?" she asked, not daring to blink.
"I know I wasn't supposed to. I know you're probably really mad, Dad. But – I had to see him," Noah said, trying to reason with his stunned parents.
"Him…" Julie murmured, looking at Michael. "He's… he's here?"
"Mummy," Jade whined, running into the foyer. "Daddy won't… oh." He skidded to a stop and blushed. "Um… Never mind," he said, running back into the living room.
Julie let out a soft, hysterical burst of laughter. "That was…"
"Jaden," Noah said. "My nephew."
"Oh god," Julie cried, holding a hand to her trembling lips. She strode up to Leila and hugged her close. "Thank you," she said, trying not to cry.
Leila hugged back in bewilderment, holding Julie close. "I didn't do anything," she said.
Julie laughed through her tears. "Of course you didn't," she said, pulling away.
"I'll show you, Dad," Jaden said, dragging Nathan and Doris out of the living room. "See? Guests."
"Nate," Julie whispered thickly. She was in his arms the next instant, barely able to stay standing.
He looked at Leila in shock. "Mum?"
Julie couldn't stop laughing now. "Who else?" she asked.
Nathan forced Julie back, hands on her shoulders, as he searched her teary face. "Oh god, it is you!" he cried, lifting her up in a fierce hug. "You're here," he murmured breathlessly. "I missed you, Mum. And I love you. And I'm so sorry. I can't believe you're here," he garbled, trying to say as much as he could before his emotions overwhelmed him.
"I know. I know, Nate. I love you too," she said.
Nathan smiled, nodding. When he opened his teary eyes, they landed on Michael. He quickly wiped his tears against Julie's shoulders. "What're you doing here?" he asked Julie.
"I don't know," she said. "It doesn't matter. Noah found you."
Nathan let go of his mother and hazarded a look at his father again. Michael hadn't said a word. "H – hi," Nathan stammered.
Michael focused on his son. "Nate…" he murmured.
Nathan silenced his sob as he closed the distance and hugged Michael. "You knew I was sorry, didn't you? Why didn't you bring me back?" he asked haltingly, standing close to Michael.
"I'm so sorry, Nate," Michael said helplessly. "You weren't – I didn't know I hurt you that much. I – I get carried away. You know that. I thought you'd come back."
"I thought you didn't love me. You said I – that I… I didn't think you'd want me back," Nathan said.
"How could I not?" Michael asked. "You're my son. Of course I love you. I love you more than anything, Nate."
"Then why didn't you call me back?"
"Because I thought you'd come back."
Nathan let the sobs ease off of him after a few breaths. "Then call me back right now, Dad," he said softly.
"Come home, Nate. We want you home," Michael begged.
Nathan smiled as he nodded. "I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, Nate."
"Can I just say, your life has been a heck of a lot cooler than mine," Brad said, knocking down another glass of champagne.
"You're supposed to savor it, dumbass," Noah muttered, rolling his eyes at his best friend.
"The stuff they say about the city of love… All bull, I tell you," Brad said.
"It's because you have no class," Noah smirked, rolling his eyes.
"Hey, boys," Isabella said, gliding over to Noah. "Whatcha talkin' about?"
"How he hasn't gotten laid in months," Noah said.
"Hey!" Brad scowled.
Nathan and Leila were twirling on the dance floor. "You have no right looking this gorgeous," he said decisively.
"Ah yes. The burden of beauty. It is mine to bear alone," she said dramatically.
"Never alone, darling," he said pompously.
"Oh, shut up, you," she snickered.
"Fifteen seconds," Michael called out. The guests started to gravitate towards the large clock as the lights dimmed in the Warner mansion. Couples gathered in clumps, party hats hastily being snapped on.
"Ten! Nine! Eight!"
"Damn it, haven't got anyone to kiss," Brad said. Then he looked at Noah. "Or do I? Come here, best buddy ol' pal."
"Hands off, mister," Isabella growled, causing Brad to pout.
"Seven! Six! Five!"
Michael hummed with happiness as Julie wrapped her arms around his neck. "You're so adorable," she said, flicking his chin.
"Couldn't have done it without you," he answered.
"Four! Three! Two!"
"Wonder what's for dessert…"
Nathan laughed, pulling his wife close.
"One! Happy New Year!"
"Just one kiss," Noah said, turning to Brad and kissing his chastely. Then he turned to Isabella and dipped her down, kissing her with passion.
"Whoa," Brad and Isabella breathed in unison.
"Happy New Year, Mr. Warner," Julie murmured against the kiss.
"Happy New Year, Mrs. Warner…"
Nathan parted Leila's mouth expertly, tasting every nook and cranny hungrily. She responded with enthusiastic tugs to his hair. They were practically crawling over each other when they broke apart, panting. "Whoo," she crowed. "I won't be needing that dessert after all." His chuckle was lost in her lips as she pulled him down for a second make-out session.
Jaden kicked his parents apart. "No kissing!" he shouted, scowling at them.
And that's how they remained – a loving family living a loving life.
A/N: What did you think? That's the end of that, by the way.