“Heeey, Nana! I can see the baby elephants!” Alfred exclaimed, tackling the fence with an electrical energy. “See, Nana?! Take my picture next to them!” He whined, throwing up his hands.
Rolling your eyes as you fumbled with your camera, you hissed, “Be patient, Al! Give me a minute! I’m holding your brother, the camera, the case, and the snacks, not to mention Mr. Arthur’s bottled water! Give me a minute!” Cautiously, you lowered Matthew to the ground, keeping his hand intertwined with yours. It took a bit of time, but you managed to find a place for everything in the large bag you were lugging around. “All right, smile, Al! Say cheese!”
“Cheeese!” He flashed a toothy grin and once more pressed his cheek to the glass fence. “Mat mar me munna mee mow, Mana?”
“What was that, lad?” Arthur asked, quirking an eyebrow. The younger brother toddled over to the British man and held up his arms, silently pleading for attention. Frankly, although the strange animals fascinated the boy, they also frightened him. Weird sounds, odd movements….he was thankful to be beside Mr. Arthur and Nana. Whimpering, he tugged at his guardian’s pants.
“Oh, all right, lad, up ya go. Did you see the animals, Matthew? Do you like elephants?”
Chortling, the sandy blonde-haired child explained. “I said, ‘What are we gunna see now, Nana? Are we going to see the monkeys?!” Excitedly, he tugged on your hand, jerking you towards the nearest cage. “I think I hear them, Nana! Hurry!”
“Al, wait, sweetheart!” You felt yourself being pulled, despite Al’s smaller size. Arthur followed, carrying spooked Matthew. “All right, chap.” You heard him say. “Take me to the monkeys! Did you know monkeys are Peter Pan’s favorite animal?”
“Whoah…they are?!” His brows lifted in confusion. “I thought he only liked pandas!”
You cracked a smile at your boy’s imagination, almost wanting to laugh. But, I’m not supposed to be having fun…I’m only here for a month, remember? You scolded yourself. “Wait for me!” I can’t allow myself to stay.
“Look, Nana! A tiger! I love tigers!” Al hollered, practically drooling over the fence. Matthew pointed, smiled, and said “Tigwers….tigwers.”
“That’s right! Do you like tigers, Matthew?” Arthur applauded, smiling. “They were my older brother’s favorite animals until he met one in person. He was so scared; he dropped his camera in their cage!”
His brother chortled at his guardian’s silly story, finding the idea that Uncle Allistor hated tigers was hysterical! Matthew, however, nodded quietly. “O-Oui….tigwers..”
The older man chuckled. “Lions…tigers…and bears…..oh, my.” Amused at his own pun, he bounced Matthew around to excite him. “How about we see the eagles next, boys? What do you say, Nana?”
You stood, dusting off Kumajiro who had accidentally been jostled out of the bag. “Hmm? What? Eagles? Okay, eagles sound good to me.”
It was late when you returned. Promptly, you shooed the boys into bed and then retreated to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It was the end of summer, meaning the nights were getting cooler. With a weary smile, you opened the door and paused. A warm fire blazed in the stone fireplace. Its light flickered across the ceiling, almost as if each spark was a tiny star dancing around the room. You smiled, and walked to the couch, pausing mid-step when you saw a silhouetted figure on the sofa. Arthur!
“Hello, ______. Won’t you have a seat?” He scooted over, sliding his tea mug towards him. “Please, sit down.”
Reluctantly, you sank into the couch, drinking your tea. You were hesitant to say anything, almost afraid what would come out. Thankfully, he saved you by commenting on the beauteous night. You replied with agreeing. “Yes…it is quite lovely. A bit chilly though.”
He chuckled softly. “That’s why I decided a fire would be perfect. You know one of the things I enjoy?” Without waiting for your reply, Arthur said, “I love the smell of a fire. I realize it’s not autumn yet, but I love the smell of wood burning in the air…when the moon is a burnt orange, and the leaves are drifting along the breeze…..” From what you could see from the reflection of the orange illumination, his jade eyes were misted over with a wistful glaze. If you hadn’t been so apprehensive, you would have embraced him.
I can almost feel the cooler breeze….you thought, smiling for the briefest moment. “Autumn is your favorite season then?”
He nodded in response to your soft inquiry. “Yes….I suppose it is. Strange….my favorite holiday is Christmas, though.”
“That’s different…but Christmas is a wonderful holiday.” You took a drink of tea and sighed, staring at the blazing fire. Not much else was said…but….it didn’t need to be said. The quiet evening seemed….perfect.
As much as you hated to admit it, you savored that romantic evening all throughout the next day….which explained why you found yourself accompanying Arthur again the following night.
“…….How was….your day?” he asked softly, glancing over at you while taking a drink from his mug.
“Interesting.” You replied softly. “Al decided to fly off of his bed today…and ended up losing a tooth.” Surprisingly, the British man chuckled, gulping tea. “Poor lad….I hope he’s not seriously injured.”
“No,” You set down your tea mug, casting him a smile. “He’s better. Only a few bruises. I don’t think he’ll try flying again.”
Both of you laughed softly, continuing to glance at the fire.
As the days passed you discovered your growing desire to be with Arthur at night: the crackling fire, the peaceful atmosphere, the delicious tea, the quiet conversation…..despite your valiant attempts to guard your heart, it didn’t seem to work. You were dangerously falling in love with him….perhaps falling in a deeper love than it had been before. Now that his bitterness towards Her and Francis wasn’t clouding his heart, Kirkland had been more willing to receive attention…..polite…friendly attention.
“Boys, are you ready? Nana’s already in the car! Let’s go!” He called, throwing open the door.
Alfred, clutching his backpack full of toys, charged outside impatiently. “Hurry, Mattie! I wanna go play!”
Matthew toddled outside, standing beside his hyper-active brother. They were bundled up in thick, warm coats. A chilling autumn breeze ruffled their hair, tossing their adorable curls into the air. The younger boy shivered, clinging to his brother. Arthur helped them inside the vehicle before climbing in himself.
“So where are we going, Nana?” Al demanded. His arm-span was too short to tap your shoulder from his carseat, but that didn’t stop him from trying. “Naaaana, where are we going?!”
“Patience, sweetheart.” You reprimanded, smiling. “Why don’t you draw? Or look out the window? It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
Loudly sighing, the boy turned his sapphire gaze to the outside world. Matthew was coloring in his “Puppies” book, and enjoying it. “Doggie…” he chanted, selecting the brown crayon for the puppy’s fur color.
You had decided to once again visit the park; autumn was always a beautiful time to visit the park. Cheerfully, you clutched a novel to your chest. Praying that Arthur would be preoccupied playing with the children, the book would make a pleasant distraction.
No such luck. Of course, Alfred scampered off as soon as his feet hit the ground. Surprisingly, Matthew joined him (albeit not nearly as swiftly because his legs were shorter), grinning. Feeling awkward, you lowered your book and glanced around the horizon. Amber leaves drifted past you, settling on the ground a few yards away.
“_______,” Arthur’s voice startled your meditation. Forcing a smile, you turned to face your employer, nodding as a prompt. “A…..Are you….Are you happy here?”
“Happy?” You repeated, quirking a brow. “Why….wh-why do you ask?”
He sheepishly stared at the ground, eyes focusing everywhere but on your face. “I…I think it’s important. So…are you?”
You bit your lip, mulling his inquiry over. You were happy to be with Alfred, Matthew, and Arthur. It pleased your heart that you got to be their “mother figure” and close friend. It thrilled your soul that you helped their lives cling together. Without you…..the Kirkland family would fall apart. But, on the other hand, you were taking a deadly risk, allowing your heart to bond with Arthur’s. The British man was an enigma: tsundere, crabby, yet tender-hearted…..sweet….kind….affectionate….stubborn, ridiculous, stupid, wonderful……wonderful man. The thought of living at the manor without his love pained you in a way you hadn’t thought possible.
“______?” He prompted, even going so far as to tilt his head curiously.
“…..I-I…..” you stammered, stalling for precious seconds. “I’m happier here than I would ever be….somewhere else.”
He seemed to accept that, and if he hadn’t been within hearing range, you would have exhaled in relief. “So….ah…where are the boys?”
“The boys?” His head jerked in both directions, a large frown splashing across his face. “I’m not sure…..I see….Alfred’s red jacket……what color was Matthew wearing?”
You stood, grimacing. “Black.”
“I don’t see any….where is he?”
Anxiety wracked your heart. “Alfred?! Where’s Matthew?!”
His faint voice replied, “I dunno, Nana! He was sliding down the slide!”
“He’s not there! Arthur! Where is Matthew?!” you screeched, sprinting towards the playground. Alfred was calling for his brother around the slide, as if thinking Matthew would magically appear in front of the slide. Arthur sighed, chewing his lower lip. A boy of Mattie’s size could be anywhere! But….how was that even possible? He and ________ were only talking for a few minutes….and now…a pang of fear pierced his heart. What if Matthew was kidnapped?! The boy could be miles away, and the Brit had no idea where to start.
“Alfred, come with me, lad! _______! Come with me! It’d be better if we searched together! I don’t want something happening to either of you too!” He commanded, snatching Al.
“M-Mr. Arthur,” He whimpered softly. “Where’s my brother?”
“Shhh, it’s all right.” Arthur scooped the boy into his arms. “It’s all right, we’ll find him.” Grabbing your hand, he led both of you into the surrounding area, calling Matthew’s name every few seconds.
You prayed to God that Matthew would be safe.
“He isn’t here! He isn’t anywhere!” You whimpered, trying to restrain a sob. “Where is Matthew?!”
Al had fallen asleep in Arthur’s arms, the stress being too much for his smaller frame. Kirkland sighed, raking his hand through his crop of blonde hair. “Now, ______,….please, keep a stiff upper lip-“ he sighed, reaching over to cradle your shaking form. “He’s all right, _____. I’m sure he’s all right. It’s okay….It’s okay.” His one arm rubbed your back softly, heart feeling wretched. He was lying. He had no idea if Matthew was safe. For all he knew, some pervert could have stolen him! “L-Look…..let’s keep searching. If we haven’t found him in the next hour, I’m calling the police, and we’ll go home. Maybe someone kind found him and took him home, yes?”
You wiped your eyes on Arthur’s shoulder, still sniffling. “B—“
“No, shhh…It’s all right. Let’s keep looking.” With a tender smile, he encouraged you to keep walking, by leading you into another section of shrubbery. “Matthew?”
“He’s not here, Arthur! Matthew’s missing and it’s completely my fault! I should never have suggested this picnic!” you lamented, wiping your eyes. “I’m a horrible moth-“
Arthur petted your hair, trying to keep a steady stream of encouragement up. He frowned, and paused. “_____, what’s that….big…rock doing by our picnic?”
“What…wh-what rock?” You glared at your picnic site…and sure enough, there was a big rock right beside the picnic basket! Kneeling, your eyes widened in joy. It was only Matthew bundled up into a small ball! “A-Arthur, it’s Matthew!”
Now that both boys were securely fastened into their car seats, you were curled up in the passenger seat, crying your eyes out with relief. Matthew: sweet, adorable Matthew was safe. Home. Where he belonged….where all of you belonged. “I was so worried.” You whispered, clutching the armrest tightly. “I was so scared he’d never come home.”
“I know.” A large hand glided over, resting on your face. The thumb swept away your tears as the fingers caressed your cheek tenderly. “I know….I was worried too.” Softly they cupped your face, almost as if trying to cheer you. The simple action spoke volumes to your heart. Maybe…Maybe there was a chance.
“Arthur…….do you love me?”
A quiet hum filled the empty vacuum as Kirkland considered his answer. He…He had been filled with hatred for so long, it seemed almost impossible to love again. Even though _______ was an exquisite beauty….he wasn’t sure he returned her feelings. Sure, she was beautiful. Intelligent, witty, spontaneous, vivacious, colorful, admirable, attractive, and excellent with the children. But….the simple question remained. Dare he risk it? Dare he risk loving and losing? Dare he sacrifice Alfred’s and Matthew’s hearts? What if…what if he and ______ did date…and she decided to end it? That would leave him with a broken heart and two tormented children! Dare he risk it? “How….” He whispered softly, thumb tracing her soft skin, “How do I know you’d…st-stay with me?”
Is that what’s bothering him? You thought, frowning. “…….I….I have worked for you ever since you left Her with Alfred. I have faithfully served you all of these years….about five years, and you believe I’d leave you? You, a man of integrity, honor, tender love and devotion towards the boys? You really think I’d allow you to break their hearts if ‘us’ didn’t work out? I love those boys as much as I love you. Those boys are my world, Arthur. I wouldn’t break their hearts. If we didn’t work….I’d still stay to take care of them. I guess…..even if it meant….breaking my heart.”
He parked the car in the driveway and paused, gazing into your determined eyes. “….Do you really mean that?”
“With all my heart.” You vowed.
Arthur’s mouth crept into a smile and….suddenly you found yourself inching closer, itching to catch a brief taste of him. His lips met yours in a wonderful embrace, an embrace you had prayed for since….well…it seemed like eternity. His chapped lips tasted so magical against your own, fitting together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Slowly, your hand crept into his hair, twirling and weaving your fingers into the blonde locks. All of him felt so….so…so amazing. So perfect. So complete…so in tune with you. It was heaven. It was beautiful.
“Nana, are we there yet?” A sleepy voice droned, snapping you out of your passionate embrace. Reluctantly, you both parted, his green eyes never leaving your warm orbs. “I love you.”
And Arthur Kirkland cracked a smile that would have lit a cathedral. “I love you too, ____.”
“So, Nana, do I get to name it?!” Alfred asked excitedly. You were sitting on the couch, eyes closed. Alfred was lying on his side, ear pressed to your large tummy. “So there’s a baby in there?” Matthew was also admiring the baby, running his hand across it. “Hello, baby…” He whispered, smiling.
“I think Mr. Arthur and I should name it, but thank you, Al. Yes, there’s a baby in there. A sweet eight-month old baby.” You ran a hand down the side of your stomach, beaming with joy. Arthur had finally proposed to you a year after you had lost Matthew, and two years after that, married you happily in a small church wedding. Now, you two were expecting a small baby. Secretly, you wanted a girl, but you knew Arthur would be pleased with a boy. Oh well, you thought, shrugging. At least the boys have had fun.
The front door clicked open, and in walked your handsome husband. “Hello, all!” the Brit hung his coat up and crossed the room, planting a soft kiss to your lips. “How’s the baby?”
“Hiyah Mr. Arthur!” Al cheered, tackling his guardian. “Nana said I could name the bab-“
“I did not!” You retorted, laughing. “I said Mr. Arthur and I get to name the baby! How was your work, love?”
He plopped down on the couch beside you, letting an arm cradle your back. “Ah…it was work. So, who’s ready to play?”
“I am!” Al shouted, followed by Matthew’s quiet nod.
“All right, let’s go! Football it is!” Kirkland snatched the large ball from the toys basket and chucked it outside. “Be back soon, love! You’d better miss me.” He winked.
“Like I couldn’t.” You laughed, watching Alfred and Matthew follow their hyper “daddy”. “I. Love. My family.” You said aloud, hoping everyone in the world could hear you.
“Do you, Francis Bonnefy take this woman to be your wife?” he grinned. “I do.”
“And do you, Ms. Tiffany Akers, take this man to be your husband?” SHE smiled. “I do.”