IT IS JUST BEFORE nine when the Audi turns into the driveway of a colonial-style mansion. Ivy and ferns have grown through the cracks of the stone path, which lead directly to the colossal structure. The mansion loomed proudly behind creaky iron gates, sided by rows of tall trees, swaying gently to the chilly wind. At its threshold stood the delicate marble fountain, the soft gurgling of the clear water was melodic as it resonated in the surrounding silence. It's breathtaking, even down to the roses around the door. Picture-book perfect.
"Are you ready for this?" Charles asks as he pulls up outside the impressive front door.
I nod, and he gives my hand another reassuring squeeze.
"First for me, too, as you are officially coming home for the first time." he whispers, then smiles.
I flush. He climbs out of the car and opens my door. I turn and climb out of the car.
Mrs. Brown is on the doorstep waiting for us. She looks elegantly sophisticated in a pale blue silk dress. Behind her stands Mr. Brown, tall, blond, and as handsome in his own way as Charles.
"Mr. Brown, what a pleasure to meet you." I smile and shake his outstretched hand.
"The pleasure is all mine, Caroline and a very happy birthday."
"Thank you and please, call me Care."
"Care, happiest birthday my darling and such a pleasure to see you again." Mrs. Brown wraps me in a warm hug
"Thank you Mrs. Brown, and pleased to see you too." I reply shyly.
"Come in, my dear."
"Is she here?" I hear a screech from within the house. I glance all collected at Charles.
"And there she is, Jenny, my sister and your darling girlfriend," he says almost irritably, but not quite.
There's an undercurrent of affection in his words, the way his voice grows softer and his eyes crinkle as he mentions her name. Charles obviously adores her. It's a revelation. And she comes barreling down the hall, perfectly tied hair, tall, and curvaceous. She's about my age and that is why we got along so easily. She has been my backbone when Charles was in London.
"Care! Finally, finally Charles bought you home. A very happy birthday." She hugs me hard.
Holy cow. I can't help but smile at her boundless enthusiasm.
I smile as she drags me into the large vestibule. It was indeed Elizabethan, with wooden panels along the corridors, ornate chandeliers, and oil paintings of old bearded men in tunics and ruffs. Upon the walls were the photographs of children, so obviously so loved. The floor was dark wood and there was a sweeping staircase to the second floor. It was welcoming from the open door to the wide hallway.
"You know you are the first and the last girl in his life." says Jenny, dark eyes bright with excitement.
"Jenny, calm down," Mrs. Brown admonishes softly. "Hello, darling and welcome back home," she says as she kisses Charles on both cheeks. He smiles down at her warmly, and then swiftly embraces his father.
We all turn and head into the living room. Jenny has not let go of my hand. The room is spacious, tastefully furnished in creams, browns, and pale blues-comfortable, understated, and very stylish.
"Hi, Care! and a very Happy Birthday." Alex grasps me in an all-embracing hug. What is this, Hug Care Week? This dazzling display of affection, I'm just not used to it. Charles stands at my side, wrapping his arm around me. Placing his hand on my hip, he spreads out his fingers and pulls me close. Everyone is staring at us. It's making me nervous.
"Juice?" Mr. Brown seems to recover himself. "Orange?"
"Please," Charles and I speak in unison.
Oh ... this is beyond being cute. Jenny claps her hands.
"You're even saying the same things." She hastens out of the room. I flush scarlet.
"Breakfast is almost ready," Mrs. Brown says as she follows Jenny out of the room.
"Sit," he commands, pointing to the plush couch, and I do as I'm told, carefully crossing my legs. He sits down beside me.
Jenny saunters back into the living room and hands each of us a glass filled with fresh orange juice.
"Breakfast is ready," Mrs. Brown announces.
We all stand. Jenny and Alex follow Mr. Brown out of the room. I go to follow, but Charles clutches my elbow, bringing me to an abrupt halt and plants a soft swift kiss on my lips.
"I love you!" he whispers softly near my ears and I turn rosy.
He then seems to remember himself. Releasing my elbow, he takes my hand and leads me out of the room.
The dining has a crystal chandelier hanging over the dark wood table and there's a massive, excessively decorated mirror carved on the wall. The table, covered with a crisp white linen tablecloth, is set, with a bowl of pale pink peonies as the centerpiece. It's stunning.
We take our places. Mr. Brown is at the head of the table, while I sit at his right hand, and Charles is seated beside me. Jenny takes her seat beside Charles and, grabbing his hand, squeezes it tightly. Charles smiles warmly at her.
Mrs. Brown reappears carrying two plates, followed by a pretty young woman with blond pigtails, dressed smartly in pale blue, carrying a tray of plates. Her eyes immediately find Charles in the room. She blushes and gazes at him from under her long mascara-covered lashes.
"Thank you, Gretchen," Mrs. Brown says gently. "Just leave the tray there." she orders pointing in a direction to the end of the table. Gretchen nods, and with another secretive glance at Charles, she leaves.
So the Browns have staff, and the staff are eyeing up my boyfriend. Can this get any worse? I scowl at my hands in my lap.
"Please start, everyone." Mrs. Brown smiles as she hands me a plate.
It smells delicious-scrambled eggs, grilled bacon, fresh fruits, baked beans, toasted bread, and white pudding accompanied by tea and coffee. And in spite of the stealthy glances from pretty little Miss Pigtails, I am starving.
The petit déjeuner is delicious and I concentrate on eating while Mr. Brown, Alex and Charles discuss baseball. Charles seems relaxed and calm talking to his family after such a long time.
As we finish our breakfast, Gretchen appears, and not for the first time, I wish I felt able to put my hands freely on Charles just to let her know-he may be handsome and mesmerizing, but he's mine. She proceeds to clear the table, brushing rather too closely to Charles for my liking. Fortunately, he seems ignorant to her, but my inner goddess is burning and not in a good way.
"Have you been to London, Care?" Jenny asks innocently, distracting me from my jealous reverie.
"No, but I'd love to go." I know I'm the only one at the table who has never left the USA.
"We honeymooned in London." Mrs. Brown smiles at Mr. Brown, who grins back at her.
It's almost embarrassing to witness. They obviously love each other deeply, and I wonder for a brief moment what it must be like to grow up old together.
"It's a beautiful place," Jenny agrees.
"You all can continue i have to work." Charles states in a very serious tone. "I am sorry baby, but I have a mountain of business to get through by this afternoon. The exhibition is on its way soon."
"It's cool." I reluctantly agree and he leans forward and kisses me, folding me in his arms.
"How about I make up for this by baking you a cake?" he questions with a smile
My eyes light up like a small girl beaming with happiness.
"A chocolate cake?"
"You want a chocolate cake?" He clarifies amusingly
"I'll see what I can do, Miss. Birthday girl."
He kisses me once more.
Whole of the afternoon has passed, we have had our evening coffee also, it is almost seven in the evening. The dusk has come to bring us moonlight, to the time of reflection upon the day passed and awaiting day to be renewed by the light of the sun, but still there is no sign of Charles or his baked chocolate cake. I am starting to worry now as to how much work he has to comply with today.
Over our dessert of dark chocolate tart, Jenny entertains us with her exploits in London. Alex holds forth about his latest work.
"No, not anymore. I can't wait anymore I need to find him and know whether things are okay and how much more time is he going to take." I excuse myself, get up and start walking towards his office
"Ma'am do you need something?" Gretchen inquires
"No, nothing. I just need to find Charles." I state
"Oh! He is in the backyard." she enlightens me
"Backyard? What is he doing there?" Gretchen's updation leaves me completely baffled
"Okay. Thank you Gretchen."
I step out angry and confused onto a gray flagstone area with native shrubs, each of them trimmed as if they were green flames and lit by recessed lights in the rock. There are several woody plants in gray stone tubs and a chic metal table and chairs set up in one corner. I walk through the vast lawn that leads me down to the bay... oh my it's beautiful. To move about them is a sort of music, a poetry that cannot be spoken in words, yet is heard and calms everything. It is so picturesque, so peaceful. I stand and gape for a moment then realize that I have to see Charles.