Derek was up before his alarm went off. He felt good. He couldn’t remember the last time he woke up and didn’t feel like a groggy mess before his morning coffee. After he finished dressing in a pair of jeans and a black v-neck shirt, he strode barefoot to his kitchen area. He put on the filter machine and turned towards the fridge. Derek smiled when he reached for the handle and his eyes landed on the A3 page drawing on it. The day he had gone to the farm for Marie’s skirt turned out to be a surprisingly uplifting one. He and Cleo got out all of her stationary and a few sheets of paper and sat down in the kitchen. He had started by asking her what kind of house she dreamed of and took one of the sheets and a pencil and began the outline of everything she wanted. She had listed a double story with a pool and a playground in the front yard with large windows.
Derek had sketched out everything she asked and added some of his own ideas by angling the roof, adding some well-trimmed trees, shaping the windows in ways that matched the house with curly frames – as to Cleo’s request – and a large balcony with a rail that was made of snowflake patterns – also Cleo’s request. After he finished, Cleo took over and added characters to the picture in bright colors. She drew Mr. West and Emmet at the end of the yard with a garden and animals around them, Derek was on the balcony with Marie – because they were always together according to her – and Cleo was on the swing and a woman that had yellow hair was pushing her. "That’s my mommy," Cleo said and smiled up at him. "She went away to heaven."
Derek, shocked at the information given to him and also not knowing how to handle the discussion of death with a five-year-old, stared at her for a few seconds, trying to find something appropriate to say. "I’m sorry, Cleo. I lost my mom when I was around your age too," he said. "She went to heaven too?" Cleo asked. Derek smiled ruefully. "Yeah," he said, not wanting to go into the details of what he meant by "lost". "Well my mom can be her friend there. She’s really nice," Cleo said and started coloring in the house he had sketched. She went on to telling him about her mother. About how they had gone to the park together where she used to live, how her mother would sit with her while they watched movies together, how great a cook the woman was, and so much more. It was clear that she had a deep connection with her mother.
Derek couldn’t help but feel deeply sorry for Cleo. She had lost such a huge part of her life at such a young age. He also felt a hint of jealousy. He didn’t remember much about his mother, but he remembered enough to know she wasn’t anything like what Cleo described. The woman never cooked, definitely didn’t spend a lot of time with him. He didn’t feel her loss the way his father did. All he ever got from his mother was her dark hair. From photographs he had seen, he knew she was pretty. She had long dark hair and dark brown eyes with a slender form. He didn’t really know her. She was just someone who shared the same house he did. He always thought it was a good thing. He thought it was better that way because he never missed her. But looking at Cleo, he almost yearned for it. Maybe she wouldn’t have left if she actually cared for him the way Cleo’s mother cared for her. It wasn’t fair that her mother, who wanted to be with her, had to die so early while his just up and left and was allowed to live for so long after she did. Yet, Cleo seemed like a relatively peaceful, happy kid. He wasn’t sure how she got it right but she carried her own light with her and it seemed to be infectious.
After they had finished their drawing and was halfway through the next, one where Derek had sketched a castle and Cleo was about to add to it, Emmet stepped in and announced that the birth was happening. Derek had planned on asking his father about what the plans were for Cleo but had completely forgotten when he was caught in the excitement of a little five-year-old. His father had once mentioned that she was in danger. Derek wasn’t sure what but he had a feeling it had to do with Cleo’s birthfather. That had to be it, didn’t it?
Well whatever the case, he felt a connection with Cleo now that he had spent a day with her. The day left him feeling invigorated and light. It was like Cleo gave him a chance to relive the good parts of his childhood.
He closed the fridge door after pulling out the milk and smiled at the drawing on the fridge again. The contrast between the elegance and detail of his sketch of the house and her colorful, messy childlike drawings tugged at something inside him. He was looking forward to the day ahead for two reasons; Marie was back in town, she had landed the night before, and he and Cleo had a little surprise for her.
He was sure things would be a bit awkward between them and Cleo had, without realizing it, come up with the perfect ice breaker. He was looking forward to seeing her again. Derek wasn’t sure what it was about Marie, but he was willing to find out.
Marie groaned as she entered the kitchen. Taylor Swift was blasting from the speaker on the kitchen island and she could not stand the sound. Giselle sang loudly as she cooked herself an omelet. Her sister smiled brilliantly as Marie entered. Giselle’s hair was up in a high, lazy ponytail and she was already dressed in a pair of washed out denim shorts and a white tank. "Good morning," Giselle sang. Marie reached for the speaker on the counter and switched it off then near slammed it back onto the countertop. "Too early," she growled. "For someone who’s such a genius on the classical and jazz front, you’ve got some questionable taste in music," Marie said. "Hey, I’m allowed to have guilty pleasures," Giselle defended. "Can’t you be a normal person and hide those guilty pleasures where the rest of us don’t have to suffer under them?" Mary mumbled as she crossed the kitchen. Giselle laughed, tugging at Marie’s nerves even more. "Oh, yeah, I forgot you don’t do well the morning after a flight," she said as Marie opened the fridge. "I can make you some earl gray if you want," Giselle offered. "Or coffee," Marie said and pulled out a tub of strawberry yogurt then grabbed a spoon and walked back to the kitchen island. Marie sat down and opened the tub.
She felt like she had a hangover. She always did after she tried to sleep off a long flight. Her head felt heavy and her eyes ached. She couldn’t even find it in herself to try to find something cute to wear that morning. She had just showered, put on a pair of shorts threw an over-sized gray sweater, socks and left her hair down. She was glad it was Friday and she didn’t need to leave the house that day.
"Where’s mom?" Giselle asked. "I thought she’d be the one to stop my music today, not you."
"Mom’s at the university. Apparently she took my advice about getting into the marketing committee," Marie said. "Ah," Giselle said and flipped the omelet. "Dad’s at the university as well?"
"As always," Marie said. Giselle gave a little nod. "I think I’ll drop by later. It’s not home unless I’ve been there. Care to join me?"
"I deserve another day off," Marie said and tried to smile but put a spoonful of yogurt into her mouth when she realized she wouldn’t be able to pull off a convincing one. Marie felt her phone buzz in her shorts and let go of the spoon to pull it out. Her heart gave an uncomfortable leap when she saw that it was a message from Derek. She opened it and couldn’t help but smile instantly. It was a selfie of him, Cleo and the most adorable little piglet she had ever seen in her life. Marie moaned out an "aaaw" since she couldn’t sound it with the spoon in her mouth. Marie smiled at the two of them.
She felt a sudden stab of guilt when she remembered what Mrs. West had confided in her a while ago. She had been so distraught from the kiss with Derek that she decided to take the time she would have spent in the tutor session with Prof. Tech and go visit the old lady the next day before her flight. Mrs. West’s patient and motherly presence always calmed her down. She had managed to not tell Mrs. West about the kiss, but had played the piano with such pent up frustration that it poured into the speed at which she was playing and Mrs. West picked it up. They began to chat about Derek, about visits to the farm – something Marie enjoyed greatly –, and had ended up at the topic of Cleo.
Marie adored Cleo from the moment they first spoke. The child was energetic, kind to the animals, and well-behaved. She responded to Mr. West’s warnings when he gave them and found as much joy in the animals as Marie was trying to suppress. Inside she was a bouncing child as well, and she told Mrs. West exactly that. It was only later when they were almost through their tea that Mrs. West had told her about Cleo. It didn’t casually slip out, Mrs. West would never be that careless and she had warned Marie not to tell Derek. Marie was grateful for the long flight later, it gave her a chance to sort through the events that had occurred in the last few days. It seemed to be one thing after another. According to Mrs. West, the only reason she had told her about Cleo was so that Marie could soften the blow for Derek in indirect ways when the truth finally came out. Marie wasn’t sure what she had meant but she had promised to try though she wasn’t sure how she would be able to keep something like this from him. She hoped Mr. West would tell him the truth soon. This wasn’t a subject to be rushed but waiting too long would be a mistake.
"What’s going on?" Giselle asked, bringing her back to the present. Marie sent back the in love emoji and turned the screen towards her sister.
"Aaaw. That’s adorable!" Giselle said while lifting the spatula in thought. Her eyebrows lifted a bit. "I cannot get over how gorgeous his eyes are," Giselle said and took the phone with her free hand and brought it closer to get a better look. Marie took the spoon out of her mouth. "I don’t know how you don’t get lost in them. I’d stare at him all day," Giselle said and gave Marie a half-horrified look. "And I’m engaged," she added and handed her the phone back. Marie laughed and placed her phone faced down onto the counter.
"Derek is . . ." She dropped her eyes and played with her fingers. "When you meet him you’ll understand," Marie said and lifted her eyes to her sister. Her phone buzzed again but this time it kept on vibrating.
Pulling a frown, Marie lifted the phone. "And he’s calling me," she said and answered. "Morning," she said.
"Good morning. Would you mind letting us in?
Marie’s eyes widened. "Wait, you’re outside?" She asked and got off of the chair immediately. "Yup, Cleo decided to take a little joy ride with me."
"Hey, Marie!" Cleo called in the background. "Hey, kiddo," Marie said as she missioned towards the receiving area of their house. She checked the little screen next to the front door. Sure enough, Derek’s car was parked by the gate.
"What on earth?" She asked herself with laughter in her voice. She buzzed them in and watched as the vehicle pulled into their front yard. "Thank you," Derek said and hung up. Marie lowered the phone and opened the door just as they pulled up in front of it.
"Good morning, sunshine." Derek smiled at her and popped open the door. Marie was still stunned from the surprise, but she became acutely aware of her not so steady heartbeat. "What are you two doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?" She asked Derek. He put his hands into his pockets. "I took the day off," he said with a smile that seemed to hold a secret. Cleo ran from the other side of the car with a wooden crate in her arms that had a little blanket over it. "We brought you a gift!" She said and stood next to Derek. Since the front of their house had four tall pillars and was lifted, Marie had to cross the front porch and take the three steps down to them. "Did you?" She asked, smiling at Cleo. She dared to glance at Derek and realized her mistake immediately when she felt her heart skip a beat. His lips tugged at a smile as if he knew what effect he had on her and she looked away immediately. Damn it! She thought she was over this already.
Cleo gave her a massive grin and lifted the crate. "We hope you like it," she said in a singing voice. "I’m sure I –." Marie’s breath caught in her throat when she lifted the blanket away. "Oh, my soul," she whispered in awe, completely stunned at the sight of the pink piglet wrapped in an old blue baby blanket. She reached in and took it from the crate. The little creature looked up at her, smiling in the way all pigs seemed to do and her heart instantly melted. She freed one of her hands and lifted shaking fingers to her lips.
"I don’t believe this," she said. She couldn’t stop staring at the piglet as it studied her with timid curiosity. Her stomach made tight little swirls of excitement and awe.
The sound of Derek’s laughter broke the spell. She looked at him as he leaned towards the piglet and stroked its head lightly. The little one closed its eyes at his touch.
"I knew you’d love her." He looked at Marie, causing a little flutter inside of her. Derek straightened up and put his hands into his pockets. "She was the runt of the litter. I figured you’d never forgive me if I allowed her to be culled." He looked down at Cleo. "And neither would this one but it’s up to you if you want to keep her. She’ll get a bit big after a while but I spoke to my dad and he said you could move her to the farm when she outgrows your yard," he said and raised his eyes to hers. Marie stared at him wordlessly and shook her head in disbelief. He smirked. "You’re starting to scare me a bit," he said when a few seconds had passed. She bit the inside of her lip and turned her eyes back to the piglet, losing it all over again when she looked into those round eyes. "I am overwhelmed."
"Derek..." She shook her head again. "I don’t know what to say." She looked down at Cleo for help. "You could say that you’re keeping her," Cleo suggested, making Marie laugh. "I’m..." she looked at the piglet again. "I’m going to have a hard time explaining this to my parents," she said finally. "So you’re keeping her?" Cleo asked hopefully.
"I suppose so," Marie said and remembered her place. "Why don’t you guys come in then we can decide what to do with this one," she said and gestured towards the house. Cleo walked alongside Marie as they entered the house and gaped at the receiving area which had a high ceiling that stretched to the top of the three floors and you could see the balconies of each floor. The area was tiled with white tiling and polished marble with a grand staircase opposite the door that held the kitchen behind it.
"Wow," Cleo said as she stared up. "Yeah," Derek said, causing her to turn around. Even he was staring at the ceiling. Feeling uncomfortable, Marie looked around as she thought of the proper place to take them for this particular discussion. "Would you guys like to come sit in the conservatory?" She asked. Derek looked at her seeming momentarily surprised. "Of course you’ve got a conservatory," he said and lifted a hand before letting it fall back to his side. "Lead the way," Derek said. Marie did as instructed and tried to breathe evenly as she walked down the long hall. She shouldn’t be so nervous. It was Derek for crying out loud! She looked down at the piglet and had to bite her lip when she saw it was snoozing. Tears prickled the back of her eyes at its adorableness. This was blackmail! Derek had to know she’d never be able to reject a gift so adorable. She wondered for a moment if she would ever be able to give the pig back to Derek or his father. She couldn’t stop staring at it. It was over, she now owned a pig.
The conservatory was structured Victorian style with vines from vineyards stretching over the white frame. The floor was tiled an earthy color. Antique settees stood in the center of it and various other plants grew from the ground or pots near the glass walls.
Marie gestured that they take a seat as she moved for hers. Derek sat on the settee opposite the one she sat at and Cleo plopped herself next to Marie to get a good look at the pig.
"So what are you gonna name her?" Cleo asked. Marie smiled at her and shrugged. "I’ve always wanted a pet named after a periodic element," Marie said. Derek bit back a laugh. "Let me guess." He gave her a level stare. "Cecium?"
Marie looked at him and shook her head. "Helium? Fluoride?"
"Molybdenum," she answered with a sheepish smile and looked at the piglet who had awoken in her arms. "Then she can have Molly as a nickname," she said and glanced at Derek who shook his head.
"Only you, Marie," he said. He held her gaze for a second too long, causing her to lower her eyes with a slight flinch. "I think Molly wants to come play," Cleo said, reminding them she was there. "I think you might be right," Marie said and Derek noticed the piglet had begun squirming in the blanket. Marie lifted and searched through the folds of the blanket for a way to free Molly safely. Derek smirked at her efforts and came closer. He knelt by her side.
"I’m assuming you’re going to adopt her now?"
"You’re insane if you think I’m giving her back."
Derek laughed and helped her untangle the pig. He felt a jolt of excitement when his fingers graced over hers in the process but neither of them paused to judge the effect of the touch. When the pig was free, it immediately jumped from Marie’s lap. Marie made a sound of alarm and sprung to her feet then relaxed when the creature scampered off through the open door of the conservatory behind Derek and ran into their backyard, seeming completely unharmed and oblivious to Marie’s concern. "I’ve got it!" Cleo called, excited by the event and ran after the piglet into the yard. Derek laughed again and stood as well. "Breathe, Marie," he said when he realized she was standing frozen as she stared through the glass at Cleo chasing after Molly. Marie took a deep breath through her nose. "I guess I’ve got a lot to get used to," she said, wrapping her arms around herself. She kept her eyes on the glass behind him, avoiding his gaze. "So when do you think you’re gonna find the courage to look at me?" He asked. Marie shook her head. "I’m not scared," she said and looked at him but couldn’t manage it without a flinch. He smiled as he stared into the vibrant green color. "I can tell," he said with mild sarcasm. He took a step closer and was surprised when she didn’t back away. She had a look of determination in her eyes now. Good, he thought. At least this way he knew she wouldn’t run away.
"What about now? Scared yet?" He asked in a low tone. "What are you doing, Derek?" she asked with a small shake of her head. "Do you think it’s acceptable to kiss me and just assume that I’m okay with it?"
Derek paused. He wanted so desperately to do it again.
"Firstly, that wasn’t a kiss, that was a peck, Marie. Secondly, when I kiss you again, I’ll do a better job of it." He smirked. "I’m really not bad at it."
Her eyes narrowed. "Don’t count on it."
"Is that a challenge?"
Marie opened her mouth to say something but now sound came out. Derek couldn’t help but smile when he realized she didn’t know what to say.
Marie felt her cheeks heat and nearly cussed. What’s worse was that he was actually enjoying this!
"No! Derek, I’m not the kind of girl that’ll just succumb to your charm."
"That’s probably one of the reasons you intrigue me so much," he said. Marie hated herself for the feeling that warmed her chest. "Derek... Could you just for a moment consider that I didn’t want to be kissed by you? That I might have been offended by the impulse?"
She watched as the humor drained from his eyes. She suddenly felt frozen under his gaze, unable to move. She wondered for a moment if she might have made a mistake.
"I’m sorry for kissing you, Marie," he said in a low voice that nearly made her tremble. The color drained from her face at the shock of his sudden apology. The atmosphere changed instantly. He was sincere, she realized. She was even more surprised by the disappointment she felt. "I’m sorry it happened that way but I’m not sorry it happened," he clarified. "Oh," Marie breathed out, not knowing how else to react. The corner of his lip tugged at a smile. "I’d love a repeat though."
Her heart began to race. Derek gave a breathy laugh and lifted his hand to cup her cheek. His thumb stroked idly and gently over her cheek, his cool fingers a horrifying relief against her hot skin. "I never thought I’d enjoy seeing you blush so much," he said and stared, amused, at what was probably a bright pink cheek right now. Marie realized her chest was heaving and tried to steady her breathing. "I’m going to kiss you again, Marie," he said and met her eye. "But the next time it happens, you’re going to be the one to initiate it, not me."
His hand dropped from her face and he took a step back, taking the heat of the moment with him. His eyes were calm as he stared back at her but his dilated pupils gave him away.
"I’m gonna go help Cleo catch that pig of yours," he said and turned around, leaving her to sort through the turmoil of her emotions and thoughts.