It has taken me a while to write this short chapter because I have been busy with other things. Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. 😀
While taking in the view of Miss Candice snuggling against her adoptive father’s athletic frame, a discouraging thought slithered into Darren’s mind.
Who among us comes anywhere close to Sir William in splendor and wealth? How could she not succumb to his irresistible charms?
But Darren shook his head stubbornly to banish this negative thought. Miss Candice is not a golddigger! Yet…
Darren sighed to himself. He must admit Sir William was a very handsome man, if not one of the most sought after bachelors in the country. Just then, the millionaire loosened his grip and gently pushed the young lady away from him, and Darren immediately backed up as noiselessly as possible. He didn’t want either of them to discover his presence, and a part of him loathed to see them kiss, which naturally happened after a loving embrace.
But Darren heard Sir William murmur to Miss Candice instead. On one hand, Darren was too far away to overhear. On the other hand, he figured it was impolite for him to hang around if Miss Candice was having a secret rendezvous with her adoptive father. Therefore, Darren headed back to the crowd with doubts and disbelief in his head.
As he stood alone in a quiet corner, pondering his next move, his father suddenly appeared before him. “There you are, Darren! Where have you been?”
The young man came up with some random excuse, and his father was apparently unconvinced. Thus, Mr. McPherson gave Darren an advice before he turned around, “Some people approached me. Stop pursuing her, my son.”
Darren instantly grabbed his father’s shoulder to stop him from leaving, and Darren also made a big step closer so that he could whisper, “Yes, she worked as a housemaid before, but so what?”
Then the young man straightened up and raised a valid question in a challenging tone, “Father, don’t you always teach me a person’s background doesn’t really matter?”
His father faced him with solemnness in his eyes, nodding in agreement. “Under normal circumstances, that’s right.”
As his son raised a quizzical brow after that, the man leaned in and breathed to his ear, “Her reputation is tainted. My oversight.”
Then Mr. McPherson walked away, leaving his son astounded by the conflicting emotions of denial, anger, and despair. Why? Are those people jealous of her? Or is it related to her queer relationship with Sir William?
That was the closest apology Darren would get from someone like his father, whose last few words kept ringing in Darren’s head like an echo. Though Darren usually refused to give credence to rumors, he couldn’t rid of the image he had just seen out in the courtyard with his own eyes. Based on his life experience and his personal impression of Miss Candice, Darren was inclined to believe that the charismatic millionaire was the one to blame. Is it possible that he delivered the naïve but beautiful orphan girl from the Leagans with indecent motives?
It wasn’t hard for Darren to imagine what tactics Sir William had employed to make the young girl fall for him over the years. Thus, filled with indignant rage, Darren determined to get to the bottom of this. Growing up being taught the virtue of persistence, he wouldn’t easily give up Miss Candice without doing some investigation himself.
Meanwhile, Albert was using his handkerchief to dab the wetness from Candy’s eyelashes and cheeks. He had convinced her to return to the ballroom with him before people realized they were missing.
Candy lived in a place remote enough from the city of Chicago, where people had been gossiping behind her back. First, Neil had slipped out the fact to the relatives that Sir Ardlay, while being amnesiac and penniless, had lived together with the nurse, Candy, not just a few days, but more than two years. Then, ever since people had discovered that the nurse had actually been fired by the hospital owing to her misconduct, people had come up with different stories why the adopted daughter of powerful Sir William A. Ardlay had to stay away from Chicago for so long, leading a boring life like a poor girl in a humble village. The fact that the nurse resided in the orphanage where she had grown up had only reinforced the notion that the caretakers would keep their mouths shut about Miss Ardlay’s dark secrets.
Even Madam Elroy had been alarmed by the gossips circulating around their social circles, but her nephew had vowed to her that he had never crossed the line with the girl while living together. Moreover, he had appeared unaffected and thus done nothing concrete to dispel any of the vicious rumors, which essentially fueled more speculations. More than a year had since elapsed, and when the rumors had died down at long last, the purchase of the land and the reconstruction project of the orphanage had rekindled the scandal that Sir Ardlay had an illegitimate child disguised as one of the orphans, and the child was being taken care of by none other than the young, unmarried mother.
Madam Elroy had been inflamed to near madness. This had marred and ruined her nephew’s image, which had contributed to his reluctance to socializing and making acquaintances with respectable ladies from the high society. Thus, when her nephew had indicated his plan to bring Candice to the grand opening party, the matriarch had urged him to deal with this ongoing trouble once and for all. While listening to his proposal to show the world that he would not be ashamed to bring his adopted daughter as his partner for a formal occasion, and that Candice was innocent but highly desirable, not a miserable woman who had to hide in disgrace all this time, the matriarch had readily given her acquiescence, “By all means, William. Do whatever you can to stop the rumors.” Oblivious to him, Madam Elroy had high hopes to kill two birds with one stone by presenting Candice to the society. The young woman’s debut had been long overdue, something which William had been putting off, so the old matriarch had taken this opportunity to personally encourage and sponsor the Leagans to invite even more people to the opening party. After the event, Madam Elroy would welcome any suitor who was willing to take this burden off their shoulders. In fact, the old lady had seriously considered arranging Candice to move back to Chicago so that she could marry her off as soon as possible, but she wouldn’t disclose her scheme to her nephew until after the opening party.
Therefore, no matter how much Albert had relished holding Candy in his arms, his conscience had nagged at him. What if people catch us hugging each other here? No, I shouldn’t let my emotions get the better of me. I’ve done enough harm to her reputation already…
Meanwhile, though Candy would usually wipe the tears herself, she was practically melting under Albert’s tenderness. While hugging him, she couldn’t have felt more serene, knowing that she hadn’t lost him. Like a drowning person finding a piece of floating plank in the ocean, she became aware that she wasn’t as hopeless as she had assumed. Not only she could feel the throb of his heartbeat matching hers, but for the first time, she sensed that the turbulence of her feelings had been reciprocated. If she wasn’t mistaken, she was not the only one who had violent emotions trapped inside, and it seemed to her that he could barely contain his feelings too.
As a matter of fact, the strength of his embrace was beyond comforting. She wondered if she had ever been locked in his arms like that before, as though he had tried to squeeze all the air out of her lungs, but she would never complain about the need to fight for her breath while being pressed to his warm bosom. Even though it had only lasted a couple of minutes at most, the way his arms had firmly closed around her had made her feel so cherished, and she hadn’t realized the depth of her hunger for his touch until now.
Most importantly, she had no regrets about yielding to her overwhelming sentiments earlier. The instant he had abruptly walked away from her while she had been still talking, her lonely days without him in the House of Magnolia had resurfaced in her mind. Back then, he had suddenly vanished, and he had unknowingly taken a piece of her with him. Yet, just few minutes ago, the moment she had laid her cheek against his heaving chest, the sound of his thudding heartbeat echoing in her ears had made her feel complete. It was like the missing piece had finally come back to her and made her whole again.
At that very second, Candy had known better than ever nobody else could make her feel this way. Only Albert could. He had always held a special place in her heart, and the mere thought of being separated from him forever had been unbearably frightening. Hence, she had essentially backed down from her resolve to leave him, and she believed Miss Pony and Sister Lane would understand her feelings and respect her decision to leave her future in God’s hands.
When Albert put his handkerchief back into his pocket, Candy was hoping he would give her one last hug before heading back. She missed being enveloped by his arms and his body scent. As if he had seen through her, he stooped down and picked up his jacket, draping it around her shoulders to ward off the wind. Unlike before, she accepted his affectionate gesture and closed her eyes briefly, savoring the familiar fragrance on his jacket to relive the precious moment between them. When he ensured the jacket was in place, he gave a casual remark as though he was talking about someone else, “You know, my partner was so popular tonight that I didn’t even have a chance to get close to her. Not to mention lots of people got in my way too, wanting my attention.”
Having said that, he heaved an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. At the realization that she had totally misunderstood him, a mix of shame and relief passed through her. She was glad she hadn’t said anything to him that she would regret. In response, she lowered her head and mumbled to herself, “I thought you were too busy for me…”
He believed he heard her as her near inaudible voice faded even more, but he pretended not hearing anything. Then he wrapped his hand around hers, leading her to sit down on the nearest bench. “Please wait here. I’ll find your belongings.”
A short interval later he reappeared with her shoes and sequined purse in his hands. After passing them back to her, he sat beside her, waiting for her to strap her high heels back to her feet. Neither of them mentioned anything that had occurred just before the emotional embrace except the following, “Candy, I think I should inform you that your makeup-”
“I know. It’s smeared, right?” she asked, smiling however. She’d rather sit here with him than returning to the party, and she was at ease even though she might look ugly to him now. The man had seen her worst moments in life after all. “Do I look horrible?” She was more curious than anxious.
Her question put a tender smile on his face. “Smeared, yes, but not too bad.”
As she unconsciously cupped her cheek with her own hand, he added, “You look alright to me, Candy, just that…”
He paused here, scrutinizing her features. She glanced shyly at him and prompted, smiling and taking her hand down, “What?”
Grinning now, he winked and remarked in a mischievous tone, “That means nobody dares to come near you again.”
She burst out laughing. He joined in her laughter, but little did he expect that she would lean her head against his shoulder. “You have my pity, Albert. You’re stuck with me this evening.”
He reacted to this with a feigned chuckle, but deep down he thought, I’d give anything to have you by my side… forever!
Lately, he had been contemplating a confession because he was quite serious about sharing his future with her, but it would depend on her reaction to his confession. Also, in an attempt to woo her, he had been busy preparing special presents in his already limited spare time for her upcoming birthday. If she found his conduct unacceptable or even repulsive, she could always tell him to back off. Or, if he discovered that her feelings for him would not go beyond brotherly affection, he would accept his role in her life and wish her happiness. On the other hand, if by any chance she would reciprocate his feelings to some degree, he would continue to court her, and in due time, he would terminate their adoptive relationship.
For the time being, though Albert wanted to wrap his arm around Candy’s shoulder, he knew Mrs. Leagan was aware that he had been looking for Candy. It was a matter of time before anyone would find them here. Thus, he asked softly, “Want to wash your face now?”
She nodded quietly and straightened up, albeit reluctantly. At this point, the moon peeked her head from behind a dark cloud, and their gaze met and locked. They froze at their spots, the only noises being their loud breathing and the water cascading down the wishing fountain roughly ten meters away. Under the beam of moonlight, he looked so endearingly handsome to her that her heart skipped a beat; his golden hair was dazzling in its radiance, and his chiseled features were further enhanced by the shadows cast on his flawless face. Above all, she got lost in his crystal clear blue pools of light.
Likewise, as a shaft of moonlight caressed her face, showcasing her perfect complexion and making her eyes glow with the delightful shade of green, he was so enchanted that he boldly ignored the forbidding voice from within. What struck him more though was the yearning in her emerald orbs, which held him spellbound. For me? Am I dreaming?
Dazed, he reached out to brush her fringe with his fingertips. She gasped softly, her eyes widening at his butterfly touch, but rather than flinching, she swallowed hard, her stunned eyes glued to his captivating blue ones with anticipation. When he tucked her stray hair behind her ear, her breathing quickened and her pulse raced. Not only that, her chest was visibly rising up and down at an increasing rate. To him, it was no illusion that she desired him.
Their gaze remained intense until a skeptical thought flashed across his head. She had never looked at him that way before, and knowing that she had long considered him as her big brother, he quickly disregarded the idea as preposterous, if not his wishful thinking. Perhaps, he had been under the influence of alcohol just like her. Besides, as a gentleman, he shouldn’t take advantage of a young lady when she was emotional unsteady or not completely sober. Thus, he was able to avert his eyes at last. Then he inhaled deeply and stood up with determination.
Feeling more perplexed than ever, she also felt let down. When she raised her eyes at him in puzzlement, he looked down and offered his hand to her with a charming smile, as if nothing unusual had happened between them, “You need to fix your hair too, Candy. Do you want me to find Mary for you?”
She composed herself and thanked him for his thoughtfulness. Due to lack of practice, she was in desperate need of someone to help her fix her appearance. Of all the Leagans’ employees, Candy liked Mary the most. That was what she had told Albert while living together in the apartment.
They headed back through the side door that led straight to the changing rooms for swimmers. Albert remembered this because Mr. Leagan had given him a private tour earlier this morning.
As soon as Candy found the ladies’ room, she removed the tuxedo jacket and gave it back to its owner, revealing her snug bodice that flaunted her feminine curves. Albert forced himself to look away after his gaze had helplessly swept the porcelain skin along her V-shaped neckline. He couldn’t possibly deny the rush of heat infusing his veins at this moment. Candy had grown more alluring than she had ever been, and no wonder his aunt had spoken highly of the famous designer, who had indeed done an outstanding job in bringing out Candy’s best qualities.
Then Albert said, avoiding direct eye contact with the attractive lady, “See you back in the ballroom, Candy. Dinner will begin soon, and I’m supposed to give a toast. I’ll tell Mary that the wind has blown some dust into your eyes, OK?”
“Sounds good, thanks again, Albert!” she confirmed before disappearing into the ladies. Now she understood why he had told her earlier that people would start looking for them any minute. Sir William was one of the most important guests after all.
As expected, Mary was busy, but once she knew that Miss Candice needed help, she gladly obliged. “I’ll be there in a moment, Sir Ardlay!”
Then Albert entered the ballroom. It took him several minutes to spot Mr. Leagan among the guests. The host had his head thrown back in laughter and delight. When the host noticed the presence of Sir William, he excused himself from others. Then Mr. Leagan approached the patriarch and apprised him that the dinner would start in about fifteen minutes. The younger man nodded his acknowledgment and uttered, “I’ll be back, Mr. Leagan.”
Albert cut through the crowd and headed straight for the long wall of French windows that opened onto the huge verandah that overlooked Miami Beach. He wasn’t alone. A handful of people were here too, chatting with one another. Yet, Albert didn’t mind and simply stood away from them. Staring into the far distance and listening to the refreshing sound of water hitting the shore, he mulled over the events of the preceding hour or so. Before long, he realized Candy’s intoxicating scent still lingered on his vest and shirt, and he couldn’t help taking a deep breath to inhale the pleasant smell.
While sorting out his tangled thoughts, he deduced that he might have been wrong to assume her odd behavior had been a result of too much champagne. He had a hunch she had feelings bottled up inside her, and for unknown reason, he could be the one who had been upsetting her. He vividly remembered her near outbursts, in particular her frustration about having to address him differently under different situations.
Nevertheless, his sudden departure had seemingly frightened her, and she had thrown herself at him right after that, ready to make peace with him. Their affectionate hug was undoubtedly another memorable experience to him, and the way she had moulded into his arms had been more than flattering. However, it had remained a mystery to him how the tidal waves of her emotions had been tamed, and she had appeared placid after the embrace as though she had been somewhat consoled. Needless to say, he was immensely bewildered by the speed of her mood swing within half an hour. But why? What has been pestering her? What made her this flustered, even agitated, this evening? Why did she cry out there in the dark by herself?
He began to worry that Candy probably had overheard the dirty gossips about her during the party. However, he soon dismissed that thought. She looked so gorgeous tonight that she made people draw in their breath upon seeing her. In addition to the positive energy that constantly emanated from her, she didn’t look like a woman who had lived in shame for two years. Not to mention that her svelte figure was a solid proof that the rumors were utterly false. A woman who had recently given birth to a child wouldn’t have such a petite frame.
But then their conversations at dinner yesterday came back to him. Candy could talk about Terry or Susanna in a tranquil tone, no tears glistening in her eyes anymore, and later she had even asked Albert if he had been in a courting phase with anyone.
Putting two and two together, Albert felt elation welling up inside him. He recalled the anticipation in her lovely eyes when his fingers had stroked her hair out there in the garden. Could it be… no, it can’t be… Was it not my wishful thinking? Oh gosh… Is that why she has been somewhat angry at me all this time?
Albert had reasons to believe that her deep platonic affection for him might have plausibly evolved into romantic feelings. This was his dream coming true, but at the same time he warned himself not to harbor any false hope. Nonetheless, he decided to accompany Candy on her way back to Pony’s Home. He would have to discuss with George first to rearrange his tight schedule.