The sun was finally starting to warm things up on the park bench where Regan sat, drinking coffee and watching the townhouse across the street. A friend had helped her access a reverse phone directory, and the number she’d gotten from Freddy led her here.
She felt like a fool, sitting in the little park and watching the house for signs of Julien. Why was she doing this? What if he did appear? What would she say?
She wrapped her fashionable peacoat tighter at the doubts flashing through her mind, and took another sip from her cup. Her free hand was tempted to fidget with the necklace like she’d been doing all weekend, but she restrained herself. Instead she got angry with herself for letting a guy she barely knew worm his way so deep into her thoughts. This is ridiculous! I’m acting like a schoolgirl with a crush!
She was just about to leave when the door to the townhouse opened and someone whose every movement screamed “bodyguard” stepped out. His eyes were scanning the street as he stepped away from the house, and then Julien appeared with a stroller!
Regan’s heart sank as she watched him maneuver the stroller down the steps and onto the sidewalk. Stroller meant baby, baby meant wife, and wife meant Julien wasn’t available for any serious relationship. But why should she care? Relationships for her weren’t supposed to be serious, they were just a means to get ahead. Right?
She watched as he pushed the stroller down the sidewalk to the corner, and then waited for the light before crossing. That simple act revealed that he really wasn’t a New Yorker. Only visitors crossed at intersections with the light. Although the presence of the bodyguard may have helped keep him in line.
The trio came into the park and over to bench where Regan was sitting. “Miss Cunningham, right?”
“Mr. Cross! Fancy meeting you here!”
“You and I both know better than that. You’ve been watching the house for half an hour, waiting for me to come out. I thought it was time to oblige you.”
“You’re right. I had a devil of a time tracking you down!”
“And yet you did. Mind telling me why?”
“Why, the necklace, of course! I just couldn’t wait to hear the story!” She reached into her coat and fished out the necklace to show him it was still around her neck.
“Still have it, I see. I won’t ask how you tracked me down.”
“Thank you. A girl’s gotta keep her secrets!” She looked down at the stroller. “Looks like you’ve been keeping secrets, too!”
“That’s no secret, that’s my daughter Genevieve! Jenny, say hello to Miss Cunningham.” He squatted down and freed a toddler from the stroller, then lifted her up so she could see and be seen.
“Hello, Jenny! You are quite the cutie!” A big smile appeared between the fuzzy hat and scarf, and her eyes darted from Regan to her father.
“She hasn’t had much exposure to English, so I doubt she understands your words, but she certainly understands a kind voice. Don’t you, mein liebchen!” He gave the child a hug then stood her on the walk. She immediately toddled over to the bench looking like a little teddy bear in her warm winter clothes.
“You never told me you had a daughter. Were you ever going to?”
“Of course I was! If I’d had my wallet I would have bored everyone at that gallery with all the pictures and stories. You were lucky!”
“I suppose. And her mother?” At the bold question Julien’s face fell.
“She died shortly after Jenny was born. I still mourn her.”
“I see. I’m sorry to bring up sad memories with my tactless questions.”
“That’s all right, you didn’t know. Can I tell you the story of the necklace now?”
While they had been talking an older woman had joined them — a nurse, Regan supposed. The nurse took Jenny over to the playground equipment while Regan and Julien settled onto the bench and positioned themselves so they could watch the child while they talked.
Julien began. “I come from Rubintal, which is a tiny little country — little more than a protectorate — along the border of Austria. It’s a beautiful place, nestled between the peaks of seven mountains with a small lake and only one narrow road in or out.
“Remote and hard to get to, the only things we have to offer the world are rubies like the one in your pendant. And not many of those, either. Any country that tried to conquer us would quickly find it wasn’t worth the effort.
“Of course, we’d rather they not even make the effort, so centuries ago we established a policy of purchasing our freedom. We allied ourselves with every surrounding kingdom, paying tribute with those rubies and whenever possible marrying our rulers into their noble families. This worked surprisingly well, and for seven hundred years the empires of Europe have flowed around our borders while we have remained intact and independent.
“Now those empires have fallen, but the treaties that grant our existence are still in effect so our country still exists, know by only a few. Which is fine with us. We are a small country with a small population that is more or less self-sufficient, and ever year we unearth a few more rubies and some sapphires that insure our existence and pay for the few things we need from the outside world.”
“So what brings you to New York? Shopping, like you said?”
“In a way. A little over a year ago my daughter Jenny was born, and her mother, Rose, who I loved very much, died as a result of her labors. I have been the best father I can, but I have finally been forced to admit that I can’t raise her alone.”
“But clearly you’re not! You have a nurse, and bodyguards, and that fussy little man that was waving at you at the party. I don’t think you know what being a single parent is really like!”
“You’re right, of course, but unfortunately my other responsibilities keep me from lavishing my daughter with the attention she deserves. Which is where the necklace comes in.”
“Oh? How so?”
“As you probably guessed, I’m ‘shopping’ for a new wife to help raise my daughter, to be the mother she so desperately needs. The necklace is kind of a good luck charm. It helps sort potential mates, to identify those possessing qualities needed in a good wife and mother. You might think of it as my country’s version of speed dating.”
Regan laughed at the wry grin that appeared on his face as he said that.
“I would have told you all this the next time I saw you. You didn’t have to go to all the trouble to search me out.” He looked deep into her eyes. “But I’m glad you did,” he said.
She caught her breath and said “I’m glad I did, too. It gave me a chance to meet Jenny, and to see you in your natural environment!”
This time it was his turn to laugh. “This is nothing like my natural environment! This is a concerted effort by my handlers to break me out of my rut and get me fully functional again.”
“Oh? And what is it you do that has them so worried?”
“That, my dear, is a story for another time. Now I must play with Jenny.” With that he stood up. “You can join us if you’d like, but no serious talk. This is Jenny’s time!” He headed over to where his daughter was playing, and Regan scrambled to catch up with him.
Next chapter -> A Trip to the Kingdom
- A Bite of the Apple: Gallery Opening (fictionrules.wordpress.com)
- A Bite of the Apple – The Pawn Shop (fictionrules.wordpress.com)