I led Thomas and his little sister into the side room. Megan gasped and, without even checking with her brother, ran straight for the dolls. She and a little girl immediately struck up a fantasy game and I turned to smile at Thomas. His was one mixed with sadness and fondness.
"She's a beautiful girl," I complimented.
"Thank you. I am doing my best but lately she's been...." He cleared his throat. "So, why did your mother decide to throw such a lovely party?"
We walked back into the dining room and he handed me a glass of champagne, taking one for himself. We lingered around the edge of the room. I wanted to go further in but my mother had sent me away. I watched a little jealously as she showed Bryant off like a show horse. He smiled sympathetically at me but I just grinned with a small wave.
"She wishes to welcome those who do not have the luxuries we do," I said.
And because she loves flaunting her wealth.
"It was very kind of her," Thomas said. "Megan was most excited to come."
"Where are your parents?" I asked and gasped when his face fell. "Oh, I'm so sorry Mr. Buckley. I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't," he said with a smile. "It's natural to be curious. It was a house fire. Megan was only two at the time so she doesn't remember it."
"How old were you?"
"Twenty-two," he answered, taking a rather larger gulp of champagne than necessary.
I could feel his discomfort so I changed the subject.
"How long have you worked with Ivan?"
"Almost three months now," he said. "Ivan is... he's a great man."
I giggled. "He's a character. I've always loved going down to visit him."
He nodded and we observed the party. Finally, Bryant was able to break free of my mother's clutches and grabbed a glass of champagne as a person was walking by.
"Sorry I haven't come by sooner," he said, shaking Thomas's hand. "I'm glad you could make it this evening."
"Megan wouldn't let me miss it," he laughed and I could tell the little girl meant more to him than anything.
"Where is she?"
"Playing with the other kids," Thomas answered.
While he and my brother talked, I observed Thomas Buckley out of the corner of my eye. He was incredibly handsome; more so now that he had cleaned and shaved. His skin was kissed by the sun and the simple clothing he wore still seemed to compliment his physique instead of taking away from it.
When Thomas went to check on his sister, I saw Bryant smirking. I got my fan out, fanning myself gently, aware my face had gone pink.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" Bryant teased.
"Where is your special guest?" I asked, dodging the question.
"She went to the washroom," he answered. "Where is your special guest?"
I cleared my throat. "I may or may not have left him on the veranda."
Bryant laughed loudly. "Oh, my dear sister, you are a devil."
I smiled but sighed again, watching as my mother glided through the room.
"I really wish I didn't have to be here," I confided in him and his smile changed. "I know she doesn't want me to be."
"She does," he said quickly. "She's just greeting everyone."
I rolled my eyes. "Don't fool yourself, brother. She'd be just as happy if I-"
"Mr. Buckley," Bryant interrupted and I took another gulp of champagne as he came up beside me again. "You know, Megan seems to like Elvira."
He laughed. "Who couldn't?"
I blushed at his compliment.
"Every Tuesday, my sister holds a reading for the little kids," Bryant said. "Tell him about it while I mingle some more," he whispered in my ear under the pretext of kissing my cheek.
"It's nothing special," I said. I gestured at the room they were playing in. "As Bryant said, they come every Tuesday at one in the afternoon. I read a book to them and we have a tea party."
"Megan would adore it," he said. "She hasn't had much of a chance to make friends yet. How much does it cost?"
"Oh, it's free," I said.
He beamed. "What time?"
Three days later, I went into the play area to straighten out the pillows the kids sat on and browsed through the different children's books I had. A maid came in with the tea and finger sandwiches while another brought in blankets and desserts.
"Thank you, ladies," I said. "They'll be here soon."
"Yes ma'am," they said in unison and curtsied as they left.
I smiled as Megan came running in, pulling Thomas behind her.
"Good afternoon, Megan," I said and, to my shock, she threw her arms around me in a hug.
I laughed a little and Thomas shook his head wearily.
"Be respectful, Megan," he said in a tired voice.
"She's fine," I assured him. "The other kids will be here shortly. Why don't you play with that doll while you wait?"
"Okay," she said happily then yanked on his arm so hard that their heads almost knocked together. She kissed his cheek. "Thank you for letting me come, Tommy."
"Of course, dear Megan," he said. "I'll come get you when you're done."
"Okay," she repeated and ran to the other side of the room to where the dolls were.
"Usually, after the tea party, they take naps," I explained, pointing at the tower of blankets. "So she'll be done around four in the evening."
"Thank you," he said and bowed a little.
"Are you all right, Mr. Buckley?" I asked, noticing his pale face and the dark circles under his eyes.
"I'm fine," he said quickly. "Thank you for your concern, though. I'll be back at four."
I frowned after him. Something was wrong. He looked sick. Ivan had looked like that once and was bedridden for two months. A few more kids showed up and, as I waited, I got one of my calling cards and a pen.
Ivan, I am concerned for your apprentice, Thomas Buckley. I am sure you have noticed but he looks as if he has inhaled too much smoke. Please send him to the doctor. If he argues, I will pay for the medical care he needs.
I got up and passed it to the nearest maid, telling them to deliver it immediately. As I picked the book out of the bookcase, though, I wondered why I was so worried about Mr. Buckley. Perhaps it was because he has been the first young man to not make advances.
"Time for the book," I called and the eleven kids all cheered and sat on the pillows. I beamed, sitting down in the high backed chair. "I'm happy to see you all this afternoon. As you have seen, we have a new person joining us today!" I beckoned Megan over but she looked nervous and gripped the doll tightly. "This is Megan Buckley."
"Hi Megan," they chorused and she smiled shyly.
I smiled then sat up straight, clearing my throat, and opened the book. When the story was over, we sat around the small table. The boys were looking bored until the desserts were passed around. It wasn't until nap time that I had a chance to watch them how I liked to.
All eleven of them were curled under their blankets and snoring gently. I sat down in the same chair and observed each child. Megan was the youngest of the group but, during the tea party, she really clicked with a few of the little girls. She also caught a little boy's eye. Several times I had to stop him from acting on his teasing impulse. That kind of kid flirting can wait until after Megan gets more comfortable here....
I rubbed the back of my neck. Would Mr. Buckley agree with me? Perhaps I should speak with him about it.... I had seen this kind of flirting before but their parents were usually around when that started and I let them take care of it.
Deciding to discuss it with him when he came to pick Megan up, I settled into my chair with a book of my own.
An hour later, the kids woke up when their parents arrived. They all hugged and thanked me as they left. Thomas Buckley was the last one and he held his arms out so that she could jump into them.
"Did you have a good time?" he asked and she nodded, yawning.
"We had a fancy tea party," she said.
She still sounded sleepy and, sure enough, she fell back asleep in seconds. He laughed.
"Thank you," he said. "I can tell she enjoyed herself."
"It's my pleasure. There's something I need to discuss with you, though," I said and he nodded, his face turning serious. "She has an admirer. I stopped him before he could do the flirtatious teasing. Would you rather I let him?"
He frowned at his sleeping sister. "Perhaps when she has more friends," he muttered to himself. Then he looked confused. "Why ask me?"
"She is your sister," I said simply. "You are the one raising her, not me."
He laughed. "And yet you rat me out to my mentor."
I smiled back but shook my head. "I am concerned. I have seen that look before."
"I saw the doctor this afternoon," he told me. "Ivan made me go after receiving your card. He wanted me to tell you that he apologizes. We have been backed up and-"
"It's quite all right," I interrupted. "I'm just glad you're getting the care you need."
"I'd kiss your hand but...." He trailed off, gesturing at the snoring girl in his arms.
I giggled. "Worry not, Mr. Buckley. Have a good evening."