Sarah was playing very quietly with her doll’s house on the floor when Nanny brought a couple with a little boy through to the lounge before lunch. Carrie was fast asleep on a couch, and Brad had been sitting at a table with his laptop, but still unable to write, or even touch the keyboard.
“Brad, this is Doug and Grace Peterson, and their son, Lucien,” Nanny said, glancing at Carrie. “You wanted to meet them.“. She gave Grace an encouraging smile before she withdrew.
Brad closed the laptop and stood, smiling as he shook hands and greeted his guests.
Sarah jumped up from the floor and ran towards them. “Lucien! You come play with me?” She said a quiet, “Hello”, to the adults, and even managed a little smile.
The boy gave Sarah a shy smile, but clung to the woman’s hand, hiding behind her as Brad crouched to bring himself on a level with the children.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the man said. “He’s not comfortable around strangers.”
“Quite understandable,” Brad said. He held out his hand to Lucien. “Hello Lucien. I’m Brad. You’ve already met my little girl, I believe?”
The child regarded the hand for a few seconds, but eventually, he met Brad’s eyes and put his own hand apprehensively into the outstretched one, still clinging to Grace with his other one.
Brad smiled, shaking the little hand. “Pleased to meet you, Lucien.”
He stood up straight, indicating the couches on this side of the room. “Please sit down. Sarah, maybe you and Lucien would like to play quietly while I talk to his mommy and daddy?”
He watched proudly as his daughter took Lucien’s hand and confidently led him over to where some of her toys were on the floor.
“Your daughter is quite a marvel,” Grace said as she sat down, glancing at the children. “Lucien is so shy and he hardly speaks to anyone, but he met your little girl in the park on Friday and she really brought him out of his shell. How old is she?”
Brad smiled. “She was three in April. She’s usually quite a chatterbox, not at all reserved, but recently she’s been hearing things that have unsettled her somewhat. I believe Lucien is adopted?”
Doug frowned. “Not yet, sir. Although we’ve signed all the documents, the adoption hasn’t gone through yet. But we’re hoping he’ll be our son very soon.”
“So I hear. And my name is Brad. I don’t allow anyone to call me anything else!” He grinned. “Just a quirk of mine! I’m sure Tom must have told you.”
“He did mention it. But - but I didn’t think I’d - ever actually meet you! I was - quite petrified when he told me I had to come here today to meet the big boss!”
That made Brad give a quick laugh. “Oh, gosh, the big boss, am I? Well, I can assure you that I’m not an ogre. In fact, my wife tells me that everyone likes me! By the way, you’ll have to excuse Carrie. She recently had a very serious accident and her head injury necessitates that she sleeps, often.” He glanced over to the couch where Carrie lay, behind where the children were already surrounded by toys.
Doug nodded. “Mr Arnold told me about the accident. He - he said that it’s a miracle that she’s at home already.” He smiled. “But miracles are quite the norm here, I believe?”
“Hmm. I have a great deal for which to thank God,” Brad replied. He was silent a moment and then said, “Tom tells me you’re an electrician, Doug? And you lease one of the smaller cottages on the estate?”
“The cottage came with the job, sir, - Brad,” he corrected. “I - I could afford to pay rent as the salary is - well, it’s fantastic! But Mr Arnold said the job included accommodation!”
“Apparently it does! You must understand that I don’t take very much interest in the affairs of my estate. Tom is extremely capable, and I leave all the letting of the cottages to him, as well as the maintenance of all the buildings.” He grinned. “I’m not a businessman, and I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to run this estate. That’s why I have people like Tom to run it for me! Is the cottage big enough for you all?”
” It’s perfectly adequate, thank you.”
“And are you quite comfortable there? You have everything you need?”
“We do. And - and the - welfare authorities seemed satisfied that we would be able to provide for Lucien. He - he’s our main priority at the moment! He has a - weak heart and has to see a cardiologist regularly.”
Brad raised his eyebrows, and said delicately, “That must be a considerable expense? I presume Tom told you that all my staff have medical benefits included in their employment? Lucien’s cardiologist will be covered. You just have to give any medical invoices to Tom and he will pass them on to my accountant.”
There was a rather shocked silence for a moment. Doug and Grace looked at each other as if they could not believe what they had just heard. When Doug finally spoke, he muttered, “I - I can’t expect you to - cover those bills. Already the salary is far more than I have ever earned before. So, we can manage. The - the hospital is covered by the national health so it’s only the specialist fees. I get the use of the truck whenever we need to go anywhere, or into London to take Lucien for his check-ups, and - and Mrs Craig has also given Grace a part-time position here so that helps a great deal too!”
“Benefits of the job!” Brad dismissed any objections casually. “One of my pet hates is discussing anything to do with money or expenses! My accountant sees to all that.” He smiled. “Tom would not have employed you if he didn’t consider you to be the best man for the job. One of the reasons my estate is run so well is because my staff are the best, and therefore they are paid accordingly. No one needs to suffer financially.”
“Mrs Craig told me you were the kindest man in the world,” Grace whispered, almost in tears. “I believe she’s right!”
Brad grinned. “Nanny is biased! She’s adored me since I was a little boy! According to my brother, I can do no wrong in her eyes!” A pause, then he changed the subject quickly. “How long have you fostered Lucien?”
“He’s been with us almost three months now.” Doug said. “The welfare authorities have been trying to place him for a long time, but he goes to a different set of foster parents every time he gets sick and has to go into hospital. We’re the fifth family he has been to in the last eighteen months.”
Grace bit her lip to stop it from quivering. “The poor child can’t help being ill, and yet no one seems to be able to cope with it! It’s not fair! He’s such a lovely little boy, but these constant changes of parents in his little life are doing such harm! He’s terrified every time we have an appointment with the doctor that he’ll be sent to live with a new set of strangers! And we love him to bits!”
“We keep trying to tell him that we’re going to keep him,” Doug stated. “And sometimes we think he understands. But it’s very scary for him, being shunted around to different people every time he gets sick. He must think no one wants him!”
Brad frowned. “I believe he spoke to Sarah, my daughter, at the park, and told her that he’d had lots of ‘pretend mommies’, but that you were going to keep him. So, he must understand that you love him. What happened to his biological parents? Do you know?”
Grace lowered her eyes. “Apparently his mother died when he was three. No one knows anything about his father. An aunt looked after him for a short while but her husband was a drunkard and used to abuse him, so the welfare took him away.”
“Abuse?” Brad’s eyes narrowed.
There was silence for a few seconds, then Grace said quietly, “Lucien is afraid of most people, especially men. His uncle took pleasure in beating him, so it takes him a long time to trust anyone now. He’s only just turned five, so doesn’t understand that all men are not as sadistic and cruel as his uncle was. And his last foster parents were - not right for him, either.”
“Sometimes,” Doug added wistfully, “I wonder if he trusts me, even now! He’s very quiet when I’m around, and has only just started to let me hug him, or even read him a bedtime story. And he never calls me Daddy!”
“And that bothers you?”
Doug gave a sad smile. “I try not to let it. I will fight tooth and nail for that little boy. He’s been through too much in his short life and I’ll make sure no one has the chance to hurt him again.”
Brad nodded and smiled. He liked this man!
He looked at Grace. “Where does Lucien go while you’re working? You do understand that you could bring him here with you? I’m sure that Sarah would love to have a playmate on the days you work.”
“I enrolled him at a nursery school next to the park, three days a week. I - I’ve had a screaming session each time I’ve dropped him there as he hates me leaving him. It’s - upsetting - but I - I need this job.” She swallowed. “I - I’m sorry, sir, - um - Brad. You’ve just told us that you hate discussing finance, but - the extra money will help us settle - outstanding debt.”
There was a long silence, while Brad regarded both of them thoughtfully. Then he said, “I don’t want you to be either embarrassed or offended, but you should know that I don’t allow any of my employees to struggle financially when I am in the position to help them. God and I have an understanding. Although I never go into details of what that understanding is, - that is between me and my heavenly Father, - I can tell you this: He would be very disappointed if I did not offer help whenever He put the opportunity for it in my way. This is one such opportunity. You only have to say the word and all Lucien’s expenses will be covered with immediate effect.”
While Doug and Grace sat staring at him with their mouths open and a look of pure shock on their faces, he turned his head to watch the children, and his eyes automatically drifted to Carrie, still asleep.
At last, Doug stammered, “I - I don’t know - what to say! I thought - I - I thought I was b-blessed when Mr. Arnold offered me this job! I - I didn’t think it - could get any better! He - he told me you were - a very generous man and - and I thought he meant the - the salary as it’s… massive! But - but….. I really have no words!”
Brad shrugged and smiled. “Words are not needed.” Then he laughed. “Except when I need to write - which is what I really should be doing now! My agent is waiting for my next book, but I really think he’ll be waiting for a few more weeks! Think I’ve got what they call ‘writer’s block’. Or maybe just laziness!”
Grace’s face broke into a huge smile, and she said excitedly, “I’m almost finished with The Revenge of the Fallen! Really exciting! I love your books!”
“Thank you,” he replied. “The one I’m busy with now is even more - ” he grinned, ” - gory! If it ever get’s into print!”
“I especially loved Passionate Wisdom,” she said. “Very different. I presume you wrote it for your wife? Everyone knows how you love her.”
“She is the world to me,” he said softly, looking over to Carrie. She appeared to be stirring slightly, and Sarah was now standing next to the couch, with Lucien at her side. Brad stood up and walked over slowly, saying, “I think Mommy is waking up.”
Lucien dropped the toy he was holding and backed away from him, and then turned and ran straight into Grace’s arms, suddenly anxious.
“It’s ok,” she whispered. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
“Of which to be afraid,” Brad corrected spontaneously, then grinned. “Oops, sorry. Force of habit! Another quirk!”
He bent over Carrie as she opened her eyes, smiling down at her. “Hi.”
She stretched, sighing contentedly. “Hi,” she returned.
“Mommy ’wake,” Sarah muttered, pushing herself in between her parents, and hugging her mother as Brad helped Carrie to sit up.
“We have visitors love,” he said, dropping a kiss on his wife’s cheek.
Both Doug and Grace stood up, Lucien clinging to Grace’s leg as he hid behind her.
Carrie smiled at them as Brad introduced them. “Pleased to meet you,” she muttered, and her eyes rested on the frightened little boy.
“He’s very shy,” Grace told her, trying to extricate the child’s arms from around her. “It’s ok Lucien. Say ‘good morning’ to Mrs. Conway.”
The child watched as Carrie kissed Sarah, who was wrapped in her arms, and after a moment he released his hold on Grace and swallowed, muttering a very quiet, “Hello.”
Doug’s eyes narrowed and he went on his haunches next to the boy. “We’re not leaving you here, my boy. Is that why you’re scared? I told you that you’re going to stay with us forever now.” He looked up at Brad and told him, “This is the way he always is when he meets new people. Sorry!”
“No need to apologise,” Brad replied, but he picked up the fallen toy and held it out to Lucien, saying, “Would you like to play here with Sarah while your Mommy and Daddy go to work? Mommy will always be close by, and if you get sad you can go to her. Sarah will show you where she is.”
“Ooh, yes,” Sarah shrieked. “We play, and draw, and I got puzzles!”
Lucien shook his head slowly, eyeing the toy, but making no effort to take it. Sarah caught hold of his hand, grinning at him. “Nanny got sweeties and ice-cream. Come!” She tried to pull him but he resisted, and Carrie spoke up.
“Sarah! Don’t be bossy. And you first ask his mommy and daddy if he’s allowed to have sweeties. It’s almost lunchtime.” She smiled at the visitors. “You will stay for lunch?”
Doug drew in his breath. “Oh. Thank you, but - but I really must get back to work. I have to check that the rewiring in the shopping centre is up to date before there are complaints from the retailers.” He smiled at Brad. “If - if there’s nothing else you want to talk to me about?”
“I really just wanted to meet you,” Brad said, handing the toy he had picked up to Sarah. “And to make sure you understand that no one who lives on my estate needs to have financial problems of any kind.” He laughed. “Except my accountant! And I think his problems are more about the money I don’t spend, than the amount I do!”
“Perhaps you and Lucien would like to join us for lunch?” Carrie asked Grace. “I’d like to chat a little more. Nanny normally introduces me to new staff members, but - but as you can understand, things are - a trifle odd at present!”
Grace bit her lip, but gave a smile and a brief nod. “Thank you,” she whispered. “That would be lovely.”
“I’ll pick you and Lucien up just after two,” Doug told his wife. “I really need to get back.” He eyed the boy, who was still standing next to Sarah. “You be a good boy. Daddy will fetch you and Mommy later, I promise.”
Lucien looked up at Grace anxiously. “You’re leaving me?”
“No, darling. I’ll be here. Say goodbye to Daddy. He’ll fetch us after lunch.”
Lucien hesitated, then he wrapped his arms around his father’s legs. Doug bent and hugged him, and put his hand under the child’s chin, raising his face so he could look into his eyes, “I’ll fetch you and Mommy as soon as I finish work, champ, I promise.”
Brad accompanied Doug to the door, and they exchanged another few words before he watched the visitor walk down the steps and climb into the rusted blue truck with the Conway logo that was parked in the curved driveway. He was frowning slightly when he walked back into the lounge, but at Carrie’s questioning look, the frown turned to a smile. “I think I need to speak to Tom about getting some new vehicles,” he said. “Can’t have my employees driving around in trucks that look as if they’ve seen better days!”