Authors: Liz Reinhardt
Tags: #General Fiction
2012 by Liz Reinhardt
All rights reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention.
May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.
Cover Design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations.
I once had a boyfriend tell me that I live like a princess; he meant it in the least flattering way.
And I do live in a gorgeous house. I drive a fantastic car. My parents take care of most of my expenses.
But that doesn’t make me a spoiled brat.
I think about my family every single minute of every single day. Sometimes I think I’m the only one of my siblings who cares about our parents at all, and it weighs on me to have no one to share my worry with, no one to help me lift the cement bag of our family’s complicated problems.
And I work. I know it isn’t a job like waitressing or teaching or being a hairstylist…all of which I considered and decided against at different times after high school and during college.
It’s not easy to make my life revolve around the people I love. Sometimes I crave the freedom of my own apartment, my own rules, my own start and stop times.
Because I don’t get any of that in the life I live with them right now.
This morning I was up at quarter to six so I could do my daily yoga and cardio before the day crashed in on me. It was a day that started with shopping trip led by my notoriously picky mother, who needed new heels to match the dress she purchased for a big end of summer party. After we grabbed lunch, I came back home to tutor my sister, Ithaca, in geometry so she can pass her final and graduate on time. I tried to be patient as I explained the easiest set of theorems to her while she sighed and kicked at the table leg, frustrated about her boyfriend joining the army and pissed at me that I didn’t jump into their drama storm and…what? I have no idea what she expected of me. I guess she wanted more sympathy from me, but I have enough on my plate. I can’t add worrying about Ithaca and her hot-headed soldier boyfriend to my already frazzled brain.
When I finally got through the review packet and ignored the worst of my little sister’s glares and passive-aggressive comments, I made the depressing trip to see our oldest brother in rehab. Remington still looked like an animated skeleton with a dark, bushy beard, and it hurt to see him so drained. He shuffled to me, back bowed, head hanging, like a husk of the brother I used to look up to and adore. In order to keep from breaking down in front of him, I kept my visit brief and forcefully cheerful, gave him a huge, extra-tight hug, and dropped off some
tucked in with the
my mother always sends before I gave him some lame excuse about being so busy helping our parents, and left.
I allowed myself ten minutes to break-down and sob in the parking lot while I tried to forget the vacant, bewildered look in his hollow eyes, which watched me with lost confusion. When the ten minutes was up, I fixed my make-up, took twenty cleansing breaths, cleared my throat, and called to make sure my father picked up his heart medication. Which he didn’t, not that I was surprised, so I got back to business, called my younger brother, Colt, and got him to agree to swing by the pharmacy after football practice and pick Pop’s prescription up.
When my hectic day finally comes to a close and my mother and I are sitting at the dining room table sipping coffee with extra cream, she reaches across the shiny wood and grabs onto my hand with a desperate clasp of her fingers.
“I can’t tell you what a comfort you are to your father and me, Benelli.” Her fingernails bite into my palm. “These last few months, I feel sometimes like life has been crumbling around our ears. Winchester and that girl running off, your sister and that boy trying to elope, Colt not listening to Papa about soccer and college when your father knows what’s best. And Remington! When will he get through wasting time at that ridiculous hospital and get back to work? A normal routine is exactly what will set him to rights. Hard work and family. So simple, even his mother knows the answer, but he wants to pay a dozen different doctors thousands of dollars to figure it out for him. Why?”
She sighs, her head shaking from side to side slowly, and I listen to her vent with total sympathy. My siblings have all gone wild lately, and I feel like the foundations of our family have been shaken right to their core.
Which I hate, because family is the most important thing in the world and my brothers and sisters should know that.
They should know better.
We were all raised better.
“I just don’t understand,” she continues, her voice weighed down with held-back sighs and unshed tears. “You raise your children, give them every advantage, and there’s no appreciation. None.” She picks up her teaspoon and swirls it in her coffee.
I get up from the table and find the bottle of amaretto stashed behind my great-great-grandmother’s bone china pitcher and pour a generous amount into my mother’s coffee, then knead her shoulders.
“You need a massage, Mama. I’ll book us at JW’s tomorrow. Laurence will squeeze us in. I wanted to do a Keratin treatment, and Lala told me the Dead Sea salt glow actually made her skin feel like velvet.”
My mother grabs one of my hands again and presses my knuckles to her lips, leaving a dark smudge of her lipstick on my skin.
Benelli, my heart, I say a rosary thanking God I have you every single day. Every day. You are such a comfort to us.”
I kiss her cheek and excuse myself to my room, the sweet of her words soured by the knowledge that I’m not quite the good little girl my parents think I am.
I’m trying hard to not add any stress to their lives right now.
My father’s eyes have sunk back in his head, and he’s lost so much weight his skin sags around his face. He’s aged fast and hard because the brunt of the entire business rests on his shoulders now that Winch and Remy are down for the count. Mama spends any waking hours she’s not at home at church, clicking through her rosary in the shadowy pews of Sacred Heart, praying for her bruised and battered family to heal itself somehow. A few months ago she thought she’d be spending all her time there planning Remington’s wedding to Delphine, the mother of his young daughter, but, since his breakdown and stint in rehab, our family has only limited visitation with Alayah, and Delphine isn’t speaking to Remy. Then Mama figured Winchester and Lala would finally settle down, but, out of nowhere, my crazy brother met some girl in court and decided he was fated to become a stone mason.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.
I look at the honeyed wood of my bedroom door for a few seconds before I open it and let myself into my sanctuary, the place I’ve always gravitated back to, even when I had the chance to step out on my own. I even commuted back and forth to college and took extra classes so I could graduate early. I wasn’t ever one of those kids eager to run away from my parents’ house.
I like my place here.
But, recently, a part of me had been itching to spread my wings, have my own space, live under my own rules. Which brings me to my huge, secret problem: my boyfriend Damian.
Not that he’s the problem, himself. It’s more the fact that he isn’t completely ready to take our relationship in the direction I need it to go in.
I close my bedroom door quietly and light a few candles, enjoying the golden flicker. I brush my teeth, touch up my makeup, and wait for the familiar soft knock on the French doors outside my room.
And then he’s right there.
My secret. My love. My infuriating puzzle of a boyfriend. The one person who understands exactly what I want and could be my perfect match in life and love.
If he would just take the next step with me.
“Hello,” I whisper, breathing in the clean, cologne-laced smell of his skin mixed with the leather of his jacket and the faint aroma of the Marlboro he smoked before he came here. His breath is laced with the shot of Jack he always starts his night with, and his dark eyes half-close when he looks me over.
“How the hell do you get more damn beautiful every time I see you?” he asks, his mouth closing over mine.
I fall deep into that perfect, delicious kiss, letting all the worries I’ve carried like a yoke on my shoulders ease away. “Damian?”
“Mmm?” His mouth drags from mine and forges an urgent path down my neck and back up, meeting my lips again before I have a chance to say what I need to say. When he finally pulls back and I’m completely out of breath, he starts to undo the laces that hold the top of my shirt together. “What were you saying, princess?”
“It’s just…” I put a hand on his wrist and still his fingers. “It’s my father.”
His spine goes stiff, and he jerks away from me and sighs, running an irritated hand over his face. “This again?” He blows a long, aggravated breath out and holds his hands up at his sides. “Okay, shoot. I know you’re not going to let me rest until you get to say your piece. So say what you need to say.”
“You and I talked about announcing…about letting them know…if he knows our intentions, he’ll give us his blessing, and we can go ahead and start planning for a wedding. I mean, once we’re officially engaged and all.” All the words I want to say are perfect, ripe pieces of fruit dangling just out of my reach. I press on, desperate to get my point across no matter how clumsily I present it. “He needs help. And if you and I were married, he’d trust you to—”
“I’m not really sure why exactly we gotta wait on your dad’s blessing to start living our life, Benelli,” he interrupts, his words ricocheting out a little too loud. He corner-eyes the door and drops his voice. “See? This is what I mean. All this sneaking around is ridiculous. Why is it that we always need permission to do anything? You’re a grown woman, not a little kid. I’m a grown man. I’ve proven myself in the game, and that should be enough for your old man. I feel like once we go begging for his permission, he’s gonna have a leash around my neck that he’ll yank whenever he wants.”
“It’s not like that,” I protest, rubbing my fingers over the sensitive spot on the back of his neck that always soothes him. “What my dad will offer us after we’re married will eventually become our own piece of the business. Sure, we’ll have to help him for the first few years to pay back for the startup, but that’s not him having a leash around your neck. It’s just a business arrangement.”
He rolls his neck on his shoulders and presses his body closer to mine, possessively.
“So I’m not his slave, but I’m his indentured servant for life?” Damian’s hands reach up and grip my shoulders. “Benelli, run away with me. Tonight. Elope with me. I promise you, we’ll have to start small, but I’ll be able to give you twice what your mother has in three years, if not sooner. You’ll live like a duchess, like you deserve. And I’ll be able to hold my head up around your father.”
My heart thunders in my chest, bolts of lightning spark through my brain, and the cold, clear downfall of this potential reality soaks through the skin of my conscience.
I break from his touch and put my hands on my cheeks, burning up with the exciting possibility of doing this, breaking out and flying in my own direction for once.
But I can’t. A decision this big is one I need to make with my family at my side. No question. I take a few controlled breaths and focus.
“Damian, I could never do that to my parents. My mother has been looking forward to my wedding for my entire life. It would be a huge slap in the face to just not include her. And my father is a very powerful man. He’s going to want someone as talented as you on his side, not competing with him. Don’t you see how if we do this together,
my family, it will be that much better?”
But, instead of my calm words arranging everything in neat little piles like I wanted, it’s like they’re a tornado ripping through the plans for our life. Damian is not happy, I’m not happy, and I know my father and mother will be completely unhappy if I even consider eloping.
They might even be furious knowing I’m dating Damian.
Because that’s not what we agreed to.
Because I was supposed to wait for them to begin arranging dates for me with eligible men, men who would understand all that I’m trying to explain to Damian, without my having to deal with the issue of this frustrating angst.
But things got so crazy with my other siblings, and I was so lonely, and Damian seemed…like he would fit in. Like he was the right person. So I took a chance and started to see him behind my parents’ backs, and the more I knew about him, the more I knew they’d appreciate what a good, level-headed choice I’d made.
It’s just hard to get him to play by the rules. He always has a hard time seeing the bigger picture.
“I’m not going to be a soldier for the Youngblood family, Benelli.” He takes his hands off my arms and backs up, edging out the door, his mouth hard and pulled to one side. “You need to know when it’s time to cut ties with your family and start your own life on your own terms.” One of his hands is fisted around the doorknob, waiting for me to call him back, tell him I want what he wants.
“Damian, please stay.” I walk over to him, and he lets my body curve close to his, watches my fingers brush lightly over his chest and down to his belt-buckle. I keep my voice low and throaty, trying to seduce him back to a better place.“We can talk about this more. If you listen to what I’m saying, I know you’ll see—”
“There’s nothing else to say.” He cuts me off, his words sharp, his body twisting away from mine. “You need to make a choice. Me or them.” He holds his arms up and out at his sides.
I cross my arms tight over my body and pop one hip to the side as I watch him stalk backward out the door. “You’re being ridiculous. You call me when you’re ready to talk like a reasonable man. I don’t do ultimatums, Damian. Do you hear me?”
I watch his dark silhouette head back to his car, parked far enough up the street that the rumble of his engine won’t alert my parents to his presence, and I feel a mix of dread and despair that puts all my thoughts into a cyclone of jumbled confusion.
He’ll be back, I tell myself. He just technically proposed to me.
He’ll definitely be back.
I lie down on my bed and fold my hands over my stomach, watching the ghostly flicker of the candlelight on the walls until the first flame drowns in the melted wax and sputters to its smoky death. Shadows chase across my ceiling and more candles extinguish as I doze in and out of a choppy pseudo-sleep that’s interrupted by dreams that feel so real and ominous, I startle awake over and over.
Every time I jolt awake from another mini-nightmare, I’m shocked that Damian isn’t in my room, flowers in hand, a small smile of apology on his face. Somewhere between midnight and early sunrise, I fall into a dark sleep that’s mercifully dreamless and wake way too early. I welcome this new day with such an enormous leaden lump gathering weight in the pit of my stomach, no amount of concentrated Reclining Goddess pose can get rid of it.
“Good morning, princess,” my father says when I walk into our huge, sunny kitchen. He’s sipping strong coffee and looking over the paper, his regular, dependable morning routine. “Your mother tells me you girls are headed out for a spa day today?”
I pour myself a mug of the fragrant stuff from the French press, adding only a tiny bit of sugar and no cream. I like my coffee dark and a little sweet in the morning, like my father. At night I want drowned in sugar and extra creamy with a shot of liquor, the way my mother takes it. I guess I’m a little confused. Or just an open-minded coffee drinker.
“Good morning, Pop. We’re heading out for a little pampering. You know Mama needs it. How’s the world looking? Falling apart as usual?” I pull my chair close to his and lean on his strong arm, glancing over the page he’s reading. It’s the classifieds. “Looking for something in particular? Can I help?”
His smile is worn. “Just hunting around for a few good men, sweetie.” He shakes his head and rubs his temples. I can smell the stale bite of old cigarette on him. My father used to only smoke in the evenings, after dinner, but he’s been smoking during the day, earlier and earlier. “I hate to admit it, but I don’t think Winch is ever coming back, and Remy isn’t gonna be any good without Winch around. What does that leave me with?”
I think about Damian, about how very similar the two men I love most in the world are, and take a long, hot sip of my coffee before cradling the warm mug in my hands and making a silent wish that things will work out the perfect way they need to. “I’m sorry, Pop. I still can’t believe Winch just left like that.”
I really can’t believe it. I’m not saying life was completely perfect here, but Winch didn’t even try to make things right. And, though I have to admit, he was completely loyal to the family for years on end, once he decided he was done, he just up and left with hardly any warning, never considering the destruction his completely selfish behavior would be leaving in its wake. It didn’t make any sense. It isn’t the way our family operates, and his desertion felt like an unexpected amputation.
None of us can shake the ghost of Winch, because we still need him in order to function wholly.
Because, besides the emotional chaos his leaving produced, he’d left a gaping hole in our family’s business. Winch had been groomed to run so many different aspects of so many businesses since he was just a kid, plus he’d been my father’s right-hand man and kept an eye on Remy. Now that he’s gone, it’s all on our father’s shoulders. Everything.
Though my father never complains, I can see the weight of it in the bow of his shoulders and the grimace that never leaves his face unless he’s pasting on a phony smile for our benefit. I lean my head on his shoulder.
“I guess he had to find his way, be a man, all that nonsense.” My father kisses the top of my head, and some of my hair catches in the scratchy bristles of his five o’clock shadow. “What I wouldn’t give to have had a son with your backbone, Benelli. You’re my angel, you know that? I honestly don’t know what your mother and I would have done without you all these years.”
He crushes me in a swaddling hug, and I choke back a sob. I hate that my parents are suffering through all of this, and I hate that there isn’t anything I can do to transfer some of the burden onto my shoulders. Not in a significant way, anyway. Not without Damian’s help.
“I forgot to tell you, I fired Sylvia.” I savor the last, sugary sip of coffee and arch one eyebrow at my father’s face, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. “She needed to go, Pop. I already interviewed for her replacement, and the new girl has a good head on her shoulders. I think she’ll do a decent job running things.”