Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
My heart broke for the two little boys who had grown into estranged brothers. I touched his shoulder with my hand and he spared me an absent smile. “Why did it change?”
It was his turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I think Father was just harder on him, like he expected so much more from his oldest son. Father thought I was weak. That Mother coddled me too much. I guess Drew felt the same way, which is why he always shielded me. By the time he was Jonathan’s age he was just so bitter. He started pushing everyone away. Everyone except Father. It was like the harder he had to work to earn his love, the more he wanted it. The quest for Father’s approval eventually drove Drew to drop all the things he loved, like comic books and magic tricks and video games. Instead he studied hard and stayed on the honor roll, earning his way to Harvard by the sweat of his brow and not just the family name. He worked so hard, I think he came to resent anyone who wasn’t driven by the same demons. We all had our parts to play. Free will never even occurred to him. So when I shunned it all to carve out my own path, he thought I was an ingrate. Maybe I was. I just couldn’t play the game anymore. We were all prisoners in gilded cages. I was the only one who dared to open the door.”
He pulled open the pocket knife, playing with the different doodads. I didn’t know what to say. He was clearly heartbroken, but there was precious little I could do about it. These weren’t my problems to fix. Only Drew and Alex could find their way back to each other. With all that had passed between then, I couldn’t imagine how they would make inroads now. I wanted to ask why, if Alex so clearly still loved his brother, he would have slept with Elise. But that wasn’t my place and it was really none of my business. “I guess I’ll turn in,” I said softly as I glanced toward the dying fire. “Unless you want company.”
“Nah,” he dismissed softly. “I’ll finish the fire. You get some sleep.” His eyes were bright with unshed tears as they met mine. “Thanks for listening.”
I smiled. “Thanks for talking.” On impulse I leaned over to kiss his cheek. His short beard tickled my lips. “Good night, Alex.”
His eyes clouded as he watched me pull away. “Good night, Rachel.”
I disappeared into my tent and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag. That night I dreamed of two boys beside a roaring campfire, eating messy
s’mores as they told each other ghost stories to the tinny whine of a harmonica.
The next day we all lugged our gear back down the hill toward the house. After we stored the supplies, Millicent and Max went back into town for speech therapy, leaving Jonathan and I alone in the library.
Almost the minute I signed onto the Internet, I saw Drew’s image splashed on the front page of a news service. Olivia Guest, the petite, blonde actress who had been the object of his charm mere months before, hung from his arm like a sparkly, sexy accessory as they attended a movie premiere. Even though I tried not to let it bother me, the green eyed monster gnawed at my gut as I studied his happy expression that didn’t look faked in the least. Nothing like when he was with me, I supposed. With a scowl, I clicked off of the website.
“I have an idea,” I announced as I stood from my desk. “Let’s head down to the stables. I feel like riding this morning.”
Jonathan considered defying me, but I knew that he loved the horses every bit as much as Alex did. Finally, wordlessly, he followed me from the study and down the path toward the stables. We said nothing as we saddled our horses, and he followed me dutifully as we headed out to explore the green hills, stopping only to harvest any fruit from the grove of fruit trees at the southern tip of the property. He offered no objection, and even helped without being asked. But his mood was sullen, as was my own. The only thing that seemed to perk him up was when he spotted Alex approach on Topper Field at a steady gallop.
I was taken aback how masculine he looked astride the magnificent thoroughbred. His black hair
fanned around the nape of his neck, and the neatly trimmed beard framed his strong jawline. He handled the animal with conviction, and the horse responded to every click of his tongue as he brought her to a stop in front of us.
Mornin’,” he drawled with a lopsided grin. Gone was the morose Alex from the night before. This was the Alex I remembered. “Thought I’d join you for a ride, if that’s OK.”
“Whatever,” Jonathan offered dismissively before vaulting back onto Dapper Dan. I guided
Angelheart behind them as we covered that green pasture in the shadow of the hills that surrounded the property. I watched the pensive expression from the burdened child abate as we galloped across the terrain. I knew he was connecting to something much bigger than himself, which was exactly what he needed.
I think it was what we all needed. We reluctantly turned toward the house by noon so that we could eat lunch, which I prepared for them as they sat at the bar.
The minute we walked back into the house, Jonathan once again disappeared behind his ear buds, using his phone as a shield to avoid conversation. Alex used that opportunity to talk to me about Drew. “Did you see the headlines this morning?”
I nodded. “I did. It’s good tha
t he’s moved on,” I lied easily, as I tried to forget Drew’s raging passion from our last encounter. Apparently that had been just another chess move on his part, to win over the unsophisticated wallflower he had handpicked for its vulnerability. “It’ll give him some place new to focus his attention.”
it hasn’t. He’s more entangled with EAL than he was six months ago.” He referred to Entrepreneurs for American Liberty, a super political action committee that supported his good friend, Senator Troy De Havilland from upstate New York, as well as Senator Leon Boyd from Orange County. These were stalwart politicians in the back pockets of the super wealthy, who promised to keep taxes low, fight minimum wage and business regulation, while keeping loopholes outsource jobs overseas. “Like to Teton Tech, in Mexico City,” Alex supplied.
My stomach fell. I already knew that Teton Tech had undergone some drastic changes since
it had merged under the Fullerton Enterprises International umbrella. A workers strike ended in an armed standoff, and it was bleeding money. Much of the previous management had been embroiled in the deadly Mexican drug war, which had concerned me when I had researched its background just months before. Merging with Drew’s company was supposed to legitimize its sketchy history as a front for a known drug cartel, and the change in management had been brutal and even bloody. “Drew should get out of it,” I said softly.
“He won’t,” Alex said. “He can’t. Remember
Dietrich Schonhorn?” He referred to a business mogul who had been courted by EAL to take over several embattled businesses overseas. His daughter died in the Caribbean shortly after he had declined to get involved with Teton Tech, a move that had cost him the support of the super PAC. Her death had been ruled accidental, but Alex had his doubts.
I motioned to Jonathan with a shake of my head. I could hear his music from where I stood at the stove, flipping grilled sandwiches on the griddle
, so I knew he wasn’t eavesdropping. But I didn’t want to risk his overhearing his uncle’s concerns. The last thing he needed was to have one more thing to worry about, one more problem he had to fix.
Jonathan was content to ignore us completely without Millicent or Max to run interference. He said nothing after I handed him his plate. He just scowled at me before disappearing
onto the lanai to eat alone. I sighed as I leaned against the counter, facing my second painful rejection of the day.
Alex walked around t
he bar to stand beside me. “Hang in there, kiddo. Unlike Drew’s manufactured bullshit, this is a battle you can win.”
I smiled at him. It felt good to hear someone outside my head say so.
“Thank you,” I said with a catch in my throat as I rested my head on his strong shoulder.
“Come here,” he said softly as he pulled me into a comforting, friendly hug that I didn’t even realize I needed. My ego had taken a major hit when I saw that photo of Drew and Olivia, and I knew that he wanted her in a way he could never want me, despite his passionate campaign to convince me otherwise.
It was yet another lie, another game… another manipulation. It wasn’t real.
s embrace, on the other hand, was real, and strong… and true. There was no agenda there, just silent support. It was exactly what I needed.
Unfortunately for both of us, Jonathan had returned to get the drink he had forgotten to take with him. “What’s going on here?” he wanted to know.
I jumped apart from Alex, feeling much guiltier than I should have. “It’s nothing, Jonathan.”
“It looked like something,” he argued.
“It was just a friendly hug, buddy,” Alex clarified. “That’s all.”
Jonathan glared at me.
“Like you were just friends with Dad?” I gulped back any retort, so he pressed the point. “I told you not to get involved with him and the next thing I know you’re sucking face at a stupid party in front of the whole world.”
I sighed. “You’re right. I screwed up big time.”
“Damn right you did,” he agreed instantly.
“Jonathan,” Alex cautioned softly.
“Oh please,” Jonathan bit out as he turned to his uncle. “You’re the one who thought she was trying to get at Dad’s money.”
“I was wrong,” he said, which made me turn to look at him.
“Really?” Jonathan snapped. “Then why is she here trying to cozy up to you? I saw you guys sitting by the fire last night. I’m not stupid, you know.” He glared daggers at me. “You were going to marry my dad in January, but now that he’s not available anymore you’re kissing my uncle instead. Should I tell my mom to keep a close eye on Derek, or is he too poor for you?”
“That’s enough, Jonathan,” Alex snapped, taking both Jonathan and me by surprise. “Apologize to Rachel.”
“No,” Jonathan said. “She’s the one who should apologize to me. She ruined everything.”
“She didn’t do anything,” Alex gritted between clenched teeth. “Your father…”
I cut him off before he could go on. “I’m sorry, Jonathan. You’re right. I broke my promise to you and it screwed everything up. No matter how much I’d like to, I can’t go back and change anything. All I can do is move forward and try to make it up to you the best way I can.”
“You can start by keeping your hands off my uncle,” Jonathan retorted.
“That’s not you decision to make, little man,” Alex interjected. “Believe it or not, the world doesn’t revolve around you. People around you get to do what is best for them; it has nothing to do with you. And you’re not required to sign off on these decisions like everyone in the universe has to craft their lives carefully to make you happy. That’s a bullshit move, Jonathan,” he told him, and Jonathan’s eyes widened from the rough language. “If you want to control people, then you can’t love them. You don’t want a family. You want an audience.”
Jonathan was not used to his favorite uncle talking to him in such a way. He flung the full glass of liquid onto the hardwood floor until it shattered. Alex didn’t even move.
“Pick it up, Jonathan.”
“No!” Jonathan repeated with a petulant tip of his chin.
“Fine. Then go pack your stuff.” Jonathan stared at him open-mouthed. “If you can’t treat this house and everyone who lives here with respect, you can go back to your mom, back to public school and possibly a military academy, where no one knows you or gives a shit about you. But you’re done punishing the people who love you the most, who have turned their lives upside down to help you. I’ve already been down this road and I’ll be damned if I do it again. If you want to be an ungrateful little shit, you can do it elsewhere. I’m done.”
They had a long standoff
as Alex waited for Jonathan to make up his mind. Finally Jonathan walked around to the utility closet to withdraw the broom and dustpan. He had just cleaned up the last of the glass when Millicent and Max walked in. Alex used that opportunity to head back down to the stables. Jonathan was subdued for the rest of the afternoon. When Millicent suggested that he help with dinner, he offered no lip. He quietly assisted her as she puttered around the kitchen.
She and Max led most of the conversation during dinner. Alex was uncharacteristically quiet as we ate, which only unsettled Jonathan further. He wasn’t used to his uncle’s disapproval, which was palpable as sat around the kitchen table.
Alex turned in early that night. Jonathan followed suit, clearly upset by the events of the afternoon. Yet he made no decision to leave, and in fact, the next morning he kept his ear buds out of his ear and managed to do one of my assignments. It was on breeds of horses, which I suspected he tackled so his uncle wouldn’t be so mad at him anymore. He walked down to the stables and drew sketches of Alex’s different horses, which he turned in to me that afternoon.
“These are beautiful,” I said, but he only nodded. He slipped from the library and went off in search of Max and Millicent, the only two people in the house he
suspected weren’t mad at him or considered him a jerk. By Thursday, he was still picking and choosing which assignments he would complete, and barely said a word to me good or bad. It was Millicent that he turned to in a conversation I overheard that afternoon when she was helping him pack.
Uncle Alex hates me now,” Jonathan had confided softly.
“Don’t be silly,” she dismissed easily. “He loves you. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t care enough to try and help you make better decisions.”
Jonathan was unconvinced. “He’s still so mad at me. He barely talks to me.”
“He’s hurt,” she offered. “Sometimes we end up hurting other people when we’re hurt. We get angry. We lash out. It doesn’t mean we love them any less. Right?” she urged gently.
“I guess,” he agreed quietly.
“You’re a great kid. Anyone who isn’t crazy about you is a fool,” she said. “I know I’m going to miss you like crazy while you’re gone this weekend.”
“Me, too,” he said. “I wish I didn’t have to go.” I brought my hand to my heart as tears squeezed between my tightly closed eyes. There was my favorite boy, peeking out from under all the pain. I held back a grateful sob.
“You’ll be back,” she assured. “Maybe the weekend apart will help you figure out how you can make things better
“Why does that have to be my job?” he asked.
“Because it’s everybody’s job, Jonathan. We’re all in this together. That’s what it means to be family. We need to stop making it so hard on each other. It doesn’t have to be.”
There was a pause as he considered what she said.
“Thanks, Millicent,” he said.
“Call me Nana,” she corrected.
“Like Max?” he asked.
“If you’d like.”
There was a pause before Jonathan responded. “I’d like. Nana.”
I closed the door so they couldn’t hear
my sniffle. At last someone broke through. For the first time in a long time, I had faith he could find his way back.