Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
Hope was quickly dashed once Elise and Derek arrived to pick Jonathan up that evening. Millicent insisted they stay for dinner, which Jonathan echoed. Elise, dumbstruck at the progress we had made, relented, although it was clear as day she was pained to do so.
I stayed in the kitchen with Millicent preparing dinner while Elise and Derek sat with Alex and Max in the family room. Their conversation was stilted and uncomfortable, and things only got worse as we headed into the formal dining room.
A wrought iron chandelier with dangling teardrop crystals hung over the la
rge glass and iron table. Millicent had prepared all sorts of sumptuous goodies, including a decadent chicken cordon bleu, but Elise pushed her plate away after two bites.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Millicent asked. “Not to your liking?”
“I’m watching my weight,” she explained sweetly. “You have to be very diligent when you are prone to being overweight,” she added. I wasn’t sure if she was insulting Millicent or me or both.
“Nothing wrong with a
curvy woman,” Alex drawled. “Only a dog wants a bone.” Elise glared at him from where she sat as something unspoken passed between them.
Derek smiled at his love. “Elise has worked very hard to perfect her body
and it’s stunning. What is it, babe? Twelve percent body fat?”
She glared at him as though he had insulted her. “Ten,” she corrected in a low, controlled tone. “Personally I think anyone who cares about their body wouldn’t burden it with extra weight.”
She didn’t look my direction, but I got the not-so-subtle hint. Jonathan watched the exchange quietly, just to see what I would do. I speared another bite of breaded, cheesy chicken and savored it defiantly. Alex barely hid his smile as he ate another bite as well. Derek and Elise said nothing for the rest of the meal.
Before they left, I asked to speak to Elise in my library privately. All the men wore their discomfort on their sleeves as Elise eyed me up and down. Finally she relented and we disappeared behind closed doors to speak privately for the first time.
I invited her to sit, but she declined. She didn’t even budge one inch from the door as she crossed her arms in front of her. “What is it?” she finally spat.
I sat in my chair.
“I know that there’s no love lost between us, but it would really help everyone if you kept your passive aggressive behavior to a minimum. I’m here to help your son, and you undermine me every single time you pop off with some underhanded insult. Love me, hate me, I don’t care. But keep it to yourself.”
“Such sanctimony,” she sneered. “You may have everyone else fooled, but I haven’t forgotten that you’ve tried to steal my son to replace your dead child.” My fur started to rise as she went on. “Too bad for you Drew has moved on, to someone more his speed so it’s sure to stick this time. You were outclassed from the moment you first walked in the door last year. He never loved you and he never will. So just do your job and teach my son, and spare me your
stalked out of the library and I sat thunderstruck from her open hostility. Alex was quick to check on me after they left. “Hey, killer,” he said as he peeked through the slightly opened door. “Need help cleaning up the blood?”
“Not just yet. Check with me again next weekend.”
He nodded. “I just started a fire in the family room. Want to join me for a glass of wine?”
I considered it and then decided, “What the hell?”
I followed him into the cozy family room and curled up in one corner of the sectional. He handed me a glass of white wine and gestured to the chocolate covered almonds in the candy dish on the tray on the ottoman. “Help yourself.”
“I can’t,” I said as I held up a hand. “I’m watching my weight. Anyone who cares about their body would, you know.” I grinned and he laughed, and we both reached for a handful of almonds.
“Sorry she was such a bitch to you. Those are her issues, not yours.”
“I know,” I said as I popped a candy into my mouth. “I’m used to it.”
“You shouldn’t be,” he said softly. “It’s a bullshit standard.”
“Agreed,” I replied. “But that’s the way things are. You can’t be a nonconformist if you don’t have a thick skin. The world tries to change us all, pushing us in these ill-fitting boxes. It’s up to us to
test the locks on our own gilded cages,” I added with a wink.
He smiled. “
We sat quietly for a moment. After a few sips of wine, I finally said, “It’s absolutely none of my business, but I have to ask. What did you see in her?”
He sighed as he rested his head on the back of the sofa. “She wasn’t always so bitter,” he explained. “I mean, she’s always been broken. I knew that from the first time Drew brought her home to meet the family. She was really young, just months shy of eighteen. Her father was controlling. Her mother was popping pills. Dancing was all she had in her life when she met Drew. But despite that, he wanted her to start a family right away. He swept her off her feet and she was a mother by the time she was nineteen. She was too young, but of course Drew didn’t care. Father suggested that he needed to settle down and have a family, and so that was what he did. He did everything Father wanted him to do, which just so happened to include pulling away from her right when she needed him the most. ‘Business always comes first,’” he said in a stern voice mimicking his father. I couldn’t even chuckle, so he went on. “Her pregnancy was so hard on her, and he just dismissed everything. She came second to the promise of a child, which became his driving force. He wanted a son. He thought maybe then Father would love him, or at the very least respect him as an equal.”
I rested my head in my hand and
listened as he went on. “Elise and I became friends almost from the beginning. Drew was always at the office with Father, so Mother encouraged me to be her support system when it became obvious she needed one. I was right there while she suffered through the pregnancy, and she returned the favor after Mother got sick. She was the only one who understood what I was losing when my mother succumbed to cancer. And she was right there to hold my hand when we realized Nina would suffer the same fate. Nina discovered her tumor after she found out she was pregnant with Max, so she refused any treatment, especially after we learned the challenges Max was already going to face. She lasted barely two months after he was born, and after that I was every bit as broken as Elise had been. She understood me in a way that no living person did. We leaned on each other because we had no one else. By then, Drew was punishing her with affair after affair. It was a public humiliation that just deflated every single thing she tried to do to build up her self-esteem. He didn’t even sleep in the same room with her anymore. Father had trained him well,” Alex added bitterly. “Max was hospitalized when he was only six months old, and we thought that we were going to lose him. It was touch and go for about a week, and I was in a bad way. I stayed perpetually drunk because I knew I couldn’t handle losing him, too. So of course I turned to my friend. And a moment of comfort turned into something more. I think we both just needed to feel good again. To feel wanted. Needed.” His eyes met mine. “Alive,” he added, knowing I would understand.
He rubbed his eyes with one hand. “He thinks I did it on purpose to hurt him, but honestly I didn’t think of him at all. I was blinded by my own pain. And it was a shitty thing to do, I know that. I’ve made all the excuses and deflected all the blame. I tell myself that if Drew hadn’t forced his will onto Elise, then left
her to handle the fallout while he snubbed her publicly and ruthlessly, then she never would have kissed me that night. You can’t neglect a woman like that. And why would you, when each day together is a gift? I hated him for having it all, and never even realizing what he had. He chased money and women and power, when he had a healthy wife and son at home who loved him more than he deserved. I was so bitter. So jealous. But no matter what he did or didn’t do, I could have said no. I should have said no. He’s my brother,” he said with a catch in his throat. “He’s still that guy who took a beating for me. Yet I broke that sacred bond the minute I crawled into bed with his wife. And I can’t take it back.”
“So why make it worse?” I asked gently.
He thought about that for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Because I can’t make it better. Not with Drew, anyway. That bridge has burned. That ship has sailed. And never the twain shall meet,” he added with a small, humorless smile. “All I can do now is to prevent Jonathan walking our same path. He’s the hope of our family. If I save him… I save myself.”
He drained his glass. I watched as he lean
ed forward to pour another one. “And if Drew’s pissed at you, it means he still cares one way or the other,” I supplied.
He shrugged as he glanced into the fire so I wouldn’t see the look in his eyes.
“Anyway, like I said, Elise’s issues are hers alone. It has nothing to do with you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time she’s calling me a fat cow under her breath,” I quipped.
He laughed as he glanced back at my face. “Honestly, I think she’s just jealous. You found the strength to do everything she didn’t feel she could do. You’re just easier to hate than the person staring back at her from the mirror.” He paused and then said softly, “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re a fat cow.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I glanced into my wine glass and let the comment slide. He took the hint. He placed his glass on the tray. “
And on that note, I think I’ll turn in. You gonna be OK?”
I nodded. “Thanks for everything you’ve done this week, Alex. I really appreciate your support.”
He gave me a warm smile. “That’s what friends are for.”
I watched him clean up and with a friendly wave he disappeared upstairs.
I stared the fire until it was a pile of cold ash before I followed suit.
hings fell into a more manageable routine in the weeks that followed. We still hadn’t won Jonathan over by any stretch, but he no longer pushed the issue of disrespect now that he knew Alex was willing to step in as disciplinarian. It was a role that Alex had never adopted before, and Jonathan regarded the change cautiously. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said that Alex had earned Jonathan’s respect as a true Fullerton that afternoon when they had the standoff about the broken glass.
My relationship with Jonathan had
proven more tenuous, but he seemed to give me a pass after I stood up to his mother. He still challenged me every chance he got, unwilling to cut me any breaks as he punished me for the betrayal of leaving him. His life was in upheaval, so he had no qualms about sharing the misery. But he honored the line in the sand that Alex had drawn.
He just danced up to it on a regular basis.
As April gave way to May, he was doing more lessons than he was ignoring. However he definitely wasn’t working at the level he had demonstrated the year before. If it was a subject in which he already had proficiency or interest, he aced it effortlessly. But he wasn’t pushing himself or challenging himself anymore. I figured that was the entitlement he felt from the emotional trauma he’d experienced.
Either way, I was quickly nearing the end of my rope. I missed my favorite boy, the one who followed me everywhere with ceaseless enthusiasm to try new things.
There was only one new thing he wanted to do, and I was dead set against it.
“There’s no way I’m going to your father’s party,” I said when he asked me for the fifth time.
“Why not?” he asked. “Dad said both you and Alex were invited.”
I scowled at him. “Because it’s a political fundraiser, and I don’t support the candidate he’s chosen for his guest of honor.”
“This is because of EAL, isn’t it?”
My red pen stalled and grading papers was forgotten as my eyes met Jonathan’s. “How do you know about EAL?”
He shrugged. “You taught me that if I didn’t know about something that might affect me, I should learn. So I’ve done some research. I know they support candidates who campaign to cut certain government services, such as the department of education,” he added.
“You know more than I do,” I lied. “If you must know, it would be highly inappropriate for Alex and me to attend this event. It wasn’t that long ago that I was engaged very publically to your dad. Showing up now, with his brother, while
Drew has another woman on his arm, is just asking to end up in every tabloid in the nation. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Unfortunately for me, Alex also thought it was a swell idea. This was mostly because he wanted to shield Jonathan from Senator De Havilland, showing the congressman that Jonathan had a very strong support system to ward off any possible threat. I still thought he was paranoid. Why would a career politician
, whose public reputation had been cultivated over decades, risk aligning himself with murderers and criminals? I teased Alex about his tin foil hat, and he’d come back with upsetting news articles from the Mexico or China, where the new companies Drew had acquired at the behest of EAL were drawing attention for violent labor disputes and corrupt management.
Once Jonathan knew that Alex was on his side, he began his campaign in earnest. Two weeks before the event, while he was working with me in our library classroom, he dropped this little nugget of blackmail:
“You might want to change your mind about the party. That way you can see the festivities for yourself, instead of just read about it on the front page the next day.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He rolled his shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “Dad wants to draw attention to his slimy friends. I have a few ideas how to do that.”
My tummy tightened as I mulled over his thinly veiled threat
I had an inkling he was more than willing to act upon. My Jonathan would never even think to cause a ruckus just to make a political statement. He was a sweet ten-year-old boy who wanted, more than anything, to get his family’s approval. But we weren’t dealing with that Jonathan anymore, we were dealing with his evil twin… who had decided negative attention was good enough. He cursed, talked back to his parents, damaged property and had been playing hooky to hang out with a new group of delinquent friends.
Alex and I
had been making some progress in reaching him, but he was still acting out with his parents, particularly his mother, over the weekends.
Though we never saw any evidence of Jonathan’s experimentation with drugs while he stayed with us, Elise had confided in Alex that his weekend activities had been a lot sketchier. He blew off time with his folks to hang out with his new best friend,
Justin Deneke, the son of two high profile celebrities and child star in his own right. Justin and Jonathan had met at a private academy about two years before. After a prank with some fireworks, both boys had been expelled, and Drew ended up sending Jonathan to boarding school overseas. When that didn’t work out, Drew finally resorted to home schooling, which ultimately led right back to me. The boys had only recently rekindled their relationship the minute Jonathan moved in with his mother. Since Drew had never allowed the friendship once he realized how bad he was for Jonathan, Jonathan knew there was no greater alliance he could form to punish him.
In a world where little scared the mighty Drew Fullerton, a potential friendship between the two kids threatened his influence over his son more than anything else had done. As a result, Drew pulled out all the stops to squash it immediately.
Justin was the main reason Drew only allowed Jonathan a tablet as opposed to a phone, to limit his social contact with the outside world.
was four years older that Jonathan, which in Hollywood terms meant he was already versed in designer chemicals used to get high. Worse, he didn’t really care who knew it. He was a wild child out of control in the press, thanks to defiant photos snapped at Hollywood parties where he flipped off the paparazzi with one hand, and chugged alcohol with the other. He stuck his tongue out for each and every picture he took, to ruin their value for the people who had hounded him since birth.
He must have figured that if he was going to be forced to live in a fishbowl, he might as well give everyone something to see.
His reputation so far had included dozens of school suspensions and several expulsions, as well as one arrest for shoplifting at the Grove, a popular outdoor shopping center in West Los Angeles. Of all these infractions, none of which he had expressed one iota of remorse. Instead he used social media to brag about his celebrity and his drug use, which was why Drew had come down like a hammer keeping the two kids apart.
Justin had begun to exhibit an anarchist point of view, where the government was the root of all evil. Everything was a method of mind control, even the weather. Most dismissed his behavior as an entitled teen who was trying to carve out a niche in an industry that was quickly leaving him behind. At fourteen, he was awkward and gangly, no longer the sweet, cherub-faced sitcom star the nation loved, so controversy was a safe bet to keep him relevant in the press.
His public seemed to get just as much enjoyment tearing him down as it did lifting him up. Everyone turned into his mother as he was held up as the poster boy of bad behavior.
He must have figured that if they wouldn’t love him anymore, he’d give them something to hate. Diehard fans, generally young girls, stuck with him through his douche bag phase, which had surrounded him with an army of hangers-on who shrugged off his behavior as no big deal, “cool” or even “cute.” Rappers who sang about getting laid and getting high regarded him as a mascot, and he had been photographed holding glass pipes and various guns.
It was clear that Jonathan looked up to this older kid for having the balls to t
ell the world to go fuck itself, especially since he felt helpless over his own situation.
Elise, as it would seem, was still trying to win her son’s favor by
allowing him to make the decision for himself. She apparently didn’t want to risk being “the bad guy” by telling him no, like his father would have done. She even bought him his own cell phone, which his father had refused to do. This fueled Jonathan’s interest in the poisonous alliance. Being friends with Justin killed two birds for Jonathan. One, he could get back at his dad by publicly aligning himself with a problem child Drew couldn’t stand. Two, he could prove once and for all Elise was unfit, and unable to protect him from such disastrous choices.
Whether he was trying to get himself removed from his mother’s sole custody – or the Fullerton family entirely – Justin provided a bang-up way to shake up the status quo. So w
hat better way to get back at both of his parents than to embarrass them at a very public soiree bound to be covered by every news outlet from Hollywood to Washington?
I knew that Drew would never allow
Justin to attend the party, though I was pretty sure at least one of his parents made the VIP guest list, just to secure their high-dollar donation. From what I understood of the rebel without a clue, I suspected that Justin would find a way to make a scene anyway, especially now that he had the perfect pawn to work on the inside.
I finally agreed to go to the party, not because of Alex’s wild conspiracy theories but because of Jonathan’s threat. I checked out
Justin’s Twitter, which alluded to something “big” that would happen to the fat cats who wanted to run the show for money and for power.
Although Jonathan had developed this gruff exterior that was too cool for school, I could see his eyes light up when I sat him down that Thursday and told him we had decided to attend the party. “But,” I said holding up one finger. “You have to be on your best behavior. The only way you can keep coming here to learn is if you cooperate with your family instead of work against them. If you have any plans to embarrass your father or punish your mother, it’ll prove to the courts that the current situation is not working and they’ll have to find another, less preferable option.
You think things are out of control now, just wait until you become a ward of the courts.”
I could see the gears turn as he mulled over my proposition.
“Fine,” he agreed.
My eyebrow arched. “Pinky
He stared at my hand for a long moment before he finally relented. “Pinky
“Good,” I confirmed, before giving h
im his assignments for the day, which included a folder of other assignments he had previously ignored completely or half-assed and failed. He didn’t utter one objection as he took the folder and started to work quietly at the other desk in the library. He had so much to do that he ended up taking the folder home with him, which I figured would keep him out of trouble somewhat by keeping him away from Justin.
Alex toasted me with his cup of hot tea as we sat together in the family room, watching a bit of TV before turning in for the evening. “You truly do work miracles,” he complimented.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I warned. “The party isn’t over yet. Which reminds me,” I segued as I turned to face him, “I expect you to be on your best behavior, too.”
He held a hand to his chest in mock outrage. “
?” he asked.
,” I said. “You have to model behavior for Jonathan. If you make a battle out of everything, he’ll learn to do the same. Is that what you want?”
“I want him to stand up for himself,” he countered.
“And look how well that has worked for him so far,” I shot back. “Tell me how making snide remarks to Drew or to the senator will make anything better for anyone.”
He sighed as he rested his head on the back of the sofa. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “It just feels like my silence is my compliance. If I don’t belittle what they’re doing, then in some significant way I agree with it.” His eyes met mine. “
You’ve read his platform and heard his speeches. Do you agree with what they are proposing?”
“Of course not,” I said. “But we’re not there for us. We’re there for Jonathan. Regardless of how you feel about Drew, he’s still his father. That’s a big deal. You keep drilling it into Jonathan’s head that his father is a bad man
and it undermines Jonathan’s self-esteem because that is where he comes from. Why do you think I insisted that neither Drew nor Elise speak poorly of one another in Jonathan’s presence?” He looked away with a sigh. I knew that he knew I was right. “Filters are our friends. You don’t need to express a thought or feeling the instant that you have it, especially if it serves no other purpose than to tear down a person or an idea.”
He offered a small smile. “Some might argue that certain people and ideas need to be torn down.”
“And some might be looking at the bigger picture,” I retorted. “This isn’t about politics. It’s about a little boy.” My eyes scanned his face as I thought about the boxes tucked away in the garage, mementoes of Drew’s and Alex’s past. “All three of you.”
chuckled. “You sure don’t make it easy, do you?”
It was my turn to smile. “Teachers are supposed to force you outside of your comfort zones.”