Authors: Ginger Voight
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Sagas
“Fine,” he relented at last. “I’ll behave, Teach. No dunce cap required.”
I held up my hand. “Pinky
His eyes met mine. Slowly he brought his hand up to link pinkies with mine, his finger crooked around my much smaller one, holding me tight in his secure grip. “Pinky
swear,” he said in a voice so soft that it made my nerve endings hum. He held my hand a beat longer than necessary, until I gently disentangled myself with a slight clearing of my throat.
“Good,” I managed.
I feigned a yawn and escaped to my bedroom, where I stayed until I knew that Alex had left for the track the following day.
This was simply how our weekends worked. Without Jonathan there, I would help Millicent out around the house with whatever weekly chores that needed to be done, something she insisted on doing personally because she had never become accustomed to having a housekeeper do it for her. Alex was
either at the track with his horses, or on the road to find another for the stables. He had even flown to England to visit his mother’s family over one weekend, to acquire new horses to train.
I knew he was doing anything and everything to avoid going into Mexico, to a horse ranch recommended by Drew, simply because of all the discord from Teton Tech.
It gave me some downtime on the weekend, when I wasn’t chasing after any Fullerton men, except maybe for Max… who followed me around like a little duckling. I would catch Millicent watching us with a sad expression on her face, and I knew she was thinking about her deceased daughter, Nina, who had never been a part of Max’s life. I tried only once to disengage, but Millicent was quick to respond.
“Don’t you dare pull away from a child who needs you,” she scolded with loving firmness. “It’s nobody’s fault that his mother isn’t here with us anymore. Why punish him, or you, for his finding what he needs from someone who so clearly loves him?”
And it was true. Jonathan now shared the title of my favorite boy with the rambunctious four-year-old who was more determined and independent than most children who didn’t face his particular challenges. He would cuddle in my arms as I read him story after story, and he responded well to the small lessons I attempted to teach him. By the middle of May, he would finish the sentences in the familiar stories as I read his favorite books to him, with a clap of his hands and a happy, accomplished giggle.
There were times when, after he had fallen asleep in my arms, I’d stare into his face and marvel at the miracle of him.
I had fallen hook, line and sinker for Maximus DeJong Fullerton, and it made my weekends at Alex’s country home a true joy.
Sometimes Alex was a part of those weekends and sometimes he wasn’t. Most days it didn’t matter either way. I certainly didn’t want to jeopardize that in any way with misguided fantasies and misfiring hormones. I liked to consider myself a person who learned from her experiences
, who never made the same mistake twice. Even though I was pretty sure that Alex had no agenda to romance me, I wasn’t about to take any chances. I kept things right and proper between us.
Every now and then, however, such as the
moment with the innocent pinky swear, I worried that I stood just a little too close to the fire.
I would disengage, he wouldn’t push the issue and we’d be over it within a day. Apparently he wasn’t ready to make any more mistakes on his end either, given how everything had imploded after his dalliance with Elise.
By Monday, when Jonathan returned bright and early that morning, we both had put the unsettling episode behind us.
Even though he still wore his hurt feelings
on proud display for everyone to see, Jonathan stayed compliant for the rest of the week. He had turned in his folder of completed homework, which he had aced. He also turned in an essay covering EAL and Senator De Havilland for “extra credit.” My stomach sunk as I read the essay, which was slanted toward Alex’s point of view, as well as – no doubt – Justin’s, given that all of his cited sources were noted conspiracy theorists. I sat him down to talk about it.
“While I appreciate your initiative, I’m concerned how biased your paper is, and how biased the sources you cite for the research
are. Most of all, I’m concerned that you plan to ignore our agreement not to make a spectacle at your father’s fundraiser.”
He shrugged. “So what if I do? It’s not like Alex won’t.”
“Is that why you insisted we go?” I asked.
“No,” he answered
far too quickly for it to have been the truth.
I held up the paper. “Then why write this?”
“Because it’s true,” he countered.
It’s speculation,” I corrected. “None of these allegations have been proven in a court of law, specifically regarding Elizabeth Schonhorn.”
“Alex thinks it’s true. He’s convinced my mom to keep me away from Dad because he thinks Senator De Havilland and EAL are dangerous people to cross.”
I sighed. It hurt my heart that he was privy to such information. These were no concerns for a child. “Maybe it’s best that none of us go,” I muttered.
“Sure,” Jonathan sneered. “Break another promise. I’m used to it.”
“I’m not breaking any promises,” I said. “Are you planning to break yours?”
He shook his head.
We stared at each other long and hard before I finally scribbled a giant, red “C” on top of his paper and handed it back to him. “Next time use unbiased sources in your research,” I advised.
“Do those exist?” he wanted to know.
I didn’t know what to tell him. We lived in a world built upon perception. What was gospel truth for one was nothing but nonsensical gobbledygook to another. Each was predisposed to lean towards those “reliable” sources that validated what one already believed. Even with the wealth of information to be found on the Internet, one really didn’t need to consider another point of view if one didn’t want to. All I could do was teach him to think critically as he formed these opinions for himself.
The next day he turned in another essay, only this time arguing the opposite point of view of his original paper. The sources were varied and he managed to adopt a more objective tone that presented the information without pushing an agenda. He said nothing to me as he turned it in, and I said nothing as I handed it back, this time with the A he had earned.
In fact, he rarely said anything during our sessions together. He wasn’t icing me out anymore, but he was reluctant to demonstrate any enthusiasm for anything more than riding on Alex’s horses. Even the upcoming party was business as usual. This was a test of my word and I knew it. He asked what I planned to wear, and even offered to go with me into town to shop for something. I suspected he really wouldn’t believe that I was going unless he could see some kind of physical proof other than my verbal confirmation, which had apparently lost all merit.
So I arranged an outing in Oxnard on one of the days Millicent took
Max into town for therapy. We dropped them off at the doctor’s office and then spent the next couple of hours searching for an outfit suitable for a high-profile political fundraiser. I saw glimpses of my favorite boy beneath the Gothic exterior as I tried on dress after dress, until finally I settled on a pale pink chiffon number with an empire waist, jeweled bodice and sheer sleeves. I still felt ridiculous, but Jonathan insisted that it was the perfect dress. I bought it more because it was the first thing we had agreed on in months.
We stopped for frozen yogurt on the way back to the doctor’s office, and sat together on metal chairs as we scooped fresh fruit and creamy soft-serve up by the spoonful. He studied me quietly before he finally asked, “Do you think Alex will make a scene at the party?”
I shrugged. “He promised he wouldn’t.”
That answer only begged another question. “Are you dating my uncle, Rachel?”
I sighed as I put the spoon on the tray. “I’m not dating anyone, Jonathan.”
“That’s what you said about my dad,” he reminded. “But you live with Alex the same way you used to live with my dad. You take care of his kid. You help run his house. And now you’re going to this party together.”
“Because of you,” I pointed out. “You’re my focus, honey. You always have been.”
“Then why did you leave?”
My eyes met his. I could see the pain brimming there as he asked the question that had haunted him for months. I reached across to take his hand. He didn’t move away. “I made a mistake,” I said softly. “A really, really big one. And I could blame your dad, or your uncle, or fate itself. But the fact is I broke my own rules. And I hate more than anything that you were the one who paid the price for it. I can’t change what happened. All I can do is make better choices going forward. Believe it or not, that is the focus of each and every adult in your life, from your uncle to your parents.”
He nodded, but said nothing further. We picked up Millicent and Max and headed back to the house in time to meet Alex as he returned with the horses. Jonathan offered to help Alex, which surprised and pleased him. In fact, Jonathan opened up even further by assisting Millicent with dinner that evening. I wondered if maybe, now that we had that difficult conversation about the past, he was able to move forward.
He abandoned his bratty demeanor to join us all on the veranda that night, and even asked Alex to play his guitar. Alex launched into a familiar country tune and Jonathan walked over to me with hand outstretched. “May I have this dance?” he asked, which melted my heart right into a puddle.
“I would be honored,” I responded. I stood and we started to sway together, much to the amusement, and delight, of our small audience. Max wanted to go next, and I taught him a simple two-step as we giggled together.
“You next, Daddy!” he told Alex.
“I’m playing the music,” he argued, but Max shook his head. That answer was not acceptable. He pulled Alex up to dance with me,
after which Max attempted to play his father’s guitar. I knew Jonathan watched our interaction carefully, so I was stiff in Alex’s arms as he skillfully led me through another two-step to his son’s out-of-tune plucking.
Alex was quiet as he led me around the concrete patio, and his eyes were unreadable.
His hands were strong as he guided me, never encroaching on my precious bubble space. Had it been Drew, I would have been pulled up against his rigid body, the contours of which as strong as his will. With Alex, however, he held me only with his eyes.
Oddly enough, he was just as commanding.
When the song ended (i.e. Max grew bored with playing,) Alex and I stepped apart awkwardly. I saw Jonathan study us from under his unruly dark hair that had begun to grow over his striking eyes. I had all my excuses prepared. Alex was just a friend, and barely that. I had no plans to get involved with anyone, much less the brother of the last man who had betrayed me so cruelly. It was just a dance; it meant nothing.
But each argument felt like a watered down excuse to cover up something more, although I really didn’t know what else I could be hiding. Maybe I felt guilt by association. I knew Jonathan scrutinized our every move, likely reading between the lines a message that wasn’t even there. Of course my first impulse was to defend myself, and what little honor I had left after what had happened with Drew.
He said nothing, however, and the kids quickly dispersed to play a video game once Alex put away his guitar. I insisted that Millicent leave the kitchen to me, and that was where Alex found me a little while later when I was wiping down the countertops.
He said nothing as he pulled tea from the cabinet. He put water in the pot and prepared his cup, all without a word. Finally, surprisingly, he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about Drew’s party. I don’t think I should go.”
My eyes darted to his. “Why not?”
He shrugged as he looked away. “It just seems like a bad idea all the way around.”
I put the cleaning supplies away under the sink. “That’s certainly your choice,” I said. “Jonathan will be disappointed, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’ll probably do him a world of good to find out he can’t always get what he wants.”
I turned to leave. His words stopped me. “And what do you want, Rachel?”
I glanced back at where he stood, leaning one hip against the counter. “What do you mean?”
“You said Jonathan would be disappointed if I don’t go. Is he the only one?”
I closed my eyes briefly to pray for strength. I couldn’t keep going through this again and again. “Alex…,” I started.
He waved his hand. “Forget I said anything.” He turned back to prepare his tea.
I took a deep breath and walked over to where he stood.
“What do you want me to say, Alex?”
His voice was quiet. “That you don’t miss him. That you don’t think about him. That you don’t wish things could have been different and you were there with him instead of here with me.” His eyes met mine. “You know he’s going to paint you right back into another corner. He’s going to dangle Jonathan in front of you like a carrot on a stick to make you do what he wants you to do. Tell me that you’re over him… that it won’t matter what he says or what he does.”
I struggled for something to say. I wished I could make those promises to him, but I couldn’t even make them to myself. I said as much to Alex. “Would if I could. But I’m not wired that way. Whatever you think of me, then or now, I really did fall in love with him.”