Authors: T. L. Haddix
“Murphy, for crying out loud, cat,” Chase said, exasperated. “Just shut up! I’ll be out in a minute, okay?”
“What’s wrong, Murph?” Chase heard Jason ask. “Chase, do you want me to let him in?”
Chase groaned. “No, I just want two minutes of peace to tie this damned tie.” Jason had stopped by to borrow a tie and dress shirt, his formal closet not as extensive as Chase’s since he wore a uniform for work. “Can you take him downstairs? Please?”
“Sure,” Jason said. “We’ll see you downstairs. Come on, Murphy Smurf. Let’s see if we can get you some kibble.”
After they were gone, Chase leaned against the countertop and sighed. Looking down at the sink, he realized he was being irrational and did his best to rein in his temper. It was just that he hated funerals with a passion. The last one he had attended had been for his maternal grandmother, Grace Olman. It had been the summer after Kiely’s death. If he never had to attend another funeral, it would be too soon, but unfortunately, there was no way of avoiding it.
“Just a few hours, Chase. You can do it,” he told himself. When he thought he had regained enough control to manage the tie, he straightened and finished getting ready. Leaving the bathroom, he headed downstairs to the kitchen, where he could hear Jason talking. He stopped in the doorway as a welcome wave of amusement came over him.
“Dude, your cat is as weird as you are,” Jason said. “Did you teach him this trick?”
Murphy was on the counter, sitting up on his back legs with the remnant of a baby carrot clenched between his front paws. He was gnawing away at the tip, a strange purr-growl coming from his throat.
Chase smiled. “No, he figured that out himself.”
“He startled me pretty good. I gave him some cat food and grabbed a handful of carrots,” Jason said. “Next thing I know, he’s practically climbing me to get to them. Does he think he’s a rabbit or something?”
“Jason, God alone knows what goes through this cat’s brain,” Chase said, as he moved to put Murphy down. “You aren’t supposed to be on the counters, buddy. You know that.” Murphy quickly darted away, jumping down on the other side of the island to scurry under the table. He growled back toward Chase and Jason, keeping a furtive eye on his carrot the whole time.
Jason watched the whole scene in amazement. “Okay, then. Glad you had Annie babysit instead of me. No offense to the orange guy, but he’s just a little too weird for my comfort level.”
“Yeah. I get that a lot.” Chase chuckled, then he sobered and asked, “You ready to face the music?”
“No, but it’s time to go anyhow. It sounds horrible, I know, but I just want to get this over with.”
Chase locked the door to the condo and led Jason to his car. “It may sound horrible, little brother, but I feel the exact same way.”
~ * * * ~
Though the funeral was fairly uneventful, the events following were anything but. Chase’s grandmother Ethel had allowed two hours after the services for a wake, held at the house she and J.R. had shared for more than fifty years. At three o’clock, she announced to the mourners that the wake was over. Ethel Chase Hudson didn’t do anything without commanding attention, and she always spoke formally, considering slang and the use of contractions beneath her.
“We have family business to discuss, and those of you not related by blood or marriage within one generation need to leave immediately. Thank you for coming,” she stated bluntly. “John, Richard, make sure these people are out of my house within fifteen minutes. I will be in my room resting.” There was stunned silence in the foyer as she stomped off down the hall, the tip of her cane punctuating each step.
“Mother Ethel, please wait,” John’s wife Olivia pleaded as she hurried after Ethel. Her hushed voice could be heard coming back through the foyer as she begged Ethel to reconsider without success. Richard and John, knowing all too well how their mother was, exchanged a tired look. They started herding the guests toward the front door while making their apologies.
Unfortunately, the afternoon had only just gotten started. Even though Chase’s family had expected something, what they had gotten left them all fuming. While they were waiting in J.R.’s den for the reading of the will to commence, Ethel had turned to Chase and said, “Well, boy, it is time you got married and had children. You have had ample time to get over that little tramp you dated in college. You are the only one of my grandchildren who is worth acknowledging. Carrying on the Hudson line is going to be up to you. I have several candidates in mind.”
There had been shocked silence for a full minute as everyone stared at each other, unable to believe Ethel’s audacity. Finally, Chase spoke from where he stood against the wall. “Excuse me, Grandmother, but I couldn’t have heard you right,” he said.
Ethel waved a hand toward him, brushing off his words. “Of course you heard me right, boy. What part did you think you misunderstood? The part about you needing to marry, or the part about the floozy?” Ethel shuddered delicately. “I always thought you put much too much stock in that girl’s memory to begin with. Think of where she came from. You escaped a horrible fate when she died.”
“Mother Ethel, you need to sit down. It’s been a hard week, and you aren’t yourself,” Olivia, said. She moved to Ethel’s side, but the woman pushed her away, keeping her focus on Chase.
“Mother, you’re very much out of line,” Richard told her in a tight voice.
She ignored him and continued her study of Chase. “Well? What is the problem? Are you gay? You have been going around with that flower girl, Angie, Amy, whatever her name is, so apparently you like women well enough. It is high time you found a decent woman to settle down with.”
When Richard saw the dangerous glint that entered Chase’s eyes, he hurried to stand between his mother and his oldest son. “Let it go, Chase,” he said in a low voice. Chase met his father’s gaze, and a thousand words were exchanged in that look. “I know, Chase—I know, but you have to turn the other cheek.”
“Richard, stop coddling the boy,” Ethel ordered as she stood, her cane grasped firmly in one gnarled hand. “That is why he is so weak now. You and Jackie have always given your children everything they want. Look at Elizabeth—married to that man. It will not last,” she said, turning her attention to Beth and Ethan. Her tone dripped scorn. “It never does, with that type. Of course, I do not know what else I should have expected, considering your mother’s origins. If your parents had taught you what they should have, you would know that there is the kind of person one marries, and the kind of person one has affairs with.” She pointed a finger in Ethan’s direction. “That is the kind of person one has an affair with, after one has produced a child or two. Chase will not have that dilemma. He may carry on with whomever he chooses from day one.” With that, she turned and went to the door. “I will be back in a moment. John, please have your father’s attorney ready by the time I return. I want to get this over with.”
John excused himself to follow his mother, and then there was absolute silence in the room. John’s children, Barney and Celeste, stood up without a word and followed their father. Finally, the silence was broken as Beth started laughing. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but the tinkling sound poured out despite her best efforts to contain it.
“I’m so sorry, Chase,” she said, still chuckling as she wiped tears from her eyes. “It’s just the look on your face—”
“Beth, honey.” Ethan put his hands on her shoulders. “Take a deep breath. Calm down. You’re going to make yourself sick.”
Beth shook her head. “I can’t stop,” she said, fighting tears. “It’s just the stress of the last few days and knowing this was going to happen, and it finally did. Oh, Lord.”
Chase moved across the room and took Beth into his arms for a tight hug. “Did it ever,” he said. He looked at Ethan. “Sorry about that.”
Ethan shrugged and grinned. “I figure Ethel comes under the heading of ‘for worse’ in the vows. I’m a little scared that she thinks I’m ‘lover’ material, though. If she hits on me, I’m not above using you as a shield.”
“That’s disgusting,” Olivia murmured as nearly everyone in the room snickered.
“Well, I feel left out,” Jason drawled. He turned to their younger sister, Joely. “I guess we don’t even merit a mention.”
Joely rolled her eyes. “You may feel left out, but I feel like I dodged a bullet. I’ve been on that chopping block a few times, and you know it. You’re the only one of us who has escaped, as far as I know.”
They all looked at Jason for confirmation, and he shrugged. “Told you, I feel left out. My time is coming, though, I’m sure. I think it’s because Chase is named after her. Mom, thanks for giving him that name and not me,” Jason said. Jackie shot him a stern warning glare, and he held his hands up. “Sorry. I’ll hush.”
The door from the hall opened. “I had a word with her in the hallway. If she comes back in and starts that again, I’ll call off the reading,” John said as he came in with J.R.’s attorney in tow. “She’s been through a lot, but damn it, so have the rest of us. We don’t have to take that sort of abuse from her, and she knows it. If she wants this will read today, she’ll behave.”
To everyone’s amazement, the reading of the will went smoothly, with Ethel keeping her opinion to herself. No one wanted to linger afterward.
“You kids are all coming to the farm, right?” Richard asked as they headed down the front steps of Ethel’s house. “Hannah and Annie went ahead to get all the food ready.”
“Of course, Daddy.” Beth kissed his cheek. “Ethan and I will be out there as soon as we change clothes.”
“Ditto here,” Jason chimed in. “So we’ll see you in thirty, forty-five minutes?” They all agreed and went to their separate vehicles.
Jason, who had ridden with Chase, sighed as he slid into the passenger seat of Chase’s car. “God, that was awful,” he said. “I’m sorry, Chase. I wish she had targeted me.”
Chase started the car and drove off. “Why? I’m a big boy. I can take it.”
“I know. It’s just that you already take so much flak from this person and that. It would be nice to be able to draw the heat off your back every now and then.”
With a genuine smile, Chase thanked him. “I don’t know how nice it would be, but I appreciate the thought.”
Jason smiled back. “So do you think we should start calling Ethan ‘lover boy’ now?” It took a few seconds for the words to register, and then Chase was laughing so hard he had to pull the car over to the side of the road. Jason joined in, and every time one tried to stop, the other would laugh harder. Eventually, they managed to stop laughing, most of the tension of the day now gone.
“God, I needed that,” Chase said. “And yes, I definitely think we should give Ethan a new nickname.” He pulled the car back out on the road. “What a day. I’m glad Annie and Hannah missed this.”
“So am I,” Jason said, turning pensive. “But you know we can’t shield them from it forever. If they become part of the family, they’re going to be exposed to it.”
Chase was pleased to hear his brother’s words. “Are you thinking about proposing, Jason?”
“Thinking about it, and thinking, and thinking. Do you think she’d accept?”
Chase glanced at the younger man. Jason’s self-confidence had always been healthy, until he had met Hannah. Since then, he had discovered a rather endearing and healthy amount of self-doubt, something the family took to mean that Hannah was truly the love of his life. If she hadn’t been, he wouldn’t care so much about what she thought. “Oh, I think it would be worth your while,” Chase told him with a smile. “At this point, it’s more of a formality than anything. Hannah and Paulo are already family. Are you sure you’re ready to be a dad, though?”
“Yeah. I’m looking very forward to that,” Jason said. “He’s a great kid. I just hope I can be half as good a parent as ours are.”
“You know, Jason, I don’t think you have a thing to worry about.” They had reached his condo, and he parked the car next to Jason’s jeep. “Just please don’t elope like Beth and Ethan did. I think Mom needs to help plan a wedding. She feels deprived.”
Jason unbuckled his seat belt and shot Chase a wicked look. “You know, you could bring her a bride, as well. That would really make her day—two new daughters-in-law.”
Chase grunted and ignored the comment as he got out of the car. “Go get changed. I’ll see you at the farm.”
Jason laughed. “All’s fair, brother.”
Chase let himself inside and was greeted by a happy Murphy. He headed upstairs to change clothes. “How would you feel about that, Murphy? If I brought you a mommy?” Murphy chirruped happily, rubbing against Chase’s legs with an excited purr. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say. Just don’t get your hopes up, buddy. The lady probably doesn’t feel the same way.”