Authors: Elle Casey
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Women, #Humorous, #Sagas
The differences between my mother and him are never more clear than when I come over here for Sunday brunch. I’m seized by a sudden pang of longing for bygone days. When my mother was alive, my own life had seemed so much more steady, attached to terra firma. Now I feel as though I’m a dust mote caught in a downdraft. The source of my latest tragedy is unbuckling her seatbelt next to me.
“So, this is the Stratford Estate. I’ve heard about it, you know.”
Keeping a straight face has never been difficult for me, even when I’m filled with nothing but loathing for a person sitting right beside me.
“All good, I hope.” I shut off the engine and get out of the vehicle before the serpent has time to get any untoward ideas. She’s been trying to lay hands on me since the moment she got into my vehicle, but I have steadfastly refused to be mauled. A well placed elbow and the need for constant gear shifting and wheel-management has seen to that.
She waits in the car, and I’m temped to just walk away, straight up into the foyer and out onto the terrace without her. But my mother would turn over in her grave if she saw me acting so rudely, so I do the right thing and walk around to the other side of my car and open her door. I will not give her a hand out, though. I won’t.
Her hand goes up in the air and floats there. I pretend to be very interested in a nonexistent bird across the lawn. It’s a cardinal maybe or a robin or perhaps a red-crested boobie. Oh, wait … no … I’m the red crested boobie. That would be the only explanation for why I am here with this woman. This blackmailing, black-hearted serpent of a woman.
She stands and I quickly step back out of her reach. As soon as she moves out of the way, I shut the door and spin around to walk to the house.
“Wonderful flowers. Who does your father’s landscaping?” Her heels crunch in the gravel driveway behind me. The bint is wearing stilettos, as if that would have any effect on me. All it does is bring to mind the preying mantis. I’d be willing to wager some dosh that she can turn her head round three hundred and sixty degrees without breaking anything or even pulling a muscle.
She’s very persistent in her attempts at conversation, I’ll give her that. “I have no idea,” I respond. “You’ll have to ask him.” As I walk up the front steps, an evil plan suddenly begins to form in my mind. Perhaps I can get her interested in the real brains behind the operation and off my back. My father would eat her alive and spit out her bones, so there’d be no worries of her becoming the next Mrs. Stratford. He’s much more heartless than I could ever hope to be, and he has the luxury of being able to take risks with the company’s reputation that I do not.
My voice perks up with the excitement of being free from her clutches in the very near future, if I play my cards right. “He loves to discuss gardening. You have that in common.”
Come on then, Cupid, strike your arrow straight into her dark heart. I know it’s a small target, but you’ve got the skills. I believe in you, lad.
“Oh, I’m not really interested in gardening, Will. I’m just interested in you.”
How utterly demoralizing. So much for my brilliant plan. “I gathered.” I used to admire American boldness, but it has now become apparent that I shall have to rethink that opinion.
Opening the front door and stepping into the hall, I disregard the bell entirely. This is sure to rile my father as he enjoys showing off his real, dyed-in-the-wool English butler, but I admit to being a little frightened of being alone on the front step with this woman for longer than a trice. She’s loads more aggressive than the women I’m used to spending my time with, and she’s shown herself to be very single-minded of purpose, the way she’s forced me to invite her to this brunch.
Thoughts of Jennifer fill the empty spaces in my mind and immediately turn my mood sour. It should be her with me here, not Ingrid. If Jennifer were here, I’d ring the bell twice. Perhaps three times. I’d bring the whole neighborhood in to see us standing side-by-side.
“Who will I be meeting today besides your father?”
“You haven’t met my father before?” I pause and turn to consider her expression. I cannot decide if she’s having me on or not.
“No. I’ve only dealt with his attorneys.”
“Oh, well, you’re in for a treat.” Perhaps I can get him alone and let him know that this woman is blackmailing me. Having him on my side might be better than leaving him in the dark as she’s tried to convince me to do. I will have to evaluate as the morning progresses. My earlier plan to manage everything myself seems foolhardy considering how successful she’s been at puppeteering me around. It’s quite emasculating, really; however, today, I consider the fact that John Thomas has gone into a coma a very good thing.
“So I hear,” she says.
I don’t know whether what she’s heard is good or bad, but it’s no matter to me. I am not dating this woman, I will not date this woman, and she cannot make me. Not completely, anyway. Perhaps in name, but not in deed. Not in my heart.
We make our way across the salon, through the sliding glass doors, and out onto the vast terrace. A dining table has been set with linens, and my father is in deep discussion with Edward. They’re both wearing white, as is the norm for them on warm weekends, but my all-black ensemble suits my mood better. I feel as though I’m attending a funeral when she’s at my side.
The dynamic duo, Edward and my father. Somehow my brother has managed to become my father’s only weakness. The troublemaker can do no wrong in my father’s eyes, no matter how wrong the wrong is. I suppose I should be happy about it. At least Edward isn’t interested in running the company. The way my father favors him I’d probably be out on the street, unemployed and destitute.
“William!” my father cries enthusiastically as he stands. This is when he plays the American, smiling broadly and throwing his arms out for a grand display of public affection. My insides shrivel a little as he wraps me in his manly embrace, slapping me hard on the back. “You brought a date! Well done!”
“Father, this is not a date, this is Ingrid.” It was probably wrong of me to say that, but I just cannot accept the fact that she is my date. Never. It just won’t happen. “Ingrid, this is my father, the indomitable Frank Stratford.”
My father scolds me with an expression, but then quickly morphs it into one of open admiration. “Well, whatever you want to call her, I call her welcome.” He folds one of her hands into both of his. “Ingrid, thank you for coming. Please excuse my bore of a son. He’s not a fan of the Sunday brunch.”
She pulls her hand from his grip and places it on my shoulder as she smiles.
I have to look away so as not to vomit on my favorite shoes. I’d put them on earlier to help boost my confidence and mood; now I’m embarrassed that they have to bear witness to this tragedy. I should have worn trainers. I can run much faster in trainers.
Her voice is like a poison gas, filling up the air around us. I fear what she will say next.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Frank. May I call you Frank?”
“You may call me anything you like,” he says, pulling out a chair for her next to him.
My head jerks sideways in response to the tone of his voice. My father? Going soft? I regard his expression closely. Yes, he does look a bit flustered. I hold back on my urge to applaud. That would be much too obvious.
sinker. Thank you, God in heaven. Now I just need to get them talking about flowers. My father is absolutely mad for the things. I try not to let the niggle of guilt that I am laying a trap for the man bother me.
I walk around and take the seat on the other side of my father, between him and Edward. My brother lifts an eyebrow at my avoidance of the empty chair next to Ingrid, but says nothing. I’m sure he’s amused at my obvious discomfort, but now’s not the time to engage with him. I’m liable to knock his block clear across the lawn with a single tonk, and for once it won’t be his fault.
“So, Ingrid, tell us how you came to be passing time with William.” My father smiles as he places his napkin in his lap. Randolph the butler appears from a side door with a tray of toasts and jam. I don’t know whether to be relieved or stressed that the breakfast has officially commenced.
“I work nearby his office in the same building. I’m an attorney.”
“Oh, how lovely.” My father is still all smiles.
I have a mind to remedy that. No one should be happy when I’m so miserable. It’s possible, the guilt I’m feeling over trying to set her on my father is getting to me already, since I cannot stop myself from speaking. “She’s being modest, father. Ingrid actually owns the building our offices are in, or so she says. Apparently, she’s our landlord.” I smile inwardly. Let him chew that fat for a bit and see how he likes being held by the short hairs.
“Is that so?” he says, never batting a single eyelash. “How
teresting. And how long have you owned the building?”
“Five years.” She puts her napkin in her lap and looks over at me. Is that a warning in her gaze?
. I don’t see anything. Not. A. Thing.
“Do you own any other properties I might know about?” The gleam is in his eye. The gleam that consists of floating dollar signs and funding for his next year’s country club membership.
, Father! She’s not a fish!
a fish! We don’t need her on our rolls!
“I own a nightclub, a few other office buildings, and a small commercial plaza.”
“Ah, a serious investor.” He lifts his mimosa and holds it out in her direction. “Welcome to the fold,” he says.
And now I know that he has put her into his memory bank as a potential future client.
My head falls nearly to my chest as I realize that I am brown bread. I groan and drop my gaze to the table. I already have heartburn and I haven’t even had a bite to eat yet.
“What’s the matter, son?” My father puts his hand on my arm.
I rub my chest. “Heartburn. Don’t mind me.”
Edward kicks me under the table, but I shake my head silently and refuse to look at him. Of course I’ll have to give him the details that I refused to reveal last night when we left the serpent’s lair, but now’s not the time. I have to wait and see how this plays out. I have to find my moment, my
. My escape hatch. Sometime before she forces me to see her naked would be nice.
“Thank you, Frank. It’s great to be here. William and I have had our eyes on each other for a long time.”
My face goes pale at the very idea. I raise my head, just so that I can be sure I’m not being blagged. That would be something Edward would orchestrate. He’s even diabolical enough to suss Ingrid out and recruit her to participate in his evil pranks.
But no … one look at his expression and I know this is not his doing. He actually appears as if he pities me. He doesn’t even know the half of it.
“Is that right?” Frank smiles at me. “You’re a sly one, William. I hadn’t a clue.”
“Neither had I,” I say under my breath. Then, “Pass the jam, would you? I find myself in need of a sugar boost.”
“Tea?” the butler asks.
I shake my head. Even PG Tips won’t ease my sorry soul this morn. I busy myself with tending to brekky as Ingrid prattles on about some thing or another. I can’t bring myself to listen or even look in her direction. I’m too busy scheming a way out of this mess. Passing her off on my father is a terrifically horrid idea. He can be a bit of a wanker, but he did give me life. I can’t very well throw him into the viper pit, now can I?
His voice filters into my conscience mind. “Well, I’ll say, it’s about time William showed some interest in the opposite sex. I was beginning to think he was a poof.”
Or perhaps I
throw him in.
“Father, did you know that Ingrid here is a fan of gardening? Just like you. She’s asked after your flowers.” I shove the jam-covered bap into my mouth to keep from over-selling it. My eyes roll from her to him and rest there as my eyebrows go up.
Take the bait, Father. Reel her in.
“Is that a fact?” My father says slowly, turning to face her better.
“No, actually, I just said that to try and start a conversation with your son. He’s so quiet all the time.” She smiles slyly at me.
Match point to the viper. Game over. I am once again brown bread. My heart sinks.
“Nonsense,” says my father. He drops his easygoing bloke ruse in a flash and fixes her with a serious stare. When this happens to me, it strikes fear in my heart — an automatic reaction I’ve had years to cultivate —, but she’s too daft to realize she’s stepped in it. “No need to play coy with me, young lady. How about you pick up your glass and allow me to show you round the rose garden? I’ll change your mind in a trice, I guarantee it.”
I slow my chewing as I take in the details of the rapidly changing atmosphere.
Ingrid looks as though she’s swallowed a canary. Edward is grinning. My father has a challenge in his eye.
Could it be …? My chest swells with hope and pride. Yes! Somehow he has picked up on my distress and is coming to save the day. Daddy to the rescue! I could kiss the man. I won’t, but I’m saying I
. He would deserve it.
“Well, if you insist.” Ingrid waits for my father’s response.
“Indeed, I do.” He stands and reaches over to pull out her chair.
She also stands because she can hardly refuse at this point, now can she?
I’m nearly giddy with pleasure. This tour should take at least ten minutes. Ten minutes wherein I can breathe and scheme for my escape. Perhaps I can come down with something in that short period of time. Lurgi? Something more serious? Bronchitis? EColi poisoning perhaps? Is death by boysenberry jam a real diagnosis?
“William, why don’t you join us?” she asks.
Is that a hint of desperation in her voice? Oh rapture … it well and truly is! A unicorn will surely come strolling around the hedgerow now. I turn to see the blessed event.
Edward places a hand on my shoulder. “Nothing doing, tosser. You still owe me an explanation as to why you didn’t bring that P&L issue up to me sooner.” He looks at our father and nods. “Off you go, then. I’ll get him back on the straight and narrow while you’re gone.”