Authors: G. J. Walker-Smith
After meeting with a prospective buyer over brunch at a midtown café, I rushed back to the gallery so Bronson could leave. He met me at the door, almost complimenting me on my shoes as he left. “I love them, darling.” He kissed both my cheeks. “Being three feet tall is challenging. It’s nice that they make pretty heels for you.”
The rest of the morning passed fairly slowly. In between cataloguing, I had time to embark on a gossipy text message session with Bente. The gossip was extra juicy that morning. Years after having her heart stomped on by Ryan, she was gearing up for round two.
A chance meeting the day before had paved the way for Ryan to make amends. I truly believed he regretted the way he had treated her in the past. I just wasn’t sure he was beyond doing it again.
– Want me to lay down the law and tell him to behave?
Her reply was almost instant.
– No. I like him better when he’s bad.
I smiled down at my phone. If they could survive the date without killing each other, it might just work out for them. I was midway through telling her so when the front door opened.
I abandoned the texting in an instant, dropped my phone into my drawer and neatened my hair. Then I looked up and wished I hadn’t bothered.
I knew Jean-Luc would be upset that Adam hadn’t shown at work that day. What I didn’t realise was that he’d be angry enough to seek me out and take me to task over it.
“Good morning, Charli.”
“Hi,” I replied warily. “What are you doing here?”
Jean-Luc ignored me, wandering away to check the pictures lining the side wall.
I stayed put.
“I wondered if you might like to go to lunch with me,” he finally replied. “We haven’t had a chance to talk much lately.”
The king and I didn’t do lunch. Snarky comments and impolite banter was more our speed.
“I can’t.” I tried to sound regretful, but failed. “I’m the only one here for the day.”
“It’s a terrible thing to be left in the lurch.” He slowly turned to face me, arms folded and bulletproof. “I’m sure your boss is grateful to have someone so diligent working for him.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“I appreciate the same level of dedication from my employees, especially my son.”
My heels clicked on the wooden floor as I marched over to him. “Cut him some slack for once,” I said boldly. “Bridget needed him today.”
I wasn’t remotely scared of the king, but every now and then I’d say something that truly pissed him off – and today, this was it. If I said it didn’t rattle me, I’d be lying.
“You’re detrimental to Adam’s career,” he snapped. “Do you understand that?”
“He’s spending the day with his daughter,” I returned, matching his angry tone. “I didn’t steal him away.”
Jean-Luc turned his back on me and resumed studying the pictures. “I understand that you need this little art adventure.” The rage was gone, paving the way for condescension. “But you need to manage your time better. Stop being selfish and take care of my granddaughter properly.”
I didn’t know whether to be insulted or hurt. I went with royally pissed off. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”
The king took it up a notch. He turned around, gearing up to quietly yell at me. “You lumber him with the child as if his time is secondary,” he hissed. “Adam put everything on hold for you four years ago. Enough is enough.”
Jean-Luc had a cruel habit of making me second-guess my whole life in just a few sentences. It was pure artistry. I never got used to it and I never got over it, but I always fought back.
“Adam put everything on hold for you his whole life,” I bitterly replied. “He knows better now.”
Jean-Luc shook his head. “Adam put his heart and soul into –”
“I am his heart,” I cut him off. “And Bridget is his soul. He’s not yours any more.”
I might as well have slapped his face. The king pulled in a long breath through his nose and straightened his pose. He pointed to a photograph to the right of me. “I want this picture for my home office.”
He’d thrown me. It was as if the last nasty two minutes of conversation hadn’t happened. I took a long minute to study the picture, trying to pull myself together. The black and white photograph of a derelict old yacht didn’t seem his style, though it was gorgeous.
“Have it delivered to the house,” he added.
“Please, Charlotte,” he sarcastically amended.
I cocked my head and focused on the picture. “Why do you like it?”
I wasn’t trying to rattle his cage. I was always curious to know what compelled people when choosing art for their homes.
“It’s black and white,” he replied. “It will suit the room.”
“Half the pictures in this place are black and white. Why choose this one?”
He glanced at the picture. “You have terrible business acumen, Charli,” he chided. “Appalling, in fact.”
I quickly reined in the smile incited by his mediocre dig. “I’ll add that to my list of shortfalls.”
“I’m serious,” he replied. “If you were selling me a car, would it be appropriate to ask me why I was buying it?”
I looked him straight in the eye, and let my smile break free. “I don’t sell cars. I’m on an art adventure.”
The king smirked at me. “You have a smart mouth.”
I focused back on the photograph. “Maybe this picture chose you,” I suggested. “Did you consider that?”
“Stop with the nonsense,” he snapped. “Have it delivered tomorrow.”
“It’s four thousand dollars.”
“Fine. I want it framed too.”
I locked eyes with him. “That’s an extra two thousand dollars.”
“I’ll get back to you about the delivery charges,” I added.
The corner of his mouth lifted. “If you’re trying to punish me, Charli, let it be known that it would take more than one lifetime to do it financially.”
Sourcing a treasure map in downtown Manhattan is no mean feat, especially one that challenges the literary skills of squirrels. I was just about to call the mission off and suggest Bridget find something else to buy when we stumbled across a military surplus store.
We spent a long time staring into the small window display. Everything in it was thick with dust and looked like it had been there for years. Old cigarette tins, yellowing decks of novelty playing cards and a stack of ancient newspapers held my attention. Bridget was fascinated by something else.
“I love that hat, Daddy.”
I followed her pointed finger. “It’s not a hat, baby. It’s a gas mask.”
“Can I buy it?”
I could deal with the quirk of her wearing galoshes every day of her life, but I’d struggle if she took to wearing a war-issue gas mask. “I don’t think so,” I said gently. “I have a better idea.”
The antique brass compass I spotted at the back of the cramped display was the perfect alternative to a treasure map – and even better, the hefty price tag chewed up Bridget’s loot. I didn’t try beating the shop owner down on price, which should’ve made for a short transaction. Instead I found myself giving Bridget a long lesson in the value of a dollar. She was perfectly willing to buy the compass until it came time to hand over the money.
Then she wanted both.
I excused us from the counter and pulled her aside. “One or the other, Bridget,” I explained. “You can’t have both.”
Bridget leaned to the side, sneaking a quick glimpse at the man behind the counter. “Ask him nicely,” she said, getting upset. “Say please.”
“It doesn’t work that way.” I swept her hair off her face. “If you want the compass, you have to pay for it.”
The tears that followed weren’t entirely her fault. She was used to sweet-talking people to get her own way. She did it to Ryan all the time, and had never once been told no by either of my parents. Parting with her money was new to her, and she wasn’t handling it well.
There’s nothing discreet about a little girl melting down in a small store, but my efforts at pulling her into line were. I bought us a little privacy by speaking to her in French. “Make a decision, Bridget,” I demanded.
,” she whimpered.
“You can’t have both.”
She fell forward, clung to my legs and began wailing as if her world was ending. The easy option would’ve been to cave and give her what she wanted. After a nanosecond of deliberation I went with the hard option and gave her what she needed instead.
Slightly embarrassed by my feral kid, I scooped her up, apologised to the man behind the counter, and for the first time in her short life carried her out of a place kicking and screaming.
It was a long cab ride home. Bridget spent the whole ride switching between calmly begging me to go back to the store and wailing about how mean I was when I refused. How we weren’t thrown out mid-journey is beyond me.
Bridget didn’t notice that Charli was home when we got there, mainly because she refused to come inside. She parked her butt on the floor of the foyer and told me she wasn’t moving.
“Okay,” I replied cheerily. “I guess I’ll see you later then.”
Before she had a chance to sass me again, I closed the door.
“What the heck is going on?” Charli rushed toward me. “You just locked our kid out?”
“Today she’s your kid,” I clarified. “And she’s fine.”
Charli couldn’t seem to find words. It was an understandable reaction. She’d missed all the drama. The only thing she saw was me locking our daughter out of the apartment.
“She’s fine, Charlotte,” I mumbled, leaning against the door as if there was a chance the little bad wolf was about to bust her way in. “Trust me on this one.”
After a long moment of focusing on Charli’s worried face, self-doubt began to niggle. I was just about to open the door when a tiny little knock came from the other side.
I slowly opened it. “Yes, miss?” I asked. “Can I help you?”
“I’m home now, Daddy.”
Bridget was calm, collected and marginally contrite. She also looked exhausted. Tantrums take a lot out of a girl. I stepped to the side and waved my arm as if royalty was entering. “Welcome back, Bridge,” I announced. “We missed you.”
There’s no rest for the wicked, which is unfortunate because despite the fact that she needed a ten-hour nap, Bridget had dinner plans for the evening.
I thought Ryan’s scheme of using her to win his date over was stupid, but Charli had already agreed to let her go. I didn’t argue because with Bridget gone, I’d have her mother to myself for a few hours.
“It’s not a real date,” explained Charli. “He’s going out with Bente.”
“And he needs Bridget to referee?”
“Don’t be cynical,” she scolded. “He’s really looking forward to it.”
So was his niece. She came bounding down the hallway with an armful of clothes. It must’ve been a heavy load. She stopped short and hurled them the rest of the way.
“Which one are you wearing, Bridge?” asked Charli, stooping to pick them up.
“All of them,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“Pick one dress,” instructed Charli. “You can’t wear them all.”
Perhaps confused by the déjà vu moment she was having, Bridget frowned. “Do I have to give you my money?”
Charli thrust a yellow dress at her. “Bring it back undamaged and there’s no charge.”
Satisfied with her answer, Bridget took off to her room dragging the dress behind her. Charli dumped the reject outfits on the couch. “Your dad gave her fifty dollars last night,” she explained.
That would’ve been a good time to let her know that he’d actually given her ten times that amount, but I kept quiet. I was hoping for a peaceful evening making love, not war. I snaked my arm around her waist and pulled her against me.
“Do you think I should say something to him or just let it go?” she asked.
I swept her hair over her shoulder and kissed her neck.
She tightened her grip on my forearm. “I’m talking to you.”
“Sorry,” I murmured against her skin. “I couldn’t hear you over all the imaginary sex we were having in my head.”
Her quiet laugh was as warm as she was. “Was it good?”
“I’ll let you know in about half an hour when it plays out for real.”
Ryan Décarie had undergone some changes of late. No one seemed to notice that he’d slowly been changing his ways, but I did. I couldn’t remember the last time he went out on a date, which probably explained his slightly nervous demeanour when he turned up at our door.
I felt the sudden urge to give him a pep talk. “It’ll be fine, Ryan,” I encouraged. “Just be yourself.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Adam teased. “Bente knows him. The only hope he’s got is if he pretends to be someone else.”
The nerves must’ve really been getting to him. Ryan didn’t have a comeback. In fact, he ignored his brother completely. “Where’s Bridget?”
“She’s just getting ready.”
Ryan glanced at his watch. “Please Charli, no sparkly crowns or weird outfits. I need normal tonight.”
I was about to ask him for his definition of normal when Bridget stormed the room, made a beeline for her uncle and crashed into his legs. Ryan obviously approved of the dress she was wearing. He thanked me.
“The boots stay though,” I warned. “It’s as normal as we get.”
“I can live with the boots.”
It was Adam who wasn’t pleased. He called Bridget over and asked her to hand over her backpack. “The bag stays here, baby,” he told her.
Bridget stood in front of her dad, hand on hips. It was a move we didn’t see often, for which I was grateful. There’s nothing remotely cute about a four-year-old with attitude.
“I need it.”
“No, you don’t.”
There had been major drama that day. I hadn’t gotten around to asking what it was about so I didn’t dare intervene.
“Please, Daddy,” she said sweetly.
Adam stepped forward and took the bag off her back. Bridget didn’t protest, perhaps because Adam had the good sense to explain why he was doing it. “If Ryan finds out you’ve got all that money in there, he’s going to ask you to pay for dinner.”