Authors: G. J. Walker-Smith
“I want you to come for dinner tomorrow night,” she instructed. “I’ll give Bridget her doll and make Adam his favourite meal.”
“What’s his favourite meal?” I asked curiously. There were a few contenders that I knew of, but nothing cooked by his mother.
Fiona stopped and turned so abruptly that I nearly knocked her down the winding stairs. “Darling, you know he loves venison.”
I forced a smile while I told my lie. “Of course he does.”
Fiona grabbed my hand and pulled me down a step. “I must go. I’ll be late.”
“Are you trying to take me with you?”
She released me and giggled her way to the door. “Have a lovely day, my darling.”
I was bound to. I was alone in the castle without adult supervision.
No matter how many times I reminded myself that I had permission to be in Jean-Luc’s home office, I couldn’t stop the dreadful feeling that only comes when breaking rules. The office was a no-go zone. Until that moment, I’d never been further than the doorway. Realising it was probably my first and only visit, I spent some time looking around.
The furniture was exactly the same as the rest of the house – antique, wooden and huge. The view of the park from the big arched window was probably one of the best in the city, and in my cheekiest move of the day I sat at his desk to admire it.
Taking a selfie to prove I was there seemed juvenile but I did it anyway, then called Adam to brag.
“Hey,” he answered. “I was just thinking about you.”
“Really?” I asked, slowly spinning in the chair. “Was I naked?”
He laughed. “Almost.”
“Guess where I am.”
“I would love to play this game with you, Charlotte,” he replied. “But I’m on my way to a meeting.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” I stopped spinning, got up and wandered over to the bookshelves lining the far wall. “It’s a good game.”
“Better than the one I’m playing, I’m sure.” I could tell by his voice that he was on the move too. “I’m about to get hauled over the coals by my father.”
“Because of yesterday?”
“I hope so,” Adam replied. “I haven’t prepared a defence for any other misdemeanours.”
On a high shelf among the rows of perfectly aligned books was a small box. “Well,” I said distractedly, “I wish you luck.”
“That’s it?” Adam sounded indignant. “I tell you I’m about to get slaughtered and you wish me luck?”
“I’m an old pro at being reprimanded,” I reminded him. “Just agree with everything he says and promise to do better.”
“Excellent advice, Coccinelle.” I could hear the amusement in his voice. “It’s good to see that your years of bad behaviour counted for something.”
“I’m reformed now.”
That was a lie. I was hanging off the library ladder, making a grab for the mystery box as I said it.
“I have to go,” he told me.
I didn’t answer. I was too preoccupied with the box, which I now knew contained a cache of Bridget’s dolls. I had no idea what possessed her to hide them up there. I’d heard Jean-Luc warn her a hundred times not to go into his office.
I repositioned the box on the shelf and made my way down the ladder, managing to keep my grip on the phone. “Before you go Adam, can I ask you something?”
“When you were little, did you ever do anything naughty just to piss your dad off?”
“No,” he admitted. “I never did. I was good and respectful well behaved.”
“Like your daughter?”
“Yes.” He laughed again. “Just like my daughter.”
I stepped off the ladder and looked up at the box, marvelling at just how high Bridget had climbed to stash it. “It’s never too late to change your ways, Adam,” I told him, smiling. “A little illegal activity is good for the soul. Even Bridget knows that.”
By the time I walked into my father’s office, the pound of flesh he planned to strip from me had grown to two. I could tell he was pissed before he even spoke.
“Take a seat,” he ordered.
I did, but with attitude. “I’m fine thanks, Dad. How are you?”
“If you wanted pleasantries, Adam, you should’ve arrived on time.”
I wasn’t overly concerned by the cool reception. He had a right to be upset. Bringing Bridget to the office was unprofessional and bailing on my working day two hours later was irresponsible.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I said. “It won’t happen again.”
I didn’t even come close to winning him over. His sour expression remained. “I can’t fault your work, son,” he admitted. “What I can’t understand is your lack of enthusiasm.”
I wondered if he expected me to explain. Accepting his job offer had been a mistake from the get-go. My heart wasn’t in it, and never had been.
“I’m here,” I reminded. “I work hard for you every single day. Yesterday was a one-off, not a lack of enthusiasm.”
“I trust that you’ll make up the hours,” he said curtly.
“I always do, Dad.” I stood, gearing up to escape. “If you’ve no problem with my work, perhaps we should leave it at that.”
“Sit down, Adam.”
I slumped back down as if I’d been socked with a brick. The performance appraisal was over. He was about to attack the way I managed the rest of my life, starting with Bridget.
“I think you need to consider alternate child care,” he began. “The current arrangement isn’t working.”
I suppressed the urge to let loose and really speak my mind. “Mrs Brown is –”
He cut me off. “Nothing to do with Mrs Brown. It’s time Bridget became more independent.”
I was livid. I’d spent years of living under the king’s rule, and now he was pulling my daughter through the castle gates.
I leaned forward, drumming my finger on his desk with every word. “I decide Bridget’s path, not you,” I said. “And a four-year-old girl doesn’t need independence.”
Dad gathered the stack of papers on his desk and neatened them, avoiding looking at me. “She’s smart, Adam,” he said calmly.
“I know she is.”
“She reminds me of you at the same age.”
Aware of where the conversation was headed, I got in first. “She’s not ready for school or tutoring or whatever it is you’re about to suggest.”
His eyes locked mine from across the desk. “I was going to suggest mainstream day care.”
Of all the things I expected to hear from him, that was not one of them. “She’s not ready for day care,” I muttered.
“Her parents are not ready,” he corrected. “You can’t keep Bridget all to yourselves and expect she’s going to benefit. She needs friends her own age – or a sibling.”
“We’re working on it.” The words tumbled out of my mouth and I broke out in a cold sweat at the realisation that I’d just given him leverage. “And if you could keep that to yourself, I’d appreciate it,” I added.
My father looked everywhere but at me. “Of course,” he muttered.
“She’s only little, Dad,” I added. “Let her be little.”
“It will serve Bridget well to mix with others her own age.”
Despite the fact that he’d made my daughter sound like a mongrel puppy, his intentions were probably good. Broadening Bridget’s social horizons had never occurred to me, perhaps because we’d spent so much time doing it geographically.
I promised to think about it. He didn’t object when I stood this time. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Good.” I made my way to the door before he changed his mind.
Hearing him call my name at the last second wasn’t unexpected. The last word was always my father’s. “I only have her best interests at heart, son.”
“I do too,” I replied, walking out.
Being the son of the boss meant that I was practically a leper. Every single person was nice to me. That was the problem. There’s nothing genuine about overly polite conversations and false smiles, which was all I seemed to get from my co-workers.
Grayson Daniels was the exception. He was an asshole – sarcastic, forthright and bolshie, which is why I liked him. He called out as I passed his office on the way back from the king’s chambers.
I stuck my head through the doorway. “What?”
He grinned. “Are you in trouble with Daddy?”
“No more than usual.”
“You’re going to get fired one of these days.”
A man can hope. “He has no reason to fire me.”
“Well, he has reason to fire me,” said Grayson waving a piece of paper. “Settlement on the Channing case isn’t happening. I think it’s going to get ugly.”
Grayson was a career lawyer. He’d been working at Décarie, Fontaine and associates for three years, slowly moving up the ranks. He cared when deals began to unravel. He also cared about making a good impression on the senior partners. That’s where we differed.
I slapped the arms of the chair. “Well, it’ll be a chance to show them what you’re made of.”
I wasn’t really interested in hearing the ins and outs of the case, but pretended to listen as if I was. I thought I was doing a good job of it until he called me out on it. “Are you even awake?”
I shook my head, trying to jolt my mind into focus. “Sorry. I was miles away.”
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I gave him a shortened version of the conversation with my father, and then asked for his take on it.
“Kids need kids. It might be good for her.” He shrugged. “You’ve got to cut the apron strings some time.”
I had to give credence to his opinion. Grayson had two boys, a house and a dog. He was the real deal. Most days it felt as if Charli and I were still only pretending to have it all together.
My father was right when he claimed that we kept Bridget to ourselves. We’d always worked better on our own, and when Bridget came along, nothing changed. We still preferred our own company, and for the first time ever I began to wonder if it was to Bridget’s detriment.
“Does she like sport?” asked Grayson. “My boys started Little League at four.”
“Maybe,” I muttered. “I’ll talk to Charli.”
Grayson is a problem solver, even when there isn’t one. He threw up fifteen ideas in as many seconds. Everything from archery to fencing rated a mention. “Or cricket,” he added at the last minute. “She’s Australian. Her people like cricket, right?”
I laughed. “I’ll talk it over with her people and let you know.”
“How about dancing? I could see if Ella has any spaces in her dance classes if you like.”
I didn’t know Grayson’s wife Ella well, which explained why I’d forgotten she was a dance teacher. I had no idea what his excuse was. “You didn’t think to mention that before fishing and archery?”
“I was hoping you’d go with archery,” he replied, pretending to straighten his tie. “I’d love to see your kid get hold of a crossbow.”
All Adam ever had to do to earn a celebrity greeting at the door was come home. If he turned up with a blue cake box from the patisserie on the corner, Bridget would go nuclear.
Tonight was one of those nights.
He made it into the kitchen and set the box on the counter, despite the little girl hanging off him. “Hello, love of my life,” he crooned, leaning to kiss me. He picked Bridget up and held her over his head as if she was weightless. “Hello, life of my love.”
Bridget could barely speak for giggling. “I love that box,” she told him.
“What box?” he teased.
The power of the cake box was mightier than anything. Its mere presence worked like a magic wand. The kid would willingly have a bath, put on her pyjamas and eat everything on her plate – which was exactly her father’s plan.
Adam’s motives were usually simple. He’d either had a rough day at the office or was planning an early night. I left quizzing him about it until Bridget was tucked up in bed, but one look at him as he walked into the room had me leaning toward a rough day.
I carried the last of the plates to the sink. “Bad day?”
“No,” he replied. “Why?”
“You brought us cupcakes.”
Adam smiled, but didn’t reply. He answered his ringing phone instead, an interruption I was used to. I went back to cleaning up cake crumbs and tried to pretend I wasn’t eavesdropping.
As the one-sided conversation progressed, curiosity stabbed at me. I stopped my cleaning charade and unashamedly listened.
“That’s great,” he beamed, looking straight at me. “We’ll make sure Bridget’s there on the twelfth.”
As soon as the phone went back in his pocket, I pounced. “It’s too late to adopt her out, Adam,” I teased. “Bridget knows where we live.”
“That was Ella Daniels,” he explained, still smiling. “Grayson’s wife. She’s a dance teacher.”
I forced him to elaborate by staying silent and looking pissed off.
“I mentioned to Grayson that Bridge might like to –”
“You put her in dance class?”
“Without talking to me?”
“Are you mad?”
I wasn’t sure. Bridget’s last foray into the dance world hadn’t ended well. I’d spent years hoping that I’d lose the shameful title of being Mrs O’Reilly’s youngest expulsion. In fairness, it hadn’t bothered Bridget one iota. Small children tend to move on quickly. It’s their mothers who suffer the pain of wondering if they’re really ready to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.
“We’ve never even discussed it,” I said quietly.
Adam weaved his arm around my waist the second I was in reach. “She needs something, Charlotte,” he reasoned. “An outlet to socialise and make friends.”
I knew the point he was trying to make. Bridget’s circle was small and tight knit because we kept it that way, but I had to concede that it wasn’t a healthy long-term plan.
“And she starts on the twelfth?”
Adam swept my hair back. “That’s her first vacancy. It’s a small class – just twelve girls.”
I nodded, feeling slightly relieved and unreasonably scared, which Adam picked up on immediately. He whispered, “She’ll be fine, Charli. It’s the other girls you need to worry about.”
I had purposely held off telling Adam about our dinner plans with his parents until the very last minute. The last minute was during the elevator ride to their door.
“Why are you surprised?” I asked. “Your dad let you go home early. You know paying the piper doesn’t come cheap.”