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Authors: Christina Dodd

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BOOK: The Relatives
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Cecily managed to sound breathless and admiring. “Cousin Gwen, did you have a decorator to help with this? Because I can’t imagine how you would do this on your own.”

Gwen put the lid on the large, simmering pot. “Thank you! I confess, I did it all. It was a labor of love.”

Cecily turned to face the living room. “That chandelier! I can’t find the words!”

“I designed the whole house around that chandelier.” Cousin Gwen came to stand at the railing beside Cecily, and she had this smug cast to her mouth. “Gesvold created it.”

Cecily got the feeling only an idiot wouldn’t know who this guy was, so she nodded as if she was impressed.

“I was lucky. He has a studio in Virtue Falls. I liked his work, so I commissioned him to create a dramatic lighting event. He was an unknown then, right on the cusp of fame. He fashioned the glass to look like dozens of balloons blown up and released at the same time.”

Or sperm swimming upstream.
“So that was on
purpose
?”

“We both agreed it added an element of playfulness to the dramatic scenery. Then to create the space where the chandelier could float, we had the contractor level the walls between the two small ground-floor living areas and raise the ceiling. Our bedroom is above.” Gwen pointed. “The kitchen, the pantry, and the half bath are on this level, and down the hallway is—” She stopped suddenly.

“The guest bedroom?” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation.

Firmly Gwen said, “A very small guest room with a tiny attached bath over the garage.” At once she went on to say, “Of course Gesvold created the matching sconces on the wall.” That smug smile was back. “Our house was featured in
Sunset
magazine, and within a year Gesvold was famous. I keep a copy of that
Sunset
if you’d like to look at it.” Cousin Gwen pulled it out of a drawer and shoved it into Cecily’s hand. “Page eighteen.”

Cecily leafed through the magazine, cooing at the glossy photos of their deck and the kitchen and their chandelier and their stupid handrail and
them
—looking smug, both of them—in every shot. “I’m not familiar with this magazine. Is that for, like, AARP members?”

Cousin Gwen didn’t even act insulted. “
Sunset
is the premier magazine for the western states.” She checked her big pot, then hurried out to the grill, then came back in and checked a little pan.

Cecily handed the magazine to Landon. “Here, honey, you should look at this. It certainly makes our place look humble.” When she thought of the leftover furniture and cramped quarters of that daughter-in-law suite in Minnesota, she got a bad taste in her mouth. “I had better sit down and eat soon. My joints are so painful, I’m feeling faint.”

Mario held out a chair at the shiny black stone table. “Right here, Cecily. Landon, you sit there.” He opened their matte black Sub-Zero side-by-side refrigerator—Cecily bet it cost five thousand dollars—and pulled out a bowl of …

“What is
that
?” She pointed to the mound of some kind of beans.

“Spicy roasted chickpeas. Wait until you try them. Gwen makes them herself.” He shot a proud smile at his wife and brought out another plate. “We also have roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, tomato and avocado wheat toasts, and mushrooms and olives marinated in virgin olive oil and herbs.”

Cecily was about to burst into a rant about people who were too cheap to serve meat when Gwen said, “Mario makes the olives and mushrooms. It’s a recipe from his family in Italy.” Cecily must not have hidden her feelings deep enough, for Gwen said, “I hope you’re not allergic to mushrooms.”

“As a matter of fact, I am. I’m
so
sorry.” Cecily smiled at him. “I would love to indulge in Mario’s specialty.”

“No problem,” he said. “I’m always aware of the possibility of allergies, so I made another bowl of olives that have never even seen a mushroom.” And he handed her her own bowl of olives.

Now she would have to eat one of the revolting little black and green grease balls.

He watched proudly as she put one in her mouth and rolled it around. Oh, God. They weren’t even pitted. She spit it daintily into her palm. “That is
so good
!”

Landon, that idiot, was tossing back chickpeas without a thought of what it would do to his digestion later. So much for his plans for a cozy fire.

Before anyone urged her to indulge in any more of this heathen food, Cecily hurriedly said, “Sadly, I’m also allergic to peppers. My digestion is so delicate!”

The house phone rang, a two-tone warble, and Mario groaned. “It’s my office.”

Gwen touched his arm. “I’ll take care of it. You stay and entertain your cousins.”

Cecily watched her grab the cordless and walk down the hall, talking with a brisk efficiency quite unlike her usual lighter, nervous tone.

“Should you let her talk to the customers?”
Score one for Cecily!

Yet Mario frowned. “Gwen was the firm’s original bookkeeper, receptionist, and dispatcher. She’s still the bookkeeper and our backup dispatcher. We go to the office together almost every day.”

“But she can work from home?” Cecily asked.

“Yes, but only reluctantly. She is essential to keep our office running efficiently.” He was obviously proud of his wife.

But he was a man. He must want more than that skinny piece.

Gwen came back in and put the receiver back on the cradle. “Melanie needs a heating element, so I sent Jack out. They’ll take care of it so you can enjoy our guests.” She smiled brightly, shot back out to the grill, and came in carrying a long platter.

At the stove, she lifted a gigantic slab of steaming salmon out of the pot and placed it on the platter.

Mario carried it to the table and with a flourish placed it in the middle of the table.

The stupid fish was covered with garlic slices, capers, and peppercorns, and rested on top of artfully arranged grilled asparagus.

Oh. My. God. Was she supposed to eat that?

Then Cousin Gwen emptied the other pan into a bowl and put an appalling pile of grains on the table.

Cecily couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “What is
that
?”

“It’s farro.” Mario sat and shook out his napkin.

“Pharaoh? Like Yul Brynner in
The Ten Commandments
?”

Gwen actually laughed. At Cecily. “Farro is an ancient grain that is healthful and easy to digest. I made it into this risotto everybody loves.” Cousin Gwen sat down and lifted the serving spoon. “Can I serve you?”

“Of course!” Cecily extended her plate and thought,
I’m going to starve.

Day Three

“Cousin Mario and Cousin Gwen, we have enjoyed our stay here at your magnificent home so much. Why, you have opened our eyes to the kinds of decorating I have never even imagined.” Cecily opened her gaping maw and shoved in another spoonful of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

Gwen couldn’t stand to watch. She turned back to her preparation of Mario’s fruit-and-yogurt parfait, and her heart beat to a single thought.
They are leaving this morning. They are leaving this morning.

Cecily continued, “Why, Landon and I were saying how much we just love you both.”

They were leaving. They were leaving.

“You’ve taken us all around Virtue Falls, down the beach, up to the mountains. We have so much in common. And our time here has been so brief.”

Leaving. Leaving.

“So we changed our minds. We’ve cleared our schedule, and we’re going to stay another two days!”

Gwen whipped around and stared at the breakfast table.

Mario sat frozen, his gaze on his iPad.

Landon smiled—vacantly, as always—and ate the cereal, the fried eggs and bacon, and the white bread laden with butter and jam.

Cecily patted her lips with her napkin and smiled hugely. “I am
so
happy we made this decision!”

Gwen turned back to the parfait, topped it with her homemade granola, and said clearly, “No, you’re not.”

“What?” Cecily asked.

“You’re not staying.” Gwen picked up the parfait and turned in time to see Mario come to life.

“What Gwen is trying to say is, you can’t,” he said. “Gwen and I have reservations at a bed-and-breakfast in Victoria for the weekend, and as soon as you leave, we’re on our way.”

Gwen put the parfait in front of him. She put the spoon into his hand and pressed his fingers with approval. He was not a man who lied well or often, but this time he’d done a magnificent job of smoothing over Gwen’s blunt refusal.

“But we’ve made our plans!” Cecily managed to project all the blame on them.

Which after two days of her didn’t surprise Gwen at all. “I wish you had consulted us. We could have told you it wasn’t possible.” The refrain that sang through Gwen’s veins now changed to
You
are
leaving, you
are
leaving.

“We canceled our hotel in Seattle.” Cecily was accusatory.

“Mario can help you get a room. Can’t you, darling?” Gwen put her hand on his shoulder.

“I can pull strings. In fact, I can get you a suite. For a discount.” Mario smiled with all his charm at Cecily. Throwing down his napkin, he rose from the table. “Landon, let me help you get your bags in the car.”

Landon sat like a lump. “But I’m not done eating.”

Mario looked at him.

Landon scrambled to his feet. “Sure. Good idea.”

The two men left the kitchen, Mario herding the reluctant Landon ahead of him.

Cecily sat up straight, indignant. “This is so upsetting.”

“I can imagine.”

“We have loved spending this time with you.”

Free food, free lodging, as many insults as you can shovel out from between those sugarcoated teeth.
“I know. It has been such an experience!” Take that! Cecily wasn’t the only one who could sling a double entendre.

“I would think you could change your plans.”

“We really can’t.”
Because we don’t have any plans.

“Is this a special occasion of some kind?”

You’re leaving.
“Our first date.”

“That is so romantic! You must have had many, many, many anniversaries of your first date.”

“Are you done eating?” Gwen snatched up Cecily’s bowl of cereal. “We had better go help the men pack your belongings. I don’t know about Landon, but I could never trust Mario to get everything I need.”
Like all the guest soaps and our towels.

Gwen didn’t really care, though. Cecily could steal the whole cottage as long as she left and never came back.

Cecily stood up, indignation radiating from every stiff line of her well-rounded figure. “At least I’ll never have to wear these ugly slippers again.”

“That’s the way. Look for the silver living,” Gwen said encouragingly.

Cecily marched down the stairs to the front door. She donned her stiletto heels—the heels she’d had to be reminded to discard every time she came in the house—and stalked outside.

You’re leaving. You are
so
leaving …

Gwen got into the cottage in time to see Cecily storm into the bathroom and slam the door.

Landon whimpered.

All of Gwen’s political correctness collapsed. Mario was right. The guy was pussy-whipped.

Gwen knocked at the bathroom door. “Cousin Cecily, I will start packing for you.” That sounded, she realized, like a threat.

Hmm.
In fact it was.

She picked up the empty suitcase and flung it on the bed.

Cecily snapped open the door and came out holding her cosmetic bags. Three of them, pink and decorated with a curving sparkly
C.
“I’ll do it.”

Gwen stepped out of the way. “We’ll wait out here on the deck.”

Mario said, “Good idea.”

They headed out the door.

Landon followed.

Cecily snapped, “Landon, you stay!”

Mario held the door for Gwen, shut it behind them, and said, “Arf.”

“Good boy!” Gwen said.

They grinned at each other and went to lean against the rail.

“So,” Gwen said. “We’re going to Victoria to celebrate our first date.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. You want me to make a reservation?”

“This is your busy season. Can you take the time off?” Gwen asked.

“I’m the boss. I will make the time.” He pulled the phone from his pocket. “Besides, after this, I owe it to you.”

She nodded. “You really do. Don’t worry, I’ll hold these two days over your head forever.”

He laughed.

Inside the cottage, something shattered.

With a growl, Mario placed the phone in his pocket and started toward the door.

Gwen stopped him. “No. Let it go. We’ll clean it up. We’ll replace it. What maters is—they’re leaving.”

But when Cecily slipped on her way down the stairs and landed with a thump at the bottom … they didn’t leave.

And after a few weeks, Gwen began to fear they never would.

Five Weeks Later

Mario opened the pantry door. “Why are you sitting in here in the dark?”

Gwen looked up at him, a dark figure silhouetted against the light. “There’s no intercom in here. Cecily can’t find me here.”

He snapped, “She’s bedridden.”

“She’s contaminating the whole house. I want to hide.”

He didn’t answer.

She could almost see impatience radiating from him, and she hated him. Hated him for not taking her side. Hated him for betraying her. “Come in or go out.”

He stepped in and shut the door with a crash.

Gwen had been bullied enough, and Mario wasn’t going to bully her too. “I expected you hours ago. Our dinner is ruined. Where have you been?”

“Working. Did you get the bookkeeping done?”

“I didn’t have time.” Gwen tried to control herself, but she heard her voice grow high and childish. “I had to cook and wait on her. I offered to bring in a nurse. She doesn’t want to put us out. She got mad when she spotted a piece of celery in the soup, wouldn’t eat it, accused me of trying to poison her. I wish. So she ordered pizza. An all-meat pizza! With pepperoni. It was dripping with grease,
orange grease
. She got it on her nightgown and on the sheets, I had to help her out of her clothes and change the sheets and wash everything, and I couldn’t get the stains out. Then tonight, after Landon got here, I had a few minutes to myself. I sat down with the accounts, and I can’t make them balance.” She looked at Mario accusingly. “Someone is siphoning money out of our account!”

BOOK: The Relatives
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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