Oliver tightened his thin jacket around his body and grimaced against the cold. Once he would have had friends with whom he could stay in town—a laughable concept for such a rural place if ever there was one. Outside of Liam, he rarely saw any friendly faces, let alone people he could trust. Still, he whispered the names of lost companions to himself, creating a soundtrack for his steps. “Eric, Ginny, Michael, Tony, Ross.”
In school, he had never managed to be popular. He was smart enough to excel but not so gifted that he had to worry about having a looted backpack and spending the night trapped upside down in a trash bin. He’d dated a little through the years, mostly in the frustratingly chaste manner of youth, but those girls had since moved on to marriage and motherhood. His had been the basic escape plan of underutilized rural youth: take on crushing debt, go to a university with a good enough name, and never look back. In truth, he had never even made it close to graduation.
Anxiety issues. The nurse hadn’t been all that helpful when he’d walked in clutching his chest and complaining that he was in immediate danger. It felt like he was having a heart attack, or at least that was what he’d assumed from the signs he’d learned over the years. Trouble breathing, pain, numbness, it had taken all his strength just to get to the school clinic. The nurse had written it off immediately as a panic attack, perhaps from generalized anxiety disorder. Her son had it, but she was no expert and had no professional training in psychological issues. She could offer him nothing but her most sincere sympathy and a referral to the university’s psychiatrist. The waiting period was two weeks. Finals were upon them, and some kids just cracked. What more could she say?
That slip of paper had been the first item thrown in his bag as he’d packed for home. His mother had tried to convince him to stay, offered to send him all the money he could possibly need in order to see a specialist immediately, but he would not be convinced. He just wasn’t made for the city and its expensive, pointless classes that he would never use. Every day he stuck it out was another day wasted. The air was too thin here. He couldn’t breathe and couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt comfortable. He had to go. She had to come pick him up. She got in the car that night, exhausted but will, and—
He didn’t want to think about his mother anymore.
He patted his jacket pockets in search of cigarettes before he remembered that they had been tucked into his jeans. Liam wasn’t great at comforting conversation, but he offered supportive gestures as best he knew how. He knew that Oliver had never been a smoker really, but there was something to be said about the habit’s ability to provide distraction for the body and mind. The pack had already been opened—Liam had a strict personal policy of only giving away his own American Spirit menthols if anything—but at least had a lighter slipped in to fill out the cardboard box. Oliver shivered from taking his hand out of his pockets. The cigarette felt odd between his lips, light and eager to move in response to every shuddered breath. His hand cupped around the tip in an attempt to block the wind, not because he was really certain about what he was doing but because this was the technique Liam took more often than not. He sucked on the filter as he held bare, raw flame to the other end of the cigarette. It caught.
He thought of so many warnings he had received in his life about the dangers of smoking. He tried to imagine the damage that he might be doing to himself, but he felt nothing at all. He didn’t know what he had expected from the smoke entering his lungs—a strange inner warmth, a sudden chemical rush, a sense of danger that might lead him to turning around and taking charge of his life? All he knew in that moment was that even if he showered, his father would somehow know that he’d been smoking and would fiercely disapprove. That was enough.
But this wasn’t some sort of metaphor. It was a cigarette, and he was just another drunk who took to smoking after drinking to excess.
No cars passed him as he approached the house. Part of him expected to see the politician’s truck in the driveway when he got back. It would be well within Lily’s rights to bring a man home, but somehow she never had. She was far too young for a man like Martin George, even too attractive for him even though that wasn’t the way that Oliver wanted to think about his sibling.
Of course it was possible that he was overthinking this whole situation. There was no reason that he had to assume something would happen just because she’d been friendly with this man, and a wealthy man like that had no reason to go out of his way to seduce a woman who had nothing. Really, they didn’t fit together at all, and even if he did want her, chances were she was so out of touch with her own sexuality that she wouldn’t be able to be what he wanted.
Sneaking back in through the back door was the best way to avoid confrontation. Even when they were at odds, Lily had a tendency to wait up for Oliver to come home so she could guilt him for what he had missed in the night and what could have happened while he was away.
Lily was pale as she sat at the kitchen table. Every glass had been removed from the cabinets, lined up in rows according to increased height. It was as though she were creating a display for a yard sale rather than sitting alone in the dark, the moonlight through the window her only company until her brother arrived.
He didn’t want to give away his night’s activities, but she barely glanced at him as he locked the door behind him. She had never seemed that detached to his comings and goings before. She had the glazed distance of a sleepwalker but without the peace. “Are you okay?” he ventured as he touched one of the glasses. It was etched with the family coat of arms, three birds surrounding three diamonds. Appropriate, he thought, given the three of them in this home.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I would do some cleaning. We shouldn’t take everything to a new house only to have it be dirty. Mom always used to do polishing late at night so we wouldn’t know how much effort she put into keeping the house clean.” Her voice was unemotional, and if she was bothered by her brother getting fingerprints on her handiwork, she gave no indication. “I can’t remember the last time we just gave everything a thorough clean. We’ve been so busy trying to figure out what to save and what to sacrifice. We don’t take care of what’s right in front of us.”
He pushed his hands deeply into his pockets and tried not to see the wisdom in what she said. It was late, and he had walked too far home without water to steady his mind. All he wanted was to get to bed and face his impending hangover without fear. He would almost prefer his sister to be rude rather than introspective, so he grunted a response and turned to switch on the light.
The cloth she clutched was more red than white. She did not shake or even look concerned about the injury. Her eyes remained focused on the glasses, not herself. “I was polishing the wine glasses that Mom and Dad got for their thirtieth anniversary. You remember that? It was so funny at the time because neither of them drank, but it seemed like the sort of thing you get a couple when they’ve been together a long time since they didn’t ask for anything in particular.” She tried to laugh, but her voice gave out halfway through the sound, embodying a sigh instead. “I couldn’t tell if there was a scratch or a smudge, so I just kept scrubbing at it. It wouldn’t come off. I put it in the sink to soak in some detergent, but when I picked it up, it was hot from the water still. It slipped. It just slipped.”
The sight of blood made his stomach turn. Oliver was in no condition to drive, and their father could barely manage to get himself to the bathroom alone. Could he call Liam? He was drunk too, but he generally was. Maybe he knew how to drive more safely under the influence. It wasn’t like they could just phone for a taxi, and who knew how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive. He fumbled for a washcloth to get wet. He had to stop the bleeding first. Her fingers were loose around her own cloth, and without pressure, the blood came freely.
“I was afraid to wake Dad about it. He needs his rest, you know? So I decided I would just sit and wait. Keep very quiet. I feel bad about it. He has so few things left from Mom. What’s he going to do when he sees that I broke something of theirs? I can’t just buy a new one. How am I going to get one wine glass to match the set?” She swallowed thickly, and for the first time, he thought he spotted fear in her dark eyes. “So I broke the rest.”
“What? Why would you do that?” He eased her palm open and held his breath. She was cut more than once, shallow gashes that formed nonsensical patterns upon her skin. It wasn’t that she was losing a lot of blood so much that the wounds were so scattered. When he wiped the wet cloth over her skin to begin to clean her up, she hardly even winced.
“I just didn’t want him to get sad because one was missing. Better to forget they existed at all. Get rid of them all. He won’t have wine again, not with his medication. If he can’t find any of them, then he won’t notice.”
“Lily, you’re not making sense. You’ve hurt yourself. I think we need to get you to the doctor.”
The suggestion seemed to bring her back to life. She pushed back from the table abruptly, nearly knocking herself from her chair as the linoleum groaned in protest. “I don’t want to go to the doctor. I’ve only scratched myself up. I’ll be okay.”
“You’re bleeding all over the fucking kitchen right now. That’s not okay. You’re staring off into space like a zombie and babbling about I don’t even know what. I don’t know if you’re in shock or just being completely unhinged right now, but I can’t just leave you sitting in the dark staring at every cup we own!”
She curled her hand protectively to her chest and rose to her feet. Her expression was that of a wounded animal: hurt but at the same time ready to snap at the slightest hint of anyone getting near. “You don’t get it,” she growled.
“No, I don’t. I don’t get why you have to wash every dish in the house after midnight or why you’d want to smash up a bunch of glasses, apparently using only your left hand. If you’d like to enlighten me, by all means, but can we just fix your stupid palm and go back to not talking to each other?”
As soon as Oliver snapped, he knew it had been the wrong move. Lily folded her hands in her lap, staring straight ahead.
The itching was worse than the cuts themselves. She could deal with the pain, had never been a stranger to the sensation so long as she’d lived at home, but Lily hated it when her palm itched. She had bitten her nails down to the quick, and there was no way that she could ever make the sensation go away, not really. It was her own fault for indulging in the habit, and she knew this, but she figured she was allowed one vice. It wasn’t like she had the time to really care about giving herself a particularly feminine manicure anyway.
Her room in the attic felt more and more like a prison. The house had been big enough for the entire family when she was growing up, but when she’d returned home from school, she’d wanted to feel like she lived in her own apartment. This was the only place to find privacy, and she didn’t mind a bit of exposed insulation if it meant that nobody could wander into her room without going to the hassle of pulling down the hatch and ladder.
Anymore it felt as though the roof might collapse in on her as she lay in bed, her mind filled with endless static. She didn’t know what she wanted, and this home had always been a safe refuge from making decisions. Ollie had changed that. Her stupid, impatient little brother. She’d never been interested in the money that came from the farm, not really. She just wanted to take care of the animals and see how the plants were doing, occasionally say hello to a neighbor that she’d known for the majority of her life. He knew that they couldn’t live like that though, not forever, so things had to change. And if they lost the house, the farm, everything they’d ever known, she would have to change her life. She would have to finally decide to be someone who participated in the world rather than hiding away from it, and fresh starts weren’t doled out so generously to women who were in their mid-thirties.
At least she didn’t look her age. There were small blessings all around as long as you knew where to look. Like how Oliver always tended to look over the finances when the sun set, so she could get on her bike and go anywhere. She knew that her brother tended to drive, walking when he intended to get drunk and wander back at his own pace. When she got on her bicycle, he had no idea where she disappeared off to and when she would get home.
As soon as her palm felt okay, she set off toward the bar. It wasn’t her first choice of scenery. If she wasn’t volunteering on the farm, chances were she was reading a book or just finding a way to make the family more efficient. Of course she knew that it couldn’t last forever. Someone would notice that there were so many people crowded together and offer advice. All she could do was offer her thanks insincerely, her lips thin as she pressed them together in the approximation of a smile.
It was afternoon. How long had she been in her room recovering? She didn’t know, but her brother wasn’t close and her father was still asleep. It was her best chance to head off without notice. Liam was still on duty, this time trying to figure out which vegetables ought to be added to tomato juice to create a Bloody Mary that would actually attract customers. For all his diversions, he actually wanted to make sure that he earned an income while hew as employed. “If it isn’t the North Wind herself. What would you like?”
Lily had never actually come to this bar before. She tried to picture herself: thick grey sweater, tight black jeans, knitted burgundy hat. Most others would consider this weather cold, punishing even as the rain refused to turn to snow at the first sight of winter, but it wasn’t like she was putting herself together to look sexy for the right person.
As it happened, the right man came along. She had ordered an Irish coffee because it seemed simple to disguise the taste liquor through the brew, but no pot was in sight, so Liam must have resorted to some horrible instant blend that he could just stir together beneath the bar. The addition of the Baileys and whiskey actually made the drink more palatable, and she was pretty sure that she had seen pictures of this with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Knowing him, he would just add a shot of whipped cream vodka and insist it was better than the traditional thing. During her third precarious sip of the concoction, a man sat down next to her.
She wasn’t sure how highly she thought of men who frequented bars at this hour, but the man greeted Liam warmly and then sat in the middle of the bar. He carried with him the weariness of a man who had just gotten off a long shift at work. She wanted to know everything about him, but it had been so long since she’d started a conversation with a stranger in a place that wasn’t home. She had no idea how to engage someone when she didn’t have the advantage of being able to run away quickly.
“Is that as disgusting as it looks?” the man asked her. She glanced over at him, three stools away, and offered a gentle smile. He looked to be her age, maybe a little older. She often forgot her own age because it seemed frivolous to keep track without parties or anyone particularly caring about the passage of time.
“It tastes…” She fished for the right word to describe the drink. It made her insides feel warm, that was certain, and it did help distract her from what was going on at home. It made her understand a bit better why Oliver would choose to spend his time here. But the actual flavor? “Would you like to try it?”
The man laughed and shook his head. “No thanks. I’m not a fan of mixed drinks in general, and once you get this guy at the helm, I just figure I might as well steer clear.” He moved over one seat, then another so he could extend his hand for a shake. “Manny.”
“Lily.” She considered adding her last name, but then the spell would be broken and she would be that girl whose family was slowly falling from grace. Best to just forget it. “Isn’t it a bit early for hard alcohol all by itself?”
“That’s why I like to just have a glass of wine. This guy was getting in absolute crap before I came along and straightened him out. I don’t think you have to pay a lot to get good stuff, but my tastes aren’t all that refined. I just know what I like, and it’s quitting time for me. I like to have my one drink before I head home and get to bed. It’s a lonely life sometimes, so even drinking here’s better than falling asleep in front of the television, beer in hand.” Even though his words contained sadness, he smiled at her as he spoke. He had a kind face, eyes that seemed to be always narrowing with amusement and distinct creases that came from laughter. She didn’t know enough people well enough to tell, but she thought that he was a good man. “What about you, expecting someone?”
She opened her mouth to answer when it dawned on her: she was. She thought that her brother would have appeared and hauled her home the minute she walked through the door. Oliver was protective, perhaps too much so. He thought that just because she’d never managed to get herself knocked up, married, or even tangled up in a long-term relationship that there was something wrong with her.
But Oliver didn’t come looking for her, and even if he did, he would have no idea to look here for her. This was his refuge, and he wasn’t going to imagine that she would violate that privacy. He probably fooled himself into thinking that she had no idea where this place was or how close he was with Liam. Such were the lies people told themselves in order to make sure anything at all felt special.
“I try not to expect anything anymore,” she offered with a shy smile. When was the last time she’d spoken to a man outside of her family other than a shopkeeper? It must have been that politician, that potential buyer. Oliver had seemed so set on the guy actually pushing them out of their home. That had always been his plan, to sell the farm while they could still get enough money out of it to find a new place and get their father the medical treatment he so desperately needed. He just had no clue what he was doing. He wasn’t a natural salesman and hadn’t thought ahead further than actually getting someone to drive up their lane to admire the weather-battered house and fields that no longer yielded much more than weeds. She wasn’t a fool. She could tell immediately that the older man had been charmed by her. She had left the kitchen because the attention made her self-conscious, but by the time the man approached her again, what was she supposed to do? She had maintained a conversation with him, nothing more, but Oliver had reacted as though she had promised to run away with the politician. The possibility made her shudder.
“Are you okay?”
Manny’s voice broke into her thoughts and reminded her that she had to attach herself to reality a bit more. She wanted to smile coquettishly at him to make him forget about her odd behavior. How did someone look coquettish? She’d never had many female friends. She would have to get some if she was going to turn things around. She started to bat her eyelashes, but she realized quickly that it just made her look even more distressed. “I’ve just been having trouble at home lately,” she admitted.
He bristled a little beneath his denim jacket. “Domestic problems?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” She didn’t want to put her problems above all others. She knew that other people were suffering. It was just that kind of economy, that kind of community. If you did well, you had no reason to be stuck here. (Unless you’re rich enough to take advantage, she reminded herself internally.) “My dad’s just been sick for a long time. It hasn’t been easy. We don’t have great insurance, so trying to pay for it isn’t really going our way. I hate seeing him suffer.”
In her fantasy world, this Manny would immediately reveal himself to be a doctor. His odd hours were because he was on call, performing surgeries and doling out medication and saving families from being torn apart by unfortunate circumstance. He would be working on some experimental cancer treatment that would be offered up free of charge to volunteers. He would grow fond of her, very fond of her. Not lovers, not immediately, but there would be the love of friendship first to build the foundations for something that would be lasting and pure rather than opportunistic.
But this was just a stranger at a bar who had just completed a long shift of whatever job he did, and he did not need to hear all of her problems. His glass of cabernet sauvignon arrived, ruby rich within its glass that had more than a couple of fingerprints lingering along the edges. If he noticed, he ignored the sight. “That’s a damn shame. I hope your old man gets better soon.” And then he picked up his glass of wine and walked over to the small television that silently looped sports footage from earlier in the day.
She tried not to be offended by being left alone. Wasn’t she always, really? Her mother first, but she’d never really gotten her brother back after that incident. And then there was her father, wasting away day in and day out.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she mumbled to Liam. He hardly noticed as he dropped another olive in his Bloody Mary mix. When she walked out the door, he realized that he had forgotten to ask her to pay for her drink.
For being a member of the city counsel, Martin George was a difficult man to pin down. Oliver had been lounging in his waiting room for over two hours. The spread of magazines on the table did not appeal to him—outdated issues of Newsweek, Time, Bloomberg Business, even People—and every crossword puzzle and Sudoku had already been completed in cautious pencil that had been traced over more confidently in pen. The plants on the end tables were decidedly plastic, dusty enough to have come with the territory before Martin had even been elected to the office. He could picture the incumbent sadly passing the keys on to his young replacement, knowing that the only revenge he could get was to leave these hideous fake bamboo stalks behind.
The daytime talk shows were what really drove him to distraction. Celebrities of various status, some on their way up and some most assuredly on their way down, invited guests on to talk about their problems. Some were mocked, some were pitied, but after being paraded in front of a live studio audience, they usually got help. He could imagine himself walking across that stage, sweating nervously as he shook the hand of some actress who had shed enough weight that she was allowed to be in the public eye again. “I don’t want to be who I am anymore! This isn’t the life I chose for myself!” She would coo and touch his arm sadly as she nodded her understanding. After all, wasn’t that why she’d lost the weight? Someone in the studio would flip a switch, and a sign would illuminate telling the audience that they ought to applaud his honestly. They weren’t allowed to say “aw” though. It sounded too much like “boo.” Hadn’t he heard that somewhere once?
Behind a plastic divider, a young woman continued to stare at him. He was certain that she’d barely looked away since he’d asked to see Mr. George. She probably wasn’t used to walk-in appointments like this. Over the past couple of hours, he had seen her take and transfer plenty of calls, so he was sure the politician was in. With a heavy sigh, she stepped into the room.
The scratched plastic barrier that had stood between them before had not done her justice. Her body was long and lean, blonde hair crushed up into ringlets that were too perfectly formed to be natural. Her blue eyes were narrow in a charming sort of way, her full lips traced with a lush red. At once, Oliver felt a pang of guilt for the way he had treated his sister after seeing how she had talked to the politician. If this was the kind of help he employed, then he didn’t see why the man would look for something with his sister when the secretary was right here.
“I’m going on my lunch break,” she informed him with balled up fists pressed against her hips. Maybe she was trying to channel a bit of authority, but to him, it just accentuated how slight she was.
He sat up a little straighter but did not move beyond that. “Okay?”
“You can’t wait in the office while I’m gone. Mr. George doesn’t like that.”
“But I’m not in the office. I’m in the waiting room. Waiting,” he repeated, hoping the emphasis would help her see the sort of situation he was in.
She shook her curls adamantly. “You can’t be here. That door only locks from the inside. I can’t keep you out without being back there. I have to lock up this whole place to go out, which means that you’re going to have to head out too. I know that you’ve been here a while—“
“Two hours,” he interrupted.
She rolled her eyes in barely contained patience. Something about the way her cheeks flushed fascinated him. Had he really gotten to her so terribly flustered? “I told you as soon as you got here that Mr. George keeps a very busy schedule.”
“Yes, but it’s about personal business. He approached me, you see, and I think he’ll be very glad to hear from me about this.”
“Well, that’s your opinion. And rest assured that you are the very first person on his agenda when he gets a free moment.”
“You didn’t even tell him that I was here.”
A tiny smirk played across the heart shape of her lips. “Oh, I’m sure I must have the moment you walked in, Mister…?”
“No. Pratt. Oliver Pratt.” He could see that he’d let her turn the tables on him. He would have been frustrated if it hadn’t been the first sign of real human interaction he’d had in hours. “What am I supposed to do with myself when I can’t sit in here? Just lean against the door until you come back to unlock it?”
She gave a shrug of her narrow shoulders and then turned off the television. “You could always get lunch too.”
He thought about the thin fold of bills in his pocket. He had meant to pick up a few things for the house, such as more of that disgusting instant coffee just in case, but there was probably somewhere that he could get a sandwich that wouldn’t ruin the budget for the week. He was hungry since he had not expected waiting around for so long. His schedule had already been thrown for such a loop that it probably wouldn’t hurt to give himself a small reward for his patience. “How long do you usually take when you go out?” he asked hesitantly.
“I have an hour. I take my time.” She walked over to where he was sitting and touched his arm lightly. Her nails were the same red as her lipstick. “Don’t get so worked up about it. I’m not going to let someone else go ahead of you, if that’s what you think. Nobody even comes to see him normally. I think anyone who’s tried before has learned from that mistake. He’s the kind of man who tends to ask to see you rather than the opposite, you get what you mean?”
He couldn’t help but feel the sinking sensation in his chest. “So you’re telling me that this is hopeless?” It hadn’t been easy for him to work up the nerve to come down here and apologize for his behavior. It had been a mistake to be so picky. They all needed to move on, start again. How could he stand in the way of that just because he wasn’t fond of a man?
“Well, not entirely hopeless.” She flicked her eyes over him quickly, then moved to the door. “Let’s talk about it over lunch. Maybe I can figure out some way to pass the message on to him, and you don’t have to waste your entire day sitting around watching soap operas. Unless that’s your thing, of course.”
He gave the table one last derisive glance before he stood up and grabbed his jacket. It wasn’t every day that he received an invitation to have lunch with a beautiful woman. “Do you just lock him in when you go out to lunch?” he asked.
“He hasn’t stepped foot in here in the last three weeks,” she told him as she flipped off the lights.
No matter how many questions Oliver posed, she refused to answer until she’d found the right place for lunch. He could tell that she was picky, used to getting what she wanted. They’d turned several corners, wandering nearly a mile with their only soundtrack his monologue of inquiry. Finally she clapped her hands together and ducked into a doorway that looked like so many others they had already passed. He was hardly impressed that the interior was lit only by dusty chandeliers and individual candles on each table. Red and white gingham clothes were draped across every table, adding a distinctly picnic vibe for him. She took his hand and guided him to a table that was beside an artificial waterfall. “This is my spot,” she told him excitedly as she folded herself into a wicker chair. “I eat here every Friday. It’s kind of like my way of welcoming the weekend.” He hadn’t bothered to take a seat. A waiter was already bustling over in their direction when he turned back. “He probably had to get another menu for you,” she explained with a laugh.
Oliver clumsily sank down across from her. “You haven’t even told me your name,” he pointed out.
“Haven’t I? Well, you’ve been talking a lot,” she reminded him. She unwrapped her silverware thoughtfully and spread her napkin out on her lap. Were her eyes always narrowed like that, or did she just find particular amusement in teasing him all the time? “Marilyn. You know, like Monroe.”
“Were your parents big fans?”
“No, I think they were just trying to reclaim the name from the scandal or something.” That tight smile came again. When she tilted her chin down just a bit, her bangs draped down into her eyes, obscuring them. He wondered if she was trying to hide herself away or if he just overthought everything because he didn’t know enough people. “Oliver though. That’s not a name that you hear much these days. You don’t really look like an Oliver.”
“What’s an Oliver supposed to look like?”
“I don’t know. Olive. You’re pretty pale. You’re more of a…Greg. Or Eric. Or John.”
“So some bland four-letter name?”
“There are worse things to be.” Before he could protest, she turned her head and greeted the waiter with recognition. Even though she was a regular, she still accepted one of the stained paper menus graciously and offered the other to Oliver. Wine glasses were filled to the brim with ice water before the employee faded back into the shadows again. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but this place serves the best Italian food you’ll ever have in your life.”
“It kind of looks like the last meal I’ll ever have.”
“Don’t be awful. It’s a family business. The local government people love to eat here because it’s not very crowded. You’d think that wouldn’t work out very well for the restaurant, but they’re good tippers. You’d be surprised how much privacy and silence you could buy with the right amount of money.”
“You know, I don’t think I’d be surprised at all.” Had he not already given up a portion of his day just waiting for someone else’s attention? “So, why did you just let me sit around for a couple of hours when you knew your boss wasn’t in?”
“I love this,” she murmured. He was puzzled for only a moment before the waiter returned with a basket of bread and a small cup of garlic butter. The metal container was settled over the candle, and as the flame stretched up insubstantially upwards, the butter began to melt. She impatiently tore apart a roll and waited for the condiment to go runny. It was impossible for him to tell if she was enjoying control over him or if she was just genuinely scatterbrained and excitable. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?” she asked, her hand hovering over the candle.
She stared at him so intently that it occurred to him that only the dim light of the room hid his flush. She was a beautiful girl, and he realized that he did not want to say anything that would result in her becoming upset and sending him away. He cleared his throat, reconsidered, ran through ineffectual lines in his brain. “I guess I just wanted to know…I mean. I was there for a long time. And Mr. George wasn’t. So why have me wait?”
Her laughter was like birdsong to him. No, bells. No, something else. “I can’t even remember the last time that someone came looking for him. It was kind of fun to see how long you’d just sit there and feel it out. You did well though. Didn’t blow up on me or anything. That’s a first.” She paused to swipe a bit of flaky crust through the butter, then bring it to her lips. “Besides, you’re cute.”
Well. She was blunter than the sort of girl he was used to, though he was generally so caught up in his work that he’d put his personal life on the back burner save for a few quick, messy, drunken flings. “Is that why you invited me out to have lunch with you?”
“I’ll be straight with you.” She sat up straighter, flinging her bangs away from her eyes. “I can tell that you’re not one of his usual business ventures. You’re not wearing a suit, and you don’t even look like you own one. He wants to buy something that’s yours. He’s a dangerous man, Oliver. He has enough money that he forgets what it’s like for anyone to tell him no when he wants something. Whatever he’s after of yours, it’s already been decided just because he set eyes on it. If you don’t go along with it, then he’ll persuade you by sweetening the deal.” She nervously touched the water to her lips but did not drink. “Or he’ll get angry.”
The threat was so vague that he wanted to laugh. What did it matter to him if another man happened to get upset with him? But he knew that Martin George was no regular man. He had power and influence, money and connections. He was one of the people who ran the town and knew the channels through which a person’s life might be destroyed. He and Lily were barely hanging on, and their father needed doctors, medication, attention. These things could easily be disrupted. “Well, I was coming to invite him to look at our property again,” he said weakly.
“The farm? Oh.” Color spread across her cheeks, and she tore her bread into even smaller pieces.
“Yes, the farm. What about it?”
“Well, didn’t you think it was a little strange how everything seemed to go wrong so suddenly? Your dad’s illness, the banks calling up to collect, the market just drying up, people eager to leave when they’d been loyal to you for so long? Going from an actual farm that was a business to just some old house with a few fields around it?”
When she mentioned his father, he pushed back from the table. His life had felt like a conspiracy theory for too long, but he would never mention this to anyone but Liam, and that was only under the direst of circumstances, namely tequila. His throat was dry, but he didn’t think that he could handle the ice water in the moment. “Bad things just always seem to happen at once. You get distracted by what’s going on, and other things slip through the cracks. It snowballs.” If he could think of another cliché, he would have mentioned it too. There was no way to think about her implications except in the most vague of terms.
“I told you, he’s a dangerous man.” She looked around the room carefully, her eyes squinting to make out every other diner’s face. “This isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis, is it? Most people are losing a lot of money every year. There’s going to be nothing soon unless things change. Cheap stores. Shopping centers. You need a lot of ground for that. Flat ground.”
“But why would people drive all the way out where I live just to go shopping? And why would you know about it?”
She gave him a gentle smile but was not forthcoming. “Changes are happening all over this place, and when they do, everyone will know that Martin George deserves the credit. It doesn’t matter if you have to steamroll a few little people to get the result you want in the end.”
“You think this is actually happening? So I should just sign everything over to him and then get the hell out?”
Before she could answer, the waiter came back and gestured emphatically at the menus that remained facedown in front of them, the universal signal that they were ready to order. “Oh, we’re going to split the mushroom ravioli,” she told him. “And have a bottle of the merlot.”
Oliver didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hated mushrooms and was no real fan of merlot. “What should I do?” he asked when they were left alone again.
“I have a plan.” He didn’t know this woman, had barely spent any time with her at all, and yet he believed her. Beyond that, he actually trusted her. “It’s not something you need to worry about right now, but you ought to stretch things out as long as possible. Lead him on a bit, but when he starts to get pissed off, back off and let things cool down from there. You’ll have to say yes eventually, but don’t do it too quickly. You want to get the best deal out of him, and he has to make sure that you’re giving him what he wants too. He wouldn’t want a bad investment, and he might take it out on you if it fails to deliver. Even if it’s not your fault,” he added as an afterthought.
The wine came quickly and was uncorked with a flourish, no doubt because the waiter recognized her from her job and knew that she worked for a very influential man. He was grateful to see his glass filled and took a quick drink, even though he hadn’t given the wine enough time to breathe. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this,” he admitted.
For a moment, something like pity crossed her features. She snapped her jaw tightly to erase the sadness, instead opting for a resolved strength. “I’ve worked for this man for a few years. He’s a terrible person. I know that you’ve met him and didn’t get along with him. He talked about you, you know. He said you didn’t like him. He’s not very fond of you right now. You should watch yourself.”
Her words sent a chill through him. He didn’t know if he was indignant or glad, scared or defiant. “You’ve seen this happen before,” he speculated. Why else would she be so cautious?
“I just know what he does to people. I know you’re vulnerable. I don’t want to see anything bad happen and know that I didn’t stop it.”
“Then why didn’t you say something when I first walked into the office? Or why not call me up and tell me?”
“It’s difficult to get involved. You have to weigh the options and figure out who’s worth the risk. Sometimes people are stubborn or just as cruel. Some people deserve to be taken advantage of.” She winced at her own words, as though she had no idea when she had gotten so cold. “It told me something when you were waiting so long for him today. You didn’t ask me to interrupt him. You wanted to stay and see him even if I left the office. You really care about your family. You’d give up anything for them. You shouldn’t have to.”
“Because I’m cute?” he prompted. They both laughed weakly. At least it was something.
“I’ve been working for Mr. George for a few years. I don’t like what I’ve seen. I don’t like that I’m complicit because I haven’t spoken up.” A finger dashed against her eyelids, pressing back any tears that had threatened. “It’s not just about you. I don’t like where I am, but I know he won’t let me go. I know too much about his business. Just paying me off won’t be enough.”
“But you have a plan.”
“I do, as long as you help me.” Reaching around the glasses, the candle, the bread, her hands desperately grasped his arm. He couldn’t remember the last time a stranger had reached out to him with that level of urgency. He could see the fear in her eyes, and he understood that he was needed. It was as plain to him as when his father needed his medicine or his sister found herself in a social situation she just couldn’t make work. She had probably put herself in danger just being seen in public with him. The least he could do was do his best to help her in return.
“You can tell him that I came by today. That I was sorry about the way I’d behaved before and would like to show him around again. He should give me a call to set up a time. Should I give you my phone number?”
That cunning smile returned. “I think I want to see how this meal plays out before I take your phone number.”
I will never understand this woman, Oliver told himself, but it scarcely mattered. For so long he had felt as though he were the only one striving to save the farm or, later, to save the family. Maybe Marilyn didn’t have the same motivation he did, the same urgency, but they were part of a Venn diagram. Finally someone could listen to his fears and confirm that he had reason to be uncomfortable. All he had wanted was for just a day to not feel as though he had to do everything alone or face the collapse of all he knew and loved. “You’re a strange girl,” he finally said as he helped himself to some bread.
She laughed and seemed to take the remark as a compliment. “I think you’re going to see soon that you have no idea just how strange I am. But that’s okay. I think there’s a dark side to you, Oliver Pratt. I think you and I are going to get along very well and help each other very much.”
“I certainly hope so.” Maybe the merlot wasn’t so bad. Maybe he would like the food. Maybe he could go home and not have another headache and panic attack. The prospect was almost too much for him to handle. “Maybe we should have a toast.”
“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?”
“Not if we say it isn’t.”
She rolled her slim shoulders to lean forward and extend her glass to his. “Fine then. What are we drinking to?”
“To names and circumstances that don’t fit us.”
“Oh, I might be very much a Marilyn. You don’t know me so well yet.” Still, she tapped her glass against his and then took a gentle sip. “I’m sure you will soon though. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to use you for some ulterior motives. You can ask me anything you want.”
It crossed his mind then that this was like a blind date. They were strangers thrown together by a mutual acquaintance; it just so happened that in their situation, it was someone neither of them particularly liked. “Why did you start to work for him?”
She chewed her lower lip for a moment. When she released it, the lipstick hadn’t been disturbed in the slightest. “I’d just graduated college. I hadn’t saved a single penny. I had to come home and live with my parents, so I was applying to everything I could. This secretary position opened up, so I figured it would be worth trying out. That was a few years ago. He’s paid me well and everything, but that’s because he has a habit of just throwing money at something he wants.” He must have quirked his eyebrow at her phrasing because she scowled right back at him. “I’m not like that, so you can stop thinking it. I’m sure he enjoys his view, but he hasn’t asked anything of me like that, and I certainly wouldn’t give it to him.”
“Well, I guess that gets rid of my second question,” he said lightly. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
It was clearly not the question she’d been expecting. A faint blush began on her cheeks, but she seemed to gain control by taking a gulp of her water. The ice had already melted from being too close to the candle. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m kind of between them at the moment. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Are you kidding? I live with my father and my older sister. What about that is appealing?”
“I wouldn’t sell yourself so short,” she said, gesturing at him with the back of her hand. “You might still have a few good years left in you yet.”
“I’ll drink to your ringing endorsement.” He raised his wine glass and found he was nearly at the end of his first drink already. “What did you study in college?”
“English. I went out East, got the classic liberal arts education, and then came home with a piece of paper and more books than necessary. Also an acoustic guitar, a regrettable tattoo, and a few scars.” She paused and closed her eyes. “I forgot that I can’t handle red wine very well, especially on an empty stomach. I’m just trying to be open with you because it’s going to be very important for us to trust each other entirely. Because I might be asking you to do something dangerous, and I want you to be able to understand that it’s important for you, not just for me.”
“That’s going to take some time,” he answered, though he had to admit to himself that he was slipping already. When she reached across the table to touch his arm again, he knew the wine wouldn’t wash away the memory.
“We have time. Plenty of it.”