I had pretty much decided that I was going to have a shitty time during this visit, and until today, I’d spent most of my time torturing myself. I’d missed Alex, and made myself miserable pining away for him. Then I’d think about Mary Ellen, and get pissed off at Alex for letting that skank into our lives in the first place. And of course I’d spent time thinking of all the things she could do to me when I got back to England, but in the end, as long as I avoided her, I should be just fine. She was on Alex’s home turf and he had promised to stick up for me. It wasn’t me she was fighting, it was him.
But now I was sitting around the table on Grand’s patio, which was in the courtyard of Escorial. There was a bubbling fountain next to us, beautiful gardens that surrounded this terra cotta structure, and best of all, I was kicking back with Will, Darius, and John. They were drinking beers, while I had some white wine, but then again, I always was classier than they were. Zach and Matt would have normally been around too, but they were groomsmen, so they were still busy rehearsing.
“Dude, we got the best job,” Will said. “Ushers.”
“All we have to do is walk people down an aisle and tell them to sit their asses down,” Darius said, then grinned. “More or less.”
“More or less,” Will echoed, cracking us up.
“It is an interesting setup for a wedding,” I mused. I hadn’t decided if I liked it yet, but I’d keep my opinion to myself, regardless. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle pattern, centering on the ‘altar’, or whatever they called the dais where Grandmaman and Frank would be married. There was one aisle that went straight from the house to the altar, while there were two other aisles that went at forty-five degree angles from the main aisle, dividing the spectators up into four sections. Those other two aisles were called the diagonals. Our job was to seat people using the diagonals, while the main aisle would only be used for Grandmaman to walk to the altar. That had been Stef’s doing, and he’d arranged to have that aisle covered in rose petals. He’d been adamant that only Grandmaman walk down that aisle, but she’d overruled him, insisting that the ring bearer and flower girl preceded her. Those would be the brats, Riley and Maddy. Now that they were older, they could talk and shit, but they still managed to be more obnoxious than ever. It was like all they did was run around and yell and scream. Since the brats were here, Wade and Tiffany were off dealing with them, which is why they weren’t hanging around with us. They also had Bobby with them. He was the newest one. He was even worse than the other two, because he was much louder. I guess it made sense that Matt’s kid would be loud and obnoxious. Our house in Boston was turning into a fucking zoo. Well, a zoo for kids, whatever the fuck they call that.
“Dinner is soon?” Will asked. Of course he’d be thinking of food. I mean, I was hungry too, but I didn’t eat enough for three people like he did.
“I hope,” Darius said. “Dude, did you see Uncle Ace’s date?”
“Catalina,” Will said, snickering. “But he calls her Cat.”
“She’s just the kind of chick he likes,” Darius said knowingly. “Long legs and big tits.”
“Sounds like the same kind of chick you like,” John said.
“Yeah, and he pissed Ace off when he drooled all over her when they got here,” Will said.
“She liked the attention,” Darius said, with his seductive leer.
“You cannot fuck Uncle Ace’s date,” I said to Darius emphatically, worried that he’d create some nightmare drama. There was enough of that around here anyway.
“I’m not gonna fuck her, I’m just flirting with her,” he said, and looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Then why did Ace get all pissed off?” John asked.
“When isn’t Ace pissed off about something?” I asked sarcastically. He was one of my more annoying relatives. He was mildly tacky, and a total hothead.
“I thought he was with some chick he knew in college. Wasn’t her name Bianca?” John asked.
“Dumped her for Cat. Cat’s only 26,” Will said with a smirk.
“Kind of like Dad,” I chirped. “Going after the younger ones.” But no one really wanted to talk about my father, so we changed the topic.
“So have you achieved your goal yet?” Darius asked John.
“Goal?” I didn’t know what they were talking about.
“I have to get all the fuckable juniors at Menlo to blow me, at least,” John said to me with a grin. He and Darius were total manwhores.
“You were missing one,” Darius said.
“Jenna Bartok,” John said. “I was.” He winked at us, as he emphasized the word ‘was’. He was so fucking cute; it was hard to imagine anyone kicking him out of bed.
Our opportunity to give John shit about his sluttiness was interrupted when my father and Marc burst through the door. Dad was all pissed off, while Marc just look worried. Dad walked up to Will and zeroed in on him. “Would you like to tell me why my transponder didn’t work?” He was referring to the device in our cars that made the gates to Escorial and at Santa Cruz swing open for us automatically.
“I really don’t know much about that system,” Will said calmly. He couldn’t have acted less interested in Dad’s question.
“Well I had to dick around and call the staff on the intercom, and we must have new people working here, since it took me forever to explain exactly who I was,” he blustered.
“Not even the staff knows who you are?” Will asked innocently, but no one could miss the snarkiness in his tone.
“We almost got stuck parking and slogging up the long drive,” Dad said, all full of righteous indignation.
“Sometimes exercise is a good thing,” Darius quipped. Dad had gained a little more weight; probably a total of about 15 pounds more than was optimal, at least by LA standards.
Before he could really lose it, Will pulled out his phone and held it up. “You have one of these. If you had called me, I would have helped you.”
“If you wouldn’t have messed with the code in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to worry about it at all,” Dad said.
Will just ignored him, and focused on Marc. “Hey! It’s good to see you! How are things in the art world?”
Marc looked really uncomfortable, like he was trying to decide if it was disloyal to even answer Will. In the end, he did. “Things are good. We leave on the fifteenth for Hong Kong. We’ll be there, and in Beijing, for a month.”
“That’s pretty exciting,” I said, because it sounded like the thing to say, not because I’d want to spend a month in China.
“When do you start skating again?” Marc asked me. That was a normal question, but it was irritating, because it reminded me that my career was in ashes.
“I’ve been doing some practicing, but nothing too intense,” I told him. “I have clearance to ramp things up in August. I may be able to make half the season, if I’m lucky.” All of those statements were true, but very exaggerated. I’d adopted my best-case scenario as the way things would be.
“What have you been doing with yourself in the meantime?” Marc asked. That actually did piss me off; because it showed just how totally out of the loop Dad and Marc were as to what was going on in my life. But as usual, I didn’t claw their eyes out; instead, I was nice. Well, for me anyway.
“Caught up on school,” I said, like it had been no big deal, when it had been a shitload of work.
“Good for you!” Dad said proudly, but it sounded canned.
“I’m going back to England the same day you leave for Hong Kong,” I told him, just to keep him clued in. He tried not to frown, because he didn’t really like that Alex and I were together, but he couldn’t quite mask it.
“You’ve been spending a lot of money on flights,” Dad said to me. I just stared at him, stunned. He had never given me shit about money. I mean, I know that chartered flights aren’t cheap, but it’s not like we were broke. The only reason he was bitching about it was because he didn’t want me to be with Alex.
Will’s eyes flashed fire. He’d been really calm, but when Dad had given me shit, he’d gotten really pissed off, really fast. It was both cute and annoying that he was so protective of me. He gave Dad a smarmy look, and then smiled at me. “JJ, just deal with Stef. He’s richer, and less bitchy.”
“Not lately,” John said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dad demanded.
“It means that Stef has been really bitchy lately,” Will said to him, only his volume was louder. He was just about out of patience with Dad. “Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“I noticed,” Dad grumbled. He was about to really rip into Will, more than happy to use him as a proxy instead of arguing with me, but Darius picked up on that too, and changed the subject.
“I’ve got that ROTC cruise,” Darius said. He was really excited about it, enough to let us see that he was. That was a pretty amazing statement in and of itself, and it was enough to flummox my father out of his self-righteous tirade against Will.
“That should be an amazing experience,” I said, to fully set the conversation down that path, only it didn’t work out that way.
“What are you doing this summer?” Marc asked Will. Of course, Will couldn’t resist that bait, so just when we’d gotten everyone back on a relatively even keel, Will fired Dad up again.
“It looks like I’m going on a spending spree,” he said, and just smirked at my father.
The French doors opened abruptly, yielding to a very stressed out Stef. “We have been looking for you,” Stef said to Dad in his most exasperated tone. He’d let this wedding fray his already irritated nerves.
“I was delayed because someone made sure my transponder didn’t work,” Dad said, glaring at Will.
“Or maybe things just don’t work, and it’s no one’s fault,” I said to him in my bitchiest tone.
“Come along,” Stef said, and hustled Dad and Marc off to rehearse their part, which was pretty insignificant. All they had to do was sit down.
“So how’d Dad’s transponder get fucked up?” Darius asked Will.
“How the fuck should I know?” Will asked loudly, letting us all know he’d spent enough time talking about this. “He hasn’t used it in months. The battery was probably dead.” We really didn’t believe that, but we couldn’t really prove anything, and to be honest, none of us really gave a shit one way or another.
When the rehearsal was over, we were all summoned to attend the rehearsal dinner. Since there were so many people, they’d decided to hold it in the Great Hall. Grand had redone the wood in here, lightening it up, and it was a much more pleasant room to be in, even though it still felt like it was from a gothic monastery. The table was huge, and covered with glittering silver and crystal, and unusually enough, there were name cards. I wandered around and looked at the tags, and was surprised to see Frank at the end of the table, in the chair normally reserved for Grand. Grand sat to Frank’s right, with Stef next to him. In most families it would be strange to have the ex-husband of your new wife as your best man, but in our family, that was really no big deal. On his left hand, Marcel sat with Lou. It was difficult to even look at Marcel, because his appearance was so much like Robbie’s had been. It was easy to imagine that Robbie had never died, and that he was here in the form of Marcel. Lou was as hot as ever, but seemed more sophisticated after his time in Iraq. He’d been imbedded with one of the British Divisions and he’d gotten a lot of praise for the reporting he’d done. Will sat next to Lou, with Zach on his other side. Across from them sat Wade and Matt. John sat next to Zach, while Cody sat next to Matt, with my father next to him, and Marc on my father’s other side. Across from those two were Darius and Tiffany, followed by Uncle Ace and his hot date, Cat. I thought it was funny that Uncle Ace sat next to Tiffany making sure there was more space between Darius and Cat. I sat next to Marc, while to my right was Marie. Grandmaman sat at the other end of the table, with Aunt Claire to her left and Uncle Jack to her right, facing each other. “They made you sit next to your parents,” I teased Marie.
“That’s to keep me in line,” she joked.
“I don’t think they’re worried about you,” I said, noting the tension in the room. There were a lot of issues with these people, and as usual, they seemed bound and determined to make it into some big dramatic event. She just rolled her eyes to non-verbally agree with me.
“Thank you for ceding your place at the head of the table,” Frank said to Grand.
“It seemed only appropriate,” Grand said stiffly.
“Is this a permanent change?” Will asked playfully.
“It is not,” Grand said severely, making us all laugh. Then the laughter subsided, and food came out, but the tension didn’t ease. I didn’t eat as much as the others and I also ate more slowly, so I was focused on the dynamic at either end of the table, where Grandmaman and Frank eyed each other, having a non-verbal discussion. Finally, Grandmaman sighed and stood up, attracting our attention.
“Thank you all for joining us tonight, and for being part of our wedding,” she said in her smooth, slightly-accented voice.
“It is good to see you so happy,” Grand said.
“Indeed I am happy, JP, but it saddens me that the rest of you are not,” she said, and let her steely eye circle the table. No one quite knew what to say to that, since it was unlike Grandmaman to start a controversy.
“Perhaps we should all be doing a better job of enjoying ourselves, so we do not ruin your day,” Grand said acidly, as if he bore none of the blame for our issues. As if he hadn’t been moping around, in his own way, ever since the fucking war in Iraq started.
“Or perhaps, as a wedding gift to Frank and me, we can discuss those issues here, at this table, so tomorrow we may indeed enjoy ourselves,” Grandmaman said to him, and not in the nicest way.
“It’s your party,” Darius said casually.
Grandmaman sat down; her indication that it was time for others to talk, but no one said anything for a bit, until Marcel finally spoke up. “I feel as if I make you all feel uncomfortable.” Of course there was a cacophony of murmured denial, just to be polite.
“That is most certainly not the case,” Stef said emphatically.
“You used to, but you don’t anymore,” Darius said in his relaxed way. That freaked everyone out, since he’d basically acknowledged that we’d felt that way, and blew all those denial platitudes out of the water.
“What?” Marcel asked confused and a little flustered.
“Whenever I saw you, you reminded me of Robbie. You look so much like him,” Darius said.
“That’s a good thing,” Will said, being the family cheerleader that he was.
“Not in this case,” Marcel grumbled.
“I think what Darius is trying to say is that right after we lost Robbie, seeing you reminded us of how much we missed him,” Dad said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but now when I see you, you still remind me of Robbie, but it’s a good thing.”
“I think you did just speak for everyone,” I said, although I’m not sure why I said anything. I usually kept my mouth shut at these things. I resolved to do a better job of that.
“And you probably sensed that, but did not understand it,” Grandmaman said. “Now you see, hopefully, that it is no longer an issue.”
Marcel grinned. “I can see that.” He even had Robbie’s cute grin. These other people could say they’d worked beyond it, but I hadn’t. I had to look away from him to avoid going back to that terrible place, back to 9-11.
“I am upset because some people don’t seem happy that I’m happy, and seem determined to sabotage that happiness,” Dad said self-righteously as he stared right at Will. Darius and I shared a concerned look, since he’d all but challenged Will to a fight.
“I feel the same way you do,” Ace said.
“Why do you feel that way?” Aunt Claire asked Ace. I couldn’t see my father’s face, but I knew he had to be pissed that his bitchy comment had been all but ignored.
“You have lunch with Cass, and I know you talk about me,” Ace said to Claire in an accusing way.
“Of course we talk about you,” Claire said smoothly. “Believe it or not, Cass is genuinely concerned about you, and how you’re doing.”
“Then why doesn’t she talk to me about it?”
“Maybe because you don’t listen to her,” Claire said. “Regardless, the reason that Cass and I get together so often is because that way I can see Courtney. Have you seen her since you’ve gotten back?”
“I just got here yesterday,” Ace said lamely. “I’ll see her tomorrow.” Claire said nothing, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t see how Grandmaman’s big plan to air out these problems was helping. It just seemed to make things worse.
There was silence for a few seconds, and then Darius spoke up. “So do you two want to go ahead and argue, and create drama at yet another family dinner?” He directed that comment at Dad and Will. “Get it over with, so the rest of us can enjoy ourselves.” Will gave him a really dirty look, while Dad jumped right in, glad to get back on his rant.
“I just don’t understand why you can’t be happy for me. I didn’t treat you like this when you started dating Zach. You bitch at me for ignoring you, but then when I’m around, you treat me like shit. You had the mattress removed from my bedroom and you had my transponder deactivated. You make me feel like I don’t even belong here!” Dad said. He was still in his blustering mode, and that made him look slightly ridiculous. If he had been calmer, Will’s actions would have seemed pretty awful.
Everyone stared at Will, expecting a tirade, but instead he just eyed Dad coolly. “I am happy for you. I don’t treat you like shit. And I don’t think you belong here.”
“It is not your place to banish anyone from my house,” Grand said imperiously.
“I didn’t say anything about banishing anyone,” Will said to Grand firmly. “I was expressing my opinion.”
Grand said nothing, probably because Dad jumped back in before he could talk. “You see me happy, and you try to sabotage my relationship,” he accused Will.
Will looked at Marc. “Have I ever been rude to you? Have I ever treated you like you weren’t my friend?”
Marc looked horrified at being brought into this confrontation. He was a lot like me, in that he liked to stay in the background at family events, and remain unnoticed. “No,” he said simply.
Will turned his attention back to my father. “If I were trying to sabotage your relationship, I would have treated Marc like shit. As you can see, I haven’t done that.”
“Then what are you trying to do?” Dad demanded.
“Do you remember what you got me for Christmas?” Will asked him innocently, a tone that contrasted with the fire in his eyes. Dad said nothing, but Will waited for a long time to make him uncomfortable. “You promised me we’d go surfing for a weekend. We had such a great time!”
“We didn’t go surfing,” Dad said, falling right into Will’s trap.
“Exactly,” Will said, and sat there smugly.
“So you’re pissed off at me for not buying you a Christmas present?” Dad demanded.
“I don’t need you to buy me a damn thing,” Will said, going just to the edge of Grand’s volume limit. He calmed himself down with a visible effort. “So typical of you, to make it all about money.”
“That is not what this is about,” Dad said loudly, enough that Grand cleared his voice as a warning. “I know what this is about.”
“Oh really?” Will asked in a smart-ass way.
“Yes, really,” Dad said. “You’re being a jerk, being obnoxious, which is your standard mode of operation when you want attention. Only I’m not going to fall for your emotional blackmail this time. You can’t torture people into paying attention to you.”
Will was furious, but he sat there for a few seconds, composing himself. I paused to marvel at what a good influence Grand had on him. A couple of years ago, he’d have already been ranting and raving. He stood up slowly and leaned slightly forward, as if to aim all of his energy at my father. “After 9-11, I did everything I could to help you through that time. I put you up there in priority above everyone else. I knew that if I did that, it would help both of us, but more than that, it killed me to see you in so much pain. Do you remember when you went back to Mom’s condo when we were in New Jersey?”
“I appreciated all you did for me,” Dad said, now in full retreat mode.
“I pulled myself out of bed, ripping myself away from the sexiest man on the planet, wiped the fluids off my body, and rushed over to Manhattan to make sure you were OK,” Will said. Zach blushed, which was pretty cute. “I did whatever I could to prop you up.”
“Dude, fluids?” Darius asked, shaking his head in disgust. Will ignored him.
“And when you met Marc, who was the guy who told you to take him to Australia with you? Who went out of his way to welcome Marc to Escorial, and to make him feel like part of the family?”
“You did,” Marc said, since Dad had shut up completely.
“See Dad, that’s the deal with you. It’s all about what you can take from other people, not what you can give back. So you get all involved in your new relationship, and you totally blow me off. Did you ever stop and think that maybe you were important to me, and that I was relying on you to get through things? Did that even cross your mind? No, you just decided I was an attention whore, and you totally dumped me.” I think we were all surprised by how bitter Will was. “You buy a condo up in the City, and don’t even set up a guest room, telling all of us that you really don’t want us around. When Grand and I stopped in to visit, you made it seem like a major inconvenience.”
“It was an oversight,” Dad said lamely. “One we’ve fixed.”
“So the bottom line is that you were done taking what you needed from me, so you just tossed me aside. Well maybe I needed you to be around for me. Maybe you were important to me. And that is why I said I don’t think you belong here. Because anyone who treats family members like disposable pieces of trash doesn’t deserve to be part of this family, in my opinion. And I realize I don’t have the final say on that, so that’s fine, but that’s how I feel.” And with that, Will sat down, while there was complete silence at the table.
“He’s always been this way,” Darius said to Will, referring to Dad. “His personal love life always trumps everything.”
“What?” Dad asked, stunned that Darius was chiming in.
“You did this when you were with Robbie, too, and you even did it when you were dating that Cam dude in Chicago. You think with your dick. When you’re in a relationship with someone, that’s the most important thing, hell, it’s damn near the only thing that matters to you,” Darius said.
“Sounds familiar,” Marie said, even as she glared at Ace. Where did that animosity come from? These people were completely unpredictable. Ace just stared at her, stunned.
“So the solution is for you guys to make me feel like shit, and to make it so unpleasant to be around you that I avoid you, and then it’s my fault?” Dad asked. He was being ridiculous now, and we all knew it, but that just showed how embattled he was. He’d think about this conversation later, and it may make a difference, but right now, it wouldn’t change anything.
Will knew that as well as I did, so he jumped back into the discussion. “So now you know why I think you’re a total asshole, and now you know that it’s probably in your best interest to just stay away from me. And even though you’d like to think that the world and everything in it revolves around you, it doesn’t. It’s not all about you.” And then in a move that surprised us all, he turned his attention to Stef. “What I want to know is why you’re so goddamn bitchy?”
Stef had sat there as an observer. He and Grand tended to act like arbiters when there was an argument, only jumping in when things got out of hand, so it was pretty reasonable that he seemed shocked to be the subject of such a sudden and aggressive demand from Will. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.
“You used to be this fun, cheerful person; the life of the party,” Will said in a more mellow tone. “Lately, you’ve been really cranky. I want to know why.”
“Maybe he doesn’t appreciate the way you treat him,” Dad said, trying to stick up for Stef and slam Will at the same time. “I can certainly understand that.”
“And as I said, this isn’t about you at all,” Will said, just a little too loudly. A look from Grand calmed him down.
“In this case,” Stef said, “it is partially about him.”
“What?” Dad asked. He was as stunned as the rest of us.
Stef sighed, dabbed his face with his napkin, and focused on Dad. “You have lost your edge.”
“I’ve lost my edge?” Dad asked, and now he was annoyed with Stef. “What does that mean?”
“It means that when you go to China, you won’t be representing Caruthers & Schluter,” Stef said, referring to their venture capital firm, one of the giants of Silicon Valley.
“You’re firing me?” Dad asked, totally flabbergasted.
“I am not firing you, but I am telling you that I cannot rely on you to make decisions like I used to. You have become too cautious, and you seem to have lost your ability to see opportunities and changes in industries,” Stef said.
“And you’re telling me this now, here at this dinner, in front of everyone else?” Dad demanded. He was really pissed off at Stef.
“Well since you’re never around, maybe this is the only chance he’s had to talk to you,” Will said to Dad. Dad’s eyes shot at Will, and looked incredibly evil, but I got what Will was doing. He was trying to take the heat off of Stef.
Only Stef wasn’t really worried about that, he just spoke to Dad in his bloodless business tone, the one that most of us found so incredibly intimidating. “I am hoping that by raising this as an issue, you can take this month-long trip to China to do some soul-searching.”
“Or job hunting,” Dad said to him.
“That is certainly your prerogative,” Stef said. He was pretending to be calm and disinterested, but I knew that he had real pride in my father and his abilities. This had to be killing him underneath that veneer.
“So we’ve had to put up with you being in a bad mood for a couple of months just because Dad does a sucky job at work?” Darius asked Stef.
“I do not do a sucky job,” Dad snapped.
Only the drama suddenly moved away from him, and back to Ace. “What did I ever do to you?” Ace asked Marie loudly. “I come back to visit, and I get crap from my sister’s kid.”
Marie raised an eyebrow at him, and when she did it, she looked so much like Aunt Claire, it made Ace balk, which was pretty funny. She stood up, surprising all of us. “I’d like to propose a toast to my parents. They’ve been married the longest of anyone at this table, and I’m thankful that they never went running off after someone younger, or prettier, and that I never had to deal with being all but abandoned, like my cousins have.”
“That’s because there is no one prettier,” Jack said, smiling at Claire.
“To Jack and Claire,” I said, and stood up with Marie. Everyone toasted them, even though Dad and Ace were fuming.
It seemed like the drama was over, at least for a while, until Will zeroed in on Stef. “Are you going to answer Darius’ question?”
“What question?” Stef asked.
“Is Dad the reason you’ve been so bitchy lately?”
“I have not been bitchy lately,” Stef lied. No one said anything; we just waited for him to realize none of us believed him. “He is not the only reason.”