Chapters 1-3
from
A Stolen Suit

A Stollen Suit 3.jpg

Chapter One

Grace

 

           

I don’t usually dislike people. I’m the kind of person who prefers to think the best of everyone—right up until the moment they screw me over. Even then, I might make excuses for them. Maybe they have childhood trauma, or a parent straight out of a fairytale. I do. Maybe they just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

I’m a sucker for puppies and flowers and the beauty of a good sunrise, and I read romance novels as if they’re Halloween candy I’ve hidden under my mattress.

 

But if there’s one truth I hold at the core of my being, it’s this: I hate Enoch Laskin.  

 

And now he’s infiltrated my life like a worm burrows into a crunchy apple.

 

“Grace, are you quite all right?” my boss, Vera, says, sounding put out.

 

Maybe because I’ve been gaping at Enoch for at least twenty seconds without responding to her “introduction” to her new brand manager.

 

Enoch smirks back at me like he considers this some kind of victory, and contrary soul that he is, he probably does. He’s wearing a charcoal gray suit, because he always wears a suit, even when we were in business school together, and only a few other people bothered. His black hair is perfectly trimmed, as if he has a hairdresser on call, and his light green eyes look like they’re laughing at me. He thinks he pulled one over on me, and he’s right.

I hoped I’d never have to see him again after business school, but he showed up at my friend’s bar a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was an anomaly, a piece of bad luck, because Enoch is supposed to live two hours away, in Charlotte.

 

I left the bar without speaking to him that day, but he had the nerve to give his card to my friend, who gave it to me. I figured that was that.

 

Now, here he is again, popping up like a bad penny. Only this time the penny has gum on it, and it’s going to stick to my shoe.

 

For weeks, Vera has been talking about her new inspiration. She’s a romance author, and most of her heroes are based on real men, however abstractly. He’s so handsome, she said, strong and alpha, but there are layers of complexity to him. He’ll do nicely. Very nicely.

 

I was surprised she hadn’t brought him around, since her muses usually spend time around her house or lounge in the private pool out back, but it turns out her muse isn’t a lover this time, unless Enoch is pulling double duty, a thought that fills me with fresh horror. He’s her new brand manager, and Parker Brand Management moved him to Asheville to work with her.

 

The irony is that Enoch was my muse too. My novel, newly finished, sitting unread on Vera’s kindle, was inspired by him, and if he finds out…

I’ll die of embarrassment.

I’ll change my name and move to Alaska.

I’ll crumple into a ball and die.

I’ll…

“Grace,” Vera says sharply. “You’re being rude.”

Enoch’s eyes sparkle some more.

“I already know Enoch.” I swallow dryly. “We went to business school together.”

He works for my father’s company. He betrayed me.

She beams at me and then him. Her hair is dyed a shade of red never seen in nature, her signature style since she first began writing, and she’s wearing a colorful kaftan that makes her look like she’s on vacation in a tropical place, rather than enduring a relatively mild winter weather in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Her office looks a little like that too. Colorful scarves and shawls drape the furniture, some of which was chosen by me, and her chair is so delightfully impractical and plush I wonder how she ever summons the will to get out of it.

It’s the kind of place that invites you to linger. To dream.

Right now, I feel unpleasantly awake.

Some winters Vera does spend in warmer places, and I get to come with her, but this year she chose to stay home. Maybe it was because she was working on her deal with Enoch.

Am I so low in her estimation that she didn’t think to tell me before now?

Unless…does she know I am…was…the Grace Parker? Has Enoch told her?

No, she asked me snake the hair out of her drain yesterday, saying her housekeeping service never did it right. She wouldn’t have done that if she knew.

“What a delightful coincidence,” Vera says, clapping her hands.

I eye Enoch, because I don’t find it delightful, and I struggle to believe it’s a coincidence. Did my father put him up to this?

He gives me a cool look that tells me nothing.

“I always forget you went to business school,” Vera continues. “Say, Grace, it’s’s about time for you to bring Pumpkin for her haircut. The appointment’s in half an hour. Remember to tell the stylist that I want her hair no shorter than an inch and a quarter on top. But she should make sure to cut the hair around Pumpkin’s butt short enough. Last time, she didn’t, and the poor thing kept getting poop stuck in the hair.”

I know. I was asked to clean it.

I feel Enoch eyeing me. Probably with that telltale smirk, because he’s here as Vera’s brand manager, as someone important, and I’m her personal assistant.

I can feel the message oozing from him. He and I went to business school together, and my GPA was point one higher than his, yet I’m a nobody.

It’s what my father believes. Why should his disciple think any differently?

“Of course,” I say blankly.

“Away with you,” she says, giving me a dismissive hand gesture. “Enoch and I have some real work to do.”

Her words are a slap to the face.

When I took this job, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Vera Valentine was my hero, the person whose beautiful love stories had inspired me to write, something I’d always done on the sly, without daring to whisper to myself or anyone else that it was something I wanted to do for real.

There was only one person I revealed my secret to in my old life, and my gaze shifts to him. He’s eyeing me with open disdain.

“Yes, Pumpkin and I will see you both later,” I say, averting my gaze.

I leave the room to search for Pumpkin, Vera’s ill-tempered Bichon Frise dog. She’s bitten me no less than twenty times since she was brought on board last spring, and since she’s not a fan of haircuts, I’m guessing today will make twenty-one. I head down the long hallway to the great room, where Pumpkin likes to soak in the sunshine, and am not surprised to find her chowing down on a Vera Wang shoe on Vera’s priceless Aubusson rug.

 

“Pumpkin, no,” I hiss.

 

She ignores me.

 

Sighing, I reach into my purse for the dog treats I carry around with me. Yes, I carry around treats for someone else’s dog.

 

Before I can pull one out, I hear footsteps moving toward me. I don’t need to look to know it’s him—they have just the right tone of officiousness and confidence.

 

Without looking up, I pull the treats out of my purse.

 

“I did ask you to get in touch with me,” Enoch says, his voice a low purr. “I gave your friend my card.”

 

“Yeah, your business card for Parker Brand Management. I threw it in the trash.”

 

His laugh finally gets me to turn toward him. “I thought maybe you would.”

 

“Did you know I worked for her?”

 

He tilts his head. “Maybe.”

 

“Did my father put you up to taking this job?”

 

“It’s a big job,” he says, raising his brows. “It’s going to bring in a lot of revenue for the company, and I’m going to bring in a lot of revenue for Vera.”

 

That’s a non-answer if I’ve ever heard one.

 

“Good for you. And Vera. This can’t be your only job. You’re not the kind of man who likes to stay idle.”

 

“Thank you for noticing.” His smile is smug; my regret is immediate. “We have big plans for Vera, but yes, I’ll keep some other clients. A couple of guys already work down here. We’ve formed a satellite office. I already picked out the sofa.”

 

Dread beats into me. “Let me guess, it’s charcoal grey, like your soul. I’ve got to go. Pumpkin and I have a date with disaster.”

 

“I’d like to talk to you, Grace,” Enoch says.

 

I gesture between us. “Isn’t that what we’re doing now?”

 

“You know what I mean.” He takes another step toward me.

 

I flatten my hand in the universal stop gesture. “Stay put, or I’ll sic Pumpkin on you.”

 

Then the bastard does something truly unforgivable. He crouches down, puts out a hand and calls her name. He doesn’t even have one of the smelly, crumbling bacon bits I pulled out of my purse, but she leaves the half-chewed shoe and goes to him.

 

"You always did have a way with women,” I say darkly as I pick up the shoe and stuff it into my bag. I’ll take a look at it later to determine whether it’s salvageable. If not, I’ll be having an uncomfortable conversation with Vera.

 

“At one time, I had my way with you,” he replies, that half-amused smirk back on his face.

 

I feel a weird lurch as I watch Pumpkin lean into Enoch’s touch, smitten with him. It gives me some comfort to think he’ll probably get dog hair on that expensive dark gray suit. “Yes, and I see you’re still sleeping your way to the top.”

 

“That’s not what happened between us,” he growls.

 

“You have your story, and I have mine. Say hello to my father, will you?”

 

It would have been a good note to end on, but I’m in an unfortunate position. I need Pumpkin, and Pumpkin is currently making love to his hand. “Pumpkin,” I say, flourishing the smelly treats.

 

She yips and stays put.

 

Enoch smirks at me. He picks Pumpkin up, and no joke, she snuggles into his chest like she’s a newborn. Maybe she senses evil and thrives on it.

 

“Need some help, Gracie?” Enoch asks.

 

There’s another thing to hate about him. Ever since we first met, he’s persisted in calling me Gracie, even though that’s a privilege I only allow my friends. He is not my friend. He never was, even if I let myself think differently for a short, deluded time.

 

"No,” I say, although a glance at the clock on the wall informs me that time is not on my side. Pumpkin’s stylist sees herself as an artist, and she considers any amount of tardiness a betrayal. I’m pretty sure the overly long hair on Pumpkin’s rear end was a form of revenge since I was two and a half minutes late last time. I do not want to spend the next month picking feces out of her fur.

 

From the slight tipping of his lips, Enoch seems to know he has me in a corner.

 

Damn him.

 

“Would you like me to hand her over to you, Gracie?” He says it again like he knows it annoys me.

 

“Fine.” I walk cautiously toward him.

 

He doesn’t hand her over.

 

“I have a condition.”

 

“Of course you do,” I say, trying to sound bored. My heart thumps in my chest. My friend Marnie has this theory that she and I are both prey animals, and our third best friend, Andy, is a predator. The fight-or-flight response that’s taken over my body suggests she’s right.

 

Enoch is a predator.

 

How am I supposed to one-up a predator?

 

I feel a surge of longing for my friends. We’re all gathering tonight for a party that Marnie’s throwing for her sister, but tonight feels very long away right now, pinned as I am by Enoch’s gaze.

 

“Lunch. Tomorrow,” he says.

 

“I don’t usually take a lunch break.” 

 

He glowers at me. “I see you haven’t changed. You let everyone walk all over you.” He gestures to Pumpkin,

cuddled against his chest. “Even this dog walks all over you.”

 

I don’t want it to hurt, but it does. It has the peculiar sharpness of an unwelcome truth.

 

I firm my chin. “You’d like to join them, I suppose.”

 

“Lunch,” he insists, giving Pumpkin a pet that speaks of no real affection. “You work on Vera’s social media accounts, which is a part of her brand. I need to meet with you for professional reasons. I’ll make the arrangements with her.”

 

“No, you won’t,” I say, furious. Who does he think he is, anyway? He thinks he can stroll into my place of employment and start interfering with my job? No, thank you. “We can have coffee. Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes. We’ll go to Bear’s Buns.”

 

“Are you going to time it?” Enoch asks. He’s watching me carefully, looking for some kind of reaction, although I couldn’t say what.

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“I’d expect nothing less.” He swallows, and my eyes track his Adam’s Apple as it bobs in his throat. “Your phone number?”

 

“You don’t need it. I’ll meet you there at nine.”

 

He hands Pumpkin over, and I take her, a treat in my hand to ensure the transition is made with minimal damage to my person. She nips me anyway, and gobbles up the treat in an instant. There are moments when I’m fond of the little beast, terrible behavior aside. This is not one of them.

 

“Did she hurt you?” Enoch asks, reaching to take the dog from me. His expression is severe, displeased, the set of his jaw hard. “Vera needs to train her dog. I’ll have a talk with her.”

 

“No,” I say as I pull away from him. Pumpkin whines but doesn’t nip me again. “I’m fine. I’ve been fine, thank you very much. If you mention anything to Vera, I can guarantee you it’s going to come back and bite me in the ass. So stay out of my way, kindly, and I’ll do the same.”

 

“We’ll see.” He straightens his tie, which wasn’t remotely out of alignment. “Saturday, coffee. Bear’s Buns.” He makes a face. “What kind of a place is that?”

“One where they make coffee. I trust you know how to use Google.”

“I’ve been known to refer to it from time to time.”

“Goodbye, Enoch.”

“You look different, Grace,” he says, holding my gaze. The words needle into me, because I know he doesn’t mean them as a compliment. The Grace he knew wore pencil skirts and collared shirts, or tailored dresses. Heels. I’m wearing a pair of old jeans and a flannel shirt, and I wear glasses half the time because writing on a computer gives me eyestrain.

“You look exactly the same,” I retort.

I know he’ll understand that’s not a compliment either.

I leave the room, but I feel his eyes watching me.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Grace

 

By the time I return with Pumpkin, I’m covered in hair clippings, and I have a new welt on my arm. In my head, Enoch whispers that I let everyone walk all over me, even Pumpkin.

I’d like to dismiss the accusation, but Vera hasn’t kept her promises. Maybe this makes me sound naïve, but despite what happened with Enoch and my father, I’m still inclined to take people at their word, and she’s promised multiple times to help launch my career “when the time comes.” She’s treated it as something that will happen, not might, and up until now, I’ve believed her. Sometimes she’s difficult, but I figured I was paying my dues.

 

There’s no sign of Vera or Enoch, thank God. I take a few photos of Pumpkin with the red ribbon in her hair, knowing it’ll be shredded by the time Vera gets home, and get her settled in her room. Yes, she has her own room. Before I leave, I head into Vera’s office to straighten up.

 

I notice her kindle, plugged into a cord and sitting on her desk.

 

My heart starts thumping faster. Should I look?

 

No, Grace, it’s an invasion of privacy.

 

I was raised to be a rule follower. My father made it known to my nanny that I wasn’t allowed to set foot in his home office or bedroom, and for years, those rooms felt just as off-limits as the West Wing in Beauty and the Beast. The mystery built up in my mind, fed by a steady diet of mysteries and romances and adventures. Something important was hidden in one of those rooms, maybe something related to the mother I barely remembered.

 

When I was fourteen, I finally broke his rule out of curiosity, knowing he was at dinner with a client. I wasn’t sure what I expected to find, but his office was a room like any other, with a desk and chair and a filing cabinet. There was no wilting rose under a glass dome, no scandalous secrets hidden in the cabinet. No file with my name on it. Nothing related to me at all, not even a framed picture of me, although he did have one of my mother.

He hadn’t wanted me to stay away because there was anything important in there…he just hadn’t wanted me in his space.

 

I feel like I’m on the cusp of another hurtful revelation, but I can’t help myself.

 

I need to see if she’s even started it. Something deep inside of me needs to know.

I turn the kindle on and gasp. It’s on the menu screen, and I can see my book—Between the Stacks—at the edge of the screen. It says 100% read.

 

Shock turns me into a human statue. Why would she read the whole thing without saying a word about it? She hasn’t said anything.

 

Because she thinks it sucks, a voice in my head supplies. She’s trying to spare your feelings.

 

My friends Marnie and Andy both liked the book—actually, they said they loved it—but they’re partial. Vera’s the real judge. She’s been writing romances for as long as I’ve been alive. Reading her books helped me feel less alone in my father’s sterile house. Reading them made me want to be an author too.

 

My heart sinks to my feet.

 

My dream seems foolish and small now, the fantasy of a little girl who never grew up. I imagine Vera and Enoch sipping cocktails somewhere fabulous, laughing at my sad attempt to be somebody.

 

She left all of it behind for this, he’d say.

Then she’d call me up so she could ask me to go buy some grapes and peel them for her.

My mind is full of buzzing bees as I make my way to Summer Nights, the bar where my friends have gathered.

 

I probably shouldn’t go in. Marnie is having a celebration for her sister, and I’m definitely not in a party mood, but she and Andy are my chosen family.

When I first moved to Asheville six years ago, I didn’t know anyone other than Vera, so I wrote a Meet Up ad for a book club. Only two people showed up: Marnie and Andy. They were already best friends, but they accepted me without hesitation.

Right now, I need them.

I need to vent, or all of this will choke me.

I step into the bar, steeling myself and trying to control my expression. I must do a shit job of it, because as soon as I walk in, my friends hurry toward me. I distantly register the other people who are there. Marnie’s boyfriend, Griffin. Her friends, Nicole and Damien. The old guy who hangs out at the bar all the time whose name I can’t remember.

“Gracie? Are you okay?” Marnie asks. She looks like she spent the last three weeks in a day spa, but that’s what being in love can do to a woman.

Love is transformative.

 

It’s like candy you can eat without getting breakouts and sugar lows.

 

It’s like feeling the sun rise inside of your chest.

 

I’ve seen it happen for other people, and it never ceases to amaze me. If there’s one thing I believe in wholeheartedly, it’s love. I want to soak it in like a sponge, even if it belongs to other people. It makes me genuinely happy.

 

I mean…a contact high is better than nothing, right?

 

In any case, if anyone deserves love, it’s Marnie, who went through hell for months. Her ex-fiancé left her at the altar, and if that weren’t bad enough, her mother stole footage of her fleeing the ceremony from my phone and posted it online. The gif and memes were insanely popular, and for a while Marnie was getting recognized almost as much as her famous sister, Sinclair Jones.

Andy and I were worried about her, and then Andy heard about the Fairy Godmother Agency from a friend who’d been helped by them. Nicole and Damien are a husband and wife PI team who give back by helping one pro-bono client at a time. They chose women who have been screwed over, usually by men, and are in need of a boost.

Nicole and Damien helped Marnie figure out who’d distributed the video, and as a very motivating bonus, they got her a boyfriend. At first glance, Griffin is a bit intimidating, muscular and tattooed like one of the bad boys in the romances I read, but he’s actually really nice, and—

And Marnie’s staring at me with a crease in her forehead. It all comes back to me in a rush of crap. Enoch. Pumpkin. That 100% on Vera’s kindle.

“You won’t believe it,” I say. “I don’t believe it. It’s Enoch.” I hiss his name out through clenched teeth. It’s as if even my mouth is allergic to him. Distantly, I register the decorations around us—the mannequins dressed in caps and gowns. The pennants. The keg. Marnie’s sister, Sinclair, is on an extended visit to Asheville. She just quit her big Netflix show, which is about a bunch of eternal college students, so Marnie’s throwing her a graduation party. They closed down the bar for it, because she’s trying to keep a low profile—wearing wigs and makeup supplied by Nicole for her jaunts around town and renting her penthouse under a pseudonym.

Am I wrecking her night by being here?

Nicole edges toward us. Under the low lights of the bar, she actually looks like a fairy godmother, her pink hair glowing with a slight halo, golden specks glistening in her eyes. The I’m with Stupid. You’re stupid. T-shirt slightly damages the effect, but it fits her personality. She looks mildly interested in the situation.

 

“Who’s a eunuch?” she asks.

 

The thought of Enoch as a eunuch is laughable. There’s always been something primal about him, if he’s a lion in man’s clothes.

 

It’s mesmerizing, and he knows it.

 

“Ee-nak,” I pronounce. Then I let out a harsh laugh. “I wish he were a eunuch.”

 

Griffin, who’s both the manager and principal bartender of this establishment, slides a drink to me from across the bar. I must look like I need one, because he didn’t even ask.

 

“Thanks, Griffin.”

 

“What did he do?” Marnie asks tightly. “Did you call him? I was wondering if you’d kept his card.”

 

A sound escapes my throat. “I didn’t call him. I saw him at work. He’s Vera’s new muse. He’s her new muse!”

 

“Enoch’s having a fling with the dragon lady?” Andy asks, sweeping her long black curls over her shoulder. Usually, I’d ask her not to call Vera that, but it feels accurate right now.

 

100% read.

 

'No,” I say, my heart beating faster in my chest. I hate him so much that I also hate the thought of him touching her…or anyone. “Maybe. I don’t know. She hired my dad’s company to be her brand managers. Enoch fucking moved here to manage her account. He lives here now.”

 

“Who exactly is this guy?” Nicole asks, a spark lighting in her eyes.

 

“He’s the guy who made nice with her in business school so he could get an in with her dad,” Marnie says. She says it in an undertone, as if she’s worried about upsetting me.

 

“He more than made nice with me,” I say, feeling more of that rage unfurl from me, spilling out of my mouth like bile. “He took my V-card.”

 

Andy gives my arm a little no way shove. “What the hell? Seriously?”

 

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Marnie asks with wide eyes.

 

It’s a good question. I’ve told them everything else. I guess it’s because I’m ashamed that I let him fool me into feeling something for him, however temporary.

 

“I don’t know.” I tug at the ends of my bob. “It’s embarrassing. You’re right. I wrote him into my book, and now I’m stuck with him in my life and my book, and if he finds out, I’m just going to die.”

 

Nicole says something to Marnie, but there’s blood rushing in my ears, and I don’t really register what she said. But I definitely hear what she says next.

 

“Welcome to the rest of your life, Grace. We’re going to make that son-of-a-bitch regret he was ever born.”

 

 

Chapter Three

Enoch

 

I’m in a black fucking mood.

 

I don’t like how things went down with Gracie earlier. Truthfully, I’m not sure what a good outcome would have been. She wasn’t receptive at the bar a couple of weeks ago, not that I’d expected otherwise. The last time we saw each other before that, I’d told her that I’d accepted a job with her father.

Right after convincing her to refuse to work for him.

I couldn’t tell you why I kept riling her up earlier, only it’s always come easily to me…and part of me likes knowing that I can still slip into her skin. At least I can do that.

Remi’s picking at his spaghetti. I don’t cook—never have, never will—and my father’s right hand was so badly damaged in the accident that he can’t do much around the kitchen despite pretending otherwise. He’s a stubborn bastard. Like he says, takes one to know one.

Remi’s the only one of us who bothers to prepare food, but he hasn’t been eating much lately. I should probably talk to him about it. I’m the one who’s responsible for him now, a thought that makes me want to grind my teeth.

“When do I get to meet her?” Remi asks, looking up at me. His eyes are light brown, but they’re the same shape as mine, as my half-sister’s, and his hair is a mass of black curls.

“Gracie?” I respond, caught off guard. “You want to meet her?” My mind conjures an image of her from earlier, that stupid dog clutched in her arm, her glasses slipping down her nose a little. She was dressed in flannel and jeans, not exactly a polished look compared to the button-up shirt and pencil skirt look she favored in business school, and yet…

She seemed more herself in some fundamental way. It’s unfortunate that the only person she seems capable of speaking up to is me.

It’s clear from the one interaction I witnessed between them that she takes so much shit from Vera she’d need a semi-truck to haul it all. Did she shift from one jailer to another? The thought pisses me off on a deep level. Up until recently, I’d hoped she was free. I’d hoped she was finally doing what she wanted, how she wanted.

“He’s talking about the famous one, dum-dum,” my father says. “The Valentine lady.”

I snort. “You don’t want to meet her.”

“Correction,” Remi says, setting down his fork, which probably hasn’t moved anything from the plate into his mouth. “I do want to meet her. I want her to sign my books.”

I’m a second away from asking him if his mother lets him read that shit, when I remember.

Truthfully, I don’t want Vera anywhere near my nephew. I’ve always preferred to keep my private life separate. It’s less messy that way. Besides, I’ve seen the way Vera looks at me, like I’m the last cupcake on the platter, and I don’t want to encourage her delusions. The deal between us is a business deal, and that’s not a line I’m interested in crossing again, particularly not with a woman old enough to be my mother.

Still. Remi hasn’t shown interest in anything lately…

“She’s doing a photoshoot at her mansion in two weeks,” I say. “You can come and watch.”

I’m probably going to regret that. Hell, I already regret it, but he’s smiling now. Although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch Vera take glamour shots with that little hell dog, let witness the open call for cover models—an attempt to push her brand as local—he does want to be a photographer someday. In five or ten years, it’ll be him taking the photos.

“What about me?” Dad asks, forking up some spaghetti.

A genuine laugh escapes me. “What about you, you surly bastard? Are you saying you want to go to Vera Valentine’s photoshoot?”

He gives me a look that ties contempt with amusement. “Maybe I want to see what all the fuss is about. She must be some bird for you to move here for her.”

My mouth firms. “She’s one of the highest selling authors of all time. It’s a huge opportunity.”

I want to remind him that he didn’t need to come to Asheville. That I found him a perfectly nice retirement community in Charlotte. We haven’t been close since I was a kid much younger than Remi, and living some bizarre Odd Couple life with him isn’t likely to change that—we’re both far too set in our ways and our opinions of each other. But he insisted he wanted to keep Remi company, and because I knew Remi would be alone a lot if he lived alone with me, I agreed like someone who’s much more of a sucker.  

I prefer things the way they used to be—living alone in my clean, crisp loft in Charlotte with no one but me and whatever soon-to-die plant my mother had pressed on me.

It’s not just the unexpected company. The house isn’t to my taste. We needed to find something quickly, and it had to be large enough that we wouldn’t be tripping over each other. That narrowed our choices. So we ended up in an old turquoise blue arts-and-crafts house, two stories, where nothing is level. The disorder troubles me more than I’d care to admit.

Dad grumbles something I choose not to hear, and Remi rolls his eyes. “You two bicker more than an old married couple.”

"You should have heard him and my mother go at it,” I say.

My father flinches. It was a shitty thing to say, probably, since my mom threw him out when I was nine.

Grace would have apologized for the crap remark, but I guess I am the asshole she thinks I am, because I won’t.

 

Turning to Remi, I say, “How’s school going?”

 

He makes a face.

 

My father grunts. “How do you think it’s going? You transferred the kid halfway through the year. I told you they’d make life hell for him.”

 

“It’s fine,” Remi says, pushing his plate away. “Can I go do my homework?”

 

“A kid asking to do his homework,” my father says, shaking his head. “Don’t know where you two got it from.”

 

“Not you, obviously.” Turning to Remi, I say, “Yes. After you bring your plate to the kitchen.”

 

His gaze shoots toward the kitchen.

 

“I’ll clean up the dinner dishes. You cooked.”

 

It’s our deal. He cooks, I clean. He gets good grades, I get him that fancy camera he wants.

 

Negotiation is good for the soul, or so I’ve always thought. It gives a man something to strive for. Reaching beyond yourself is the only way to get to your goals.

 

“I’ll clean up with you, Uncle Knock,” he says, giving me a significant look. It suggests he has something else he wants to say to me, something he’d prefer for my father not to hear.

 

“Sure, bud.” I pick up my plate and my father’s, since he’s not willing and possibly not able to clean up after himself.

 

Remi walks with me, but he doesn’t start talking until we’re in the kitchen, in our stations by the sink and dishwasher.

 

I scrape Remi’s nearly untouched spaghetti into the trash, feeling another pulse of worry about his lack of appetite. Sauce sprays my workout shorts.

 

“Good thing you changed, huh?” Remi says.

 

I wipe at it with the dishcloth hanging over the handle to the refrigerator door. “One thing to learn before you start wearing suits, my man. Never wear them when you’re eating spaghetti.”

 

He snorts. “Don’t hold your breath.”

 

Fair enough. I guess photographers aren’t much on formal wear. To me, a nice suit was always a symbol.

 

“So what’s up?” I ask, heading to the sink. I turn the water on, and Remi opens the dishwasher—he rinses, I put them in. We’ve done this dance before.

 

“I’m worried about Pop.”

 

            I almost laugh. Leave it to Remi to be worried about someone else, when his own life is a shitshow. He’s worth twelve of me. He’s a bit like Gracie, actually, although he can stomach being in the same room with me.

 

“Why are you worried about him?” I ask, handing him a rinsed dish. He stows it away, and we repeat the maneuver.

 

“He doesn’t go out, Uncle Knock. He stays in this house all day long with the shades drawn. All he does is watch TV. It’s not healthy.”

 

I feel a pang of guilt. Dad has friends in Charlotte, buddies he could shoot the shit with. But he couldn’t stay at his house anymore, and he didn’t want to go to the retirement community I found, so here we are. The last fucking thing I want is to be responsible for his welfare, but I don’t want Remi to feel it’s his burden. He’s the kid. He should be allowed to feel like one, whenever possible.

 

“Maybe I’ll hire someone to come around.”

 

Remi laughs as he sets a cup in the dishwasher. “There’s no way he’ll accept that. He’ll think you’re getting him a babysitter.”

 

I tap my temple. “This is where you can learn from me, kid. I’ll say I’m hiring a housecleaner. He won’t object to someone cleaning up after him.”

 

If there’s bitterness in my tone, in my heart, I’m the one who put it there.

 

Remi shakes his head slowly, smiling at me. “Like Machiavelli himself.”

 

I don’t like that, but I won’t say so. Not to him. So I just nod. “How are things at school? I mean, how are they really?”

 

“Pop’s right,” he says with a shrug. “They suck. Especially this one kid, Jeremy. He seems to have a special interest in being a dick to me.”

 

I tousle his curly hair, and he crinkles his nose at me. “I’m not a kid anymore.”

 

“Yes, you’re very grown up and important,” I say. “Jeremy and the other kids who are assholes to you, it’s not because—”

 

“No. Being gay isn’t all that exciting. Most people don’t care. They find plenty of other things to give me crap about.”

 

A look of raw pain flashes in his eyes, and fuck, I want to hug him. I want to protect him from the world, especially from his asshole stepfather and my sister, who didn’t love her own son enough to choose him over the man she’s deemed her second chance.

 

“Good,” I say, swallowing down the emotion. “That’s good. I mean, it obviously doesn’t solve the problem of them being shits, but it’s still good. You want to give me their names? I can talk to the principal. Or maybe write their parents threatening letters.”

 

He smiles at me. “Yeah, that’s going to make me popular.”

 

“Fair point. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

 

“You’ve already got me in therapy.” His smile widens. “You’ve done a lot,” he adds, sounding more mature than any sixteen-year-old should have to be. “You’ve done more than most people would.”

 

“I’m your uncle,” I say. “Of course I’ve done more for you than most people would.”

 

“And she’s my mother,” he says pointedly, “and we both know that doesn’t mean jack shit.”

 

I should tell him not to swear. Hell, I should definitely stop swearing around him, but I’m probably not going to do either of those things.

 

I clap him on the back instead. I want to tell him she’ll come around—that his stepfather will hopefully either fuck off or fall down a well. But I’m not confident either of those things will happen, and I don’t want to lie to him.

 

“We’ll get through this,” I say instead. “You really want to meet Vera Valentine?”

 

He gives me a wry look. “She’s an icon.”

 

If he says so.

I haven’t found much to like about Vera other than her success, which I can—and will—power higher.

 

It’s because of the way she treats Gracie.

I ignore the voice, because there are plenty of other things to dislike about Vera, from her habit of checking out my ass to her insistence on sitting to everyone’s left because it gives them her preferred view of her profile.

 

“Who’s Grace?” Remi asks, and I startle. “You mentioned her earlier.”

 

It takes me a solid ten seconds to answer. I haven’t told him about her before. Why would I? Our history doesn’t exactly paint me in the best light.

 

“She’s someone I used to know. We went to school together, and she just so happens to work for Vera.”

 

He lifts an eyebrow. “Is this a good coincidence or a bad one?”

 

I answer him as directly as I can. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”

It hasn’t escaped me that if Remi comes to the photoshoot, Grace will learn about him.

 

Maybe this is further proof that I’m an asshole, but I don’t hate the thought. I want her to think there’s more to me than a suit.

 

I’d like to think that too.

 

We finish the dishes, and I head to the gym for a long workout before returning to the house. When I get back, Remi’s in his room and my father’s asleep in his recliner in front of the TV. He looks…old. Vulnerable. His injured hand is splayed out on the arm of the chair, the severed fingers on display, the others warped almost beyond recognition.

 

When did the rest of his hair turn white? I can’t remember it happening, but there’s not a single strand of black left.

 

“Dad,” I say, jostling his arm. It takes him a moment to wake up, and his eyes don’t immediately focus on mine.

 

“What time is it?” he asks.

 

“It’s only nine,” I say, feeling my pulse pounding in my ears. “You fell asleep out here.”

 

“Nothing wrong with that,” he says, gruff. Defensive. “I’m sixty-eight. I can fall asleep wherever I please.”

 

Still, I’m relieved when he gets up and slowly makes his way to his room at the end of the first floor.

 

I’m left with one thought: Remi was right.

 

I go to my office, sit, and before I do a goddamn thing for Vera or my other accounts, I write an ad and post it in five different places.

 

Caretaker wanted – searching for a caretaker/companion for a stubborn elderly man and occasionally a teenage boy. Will need to do some light household tasks. References required.

 

There. I did my part.

 

When I open my email, the first message is from my boss, Grace’s father.

 

I grit my teeth again.

 

If there’s one person I resent more than my sister, it’s John Fucking Parker.

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