After tucking the children in, Orissa floated to the bedroom. She opened the door and paused by it, her eyes warm. Gareth was in bed, mismatched eyes peering through a pair of spectacles as he frowned over the financial reports of Wellington Conglomerate.
He worked as Desmond’s business manager on the side, at his brother’s insistence, but mainly, he was chief financial officer of the family empire. Samuel remained stubbornly the CEO, refusing to turn over the reins to his more-than-capable elder son. Gareth wasn’t angling for the position though yes, he thought that someday his father should turn it over. If and when he became CEO, that meant more time away from family and he wouldn’t be able to handle Desmond’s finances anymore.
Turning a page of the report and still looking at it, Gareth said, “You’re hovering, angel.”
Orissa grinned and shut the door. “I know that at times there’s a lot we take to bed with us but I didn’t think I would have to worry about piles and piles of papers.” She sat at the foot of the bed and took one folder. She leafed through it absently.
Gareth made a notation on the page he was reading. “Just give me a few more minutes.” He glanced at her and smirked. It didn’t make him any more handsome but he clearly wanted her. Orissa stared back at him with exaggerated innocence before sliding off her silk robe from one shoulder. She was wearing a pink satin nightie underneath. “Or twenty seconds.”
She giggled and shoved the folders out of the bed and onto the floor, uncaring of the mess. Gareth chuckled, wrote some more then carelessly tossed the folder away. She crawled to him, loving the twinkle in his mismatched eyes of vivid green and midnight black. Gareth spread his arms wide on the pillows, raising his chin to receive her kiss.
“Wife comes before work,” she playfully chided him between gentle presses of their lips and quick swipes of tongue. As she spoke, she started unbuttoning his shirt.
“Doesn’t she always?” Gareth said as she pushed his shirt open. He did not have the body of a romantic hero. In fact his tummy was already pudgy. But there was no other man Orissa would want, nor love. Yes, his appearance hardly inspired women to fantasize but he was generous, kind, always put her and the children first. Hard as it was to imagine, sex with Gareth Gorman was also the best Orissa had ever had.
She rose a little on her knees to shrug off her robe to reveal her nightie. It was pink lavished with white lace. It wasn’t very new and it had been months since it was last worn. They had sex often enough but since Desmond’s accident a month ago, they had been too tired. The twins also had chicken pox together and they were not happy about it. The couple had their hands overflowing.
Orissa lay on her back and Gareth settled on top of her. Their mouths met in a kiss of relief and hunger. She moaned happily as his hands cupped her breasts, squeezing the full mounds through the silk.
“God, Rissa, it’s been so long,” Gareth groaned, his lips tracing her throat.
“Yes,” she whispered, lacing her fingers through his pale curls. Looking in his eyes, she confessed, “I missed us.”
Gareth smiled at her tenderly then kissed her. “Angel, tonight I’m all yours.”
She squeezed him. “Goody.”
They helped each other out of their clothes. As soon as they were free, they reached for each other and kissed, caressed. Orissa was moaning lustily as Gareth tugged her nipples deep into his mouth when his cell phone rang. She whined as he released her nipple with loud, wet pop, wincing as cool air lanced at the swollen tip. It tightened painfully. As a look of uncertainty crossed his face, she grabbed him by the ears.
“Gareth Gorman, if you don’t fuck me tonight, you are not going to fuck me for another month.”
Gareth looked absolutely horrified and nodded. He lowered his head back to her breasts to resume his kisses. Murmuring his name in approval, she gently urged his head lower and he complied. She felt him smirk against the taut flesh of her belly as she nudged him lower, until his breath was feathering her sex.
Orissa cried out as he spread her and licked her clit. Her eyes closed, her mouth fell open to pant out his name. “Gar-“ she began when her phone rang.
Gareth, annoyed, raised his head. Orissa opened her eyes and together watched her cell phone vibrating across the bedside table.
“Who the hell calls this late?” Gareth demanded.
Orissa sighed and looked at him. “Your brother.”
The ringing stopped. As Orissa spread her legs, Gareth’s cell phone rang again.
“Let’s go fuck in the bathroom,” Gareth told her.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “We are not going to fuck in the shower. Damn it!” She glared at his phone.
“If we fuck in the bathroom, we can tell him we didn’t hear!”
Orissa wailed, “Look, I said you must fuck me but what if something’s happened to him?”
“Again? Desmond is an idiot but he’s not stupid enough to get into another accident.”
They exchanged a look and sighed. Orissa sat up and covered herself. Gareth glared at his phone and answered. “What is it this time, Desmond?”
“The genius housekeeper you hired rearranged my stuff!” Desmond was raging at Gareth a half hour later. His eyes were red and his hair a mess of waves. One side of his face was creased from the pillow.
“When Orissa insisted on hiring help to come over once a week to fix things up, I was specific that my supplies be left untouched.” Desmond gestured wildly at his shelf. “Look at this!”
Gareth did look. In his opinion, the items were at least in order instead of the jumbled, shoved-together mess that Desmond was wont to do. His easel stands were pushed together in the corner. His sketchpads piled neatly on the desk, his paintbrushes in a can holder. The housekeeper had also put his painting supplies, charcoal in separate shelves.
He watched as his brother slumped heavily on a stool, looking defeated with his right arm in a cast and rumpled t-shirt and boxer shorts. Brushing his hand impatiently through his hair, Desmond looked at him.
“I’m sorry to drag you out of bed like this. But I really wanted to work tonight. I can’t work in a place where everything has an assigned spot and looks so pristine. I need a place where I can spill and do what I want.”
Since the accident, Desmond had transformed from frustrated to angry. He was often shouting and cursing at the cyclists that had caused him to break his right arm. Drawing and painting were his outlets and with his right hand sidelined now for a month, Desmond had become the equivalent of a desperate, caged animal. Gareth knew that he and Orissa had a screaming match just the other day. The cause of it was she caught Desmond attempting to slice his cast open to free his arm. She said that the bones weren’t set yet. Little did she know it was the spark that would have the dynamite going off.
With Desmond missing an arm, his loft had become a pile of dirty dishes, takeout boxes with rooting food, floors littered with art supplies. A housekeeper had been coming in the last two weeks while Desmond was having his check-up and therapy. He didn’t have complaints about the service at first as she stuck mainly to cleaning the floors and righting the furniture. Apparently, she had crossed to forbidden territory.
Being unable to do anything wasn’t the only thing that made Desmond, well, mean. He had been ranting about a tall, blonde broad that was the true cause of his accident in the hospital. “Minx,” he growled “Wouldn’t stay still. Made me chase her.”
Gareth and Orissa couldn’t make sense of it. When they pressed Desmond a few days later, he glared at them and said nothing. It confirmed their worst fear: he had been drinking again.
They searched through his place and trash but there were no empty bottles or alcohol bottles. Gareth took care of his credit card bills and there was no record of a purchase there-in fact, Desmond had not been using any of his cards for a while. He made withdrawals, averaging to seven hundred a month. But it was for food and art supplies, maybe. Still, they didn’t have a complete picture. They weren’t with him at all hours.
Gareth was considering having Desmond tailed when his brother called one day. “I need your help,” he said. “I need you to look for somebody.”
The somebody, from Desmond’s description, was a tall, blonde woman from Egret Park on the day of his accident. There was nothing impossible about being a Gorman, but there were doors that could be impenetrable. The Egret Park Services refused to surrender footage unless it had something to do with a police matter or with a search warrant. Desmond couldn’t really go anywhere-he had a broken arm and a sprained ankle. Getting stonewalled had made him even more impossible to deal with.
Now Gareth watch Desmond mentally berating himself. It was just like him to blame himself over things he had little control of. So he saw a girl. Chased after her and got run over. Unfortunate that he couldn’t do much now but Gareth was strangely glad.
“You know we can always change the cleaning service,” Gareth told him.
Desmond sighed. “And I know this could have waited until morning.”
“Well. I’m here.” He shrugged.
Desmond stared off into space. “I really wanted to do it, Gareth. Paint her.”
Gareth held his breath, waiting for him to elaborate.
“The girl in the park. God, I can’t believe there’s nothing I can do.”
“I’m sorry I’m not much help.”
Desmond managed a small, tired smile. “You tried.”
“Look,” Gareth cleared his throat. “I know you’ve been struggling. But I’m glad that this-“ he gestured at the cast-“happened. Well, we could have done without the broken limbs but Desmond, you. . .something happened in you to act that way. That’s a good thing.”
“Is it now.”
“It snapped you out of your funk, for one thing. And now you need to paint.”
Desmond held up his right hand. “Guess which finger I’m holding up.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
He sighed and put his hand down. “I can’t stand this, Gareth. I have to be out there. Looking for her. I should at least be trying to draw her.”
“Judging from your description, I don’t know how. You describe her as being blonde and tall. They’re not exactly rare.”
“There’s no woman as tall as that minx. I didn’t get a good look at her face because she was far but I don’t believe she’s very attractive.” Desmond was thoughtful then nodded to himself. “Just a feeling.”
“A tall blonde who’s not very attractive. Still not much to go on.”
Desmond shrugged. “How hard can it be to find a diamond in a bag of nuts?”
Mareton was dead in the summer. Due to the heat and sunlight that could last for as long as twenty hours during the day, its inhabitants would go to cooler places.
Those who remained behind were grumpy, disgruntled employees who had to drag themselves out of their air-conditioned homes to head for the too-bright, sweltering streets. The subway was a cesspool of scents, from classic, good ol’ sweat to the unholy rank of hippies. Lucy had mastered the skill of holding her breath during these rides else she’ll be on the receiving end of an olfactory knockout.
Her t-shirt was sticking to her back as she took her card from the employee slot and stuck it in the clock. Like most Clean Co. employees, she worked part-time, covering the morning to early afternoon shift. Her day didn’t end at two o’clock, however. She had only an hour to go back to her apartment, change and get her cello to teach her one student, Eric Reid. His lessons were for two times a week, two hours each. Her job at Clean Co. fell on the same day as these lessons. On other days, she worked the afternoon shift at Furballs, a mobile pet grooming service.
Cleaning houses and apartments was back-breaking work. It was murder having to clear the in-between tiles in bathrooms of grime and dirt that had been there for years, for one. Or when doing a total clean-up, from top to bottom of a place. Lucy had been working for a month with the service, paired with Mariet Lowell. So far, they had seen enough disgusting bathrooms to give them nightmares for the rest of their lives. Lucy didn’t know which was worse-having to deal with a bathroom that witnessed a diarrhea firebomb all over or a bathroom in the aftermath of a frat party, with vomit puddles, poop, piss, sometimes even blood, used condoms, used anything all over stinking heavily of human. The president of the fraternity explained that it was a send-off party for their graduating members and things had gotten wilder than usual. To his credit, he looked embarrassed. And even better credit to him, he tipped Lucy and Mariet seventy dollars. Each.
In the changing room, Lucy pulled off her sweaty t-shirt and replaced it with the black, round-neck t-shirt with the logo of a smiling mop. Summer was one of the reasons she was thankful for having small breasts. Slight swells on her wide chest, they were too small for a regular bra. Having no need for that extra layer of cloth in this weather gave her some comfort. She was already wearing navy shorts, and of course, sneakers.
She put her clothes in her locker then went to the laundry pick-up area. Each Clean Co. employee had a jumpsuit for heavy-duty cleaning that involved a whole lot of disgusting unmentionables. They were required to bring it on every shift, and returned afterward even when unused.
Each shift began with a meeting before the pairs were given their assignments. Their boss was Adrian Collins, a distant relative, according to Mariet. “Very distant,” she emphasized to Lucy once. Lucy took her seat next to Mariet as a small crowd gathered around Adrian. He was skinny and short, with droopy shoulders. His hair was dark brown and rapidly thinning.
“For this shift, you’ll be covering three areas,” Adrian began, looking at the list on his clipboard. This was how meetings began. Shifts were arranged according to areas. Except for people in charge of operations, most of the cleaners, like Mariet and Lucy, worked part-time. A lot of them were students or actors, musicians, artists. This wasn’t the only job they had.
“For Thatcher Drive, we have Mariet and Lucy, Shane and Janice, Kyle and Hailey,” Adrian announced.
“Alright!” Mariet whispered to Lucy as Adrian continued reading names. “Thatcher Drive is the neighborhood of the young and rich with money to throw around.”
That got Lucy excited too. She really needed the money.
Eric Reid would only be her student for another week before his family left for the Hamptons for the season. She had enough saved for such a situation but as much as possible, she didn’t dip into that and lived sparingly. Besides, she still had this and the Furballs stint. The upside to having additional free time meant more practice with the cello.
“Do you think we’ll be cleaning the house of a famous actor or something?” Mariet’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Her hair was a rich, thick brown. She was beautiful with her classic, delicate features.
Lucy’s father was good friends with Mariet’s family when he was alive. Mariet was two years younger than Lucy but they were close.
The Lowells had offered her a place to stay after he died. However, this was also the time that Mike got in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Their offer was sincere but Lucy didn’t want to burden them so she declined. Besides, she was already nineteen.
“Who cares?” Lucy whispered back. “I’m only here for the money.”
“God, I hope we get better tips this time around,” Mariet said. “Remember that guy in Larens who clearly had something illegal going on at his place? Five dollars for a two-hour job. We should have reported him.”
Lucy remembered. The guy was gaunt and pale, with black hair and black eyes that looked at them too intensely. Clean Co. allowed for their employees to be supervised during the clean-up but sometimes, the resident would hang around just doing nothing. So they were forced to work around the person, who would then complain about being disturbed and tip badly. This was what happened to the Larens guy.
“He just said we’re not to go to that room.”
“Yeah, because it’s his murder room.”
The two girls stared at each other then burst into giggles. Adrian frowned at them. Mariet giggled some more while Lucy, reddening, pretended to cough. Mariet had to drag the neckline of her t-shirt up to her nose to smother her laugh.
“As I was saying,” Adrian said pointedly, “we’ve switched to organic cleaning agents starting this week that are free from animal testing.” He held out a pamphlet. “Don’t forget to leave this at the houses you’ll be cleaning today. It keeps our clients informed and would also lead to more clients and more jobs with us.”
Adrian dismissed them. They got up to get their assignments. There were only three trucks per shift, hence the area assignments. Today, they were off to Thatcher Drive with Shane and Janice, Kyle and Hailey. Shane was a freelance photographer (“Meaning I’m often free,” he joked with some bitterness). Janice and Hailey were actresses often in between jobs. Kyle was in law school.
Kyle got behind the wheel. Although there was still space inside the truck, the rest preferred to ride in the back, out in the open. “Just because we’re not at the beach doesn’t mean we can’t get tanned,” he pointed out. Lucy would rather ride inside the truck, not because she worried about wrinkles at twenty-five but she turned lobster-red within minutes. Still, in solidarity, she got behind with them.
Their first stop was in an elegant, high-rise building in Thatcher Drive. They were all apartments, small but expensive, and very easy to clean up. Each job should only be an hour long, that’s why clients were asked early on what kind of cleaning they wanted done. There was a set price to a regular job, while something like the frat party situation Mariet and Lucy did demanded higher pay. After every job, they left copies of the job order, checklist of what was done, and receipt. Sometimes tips were just left on the kitchen counter or a table by the door when the client wasn’t around. When someone supervised them, the tip came from that person. This was a little maddening at times because their work was examined then and there before tips were given. Lucy understood but it took time away from other jobs in the schedule.
For their next assignment, they were going to be a few blocks from each other. To save on gas, they would meet afterward in a designated place before driving off to the next.
Shane and Janice were dropped off first, then Mariet and Lucy. As Mariet got their supplies ready, Lucy checked the clipboard for information about their client.
“Desmond Gorman,” Lucy said, reading out loud. She frowned. “Why is that name familiar?”
“Gormans own Mareton. And the rest of Lawson County, I guess,” Mariet said with a shrug.
“Says here we’re to clean everywhere else but not the work slash art studio.” Lucy pulled along the trolley of her set of cleaning supplies while still reading aloud from the list of instructions and reminders. She frowned and looked at Mariet.
“We also have to change his sheets and curtains.”
Mariet shrugged. “It’s not unusual.”
“We clean houses. We’re not maids.”
“For some people there’s no distinction. Just as long as those sheets this Gorman guy likes are ready instead of having us root and look for them, I’m okay.”
“How’s this.” Lucy’s frown deepened. “We’re also to check for any alcohol.”
“Not really unusual. It’s not like we have to remove evidence of a crime or something.”
The building was in the industrial part of Thatcher Drive that had become into a residential neighborhood in recent years. The structures were new or in the process of being built. But the building they were standing in front of looked old compared to the rest, but well-maintained. No rusting, no peeling paint. Old yet solid.
Lucy punched in the security code as indicated in the list. The door led right towards a short flight of stairs, with another door waiting the very top. It required another security code before the girls were inside the loft.
Minimalism was hardly Lucy’s taste but she liked what she saw here. The visible wooden at ceiling and the brick walls was an interesting combination of the industrial and rustic. The floorboards were pale brown wood. From where they stood, they could see the studio area and the kitchen. There no wall divisions, although the floors were different there. In the kitchen, the tiles were black-and-white, like in a chessboard. For the studio, she discovered, the floors were plain white tiles. The studio looked untouched and everything was in order. Lucy understood why Desmond Gorman wouldn’t want anyone touching this area.
“Lucy, we’re not supposed to go there, come on,” Mariet said, taking out her cleaning supplies from her bag.
“Right, sorry. I was curious.” Lucy’s cheeks pinked as she hurried to her side.
Mariet was in charge of the kitchen and the living room while Lucy tackled the bathroom and the bedroom. She checked the bathroom first. It wasn’t dirty although the walls and floors needed scrubbing, but it messy. She decided to do the bedroom first.
A package of fresh linens from an expensive shop was at the foot of the bed, as well as curtains. Her nose quickly picked up on the scent of oranges and soap, sweat. The combination wasn’t unpleasant but she did stumble upon first being hit by it.
Since she began cleaning apartments and houses, she thought she had become quite good in collecting information about a client. The king-sized bed indicated that Desmond Gorman was a big man. He didn’t have books on his bedside table but a couple of sketchbooks. One of them was open, a childish-looking scrawl of what appeared to be a park. She cocked her eyebrow at repeated, crooked doodles.
Desmond Gorman cared little for political correctness, it looked like.
She wiped clean the table, the window sill, spraying it with a solution to make the glass gleam and spotless. She vacuumed the floor and the carpet surrounding the bed. A door to the side of the bed opened to a closet. There were some shirts hanging half-off the hangers, a small pile of discarded pants and shirts on a bench, several pairs of shoes scattered. She righted the shirts on their hangers then pushed them back to hang neatly on the rack.
There was only one way to know if the shirts on the bench had been used or not. Still, Lucy looked behind her to check. The coast was clear. She pressed her nose on the collar of the shirt. There was the scent again. Orange. Soap. Aftershave.
Lucy knew why she did it, although she’d die if Mariet caught her. Her face and neck were extra-warm as she folded the shirt. Her hands were shaking, much like the fluttering in her stomach. The shirts had been worn and she imagined Desmond Gorman, whoever he was, rejecting one shirt after the next. He must be a perfectionist, she thought, folding the other shirts neatly. Probably off to a date. He has to look nice, after all. She imagined him in a park, or maybe an outdoor cafe with a date.
She spied a hamper at the corner of the closet but she left the folded shirts on the bench. For the shoes, she knelt on the floor and crawled around, looking for the partners of a soft brown leather loafer, well-worn black running shoes, boots, sneakers. She put the paired shoes back in the shelf then vacuumed in the closet too. She wiped the surfaces of drawers and shelves.
Another thing that Lucy had learned from cleaning houses was that the bed was really an intimate place. She had learned to turn a blind eye and to wash her hands really well after accidentally touching a stiff portion of the sheet, and had learned to avoid getting any of person on areas with suspicious stains. Desmond’s pillows smelled strongly of soap and oranges. There were stains. Of course. Lucy was quick to strip his bed and replace it with fresh, clean sheets. Her cheeks got very pink.
She knew better than to do other things than clean but curiosity got the better of her. Mariet was cleaning below, humming to herself.
Lucy took a deep breath and opened a drawer.
There was a small photo of a beautiful woman. She was blonde with green eyes. At first, she thought this was Desmond’s girlfriend but her hairstyle was from more than twenty years ago. Well that explained the absence of condoms in the drawer. This was his mother. Still, and she blushed upon seeing them by the lamp, there was the box of tissues and lube. He needs to replenish the lube.
She finished arranging the new sheets on the bed, cursing the warmth spreading through her. By the time she turned her attention to the curtains, her shirt was stained with sweat and she was feeling a little light-headed. She should’ve cracked open a window, she thought as she went downstairs.
Mariet, who was emptying the trash in the kitchen, looked at her curiously. “Whoa. What happened to you?”
Guiltily, she demanded too sharply, “What?”
Mariet was taken aback at her tone and Lucy blushed. “Sorry. But it was a little hot upstairs.”
“Yeah. You’re all red, Lucy. I thought you were burning up or something.”
“I’m okay.” Lucy pointed with her thumb over her shoulder. “I’ll see to the bathroom, okay?”
“Why don’t you have something to drink first?” Mariet got a glass from the cupboard, turned on the sink to put water there. She thrust the glass to her friend, who shook her head. “Marie, dehydration can be dangerous. And it’s not going to kill us if you use a client’s glass just this one time. Go on.”
So Lucy obeyed. Well, Mariet was right. She felt a little better. Mariet took the glass from her and washed it.
In the bathroom, Lucy put on rubber gloves and scrubbed the walls and the floors. She straightened up the contents of the medicine cabinet, noticing the painkillers in the mix. By the time she had de-clogged the drain of the sink and the shower stall thick with hair, she was feeling more herself. Her face was screwed in an expression of disgust as she dumped this mess in the garbage bin.
Next was the toilet. Her head was clear now but it didn’t make her any braver in facing what was in it. There was no monster at the bottom, thank god. But as it went with men and toilets, there was hair. Lots and lots of hair. This was a part of the job she could never get used to.
Lucy tightened her gloves, breathed a prayer and faced the battle against Desmond Gorman’s pubic hair collection around and under the toilet seat head-on.
Two hours after Mariet and Lucy left, the door the Desmond’s loft opened. Orissa was the first to enter, followed by Desmond. He no longer had his arm in a sling. It was now lowered to his side but still wrapped. It would be another two weeks before it could be removed. His ankle had healed but he still walked with a slight limp. Doctor’s orders had him using a cane for additional support, just until he could put more weight on it without the risk of a repeat injury. It took Orissa and Gareth yelling at him to swallow his pride and use the blasted cane.
As Desmond shuffled behind, Orissa examined the papers left on the counter. “The new service started today,” she told him, examining the receipt and checklist. “I forgot to tell you.”
Desmond sighed and sat down on the couch. He flung the cane away and put his feet up on the table. “What service?”
“A new cleaning crew. What do you think?” She asked, gesturing with her arms at the place.
He frowned. “You did instruct them never to go anywhere near the studio area?”
“Of course, as per your command.” Orissa went to the fridge to take out a carton of orange juice. Desmond kicked off his loafers, sighing in pleasure as his feet were able to breathe. Orissa handed him a glass of juice then went to take a seat on a chair across the table. Desmond stared at the orange drink in disgust before taking a sip. Natural, indeed. It tasted like liquefied sugar.
As they finished their drinks in silence, Desmond looked around. The service Margery hired had done a much better job, indeed. His studio was left as it was, yes, but the floors gleamed as if new. There were no dust webs in ceiling corners. The pile of newspapers and magazines under the coffee table where his feet were stacked was so neat they looked glued together.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I also had them put new sheets on your bed,” Orissa told him. At his startled expression, she explained, “Desmond, you haven’t changed them in six months. Maybe you can stand sleeping on them but it’s really disgusting.”
“How would you know I’m doing anything disgusting there?”
She took a dainty sip. “Gareth tells me things.”
“Gareth should just deal with my money and shut up,” He snapped.
“So you have some mobility with your arm now.” It was clearly an attempt to change the subject. But Desmond tensed, knowing what she was going to ask. His warning glance didn’t deter his sister from pressing, “Have you been drawing?”
“Why? You need money for groceries?”
“You know, if you could tone down the nastiness, it would halve the line of people who want to punch you in the face.”
Desmond removed his feet from the table and growled. He buried his face in his hands.
Every time he thought there would be some progress made with his heart, he got further and further derailed. As if being drunk for years was not a long enough delay. It was war, knowing the bliss of one drop of alcohol on his tongue could undo him but still wanting to, willing to destroy himself just to get more. The twelve-step program was the most arduous, the most difficult thing he had ever done but Desmond knew he was far from well. He will never be well. Addiction really was a disease. Even if there was a drug to prevent him from drinking, it was useless against the sweet memory of the first swill of scotch, the burn in the throat that was beyond blissful.
Realizing that the world had moved on during the years-long alcohol daze forced him into a way of seeing and acceptance that was painful. Everything was unknown. Even Gareth and Orissa, who refused to leave his side, were strangers. Desmond was not concerned about being forgotten. What was terrifying was the world changed so quickly that he was doomed to never make sense of it. If you couldn’t make sense of things, you didn’t know what you saw. The responsibility of the artist was to make some sense of the world, to be the conduit.
Then the accident.
Gareth and Orissa blamed Giselle for being the cause of Desmond’s addiction. Not Desmond. She didn’t tie him and forced a bottle to his lips. He was as responsible as she was for events that led him to drink. They had paid the direst of prices. And still did.
When Desmond removed his hands from his face, Orissa was looking at him sympathetically. He knew he was an ass to her. Her delicate appearance was just that. She wasn’t mean but knew how to study an opponent and when to attack. She had an arsenal of weapons of an extent and variety that not even Gareth could fathom.
“I know you mean well in asking me,” he began, folding his hands into fists and pressing to his lips. “But you’re not helping.”
“I worry that if I don’t you’ll never try again.”
“You doodle and complain that your work is shit, rip the pad then sleep off the rest of the day. You wake up and doodle again, say your work is shittier. It’s a damned, miserable, endless repeat, Desmond. You’re not trying.”
“That’s my process.”
“Fuck your process.” Orissa said savagely. “Trying is knowing shit gets shittier but you still do it. Trying is hoping. Trying is not moaning and sleeping all day and complaining about cleaners touching your stuff! You’re making excuses to do shit. Gareth told me to be careful with you but screw that. I may be your sister but as your agent-“
“Ah. What, benevolence is the root of your rudeness?”
“Desmond, you pay me keep you working. I don’t coddle, I don’t coo, I shouldn’t even be bringing you juice. You pay me to help you. What you’re doing,” she made a loose gesture at him, “it’s pathetic.”
“I will never understand how it is to struggle with addiction-“
“But when you keep using that as justification for being a bad person? What’s there to respect about you?”
“You’re itching to get fired, aren’t you?”
“That’s your choice. You are better than this, Desmond.”
Desmond grunted as he shot to his feet. Orissa remained on her seat. He staggered to the studio.
“Fight to be better.”
He turned around to look at her.
Orissa looked surprised at her own words. “I guess I still respect you a bit, Desmond.”
“That was respect?”
“You’ll take what I’ll give.” She pointed at the couch. “Get back here.”
“You order me too much.”
She raised an eyebrow at him and glanced at the couch. Desmond sighed and crashed back down there.
“I do need to talk to you, Desmond. I think we have to revisit my duties.”
“Which certainly doesn’t include all that you’ve said in the last five minutes.”
To his surprise, she flushed and looked embarrassed. “Sorry. But there are things that need to be done that. . .well, I don’t believe should be handled by me. Desmond, I’m your agent. I’m the go-between with art dealers, curators, anyone who wants to buy your work. I arrange interviews with the press. I keep your name in and out of the media when needed. I do not,” she cleared her throat, “buy groceries, arrange the schedules of cleaners, buy your paint supplies and get yelled at for getting you the wrong shade of blue. Occasionally I’ll bring you takeout. But when you want someone to cook for you and clean up after you, it’s not something to expect from someone who has degrees in Art History and Finance. You get my drift?”
“You mean I need an assistant.”
“One who should be compensated very well given your temperament. Firstly.”
Desmond looked puzzled. “Firstly?”
Orissa was giddy as she stood up. “I have a list in my purse.”
Lucy skidded in front of the stairs of the Reid apartment. Without missing a beat, she lurched up the first step, the second, all the way to the tenth. She was just about to ring the doorbell when the door opened.
Royce Reid, Eric’s father, stared at her as if she was a fly in his soup. He was much shorter but Lucy felt insignificant. She was still found him as creepy as when he first interviewed her. His eyes were of a gray so pale they were nearly as white as the sclera. His voice was soft, just above a hush. He had the well-enunciated, suave syllables of the rich that should be heaven to listen to. There was a haughtiness about him, and something calculating and cunning.
Though Mareton was melting from the heat, Royce was dressed in a black suit, a black shirt and a black tie. His skin was pale, almost chalky. She didn’t think he was old but there were deep lines on his face and from what little she could see of his neck, the veins were thick and bluish.
As Lucy struggled from panting, he looked at his watch. “A minute more and you’ll be late, Miss Freeman.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “But the train broke down-“
“I don’t pay you to make excuses for your irresponsibility.” He swept the door open. “Eric waits for you.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry again.” She ducked into the apartment and hurried to the drawing room. It was freezing inside the apartment.
Eric Reid was ten years old and was the smaller, creepier version of his father. If not for his pale eyes and sullen expression, he could be considered a beautiful child. Lucy greeted him, ignoring the resentful look he gave her before flopping down on a chair. As Lucy pulled out her cello from the case, he said, “You’re ugly.”
“Nothing I haven’t heard before,” Lucy remarked, sounding bored.
Eric was a nightmare student. He couldn’t sit still, he hated playing the cello and he certainly didn’t like Lucy. He called her ugly, among other things.
Lucy may not look like she was dissuading or teaching Eric to be respectful. Over the years, she had become adept at identifying and dealing with bullies. Bullies went after you because they worried people would go after them first, so they had to look strong and brave. They threw insults, stole your lunch money to scare you. Bullies only responded to strength. Lucy’s way was to act bored, passively calling them out and doing so, turning the much-deserved ridicule on them.
She tightened the endpin of her cello and turned around to face Eric. He was sitting down, arm crossed on his chest and glaring at her. His cello lay at his feet.
She glanced at it then at him. “What’s this?”
“I don’t want to play.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“I don’t want to play today.” He smirked.
“You said that last week. Anything else?”
Lucy blushed. Her last job at Thatcher Drive was a bigger clean-up job than expected. A tenant had skipped out on the rent and there were boxes of rotten take-out everywhere. There was no time for a shower, only a change of clothes. She made it inside the train right before the doors closed but it broke down shortly. It was fifteen minutes before operations resumed.
But she was quick. Tilting her head innocently, she said, “You’re sure that’s not you?”
“Of course it’s not me!”
“Really? Because I took a shower this morning.”
“And you’re not. I know I’m alive. Are you? I hear the dead stink.” Lucy wrinkled her nose exaggeratedly.
“I’m not dead!” Eric shouted.
Damn. And because she couldn’t catch a break, the door opened. Lucy knew who was standing behind her before hearing him.
“Miss Freeman,” Royce said. “A word?”
Eric chuckled but Royce must have glared at him because he suddenly stopped. Lucy took her cello with her, fearful that the boy might stomp on it.
Lucy didn’t know her way around the Reid place. It was dark and cold, with doors locked and window drapes pulled close. Because her blouse was damp with sweat, she was soon shivering. She had to keep her eyes on the man walking swiftly before her, not wanting to stumble or trip and have it as another point against her in a sermon she was sure to receive in a little while.
Royce Reid’s office was as cold as Alaska. It probably wasn’t a good idea to take her cello along but she knew Royce wouldn’t appreciate being kept waiting. She stood in the middle of his office as Royce walked around his desk.
His office was dark, with deep crimson accents and furniture that were either black or dark, gun-metal gray. One was wall was decorated with antlers. She could never appreciate it.
Next to the gruesome display was a glass cabinet of antique guns. Lucy hoped it was locked. She didn’t know if the guns were loaded but even if they weren’t, weapons shouldn’t be in a home with a child.
Royce sat down and looked at her. The room was very dark yet she had no trouble seeing his pale face. With his clothes blending in the unlit surroundings, he looked like a floating head.
For a wild moment, Lucy was convinced he was contemplating adding her head to his collection with the way he was looking at her.
Then his pale eyes slid down to her face and rested boldly on her chest. Lucy froze, but not from the cold.
Her blouse was white and damp under the arms, around the back. She didn’t wear bras. Because of the icy temperature in the apartment, she wore sweaters and tanks under them when coming here. Due to the heat and her rush to beat the clock, she had only worn a blouse. She had been so busy getting ready for class with Eric that she didn’t notice the tightening of her nipples until now.
If she put the cello in front of her, then Royce would know that she knew what he saw. If she did nothing, he would still see. Lucy refused to yield when it came to people intimidating her and this was exactly what he was doing now. Waiting for the first sign of discomfort from her so he would attack. So she kept expression cool and the cello at her side, hoping that the chill in the air staved off her horrified blush.
Royce smirked. He looked like someone savoring an anticipated kill. She gulped.
“Miss Freeman,” he said, looking at her face. “Do you know why I hired you to teach my son?”
“You want him to master the cello.”
“That’s secondary. The boy would never be a master cellist. I ask again. Do you know why I hired you?”
Lucy cleared her throat. “No, sir.”
That satisfied him. He looked pleased. Too pleased.
She had just revealed herself. A vulnerability. Royce’s pale eyes shone. Even when happy he was creepy.
“I hired you because you are Abram Freeman’s daughter. I have no doubt that you know how to play the instrument. But your father, bless him, is the reason why you stand where you are. I wish for my son to learn from the best but the best don’t come with background such as yours. I don’t just let anyone in my home, Miss Freeman. People are allowed in because they reflect the best of me and my family. Engaging in games with my son is not what I expect from a lady like you. It certainly not the reason I pay you.”
Lucy couldn’t stop from flushing. She nodded. “I understand.”
“While you are here, I also advise about dressing properly for the job. Your surprising charms are much appreciated,” Royce continued. “Although a boy of Eric’s age still knows nothing of them.”
Lucy went from being embarrassed to physically ill. Her mouth opened in shock at what she was hearing. Royce was not done.
“Tell me, Miss Freeman, you mentioned in the interview that you also work other jobs. Are you compensated adequately Maybe I can persuade you to other means of employment with more satisfactory benefits.” He smiled. “For both of us.”
If she was within six feet of this creep any longer she was going to hurl. Royce Reid deserved to have her throw up her tuna sandwich all over his blood-red shag carpet but she needed the job with Eric.
“Um, I’m afraid my talent is only with the cello, s-sir,” she managed to stammer. “Challenging as he is, I-I like teaching him. I-I also have, uh, c-commitments with my other jobs. I-I can’t just leave. And I don’t want to.”
“Are you sure?”
Royce smiled. “We shall see.”