She covers her face with her palms, and I hear her sob. That only makes me angrier. I take a threatening step toward her.
“You’re sleeping with him, aren’t you?”
She pulls her hands away and glares at me.
“No. Of course not! I love my husband.” She is clearly insulted that I would even accuse her of such a thing.
“I love mine!” My voice cracks. “ — So, why does he love you?”
She looks at me with true loathing.
“He doesn’t,” she says simply. “He chose you.” It pains her to give me those words. I can see the emotion spilling from her skin.
I hold up the deed and shake it. “He bought you a house. Why did he buy you a f**king house?”
She snatches the deed from my fingers and points to a date. “Did you miss this little detail? Long before you, Leah.” She shoves it back at my chest. “But, you know that. So, why did you really trick me into coming here?”
I swallow — a nervous reaction. She sees it and smiles cruelly.
“I should have let them throw you in prison, you know that.”
She turns away, walking toward her car door. Her statement infuriates me. I follow her, digging my fingernails into my palms, I breathe through my nose.
“So you could have him?” I blurt. My blood pounds in my ears. I ask myself that question all the time. I say it again. “You should have lost the case so you could have him?”
She freezes, looks at me over her shoulder.
I didn’t expect the truth. It frightens me. I open my mouth — force the words out. “I thought you loved your husband.”
She blows air through her nose. The action reminds me of an agitated horse. Her eyes rove from my shoes and land in disgust on my face.
“I love yours too.”
Before Caleb and I were married, I rarely allowed my parents to be around him out of fear that their opinions would rub off on him, and he’d start looking at me like they did. Most of my other boyfriends hadn’t caught on to their veiled insults and cold parenting. Caleb was smart, he’d see right through them, right through me — and start asking questions. I didn’t want the questions or the eventual resignation it would bring: Leah is a disappointment. She’s not the real deal, just the secondhand daughter.
I didn’t like anyone knowing my shit. So, for the two years of our courtship, I herded him in and out of social events with my family with meticulous precision. It was exhausting for the most part — making sure no one said too much, the conversations didn’t dip too deep. After the wedding, that changed. Maybe, I felt more comfortable since I had the commitment, or maybe it was the fact that I had finally told him the truth about where I came from.
We were formally invited to attend dinner at their house a week after we got back from our honeymoon. Caleb was still bristling over the fact that my father wouldn’t walk me down the aisle.
“I don’t want to go, Leah. What he did was disrespectful to you. He’s lucky I didn’t call him out at the wedding. I won’t let him treat you like that.”
I loved that. I felt more valuable in those five seconds than I had in years.
“Please,” I reached up on my tiptoes and kissed his chin. “Let’s just keep the peace. I love my sister. I don’t want to cause a rift.”
He grabbed my upper arms and squeezed gently, narrowing his eyes. “If he says one word, Leah, one word that I don’t like…”
“You’re going to punch him in the face,” I said firmly.
He grinned crookedly and kissed me roughly on the mouth — just the way I liked it.
“I’m going to punch him in the face if he serves duck. I hate duck.”
I giggled against his lips. “What about if he tells the scuba diving joke?”
“That too — he’s getting hit for the joke…”
We were moving toward the bedroom, our feet shuffling together, our lips never far apart.
I laced my fingers in his hair, the edges of my thoughts fraying until they fell apart, and all I could think of was his touch and his husky voice in my ear.
Later that evening, we walked to my parents' door hand in hand. Two weeks in the Maldives had left us tanned and relaxed, and we were still floating in our vacation lull, laughing and kissing and touching like one of us might disappear. Caleb was finally mine. As my hand sought out the doorknob, my thoughts fleetingly went to my arch nemesis. My lips found a smile so rooted in triumph that Caleb cocked his head at me quizzically.
“What?” He asked.
I shrugged. “I’m just happy, that’s all. Everything is perfect.”
I wished I could say: Dum, dum, the witch is dead…
But, the witch wasn’t dead. She was in Texas — which was good enough.
My parents and sister were in the family room. They looked at Caleb expectantly when we walked in, almost like they were waiting for him to announce he was leaving me. There was an awkward thirty seconds of silence before my sister jumped up to hug us.
“How was it? Tell me everything.” She grabbed my hand and led me toward the couch. I glanced at Caleb, who was shaking hands with my father. Daddy liked Caleb. He liked him so much that I wondered what he’d think about the fact that Caleb hated him. I felt a sick satisfaction knowing that I’d turned Caleb against him. My father thought he could have anyone, and he truly wanted everyone’s adoration … except mine.
“It was beautiful,” I assured her. "Very romantic.”
A quick glance at Caleb.
She leaned close to me. “They’ve been bitching all morning about how much the wedding cost them,” she said. “Don’t bring it up.”
I felt my cheeks grow warm. This was typical behavior for my parents. Of course they’d pay for their eldest daughter’s wedding. Of course it would be extravagant and over the top to impress their friends. Of course they would bitch afterward about how much money they’d had to shell out for someone who wasn’t really blood. But, what else could they do? No one knew I wasn’t really theirs. To do anything less would cast a shadow over their perfect image as loving parents.
Please, God, please don’t let them say anything in front of Caleb.
My sister was holding a glass of red wine. I took it from her and swallowed a mouthful.
My mother was walking toward us, each of her birdlike steps tugging a fresh strand of dread to the forefront of my mind.
“You should really stay out of the sun, Leah,” she said, sitting down across from me. I looked down at my bronze colored arm. Despite the fact that I was fair skinned and had red hair, I tanned like an Italian.
“You look silly with color — it looks like you went for one of those spray tans.”
“She looks fine, Mother,” my sister snapped. “Just because you’re afraid of the sun, doesn’t mean we have to be.”
I shot my sister a grateful look and tensed for the next biting comment.
“Caleb looks well,” she said, glancing over to where he was still speaking with my father. “So handsome. I always thought he’d be a good match for you, Courtney.”
My head swam, my vision blurred. Courtney made an angry sound in the back of her throat.
“That is so wildly inappropriate,” she hissed. “Not only is perfect not my type, but Leah and Caleb go together better than any couple I know. Everyone says so.”
My mother raised her eyebrows. I found my tongue.
“Why would you even say something like that?” I said to her. “After everything you did to help me…”
She sniffed and took a sip from her own wine glass. “A woman shouldn’t have to fight that hard to be with a man. He should just want her…”
My sister was looking from one of us to the other. “What are you talking about?”
My mother’s eyes locked with mine in a silent warning. “Dinner should be ready,” she said. “Why don’t we head over to the dining room?”
Mattia still made most of my parents' meals. She’d been with my family since I was a little girl. I always looked forward to her cooking. Tonight, it was salmon with rice pilaf and a honey mustard glaze. She squeezed my shoulder as she set my plate down in front of me.
“Congratulations,” she whispered in my ear. I smiled at her. I’d wanted her to come to the wedding, but my parents thought it was inappropriate.
“I have something for you,” she said, “just a small something. I’ll leave it in the kitchen for you.”
I nodded at her, hoping my mother hadn’t heard. My mother had a gift for making heartfelt gestures seem silly and comical.
Mattia left the room after the last plate was laid, and I turned my attention to the conversation my father was having with Caleb. Despite his current feelings toward my parents, Caleb was composed and respectful, answering questions and delivering them in perfect sequence.
He was a social genius. I attributed it to the fact that he seemed to be able to get to the core of every person he met in one meeting, and from there on out, he automatically knew how to manipulate their moods. I’d seen him ask a stranger question after question, until he broke down their defenses. Initially, the subject of his interest looked mildly guarded, giving him censored answers. He timed his probing questions with jokes and self-deprecating comments that set the person at ease. He never judged. He narrowed his eyes when it was the other person’s turn to speak — a charming bit of body language that said: you are so interesting, keep speaking. I loved watching him speak to people. I loved watching them fall for him. By the end of a conversation with Caleb, people where so taken with him, they looked disappointed when the interaction ended. He really cared — that was the difference between Caleb and someone who was just being nosy. People picked up on that quickly.
Caleb was mine. He was finally all mine. I smiled at my salmon, and my sister kicked me under the table.
“What?” I mouthed to her.
She shook her head, smiling.
After dinner, we moved back to the living room. My father was old school; he pulled out the snifters and cigars as soon as we sat down. Caleb politely declined the cigar, but took a finger of Scotch.
I sat next to him, while my mother and sister disappeared into another part of the house. This was the man time, but I wasn’t leaving mine alone with my father. Not when he was angry with me about the money he’d shelled out for the wedding.
“What are your plans?” Daddy asked, pointedly ignoring me and looking at my husband. He blew a bit of tobacco from his lip, and I looked away. His mannerisms were beginning to annoy me.
Caleb licked his lips. “We put in an offer on a house. We’re waiting to hear from them.”
“I hope you don’t intend on keeping Leah at home. I need her to come back to the office.”
Caleb stiffened. I could read his body language as if it were my own. I wanted to hear what he would say to the great, powerful Smith strong arm.
“I don’t intend on keeping her anywhere,” he said. “Aside from my bed, she’s free to come and go as she pleases.”
I choked on my spit. I wanted to laugh at the look on my father’s face. He was crude, I’d heard him make all manner of jokes, but Caleb’s comment had disarmed him. Caleb probably knew it would — the brilliant little manipulator that he was.
My father cleared his throat, a slight smile on his lips.
Caleb turned toward me. “Do you plan on going back to work, Leah?”
Daddy wasn’t used to this. I wanted to sneak a look to see how he was handling his not daughter being asked her opinion.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I could think about it…”
Why did he want me back? He had an entire horde of employees to play his corporate game. Maybe, this was him trying? To what … be my dad? My boss? I was surprised he was even suggesting I go back to work, since he believed that after a woman got married, her place was in the home.
My father switched tactics at the last minute; pivoting his body toward me, he angled himself away from Caleb, making me the sole receptacle of his attention.
“What do you say, Leah? You’ve been such an asset since you arrived. We need you to finish this project.”
As much as I wanted to say no, I couldn’t. Blame it on the alcohol, or my nagging addiction to please the only man who didn’t want me, but I couldn’t walk away when he was asking me to come back. I had a need to prove that he was wrong about me. That I wasn’t the child of a worthless slut, but a valuable asset to his family.
I nodded, feeling weak for bending. He was using me for something. I couldn’t figure out what yet. My goddamn soul hurt. Caleb was watching me. I smiled at him, my eyes no doubt betraying my uneasiness. He could see all the way down my throat, right to the place where my heart beat. Thank God he was classy enough not to mention it.
On the way home, Caleb asked me if I really wanted to go back.
“You said you were done.”
I looked fretfully out my window, counting the car lights that passed us.
“So why are you going back? You don’t owe him anything, Leah.”
“Just let me do this without psychoanalyzing my motives.”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “All right. Just promise me one thing.”
I looked at him. Caleb didn’t really ask for promises.
“If he pulls a stunt like he did at the wedding, you walk away and you don’t look back.”
“Okay,” I said.
I glanced down to my lap where Mattia’s present sat, wrapped in pearly white paper with embellished bells on it. Sliding my fingernail under the tape, I pulled the wrapping away to reveal a sugar and creamer set. It was cheap — the kind you get at Marshalls, with glass bodies and silver handles — but it was from Mattia and I loved it.