“Hi, Dad,” I say with a smile, scooting onto the same couch.
I sit on the edge of the cushion, anxious and timid, especially as Aaron waits by the bar, wondering if he should approach I guess. And all the while, I feel Jonathan staring between me, Aaron, my father and my sister, taking in everything with scrutiny I do not enjoy.
“Should you break them up?” I ask my father and scratch my arm.
“They always fight,” he says. “Better to just let them work it out.” He grabs my hand. “Have you been biting your nails? You haven’t done that since you were a kid.”
I shrug, keeping an eye on my mother and sister. “With Lo gone…” I trail off, not able to say the rest or tell him the whole truth. I shrug again, a go-to response right now.
My mother’s voice escalates. “And what did he say that was so bad?! What could it have been Rose?”
“He didn’t know who David Cameron is!”
I frown. I have no idea who he is.
My mother looks equally lost.
Rose chokes on a laugh. “He’s the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, mother.”
“That doesn’t make him unintelligent.”
“It does to me,” Rose tells her. “I don’t want to share someone’s company if they can’t count to five. I’d rather hang myself.”
So dramatic. And I’m assuming family gets a pass on Rose Calloway’s incredibly high friendship standards.
I swear I hear my father mutter, “That’s my girl.” He nudges my arm. “How is Lo doing?”
Jonathan’s muscles twitch at this question, and as I look over, his eyebrows rise, waiting for me to answer.
“I’m not sure,” I say truthfully. “I haven’t been in contact with him. I’m not supposed to until he gets further into the program.”
My father nods. “I think what he’s doing is admirable. Really admirable. Not many young kids realize that they have a problem when they do.”
I glance to Jonathan. “Do you…feel the same?” I wonder, gaining a little confidence.
His lips upturn in that bitter, amused smile, so familiar that my breath knocks from my chest. It reminds me so much of Lo—that’s the scary part. “I think he should have come to me first. We could have solved it together. That’s why I’m so angry, Lily. I gave him the life he has, and he walked away from me.”
“That’s not entirely true…” I trail off, scared of his pulsing eyes. He took away Lo’s trust fund. He refused to believe that Lo had a problem. He may have wanted Lo to stay in his life, and maybe he was frightened by the idea of admitting that he has the same addiction. Maybe he didn’t want to confront his own demons. And in the end, he left Lo no choice but to leave and seek help elsewhere.
Before Jonathan responds, I feel Aaron sit by my side. His arm wraps around the back of the couch behind me, as though we’re together. I stay stiff and wiggle closer to the edge of the cushion, not wanting to touch any part of him.
He introduces himself to Jonathan and my father, and they all act cordial. But I am utterly frozen inside. To make matters worse, Rose and my mother’s fight has increased to new levels.
“I don’t need a man to fulfill me,” Rose sneers. She points at my mother with her champagne glass, the liquid sloshing onto the floor. She hardly notices.
My mother inhales, her collarbone jutting out and cheeks caving in. “You’re so naïve, Rose. You think this world is going to respect you? You’re living in a fantasy,” she nearly spits. “Women like us have a figment of power. In the end, we’re all marionettes to men. Accept it now.”
Rose’s nose flares, her cat-colored eyes piercing. “Lily is with Lo,” she says. “Why would you ever cause her such pain and make another man escort her?”
“This again?” she snaps.
“Yes,” Rose retorts. “This again.”
My mother sighs. “What if Lo never returns? What if he chooses to be single by the end of this? I am creating a backup plan for her. I’m giving her options.”
Her words sting my chest, and I hardly notice Aaron laughing about something with my father, as if they’re long lost buddies. Lo will return. Won’t he? He will come back to me. He’ll want me…but the doubt festers in my soul. And I try to rid it with a confident nod, but I’m not feeling so assured right now. Not when my mother has zero faith in the man I love.
“Options?” Rose shrieks. “You’ve never given any of us an option. You know what option I would have liked? The option to disown my own mother.”
“Stop it,” she snaps. Her chin raises, but I can tell she holds in a breath, a sign that Rose’s words have truly started to infiltrate and infect and seep and hurt. “I helped you grow your company.”
“And you never let me forget it,” Rose sneers. The door cracks open, but no one notices Connor Cobalt slipping in except me. He has on an expensive tux, but his equally expensive smile is locked away. He wears a dark frown and stands guard by the door, watching Rose with serious, calm eyes. I am so grateful he’s here. Because I’m scared for Rose. I’m not sure how to calm her. I’m not sure what words will take away the pain of tonight.
I wish my mother could hear what Rose is saying. I feel like she’s screaming to be heard, but no one can understand. No one gets it. I stand up, about to go to her, but Aaron grabs my hand and tugs me back down. He says something to Jonathan and wraps his arm around my shoulder.
I’m too fixated on my sister to push him off and start an argument over here. Connor crosses his arms over his chest and glances at me. He looks at Aaron, and he’s about to come over but I shake my head and mouth, her.
He hesitates and nods to me in acceptance.
“What do you want from me?!” our mother yells. “I’ve been there for you your whole life!”
“I want you to say you’re wrong! I want you to apologize for this evening and for putting me with Matthew Collins and for thinking I’m a tool that a man can use and dispose. I’m your daughter!” Rose screams, angry tears burning from the corners of her eyes. “You’re supposed to love me by telling me that I’m beautiful and I’m smart and no man is good enough for me. You’re not supposed to tell me I’m worth less than I am.”
My mother inches forward a little. “Can you listen to yourself, Rose? We’re at an event for your father’s company, and you’re making it about you. You think you’re a woman? You’re acting like a child.”
Rose stares directly at our mother. Unflinching, unwavering. And very coldly, she says, “Go to hell.”
My mother’s hand flies and connects with Rose’s cheek, the slap heard like a gunshot in the lounge room. Jonathan, Aaron and my father go silent.
Rose drops her champagne glass, and it shatters on the marble floor. She stares in a trance at the ground, as though she felt nothing when the contact was made. My heart hammers so hard that the only thing I hear is the pulsing in my ears.
I have never seen my mother hit anyone. Maybe because I spent most days with Lo. Maybe because I haven’t been attuned to the happenings of my family. But the shock strikes me cold. I don’t have the same relationship with our mother that Rose does. We’re not hostile towards each other. In fact, we’re…nothing really. I say hi, she asks me how Lo is, and we move on.
I don’t wish for this. To be silently boiling, having to restrain myself from spewing hateful words and from feeling a hand sting my cheek. No one would ask for that. And I want to take Rose away from it, but she’s twenty-two.
The damage is done.
I think we’re all old enough to feel the scars of our upbringing. Now we just have to find a way to heal.
My mother lets out a breath and says, “I’m sorry…We’ll talk later. Clearly we’ve both had a lot to drink…” She shoots a quick glance to my father, and he stands and excuses himself too, following her out of the lounge room and back to the party.
Aaron keeps pulling me closer to his lap, and I swat him away, keeping track of Rose in case she needs me. I doubt she’d like to be reminded that she’s losing control. My interference is like saying, “Your f**ked up little sister is going to rescue you. How screwed up does that make you, Rose Calloway?” Which is why I asked Connor here in the first place.
He approaches her like a man tiptoeing towards a sleeping lion. “Rose,” he breathes. “Sweetheart…”
She’s shaking. Her arms tremble, and her eyes keep growing wider and wider. “She’s wrong,” Rose whispers. I can practically hear her chant in her head: I’m not like her. I’m not like her.
Connor closes the gap between them, and his hands touch her face, holding her cheeks, and gently soothing the reddened one with a soft stroke. “Look at me, hun.”
Rose tries to push him off. “Why…” She keeps shaking her head, but he holds her tight, trying to make her focus.
“I’m right here,” he tells her.
She weakly tries to push him off again, not really wanting to, and he grabs her hand. “I don’t need you,” she reminds him. But the silent tears start flowing. She’s crying in front of him, actually letting Connor see her cracks. I wonder if the emotions are too hard to bottle since she drank so much. “I don’t need you,” she repeats, her voice breaking.
“You’re right,” he says softly. “You don’t need a man, Rose.” He pauses and I barely hear him whisper, “But you do need me.”
She looks down and then back at him, her lashes wet and glistening, making her face look more porcelain and delicate than I ever remember. “What are you doing here?” she asks with the shake of her head. “You shouldn’t be here.” Her tears drip on his hands, both rising back to her face. He tucks a flyaway piece of hair behind her ear, and his eyes graze the welt on her cheek.
“A little bird told me you were upset.”
Rose lets out a choked cry. “Are you crazy?” She places her hands on his arms that hold her face but doesn’t force him away anymore. “You’re talking to birds now?”
His lips twitch into a weak smile. “I’d talk to any woodling creature if it gave me answers about you.”
“Would you walk through fire for me?” she deadpans.
“Yes,” he accepts the challenge.
“Brand my name on your ass?”
“Drink cow’s blood in my honor?”
“You’re so f**king weird,” he says with the biggest grin.
She breaks into a smile but it’s a pained one and then she starts sobbing. Like truly sobbing. He wraps his arms around her, and she falls into the hug. He guides her to the bathroom door to the right, and they disappear inside.
The room has almost cleared out, and I just remember who I’m actually sitting next to. Aaron leans close and whispers in my ear, “I will ruin you the way Loren ruined me.”