“I thought you were resisting the notion of waiting on me hand and foot?”
She looks away, eyes narrowing. “If you don’t want it, just say so.”
That hurt expression twists my insides, and my first instinct is to fall to my knees and beg for that damn muffin, but I catch myself. What the hell am I doing, standing here and chatting? I shouldn’t be warming up to Meredith. I shouldn’t be letting my guard down with her at all. She’s a heartbreaker. She’s spoiled and flighty. If Helen is to be believed, she left her husband to teach him some kind of bratty lesson. I’d be wise to keep my distance, even if that means hurting her feelings to do it.
I push to stand. “Yeah, I had a big breakfast. You can give it to Edith.”
Later at lunch, Meredith sets down another one of her healthy meals. This time there’s baked chicken, asparagus, and some kind of tiny grain that looks like it should be sprinkled into a fish tank.
“Couscous,” she announces softly.
I feel my mouth turn down with disdain and have to fight against it.
Still, she senses my reluctance. “It’s wheat, country boy. Give it a try. I promise you’ll like it.”
Edith pats the empty place setting beside her. “Take a seat and eat with us.”
If she wasn’t my grandmother, I’d kick her shin under the table. What is it with her and Meredith? Edith never tried this hard to be friendly with our old housekeeper.
I aim daggers at her, but she’s too busy making googly eyes at Meredith to notice, so I have no choice but to speak up. “Mary never used to eat lunch with us.”
Meredith bristles at the comment and spins on her heel to head back into the kitchen.
There. Problem solved.
Edith sends me a scathing look from across the table. When I was younger, that look would have made me recoil in fear. I’m surprised it hasn’t completely lost its effect.
“That’s because Mary used to prefer watching Jerry Springer up in her room during lunch.”
I shrug and scoop a pile of couscous onto my spoon. Here goes nothing. “It’s better this way. I’m still pretty sure she’ll be gone in a week anyway. There’s no sense in getting friendly with her.”
She rolls her eyes. “Believe me, you’re in no danger of that.”
I straighten my shoulders, fish food forgotten. “You think I’m being too hard on her?”
“Well she’s scared shitless of Alfred, yet I still think she prefers his company to yours.”
I grind my teeth, and for the rest of the meal, we don’t bother with conversation. There’s no use. She’s angry with me for the way I’m treating Meredith, and I’m angry with her for not seeing my side. If she’d heard the way Helen spoke about her sister, she wouldn’t be so welcoming either.
I’m focused pretty hard on stewing, but not so much that I don’t notice how good Meredith’s food is. I’ve never willingly eaten asparagus, but she roasted it so well I’m a little disappointed when my plate’s clean.
I scoot my chair back from the table and carry our dishes into the kitchen. Meredith is in there cleaning, and she makes a point to completely ignore my presence. Not only that, she turns and angles herself away from me. Her shoulders are hunched over and her head is tilted down as she scrubs hard, cleaning the stove.
All right. Okay. I’ve had enough. This is what it must feel like to be the mean, responsible parent. It sucks. Why do I have to be the bad guy? So what? I didn’t want her eating with us and getting cozy, but I can’t stand her moping like this. Not to mention, the sooner she and I are back on semi-decent terms, the sooner Edith will come around as well.
“Food was good. Two for two.”
She hums and keeps her back to me.
“I’d never tried kooz-kooz before.”
She makes a little bored noise, unimpressed, and then I’m left with nothing else to say.
My temper starts to boil up inside of me, though not at her—at myself. I hate this. I hate that I can’t decide how I should handle her. One minute I want her out of my house. The next, I want to play nice and get on her good side. I can’t help but wonder what that would be like: fresh baked muffins with my morning coffee, sweet smiles, the returned love and affection of my grandmother. I could get used to that real quick.
And that right there is the problem.
“I feel compelled to defend my grandson.”
I shake my head. “There’s no need, really.”
Edith comes around me and turns off the faucet for the kitchen sink. I’m elbow-deep in suds, but apparently this conversation is more important than the dishes from lunch. I reach for a towel and dry my hands before turning toward her.
She’s eyeing me with unveiled curiosity. “He thinks you’re using us as a stepping stone.”
“Oh yeah?” I cross my arms. “Who’s to say he’s not right?”
She nods, running with it. “Who indeed?” After a brief silence, she plunks me in the forehead with her pointer finger. “You are, dummy! So are you or are you not headin’ back to California as soon as that rich husband of yours figures out where you ran off to?”
My jaw ticks with anger.
“Whatever you think you know about me, go ahead and believe it. It’s all true.”
I’m so sick of everyone shoving their nose in my business. If this were a normal job with normal hours, she wouldn’t be asking about my personal life, but this hasn’t been a normal setup from the beginning. She and Jack know Helen, and therefore they feel like they know me. They don’t. It’s like looking out a single window and thinking you know what the whole world looks like. Whatever snippets I told Helen about my life back in California were only half-truths. My life back there wasn’t complete hell, but it wasn’t all rainbows and cotton candy either.
“Maybe I do come from a cushy life, but there’s a lot more to it. All you need to know is that I’m not going back. End of story. Now if you’re done, I need to get back to these dishes.”
“Was it ever good? Your marriage?”
Her question is so jarring that a sharp memory hits me like a bird smacking into a clean window. The last time Andrew and I were intimate, I was lying face down on our bed with him on top of me, letting it happen, trying to think of anything other than how revolting it was to have him touch me. I turned and my gaze caught on the framed picture on my nightstand: us, on our wedding day…me, smiling up at Andrew like he was my shining prince.
“Yes, we were happy once.”
“Well, marriage is hard. You gotta work at it to keep the love alive.”
I think back to all my desperate attempts to change him. In the end, I only succeeded in changing myself.
I pretend like her advice is blowing my mind. “Wow, really? Guess I just didn’t try hard enough. Any more sage advice? Maybe I should have spiced it up in the bedroom to keep him interested? Maybe I should have been a little more attentive? More doting? Funny? Aloof? Mysterious? Please tell me how I could have saved a marriage you know nothing about.”
My explosion misses her completely. She hums with confirmation then turns for the back door. “Yep, that’s what I thought.”
I frown. “What?”
She keeps on walking. “Nothing. You can go back to your dishes now.”
The back door slams behind her, and I throw up my hands in defeat. Jesus, what is with this family?
It’s early evening and I’ve quarantined myself in the shack. It’s just me and the local wildlife I’ve yet to evict. I have a hardback cracked open on my lap, a brand-new thriller I found Edith reading yesterday. Apparently we share the same literary tastes—we sat in the game room chatting about books for a good thirty minutes. When I heard Jack’s office door open, I leapt to my feet. I didn’t want him to catch me slacking on the job; I won’t gift him any ammunition against me. Other than our little blowups, I want to be the best employee he’s ever had. I want my likeness framed above a small plaque that reads: Employee of the Year! That way he won’t have any grounds to fire me.
He didn’t see me lounging there with his grandmother, and she insisted it didn’t matter anyway. Still, I didn’t want to abuse his trust, so I got back to work, and Edith must have finished the rest of the novel because it was waiting for me on my doorstep earlier.