I’m completely overwhelmed with the pageantry of what should be a simple family meal, yet when I glance around at the Blackwoods, I can tell this is a regular Tuesday in their home.

Helena places her napkin on her lap, then glances at her son. “So, Declan… how did you think the board meeting went?”

Declan fills his mother in on the details I’d heard over the past two days. I have no clue if she’s actively involved in hotel operations or is just making polite conversation, but she seems to be listening as she offers well-placed murmurs of agreement as he talks.

His father seems to ignore the exchange, concentrating on his soup and intermittently checking his phone. I try to enjoy my own bowl, but I feel awkward sitting so close to his sister in silence.

So I make an attempt to engage her by asking, “Marissa… do you work within the Blackwood company as well?”

Shooting me a sharp glance, she snaps, “Of course I do.”

I don’t have time to be shocked by her dismissal of my attempt at communication because she addresses her brother. “Did you manage to ratify my budget proposals for next year?”

Declan stares stonily at his sister. While he was engaged in conversation with his mother, there’s no doubt by his expression he’s not happy about her question.

“Could you possibly be any more impolite to a guest in our home?” Declan asks. It takes me a second to understand his question.

Then it hits me hard. His anger at his sister has naught to do with her question, but rather because of the way she so rudely brushed me off.

I fight the urge to shrink in my chair as conversations cease. All eyes are on Marissa, which puts me in the crosshairs since I’m beside her and my question led us here.

Marissa waves a hand dismissively. “I answered her question. What more do you want? It’s not like I have anything in common with your hired help.”

At this point, I struggle not to laugh. Because she’s not wrong about that. I can tell I have absolutely nothing in common with this snobbish, two-dimensional woman, but it’s comical all the same.

But it’s not quite so funny anymore when Declan’s mother shifts in her seat to look at her son. “I told you it was not a good idea to bring help to the family dinner.”

I genuinely don’t know whether I should be offended, but then Declan’s father seems to want in on the conversation. Except he’s oblivious to what is playing out as he glances up from his phone and says, “Your budget proposals for the interior design of a hotel are not important enough to discuss at a board meeting.”

I can actually feel the fury rolling off Marissa to my right. Glaring at her father, she practically screeches. “That’s always the way it is in this family. Declan gets all the glory, and no one gives a crap about my role in this company.”

“You’re an interior designer,” Alexander says, and there’s no hiding his contempt for his daughter’s chosen profession. “You pick out wall colors for our hotels.”

He says no more, but nothing needs to be said. It’s clear he doesn’t value her opinion or work for the company. Somehow, I think it might be because she’s a woman. I would like to feel sorry for her, but I can’t. She’s not a pleasant person.

Marissa starts ranting about her contributions to the Blackwood hotels and how she’s been under-appreciated far too long. She follows it up with threats to quit, and her father baits her back by daring her to do so.

Meanwhile, Helena sips at her wine and idly looks back and forth between her quarreling husband and daughter before bringing her icy gaze to mine. I can tell this is a regular occurrence between them, and she’s not put out by it in the slightest. By the way she takes long draws on her wine, I expect she drinks a lot. But most telling is the way she regards me—like I’m a bug. A nasty creature that’s been let into her house that has no business being here.

I eye Declan, who has been strangely silent. He’s watching his mother, lips pressed flat as he observes her glare with unbridled disgust.

And then… Declan rises from the table. It immediately gets everyone’s notice, and the argument between Alexander and Marissa falls silent. Helena’s head tips up curiously.

When he has their attention without having issued a single word, he focuses on me. My heart skips a beat at the regret I see there. “I’m sorry, Bailey. There’s no excuse for you having to bear the brunt of my family’s dysfunction.”

“How dare you?” Helena hisses, drawing a hand to hover over her chest as if he’d mortally wounded her.

Declan spares her a sharp glance. “You’re horribly and unforgivably rude, Mother.”

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