I stared outside the window longingly. Hell couldn't be worse than this. I was trapped with my flaky mother in a too-small car loaded with all of our worldly possessions, driving to a forsaken destination and towing a U-Haul. Surely I could leap out of the moving vehicle and hitchhike all the way back to our old home.
Even as I thought about it, I knew the idea was stupid. We'd given up our little apartment and severed all ties that held us there. My mother had gotten a job offer with an impressive salary that trumped her old one.
My eyes flicked down to the sheet of directions I held in my hand. As usual, I was the navigator. If Alanna was left to her devices, she'd probably wind up driving to Alaska. "Turn right at the stop light," I told her. "Alanna? Are you listening?"
She'd put some music on, and predictably, a love song was playing. Was there ever a moment when she didn't think about love? It drove me nuts because I was the one who had to console her after her multiple breakups.
"Turn right here. Turn!"
"Okay." She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, as she veered the car right, the U-Haul in tow. "What next, Jasmine Rose?"
I gritted my teeth. It never failed to irritate me when my mother called me that. My full name was Jasmine Rose Lindsay. A revoltingly saccharine name. But that was Alanna Lindsay for you. She'd gotten knocked up by a college boy who whispered sweet nothings in her ear and recited poetry in moonlight. When confronted by the harsh reality of her pregnancy, he took off. So it was no surprise that I grew up, determined not to be sentimental, and called myself Jas.
"Keep going. I'll tell you when to stop," I said.
"Fine with me." Alanna checked the rearview mirror, patting her golden hair in place. "Do I look professional?"
She was a beauty, my mother. Slender and petite with a heart-shaped face and sapphire eyes that just seemed to glow and a figure that still made construction workers woof whenever she walked past them. I didn't have the heart to tell her that no matter how much she dressed up, she'd only be an object of lust.
"You look great," I said truthfully.
"So do you," she said, smiling.
I rolled my eyes. My hair was entirely bright blue and my eyes a dull brown. I hadn't meant to go overboard with the dye job, but somehow I'd ended up looking like Sonic the Hedgehog minus the spikes.
"Okay, we're pretty close," I announced after a few minutes. "You want to go up to the house or stop by Doyle's?"
Alanna moistened her perfectly pink lips. "Let's visit Gloria. I haven't seen her in two or three years. And of course you'll want to see dear Frederick."
I barely repressed a wry grin. At least Alanna was impartial in calling everyone names that they didn't want. Dear Frederick loathed his first name, just like me, and preferred to be called by his last name.
I gave her directions, and then we turned up at the small house where Doyle's family lived. The family numbered five, and I wondered how they managed to live in that house, but what did I know? It was the first time I'd visited here.
Mrs. Doyle must have seen us coming because she flung the front door open. "Oh, Alanna!" she said. She was wearing her apron. "Come in, come in! And you too, Jasmine!"
Alanna flung herself out of the car, not even bothering to kill the engine. "Gloria!" she sang out, embracing her best friend. "It's so good to see you! How have you been?"
I shut down the engine and pocketed the keys. I got out of the car and touched my toes, not lifting my head. It was great to stretch out my legs after being cooped up for hours.
"Is that any way to greet your best friend?"
The deep masculine voice made me look up. When I did so, my mouth fell open. Where had the gawky boy gone? I'd towered above him the last time we'd met, but now I was forced to tilt my head upwards. My height was respectable for a girl, but it seemed like nothing. He had to be easily over six feet.
"Doyle! My God."
He'd considerably filled out. It was hard to reconcile him with the slightly overweight boy who wore glasses. The excess weight and glasses had vanished now, only to be replaced with broad shoulders and rippling muscles.
"Well, Jasmine?" he said. "Aren't you going to say anything else?"
I narrowed my eyes. "Since when have you begun calling me Jasmine? Should I call you Frederick?"
He only smiled. "Come on."
We went inside the house. Alanna had already gone with Doyle's mother, and they were in the kitchen.
Doyle's grandmother Mama Cera was making cookies when she saw me. I stooped down to kiss her wrinkled cheek. She'd babysat me often when we'd lived in the same town. I'd eaten her food and listened to the stories she told.
Some stories were sad. She talked about her ancestors who had been slaves. She talked about the civil rights movement. And sometimes she talked about Doyle's father, a white man who had deserted his black wife for a white woman. That was something Doyle and I had in common: the fact our fathers had left us.
My father had died in a stupid accident, shortly after he'd run away from Alanna, so I couldn't even take out my spite on him. Doyle's father paid lavish child support for the three children he'd deserted, but he seldom visited them because he had a second family, all white this time. I didn't know which situation was worse.
I greeted Doyle's twin sisters. They were pretty girls with skin even lighter than Doyle's. It was easy to see that they were biracial. After we'd chatted for a bit, I went upstairs to hang out in Doyle's room.
It was neatly organized, as I'd known it would be. That was yet something else we had in common. We'd always had the neatest desks in third grade.
I flopped down on Doyle's bed. "So tell me what's up."
"Why is your hair blue?"
"It was supposed to be this gorgeous brown and blue scheme, but I kind of screwed up. So, yeah, it sucks."
He shook his head, smiling. "I think it adds some character."
I threw a pillow at him, and he dodged. "I really can't believe we're finally in the same town again. It's just too perfect."
"And naturally you're looking for a catch?"
"Yeah, you know me. Seriously, though, there has to be a catch. Alanna gets a job as a housekeeper for an old guy? Okay, that's fine. We don't have to pay rent or even for utilities? That's fantastic. So what's the catch?"
It was exactly what I'd said. Mrs. Doyle had helped Alanna find a job as a housekeeper for a Mr. Abraham Malett. We had to live with Mr. Malett because he was getting old. No rent or anything like that. It was a deal too good to pass up, especially when the job would pay Alanna a lot more than her secretary's salary. And Alanna had showed some financial sense, saying that I'd be off to college next fall, and that we needed the tuition money.
Doyle stretched out like a lazy cat, linking his hands behind his head. He was entirely too comfortable on the wood floor.
"No housekeeper has stayed for too long," he said.
"Huh. I knew there was a catch."
"The old man's apparently impossible to please. He once fired a woman for smiling at him the wrong way."
"How is that possible?"
Doyle flashed a grin up at me. His coffee-cream complexion made his teeth startlingly white. "Don't ask me. That's what I heard. And yeah, there was a bit of trouble with Dominic and a housekeeper."
"Who's Dominic?" I said sharply. Ever since I was six, I'd defended Alanna from her persistent boyfriends and bosses. One of her repulsive bosses had once pinched her butt in my presence, and I'd punched his soft belly.
"The old man's grandson. Dominic Malett, that's his name. He's our age. He lives with his grandfather."
I grunted. Oh yeah, that was trouble. A seventeen year old boy living in the same house? I could only imagine what his reaction would be when he saw Alanna. I'd have to keep an eye out for him, make sure he stayed away from her.
"So, what was the trouble?" I prodded. "Sexual harassment?"
"Supposedly the woman made a pass at Dominic, not the other way around. Mr. Malett heard about it and fired her."
Doyle's smile was faint. "Just wait until you see Dominic, and then you can decide if the story's true or not."
"Yeah, yeah. Maybe I should tell Alanna to wear dowdy clothes."
He shifted his position on the floor. "She'd still look great, Jas."
I shrugged that off. What really concerned me was this grandson. I hadn't heard about him before, and that bothered me. Mr. Malett didn't concern me so much because he was old. He was supposedly sick too.
"What's this Dominic like?"
Doyle considered the question for a long while. He stared up at the ceiling while I fidgeted impatiently. "I'd say he's a little standoffish," he said slowly. "Not that good-looking, in my opinion, but girls go wild over him-"
My glance was withering. "That's not what I want to know. Is he a pig?"
"Not really. His friends are."
"They come over to the house all the time?"
"Sometimes." Doyle gave a deep chuckle. "And I wouldn't really call it a house. It's more like a mansion. A museum, maybe."
I made a face. I'd expected that because of Alanna's salary. Only rich people could afford housekeepers on a full-time basis like that. I didn't have anything against them, except that I'd noticed they were usually arrogant.
Perhaps sensing I'd had enough of that particular topic, Doyle steered the conversation away to safer topics.
"Excited about school?" he said.
"What? Oh yeah, school starts tomorrow. Sheesh. It's my third high school in four years. How do you think I feel?"
"Indifferent," I said.
He got to his feet in a languid movement. He searched in his desk drawer until he found a folder and handed it to me.
"Your class schedule's in there," he said. "We share half of our classes together."
My nod was appreciative. I'd gotten my old school to send my transcript, and Doyle's mother had helped out with paperwork. She must have signed me up for most classes with Doyle, so I'd feel more comfortable.
"Jasmine Rose! It's time to go," Alanna called up the stairs.
I gave Doyle a quick hug. "I'd better go. See you later."
He returned my hug and followed me outside. He waved at us when we left.
The drive took us about twenty or twenty-five minutes. Abraham Malett had managed to purchase some land, so that his house was far from the main roads. We passed a couple "no trespassing" signs. The driveway was like a snake, so we followed its curves through trees until the trees fell back, exposing the mansion.
Alanna slowed the car down. "Oh, isn't that lovely?"
The house was practically a clone of Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. Tall, stately, white, all of that. Why did mansions always have columns? There was even a stupid fountain in the front with a mermaid statue that sprouted water.
"It's a nightmare," I muttered.
No wonder Alanna was the last in the very long succession of housekeepers. From what I knew, Mr. Malett didn't even employ any other maid. He had people that did the garden work, but Alanna would be the only one who did everything inside the house. I'd have to help her out just to make sure she got an occasional break.
She parked in the circular driveway in the front. I was sure there was a back entrance for employees like us, but we didn't know where to go.
A young woman met us at the front door. She yanked the door so quickly that I wondered if she'd watched out for us, just like Doyle's mother had.
"Oh, thank God, you're here!" she said. "Mrs. Lindsay?"
"Ms. and Ms. Lindsay both," I said.
A look of confusion passed over her face. "Oh. Well, I'm glad you guys are here. I'll take you up to Mr. Malett and then I'll leave."
Her eagerness to leave was so obvious that I raised an eyebrow inwardly. She guided us through the massive house. I only had time to notice the huge glass chandelier dangling from the ceiling in the foyer. Mr. Malett had ripped out all the carpet, clearly preferring classic wood floors. But when we were ushered to his private library, I saw that he'd installed a carpet so thick and deep that my feet actually sank a little.
Abraham Malett was seated in a comfortable chair, reading the newspaper. When he saw us, he lowered the paper.
"I thought you'd be older and ugly," he said.
His mouth pursed in evident displeasure. Age had ravaged his features, but his nose remained aquiline and his eyes sharp. Not exactly a handsome man, but his sense of imperious command stood him in good stead.
"I'm sorry my mother isn't as ugly as you hoped," I said.
For a moment there, I thought he'd have apoplexy, but then he burst out laughing. "Oh, you don't like me, do you? Well, I don't like you either." Insulting me seemed to make him happier, and he looked at my mother again. "You're too pretty, but that can't be helped. I'm a man of my word, and I won't go back on it."
Alanna practically wilted in relief. "I'll try my best to do my job well, Mr. Malett," she said demurely. "This is my daughter Jasmine Rose. Would you like me to start right away? I could make some dinner."
"You'll begin tomorrow. I'll want a big breakfast."
It was now my turn to intercede. I asked him about his allergies, his dislikes and likes, and his medical information. All those little things Alanna would need to know, and I even wrote down his answers in my notepad.
Mr. Malett looked grimly amused. "You don't leave many things to chance, do you?" he said to me. "You two can have your pick of the bedrooms downstairs. I suppose you'll want to do some grocery shopping. There is some cash in the petty drawer. That's in the kitchen."
"And we'll give you receipts," I said.
He might be generous with cash, but I had a feeling he'd watch us like a hawk to make sure the money didn't slip into our pockets. If my instincts were right, he'd probably done a very extensive background check on us.
"Fine, fine." He waved a hand at us, but the quick gleam in his eyes confirmed that I'd been right to suggest receipts. The man was testing us, and oddly enough I didn't mind. It was what I'd have done in his place anyway. "We'll discuss more in the morning, but I'm tired. Go now."
His curt dismissal didn't faze me. We explored the house before moving our things inside. The mansion had four floors: the attic, the upper bedrooms, the main floor, and the basement. The main floor was split into two sections. The first one had the kitchen, the living room, and so on. The other half had even more bedrooms, obviously for the help. And that was what we were, so we chose two rooms.
After we'd chosen our rooms, we started hauling our things. Since we were living in Mr. Malett's house, we had no real need for furniture, but there were some things we hadn't been able to leave behind. It took us forty minutes just to get everything past the front door.
It became a trek through the mansion. By the second time we'd returned to the front door to pick up more boxes, we were sweating badly. Mr. Malett's household staff was practically nonexistent, so we were alone.
"Screw this," I said.
I dialed Doyle's number. Alanna in one of her maternal moments had insisted that I have a cell phone for emergencies. I didn't have many friends, but I had Doyle on speed dial. He said he'd come over soon.
We just sat there, panting for breath until Doyle arrived. The boxes were heavy, and the mansion so huge that I wished for a cart or a wheelbarrow. Seriously, I didn't see why Mr. Malett didn't hire more employees.
With Doyle's help, we finally finished moving everything. My desk nearly killed us, though. I'd requested an extravagant desk for my birthday three years ago, and Alanna had saved up enough money for it, and so I couldn't bear to sell it. I needed it to be with me, and even with Doyle's muscles, we still had to take breaks.
Alanna wiped sweat from her forehead. Her upper lip was shiny, and some golden strands had escaped her scrunchie, but she still glowed.
"My dear Frederick! What would we ever do without you?" She gazed into Doyle's gray-green eyes, almost soulfully but her gaze was innocent of any flirtation. "Why don't you eat dinner with us?"
"My mother asked me to invite you to our house instead. She thought you'd be tired from the long drive."
I silently blessed Mrs. Doyle. If Alanna was the impetuous one, Gloria Doyle was the voice of reason, a calming influence. In one of my more selfish moments, I'd wished she was my mother instead of Alanna.
We went over to Doyle's house. His mom served meatloaf, and as usual, her cooking was delicious, but I was so starved that I'd have eaten sawdust and proclaimed it good.
"How do you like the house?" Mrs. Doyle asked.
She'd directed the question at Alanna, but I answered. "Doyle was right. The house is a museum."
She laughed. "It is rather huge, isn't it? Mr. Malett should hire a household staff if you ask me, but he likes to save money."
"Just our luck to get a cheapskate as a boss," I said.
"Oh you'll do fine."
"As long as you stay away from Dominic," one of Doyle's sisters said under her breath. I was sitting right next to Emma, so I heard her. "He's so weird."
Apparently Mama Cera heard too. "That's idle gossip," she said sharply. "Don't talk about something you don't know."
Now I was getting curious. If Doyle's sisters knew about him, even though they were only in junior high, there was something going on. Normally I didn't put much stock in gossip, but I was living in Dominic's house, so I wanted to know.
I was tempted to ask Emma for more details, but from the set of Mama Cera's mouth, I decided to wait until dinner ended.
"What's up with Dominic?" I asked.
Emma glanced around for her grandmother, but Mama Cera had retreated to the living room, leaving us kids to clean up.
"I don't know a lot," she said, whispering. "But I hear he's a snob."
That I could readily believe. A person couldn't live in a house of that size and not be a snob. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, but in this case, I didn't think so. I'd already met Dominic's grandfather, and he was most certainly a snob.
After dinner, Alanna and I went grocery shopping, and I also bought school supplies for tomorrow. God, I couldn't believe school was starting so soon.
It was late when we returned to the mansion. I refused to think of it as home because it wasn't my home. Who could be comfortable in a house like that? The only rooms I liked were the kitchen and my bedroom.
Even though it was past eleven o'clock, I was too wired to sleep. So I put sheets on my bed and set my alarm clock. After I'd done that, I started hanging up my clothes in the closet and folding them. I left everything else for the moment, and then I carefully took out the framed picture of my father.
I stared at the picture. He'd given it to Alanna and she had bequeathed it to me, and I'd saved it ever since. I always meant to set it on fire, but I just couldn't. I ran a finger over the smooth surface, trying to puzzle out the man. He'd abandoned my mother, but he'd given me his brown hair and eyes. I'd inherited those things whether I liked it or not.
My jaw clenched. I patted my father's picture one final time before putting it back in one of the boxes. One of those days, I'd have to figure what I wanted to do with the picture. But not just yet. Someday, though.
That night, I slept badly.
AUTHOR NOTE: Well, here I am, trying to write another story :) It's a standalone, not related to my first story "Against All Odds."Anyway, my chapters are almost always 10 pages, but this chapter is 9 pages, so I'll write 11 pages for the next one, just to even things out. The next chapter will have Jas on her first day of school. It should be up in a few days. That's all for now. Let me know what you guys think.