“Chase? Crying?” Amber wrinkled her nose, visibly appalled now. It was sixty-nine steps too far, and I was eager to drag Madison back to our room and spank her for every lie she’d spat out at dinner.
“I wouldn’t go as far as weeping, but . . .” Madison turned to me, doing that auntie arm pat again, giving me a three-nil-for-the-away-team look. I couldn’t contradict her version of our proposal story. Not publicly, anyway, when we were supposed to sell ourselves as a loving couple. I was, however, going to retaliate for this little stunt.
“It was emotional,” I concluded, taking a small sip of my whiskey. “Although, truth be told, the mist in my eyes was mostly due to your brown-and-green-checked dress with the blue dots, sweetheart. It was a lot to take in.”
“But a pleasure to take off, I assume.” Julian was baiting me, a cold smile playing on his lips.
My father dropped his utensils on his plate, clearing his throat deliberately. Julian looked up and waved away the discomfort at the table. Sometimes riling me up trumped acting like an actual human being in company. It was a recent development and one I didn’t appreciate at all. “That was highly inappropriate of me. I apologize, Madison. Brotherly banter gone too far.”
Brotherly, my ass. I wouldn’t trust him with a plastic spoon.
“Please, call me Maddie.” She bowed her head.
“Maddie,” my father repeated, sitting back. I made a mental note to remind Julian I was not above hurling him out of an open window if he were to sexually harass my fake fiancée.
“I must admit we were having our doubts since we haven’t seen you since Christmas. We thought Chase might’ve gotten cold feet,” Dad piped, pinning me with a glare.
“Nothing cold about this man.” Madison smiled big at Dad, pinching my cheek. Christ, I was glad this was going to be over in a couple of days. The woman was bound to drive me to alcoholism. “The hottest man I’ve met.”
She blurted the sentence out before she realized what she was saying. I turned my head and stared at her with a smug smile. Her cheeks turned pink. Her neck and ears were quick to follow.
“Thank you for marrying this savage of a man.” Dad smiled.
“You owe me one,” she joked. Everyone laughed. Again.
We fell into pleasant conversation as more courses were served. Thirty minutes later, Katie’s back straightened, and she frowned.
“Where is Clementine?” She stabbed a berry swimming in her club soda with a toothpick and tossed it into her mouth. I hoped the lack of alcohol in her glass was a telltale sign that she was back on her meds. That was an encouraging development. Katie’s anxiety brought everything else in her life out of focus, and even though she was great at what she did, marketing, I knew she wanted to meet a nice guy and settle down. She couldn’t do that as long as she was mentally frail.
“Asleep upstairs.” Amber flipped her platinum-blonde hair, cutting her gaze to mine pointedly. “She didn’t even get to see her favorite uncle.”
“She will tomorrow,” I said, clipped.
“Thanks for clearing some time in your schedule to see her. I know how busy you are.” More sarcasm.
I raised my glass, pretending to make a toast. “Anything for my niece.”
And nothing for her parents.
“Maddie, I don’t suppose you’ll be in the mood to play Monopoly with us afterward? You must be exhausted.” Mom turned to my fake fiancée, batting her eyelashes. She was laying it on thick. “It’s a tradition the Black women keep every time we’re in the Hamptons.”
Mad perked up. “Really? I don’t remember us doing it during Christmas.”
That’s because Mom just made this tradition up, I refrained from saying. My family went gaga over this woman, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.
“We wanted to give you and Chase some, er, alone time as a new couple.”
It alarmed me that Mom was more invested in Madison than I was in the stock market. Maybe she simply liked the idea of me not dying an old, solitary grinch. Madison was the only woman I’d brought home since She Who Shall Not Be Named.
“I would love to,” Mad exclaimed sunnily. I didn’t doubt her enthusiasm. Knew she’d rather take a bath in a deep fryer than spend a minute with me.
Katie and Mom exchanged the Look. The one they shared whenever they watched Pride and Prejudice and Colin Firth was stuttering something charming onscreen.
I stabbed at my steak like it had tried to stab me first, watching it bleed juicily onto my plate, feeling an impending calamity hanging over my head.
Mad was digging her obnoxiously patterned, colorful roots into the Black family, and my parents and sister were falling hard and fast.
Unlike me. I was the only Black who was immune to her charms. To her smiles. To her heart.
I promised myself that.
March 1, 2001
Today was not a good day. I know you were upset when we told you we couldn’t afford to pay for your school trip to the Statue of Liberty. Your father and I are struggling financially; that’s not a secret, but I wish it was. I wish we could keep this fact away from you, to afford all the things you want to do.
There is so much I want to give you, but I can’t. My treatments are getting pricier, and ever since your father had to hire an assistant to run the shop while I’m in treatment or recovering, we’ve been treating things we took for granted like luxuries.
What broke my heart today wasn’t even that you were sad about the trip—but that you tried to hide it from us. Your eyes and nose were red after you came back from your room, but you smiled like nothing happened.
Fun fact of the day: Jasmine is called queen of the night in India, because of its strong scent after sunset. I left some in your room. My version of an apology. Remember to tend to them. You can learn a lot about a person’s sense of responsibility and devotion by the way they keep their flowers.
Thank you for tending to us, even when we can’t tend to you in all areas in life.
“To be honest, I thought you didn’t like us very much.” Katie dragged her thimble over the Monopoly board, her brows furrowed in concentration. The drawing room was bathed in golden light. The rich carpets over exposed wood, Pinterest-worthy fireplace, and handmade crème-and-blue throws made me feel like I was cocooned inside one of those Jen Aniston movies where everything looked perfect all the time.