Chapters 1 – 5 Seasons of Darkness

Seasons of Darkness

by Belinda G. Buchanan

 

Everett Harrington quickly scanned the lines of the resume.  “You come highly recommended from the agency, Ms. Schmidt.”

“Call me Greta, please.”

He looked at the woman sitting nervously on the edge of his sofa.  Her hands were clasped together so tightly he couldn’t distinguish one from the other.  “Did they tell you that this is a live-in position?”

“Yes, sir.  Six days a week with Sundays off.”

“My work hours are long, so I would need you to get the children off to school and prepare their meals.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It would also require housekeeping and laundry.”

“I understand, sir.”

Everett placed the papers on the table in front of him and leaned back, hoping to put her at ease.  “Tell me a little about yourself.”

“Well,” she said, smoothing the folds of her dress, “I love working with children.  They bring me a great deal of joy and happiness.”

He waited for her to continue, but she seemed satisfied with her answer.  “How long have you been a nanny?” he asked, hoping to get a bit more information out of her.

“Twelve years, sir.”

He rested his elbow on the arm of the chair.  She was obviously a woman of very limited vocabulary, and despite the fact that she’d come with glowing recommendations, he began to doubt her abilities.  It had been his past experience that the quiet ones never worked out.

“How many children do you have, Mr. Harrington?”

“Two—a boy and a girl,” he said, checking his watch.  “They should be getting home from school any minute.”

“And their ages?”

“Renee is twelve, but she likes to think of herself as an adult.  She’s also quite the chatterbox.  Her mouth moves from the time she wakes up in the morning until her eyes close at night.”

“She sounds delightful.”

He shook his head.  “You say that now, but wait until you’ve been in the room with her for an hour.”

“All right,” she said, smiling.  “I shall reserve my judgment until then.”

Everett smiled back at her.  It was nothing more than a simple reflex on his part, but it caused her cheeks to turn a bright crimson.  Although he found her shyness amusing, he couldn’t help thinking that he’d just wasted his afternoon.

He watched in silence as she began smoothing the folds of her dress again.  It looked as if she were trying to pull it farther down over her already modestly covered knee—and from what he could tell—a very shapely pair of legs.

“Mr. Harrington?”

He felt a burning sensation in his own cheeks as he subtly shifted his gaze back to her face.  “Yes?” he said, clearing his throat.

“What about your son?”

“Ethan is sixteen,” he answered with a sigh, “and you’ll be lucky if you get two words out of him.”

~

The heat from the pavement was warm on the bottoms of Ethan’s shoes as he walked along the edge of the narrow road.  It had been a long time since he had felt the sun on his skin and he slowed his pace, wanting to enjoy it.

Clink, rattle, rattle, rattle.  Clink, rattle, rattle, rattle. 

A soda can suddenly rolled past him, followed by Renee.  She caught up to it and kicked it once more, sending it spiraling down the middle of the lane.  “Aren’t you glad school’s over?”

“Yes,” he said, realizing it was the only answer he could give her in order to avoid fifty questions.

They turned off the main road and began making their way down the long gravel drive that led to their house.

“Watch out for the puddle, Renee—” The heel of her shoe just barely missed landing in it as she jumped.  Undeterred, she hurried on up ahead to the next one and bent her knees.  He sighed inwardly.  His sister had the uncanny ability to irritate him even when she wasn’t trying.

“Ethan, look,” she said, pointing.  “There’s someone here.”

He glanced towards the house and saw that a dark green car was parked out front.

Renee took off running.  “Let’s go see who it is.”

Ethan’s footsteps quickened.  He was curious himself as to who the owner of the vehicle was.  It wasn’t often that they had a visitor.

Renee bounded through the front door, her eyes searching the living room for the stranger.  “Hi,” she said to the woman on the couch.

Greta smiled warmly at her.  “Hello.”

Everett gestured for her to come his way.  “Where’s your brother?”

“He’s coming,” she answered, giving him a peck on his cheek.

A moment later, Ethan appeared in the doorway.

Renee leaned in close to Everett’s ear.  “Is she going to be our new nanny?” she whispered loudly.

“Yes, but let me introduce her first, all right?” he answered with a chuckle.  “This is Greta Schmidt.  Greta, these are my children, Renee and Ethan.”

Ethan took a step forward.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“And you as well,” Greta replied with a slight nod.

Renee took her by the hand.  “Would you like to see my room?  I can show you yours, too.”

She glanced in Everett’s direction.  “If it’s all right with your father.”

“Go ahead,” he said, rising from the chair.

“It’s this way.”  Renee pulled her to her feet and led her towards the staircase.

Everett ran his fingers through his hair, wondering to himself what he had just done.  Up until fifteen seconds ago, he’d had no intention of hiring her.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ethan edging his way towards the stairs.  “How was school?”

“Fine,” he answered, resting his foot on the bottom step.

“Did you have a good last day?”

Ethan tapped his fingers impatiently on the banister.  “Yeah.”

Everett let him go, knowing that would be the extent of their conversation.  It was as redundant as it was predictable.

~  

Later that evening, Everett sat in his study going over his final bid to purchase Glasco.  They were the leading manufacturer of synthetic rubber, supplying nearly thirty-percent of the world market.  Two years ago, its parent company had run into financial trouble and sold the lucrative business to a bank.

The employees of Glasco, some eleven hundred strong, had banded together and bought the company back.  For the first few months, their margins had stayed in the black, but the new owners lacked the experience needed to keep it afloat.  It was now in arrears and close to heading for bankruptcy.

This was the type of company Everett loved buying.  He would go in low, and sell it off piece by piece for a substantial profit.

He closed the file and rubbed his forehead.  This particular endeavor, however, had been nothing but a headache for him.  Despite an endless array of meetings, conference calls, and expressions of goodwill on his part, he was still no closer to owning it than he was three months ago.

Some of the employees at Glasco viewed Harrington Enterprises’ bid to purchase them as a hostile takeover, and they had gone as far as to seek outside help, hiring a turnaround consultant to get them back on track.  These past few weeks had been a push and pull as the company became divided over their fate.

He had yet another meeting tomorrow with John Walker, their vice-president of operations, whom Everett knew wanted to sell.  He closed the folder and stuck it in his briefcase, hoping this would be the beginning of the end.  Having sunk a great deal of his time and money into this deal, he was ready for closure.

He could faintly hear the sound of dishes rattling as he finished off what was left of his drink and stood up.  Walking into the kitchen, he found Renee filling the sink with water.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, when she saw him standing there.  “There’s plenty left.”

He meandered over to the stove and peered inside the pot.  Something unrecognizable stared back at him.  “Mmm, no thanks.”

“When are you going to buy us a dishwasher?”

“I already have one,” he said with a wink.

She made a face at him.  “Child labor is against the law, you know.”

“Where’s your brother?”

“Guess,” she said with a smile.

He smiled back at her; it was hard not to.  “He’s down at the stable.”

“Yep.  Him and his imaginary horse.”

~

The bottle dangled carelessly from Ethan’s fingertips as he sat gazing out the small window of the loft.  The sun was beginning to sink behind the tree line, painting the entire horizon in a soft orange.

A gentle breeze fluttered around him carrying with it the sweet smell of honeysuckle.  He settled back against an old bale of straw and breathed in deeply, enjoying the silence.

He found himself wishing that he could be as excited about summer vacation as his sister was.  Although he liked being older than her, there were times he longed to be a kid again, as her days off would no doubt be spent playing with friends and going swimming at the public pool in Manchester.  For him, it meant interning three days a week at his father’s company.  He took another sip from the bottle and sighed.  It was going to be a miserable summer.

He was jarred slightly by the sudden sound of metal hitting wood, but knew what the noise was without turning to look.  The wind had stirred the pitchfork that was hanging on the wall behind him.  He listened as its tines clanged softly against the slats of the barn.  It reminded him of a bell—the kind that you heard on the water.

When he was a boy, his mother would take him down to the canal to see the boats.  They used to stand on the cobblestone sidewalk and watch the ships pass by one after the other.

He sank farther into the straw and closed his eyes, letting his mind drift.

The ship’s enormous bow sliced through the water in front of him as he leaned over the rail.  He watched it intently, certain that its massive hull was going to hit the edge of the concrete wall and send it crumbling into the depths below. 

The ends of his toes curled up inside his shoes as the ship loomed beneath him.  It was so close he could count the wooden planks on the top of its deck.  He tightened his grip on the rail as he braced for impact.  He watched with both fascination and disappointment as the captain of the boat guided the craft safely through the narrow opening with master precision.

With danger averted, Ethan pushed himself away from the railing and grinned at his mother.  When I grow up, I’m going to be the captain of a big ship.  Just like that one.

She looked down at him and smiled.  Is that so?

Yes, and when I pass by here, I’ll be sure to wave at you.  He squinted up at her.  Will you come and watch me?

Of course I will, love, she said, cupping the side of his face in her hand.  But I shall miss you terribly while you’re gone.

It will just be during the day.  I’ll come home every night like Daddy, I promise.

She arched her eyebrows.  Promise?

Promise.

All right, then.  Come on, she said, making her way over to a park bench.  Mummy needs to sit down for a moment.

The shrill horn of a boat sounded in the distance, indicating it was about to pass underneath the bridge.

He sat down beside her and watched for it.

Here, she said, reaching into the folds of her purse.  I’m sure the pigeons have missed you.

Ethan took the brown paper sack from her and opened it up.  The birds heard the crinkling and immediately began gathering at his feet.  He pulled out a handful of breadcrumbs and tossed them onto the sidewalk.  Within seconds, every morsel had been devoured.  The birds looked up at him, cocking their tiny heads from side to side, waiting for more.

His mother sat forward.  Where’s Stubby?

There he is, he said, pointing to the bird with the missing toe.  He’s standing next to Fatso.

Ah, she said, smiling.

Which one shall we name today? he asked, searching out one to pick.

Oh, I don’t know, love, she answered, slumping against the bench.

He held his hand out in front of him and blew the crumbs from his fingers.  Mummy?

Yes?

What did you want to be when you were little?

She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked out across the canal. 

Did you always want to be a mummy? he prodded when she didn’t answer right away.

Her lips wavered slightly.  For as long as I can remember. 

He eyed her stomach for a moment.  Is that why you’re having a baby?

I suppose so.  Her voice was distant. 

The big tug slowly came into view as thick black smoke billowed from its stack.

Ethan sat back and watched it glide silently across the water.  He wasn’t sure about all this baby business.  His parents had told him repeatedly that nothing was going to change.  Yet, last week, he had been relocated to the bedroom at the end of the hall in order to make room for what they kept calling his little sister.

His mother put her arm across his shoulders and drew him close.  Did you know that I asked the angels to send you to us?

An absurd image formed in his head as he pictured winged beings with halos bringing him down from the clouds.  Did they put me in there? he asked, touching her belly.

She laughed.  Yes, I guess they did. 

Did you ask the angels for this one?

No, she answered as her smile slowly faded.  She was a surprise.

Ethan turned the sack upside down and emptied it, sending the pigeons into an ecstatic frenzy.

You and I will always have a special bond, his mother said, squeezing him tightly.  No matter where you go, or what you do, I’ll always be thinking of you.  And no matter how old you get, you’ll always be my little boy. 

He rested his head upon her shoulder and closed his eyes as she began stroking his hair. 

I will never stop loving you, she whispered.

The tug sounded its horn again, drowning out her last words.

Ethan opened his eyes and looked up at the darkening sky.  He figured heaven must be somewhere past the clouds.  There were times he wondered if she ever thought about him now, or even knew how old he was.

He pressed the bottle against his lips and took two long swallows, hoping to wash away the lump that had formed in his throat.  His shoulders involuntarily shook as the liquid heat traveled through him.

“Ethan?”

He bolted upright at the sound of his father’s voice.  “Yeah?”

“I need to speak to you for a moment.”

“Coming,” he said.  His fingers trembled as he screwed the cap back on the bottle and stashed it in the hay beside him.

“What are you doing up there?”

“Nothing,” he replied, making his way down the wooden ladder.

His father looked up at the loft for a moment before letting his eyes settle upon him.  “You must be doing something.”

“I was just thinking,” he said, being sure to keep a safe distance between them so he wouldn’t smell the scotch.

“Thinking about what?”

“Nothing.”

His father took a deep breath and sighed.  It was exaggerated, and meant for Ethan to know it was a sign of his frustration with him.

“Greta will be here tomorrow afternoon,” he said.  “I need for you to keep an eye on your sister until she arrives.”

Ethan secretly hid his delight as he nodded.  If he had to watch Renee, that meant he wouldn’t have to go to the office with him in the morning.

“I expect you to help Greta get her things upstairs and be mindful of her,” he said in a stern tone.

“I will,” Ethan answered, irritated that his father thought he had to tell him that.

The last of the sun’s light began to fade, casting a dark shadow inside the barn.  Silence soon followed.

Ethan stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shifted his feet.

His father finally turned and walked over to one of the empty stalls.  “This place is cleaner than the house,” he said, taking a moment to look inside.

Ethan remained silent, uncertain if that was a compliment or complaint.  He watched as he ran his fingers along the leather saddle that sat astride the stall door.

“This weekend, I’m going to go see a man about a horse.”

Ethan blinked as his mouth fell open.  “Really?” he asked, uncertain if he’d heard him correctly.

His father’s mustache turned up at the corners.  “Really.”

Ethan could not contain the smile that consumed his face at that point, and it brought forth a small chuckle from his father as he turned and headed towards the door.

~

Ethan sat on the side of Renee’s bed watching her choose which stuffed animals she was going to sleep with.  It was a nightly ordeal that usually drove him crazy, but the news his father had given him earlier was making it somewhat tolerable.

Renee held two of them up side by side, her face deep in thought.

He drummed his fingers impatiently on his leg.  “Can you hurry, please?” he asked as politely as he could.

She finally picked the last one and crawled under the covers.

Now came the task of tucking all ten animals in there with her.

“Mr. Wuzzles can’t sleep next to Mr. Bear.”

“I know,” he said, switching them around.

“And Mrs. Prickly doesn’t like sleeping on the edge.”

He sighed inwardly as he moved the porcupine to the inside.

After what seemed an eternity, Renee was satisfied with the arrangement.  She now lay nestled in the middle of the bed with five of her closest friends on either side of her.

Ethan reached down and picked the storybook up from off the floor.  “Where did we leave off?”

“The prince is at the wicked queen’s castle.”

“Right,” he said, thumbing through the pages.

“Are you all tucked in?”

Ethan looked up from the book to find his father standing in the doorway.

“Yep,” Renee answered.  “Do you want to stay and hear the story?”

He set his drink down on the nightstand and leaned over to give her a kiss.  “No, thanks.”

She giggled as his tie fell across her face.  “Goodnight, Dad.”

“Goodnight.  Love you.”

“Love you, too,” she answered.

Ethan watched silently as he retrieved his drink and walked out.

“Ready,” she said, settling into the pillow.

He turned his attention back to the book and cleared his throat.  “The prince jumped off his horse and frantically searched for a way inside the castle.  Spying the window at the top of the tower, he carefully began scaling the wall.  One wrong move and he would surely fall into the crocodile infested moat below.  It was dangerous, yes, but his love for Princess Penelope was too strong to ignore.”

Everett walked across the floor and sat down on the landing at the top of the stairs, listening.

“…Then the prince heard a strange noise.  He looked over his shoulder and found a huge dragon with a forked tail hovering behind him.”

He heard a slight pause and the rustle of paper as Ethan turned the page.

“The prince held onto the ropelike ivy with one hand, and drew his sword with the other.  The dragon opened its mouth and shrieked, sending a huge fireball hurtling towards him.  The vine between his fingers disintegrated and Prince Galen went plummeting towards the moat.  The evil dragon flapped its enormous wings and dove after him.  It caught the prince in its jaws just before he hit the water—devouring him in one bite.”

There was nothing but silence for a moment.

“It doesn’t say that,” Renee protested.

Yes, it does,” answered Ethan.

Everett shook his head and began to laugh.

 

Chapter Two

 

Everett walked briskly down the hallway towards the conference room.  A last minute phone call had put him behind for the meeting.

Clint Owens hurried out of his office and fell into step with him.  “Sir,” he said, giving him a brief nod.

“I need an update on First Solutions when this is over.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint acknowledged without missing a beat.

This meeting with Glasco was important, but it wasn’t the only deal to be had.  Everett made sure that whenever one was about to close, another one was waiting in the wings.

The conference room came into view as they rounded the corner.  He could see Glasco’s vice-president sitting inside, but he wasn’t alone.  “Who’s the chap in there with him?” he asked, keeping his pace.

Clint casually glanced through the glass partitions.  “I’ve never seen him before, sir.”

Everett paused just outside the door.  He did not like surprises.  His meeting today was supposed to be with John Walker only.

“He may be their consultant,” Clint offered.

Everett checked his watch, trying to appear unconcerned about the interloper.  He then gave a slight nod to the men that were standing at the end of the hall, and pushed open the door.  “John,” he said, extending his hand.  “How are you today?”

Glasco’s vice-president offered Everett a limp handshake when he noticed the five suits behind him.  “I’m good, Mr. Harrington.”

A small rush flowed through Everett as he felt the sweat on the man’s palms.  The first rule of business was to always outnumber your opponent.  Unbeknownst to John Walker, four of the men with him were from human resources and brought absolutely nothing to this meeting.

“Mr. Harrington?”  The stranger stood up to shake his hand.  “I’m Clay Gehring, attorney for Glasco.  I represent the workers.”

“Mr. Gehring,” he said, hiding his irritation with a confident smile.

They all took a seat.

“Thank you for coming,” Everett said.  “I know it’s a long drive over.”  The second rule of business was to never meet your opponent halfway.  Compromise was for the weak.  The fact that they were having the meeting here, at Harrington Enterprises, was yet another small, but effective, tool.

Clay Gehring cleared his throat.  “Mr. Harrington, I’ve been going over the purchase plan for Glasco, and there are a few points that I would like for you to clarify.”

Everett looked down the table at him.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Gehring, but I didn’t catch the name of the firm you’re with.”

He blinked.  “I’m not with a firm.”

Realizing at this point what was going on, Everett leaned back in his chair.  “If you don’t mind my asking, what year did you graduate from law school?”

The man’s face turned a shade of red, highlighting the rash of acne under his chin.  “Earlier this year.”

John Walker shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“As I was saying, Mr. Harrington, regarding the contract,” Gehring continued, trying once more to take control of the meeting, “there are a few points that we need clarification on.”

Everett continued leaning back in his chair.  Gehring had been brought in as nothing more than a stall tactic.  “Do you have those points highlighted?”

“Uh…” He looked down and began leafing through the pages.  “Yes.”

“May I see a copy?” Everett asked, feigning interest in them.

“Of course.”  Gehring slid the paper down the table.

Everett picked up the contract and handed it to one of the men seated next to him.  “I’ll have my attorneys look over your concerns and get back with you.”

Gehring opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.  Discerning that he’d just been played, he quietly bowed his head in defeat.

“Now, John,” said Everett, returning his attention to Glasco’s vice-president, “I’d like to hear from you on where we stand.”

The rotund little man pushed his glasses back up on the bridge of his sweaty nose and cleared his throat.  “We’re still divided on selling.  The latest vote showed sixty-three percent were willing, but we’re a little shy of having the two- thirds majority.”

“Each day we delay is only costing both sides money, John.  And quite frankly, I’m not in this business to lose money.”

“I understand that, Mr. Harrington, but your reputation precedes you.  Some of the workers are afraid of losing their jobs once the buyout takes place.  As you are aware, Glasco is a unique company.  We’re able to manufacture, process, and distribute our product on site.  If you sell those departments off, we’ll lose our foothold in the market.”

Everett leaned forward.  “Your foothold has already slipped, John.  Now, a hard decision has to be made.  Harrington Enterprises has laid out a very generous offer for you.”

“I’m not denying that,” he replied, shaking his head.  “But we need more time to consider.”

Everett hid his disappointment.  This was not the news he had hoped to hear.  Pursing his lips, he slipped a document out from the folder he had brought in with him.  “I’m prepared to give the employees of Glasco an incentive if they agree to the purchase.  You can call it a signing bonus if you want.”

John took the paper from him and began reading it.

His reaction was predictable.

A broad smile formed on his haggard face.  “This is most kind of you, Mr. Harrington,” he said as he handed the document over to Gehring.

“Yes, it is,” Everett acknowledged.  “But be sure and have your attorney read the fine print, because from this date forward, it drops ten percent for every day you delay.”

The man’s smile began to crumble.

Everett stood up, signaling the end of the meeting.  “I’m done negotiating, Mr. Walker.”

~

Ethan braced the two by four with his knee and raised his hammer.  A sharp, cracking noise echoed across the pasture as it struck the head of the nail.  The wood was warped, making it rather difficult for him to drive it in straight, but after several whacks, it finally conceded.

Tossing the hammer onto the ground, he took a step backwards to survey his progress.  There were still several boards along the back fencerow that needed replacing before he felt confident it would hold a horse, but overall he was pleased with the results.

His eyes went from the fence to the open pasture in front of him.  The heavy rains they’d had the past few days had turned the field a beautiful shade of green, making the old white barn that sat in the middle of it, look pale in comparison.

He bent down to pick up the hammer only to wince as his hand wrapped around it.  The wood he had been using for the fence had to be cut, and unfortunately the only tool he had at his disposal was a rusty handsaw left behind by the previous owner—the handle of which had rubbed the inside of his palm raw.

Ignoring the discomfort, he finished sinking the nail through the new board and moved on to the next section.  It was getting late in the day, and although he had no desire to, he knew he needed to go check on Renee.  She had been out here helping him earlier, but had grown bored when he wouldn’t talk to her.

He hooked the hammer on the side of the fence and began making his way towards the house.  The two-story structure sat nestled beside a small grove of trees; its magnificence lost amidst its peeling paint and sagging roofline.

There were times Ethan wondered why they had ever moved here.  It was situated far from town on the very outskirts of the city—and was as lonely as any place could ever be.

The floorboards of the back porch creaked beneath his feet as he flung open the door.  “Renee?” he called out as he moved over to the sink to wash his hands.  The water hissed and spat a couple of times before the pressure came up.  “Renee?”

There was nothing but silence.

He flipped off the faucet and stalked into the living room.  “Renee!”  He knew she was here somewhere, but the fact that she wouldn’t answer was making him angry.  He jerked open the front door to see if she was in the yard and found her sitting on the porch.  “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m waiting for Greta,” she replied, keeping her eyes focused on the road.

Ethan’s anger left him.

“She seems really nice.  Don’t you think?”

“Mmm-hmm.”  He leaned against the column and glanced at the empty driveway.  His sister always took quickly to the new nannies.  Outnumbered by men two to one, he knew that she craved a mother figure, but unfortunately, none of them ever stayed for more than a few months.  In this house, it was his father’s way or the highway.

There had been a few that had stirred things up, but in the end, they had left quietly—counting the cash as they went out the back door.  He stuck his hands in his pockets and sighed.  He seriously doubted that the new nanny would be any different.

The sound of an engine made Renee get to her feet.

A dark green car was turning in.

“She’s here!”  She jumped off the porch and went running across the yard to greet her.

Ethan hung back for a moment, not wanting to appear eager.

~

Everett locked the door to his office and began walking down the deserted corridor towards the elevator.

A few stragglers hurried past him.  “Goodnight, Mr. Harrington,” they murmured.  “Have a nice weekend.”

He watched with amusement as they crowded into the stairwell, electing to walk down seven flights of stairs rather than ride in the elevator with him.

“Do you have a moment, sir?”

He recognized his director’s monotone voice and turned around.

“I’m sorry to spring this on you last minute, but we’ve got a problem.”

Clint Owens had been Everett’s director of finance and strategy for nearly fifteen years.  There was no one that he trusted more, and if he said there was a problem—there usually was.

“Is this about the numbers for First Solutions?” he asked, pressing the button for the elevator.

“No, sir.  First Solutions financials are looking good.  This is regarding Conclave.”

“What about them?”

“They’ve filed an application for a CVA under the Insolvency Act.”

“When?”

The Adam’s apple in Clint’s throat went up and down as he swallowed.  “Last week.”

Everett struggled to maintain his composure.  The purchase of Conclave was supposed to be finalized at the end of this month.

“They kept it quiet,” Clint said, hurrying to explain.  “The only reason I know now is because I have a buddy over at Leeds Shipping.”

Everett felt his blood pressure rising as the elevator doors slid open.  All the meetings with Conclave had gone extremely well.  There had been no indication that they hadn’t wanted the sale to go through.

~

 A wonderful smell greeted Ethan as he came through the back door.  It tantalized his senses making his mouth water.

Greta was standing over a sizzling skillet stirring its contents.  “That’s perfect timing,” she said, smiling.  “Dinner is almost ready.”

He gave her a slight nod before walking over to the sink.  When he had met her yesterday, he hadn’t realized just how tall she was.  She was nearly the same height as his father.

“Can I stir now?”

“Of course you can,” Greta said, handing the spoon to Renee.

He flipped the handle on the faucet and gingerly began washing his hands.  The blisters that had formed earlier now stung beneath the cold water.

“Ethan?  Did you know that Greta is from Germany?”

“Yes,” he answered, setting the soap aside.

“How did you know?

He rolled his eyes.

Greta smiled at her.  “I think my accent gave me away.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-three.”

“Are you married?”

Ethan glanced over his shoulder.  “That’s a personal question, Renee.”

Greta shook her head with amusement.  “It’s all right.  No, I’m not married.”

“Do you have any children?”

Renee,” he said, turning around.

She placed her hands on her hips and stared defiantly at him.  “She doesn’t have to answer if she doesn’t want to.”

“No, I don’t have any of my own,” Greta replied, still smiling.

Ethan tossed the towel down on the counter and folded his arms.  It seemed to him that she was enjoying Renee’s interrogation of her.

“Anybody home?”

Renee dropped the spoon into the skillet and ran across the floor.  “Hi, Dad,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist.

Everett smiled as he yanked gently on one of her pigtails.  “Have you been good today?”

“I’m always good,” she answered, resting her chin on his belt buckle.  “Guess what?”

“What?”

“I’m helping Greta make dinner.”

“It smells good,” he said, detaching her arms from him.  “I’ve got some work to do now.”

Ethan watched silently as his father slipped into his study, leaving Renee standing in the doorway like a lost puppy.

Greta appeared in his line of sight.  “Would you mind to set the table?”

“We always just eat at the bar,” Renee answered for him as she bounded back into the kitchen.

“You don’t eat in your dining room?”

“No.”  Her pigtails swung back and forth.  “That’s where we fold laundry.”

“Really?”  She walked across the floor and through the swinging door with Renee on her heels.

“See?  I told you.”

Ethan remained in the kitchen while Greta surveyed the room.  The table had always been a catchall for everything, the most recent being laundry.

She leaned over and began gathering the clothes in her arms.  “Let’s clear it off for now, shall we?”

Ethan suddenly hurled himself through the doorway.  “Here,” he said, snatching the garments from her.  “Let me take all that.”

“Thank you,” she replied, eyeing him curiously.

He shoved the garments into a laundry basket, being sure to bury his underwear.  Within a few minutes, their folding station had been transformed back into a dining table.

Greta left the room and returned with a steaming dish.  “Renee, would you please go and tell your father that dinner is ready?”

“The door’s closed.  That means we’re not supposed to bother him.”

“I see,” she said, setting the dish down on the table.  “Well, we shall start without him, I suppose.”  She scooped out a generous portion onto a plate and handed it to her.

Ethan saw his sister scrunch up her face.

“What do you call this again?” she asked, poking it with her fork, as if she expected it to move.

Bauernfruhstuck,” Greta said slowly.  “It means farmer’s breakfast.”

Ethan looked down at his own plate.  He had lost track of how many months it had been since he had eaten a home-cooked meal.  Despite its unsavory appearance, it smelled too good to ignore.  He picked up his fork and tasted it.  A delightful flavor began to fill his mouth.  “This is delicious,” he said, scooping up another bite.

“Thank you, Ethan.”  Greta seemed genuinely happy that he liked it.

Renee kicked him playfully underneath the table.  “I helped you know.”

He arched his eyebrows.  “Stirring doesn’t count.”

She went to kick him harder, but he moved his leg out of her reach.

~

Everett was busy pouring himself a glass of scotch when he heard a knock upon his door.  “Yes?” he said politely, knowing that the person on the other side was not one of his children.  They knew better.

The door slowly opened.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but dinner is ready.”

He stared at her blankly for a moment before realizing that she was asking him to join the children.  “Thank you, Greta.  I’ll be right there.”

She nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

Everett finished his drink, and took the time to pour another one before finding his way into the dining room.

“Look, Dad,” said Renee.  “Doesn’t the table look nice?”

“It certainly does,” he answered, walking around to the end of it.

Greta set his plate in front of him.  “Please let me know if you need anything else, sir.”

“Thank you.”

The three of them ate mostly in silence, except for the random thoughts in Renee’s head that she just had to share.

“Dad?  Can I get my ears pierced?”

“When you’re older.”

“But Chloe’s got hers pierced and she’s twelve.”

“Eat, please.”

“Can I go swimming tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Why not?  It’s summer.”

“It’s the first day of summer.  Give Greta a chance to settle in.”

“Can I go Monday?”

Everett let his fork drop onto his plate.  “Are you going to talk or eat?”

Renee looked down at her food.  “I am eating.”

“Eat quieter.”

She stuck a forkful in her mouth and chewed.

He took a moment to enjoy the silence before she swallowed.

“Hey, Dad?  Guess what?”

He tried ignoring her.

“Ethan’s been busy fixing the fence today.  He’s got it all ready for his horse.”

Everett looked over at his son who had not said one word tonight.  “Is that right?”

The phone in the kitchen chirped softly.

“Yes,” Ethan answered with a slight nod.

Everett looked back down at his plate.  This issue with Conclave might put the horse on hold.

Greta came through the door.  “It’s a Mr. Owens calling for you, sir.”

“Thank you,” he said, standing up.

“Can we go with you to get the horse tomorrow?” asked Renee.

Everett’s eyes went from her to Ethan.  He was staring at him silently, his face hopeful.  He turned his attention back to Renee.  “Help Greta with the dishes when you’ve finished eating.”

But, Dad.  What about the horse?” she whined.

He pressed the phone to his ear.  “Clint,” he said, walking out of the room.  “What did you find out?”

~

Renee banged on the door.  “I have to use the loo!”

Ethan yanked the shower curtain back and stepped out.  “Give me a minute,” he said, wrapping a towel around his waist.

“Hurry,” she wailed.

He picked up his comb.  “Use the one downstairs!”

“I can’t.  I have to use it now.

Ethan sighed.  There were times he felt she was put on this earth just to torment him.

She banged on the door again.  “Did you hear me?”

He took his hand and wiped the steam off the mirror.  The same face that had been staring back at him for sixteen years came into view.  Holding the comb between his fingers, he studied his reflection for a moment.  His black hair naturally parted on the left, but he began to wonder how he would look if he did it on the right.  He quickly combed it in the other direction and dropped his arm.  It changed his appearance somewhat, but he couldn’t tell if it made him look any older.

He turned his head to the side and stroked the edge of his jaw.  There wasn’t enough stubble for him to bother with shaving tonight.  His father had told him once not to be in a hurry to shave, because it was something you would have to do for the rest of your life.  He was sure there was some truth to that, but couldn’t see it at the moment.

Renee jiggled the knob.  “Ethan!”

His eyes moved from his face to his chest.  Small patches of dark hair lay flat upon his pecs and ran down the middle of his torso.  He bent his arms at the elbows and curled his fists, checking the status of his muscles.

“Come on, Ethan!”

Christ!” he muttered, ripping off his towel.  He slipped on a pair of clean underwear and blue jeans before jerking open the door.

Renee stood outside with her arms crossed, tapping her foot.  “It’s about time.”

He saw her tilt her head as he walked past her.

“Did you do something different to your hair?”

“What book are we going to read tonight?” he asked, holding his dirty clothes under one arm.

“Do you mind if Greta reads to me?”

The slightest twinge of hurt came over him.  “No, I don’t mind,” he answered, bending down so she could give him a kiss on the cheek.

“Goodnight,” she said, before disappearing into the bathroom.

Ethan made his way to the railing and peered over the balcony.  He could see the light from the study shining underneath the door.  A small sigh escaped him.  As long as his father was in there it meant no TV—the sound from it bothered him.  Reluctantly, he turned and walked across the open hall to his bedroom.

“Are you going to bed as well?”

He stopped and looked over his shoulder.  Greta was making her way up the stairs.  “Yes,” he muttered, embarrassed that he didn’t have his shirt on.

Her long legs carried her swiftly to where he was standing.  “I was hoping that after I tuck Renee in, you and I could play a game of cards.”

“No, thank you,” he said, edging himself into his doorway.

Her smile wavered slightly as she nodded.  “I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

“Goodnight.”  He quickly stepped inside and shut his door.  He hoped he hadn’t appeared rude to her just now, but Renee was the one that needed a nanny, not him.

He tossed his clothes in the corner of his room that served as his hamper, and sat down on the edge of the bed.  He silently looked around the small space, searching for something to do.

After a moment, his eyes fell upon the book that his best friend, Griff, had loaned him.  He picked it up from off the floor and began thumbing through it.  All the pages containing the dirty parts had been folded at the corners, making for easy reading.

As he settled back against the pillow, he could hear Greta’s voice coming through the wall.  It was soft, sweet, and very attentive to Renee.

Suddenly uninterested in reading about the hero’s latest sexual conquest, he set the book on the nightstand and clicked off the lamp.  The moonlight shone through his tattered blinds as he lay in the darkness, listening.  He followed the narrow beam over to the painting that hung on the wall opposite his bed.

He slipped his hands behind his head as he stared at it.  There really wasn’t anything about the painting that he liked.  He perceived it only as a connection to his mother—an irrevocable link that couldn’t be broken.  He felt his heart beginning to stir.

One afternoon he had accompanied her to an art gallery with the promise of ice cream if he behaved while they were there.  He enthusiastically agreed, and did his best not to touch anything as they walked through the building’s enormous rooms.

The place was filled with oddities, ranging from the unusual to the downright bizarre.  They passed by a sculpture made of human skin, and stopped to look at what could only be described as a pile of junk.

He was growing quite bored with it all when he unexpectedly ran into the back of his mother’s legs.  She had come to a dead stop, her eyes, and mouth, wide open.  He followed her gaze, and there on the wall in front of them, hung the painting.

At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than just another strange work of art, but a closer look revealed it to be a brilliant object of illusion.  Something sinister seemed to be lurking just beneath the muted shades of blues and greens.  The images he saw on the canvas that day were dark and foreboding.  The heavy brush strokes were deliberate—as if they had been done in a moment of absolute rage.  It was something that he found to be hauntingly serene, and yet at the same time, very disturbing.

They had sat on the padded bench for close to an hour, an absolute eternity for an eight-year-old, while she admired it.

Two days later, it hung proudly over the sofa in their living room.  Sometimes he would walk in to find her staring at it, her eyes transfixed on something he couldn’t see.

A loud giggle from Renee followed by the sound of her door closing interrupted his thoughts.  He glanced towards his own door and saw Greta’s shadow pass by underneath it.

He turned over on his side and shut his eyes.  In the months following his mother’s death, he had clung to the painting like an emotional security blanket.  He used to run his hands along it when his father wasn’t around, touching it the way she had touched it, desperately wanting to feel her presence.

Then one afternoon he had come home from school to find a moving truck parked in their driveway.  The painting, along with everything else that made a house a home, had been boxed up, never to be unpacked again.

A few years ago, he had found it buried behind some boxes in the attic.  His father had been none too happy to see it in his room, but had let it remain nonetheless.

Ethan drew a deep breath and sighed.  It was the only picture hanging in this dismal house.

~

 Everett sat at his desk brooding over Conclave.  He had already counted the proceeds from selling them in this quarter’s profits—to have the deal fall through now would be damaging to his bottom line.

He finished his drink, trying to douse the anger that was building inside of him.  They had gone behind his back by filing the CVA.  If it was approved, it would keep them from having to file for bankruptcy, making his acquisition of them that much harder.

Picking up the phone, he quickly punched in the numbers he knew by heart.

“Hello?” said a tired voice.

“Clint, I need you to set up a meeting tomorrow with the owner of Leeds Shipping.”

There was a long pause as his beleaguered director searched to give him an answer.  “It’s nearly midnight.  I don’t think that I can—”

“I don’t care how late it is.  Just make it happen,” he said, slamming the receiver down.

There was a quiet knock upon the door.

Everett sighed and rubbed his eyes.  “Come in,” he said, reaching for the bottle next to him.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir.  But I would like to retire to bed if you don’t need me for anything else.”

“That’s fine,” he answered, refilling his glass.

Greta took another step into the room.  “Tomorrow, I would like to go to the market if that’s all right.  The cupboards are pretty bare.”

“Yes, I’m sure they are,” he said, pulling his checkbook from the middle drawer.  “I honestly don’t know how you cooked such a delicious dinner.”

“I improvised a little,” she murmured, sounding as if she were embarrassed by the compliment.

He signed his name to the check and tore it out of the book.  “Tell me, are you settling in all right?”

“Yes, sir.  Your children are very well behaved.  They haven’t given me any trouble.”

He arched his eyebrows at her.  “Give them a few days.”

A tiny laugh came out of her.  “Goodnight, Mr. Harrington.”

Once the door had closed, his thoughts immediately returned to Conclave.  He had to move quickly if he was going to salvage this deal, and going after Leeds seemed the logical choice.  But he had to be careful.  If he pissed them off, he ran the risk of having them run straight to Conclave.

He stared at the phone, wishing it would ring.  The sooner he heard back from Clint, the sooner he could start planning his strategy.

He finished his drink while he waited and glanced down at the calendar on his desk.  He had taped the newspaper clipping for the horse auction to it so he wouldn’t forget.

He leaned back in his chair and sighed.  The auction was for tomorrow at ten o’clock over in Sheffield, an hour’s drive from Manchester.  If he got the meeting with Leeds, he most likely would not be able to make it to the auction in time.

Guilt descended upon him.  Ethan had spent weeks cleaning out that filthy, manure-laden barn, making it spotless.  And he had done it all because of a promise that Everett had made to him several months ago.

There would be other auctions, but he hated the thought of disappointing him.  Yet, on the other hand, he had done it so often, that he felt Ethan had probably come to expect it by now.

 

Chapter Three 

 

Everett drove his car through the security gate of Leeds Shipping and followed the faded yellow signs for visitor parking.

Semi-trucks with trailers were backed up against the loading docks of the enormous warehouse, filling every open bay there was, while several rows of empty shipping containers sat parked at an angle on an adjacent gravel lot.

As he pulled into the car park, he saw his director waiting for him by the front entrance.

Clint took a long drag off his cigarette and tossed it on the pavement.  “Morning, sir.”

“Give me what you have,” he said, stepping up on the sidewalk.  He was in no mood for pleasantries.

“The owner’s name is Alex Leeds.  He’s third generation.  The company has turned a profit every quarter for the last twenty-five years,” he said, holding the door open for him.

“What about the upcoming one?”

A small smile spread across Clint’s face.  “Without payment from Conclave it will be considered a loss.”

This bit of dirt made Everett smile as well, and he felt himself relaxing just a bit as they made their way down a dimly-lit corridor.  He still had the upper hand even though the meeting was taking place here, instead of Harrington Enterprises.

As they walked along, Everett couldn’t help noticing the black and white photos that hung in succession on the dark paneled walls.  Each one depicted the company’s growth over the years.  Given the shipping industry’s volatile nature, the fact that Leeds had gone from a single truck with a canvas top, to the fleet of containers he had seen sitting outside today was impressive, to say the least.

The corridor eventually gave way to what he guessed to be the visitors’ lobby.  A secretary’s desk, with papers stacked neatly on top of it, sat vacant in the darkness.  More pictures, much like the ones in the hallway, adorned the small space.

He and Clint walked across the gold shag carpet and paused outside an open door.  Inside, a little man with coarse gray hair sat hunched over a desk.

Everett knocked on the doorjamb.  “Mr. Leeds?”

The man looked up.  “You must be Mr. Harrington.”  His voice was matter-of-fact.

Everett stepped forward and extended his hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.  This is Clint Owens, my director of finance.”

“Ah, yes.  We spoke last night on the phone.”

“Right.”  Clint nodded as he shook his hand.

Leeds led them over to a small table in the corner of the room and gestured for them to have a seat.

“Thank you for taking the time to see us,” Everett said.

Mr. Leeds shook his head as if to dismiss his statement.  “I’m usually here most Saturdays.”

Everett did a quick evaluation of the old man as they sat down.  A dated tie, with a brown stain right in the middle of it, highlighted his ensemble, which consisted of a thin, wrinkled button-down and a torn pocket protector.  This signified to him that he obviously cared more about his business than his appearance.

On the wall behind his desk hung a colored portrait of a gentleman with a long handlebar mustache.  The resemblance to Mr. Leeds was uncanny, and he guessed him to be his grandfather.  Smaller pictures of a boy and girl sat on a battered credenza underneath it, yet there was no wedding band on Leeds’ finger.  Everett found himself hoping that the man’s devotion to his company would ultimately play out to his advantage.

Mr. Leeds cleared what could only be described as the sound of phlegm from his throat as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.

Everett waited until he had lit one before speaking.  “I’m going to get right down to business, Mr. Leeds, as I’m sure your time is valuable.”

He blew the smoke out of the side of his mouth before answering.  “I’m assuming you’re here because of Conclave.”

Everett hesitated.  Leeds had obviously done his homework.  “Are you aware that they have filed an application for a CVA under the Insolvency Act?”

The old man leaned back in his chair.  “Yes, I’m aware.  I have a meeting with them next week to discuss terms.”

Clint sat forward.  “In order for the Company Voluntary Arrangement to be approved, at least seventy-five percent of Conclave’s creditors have to agree to their payment structure.”

“I’m aware of how it works, Mr. Owens.  Conclave isn’t the first company that’s owed us money.”  He brought his hand to his lips and extracted the cigarette.  “I also know that if we agree to their terms it will halt your purchase of them.”

Everett kept his face expressionless.  Keeping your emotions off the table was the third rule of business.  “I have a proposal for you, Mr. Leeds.  Something that I believe will benefit the both of us.”

The old man raised his eyebrow.  “I’m listening.”

“If you vote against the CVA application, Conclave will have no choice but to go ahead with the sale to Harrington Enterprises.  I’ll then see that your debt is paid in full by the end of June.”

Leeds narrowed his eyes.  “That may give us a short-term benefit, Mr. Harrington.  But we export fifteen to twenty containers a day for Conclave, and I know that you’ll sell them off piece by piece.  That will inevitably leave us out in the cold.”

Everett heard the disdain in his voice.  It was obvious that his loyalties lay with Conclave.  “There are bigger fish in the sea for you to catch,” he said after the dust had settled.

Bigger than Conclave?”  Leeds shook his head and laughed.  “All right, Mr. Harrington.  I’ll bite.  Who did you have in mind?”

“Sol Enterprises.”

Leeds stopped laughing.

The room had grown so quiet that Everett could almost hear the old man’s rapid heartbeat.  “I’m currently negotiating their sale to a private investor.  I can stipulate in the contract that Leeds Shipping will be their freight forwarder for a period of no less than two years.  That should give you enough time to prove yourself.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Clint giving him an incredulous look.  He ignored it, being far more interested in the smile that had spread across Leeds’ face.

~

Everett checked his watch as he made his way across the parking lot.  If he hurried, he could still make the auction.  “I’ll see you Monday,” he said, giving Clint a quick nod.

“Sir?”  He stepped off the sidewalk and followed him to his car.  “Sol Enterprises is discontinuing their fabric line in October.”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Everett said, unlocking his door.

“That accounts for ninety percent of their exports.”

Everett tossed his briefcase onto the seat.  “Well, that will be most unfortunate for Mr. Leeds.”

Something between a laugh and a scoff came out of Clint as he shook his head.  “I’ll see you Monday,” he said, walking away.

Clint’s disapproval came as no surprise to Everett, and the guilt that shown on his director’s face was the reason that he would never advance much further at Harrington Enterprises.  A conscience had to be checked at the door if you were going to succeed in this business, and Clint had neither the stomach, nor the heart for it.

 

Chapter Four 

 

Ethan lovingly guided the brush along the front of the horse’s neck and chest.  Late this afternoon, his father had surprised him with a three-year-old gelded American Warmblood.

“Is it a boy or girl?”

“Boy.”

“Does he have a name?”

He stopped to bang the bristles against his jeans.  “No.”

“I think we should call him Buttercup.”

He glanced over at Renee.  She had been patiently sitting on the top rail of the fence, watching.  “That’s a girl’s name.”

“Buttercup can be for a boy, too,” she answered defensively.

He wiped the sweat from his face and turned his attention back to his horse.  He had learned a long time ago that arguing with his sister was nothing but a waste of breath, because the only point she ever saw was her own.

He leaned over and ran his hand down the animal’s right leg, inspecting the hoof.  It was long and jagged, just like the other three.  Manure, so old it resembled tar, was stuck to the back of its hindquarters.

The man who delivered the horse told Ethan that its owner had died a few months ago, and that the man’s children, not wanting to be burdened with caring for a farm or its livestock, had arranged for the auction.  There was no doubt in Ethan’s mind that his father had gotten a good deal.

Renee suddenly jumped down from the fence.  “Greta’s home!”

He looked towards the house.  Greta was walking across the backyard alongside his father.  From this distance, it appeared that she was upset, but she was too far away to be certain.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Renee said, running up to greet her.  “I missed you.”

“I was only gone for a couple of hours,” she answered with a laugh.

Ethan peered at her from behind the horse’s long neck.  He could hear the tension in her voice.

“Come and see,” Renee said, leading her over to the fence.

Greta placed her hands on the wooden post.  “He’s magnificent,” she replied, smiling at Ethan as she spoke.

He tried to maintain an air of maturity, but felt himself breaking out into a wide grin.

His father opened the gate for her.  “Would you like to take a closer look?”

“No, thank you,” she said softly.  “I’ll stay on this side of him.”

Ethan saw the unsteadiness in his father’s steps as he walked across the pasture.  “Well, what do you think?” he asked, when he had drawn near.

“I like him,” Ethan replied, noticing that the horse towered above his father’s six-foot frame.

“He’s a fine specimen,” he said proudly, patting the horse roughly on the side of its rump.

Ethan smiled, feeling a connection to his father that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I think we should name him Buttercup,” Renee said, wiggling in between them.  “What do you think, Dad?”

Ethan stepped to the left in order to keep her from trampling on his foot.  His sister had always been fiercely jealous of their father’s love, and her sudden interruption indicated that she felt he had shown him enough attention for now.

I think that it’s up to your brother to name him,” he answered with a wink.

Greta cleared her throat.  “I’m going to go start dinner.”

“Wait, I’m coming with you,” said Renee.

“You be sure and do what Greta says,” Everett called out to her as she traipsed over to the gate.

“She’ll be fine, sir,” Greta answered, taking Renee by the hand.

Ethan noticed the unsettled look she had upon her face as she turned towards the house.

“’Bye, Buttercup,” Renee called over her shoulder.

Ethan slid the brush along the horse’s back as he watched them go.  His father’s drunkenness was obviously upsetting to Greta, but it was nothing new to him.  It was an everyday occurrence, and something that happened as naturally as the sunrise.  The only unpredictable aspect of it all was his mood, and that was solely dependent upon whether or not it had been a good day at work.

His father shook his head and laughed.  “I think you’re going to have a hard time naming him anything any different.”

Ethan turned to look at him; his eyes were bright, his face cheery.  Today, it seemed, had been a good day.

“I’ll see you later,” he said, heading towards the fence.  “I’ve got some things to take care of in the study.”  He leaned heavily against the wooden slats as he began fumbling with the latch.

Ethan tossed the brush on the ground and went to help.  “Let me get it,” he said, jerking up on the bar.

The gate swung open and his father stumbled through.

“Dad?”

He stopped and looked at him expectantly.

The words Ethan wanted to say became stuck in his throat.  “Thanks,” he said, after a moment.

His father’s face went blank.  “When school starts back, I expect you to keep your grades up like you promised.”

“I will.”

He turned away again.  “Don’t stay out here all night.”

As Ethan watched him weaving his way across the yard, he began to think that maybe he’d imagined the connection.  He slipped his fingers underneath the horse’s halter and tugged.  “Come on, boy.”

The horse resisted at first, but with a little more coaxing, began to move.

Ethan could feel something hard pressing against his knuckles as he led him towards the barn.  Once inside, he lifted the leather strap up to see what it was.  A scab, about the size of his thumbnail, sat just below his left eye.

Ethan unbuckled the halter and pulled it off to get a better look.  There was a matching sore underneath his other eye as well.  He turned the harness over in his hands and saw that the metal pins holding it together had poked through their worn straps.

He reached out to examine the wounds, but the horse drew its head back and let out a loud snort.  Not wanting to upset him any further, he lowered his hand and his voice.  “It’s all right, boy.”

The animal shifted its front feet and pawed at the dirt floor.

Ethan began stroking the side of his neck.  It was the one place he didn’t seem to mind being touched.  “I know it’s hard being in a strange place,” he whispered.  “But I won’t hurt you.  I promise.”

 

Chapter Five

 

Everett pressed his back farther into the plaid covered chair as he stole a glance at the clock on the wall.  He figured it would be less noticeable than checking his watch.

Across the room, his children sat on the sofa making idle conversation with their grandparents.  Ethan was attentive and polite, but looked about as uncomfortable as Everett felt.

Renee, on the other hand, seemed to be basking in all the attention she was getting.  If it was one thing she loved, it was a captive audience.  At the moment, she was in the midst of telling them a story that everyone, including himself, had forgotten the point of five minutes ago.

Grigorio interceded when she finally paused to take a breath.  “It sounds like you’ve been enjoying your summer.”

“I have,” she replied, smiling broadly at her grandfather.  “And guess what?”

“What?”

“Greta is taking me swimming next week.”

“Who is Greta?”

“Our new nanny.”

Grigorio shifted his gaze to Everett.

“You should meet her,” Renee continued.  “She’s really nice.”

“I’d love to,” he said, returning his attention to her.  “And what about you, Ethan?  Are you having a nice summer?”

“He got a horse.”

“Renee, let your brother answer for himself.”

“Sorry.”

Everett sighed inwardly, knowing that she really wasn’t.

“What kind of horse is it?” asked Grigorio.

Ethan leaned forward in order to see around Renee.  “An American Warmblood.”

Their grandmother reached out and placed her hand on her husband’s arm.  “Chto on skazal?

Grigorio paused to answer her in his native tongue.

“Ah, loshad’,” she said smiling at Ethan.

Grigorio and Raisa Nisselovich had emigrated here from Russia when their daughter was just an infant.  Raisa had not wanted to come, and stubbornly refused to learn the language.  Everett knew it had been a source of constant embarrassment for Natalia.

Renee touched her grandfather on his knee.  “Guess what happened to me the other day?”

“What?”

Everett propped his arm up on the side of the chair as she launched into telling them another long-winded story.  She was absolutely ignorant of the fact that no one in the room was listening.

When the tale finally ended, Raisa was the first one to speak.  She uttered something to Grigorio, and waited patiently for him to translate.

“Raisa wants to know how you are doing, Everett.”

He glanced over at his mother-in-law.  The resentment she harbored for him was etched deep in the lines on her face.  He cleared his throat.  “Spasiba, harasho.”  Over the years, he had picked up a few phrases.

His answer however, seemed to light a fire under her.  She breathed in sharply and said something that made Grigorio turn his head.

Nyet.

Raisa continued to rant while pointing her finger at Everett.

Nyet!” repeated Grigorio.

Ethan and Renee sank back against the couch, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire.

The woman raised her voice another octave, making it shake.  “Sprosite yego!

Grigorio hung his head and sighed in defeat.  When he looked up at Everett, his eyes were moist.  “She wants to know if you remember what today is.”

Everett fought to control his anger.  “Of course I do.”

Raisa stood up and grabbed Renee by the hand.  She rattled off something as she began pulling her towards the kitchen.

“Your grandmother made you some cookies,” Grigorio explained in a weary voice.

The woman gestured impatiently at Ethan with her other hand.  “Davai.”

Everett saw his son look his way, seeking affirmation.  He gave him a short nod and watched as he reluctantly followed the two of them through the doorway.

“I apologize,” Grigorio said in his broken accent.  “This week has been very hard on her.”

Everett clenched his jaw as another wave of anger surged through him.  Coming here had been a mistake.  He knew it would be, but didn’t want to deny Ethan and Renee the opportunity of seeing their grandparents.

“How is your business going?”

“It’s doing well.”  His words came out clipped.

Grigorio gestured towards the kitchen.  “The children seem to be adjusting.”

“Yes, they are.  They are both doing very well,” he said definitively.

Pictures of Natalia adorned the tables and walls of the small living room.  They hung there like a black cloud, an ever-present reminder that she was gone.

Everett drew a deep breath, feeling as if he were suffocating.  “How’s the dry cleaning business?”

“Things are good,” replied Grigorio.

The two men fell silent, having said all that they needed to say to one another seven years ago.

He watched his father-in-law grab hold of his wrist and pull it farther up his lap.  Last year he had suffered a stroke, rendering his left arm useless.  It had forced him into semi-retirement, which Everett felt only added to the misery in this household.

Renee emerged from the tiny kitchen, her mouth covered in chocolate.

Grigorio looked over and smiled.  “How were the cookies?”

“Good,” she replied, as Raisa and Ethan followed behind her.

Feeling that this would be a good time to leave, Everett rose from the chair.  “We should be going.”


 

I hope you liked what you’ve read so far! Please find the links to purchase below:

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One thought on “Chapters 1 – 5 Seasons of Darkness

  1. Pingback: Tall, Dark, & Troubled | Belinda G. Buchanan – Author – Blog

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