The radio was on pretty damn loud. I didn't bother reaching out to turn it down. The noise calmed me as I parked the rental car outside the glass business building proclaiming the law offices of Mercer and Huntson.
The secretary at the reception gave me nothing more than a cursory glance. I tightened my hold on the folder I carried with me, feeling awkward and unsure of how to proceed. When came the helpful "How may I help you?"
Instead, I walked up to her and smiled, "Hi, I have an appointment to see Mrs. Mercer. Is she in?"
"Well, if you made an appointment, she would be in." Smile brightly. "She's in a meeting right now, but I'll let her know you're here when she's done."
I paused before saying "Thank you" and sitting down on one of the leather seats positioned in the office. I took the time to go through my folder and by the time I finished, the door to what I assumed was Mrs. Mercer's office clicked open. A man walked out and met my eyes momentarily.
The secretary cut in with, "Everything settled, Mr. Druone?"
The man, Mr. Druone, swiveled towards the secretary and a smile slipped on his face, "Yes, thanks, Gloria. I'll see you next time, yeah?"
His Australian accent felt foreign in such an American setting. Secretary Gloria gave a self-conscious smile and waved him out the door. As he passed me, he gave a slight smile and a nod before heading out.
Secretary Gloria seemed to remember me, and pursed her lips before contacting the woman whose ad I had answered. It requested an in-home housekeeper contracted for at least a year. Janice would like that sort of security.
"Mrs. Mercer has been expecting you. She's waiting in her office right now."
I thanked her, and opened the door to a beautifully bland office with marble walls and a glass-slated desk in the center. Certificates adorned the walls, and I noticed a photo of a man holding a twin boy and girl, with three other boys no more than 15 standing beside him. I assumed this was Mrs. Mercer's family. Mrs. Mercer herself sat expectantly before her desk, her chestnut hair cut straight across her chin, pointed like a deceptive dagger. Her eyes were glints that followed the blade, efficient makeup rimming the blue and slicing her cheekbones, her face that of a staccato cat.
"Hello," Mrs. Mercer sent me what must have qualified to her as a smile, "You must be Lydia."
I shook her smooth hand, "Yes. It's nice to meet you. I talked to you recently on the phone. Did you receive our faxed resume?"
"Unfortunately, I didn't."
I suspected Janice would forget to send it. "Oh, our fax machine must be malfunctioning again."
I handed my folder to her, and she spoke to me as she retrieved the sheets of paper, filed nails simultaneously slipping on a pair of narrow glasses. "So, how old are you again, Lisa?"
"Lydia," I corrected her, and she glanced up at me with drawn eyebrows. "My name is Lydia."
"Of course. So how old are you, dear?"
"I'm 17 next March."
"I didn't ask your next birthday. I asked your age."
"So…your mother–Janice Gerarde, is it?" she raised her eyes, and I nodded the affirmative. "You and your mother have had quite some experience over the past…three years? A pretty good track record for a single mother and a child not even 16 at the time."
I repeated my rehearsed lines, but Mrs. Mercer glanced distractedly at something blinking on her computer. It seemed as if she'd already made up her mind and was going through the perfunctory questions.
"You understand I am at liberty to change the time period on the contract at my own discretion?"
I bit my tongue, "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Mercer nodded in satisfaction, "One last question, Ms. Gerarde: where is your mother?"
The lie rolled easily off my tongue, and I reassured her that she would soon recover from her cold.
"That's good to hear. Now how soon could you and your mother move in?"
"Excellent. How does this weekend sound – say, Saturday afternoon? My children will be returning from holidays and you can meet them all then."
That was much too easy, and I didn't want to push my luck, but the next question was necessary. "Um…Mrs. Mercer?"
She looked up.
"I wondered if I could bring up an issue with the living arrangements."
She frowned, "We'll put you in service rooms in the left wing. There's nothing to worry about – our last housekeeper was competent in the upkeep."
"Oh, it's not that. I'm wondering if it's at all possible to…include a third person?"
Mrs. Mercer didn't say anything at first. "A third person."
I nodded. "My sister."
The woman tapped impatiently against her polished desk. "Why was there no mention of her before now?"
I explained, and when she asked Marie-Clare's age, my answer only prompted her to ask, "And pray tell, what would your sister be doing while you two worked? Painting her nails?"
"I'm just asking your permission for her to stay with us at your house." After a pause, "I'm just trying to keep us together."
Ice returned my gaze for a moment. Then Mrs. Mercer pushed my hurriedly typed files away to a corner of her desk. "A third room will be prepared for your sister, Ms. Gerarde."
"Thank you." She must have been pretty desperate to give us the job so easily. Was it so cynical of me to wonder why?
When I entered the motel room, I heard the TV running and assumed either Janice or Marie-Clare was home. Silently, I slipped my flats off and unclipped my hair.
Janice's blond head intruded into my view, "Did we get the job?"
"Yes," I sighed. "And before I forget, you didn't fax our resume to her like I asked."
Janice blinked in incomprehension and then recalled my reminder. "Ohhh…oh, I'm sorry, sweetie. What did you do?"
"I retyped and printed a spare," I didn't mention that someone had deleted it, since she was the only other person with access to my laptop.
"Oh…well then why are you yelling at me? You wrote a new one anyway – obviously you expected me to forget– and besides, it got us the job!"
"I wasn't yelling," I said absently, then smiled. "Should I start on dinner, or is Marie-Clare still out?"
"Oh, your sister should be in her room." Janice winked, "She's in there with Chris, so remember to knock first. Why do you think I have the TV on?"
At the door to her room, I knocked a few times extra and called out, "Marie-Clare! We got the job, and I'm going to start dinner -"
"Hello," the door opened suddenly to reveal Chris, a sophomore in college, and Marie-Clare's boyfriend for the two months of summer we'd been staying in this city. "If it isn't everyone's favorite little nag."
Marie-Clare appeared behind him, and I was glad to notice that all parts were covered.
"I was just heading out," Chris said as he looked me up and down. I tugged self-consciously on my pencil skirt and crossed my arms over my chest. "Lookin' good."
"Sorry I can't say the same."
Chris shrugged and slipped on his shoes before he left.
"Do you really have to be so rude all the time, Lydia?"
I turned towards my sister disbelievingly, "You don't mind your boyfriend checking your sister out?"
She shrugged, "He's not my boyfriend." And you're not my sister, we both finished mentally.
"Marie-Clare! Guess what, honey?" Janice appeared from behind me, "Your sister got the job!"
"Nice," Marie-Clare brushed past me. "I'm heading out tonight with a couple of people before you cart me off with you and Mom again." She shoved on a pair of heels before she promptly filed out, assumedly to follow Chris.
There was a short silence before Janice broke it to say, "I really do love your hair, Lydia. Why is it never down?"
I looked around the cramped and temporary living space, "Let's start packing."
"No, really, honey," Janice reached out for my head, and I ducked around to get to my suitcase. I had hoped not to stay long enough for me to unpack, and it rested conveniently by my makeshift couch-bed.
"Now that you don't color it all sorts of colors, you can almost see some blond in there."
She backed to the kitchen when I didn't reply. "Well, maybe if you look really hard, anyway."
Janice flitted about in the kitchen, and I knew she hungered for a quick snack, but I had not had time to shop this morning. Finally, this woman who donated half her genes to me cast a frown in my direction, her startling blue eyes—a trait neither Marie-Clare nor I had inherited—making even that expression look lovely.
"There is nothing in these pantries, Lydia."
"Yes, I know, but we're moving out as soon as possible," I refrained from mentioning our shrinking wallet, inevitable when none of us could find a job. The motel room itself proved difficult to manage, especially with our a.c. unit breaking so frequently, and only a lazy ceiling fan that occasionally shut off when left on too long. It tended to spook Marie-Clare, who would deny to her dying day that she believed in superstitions—not that it stopped her from hating scary stories or movies that involved them.
"Well then," Janice clapped her hands together, "I guess we should pack and get out of this hellhole! We need to find some place with food."
We really didn't lay claim to much, I considered, as Janice and I dragged our luggage out of the cab. Marie-Clare had borrowed the station wagon I bought with Mrs. Mercer's advance payment, and she hadn't returned when we were ready to leave this morning. Janice had laughed and said to let her live it up before school, a school that Mrs. Mercer had recommended and, in fact, had "taken care of" for us.
There wasn't enough luggage to bother the driver with getting out to help, but he did so anyway. I wryly wondered if he thought we belonged to this house. On the slow ride up the expanse of driveway, I even observed a small lake off the right side of a bend. Curving left again, the sight of the house loomed like a lonely specter, and I couldn't stop staring at it. What was it like to live there? Were they isolated? Happy? Simply drunk off their luxury? The cab driver seemed to expect something more, but I could only give him the intended tip—we didn't belong to this house, and our wallets proved it.
I watched the driver leave; he drove past the fanciful steel gates, their upper bars curving into a centerfold over the opening. At the moment, the gates were closing, pushing the driver out and enclosing us on this little green island. Wrought-iron staked claims all around the landscape, disappearing around the sides into what I assumed would be more entrenching greenery.
"Can you imagine living here?" Janice expelled on a loud sigh. I gave a small smile.
"I guess we'll find out what it's like."
I hefted my overstuffed book bag higher up on my shoulder, and lugged my other bags up the steps. They made just the slightest sounds against the polished marble, and something inside me gave a soft flutter at the unbearable beauty of my surroundings, or maybe that was nerves. It was like this amazing house expected something from me—towering over me with window-eyes that asked "How will you serve me?"
"I'll keep you clean," I muttered.
The flat steps encircled grand mahogany doors with ornate scrolls for handles. One of those doors drew open just as my sneakers reached the top step. Janice still had another bag sitting at the foot of the steps, but we both immediately focused on the sharp woman standing before us. High heels rested imperiously on the threshold above us, tracing their line up to a cool pink pinstripe suit. A shimmering hummingbird lay decorously across her left lapel.
"Hello, Lisa. Janice. I've been expecting you two. Come." She turned and disappeared with her heels clacking smartly.
Janice sent me a bemused smile. "Lisa?"
"Never mind. Let's go in."
And we left what little luggage we had in the empty foyer, decorated only with a stand upon which sat a vase of flowers. The emptiness called attention to the unending space that expanded left to right, top to bottom, all encased in marble and glossy wood.
"Let me get Malec to help you with your things. Mal!" She pressed a button on an intercom as she called the name. I stepped up to the flowers briefly. Fake. But they faded well with the interiors of the house. Things worked here.
Mrs. Mercer's eyes came to Janice, who was busily inspecting the ceiling chandelier, her tanned neck craning upwards as if it thought to stretch itself into a swan. Her chest swelled outwards, and perhaps a swan could have pulled the move off, but as it was, Janice's breasts were not made of feathers.
"Mrs. Gerarde," Mrs. Mercer called. Janice looked expectantly at the smart-suited woman. "I expect you and your daughter will find everything in order. I hope your cold has left by now. Malec's my third son. I've asked him to show you around should you need anything. I don't have much time today, but my eldest son Jeremiah should bring the rest of my children within the hour."
Janice simply nodded and exclaimed, "Oh, good!"
I murmured, "Thank you, Mrs. Mercer," thankful that Janice only expressed a brief confusion over the mention of a cold. The mention of males tended to cheer her up.
A tall young man suddenly appeared at the top of the stately stairs, and he arched an eyebrow when he saw who his mother asked him to entertain.
"Why, Mother, are these esteemed guests?"
I didn't look up, not when mockery was teeming in the air above me.
"This is our new housekeeper and her daughter. By the way, Mrs. Gerarde—may I call you Janice? Janice, where is your second daughter?"
At this, Janice grinned, "She's run off briefly with a boy of hers, but she'll make it back in her own time."
Mrs. Mercer didn't seem to miss a beat with this off-hand account of a girl's whereabouts, "I leave you to help her settle when she arrives then."
I snatched up our baggage. "Of course. She'll be here by tomorrow night. Where should we take our things?"
Malec's head looked like it had been dipped in chocolate, and his rather slanted eyes spoke of their heritage. He was blatantly handsome. And oh, he knew it. The house must have been proud. He crooked his hand up the stairs, but his lidded eyes were closed and opaque. To go or not to go?
"My name is Lydia. This is Janice."
"Malec Mercer. Pleasure." His deep voice came smoothly, his eyes lit. I didn't blame him; even at 35, Janice appealed to a majority of men. But my bigger worry represented Marie-Clare.
Janice followed demurely along after Malec took her bags, only to interrupt her silence with, "You're quite a beautiful boy, aren't you?"
Malec Mercer winked at this lady with white-blonde hair and greedy eyes, a smile curling in a corner of his wide lush mouth.
"Thank you. May I return the compliment?" An almost knowing smirk accompanied this statement.
"Yes, you may," Janice returned, never immune to an attractive male.
We began walking to what I supposed was the left wing, stopping at my room first, since it was closer to the main stairwell. I discovered that there was a closed door leading down a smaller back stairway—granting me access to the house without having to cross the foyer whenever I needed to venture downstairs. I heard Malec take Janice to her room a couple feet down the hallway from me. The walls shone spotlessly, and the floors gleamed just as much as in the foyer. I found my way back to the banister, where I caught Mrs. Mercer's eyes strung to mine. I started down.
"Mrs. Mercer—" I began.
"Did I hear your mother correctly?"
How to respond when your mother hits on your client's son?
Mrs. Mercer straightened her pink sheath. "Lisa. When I spoke with you, I hired you upon the impression of efficiency. I would not normally hire a girl as young as yourself with a mother absent from the interview. I do not intend to bring distractions to my boys. Is that understood?"
Oh, she would not like Marie-Clare. "Of course."
"Should I perceive any problems?"
Perhaps I could hide her. "No, of course not."
"I'm glad to hear this, Lisa. You understand I'll hold you responsible?"
I nodded. Then, "Ma'am."
"My name is Lydia." I met her eyes. "I just figured that if we're going to have an actual understanding, names might be good."
I smiled easily to let her know that no harm was done. She nodded neutrally and then asked if I'd be so good as to retrieve her son for her.
"No need to fetch me, Mother, here I am," came a lazy drawl to my right. I turned my head to find Malec's dirty blond head pointed down towards his mother. He was just a few feet apart from me, and I took the moment to study his features. They were strong and angular, but something seemed harsh for a brief moment. But that glimpse was gone from his eyes as soon as I thought I saw it. Even his hands, I noticed, were beautiful, as they engulfed the railing beneath them, but they looked deceptive: thick and capable—ready to shake hands with a businessman and to strike a man down.
"I need to see to some investors, but see to it that Lis—Lydia and her mother get that housekeeping list, and show them the essentials, will you, dear?"
After Mrs. Mercer clicked her way off, Malec turned towards me with a practiced grin. "Think my room's an essential?"
A/n: Finally posting one of my chapter stories! :) This is the only one in which I've progressed decently far, but I'd like to post others that I've had lying in my comp. I'm actually no longer very fond of first-person, but it was how I'd written this, so I continued it that way. I sometimes catch myself slipping into third-person present; I seem to prefer that now (see Experiment in Magical Realism or I think I titled it Redeeming on FP.)
Please let me know what you think! The next chapter introduces the rest of the Mercers; they're so lovely, even damaged~~I hope you love them as much as I do.
Thanks for reading (=