Chap 4

Home.

I opened the veranda doors in the main hallway, walking out onto the large stone patio, two wide stairwells splitting in opposite directions. I leaned against the concrete, breathing in the light breeze that flipped my ponytail up like a whip. The gardens immediately past the stairs rose in confusing patterns, but observed from the second floor, you could see their perfect symmetry. Paths of cobble stones paved trails between trees. I sighed when I heard the twins storm into the house, and I retreated back inside.

Janice appeared with a big smile on her lovely face when I returned to the kitchen.

"Hello, dear, did you make anything for dinner yet?"

"It's not even four," I told her. "But there's some leftover food."

Janice scrunched her nose and slid into a stool. "Well, I vacuumed today. I think that's pretty good for the day."

"Did you sweep the left wing?"

"Wasn't that your job?"

"I swept the right wing."

Janice rolled her eyes and retrieved the broom and dustpan. The left wing seemed much less used, so if Janice gave it a quick sweep, it should be ok. I hoped Mrs. Mercer wouldn't notice too much upkeep—or lack thereof—on that side.

I realized my mistake later while making dinner. Janice came in, hair in an unnatural gleaming mess, making a halo appear around her head. She held the broom and pan away from her body.

"You gave me the dustiest areas to sweep, didn't you?"

She glared at me, "Is this payback, Lydia? Taking you and Marie-Clare back in wasn't enough for you?"

I put my bowl of peach down, "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd…" How could I say I didn't think she'd actually sweep thoroughly? I heard footsteps coming from the opened garage-door, and I knew one of the Mercers had come home.

Janice didn't seem to notice, but she did seem to understand my implication, because it made her all the more indignant, "You didn't think I'd—what? That I'd actually do a good job? While you're in here playing chef," she looked pointedly at the bowl in front of me, and I bit my lip.

"Why don't you just rub down the banisters? I'll finish sweeping." I saw Core and Malec coming in through the doorway, and even then, it struck me that neither spoke to the other.

Janice threw the pan and broom against the wall, dust flying out in a short radius, "I've already done enough today, Lydia. Next time you want to split things evenly, then call me."

I quickly murmured, "I'm really sorry. Can you call Marie-Clare for me?"

Janice huffed, then turned as Core and Malec entered the kitchen space. My eyes closed involuntarily. She would never forgive me for letting these boys see her in such a mess. But I felt relieved that they didn't hear our conversation.

"I'm sure Marie-Clare will be hungry soon. I'll let you guys know when dinner's ready."

Janice seemed to recover, washing her hands and brushing her hair down, "That sounds fine, honey. Hello, boys."

A friendly "Hi, Janice," from Malec, and a slight nod of acknowledgement from Core.

I cleaned up the spray of dust and wiped my hands with a rag. "I hope you guys are hungry. I want to finish the lasagna from yesterday, and I'm also frying some chicken and making peach crumble."

Malec raised an eyebrow, quirking his mouth in the corner, "Don't you think you're going overboard with the food?"

I shrugged, "Sometimes. But you guys seem to eat a lot when I'm not looking, so I'm not too worried." In fact, about two-thirds of the lasagna had been devoured, and I knew Jaz and Emily, as well as Janice, had dug in.

"I just wish you all would eat at more regular times."

Core walked out silently, holding simply a small binder and pen under his arm. Did he only take that to school?

I watched him, struggling to pinpoint what drew me to him. He wasn't as beautiful as either of his brothers-it was something rougher in his appearance-the vibe that he lacked empathy for others.

And he made me curious.

Malec watched him go as well, then turned to me as he slid onto a barstool at the kitchen island, letting his own bag drop to the floor. I concentrated on dinner while Malec studied the counter.

"Look, I owe you an apology."

I looked up, surprised.

"Last night."

I blinked. "You were drunk."

His hand went through his streaked hair, "Yeah, I know, but…I don't—"

"It's fine." Without moving my head from squinting at the dessert, I glanced up and repeated his words, "It wasn't my first time, you know." Pausing, I added, "Dealing with a drunk, I mean."

Malec chuckled, "Fair enough. Anyway, I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that kind of treatment. So how was the first day of school for you, little housekeeper?"

"I think you're the first to ask me that, you know," I said, moving to check on the oil heating over the oven, "It was fine. How was yours?"

Malec shrugged, "It was nice seeing everyone again."

"You seem to know a lot of people," I observed.

"Stalking me, sweetheart?"

"I share at least two classes with you." I thought a moment, "And lunch."

"Getting my hopes up," Malec teased, then sniffed as I threw the chicken into the oil. "That smells really good, actually. Maybe I'll stay to eat this time."

I smiled absently at the chicken, maneuvering it, "I would think after practice, you'd be hungry."

"Ahh, soccer practice. It's too bad basketball doesn't start until November."

"You like basketball better?"

Malec stretched, "Nah. Basketball's just bigger at this school. More attention."

"And who can say no to attention?" I murmured.

He chuckled, "For the school, it's a good boost. It makes us look less like spoiled brats, like we can do something worth paying attention to, you know?"

"I heard you're captain of the soccer team," I offered in an attempt to make him stop looking at me like that.

Malec grinned, "Gossiping about me?"

An unflattering sound came out of my mouth before I could stop, "Try again. Josh was just telling me about the school's teams."

Malec leaned back, "Ah, Josh. I wondered where he went at lunch. He sat with you, huh?" Something in his voice made me look at him. "Must not have seen your sister first."

I turned back to the chicken in the pan without a response, until Malec observed, "If you keep stabbing the chicken like that, I don't think there'll be much left to eat for dinner."

I didn't have to meet his eyes to hear the amusement latent in his voice.

Malec slapped his hands on the counter as he stood up, "Call me for dinner. I'll come down."

That brought a smile to my face. And then it widened when I realized that this was the first decent conversation I'd had with a Mercer since moving in. I looked up to watch Malec stroll out the kitchen, whistling a light tune.

.

And Malec did, in fact, come down when I called him. I tried Emily and Jaz next. Jaz's was the first room down, and I knocked quietly before opening the door to his "What."

"Hey," I said, "I made fried chicken and peach crumble. Hungry at all?"

Jaz's green eyes didn't even look up from his television screen, a pull of his brows the only indication of his feelings about my showing up—or perhaps he had died in his game. "No, I already ate."

I stared at his boyish face and the ink-colored hair covering the nape of his neck. I thought about how I once brushed and cut similar hair, and my hand tightened on his door handle.

A curse escaped his lips and he jerked at his controller. I bit my tongue to keep from chastising him; he would instantly resent my presence. He looked directly at me now, frowning, "What? I said I'm not hungry."

I nodded toward the pile of games and game systems sitting in front of his television, recognizing a few. "You've played all of them?"

Jaz observed the pile himself, "Yeah. I've beat all of them. Well, mostly."

I turned my gaze to his television, surprised that I recognized the game. "Halo? Do you just play online?"

Jaz looked surprised, "You play?"

A smile touched my lips as I stared at the screen, "I used to. I sucked at it."

I grinned at him when he laughed. When he finally met my eyes again, I arched an eyebrow, "If you got Super Smash, I kicked butt with Ness."

He grinned automatically, "I bet you play like a girl."

That brought my hands to my hips, "And I could kick your butt as a girl, too."

The smile on his face was so new and so beautiful that I wanted to keep it there. "You want to play me? We could play a one-on-one." His eyes seemed to glow with the prospect, and I wondered if he ever played with his brothers or friends.

I looked around his room, pretending to assess my options, then met his curious glance, "What do I get if I win?"

Jaz blinked such large and surprised eyes, then looked around the way I had, searching for something.

My eyes landed on his empty and clean desk, "Just out of curiosity, have you done your homework already, or is your desk always that clean?"

Jaz shrugged, intangibly closing himself off from me. "I didn't do it." He met my eyes, "But there's no point in nagging me. I never do."

I blinked, "Your teachers don't mind?"

He looked back at his television, "They've complained to Mother, but she said my grades are fine. They are."

I rolled my eyes, then declared, "Alright, if I win, you do your homework."

Jaz made such an ugly face at that that I laughed. "What? No, that's—"

"Think you'll lose?" I asked him innocently.

That stopped him, and he scoffed, sending me such a disgusted look that I laughed again. He declared, "Then, if I win…you have to play with me everyday no matter how much work you have."

I wondered if I could find a way to lose to him while gaining my own prize. "How long?"

Jaz frowned thoughtfully, "For a month!" This boy was not demanding.

"How long every day?"

"Um…an hour?" He looked questioningly at me, and I sighed for his benefit.

"Fine. It's a deal."

"What are you doing bothering my brother?" piped a high voice from behind me. I turned to find Mrs. Mercer's bright blue eyes staring at me from within Emily's heart-shaped face.

"I made fried chicken and peach crumble. I thought you guys might like to eat some dinner."

Emily passed me further into Jaz's room, flopping onto his rumpled bed. "We're not hungry; we already ate."

I shrugged, "Well, if either of you get hungry…" and Jaz was watching me as I closed the door to his room.

When I realized both Janice and Marie-Clare had disappeared, I returned to the kitchen, cheering up when I found Malec scarfing down fried chicken and lasagna.

He looked up, "What took you so long? I'm half done."

Malec nodded at one of the stools at the counter, indicating that I should eat as well. I hesitated, but picked up a small piece of chicken leg and chewed. As I gnawed on it, I began placing three plates and forks on the kitchen table. Malec watched me without comment, eating peacefully.

"So," he began conversationally, "since you're obviously not interested—" here Malec paused significantly, as if giving me time to correct him. I didn't.

Proceeding, he said, "Tell me about your sister."

I chewed on the leg. How did I explain to him our position?

"It's not that I'm not interested, but that you're our employer—through your mom, anyway."

I almost thought he understood when he didn't argue. But he was grinning when I glanced at him; I realized how he must have taken my response.

"I don't mean I am interested," I quickly interrupted his thoughts, but he simply chewed on his chicken with such a mischievous glint in his eyes that I could not help the butterflies that suddenly blocked my chicken's digestion.

I felt so flustered, I pushed attention back on Marie-Clare, "You were saying about my sister?"

He nodded, "Want to give me the inside scoop?"

I heard Mark saying "player" in my head, and said, "We're your employees. We both know how your mother would react."

Malec winked, "She should have known better than to hire you guys then."

"She hadn't met Marie-Clare yet, actually."

Malec grinned, a disarming trick that unsettled my stomach again, but then he shook his head and pointed a chicken piece at me, "Anyway, if it's work relationships that you're worried about, need I remind you that your sister said she's not part of the job?"

My frown stayed in place as I said, "Why can't you just find some other girl at Trinity?"

"Honestly, I've been with a lot of them already," He sent me another smirk. "I need new entertainment. I don't know how high maintenance your sister is, but even angry, she seems like fun."

I straightened, "She isn't just 'entertainment.' And she's not that bad. She—" I noticed the teasing in Malec's eyes, and cut off my ramble.

"Anyway," I said, "your mother would kill you."

He gave a laugh, "What could she do? Actually show up to yell at me?" I wondered if I imagined the bitterness. "Don't tempt me," he laughed lightly, and I let it go.

Announcing that he was ready for some dessert, I restrained myself from skipping to the ready pan, and scooped out a generous portion.

He moaned as he took a bite, and I felt tempted to hug him. He asked why I ate so little, and I muttered something about chores. Jaz showed up then, and his glance seemed almost guilty for wanting dessert in my presence.

I tried to reassure him, giving him a large helping. He ate one plate, then asked for another, and only until the third was cleaned off did he get off the barstool and escape with just a, "That was good."

I had to bite my tongue again to keep from pointing out that the boy hadn't even eaten dinner.

Malec didn't seem to notice, simply declaring, "Well, little housekeeper, it seems your dessert was a success. Thank you very much for dinner."

.

It wasn't until later that night that I jerked awake to the sounds of the garage opening, my head lifting from the kitchen counter. I had fallen asleep over my history text, and I wiped away the slight drool in the corner of my mouth. I almost tripped as I got up from my seat, footsteps stopping just within the doorway.

"Marie-Clare? Janice?" I had not intended to sound quite so hopeful. Especially not when Core walked through, a subtle smell of smoke emitting from him that I had not noticed before.

"Hey," I pasted on a belated smile, "Hungry?"

Core's gaze slid past the plates on the table to my eyes to the pan of dessert on the counter. He shrugged, about to take one of the three plates, but he looked up at me and asked expressionlessly, "Do you mind?"

I shook my head automatically, thinking I could just put out another plate when Janice and Marie-Clare returned.

It was as he began eating that Core finally paused to look at me, "Are you just going to watch me eat?"

"Oh. I have homework."

He didn't respond, and I blushed when I remembered how I fell asleep over my book.

"Anyway, I'm not hungry—"

Core ignored me and returned to his food. I let him eat in peace and concentrated on staying awake to read my history book. It wasn't until Core was leaving that I jerked up and realized I had fallen asleep again.

Before he left, he stopped at the doorway and stood there. Finally, I heard his low scratchy voice. "If you wait for them every night, you're never going to wake up in time—either for school or to do your job."

Then he left the kitchen.

.


A/n: I might slow on updates for this one while I finish my other story; just a heads-up. Feel free to check the other one out :]

Thanks for reading!