Remembrance, p.18
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       Remembrance, p.18
 

         Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot

  “Oh, really?” Debbie dropped the simpering tone since she was addressing me. “Could they, Suze? The same way you told Emma wine is filled with vitamins when she asked why you drink so much of it? Is that real? Thanks a lot for that, Suze, by the way, because she asked if she could have wine with her breakfast tomorrow morning.”

  “Yeah, well, there are vitamins in wine, Debbie.” I lifted the bottle of wine we’d brought with us, and topped off both Debbie’s glass and my own. “But for your information, I also told her the health benefits only work for people who are over twenty-one. And there’s a lot of crap you believe in that isn’t real, either, Debbie, but we go along with it just to keep the peace. So I suggest you do the same, as far as Lucy is concerned. Cheers.” I clinked her glass.

  Debbie stared at me in astonishment just as Brad came bursting out of the back door, his rifle pumped and loaded. “Which way did it go?”

  “Not tonight, amigo,” Jesse said, gently removing the rifle from his hands. “Not tonight.”

  dieciocho

  I had more trouble than ever falling asleep that night.

  It was only partly because Debbie had gotten rid of the bed in the guest room—along with all of Brad’s wrestling awards, which she’d relegated to the garage—so she could convert it into her “crafting center.”

  So I had to share a bed down the hall with Mopsy, while Jesse was banished to the hard, lumpy couch in the living room (which didn’t have a door, with or without a lock for privacy).

  We could probably have gone back to our own beds to sleep, mine at my apartment, and Jesse’s at Snail Crossing, since it appeared there was no longer any danger to the girls. But I still had the “study” for my class to complete.

  Even if we had, I still wouldn’t have avoided what Jesse asked me as we were walking back into the house after putting all the wine bottles into Brad and Debbie’s recycling bins:

  “Susannah, what was it you were going to say to me before in the yard? Something you were worried was going to make me angry?”

  I’d laughed. “Oh, I told you, it was nothing. An idea I had for the wedding, that’s all, but I changed my mind. You don’t want karaoke at the reception, right?”

  “Karaoke?”

  “See? I knew it. Fortunately the deposit’s refundable.”

  “Fine. I don’t believe you, but fine. By the way, who sent those flowers that I saw on your desk when I stopped by your office this afternoon?”

  “Oh, no one,” I’d said. “Just a grateful parent.”

  I don’t know how I’d managed the airy tone, especially when it was clear he’d been reading my mind again.

  He knew. He knew perfectly well who the flowers were from, and maybe even what I’d been about to tell him in the yard. Perhaps I’d planted the image in his head, worrying so much about Paul, stirred by the blossoms Lucia had strewn across the floor of her new playmates’ playhouse, the faces of their dolls.

  Dead flowers from a dead girl. Live flowers from a live man . . . who wouldn’t stop haunting me over a former ghost.

  He didn’t say anything more about it, however, and his kiss good night when we parted ways for bed, me for the second floor, him for the first, was as warm as ever.

  That wasn’t what kept me awake.

  I don’t think it was the text message Jake sent me, either, saying that he was going to “escort” Gina back to the Crossing from her shift at the Happy Medium. He said he was worried that the “creeper” back at my apartment building might have figured out where she worked. He wanted to make sure she got home safely.

  Or the text I got from Gina letting me know that she and Jake had decided to go out to eat after her shift and she hoped I didn’t think this was going to “make things weird” between us.

  Also, she knew there wasn’t a “creeper,” it was just another of my “ghost things” (a carnival psychic had spilled the beans in front of Gina about my “gift” when we’d been kids). She wasn’t going to mention this to Jake, though, she added with a winking smiley face.

  Great, just what I needed—my best friend going out with one of my stepbrothers. Like it wasn’t bad enough a former high school nemesis had married one of the other ones.

  That was enough to send me downstairs to Brad and Debbie’s kitchen for a glass of milk (even though this had never helped “trigger soothing waves of slumber” for me in the past, as experts claimed it would, I kept hoping for a first time).

  What I’d actually been hoping for was a chance to slip out of the house and over to 99 Pine Crest Road, to scatter what little rock salt I’d managed to acquire.

  But glancing into the living room as I passed it, I knew this was going to be impossible. The sound of my putting the glass of milk I’d just emptied into the dishwasher caused Jesse to roll over on the sofa—which was both too short and too narrow for his comparatively enormous frame—and mutter something unintelligible. One bare arm dangling to the floor, the other flung uncomfortably over his head, he looked about as comfortable as poor Max, still locked up in the garage.

  Jesse wasn’t wearing a shirt, and the blanket Debbie had given him had tangled down around his legs as he’d tossed in his sleep, exposing his chest and most of his boxer briefs, including the dark mat of hair between his pecs that then thinned into a tempting highway leading to the waistband of his shorts, where I could plainly see the bulge I felt nearly every day but was (mostly) forbidden to touch until our wedding day.

  That’s when I realized all the milk in the world was never going to put me to sleep.

  The house was completely quiet. Debbie and Brad had gone (bickering again) to bed hours ago, and the girls had been quietly slumbering when I’d left them.

  What would happen, I wondered, if I knelt beside the couch, kissed Jesse awake, then slipped my hand beneath that waistband?

  Now who was the one with a dark side? Me. It was me!

  And there wasn’t enough rock salt in all the Home Depots in the world to contain it.

  Jesse must have felt it, too, since as I stood there staring, he lowered his upflung arm and rolled over, nearly falling off the couch. Startled, I rocketed up the stairs, not wanting him to catch me standing there staring at him while he slept.

  I was racing by Debbie’s “craft center” on my way back to the girls’ room when I saw it—the thing that kept me awake for the rest of the night (like the memory of what was beneath that waistband wasn’t enough).

  At first it was only a flash, something I wasn’t even sure I’d seen. I walked right by the open door, intent on my own filthy thoughts, before it registered.

  Then I froze in my tracks, a chill that had nothing to do with the cold night air going down my back.

  Lucia.

  I backed up two steps, then peeked through the open doorway.

  She was there all right, standing solemnly in the center of the room, her round, cherubic face full of its usual gloom.

  “Lucia.” I pressed a hand to my pounding heart. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. You seriously scared the crap out of me.”

  She said nothing. She merely stood there in her riding clothes, her heels together, her bangs curling into her large, dark eyes, her mouth a tiny, reproachful pink rosebud.

  “Look,” I said, coming into the room and closing the door behind me so we wouldn’t be overheard. “I’m sorry about the dog. He’s shut up in the garage so he won’t bother you anymore. And thank you for the flowers. But you shouldn’t have done what you did to Father Dominic. He’s a good man, and he wasn’t there to hurt Becca. No one wants to hurt you, either, Lucia. We all want to—”

  She lifted one arm. I flinched instinctively and took a stumbling step backward, toward the door. Normally I’m not such a coward, but I remembered only too well the strength in those pudgy little arms.

  She wasn’t trying to hurt me, however. She was pointing at something on the wall.

  I looked in the direction she was pointing. It was Debbie’s “inspiratio
n board.”

  Debbie had shown it to me earlier, though I hadn’t paid too much attention. It was one of her crafts. She’d had each of the girls make one, too. Theirs had been more amusing. Cotton-tail, it turned out, was heavily inspired by the theatrical work of Jiminy Cricket.

  “What?” I asked Lucia, stepping toward Debbie’s inspiration board. “Is there something here about what happened to you?”

  Lucia looked angry, which I’d come to realize was her go-to expression.

  But before I had a chance to duck for cover, she disappeared, which was admittedly a relief. I had to hand it to the kid: she was learning to handle her emotions. Now instead of lashing out, she was going to her happy place, wherever that was. I didn’t care, as long as it was far away from me.

  I switched on a desk lamp so I could examine Debbie’s board a little more closely, looking for what Lucia had been trying to show me. It was an elaborately decorative thing, corkboard covered over with ivory wrapping paper, then bound with gold ribbon and strands of imitation pearls. She’d pressed photos of supermodels onto it with thumbtacks shaped like crowns, and here and there were also photos of the girls, a few as babies, but most of them were more recent, many of them from events I recognized. There were no photos at all of Brad, or of me. I tried not to take it personally.

  At first I couldn’t see what Lucia could possibly have been pointing at. There was nothing at all on it to do with her, nothing about horses, or Sacred Trinity, or Becca, or even Kelly Prescott Walters, Becca’s stepmom and Debbie’s best friend.

  Then I realized Lucia hadn’t been pointing at something connected to her. It was something Lucia wanted me to see because she thought it was connected to me. Maybe it was another way of her saying she was sorry? She must have sensed the bougainvillea blossoms hadn’t been a hit, but this, this would really help me out.

  It was CeeCee’s alumni newsletter, printed out from Brad and Debbie’s home computer, and turned to a page with a photo of Paul Slater, looking dark-haired and blue-eyed and tanned and relaxed as he leaned against a sports car, his muscular arms folded across his chest, a self-satisfied smirk on his handsome face. The car was a Porsche (of course it was. He’d always driven expensive sports cars.).

  The caption beneath the photo read, Business Is Booming for One Mission Academy Alum. The article beneath it read, Paul Slater Becomes Overnight Success.

  Ouch. Really, CeeCee? I was going to have to have a word with her about her hyperbolic headlines.

  Hanging next to the photo was the tassel from Debbie’s high school graduation cap. I recognized it because I had one just like it.

  Or I’d had one, anyway. It had disappeared the night Paul had shoved me up against that wall and I’d kneed him in the groin, then run right past Debbie, who’d been so delighted to find him there, since her own boyfriend, Brad, had been busy throwing up on Kelly Prescott’s Louboutins.

  How had Paul put it?

  Oh, right. I’d left him to Debbie’s not-so-tender ministrations. “She straddled me like she thought I was a damned gigolo,” Paul had complained.

  Well, so what if Paul and Debbie had had their fun graduation night? Brad’s the one who married her. Seven months later, Debbie had given birth to triplets.

  Triplets born prematurely and with the gift of mediation, which neither of their parents or grandparents possessed.

  And then, like a bolt from the sky, I knew what Lucia was trying to tell me—why she thought this would help.

  It didn’t help, though. It kept me awake for the rest of the night.

  It was probably going to keep me awake forever.

  diecinueve

  I drove the girls to school the next morning, while Jesse drove to the Crossing to drop off Max, then to the hospital to check on Father Dom.

  I didn’t mention anything to him—or anyone—about my suspicions concerning my stepnieces. What was I going to say, exactly? “Guess what? Okay, you’ll never guess, so I’ll just tell you: I’m pretty sure my stepbrother’s kids aren’t really his.”

  No. Just no.

  And even if in her quest to get me to open up more during our therapy sessions Dr. Jo is always telling me how keeping secrets leads to elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, how do I know what Lucia suggested is true? So she pointed to a photo of Paul hanging from my sister-in-law’s bulletin board. That doesn’t prove anything.

  Still, as they argued with one another in the backseat of my car over which one of them was going to get to tell the story for show-and-tell of how their aunt Suze and uncle Jesse had spent the night at their house, I checked out the girls’ reflections in my rearview mirror, and couldn’t help noticing how closely they resembled a certain mediator I happen to know.

  They had the coloring—dark hair and blue eyes—and slim, tennis player build of both Jack and Paul Slater, instead of the sturdy, Nordic structure of the Ackermans (who, with the exception of redheaded David, were all blond).

  Once I noticed this, I couldn’t unnotice it, no matter how much I wanted to. I could only wonder how I’d never seen it before.

  Brad, I was certain, didn’t know. Did Debbie? She was shallow, and had occasionally followed her best friend Kelly’s lead in school and been nasty, even spiteful.

  But I’d never seen her perform an act of outright cruelty—at least not so cruel as to force a man to unknowingly raise another man’s child . . . or children, as in this case.

  Why then had she hung that photograph of Paul on her inspiration board? And why had Lucia pointed at it with a look of such solemn accusation on her face? She couldn’t have been accusing Paul of murder. Paul hadn’t even lived in Carmel at the time of her death.

  And while I knew better than anyone how willing Paul was to commit murder—if you could call unleashing a demon curse murder—what interest would he have in killing a child?

  None. That wasn’t his style.

  I was halfway to the school when my phone rang. Normally I don’t even look at my phone when I’m driving—especially if the girls are in the car or I’m driving through early morning marine layer, like now.

  But what if it was Jesse calling from the hospital because Father Dom had taken a turn for the worse? What if it was Shahbaz, the blogger, calling to tell me he knew how to break the curse?

  What if it was Paul, calling to say he’d come to his senses and that he was sorry?

  It wasn’t. It was my youngest stepbrother, David.

  Something was wrong. David and I only talked on Sundays. I jabbed at the speakerphone.

  “David? What is it? What’s happened?”

  “Uncle David!” the girls screamed excitedly from the backseat. “Hi, Uncle David!”

  “Uh, hi. Oh, great. The girls are with you.” Although he was fond of his nieces, there was a notable lack of enthusiasm in David’s voice. “Am I on speakerphone? I was hoping we could talk in private, Suze.”

  “I stayed at Brad and Debbie’s last night, so I’m taking the girls to school with me. What’s wrong? Why are you calling? Today’s not Sunday.”

  “I’m aware that today is not Sunday, Suze.” Doc’s tone suggested he suspected I might have been lobotomized since he’d last seen me. “I’m calling because I heard what happened to Father Dominic. Is he okay?”

  I relaxed my grip on the wheel. “Oh. Yeah. Jesse’s on his way to see him now. He already talked to his doctor this morning, and Dr. Patel said Father Dom did well overnight, so everything should be—”

  “What happened to him?”

  “He fell. It happens.” I was conscious that the girls were listening, so I chose my words with care. “Old people fall down sometimes.”

  “And break their hips and get pneumonia,” Mopsy added helpfully.

  “Simmer down back there and watch your video,” I commanded, meaning the tablet I’d purchased for them to use in the car (as a means to keep them from pulling out one another’s hair, and me pulling out my own in frustration). “Or I’ll make you get out and
walk to school.”

  The girls laughed. I had to admit the threat had probably lost some of its punch since I used it every single time I drove them somewhere, but had yet actually to follow through.

  “Well, what’s this weird thing your mom was talking about when I called her last night, about our old house getting bought by that Paul Slater guy?” David asked. “And does it have anything to do with that e-mail you sent to Shahbaz Effendi about some Egyptian curse?”

  I nearly slammed on the brakes, and not just because the pickup in front of me, carrying crates full of freshly harvested pomegranates, had swerved suddenly to avoid hitting a cyclist.

  “How the hell did you find out about that?”

  “Because Shahbaz goes to my school, Suze,” David said in a patient voice as the triplets hooted in the backseat because I’d used a curse word. “He’s a grad student in NELC—that’s the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department here. After he got your e-mail, he looked you up on the Web to find out who you are. But of course you don’t have any social media accounts, so all he could find was some celebrity website that lists you as Andy Ackerman’s stepdaughter, and me as one of his sons. It also mentioned that I go here, so he got in touch with me through the school directory to ask if you’re really as mentally unstable as you sounded in your message to him—”

  “Mentally unstable?” I interrupted, offended. “Where does he get off, accusing me of being mentally unstable? I’m not the one who sits around translating curses written in hieratic script all day so I can post them on the Internet where anyone can find them and—”

  “And what, Suze?”

  Well, okay. Maybe I might have sounded a little mentally unstable to someone who goes to an Ivy League school and isn’t entirely familiar with my side job.

  A nervous glance in the rearview mirror showed me that the triplets’ dark heads were bent over the tablet. I wasn’t fooled, however. I knew them. They were completely eavesdropping.

  I took David off speaker and lifted the phone to my ear, risking a penalty if I got caught talking on a non-hands-free mobile device while driving. But I decided the risk of allowing the girls to overhear David’s side of this conversation would be worse.

 
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