“Skye! You did so well!” Harper cries, once we’re out of the classroom.
The presentation was a complete blur and I’m still worried that I didn’t end up saying enough. But it’s done now and I can’t change that.
“I loved the introduction part. Where did that even come from? I swear, you’re so talented!”
I smile at her in appreciation, but then Shelly Matthews appears, cradling her Gucci bag. Her blond hair nearly whips my face as she flicks it over her shoulder.
“Yeah, well done Skye. That was... unexpected,” she says, “But then you are quite an unpredictable person, aren’t you? It must run in the family.”
Was that meant to be a compliment? It sounded more like an insult rather than a pat on the back.
She struts down the corridor, like she’s some form of royalty. It’s going to be difficult sharing the lunch table with her from now on.
A hand on my shoulder distracts me from my current stare down. Harper becomes rigid and starts making goldfish faces now that Grayson has joined us in the hallway.
Grayson briefly turns to acknowledge her. “Hey Harper. Great presentation by the way. It was actually really funny to see Eddie squirm when you were talking about his obsession with action figures.”
Harpers cheeks are glowing from the compliment. “Well, you know what they say, honesty is the best policy.”
“Definitely! It’s the best way to be.”
I watch them trade friendly smiles and Harper’s face is growing hotter by the second. Grayson is staring with curiosity, trying to analyse her. And it’s just plain weird. I have to cough to interrupt the shared moment before it gets even more intense.
Grayson quickly snaps out of it. “Uh, so you’re still coming tonight, right?” he asks me.
I can practically feel Harper burning holes into my forehead, probably wondering what we could possibly be up to.
“Yeah, sure. Six O clock, yeah?”
“Yup. Look forward to celebrating.”
I smile at him.
Please don’t make me regret this.
I watch my mother’s reaction as we pull into Grayson’s driveway. We step onto the gravel and look around.
Her eyes dart to the trickling fountain and back to the beautiful home staring back at us. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” she says, as we walk up to the front door.
“Yup. This is Grayson’s house alright,” I tell her, ringing the bell.
I’m wearing denim blue jeans with a white blouse tucked inside. I’m being sophisticated for a change.
We wait until Grayson swings the door open, grinning. I am slightly nervous about this, but I’ve got to trust that everything will be fine.
“Hey! Come in!” Grayson cries, holding the door so we can enter. He shuts it behind us and it leaves an echo down the hallway.
“You have a beautiful home Grayson,” mum says, her eyes moving in a million different directions all at once. He glances down at her shoes and I already know what’s coming.
“Mum, can you take your shoes off? It’s a house rule,” I say, not wanting Grayson to rub her up the wrong way. It’ll sound better if it comes from me.
She pulls a face. “Seriously?”
Grayson looks between us both, amused. “What?” I demand.
His smile fades. “Nothing! It’s just… you two are more alike than I thought,” he says.
When he turns around, we kick off our shoes and follow him into the dining room. I can hear soft music playing in the kitchen and someone singing out of key. I’m guessing that Mr. Swain hasn’t realized his guests have arrived yet and that we can hear the private party he’s got going on in there.
We sit down at the table and mum bops her head to music I’ve never heard of before. “Oh, I love this song,” she says, smiling to herself.
Grayson stands at the foot of the table. “Can you excuse me for a second? I’m just going to check on the food.”
When he’s out of earshot, mum quickly perks up. “This place is ginormous! You could get lost in here. I’m so glad I wore this dress,” she mumbles, quickly adjusting the bottom of the black dress so it doesn’t ride up. We wouldn’t want her exposing herself to the Swain family during dinner. I’d never live it down.
“Grayson seems nice,” she adds.
I stare at the overflowing fruit bowl in the middle of the table. “He’s a very good-looking boy - reminds me of someone actually… can’t put my finger on who.” She pops a grape in her mouth. “Have you heard from Rory lately?”
I don’t want to talk about Rory. “Nope.”
“Is Mr. Swain married then?” she moves on.
I almost choke as the grape travels down my throat. Mum taps my back, as I start coughing. “Yes! He’s married!”
“Alright, I was only asking.”
“Even if he was single, there’s no way I would want you going out with Grayson’s dad... that would just be weird.”
I check my phone for any missed calls or texts from Rory. Once again, there is nothing to get excited about.
Why am I so bothered that he hasn’t been in touch?
I’m the one that told him to stay away. He’s just respecting my wishes.
Grayson enters the room in that moment, disrupting my thoughts. The smell of freshly cooked steak fills the air and my stomach rumbles in response.
He sets the plates down in front of us. I can’t wait to get stuck into this.
My mother looks at Grayson, face lighting up. “This looks delicious! Your father is quite the chef Grayson.”
“He knows what he’s doing.”
On this note, Mr. Swain comes through the door. My mother stills from beside me and I don’t take much notice of it. He has that kind of effect on everybody.
Mr. Swain glances at me and smiles. Then, his gaze lands on my mother and his whole face strips of colour.
Silence descends upon everyone at the table. The atmosphere shifts. My eyes bounce from Mr. Swain to my mother and then back to Grayson, who is just as confused as I am.
Why is Michael staring at my mum as if they’ve already met before? Why has this gone extremely uncomfortable all of a sudden?
“Do you two know each other?” Grayson voices what I’m thinking.
Michael’s eyes don’t stray from my mother’s. This is really starting to freak me out.
Before Michael is given the chance to respond to Grayson’s question, my mother grips me hard by the shoulders and starts gathering her things together.
“Come on Skye,” she says, “It’s time to go.”
I stare up at her, unmoving. “Why? We’ve only just got here. What’s wrong?” She ignores me and keeps tugging on my arm. “Mum, what’s the matter with you?” I ask, firmer this time.
Her nails are digging into my skin and it’s starting to hurt. I can’t believe she’s doing this to me now.
I can see the first trickle of sweat on mum’s upper lip, as she looks down at me with a pleading stare. I jump onto my feet, not wanting to cause a scene.
I turn to Grayson and his dad apologetically. “Sorry about this. We’re going to have to leave.”
My mum races out the door at lightning speed, leaving her shoes in the doorway. I quickly put mine back on and chase after her down the path. She keeps walking purposefully away from the house and I grab her hand to stop her from going any further.
Her mascara is smudged, tears are blinding her eyes. “Mum, what happened back there? You seemed fine before Michael came into the room.” She acted like she’d seen a ghost from her past.
“I - I can’t…” she’s speaking mostly to herself. She holds onto her stomach, heaving. “I - I think I’m going to be sick.”
I place a hand on her back, trying my best to comfort her. I rub her back up and down as her sobs get louder.
“Mum, please tell me what’s going on.”
I can hear the front door slam from behind us and Michael is approaching fast. Grayson is right behind him.
At the sight of Mr. Swain, my mother stiffens and carries on walking down the street. “Collette! Please don’t go!” he calls, “I - It’s been such a long time, it’s actually really nice to see you.”
My mother spins around with a mortified expression. “Nice to see me?” she mocks, “Have you forgotten everything that happened between us? Don’t you realize what you’ve put me through all these years?”
Michael narrows his eyes, breathing hard. “I know that I should have told you the truth back then, but it was difficult.”
Mum’s laughter rattles. “I can’t believe I fell for all the crap you told me in the beginning - how much you wanted to be with me, how I was the only girl for you… you’re disgusting!”
A little tear trickles down her face and I feel myself tense. I have no idea what is happening right now and I don’t know if I want to understand it. My heart is sinking to the ground, making the ache ten times worse.
Michael is unable to stand still. He runs a hand through his hair. “I did love you Collette. My feelings for you weren’t fake. They were real.”
I’m starting to feel sick myself.
“You had a wife Michael! And you sent her to the bar to let me find out the hard way, because you were too much of a coward to tell me yourself!”
Wait, what? No. No. That can’t be right. This is the same story she told me about my dad. She can’t be saying what I think she’s saying. Please don’t let this be true. It can’t be true.
“Dad, what the hell is she talking about?” Grayson demands, speaking for the first time since we left the house. He’s bound to be confused right now. His father has basically just admitted to loving another woman and worst of all… it’s my mother that he’s referring to.
Michael glances back at him briefly. “Maybe you should go inside for a second son.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Grayson’s worried gaze meets mine and I know I can’t hide the unshed tears that are building there. I quickly blink them away.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Michael continues, “I was going to come around to see you. I was going to explain everything.”
By this point, I can’t hide the disbelief from my face. I’m not allowing the information to sink in because I don’t want it to be real. Me and Grayson are just the bystanders in this scenario, and this isn’t a conversation we were ever meant to hear or witness.
It’s not long before Grayson is saying, “You cheated on mum?”
Michael waves him away. “Grayson, I can’t explain everything right now. Please just go inside.”
Clenching his fists, Grayson stares hard at my mother, disgust all over his features. “You had an affair with that piece of trash?”
I’m quick to jump to her defence. “Hey! Don’t call her that!”
“Grayson…” Michael warns.
“How low can you get dad?”
“Shut up Grayson!” I yell, watching his eyes fall on me.
“What? It’s the truth! She’s been around hasn’t she? Just like you told me Skye. It’s pathetic.”
His words are like a knife to the heart and I stand there in shock. How can he say that to me, after I told him about my mother’s relationships in confidence? I get that he’s confused, but that doesn’t mean he has to drag us all down.
I take a few steps away from Grayson, hoping that by distancing myself this overwhelming feeling of disappointment and anger will disappear. His eyes are completely blank and I don’t recognize him at all.
My mother is speaking when I tune back into their conversation. “If you loved me Michael, you wouldn’t have left in the first place. It was all a lie and that’s why I can’t believe anything that comes out of your mouth,” she snaps, close to tears.
Michael edges forward, genuine concern in his eyes. “I did love you Collette.”
She steps back. “No, you didn’t! I was just another one of those endless numbers of women that you would turn to and make believe they were special, because you couldn’t cope with the responsibility of being in a committed relationship. Linda told me all about your secret chain of affairs.”
The tension is slowly increasing and I try to hide the uneasiness from my face as I attempt to read between the lines. I don’t have much time to think everything over, because Michael is speaking again.
“What other women? I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I’m afraid that if I stay here any longer, I’m going to fall to the ground a crumpled mess. My brain is jumping to conclusions based on what’s being said and my chest is tightening. I’m finding it hard to breathe normally.
“Be honest for once Michael!”
“I am being honest Collette! You’ve totally lost me now. I was planning on moving in with you. I went home to tell Linda that it was over. All of my stuff was packed and ready to go. But then she told me that she was pregnant and that changed everything. I had to set my own feelings aside and focus on the baby. I chose to work on my marriage instead of following my heart. Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about you.”
I don’t spare Grayson a glance. I’m worried about what I might find. This is not easy for either of us to take in.
“You say you wanted to be there for the baby you had with Linda, but what about our child? I was pregnant too,” mum says, “You knew I was and yet, you got your wife to tell me that you wanted nothing to do with either of us. Then you made her set up a direct payment each year to buy us out!”
Michael’s face drops and he doesn’t say anything, as he continues to look at her. Eventually, he says, “I don’t know anything about sending direct payments. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
He looks at me, tears in his eyes. I feel completely numb. “I - I didn’t know back then that you’d had a child. But, when I first met Skye… I had an inkling. I still wasn’t sure if she was definitely mine or not though. I kept trying to tell myself that she wasn’t, because I had no idea you were pregnant all those years ago. But, the more we saw each other, the more I could see parts of myself in her.”
There is so much I want to say at this moment, but I can’t bring myself to.
When he drove me home the day he was in Barnett, was that all planned?
Had he been following me?
When he gave Rory a bonus when we worked for him, was that for my benefit? Was he ever going to say anything about the possibility that he might be my father?
Is that why he was always so nice to me?
Because he felt guilty?
My mother is losing all composure. The tears keep falling down her cheeks and I have to remove her from the situation before she reaches breaking point.
“I can’t do this. I have to get home. It’s too much,” she cries.
I grab her arm and start leading her away. Michael follows us, but I’m quick to twirl around, anger burning from the inside out.
“Haven’t you done enough already? Just leave us alone!” I shout in his face.
I never thought I’d get angry at Michael Swain. I liked him once. He was charming and I can see why my mum bought into everything he said when they first met. But now that I know his true identity, I hate everything about him.
I glance back one final time to see a car reversing into the expensive driveway. Linda Swain is getting out of the vehicle and Michael is having words with her, but I’m too far away to read their lips or hear what they’re saying.
Grayson must have headed back inside because I can’t see him anywhere. This could destroy my mother and all that’s she’s worked hard for these past couple of weeks. She was starting to get well in herself again and now that she’s seen Michael it’s brought back all the hurt and disappointment. I rush to the nearest bin, bile rising at the back of my throat as I hurl into the black bag.