The Evil Queen is here. I knew she would be. She is engaged to the deceased’s only grandson. No way is she missing my grandmother’s celebration of life. It’s the type of thing she loves: a captive audience. Now, she can slowly bring our guests into her orbit, show off the flashy and way too expensive engagement ring my besotted cousin bought her, and charm them with the romance novel-esque story of how Matt proposed.
I can almost hear her now, her high-pitched voice with the thick Bostonian accent that makes her sound like a Kennedy, telling everyone about the catered picnic under the pristine willow tree in our back yard, the Italian orchestra serenading them, and how Matt carved their initials in the tree after getting on one knee and giving her the ring.
I want to vomit.
Her Majesty does like to make herself the center of attention, even when she has no rightful claim to it.
And, what am I doing while she holds court downstairs? Hiding like a coward in my upstairs bedroom. Grandma only had two survivors, Matt and me. As one of those survivors, not to mention my position as her only granddaughter, I should be down there with my cousin, welcoming her friends and loved ones to our home and thanking them for coming. It’s my responsibility. And, my absence is probably already being questioned. I hate to leave it to Matt to answer that awkward question, and I hate it that the Evil Queen will take this as a sign that I’m afraid of her. I am most decidedly not. I just don’t want to be anywhere near her. The woman’s mere presence makes my skin crawl.
The fact Matt proposed to her at all is baffling. He’s usually so practical and down to earth; since our parents died, he’s been my rock, the one person besides Grandma on whom I could depend, and he always does the right thing. Always. I sometimes wonder if he had a past life as one of King Arthur’s knights, he’s that noble. Not once in the 13 years we’ve lived together, since I was seven and he was 17, have I ever known him to have a serious relationship. He has an iron-clad rule about never going out with a woman more than four times unless he’s prepared to marry her. Now, at 30 years old, he suddenly finds the worst possible potential wife on the planet and proposes to her in four months? I secretly think she may actually be a witch.
She’s not even Matt’s type. He goes for hippie, earth mother-type women. Being genuine and fun are two things high on his list of priorities in a mate. Karen Bateman is neither. And, she’s down there, in my living room, being oh-so-gracious, with an appropriately sad expression chiseled onto her thin, pinched face, as she shakes hands with guests, hugging the ones who were especially close to Grandma. I’m surprised her touch doesn’t leave frost behind.
To say Karen is not the warm and cuddly type is the understatement of the century. She’s cold, demanding, and everything about her is phony. If she didn’t spend her days pretending to be an executive at her dad’s import business (even though she has a nice, cushiony trust fund and doesn’t have to work at all), she would make a great actress. Matt genuinely buys into the sweet, innocent act, but I’ve seen the side-eyes others have given her on the rare occasion we’re all together in a crowd. I’m not the only one who sees right through her. I’m just the only one who tells her, which just makes her hate me even more.
Avoiding being around her has become my mission since the first time Matt brought her home to meet me, three months ago. Tormenting me every time his back is turned has become hers. Each time I’m forced by circumstance to be in her presence, I half expect her to make her entrance on a broomstick.
If she was just bitchy, I could deal with it. You come across people whose attitudes are just naturally bad all the time. Ignore them and move on. Karen isn’t just grumpy, though. Oh no. She’s jealous and vindictive, and way too overly ambitious. Her ambition is to become Mrs. Matthew Morgan. Grandma was the wealthiest woman in Dover, and as her only heirs, both Matt and I have large inheritances coming. We don’t know how large yet, and won’t until we talk to the family lawyer, but it’s at least in the seven figures. Karen wants to control Matt’s half by being his wife, and she’s resentful of having to hand the other half over to me. I have no doubt she’s plotting for a way to get rid of me; maybe not kill me outright, but she definitely wants to be the one to control my money.
How do I know this? The first time we were ever alone together, sitting side by side at the kitchen bar while Matt went to get something he’d forgotten out of his car, the woman transformed from ingénue fiancée to calculating Evil Queen in an instant. It was like she became an entirely different person. I actually got goosebumps on my arms and back watching it.
The cheery smile vanished from her face the second the screened back door squealed closed, and she turned to me with a look of hatred I’ll never forget. “Listen to me, Sarah Morgan,” she hissed. “I know your grandmother won’t be around much longer. The dementia is getting worse, and she’s already been in that assisted living facility for two years. Know this. Once she is gone and I marry Matt, I’m going to be the new matriarch of this family, and you will respect my position as such. There are things about your family you do not want me to reveal. Cross me, and I’ll have a court give me control of your portion of the estate in an instant. Do I make myself clear?”
I never had a chance to answer, because Matt came back inside at that moment, and she was magically all sweetness and light once more. It’s a good thing he returned when he did, as I was so stunned, I had no idea what to say. Thinking about it later, it became more obvious what she was implying. Matt must have told her about the mental illness on my mom’s side of the family. While my mom never showed any signs of issues herself as far as I knew, her mother’s family, the Winchesters, were known for going insane quite young. Sometimes, it seemed like schizophrenia, while other times it was just pure crazy.
Her mother, my other grandmother, was institutionalized on and off for most of my mother’s childhood, as were numerous great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins one or more times removed on that side. Mom was an only child, like me, so there was no one else in that generation to compare it to, but Karen jumped on the tale with relish. Matt never even had to tell me he told her. Since that original conversation, she’s been alternately looking for any tiny sign in me she can exploit as mental illness, and trying to push me over the edge simply by being infuriating.
Is it any wonder I don’t want to go downstairs and be around her? My one remaining grandparent’s funeral was this morning, and now my only relative left on earth is Matt. That’s pretty heavy for anyone, let alone a 20 year old college junior like me. I’m just trying to keep it together, and mourn in private. If I go down there, Karen will use my vulnerable state to her advantage, and I don’t know if I have the emotional strength to repel her today. I’ve been excellent at it so far, a fact of which I’m rather proud, but today, of all days, I’m not sure if I can do it. I need to stay away from her.
So, here I am, hiding in the bedroom that’s been mine since I was seven, ear pressed to the door, listening to the gathering which I should rightfully be hosting going on without me. What a messed up situation.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” I whisper out loud. “You know exactly why I’m not down there, don’t you? If you were, you’d take care of this. Karen wouldn’t be an issue. You always were my biggest advocate. If you’re watching, and could lend me a hand now, that would be great.”
Footsteps are coming up the stairs. Did my quiet plea to Grandma activate a psychic line of communication to Matt? Please, let him tell me he’s finally seen the light about Karen and broken it off with her. He’s smarter than this. I know him. We were raised as brother and sister after our parents died, and he’s been my legal guardian since I was 12, when Grandma’s growing dementia got to the point she could no longer care for me. Though I became a free agent when I turned 18, we’ve continued to live here in Grandma’s house together, and were the best of friends until Karen came along. We each know the other better than anyone else on the planet.
He’s going to come up here and ask why I’m not downstairs with everyone else. I mean, surely he’s noticed my absence by now. I took off for my room the second we got back from the cemetery. At first, I was disappointed my boyfriend, Carter, could only come to the graveside service and not the gathering at the house, because he had to work. Now, I’m glad, because his absence meant I didn’t have to stay downstairs with him. No, this is good. Matt will come in, we’ll have one of those deep, heartfelt discussions we’ve perfected over the course of our many years of living together, I’ll explain my concerns to him, and he will actually listen this time. It will all be okay. Matt will realize his mistake with Karen, and she’ll be booted from our lives, if he hasn’t already. This is actually perfect.
I step back from the door, ready to greet my cousin with open arms. Only, there’s no knock. As soon as the old glass knob turns, I know it’s not him. Matt always knocks, and he does so for two reasons. One, because I’m a girl and may be naked or something, and two, because he is a gentleman who believes manners aren’t just a suggestion, but a cast iron moral code.
Who would have the nerve to open my closed bedroom door without knocking on the day of my grandmother’s funeral?
It can’t be….she wouldn’t dare….
The door flies open, slamming against the plaster wall so hard I’m surprised it didn’t crack it.
Shit. There she is, fuming like a blonde hurricane. Karen.
The nerve of that conniving, gold-digging little….
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I snap at her, rage welling up and pushing the words right out of my mouth. This is such a violation. No one ever treated me with such disrespect. Even my parents, when they were alive, believed everyone is an autonomous individual, even children, and should be given both the space to express themselves, and the courtesy of someone genuinely listening to them. This crazy bitch just stormed into my room like the immigration police coming to conduct a raid.
“This is my bedroom, Karen, or do I need to remind you,” I continue to rail at her. I’ve been being careful around her, but she just crossed a line. Someone needs to tell her, and I don’t see anyone around who’s going to do it except me. “You don’t just barge into someone’s room without knocking. I could have been doing anything in here. Crying over a strong brandy about Grandma. Having sex with Carter. Were you raised in a barn? What’s the matter with you?”
She stands in my doorway, hands on her hips, face dripping with loathing. Well, missy, the feeling is mutual. At this moment, fire in her icy blue eyes, she truly does resemble a witch. Her long blonde hair is pulled back in a severe bun, bright red lipstick contrasting against pale skin like an open wound. Large gold hoop earrings that nearly touch her shoulders and a bright emerald pendant provide just enough color to coldly accent the smart black skirt suit she chose for the funeral. Impossibly high spiked heels on a pair of black leather open-toed sandals that must have cost more than the GDP of Andorra complete the witchy look.
For just a moment, I swear I see a cloud of dust kick up into a little tornado around her feet, like she teleported here from some far off hell dimension. The ire coming off her in nauseating waves makes her look bigger somehow, and suddenly, her five foot three inch frame seems to fill the entire doorway, leaving me no way out, at least not that way. I either go through her, or climb out the window and down the tree to the front yard. I’m inclined to try the former, preferably leaving a large hole behind me.
She takes a step toward me in a way that’s clearly meant to be threatening, her brow furrowed, blue eyes flashing hate. Oh yes, I know intimidation tactics when I see them. She expects me to step back, even cower before her. I do neither.
Instead, I move toward her in one large, determined step, my expression hard as steel, feet firmly rooted to the ancient wooden floor. Our noses are mere millimeters from each other, close enough I can feel her mint-scented breath against my cheek.
Being this close to her disgusts me. How Matt brings himself to touch her, kiss her, and probably do other things with her I don’t want to think about, I have no idea. As for me, I will not give one inch to the Evil Queen in my own room, in a house that is now legally half mine. No. Karen will have to pick me up and physically move me if she wants to get her scrawny body any further into this space. Since I’m taller by five inches and firm with lean muscle from doing yoga and Pilates five days a week, I don’t think she can do it.
What’s more powerful, Karen? Hate or resolve? Time to decide.
“Why aren’t you downstairs?” she demands, arms crossed in a way that says she’s not here to communicate. “It’s making Matt and I look bad. You will come down with me at once.”
She makes a grab for my hand, which I jerk back without moving from my spot on the floor boards. The place where I stand is now my metaphorical line in the sand. Will she cross it?
“Don’t you ever presume to touch me,” I hiss, low and soft. There’s no need for yelling with our faces so close to each other. “Do it again, and I promise you’ll draw back a bloody stump. This is not the day for your nonsense, Karen.”
“Tsk, tsk,” she shakes her head, pretending to be sad, though her eyes tell a far different story. “Threats of violence again, Sarah? I thought we were past that. Maybe it’s time you were evaluated by a mental health professional. I keep telling Matt we’ve got to keep an eye on you. You seem to be taking after your mother’s side of the family, like I knew you would. Wasn’t your other grandmother around your age when she went insane?”
“You know nothing,” I bite back.
“Oh, but I do,” she purrs like a satisfied kitten. “Your mother may not have displayed any signs of the Winchester curse, but then again, she died so young. Only 30 years old, was it? Matt’s age. It might have happened, given the chance. And, you know as well as I do that the same chance is there for you. Sarah, it’s in your genetics. Why deny it?”
“I know your plan, Karen. Don’t think you’re so clever. In fact, you’re transparent to everyone but Matt. Even Carter figured out you’re going to try to have me committed and take guardianship of my half of the estate. I didn’t have to tell him anything about you, either. All it took was meeting you one time, and he knew. He even warned me, but I was already onto you. Marry Matt, get me committed, and control my money through him. A child could figure it out. Well, they don’t commit people for nothing. You’ll have to prove I’m a danger to myself and/or others, and there’s a ton of proof that I’m perfectly sane.”
“Plan? What plan? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Honestly, Sarah, sometimes what comes out of your mouth is pure nonsense. I’m just looking out for my future husband’s interests, dear. I wouldn’t want him saddled with a cousin who is….shall we say….hard to manage.”
“Matt is not saddled with me, and you know it. I’m twenty years old, an honor student in college, majoring in Psychology, I might add, and quite capable of taking care of myself. Just because Matt and I still live in this house together means nothing about my independence. Why get a dorm when the University of New Hampshire is literally a fifteen minute drive from here? Besides, we grew up in this house, and now we both own it. It’s been in our family since the 1700’s. Don’t think you’re going to come in here and steal my half by claiming I’m crazy. Oh, and don’t call me ‘dear,’ either. You’re only five years older than me. It’s ridiculous.”
“Hmm. Well. I guess we’ll see whose house this really is soon enough, won’t we, dear?” she punctuates the word like she’s twisting a knife in a wound. “The house and everything else.”
Oh, she is such a bitch. The urge to slap her is strong. But, I must control myself. If I’m violent toward her, or even hint at becoming so when anyone is listening, she could use it to get a three day psychiatric hold put on me. If she manages that, she’s got precedent and leverage. Who knows what she might be able to convince Matt and any doctors to do? I’ve got to be careful, even alone with her. Karen is devious, and ruthless in going after what she wants. She might be secretly recording me.
Being the master manipulator she clearly is, she’s discovered my buttons, and is gleefully pushing them right now. I’ve no doubt she knew just how I would react when she barged into my room, and I played right into her hands. I can’t let myself do it again. That “bloody stump” comment I made before might already be on her phone, waiting to be played to Matt as proof his beloved cousin really is a psycho.
Okay. Know your enemy, as the saying goes. And, I think I do. Whatever she says or does, I cannot allow myself to be anything but pleasant to her. And naturally, I must now find her weakness and exploit it. That kind of thing goes without saying. Everyone has a weakness, and if I can manipulate hers as well as she just did mine, Matt will see her for who she really is and break up with her.
We stand there for a moment, staring hard at each other, neither willing to give an inch, our combined intention to take the other down almost a physical presence in the room. We’re concentrating so hard on each other, it’s a surprise when Matt appears in the doorway. In any other circumstance, I would have heard his feet on the creaky floorboards long before he got near the door. Even Karen is taken aback by his materialization.
“There’s my girls,” Matt says with genuine warmth, his smile lighting up the room. “I wondered where you two got off to. Mind if I come in and join you?”
See? Right there. Manners. Even with the door wide open, he still asks before coming in. God, I love him. It’s too bad he’s been put under a spell by this wicked woman.
“Sure, Matt,” I say, motioning him in with my hand, never taking my eyes off Karen. “How’s it going down there?”
“Oh, you know, the usual for this type of thing,” he shrugs, and brushes a stray lock of shoulder-length black hair out of his dazzling green eyes. “Crowds of people I don’t really know all telling me how sorry they are and how much Grandma meant to them. She had a lot of friends. More than either of us ever knew. I didn’t expect such a big group, honestly, especially since she’s been in assisted living for so long. It’s nice.”
“Darling,” Karen jumps in, still looking at me and not Matt, “I just came up here to see why Sarah hasn’t joined us yet. Don’t you think she should be down there, greeting our guests?”
“Sarah’s probably just a little overwhelmed after the past few days,” Matt says, unconcerned. “It’s a lot to deal with, you know. Grandma dying, the funeral, the graveside service, all the people calling and coming by to offer their condolences, even before today. I don’t blame her for taking a little time alone before she comes out and faces a group of people who are mostly strangers. I’d do it, too, if I could.”
“Yes, but you can’t, because you are your grandmother’s heir, and thus obligated to be a host to our guests,” Karen replies, a hard edge to her voice, like she’s gritting the sweet tone out through her teeth. “Why should Sarah be exempted? She’s an heir, too. The only other one. I say it’s her responsibility to join us.”
That last part sounded an awful lot like a command.
And, apparently it was. Matt looks down like a chastened puppy, shuffling his feet on the floor. “Maybe you’re right, honey. Sarah, can you come down with us for a little while? It doesn’t have to be long. People have been asking about you. You can come back to your room and chill all you want once everyone leaves. I can’t imagine this thing will continue more than another hour or two. Can you handle that?”
He sounds almost pleading, begging me to comply so he doesn’t have to face Karen’s wrath. I hate seeing him this way. I’ll agree, just for him, and no one else.
However, before I have a chance to give my consent, Karen butts in once more.
“No,” she insists. “She cannot come back up here after the guests leave. Sarah must help you clean up first, write thank you notes to everyone who sent a gift, pay the caterer, and make an appointment to go over the will with your grandmother’s lawyer.”
“Oh, yeah. Right. Of course,” Matt mumbles, deliberately looking away from me. I think he’s embarrassed by how clearly she has him on a short leash. “I guess we have a few things to do, Sarah. But, you’ll be able to take some time for yourself and rest soon. I promise.”
“I doubt it,” Karen says, still staring directly into my eyes. “By the time that’s all done, her leave of absence from school will be up and she’ll be back in class.”
“You’re right, you’re right. I didn’t think about that,” Matt says, definitely embarrassed this time. Well, he should be. “You’re a strong woman, Sarah. Grandma raised you well. You can handle it, can’t you?”
“Of course I can,” I say with deliberate slowness, drawing out each word, never once backing down from my staring contest with Karen. Whoever looks away first loses, and it won’t be me.
“Why don’t we all go down together now?” Karen asks sweetly, high fructose corn syrup practically dripping from her lips.
“Yes, let’s do that,” Matt agrees, still avoiding my gaze. Jesus Christ, has she brainwashed him? This whipped, beaten down man is not the strong, self-assured cousin I know. I mean, what the hell? Is her vagina made of unicorn fur? Why is he letting her control him this way?
“Fine,” I say with as much cheeriness as I can muster, determined to not cause a scene until I can figure out what Karen has on Matt. It’s got to be something. He wouldn’t be acting this way if she didn’t, would he? Maybe she has blackmail leverage on him like she does on me. Once I know what it is, Matt and I can figure out how to break free from her, together.
I let Matt and Karen go first, holding hands as they walk out of my room, then follow along behind. This forces Karen to break the staring contest and look away first.
Ha! Do whatever you want now, Your Evil Majesty. You may not know it, but I just won our little war.