This time Uri got out of the car. On previous times when he’d taken her to Sherri’s, he’d stay in the car because no man was allowed in her house. Grazie’s presence had changed that.
They stepped up to the door. It opened before they could knock or ring the bell.
“Good morning. Come on in,” Grazie said. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, looking right at home.
There was yelling in the background. Tension seemed to spill from the house. A teenager that reminded Natalia of Anna, trotted down the stairs, throwing her hands up.
“Grazie,” she said with a whine. “Can you calm her down?”
“I’ll go up, Tracy. Can you get Uri and Nattie some tea?”
Tracy nodded, looking relieved as she left the room. Natalia saw Sherri’s other daughters sitting in the living room. They were either watching TV or reading. One had a tablet. They seemed to ignore the commotion that was coming from upstairs.
A woman that Natalia recognized from the Wednesday night meetings trotted down the stairs with almost as much haste as Tracy. She was holding Grace who was fussing.
“Grazie…“ she said with a concerned look.
“I’m going up. I had to let Uri and Nattie in. Introduce yourself. I’ll be right back.”
Grazie trotted up the stairs.
“Hi, Nattie. I’m Larsa.”
“Hi, Larsa. I recognized you. This is Uri.”
“I know Uri.”
“You playing wet nurse?” Uri said.
Larsa’s breasts were huge and straining at the buttons of her shirt. She had a cloth diaper draped over one shoulder.
“Yes. Sherri’s so stressed, her milk never came in.”
A door slammed upstairs. Grace scrunched up her face to cry.
“It’s creating even more stress,” Larsa said.
’Quiet,’ Larsa said to Grace who then changed her scrunched up face to a pout. Grace’s arms quivered with some agitation.
“She doesn’t look happy, either,” Natalia said.
“A new baby doesn’t need this kind of stress,” Larsa said.
“Why don’t you come sit in the dining room?”
“Thanks, Tracy,” Natalia said.
They followed her in. On the table, there was a pitcher of iced tea and four glasses. Tracy poured three glasses full, then she left.
Larsa sat with them, taking a glass for herself.
“She’s really had to step up,” Larsa said in a low voice with a nod in the direction that Tracy had gone. “Usually, it’s Anna who tends to Sherri, but Anna is still in jail.”
“I haven’t heard any more on that. I’m sure it’s a source of stress as well,” Natalia said.
Natalia was hoping for more information, but Larsa wasn’t saying anything more.
Grazie joined them a few minutes later.
“Sorry for that.”
He poured himself a glass and sat across from them beside Larsa. His attention was on Grace. Larsa handed her over to him.
“I’m no help if she doesn’t let me stay,” Larsa said.
“You’re staying,” Grazie said.
“If you need safe shelter, you can take over my house in Viperia,” Uri said.
“Don’t tell the girls. They’d be there in a heart beat,” Grazie said.
“I heard that,” someone said from the living room.
“It’s eight against one here in the house,” Grazie said. “Sherri is the one everyone’s against. She’s not being nice to anyone.”
All five of Sherri’s daughters filed in and fitted themselves around the dining room table.
“Do you mean it? Can we go over to your house?” Tracy said to Uri.
“Please,” Zean, the youngest of the five, said. She had big eyes with a pleading look to her.
“I can offer, but not my call if you can go,” Uri said.
“Don’t know what Sherri would do with no one here,” Grazie said.
“Go ballistic,” Tracy said.
All the other girls nodded.
“Most current husband decides,” Tracy said.
“Not surprising that you’re up on the latest laws,” Uri said.
“I’ve already been told not to leave,” Grazie said in a quiet voice.
Natalia wondered if this came from the Council.
“You leave and we’re outta here,” said a maid as she stepped in.
Natalia didn’t know her name. Sherri never introduced any of her maids when Natalia was there and seemed to ignore them as they went about their work.
“I’m not going anywhere without Grace, so until I get a mandate from the Council, I stay,” Grazie said. “And I need all the help I can get.”
He panned his eyes over all of the girls.
“We stay,” Tracy said with a sigh. “For Grace’s sake.”
“Ohhh,” Zean said with a groan, pulling a long face.
“Can Nattie come visit sometime?” Tracy said.
Natalia was surprised at that as she hadn’t talked with or done much with Tracy.
“I can. But this week is busy. I’m taking the driving class. And Saturday I’m seeing Lisa.”
“Lisa?” Tracy said. “I have some things for her. Can you take them?”
Natalia nodded. Tracy hurried out of the room.
Grace fussed again.
“Your turn,” Grazie said, handing her back to Larsa. “She’s hungry.”
Larsa unbuttoned her blouse and exposed a nipple. Grace latched on sucking eagerly before she slowed down to a steady suckle. Uri and Grazie watched.
“You going to nurse Victoria?” Uri said, moving his eyes away.
“Certainly,” Natalia said.
“Victoria is a beautiful name,” Grazie said.
Larsa nodded in agreement.
“Is that a relative’s name? Grandmother?” Grazie said.
“No. But her middle name will be Rayna which is Uri’s mother’s name.”
“Tia’s too,” Grazie said with a nod.
Tracy returned with a large plastic bag.
“Clothes she never got to take with her,” Tracy said in explanation. “And a few other things.”
“Thanks, Tracy. I’ll get them to her,” Natalia said.
“Tell her we all said hi.”
Grazie stiffened and looked up.
“I’ll be right back.” He left, trotting up the stairs.
“She probably wants some hot tea,” Tracy said.
“I’ll get it,” the maid said.
“Thanks, Pania,” Tracy said.
Everyone seemed to be holding their breath with the tense silence overhead. The only noise was Grace suckling.
“Grazie has his hands full,” Uri said, breaking the silence.
Everyone of Sherri’s daughters nodded. Larsa did too.
“Is there anything you girls need?” Uri said.
Tracy shook her head.
“Grazie is doing what we need,” she said. “We’ve needed this for a long time.”
Pania passed through with a mug of tea. She seemed to be tentative as she walked up the stairs.
“It’s both better and worse without Anna,” Tracy said using a very quiet voice. “She helped mother more, but she was also very demanding.”
“She was mean,” Zean said.
“You doing okay without sanguine tea?” Uri said.
Tracy hesitated. The other daughters looked around at each other.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Tracy said to Natalia.
She rose and followed Tracy led her through the kitchen to the basement stairs. Tracy paused a moment, as if listening, before flipping on the lights to the basement.
“Oh, you don’t need lights now do you?” Tracy said.
“No, but that’s okay. Thank for thinking I did.”
Tracy trotted down the stairs. Natalia followed. At the bottom of the stairs, Tracy stopped. She listened hard again before stepping over to a wall. She touched the wall in a couple of places and a door swung open. Within the large hidden room were large barrels.
“Sanguine tea. Twenty of them. One barrel will last you through the rest of your pregnancy.”
“Your mother stashed them here?”
“No, Anna did. We have enough. If you need any, we’ll send some over.”
“No, I’m good for a while. Can I tell Uri?”
“Can you trust him?”
“I don’t have much choice, but I hope so. I won’t tell him everything.”
Anna closed the door.
“What’s that smell?” Natalia said. It was a warm, moist earthy smell.
“Grubbies. We raise them down here.”
“Smells like rotting wood and dirt.”
“Yeah. That’s what grubbies smell like.”
Tracy led her back up the stairs.
In the dining room, Grazie wasn’t back yet. The other girls had returned to the living room. Grace was now sleeping, and Larsa had her breast covered back up.
“Sorry, Uri,” Tracy said. “When you said tea, it reminded me of something else I wanted to share with Nattie. We don’t need any sanguine tea. We’re all good.”
Uri nodded, seeming to accept the excuse.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before there was the sound of a door. Both Grazie and Pania came back down.
“She’s resting now. I told her you’d come to see the baby. With guests in the house, she’ll behave better,” Grazie said.
“We drove over in Nattie’s new car. She’s getting some practice,” Uri said.
“What’d you get her?”
“That new model of the VPI sports coupe.”
“Hell. Where’d you get the money for that?”
“We’re both working,” Uri said with a smile. “I know how to save my pennies.”
“Is that why we’re having auditor problems?” Natalia said, but she wasn’t being serious.
Grazie cracked up.
“No,” Uri said, pretending to look offended.
The mood lightened around the table.
“They don’t cost that much,” Uri said. “Wanna see?”
“Guy thing,” Natalia breathed.
They all rose, heading to the front door. Natalia remembered to grab the plastic bag for Lisa.
“Girls. Come see, Nattie’s new car,” Grazie said.
Soon they were all outside.
“It’s not a Viperian car,” Grazie said.
“I love it,” Tracy said. “I love the color.”
“That’s what I mean. It’s not black,” he said.
“Is there a rule on that?” Natalia said.
“No, it’s a joke,” Uri said.
Natalia glimpsed a face in an upstairs window. It was Sherri seeing what was going on. Natalia pretended she hadn’t seen her.
“Awesome car, Nattie,” Tracy said. “I can hardly wait until I’m old enough.”
“Much too cold to be out here,” Larsa said, heading back in with Grace.
Uri popped the trunk and put the plastic bag in.
“I know you like the company,” Uri said, as he closed the trunk. “But Nattie and I have to go.”
Sherri’s daughters had drifted off to the gardens even though it was cool out.
“Thanks for coming. This gave me a little break.”
Natalia noted they kept their backs to the house while they talked.
“Did Tracy show you the grubbies?” Uri said to Natalia.
“Tracy took Nattie downstairs?” Grazie said.
“Yeah,” Uri said.
“She showed you the tea, didn’t she?” Grazie said.
Natalia didn’t know what to say.
“She doesn’t know I know,” Grazie said. “I can see what’s going on in the house. I’m not blind. Or as stupid as Sherri thinks men are.”
“Did you measure the house?”
“You bet I did. I didn’t study architecture for nothing.”
“What does that do?” Natalia said.
“Measure the outside of a house and measure the rooms, and you’ll find discrepancies. That means secret rooms. I’ve found them all,” Grazie said. “And all the secrets.”
“Which he’s holding on to and not telling.”
“Not time to tell,” Grazie said. “I’d prefer Nattie didn’t know about the tea, either.”
“I won’t say a word,” she said. “I can honestly say I haven’t said a thing.”
“You got a good one, Uri.”
“Tia’s coming around,” Uri said.
“She does like you,” Natalia said, remember all the times when Tia mentioned him and how husky her voice got.
“She’s coming over later to sit with Sherri,” Grazie said.
“Pretty soon you’ll have her full time and another kid on the way,” Uri said with a chuckle.
“With what’s going on, I might end up with more than one kid.”
“We’ll leave you to it,” Uri said, waving for her to get into the driver’s seat.
Natalia pulled out the laneway.
“What did Grazie mean he might have more than one kid with what’s going on?”
“If Sherri goes to jail, he might end up with all her children. Line of succession when a mother can’t take care of her children is her mother, then current husband. Grazie is considered current husband since they just had Grace together. Sherri’s mother is much too old to take the girls. That leaves Grazie.”
“Will that put off Tia from him?”
“Hell, no. That might just about guarantee she’ll get with him. I mean, he can refuse them, the children, but he won’t and a man who’ll take care of children and not only just his own, is most sought after in a woman.”
“He’s only twenty or so. I can’t remember if he had his twenty-first birthday yet.”
The car warned of a check point and that five cruisers were in the area. Natalia pulled up to an intersection. She looked up and down the streets.
“No barricades. Follow the car suggestion or take that side street up there?”
“Take the side street,” Uri said.
She made the two turns. Half-way down the street, a cruiser pulled up fast behind her with his lights flashing.
“Pull out your IDs and do exactly what he says,” Uri said.
Natalia pulled over and stopped. She felt some apprehension and her heart rate sped up.
The officer came up to the window. Natalia had her ID with her learner’s permit ready. She was surprised that Uri had pulled his ID out as well.
“Out for a Sunday drive?” the officer said, taking her IDs.
Uri offered his, and the officer took them as well.
“Driving lessons,” Natalia said.
“Did you see the check point down the street?”
She noted his eyes were on the dash of the car as if he was looking for something.
“You taking the driving class or is hubby here your instructor?”
“Driving school. Barb is my instructor.”
The officer nodded.
“Good idea to be on the side streets when you’re just starting out. Drive carefully,” the officer said, handing back the IDs.
Natalia rolled up the window.
“I said the right things, didn’t I?”
“Driving school and Barb were the right things. And our dash was clear.”
She started the car. The cruiser drove around them and turned the corner.
“Why was he looking at the dash?”
“For the radio detectors that warn about check points. We install ours so they’re hidden.”
“Why’d he pull me over?”
“He was probably parked in a hidden spot and saw us turn as if we were avoiding the check point. Dashing down a side street is a red flag. However, with you being a new driver, it made sense.”
Natalia took a deep breath to calm herself and slow her heart beat. She stopped at a main intersection and made the turn. The rest of the drive home was uneventful, but she found herself checking all the mirrors more often.
She pulled into the laneway and tapped the garage door opener. When she pulled in, Bonnie was waiting for them.
“Your license plate went through the police radio,” she told them with concern.
“We got stopped. We were going around a check point, and they caught us. However... “ he nodded at Natalia. “She name dropped her instructor’s name and that got us on his good side.”
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to avoid them,” Bonnie said, leaving.
In the house, Mag and Zena met them.
“We’ve made a decision,” Mag said, looking very serious.
Natalia wondered if this was the decision of what side they were going to pick.
“And?” Uri said.
“Nattie has to move her office.”
That wasn’t what she was expecting to hear.
“I have to what?”
“The room you have is closest to the master bedroom, and that’s where the nursery should be,” Mag said.
“We want you to move your office down a room,” Zena said.
“Okay,” Natalia said. “That probably is best.”
Both Zena and Mag looked as if they didn’t believe her.
“Do you want to do that now?” Natalia said, trying to show them that she was truly in agreement with them.
“We can do it during the week,” Mag said. “We have to move the bed that’s in there any way.
“Okay. That will work. Are we going to paint, too? No pink and no lace,” Natalia said, remembering how her own mother had decorated her room.
“How about yellow?” Zena said.
“How about a light blue,” Natalia said. “I know blue is a boys color, but I like blue.”
Mag nodded, looking rather pleased. Zena smiled.
“Blue is traditional for a girl,” Uri said. “For Viperians. Boys get green.”
“I’m good with that,” Natalia said.
“Wonderful. We’ll get started this week,” Mag said. Both of them looked happy as they returned to the kitchen.
“Their on our side if their going to help decorate Victoria’s room.”
“This transaction had a double meaning?”
“I need to learn the unspoken Viperian language,” she said.
“Go do your homework,” he said, pretending to put her off, but he leaned in to rub his cheek on hers.
Natalia trotted up the stairs. She went to the second guest room. It was the same size as her current office, but there was a tiny balcony that overlooked the back.
“Yeah, this will be nice,” she said, thinking this wasn’t going to be bad at all.
She settled in her office knowing what she had to finish since she had less time this week. A few hours and she’d be done, she thought.
She turned on her tablet and a bell started ringing.