I did terrible things. I’m not a good man. Forgive me, Eloise. You are the light of my life. The day you were born, that was the day all the sickness and evil left my body. I took one look at you, and I knew I could never let someone hurt you the way I hurt them. It was an epiphany. Far too late for them. But I changed that day. I devoted my life to you, beautiful child.
I stared at the letter, scribbled on the back of an invoice for the alarm company. He couldn’t find a sheet of stationary to write on? There had to be another letter. Ellie knew her father raped me. This letter didn’t say that. Why was my little sister so reluctant to hand over the letters?
I glanced up to find Harland leaning against the archway. The music room was next on the search list, so I told Ellie I would tackle it while she continued with the upstairs study.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Looking for hidden letters.”
“Did you find one?” he asked, eyeing the wrinkled paper in my hand.
“No. This is one Ellie already found before they died.”
“How’d you convince her to hand it over?”
“She doesn’t want to keep them from us. She’s just struggling because she feels like she’s betraying her father. All of the letters she’s found have been addressed to her.”
“What does that one say?”
I handed it to him and sat down on the piano bench, running my fingers over the crisp white keys. The piano was an antique. Probably over one hundred years old. How were the keys still so white?
“Too little, too late,” he grumbled, tossing the sheet of paper on the coffee table.
He sat next to me, sliding his arm around my waist. “How was your sleepover last night?”
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s not your fault. I’m just glad you convinced her to go downstairs for tea. Otherwise, I might’ve been stuck in the closet all night.”
“She knew you were in there, Harland.”
“The entire thing was a ploy to keep us from having sex.”
“Why doesn’t she want us to have sex?”
“Oh, she wants us to have sex. But she felt that I needed a talk about birth control first. She doesn’t want any nieces or nephews right now.”
“I did hear that part of the conversation.”
“I guess you probably heard the rest of it, too.”
“I’m still trying to scrub most of it from my brain,” he chuckled.
“I think we need to sit her down and explain the situation. She thinks we are all going to live together as a family. I’d rather set her straight now, than crush her with disappointment later.”
“What are we supposed to tell her?”
“I’m not sure.”
“She’s twelve, Kinley. I have no idea how to explain our arrangement to a kid.”
“Do you wanna try getting together again tonight?” he whispered, nuzzling my ear.
I tapped out the first few notes of It’s a Small World, the only song I knew how to play. I’d never really been in a relationship before. The one guy who did stick it out for two months wasn’t around all the time. And I’d certainly never lived in the same house as a man I was sleeping with.
Well, attempting to sleep with.
Ellie put the kibosh on that last night. Then I started my period. Most women my age would just tell the guy. Because most women have grown up by the time they reach their thirties. My twelve-year-old sister had a more mature attitude about menstruation than I did. She wasn’t embarrassed. She talked openly about it, knowing full well that Harland was in the closet listening.
“I um.” I stared down at the keys, my cheeks heating.
“Did you change your mind?”
“No. That’s not it.”
“Then what is it?”
“I have a situation that kind of puts a damper on sexual encounters.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“Can you look at me?”
I lifted my head, feeling incredibly stupid. He leaned in, kissing me softly on the lips. “Why are you embarrassed?”
“You’re my stepbrother. It’s weird.”
“I ate your pussy, sweetheart,” he chuckled. “I think we’ve already passed weird and cruised right into taboo land. But you know what?”
“I don’t care.”
“We aren’t blood relatives. Our parents are dead. So, technically, we aren’t step-siblings anymore.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed with me, Kinley.”
“What are you sorry for?”
“Making you wait a few more days.”
“We have all the time in the world.”
“When did you turn into such a nice guy, Harland?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, I like the sweet, caring Harland. He’s much more likeable than teenage Harland.”
“Yeah.” I pressed my lips against his, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“While we’re knee-deep in personal, awkward subjects, I’d like to discuss something else that’s been on my mind since last night.”
“Are you on the pill or anything?”
“Okay. We’ll use condoms. I brought some last night.”
“I know. You left them on my nightstand.”
“Ellie saw them?”
“Great. We aren’t starting off very well in the parenting department.”
“Ellie’s not your typical kid.”
“Definitely not,” he sighed. “I have no idea how to parent her. She thinks she’s an adult.”
“Most of the time, she’s very mature. But there are moments where the tween girl comes out.”
“She’s gonna be a handful.”
“It seems as though she had very few rules. Your father treated her like his business partner, and I don’t think Mom had much of a relationship with her at all.”
“We need to be consistent. She can’t run amok at your house, because when she comes to mine, I won’t allow that.”
“Are you saying I’m a pushover, Harland?”
“No. I just don’t want a kid thinking she has the same privileges as an adult just because she’s in college. Ellie needs discipline, and she needs to spend time with kids her own age.”
“She would hate being thrown in with other kids.”
“There’s a day camp at the country club. It starts next week. At least she’d be around kids from her own social class.”
“Her own social class?”
“That’s a very snobbish statement, Harland.”
“Ellie is a member of the club, Kinley. My father didn’t keep her imprisoned in this house. She had a full social calendar. She probably already knows most of the kids who are signed up for the camp.”
“Ellie owns the club,” I reminded him.
“She owns one-third of it.”
“Rock, paper, scissors for who has to tell her?”
“You’re on, woman!”
“That’ll be two thousand dollars, please,” Ellie announced triumphantly.
“I’m out,” Harland grumbled.
“No you’re not! You can mortgage all your properties.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You have to, Harland,” she barked.
“I’m out, Ellie.”
“Hollingbrooks don’t quit.”
“You sound just like him.”
“My turn,” Kinley said, rolling the dice.
“Kinley has something to tell you,” Harland announced, leaning back in his chair with a smug grin.
She dropped the stack of play money she’d been sorting. “If you’re enceinte, it happened prior to your arrival.”
“Excuse me?” Sometimes, I needed a thesaurus to have a conversation with my sister.
“Enceinte means pregnant, Kinley.”
“Then why don’t you just say pregnant?” Harland asked.
“There are approximately five hundred thousand words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you know the size of the average person’s vocabulary?”
“Twenty to thirty thousand.” She sighed heavily, shaking her head. “My vocabulary is already well over one hundred thousand. I believe it is my duty as an intelligence ambassador to educate the people around me.”
He chuckled. “An intelligence ambassador?”
“I’m not pregnant, Ellie,” Kinley said. “We signed you up for camp next week.”
“Camp?” She wrinkled her nose, cringing as if I just announced we were sending her to boot camp or something.
“Summer camp,” Harland said. “At the club. It’s only for a week.”
“We think it would be good for you to spend some time with people your own age,” I explained.
“You do?” Harland glanced at me, clearly as surprised as I was that she was so agreeable. We were prepared for an epic battle.
“Yes. If it provides the two of you the time you require to carry out the infatuation phase of your relationship, I can accommodate this request. The uncontrollable urge to fornicate often is expected. I don’t wish to interfere with the natural order of things. But please keep in mind that an unplanned pregnancy would be ill-advised at this time. I am cognizant of the fact that you’re over thirty, Kinley. The probability of getting pregnant has reached a peak, and will steadily decline with each passing year. I’m not suggesting you wait too long, but I would recommend a year at minimum.”
I blinked rapidly, my average brain scrambling to process her little speech. When I glanced over at Harland, he was staring off into space, his expression unreadable.
“Ellie,” I began gently. “I think we need to clarify some things. Harland and I aren’t in a relationship.”
“He was in your bedroom in the middle of the night. I saw the prophylactics on your nightstand.”
“Sometimes, adults engage in sexual relations without being in a committed relationship,” Harland explained.
“I don’t believe that is the case in this situation.”
I reached across the table, capturing her hand. “Ellie, I understand that you’re grieving the loss of your parents, and you’re hoping to form a new traditional family unit with us, but it’s not in the cards.”
“You two are so delusional,” she chuckled.
“How do you figure?” Harland asked, folding his arms across his chest.
“I may be a kid, as the two of you are so fond of reminding me of, but I have eyes. And I obtained a perfect score in my human behaviour class. You can scoff at that all you want, but my professor said I had a gift for analyzing people. And I believe him. I study people all the time. Staff, characters on tv and in movies, people out in public. I’m gifted in a diverse range of subjects and abilities.”
“Well, my dear sister, you’ve misread this situation.”
“We don’t want you to be disappointed,” I said.
“I won’t be,” she declared. “Now, Kinley, it appears as though you’ve landed on Park Place. Pay up.”