“Relax,” Harland said, reaching across the console to squeeze my hand. “This is just a formality.”
“You don’t know that for sure, Harland,” I sighed. “They originally said it would take months to finalize Ellie’s custody. Then out of the blue, we have a hearing six weeks later.”
“I’m telling you, the social worker was so impressed with Ellie’s proposal, she somehow expedited things.”
“A social worker doesn’t have that kind of power.”
“What possible reason would they have to go against our parents’ wishes for guardianship?”
“We aired all of our dirty laundry in front of the social worker.”
“We aired my father’s dirty laundry, Kinley. And why would a judge deny us custody because of what my father did to you and my mother, and the countless other girls he assaulted?”
“I’m not talking about that.”
“What are you worried about then?”
“What if Karen told the judge we’re sleeping together? And he thought that was so fucked up, he called a hearing right away to revoke temporary custody.”
“First of all, I don’t recall telling that social worker about our relationship. If she came to that conclusion on her own, that’s not admissible in court. And secondly, wouldn’t the fact that we’re in a relationship work in our favour?”
“If we weren’t step siblings.”
“We aren’t step siblings anymore. Our parents are dead, hence they’re no longer married, meaning that our step relationship no longer exists.”
“Other people don’t see it that way, Harland.”
“What people? We haven’t gone public.”
“Darien Panabaker thought it was weird.”
“That’s one person, Kinley.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. My mind is all over the map.”
“You’re stressed about the hearing. An hour from now, it’ll all be behind us. We’ll go home and tell Ellie the good news, and move forward with our plans.”
Our plans that may or may not include you. Because you aren’t sure that we’re worth giving up your life in New York for. Even though you claim to be in love with me, you don’t love me enough to make a commitment.
Mr. File was waiting in the lobby of the small courthouse in Houlton. Harland walked ahead with him, leaving me to follow behind like a puppy while they talked quietly.
I struggled to hold back the tears threatening to burst forth. How dare they leave me out of the conversation? Sexist assholes. I’d show them. I marched up behind them, squeezing myself between them.
“Would you care to share with me as well?” I bit out. “My name is on the custody application, too.”
Mr. File stared at me with a look of surprise.
“Um, sweetheart,” Harland said quietly. “We were discussing last night’s Yankees game.”
“Are you okay,” he whispered, squeezing my hip.
“You’re on the verge of tears.”
“Mr. File, please bring your clients in.”
We followed our lawyer into the judge’s chamber, my heart thundering against my ribs. Dread seeped into my belly, swirling around before shooting up my esophagus like a ball of fire, triggering a wave of nausea that almost cost me my breakfast.
Get a grip, Kinley. There’s no reason to think this is going to end badly.
“Please be seated,” the woman requested. “Judge Harris will be joining us momentarily.”
Harland reached behind me, rubbing my back in slow circles. “Take a deep breath,” he whispered.
The judge entered, taking a seat across from us at the long wooden table. He shuffled some papers before glancing up at us. “Mr. Hollingbrook and Miss Davenport, I presume.”
“Yes, your honour,” Mr. File replied.
“Your parents were recently killed in an accident, leaving a minor child in your care,” he stated, reading over his notes. “A twelve-year-old girl. Eloise. A gifted child who is already enrolled in an undergraduate business and finance program at MIT. I understand she is completing most of her studies through a special virtual format offered to students who are members of Mensa.
The social worker assigned to your case through Children and Family Services provided me with a copy of a business proposal prepared by young Eloise. I was very impressed. Mr. File has advised me that Miss Davenport, will remain in Maine at the family homestead while Mr. Hollingbrook returns to New York City where he owns a financial firm.”
Harland was planning to return to New York.
“Mr. File, it appears as though your clients have agreed on a plan that is in the best interests of the minor child. I don’t see any reason to delay this. Mr. Hollingbrook and Miss Davenport, do you understand your responsibilities as legal guardians?”
“Yes, Your Honour,” we stated.
“I hereby grant full legal guardianship of Eloise Hollingbrook to her half-siblings, Harland Hollingbrook and Kinley Davenport.”
I crawled under the covers and closed my eyes. The stress of the day caught up to me at the dinner table. I almost fell asleep in my chicken orzo.
How sad is it when you’re in bed before the sun goes down? It was June. The days were long, staying light until almost ten o’clock.
Harland was still downstairs. He said he had some work to catch up on before his trip to New York. I had no idea he was leaving until he sprung it on us at dinner. Ellie didn’t seem bothered by it. It took a lot to ruffle that kid’s feathers. I wish I could say the same for myself.
I guess he’d made his decision, but didn’t feel it was necessary to share it with me. He told the lawyer. But not the woman he supposedly loved.
My phone vibrated on my nightstand.
“Oops,” I mumbled when I saw my grandmother’s name on the screen. How could I forget to call her after the hearing? It wasn’t like me to let things slip my mind.
“Kinley Davenport, I’ve been waiting all afternoon for your call. We’ve been worried sick.”
“How did the hearing go?”
“Good. The judge signed off on permanent guardianship for Harland and me.”
“Thank goodness. I didn’t really think you had anything to worry about, but you never know.”
“Yes. It’s definitely a huge weight off our shoulders.”
“I reckon so,” she said. “Have you thought anymore about moving down here?”
“We’re going to stay here, Gram.”
“What? Why? You hate that mausoleum.”
“We’re not going to live here. We’re going to build a modest house on the grounds. My dream house. You know, the one with the wraparound porch?”
“Why on earth would you want to do that, child?”
I told her about Ellie’s proposal to turn the house into a retreat for victims of sexual violence. She was quiet for so long, I was beginning to think she might’ve hung up.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Kinley,” she finally said.
“As long as you’re on that estate, you will face reminders of what that monster did to you. And being surrounded by other victims will just make it worse.”
“I don’t agree, Gram.”
“It’s because of him, isn’t it?”
“Are you referring to Harland?”
“Harland is going to live in New York. He’ll come to visit on weekends.”
“I see,” she said.
“Listen, Gram. I have an idea.”
“Now that I can take Ellie out-of-state, how about we come down for a visit next week?”
“We would love that!”
“Great. I’ll book our flights as soon as I get off the phone.”
“Will Harland be joining you?”
“No. He has meetings in New York.”
“Oh, Kinley. We’re going to have so much fun. It’s gorgeous here.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Gram.”
I booked the flights as soon as I hung up from my grandmother. How was it possible to be so exhausted, yet unable to fall asleep? I couldn’t shut my brain down. That was the problem.
When I heard Harland’s footsteps coming down the hall, I prayed he would go to his own room. I didn’t get my wish. He didn’t say anything, heading directly into the bathroom. I could’ve pretended to be asleep. But I didn’t bother. I guess I was looking for a fight.
He came out in his boxers, slipping into his side of the bed. I pulled away when he wrapped his arm around my waist.
“I thought you would be sleeping, babe,” he whispered. “You looked completely wiped out at dinner.”
“I’m exhausted, but I’m having trouble falling asleep.”
“Maybe I can help with that,” he suggested, reaching out to rub my ass.
I rolled over so I was facing him. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d made your decision?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You decided to live in New York.”
“I haven’t made any decisions yet, Kinley.”
“Mr. File told the judge that.”
He flopped onto his back, releasing a frustrated sigh. “He didn’t want the judge to make a ruling based on the fact that I was living here full time. If he did that, and I did decide to stay in New York, it could cause problems down the road.”
“The judge could say we lied.”
“You’re talking like there was someone else fighting us for custody.”
“I don’t know, Kinley,” he bit out. “I’m not a fucking lawyer.”
“Whatever,” I muttered.
“Don’t whatever me.”
“What is this really about? Why are you angry with me?”
“I just feel like you’re shutting me out,” I said, my voice catching.
“Come here, sweetheart,” he said, raising his arm.
I snuggled into his side, resting my head on his chest.
“Are you crying?”
“Then why are there tear drops on my chest?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve been off all day, hon.”
“Don’t apologize. It was a big day. It’s okay to be a little emotional.”
“I’m taking Ellie to Florida next week while you’re in New York.”
“Oh. Okay. When did you decide this?”
“Earlier, when I was talking to my grandmother.”
“I’m sure Ellie will enjoy that.”
“I hope so.”
“It’ll be good for you guys to get out of this depressing house for a bit. And hopefully, we can get started on our own place as soon as possible.”
He said our place. I was so confused. Harland was sending mixed messages about our future, if we even had one. But I was too tired to have that conversation. I finally drifted off to sleep with his arms wrapped snugly around my waist.
“Are you sure you don’t want to tag along?” Harland asked, laughing when Ellie skipped across the driveway, bubbling with excitement. It was so nice to see her relax. She’d changed a lot over the past several weeks from the uptight reserved kid who dressed us down at the lawyer’s office that first day we met her.
“Yes. I have lots to do here. And my last meeting with your mother didn’t go so well.”
“My mother can be a lot to take.”
“Go. Have a fun day with Ellie. She’ll enjoy hanging with your mom and checking out her gallery.”
“Okay. We probably won’t be back until after dinner.”
“I’ll be fine on my own for the day.”
He glanced back at the car. Ellie was watching us with a shit eating grin. “Shall we give her a show?”
“Why not?” I chuckled.
He slid his arms around my waist, his hands dropping to my ass when our mouths came together for a searing kiss.
“We’ll continue this later,” he promised.
“I’m gonna hold you to that.”
I watched them drive away before heading back inside. It felt strange to be alone in the house. Joanne was out doing errands, and it was the cook’s day off. A shiver rippled down my spine as the silence of the old mansion enveloped me.
Stop it, Kinley. You’re being silly. This place is surrounded by a twenty-foot high, concrete wall. There’s a state of the art security system. The gardeners and stable hands are outside.
I decided to tackle the massive filing cabinet in the office. Harland said to shred any documents that were more than seven-years-old. I opened the box containing the heavy-duty shredder we purchased, setting it up next to the desk.
After two hours of sorting and shredding, I was ready for a break. I gulped down half a bottle of water and collapsed in the chair, closing my eyes.
Just a quick nap, and I’ll get back to work.
When I woke up, I was shocked to discover I’d been sleeping for three hours! I’d missed a text from Ellie, telling me they’d arrived safely in Portland.
I dragged myself out of the chair and got back to work. Most of the files in the bottom drawer were ancient. I flipped through some papers, glancing briefly at the dates before feeding them through the shredder. My eyes landed on a bill from a clinic in Bangor from twenty-five years before.
A bill for a vasectomy.