There was a knock on the guest bedroom I occupied, and then (with my permission) Shane entered. He immediately threw himself onto the narrow bed on which I sat, half-covered by a wool blanket incompetently knitted by Blanche.
"Ouch," I muttered, lowering the book to my lap and glancing at my brother meaningfully. He pinned my leg.
"Dylan's looking for a dirt on you,' he informed me casually. Then his gaze rested on the packet of mini chocolate chip cookies I had taken from the kitchen to make my reading more enjoyable. Two seconds later he was already munching them with taste.
"Don't make a face, or it'll stay twisted forever. The dirt. Dylan is looking for.
"Why? Because I told everyone about the maid?" I snorted with disbelief.
"Dad was angry with him all day yesterday."
I tucked Leo's dried rose, which I still insisted on using as a bookmark (even though it was falling apart a bit), between the pages of the book and closed it.
"Dylan asked for it himself," I pointed out. Yes, I was well aware that I sounded like a kindergarten kid.
Shane stretched out even more so that his white T-shirt rolled up to show a little bit of his muscular belly where the cookie crumbs were falling. Pig. I already knew I was going to have to clean up after him. If I'd known I was going to get away with it, I would have happily kicked him off that bed onto the floor.
"Yeah, but you know... When you decide to drop a bomb like that, you have to expect that Dylan won't let you off that easily," Shane shrugged his shoulders. He grabbed the pillow that was lying next to him and put it under his head.
"I'm not interested in what Dylan is thinking in his empty head," I said firmly.
Shane gave me an indulgent look.
"Oh, is that why you just looked at the door, to make sure it was locked and that he wouldn't hear you say that?"
I pressed my lips together. That's not at all why I glanced at the door.
"I just warned you, Hailie, and what you do about it is your business."
I furrowed my brow, annoyed that I had to worry about such bullshit.
"How do you even know he is looking for something on me?"
"Because he came to me and wanted me to give him the dirt that I have on you," he announced simply.
"You have a dirt on me?" I was surprised.
"I share both with Tony, and Dylan has a dirt on Tony, so Tony will probably tell him one of our dirts on you. Dylan's got one on me too, but I got one on him, which he didn't know when he came to me. And when he found out, he went to Tony. Because Tony doesn't have anything on him at the moment."
"What dirts do you and Tony have on me?"
Shane looked at me as if I fell off the moon.
"Hello, you kissed the blond guy at school," he rolled his eyes, like his answer was the most obvious thing in the world. "And you got drunk in a bar."
My mouth dropped open with indignation.
"Tony can't tell Dylan about any of these things!"
"But he will," Shane shrugged his shoulders and popped another cookie in his mouth. "That's the law of the jungle."
"You guys are going to get it yourself if it comes out that I got drunk."
"Nah. Well, sure, we'll get the shit kicked out of us, but in the end, you'll be the one who's screwed the most."
"Well then stop him, please," I groaned.
"Hm, I'd rather not interfere. I couldn't do anything anyway. You know, because Tony's got dirt on me.
"Are you two nuts?"
Shane tilted his head with a mocking expression on his face.
"I get that you've been raised as an only child most of your life, but these aren't difficult rules to follow."
I shook my head in disbelief, as if I was already trying to get rid of the memory of that silly conversation I had just had.
"You know what, I don't give a damn. It doesn't matter. I don't care. I'm not going to get sucked into your childish games," I decided and began to crawl out from under the blanket. I was going to stretch my bones anyway. I put the book aside.
"But you already did."
I stopped and glanced at Shane, still sprawled out on my bed. He didn't even flinch.
"So what am I supposed to do?"
"Well... if you don't have dirt on Dylan or anything on Tony then not much." Saying that, Shane waved a cookie around like an expert explaining some intricate phenomenon.
"Geez, what a useless help, thanks," I commented with a raised eyebrow.
Shane once again shrugged his shoulders and when I got to my feet, he graciously got up as well. Just as I had predicted, the crumbs from his belly joyfully slid right down onto my bedding. Seeing this, my eyelid almost twitched, but I just clenched my jaw even tighter and walked out of the room, leaving my brother behind.
I walked downstairs to the kitchen, but hearing Vincent's voice coming from there, I slowed my step. I was still enjoying the surprise of my brothers' unexpected appearance on the islands, but Blanche's house was far too small to accommodate us all here. Constantly, I'd bump into someone.
"...see how he hides his face? He had prepared himself. He knew full well where the cameras were."
"That's okay," dad said, "he can't mask everything. Stop. Go back. Two frames. One more."
I stopped in the hallway literally for a second because I knew that eavesdropping on my father and Vincent was, first of all, suicidal (due to my eldest brother's sensitive sixth, seventh and eighth senses), secondly pointless because they were obviously commenting on something I hadn't seen with my eyes and therefore didn't understand, and thirdly boring. I just didn't feel like standing in the hallway.
So I went into the kitchen where Vincent was sitting at the table with his laptop and my father was standing leaning against the sideboard looking over his shoulder at the screen.
Cam shifted his gaze immediately to me, and his furrowed brow and the corners of his mouth pulled down immediately relaxed.
"Hello, princess," he greeted me. "What do you need?"
"I came for tea," I replied, glancing at the laptop with interest, but before I could get close enough to see anything, Vincent managed to minimize the window with a completely inconspicuous movement, because all I saw was the desktop and a few neatly arranged icons on it.
As if on command, my father moved and relieved me, pouring water into the electric kettle.
Sensing that both men were not going to continue the conversation due to my presence, I dragged it myself. I tied hands together behind my back and watched my father reach for the cup for me.
"What were you watching before I came in?"
"It's nothing, sunshine. Work," he dismissed me and waved his hand before opening the drawer. "What kind of tea would you like?"
"Actually, I think you should show her the video," Vincent interjected.
This surprised both me and my father, whose eyebrows immediately went back into a frown.
"But what are you talking about, Vincent," he growled unnaturally, clearly emphasizing his dissatisfaction and anger. There was also a very meaningful look that he shot at his son.
Vincent endured it with stoic calm.
"I am talking about the fact that she might have seen something. There's a chance she'll make a connection. The video should be shown to her."
"Rather, we should probably discuss it, yes or no?" He tilted his head. "Vincent, damn it."
They both looked at each other. Dark eyes threatened those blue eyes, calm and cool, belonging to Vince.
"I'd actually like some chamomile," I muttered, unsure if my father even remembered the question he'd asked me.
"Sure thing," he immediately gave me another hearty smile as he took his stern gaze away from his son, then proceeded to rummage through Blanche's drawer of teas.
"Can you please sit here for a moment, Hailie?" Vince turned to me, pointing to the vacant chair next to him.
I nodded and moved towards my brother with a brisk step.
"I say no," dad hissed, straightening up and turning towards us.
But I had already taken my seat and only gave him an innocently confused look.
"Do you remember the charity party for our foundation you attended a month ago?" Vincent asked, watching me intently.
I refrained from rolling my eyes. Hello, it's not like I have to think back to the entire list of parties I've attended recently.
"Let me think..." I pretended to think about it. "Is that where I got the acid perfume?"
"Vincent," Cam admonished him, even more forcefully, and then glanced down at me. "We don't need to talk about it. It's not something you should be bothered with, princess."
"But I want to talk about it," I protested. "I want to know what you know."
I was firm and resolute, which positively contributed to the image of a firm and mature person I wanted to project in my family's eyes. Dad looked at me with tightened lips, and Vince looked at me with well-hidden satisfaction.
"I'll show you the CCTV footage, and you tell me, please, if the man I point out to you seems familiar in any way, okay?" Vincent restored the window on his laptop where the video from the hotel cameras used to play.
I nodded, settling more comfortably in my chair. I was almost certain that the comments I had heard earlier referred specifically to the hotel video, and, apparently, I wasn't wrong.
I remembered Vince showing me the video from Mrs. Hardy's bakery. Back then I was afraid I would get in trouble. Now I was innocent, and yet I felt uncomfortable, too. It was like I was about to reveal that I had gifted that perfume to myself.
The quality of the recording was much better than the one from the bakery, but this time I think the voice was indeed missing. Not surprising, since in a space as large as a hotel lobby it would probably download anyway in the form of an annoying hum, ineptly trying to convey the hustle and bustle of the place.
We watched the action from the corner where the checkroom was located, where a slouchy gentleman was taking the coats from the rich people who came to congratulate me on my involvement in the foundation's affairs, from which ultimately nothing came out. Well, unless the momentary, one-on-one introductory sessions that Ruby held with me from time to time on face time could be counted as work. Which is, as I said, nothing.
There were people hanging around the dressing room whose faces I associated with those who congratulated me, complimented me, and marveled at my beauty. The men helped the ladies take off their coats and then handed them to the dressing room attendant, who disappeared from the camera's view for a moment to hang them up. I even spotted my back in the distance. I was standing next to Will, who was talking to some men. I was playing with my bracelet. Out of stress.
"That's him," Vincent said, his slender finger pointing at the figure who had just entered the set. I looked away from myself to analyze it.
He was looking down, and on his head there was an old-fashioned hat which brim effectively protected his identity. He had a baggy coat on, which was unbuttoned and showed part of his oversized jacket. He was thin and quite tall.
"Don't you recognize him?" Vincent asked.
"I can't see much here."
"You can see quite a lot," he countered and stopped the recording. "We're thinking he's young. Unfamiliar with the company there, and not wealthy. Something must have connected him with this hotel in the past."
I gave him a look.
"Wait, really? How do you know that?"
My father set a steaming cup of chamomile on the table right in front of me, grunted, and leaned over me and Vincent, holding onto the back of the chair I was sitting on.
"Look at his clothes. That ugly hat. The coat hangs on him like an old rag. The pants are too big, too. See those legs? They're too wide," dad was pointing at the various pieces of clothing visible in the video with a spoon, which he probably pulled out to offer me sugar, which he had already forgotten.
"Maybe he just can't dress well?" I suggested and shrugged my shoulders.
My father shook his head.
"These are not the best quality clothes, but still pretty good. They look tailor-made. Though definitely not tailored for that twit. Wherever he got them from, they couldn't belong to him."
"He knew it was an elegant party and one should dress appropriately, but he hadn't got his own suit yet, so he borrowed someone else's, not to stand out too much. At first glance it looks like he got a jacket and pants from, for example, his grandfather's closet", Vincent explained.
"That's why we assume he is young. Grown up men tend to have at least one decent suit in their closet for special occasions," added his father.
I put my hand on the hot cup. It was burning my fingers pleasantly.
"What if he dressed like that on purpose to mislead you?" I asked skeptically.
Vince and dad exchanged a momentary glance.
"Then our theory is dead," Cam sighed.
"But I don't think he would have done that," Vince said firmly. "Being dressed like that, without any taste, in that particular company, is already risky itself. There are snobs out there who like to comment on other people's outfits. I think if he had the option of wearing a tailored suit to be completely unobtrusive, he would have gladly taken it."
"Therefore, we guess that he must have had no money to even buy a decent disguise to carry out his plan. This is where amateurism shows up," ad added.
"He definitely doesn't belong to our social circles either. He wasn't worried that someone would recognize him. Apparently he was hiding from the cameras, but of the people there, no one paid any particular attention to him. He must have an unobtrusive face."
I blowed on the still hot liquid and took a tiny sip. I had to get my brain going somehow. I was quite impressed with the analysis Vince and my father had done on the video.
"And why do you think he had something to do with that hotel? Because he knew how to avoid cameras?" I asked and licked my lip after burning it a little.
"Yes and also here, in this footage, he disappears into the bathroom for a moment. He's not looking for it, just moving automatically towards it."
"So what, in the past he might have stayed there as a guest?" I asked, frowning.
My father tilted his head with a small smile wandering on his lips, as if encouraging me to think. And it didn't take me long to figure out what he meant.
"Oh," I muttered.
"Yes, Princess, very good. Following our reasoning, our suspect is unlikely to be able to afford to stay at a hotel like this. But he could work there. Or possibly dabbling in some dirty business. This hotel is notorious for being the perfect place for this kind of shit."
Then Vincent fast-forwarded the moment when the man disappeared behind the bathroom door. There were no cameras in it, so we could watch him again only as he walked back out into the lobby, where the number of guests had already thinned out considerably. Most of them had moved on to the hall where the speeches and refreshments were being held. That's where the suspect headed, and as soon as he was out of sight of the camera, Vince switched to another one that was already in the mentioned room.
I found myself again. I was talking to an exuberantly gesticulating Ruby. I was smiling, but I was also visibly stressed. We paid no attention at all to the little table in the corner next to us, covered with a yellowish tablecloth, on which stood a bouquet of colorful flowers in a crystal vase. Right next to there was a beautifully displayed golden tray on which several small packages were put. My gifts. I was looking at them when suddenly the man we were watching approached. He looked around imperceptibly, first tossing his own gift there, taken from an inside pocket of his wide coat, and then turned discreetly and took one of the gifts there. He acted very quickly and efficiently. He immediately moved away. He hid perfectly from the cameras. No one paid any attention to him. It wasn't a big party, but too many guests here were only paying attention to the tip of their own nose.
I stared at the package he'd left among my other gifts, and a shiver ran through me. A few hours later, I was about to open it and narrowly avoid death. Who was this man?
"Then you can see him leaving from there as fast as he can. Still well camouflaged. He must have left the car somewhere outside the hotel grounds," father said, sighing.
"I don't think this is someone I've had a chance to meet," I assessed, biting my lip. I think I'll turn out to be useless, unfortunately. "It's hard to tell."
"Pay attention to his gait, the way he turns. His posture. The way he grabs the package. Vince, take it back, show him to us again."
I really tried to focus. Maybe his movements reminded me of someone, or maybe not at all. I was creasing my eyebrows, squinting, leaning into the screen. And nothing, nothing I could say. I don't know too many people anyway.
"I don't know," I sighed at the end. "I am sorry, but I have no idea."
My father tightened his fingers on my shoulder.
"That's okay, princess. It was probably someone you don't know anyway," he said to me, then hissed to Vince, "Like I said, no need to bother her with that."
I cringed, and Vince replied matter-of-factly:
"Well, nevertheless it was worth a try. In this case every piece of information is worth its weight in gold."
"BA-HA," Dylan rumbled, stepping into the kitchen. Staring straight into my face, he slowly approached us far too pleased with himself not to be suspicious. When we were separated by a small enough distance, he leaned over the table to me and added, "HA."
I stared at him with clenched lips and an inconsolable look. I felt an uneasy feeling in my heart. Damn, I didn't expect him to act so quickly.
"Information worth its weight in gold I have," he boasted, and the prevailing atmosphere instantly thinned like the air on the Himalayan peaks.
Vincent and dad glanced at him without particular interest.
"Whatever Tony told you is not true," I protested immediately.
"Come on, little Hailie," Dylan laughed meanly, "don't panic. We can work things out."
I avoided the gaze of both my father and Vincent. I was just trying to decide if I should go into denial or try to calm Dylan down?
"Leave her alone," father sighed and walked away from us, dropping the teaspoon he held in his hand into the sink. Vince closed the laptop.
Dylan didn't say another word, but he watched me with an annoyingly triumphant smile, so I finally took a breath, closed my eyelids and, finishing my tisane, stood up.
"All right," I hissed curtly as I passed my mean brother.
Fortunately, neither dad nor Vince were nosy enough to ask what was going on. Dylan followed me onto the porch with undisguised pleasure. Once the front door slammed behind us, I turned to look at him. I was surprised by the change that dawned on his expression.
The mischievous self-satisfaction had been replaced with irritation.
"What?" I growled in surprise at his sudden nervousness.
"Belt out," he replied immediately, nudging me in the nose with his finger. I winced in displeasure and tilted my head.
"You wanted to talk, so talk."
With the same finger he pointed at me.
"Watch yourself," he observed me for a moment, and I decided it would be prudent to endure this in silence. I had to try him. What he knew and all that. Finally he moved away from me, glanced off into the distance, at the olive grove, and collapsed on the garden couch.
I, on the other hand, put my arms around myself and leaned against the wooden railing so as to keep my distance from my bloodthirsty brother.
"Tony sold me a treat," he began at last, and he sounded much more serious than before. I expected that he was deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable, so I tried with all my might to remain calm.
"Whatever Tony told you, I'm sure it's not true. He did it for peace of mind, to get you off his back," I said firmly. "I know you have dirt on him. He was just afraid that you would turn him in."
Dylan looked at me for a moment and then snorted.
"You're a pretty good thinker, little girl," he admitted. "It's just that you're unlucky. You want to know why?"
I boldly lifted my chin up.
Dylan's hand carelessly went to his pants pocket, from which he pulled out a cell phone. Big, black, flat and devoid of any protective case (which was probably the reason for the tiny scratch right next to the camera).
"Because college is a beautiful time in life," Dylan smiled provocatively as I raised an eyebrow. "Especially studying abroad. Afterwards, you remember that period forever."
"And?" I snorted suspiciously.
"That's why students are so fond of snapping pictures of everything. And making videos..."
I remained silent and Dylan stretched out, waving his phone in his hand.
"In fact, I think every event organized for exchange students has some dude with a camera."
I swallowed my saliva involuntarily. My hands clenched more tightly on the railing that I was leaning against.
"Come here," Dylan waved at me and started rummaging through his phone, and I, on stiff legs, approached obediently, yet distrustfully.
My brother had already found what he wanted to show me. Some kind of video. Great, another video. My life is ruled by videos.
He scrolled through it until he remembered that something interesting was coming up. As soon as I glanced at the screen, I saw that a girl in a white blouse and black long skirt was just stretching her arms up and two people were pulling her up onto the bar by them.
I shuddered, and my stomach tightened into a tight knot. I looked away from the phone quickly, as if afraid the video would burn my eyes out.
It was me. Drunk, running away from the twins, climbing on the bar top, me.
"Where did you get this...?" I whispered.
"Good question," Dylan remarked, sounding like the presenter of a lame TV show. "This stupid video hangs on the official website of the bar and promotes another event."
"What are you saying?"
"Yes," he confirmed, grinning at me. "Some video of my little drunk sister had become a fucking marketing tool."
At first I looked to the side, biting my lip, but then I finally glanced at my brother.
"After all, it's... nothing. A silly video, one of many on a bar's website, one of many. You can't even fully see that it's me."
My face was only visible in a few moments. The lighting left a lot to be desired. And the video itself was shot in a rather chaotic manner. It didn't make me the main attraction, just one of many side ones. The next shots jumped to the bartenders, spicing up the special shots with fire. The alcohol spectacularly ignited into a living flame, after which a few daredevils swigged tiny glasses, making sour faces and shouting to the camera. That's it. There's no way anyone (other than Dylan) will ever dig this video out of the depths of the internet.
"If Dad finds out..." my brother began ominously, but I interrupted him. He can shove those threats up his ass.
"Dad knows that you've fucked up, but he doesn't know that you've been pulling this kind of crap and that someone's managed to record it. You have no idea, little girl, how over-sensitive he is about that kind of bullshit," Dylan said, seeming to enjoy the trouble I was in. "And then there's the other person who still doesn't know about your stunt, who is even more obsessed with our family's privacy."
I felt like breaking down and hiding my face in my hands. I didn't, purely and simply because I was trying not to lose it with Dylan. But despite my efforts, I didn't control my eyes, which clearly expressed the fears that germinated in my soul. Dylan summarised them with a smirk.
"Vincent is going to be really pissed when he discovers that first, you put yourself in this state and second, that there is proof of it on the internet."
As if in slow motion, I lifted my hand and tightened my fingers on Dylan's shirt, at about the level of his collarbones.
"In that case, it's a whole lot of luck that none of this stuff gets discovered, right?" I growled through clenched teeth.
Dylan shrugged his shoulders, not at all impressed by my threat.
"I don't know, we need to get this shit off the internet. If the bar owner won't cooperate, we'll have to get our lawyer involved. Then Vince will know all about it for sure."
I loosened my grip.
"Dylan, come on," I groaned miserably. "I think that's a bit of an exaggeration, it's just a stupid part of a video that doesn't even show well that it's me. Just admit that you're taking revenge for the maid and that's it.
"Okay, I'm taking revenge for the maid," he admitted without embarrassment. "But I also think you crossed the line by getting drunk, that dad crossed the line by giving tacit approval, and that Shane and Tony crossed the line by their failure to control the situation." Dylan raised his index finger again. "If I had been there with you, this would never have happened."
"When in fact nothing happened! Besides, you're screwing not only me, but the twins as well. As you yourself pointed out, they are also partly responsible for this whole situation."
"Oh, and you'll be explaining this to Vincent once he calls you on the carpet. Shane and Tony will fall on their feet," he scoffed. "As for you... My guess is Vince will get you another bodyguard. One will keep you safe and the other will defend you from your own stupid ideas."
I looked at him inconsolably.
"Don't tell him," I whispered, which sounded more like a command than a request and certainly didn't encourage Dylan to cooperate.
"It's okay, little Hailie," he reassured me. "I won't. Not now. I'm not stupid. According to my calculations, it's most profitable for me to get you in trouble once we're home. Vince feels so much more responsible for you then than when you and dad are together."
I cringed at his mocking expression. Finally, he got up and looked down at me. He was as big as a skyscraper and I scrambled my head because we were in the middle of a battle of hateful stares and I really wanted to win at least it. Dylan took a step to pass by me, with which he forced me to move aside. Then he leaned over me for another moment and whispered:
"And as long as no one finds out about this, I'm going to make sure you don't get into any more trouble. I'll make it my fucking mission of a lifetime, little Hailie."
After which he patted me on the head with his big mitt and disappeared back into the house, leaving me on the porch, angry and wasted.
The only thing I felt like doing right now was taking it out on someone. Not coincidentally, it was Tony. He was the one who'd reported me to Dylan. That night was supposed to be a secret, and he spilled it all to our most annoying brother.
I found him in the attic. He was sitting stretched out in a baggy chair stuffed with styrofoam balls and playing a portable console. I climbed up the stairs there with rumbling footsteps that echoed from far away carrying signs of my anger.
"Satisfied?!" I shouted screeching as soon as I spotted him.
Tony gave me a fleeting glance, then stuck his eyes back on his toy.
"Don't roll your eyes at me!" I continued with an exasperation worthy of a goddess of wrath. All right, let's not exaggerate. I don't think I made that much of an impression on him. At least until I came close enough to snatch the console from his hand without any special problem.
That's when I got his attention. He cursed out loud and looked at me with irritation.
"Give it back, now," he growled, holding out his hand.
I took a few steps back and hid the gamepad behind my back.
"How could you complain to Dylan about me?"
"Give it back!" Tony rarely raised his voice, and when he did, he sounded like he did now, something like a cross between an angry bear and a spoiled child who lashes out because something hasn't gone his way.
"It was supposed to be a secret. And you told it!"
My brother sighed in displeasure that he had to go out of his way to pick up his gadget. He rose efficiently from his seat and began walking toward me.
"Give it back."
I kept moving backwards, watching his movements with hostility but also caution, to sense a good moment to escape, which turned out to be completely pointless. Despite my small stature and my cunning, which should (at least in theory) go hand in hand with it, Tony proved to be more agile in this situation and when he suddenly accelerated and I tried to dodge to the right, he caught me in a trap.
It seemed to me as if we had been tugging at each other for several minutes, although in reality it had been much shorter. He grabbed my arm and turned me around to reach for the console, so I immediately hugged it to my chest, clenching my fingers on it with all my might. Whatever Tony had been playing earlier, he had surely already lost, because the few buttons on the panel I had managed to push inadvertently several times each during this struggle. Eventually I bent in half, defending myself as best I could while Tony tried to split my defensive shell. It took him a while because, I guessed, he wasn't used to fighting girls. At first, he didn't seem to know how to beat me while at the same time not using violence against me. It was quite disconcerting, but at least he was effectively holding back from hurting me, and that's always something.
I was the one who wasn't much better at it, because when at one point he tried to yank the console out of my hands, and his wrist came invitingly close to my mouth, I just had to bite him. I clenched my teeth against his skin, lightly at first, adding power to the grip of my jaw in a controlled way.
Tony hissed and tried to pull his hand away, and when he failed, he blocked my nose with his free hand. I quickly ran out of air, so I opened my mouth, and that's when he wiped his slimy wrist on his t-shirt and, with increasing irritation, tried to beat me in another way.
The moron started tickling me.
There was nothing cool about it, even though I laughed. It had to be described as a sign of helplessness. I quickly landed on the floor and with all my energy I defended my booty, but finally I could not stand it. Amidst my squealing and screaming, finally a loud "Okay! Okay! There! Now!" escaped my mouth. I let go of the gamepad and Tony immediately grabbed it from under my nose and my torment stopped.
I lay motionless, calming my breathing, and only heard the rustling of the chair as my brother slumped back into it. And then the melody of that stupid game of his. I closed my eyelids.
I can't stand these brothers.
Slowly, I rose – first to a sitting position, and then, after a moment, I stood up on my feet. My stomach muscles and cheeks hurt from laughing. It really worked like a drug. I felt a little dizzy after such a dose, so I had to cool down before I turned to Tony again.
"I'll find out," I began in a loud, determined tone, "I'll find out what Dylan has on you. I'm going to find out and I'm going to take you down like you took me down."
At the sound of my threat Tony raised his head and our eyes met for a split second. Only a fraction, because he immediately lowered it again and that was the end of our interaction.
Then I took myself from the loft and rushed down the stairs. My legs carried me into the living room on their own, as if by intuition. The Christmas tree was still glittering in it, quiet music flew in the background accompanied by the sound of a billiards game. Blanche was playing with Will. My chin trembled like jelly at the sight of him. Somehow I enjoyed feeling sorry for myself in his presence.
"What's up, little one?" he asked as soon as he saw me. In one hand he held a cue vertically, and the other he stretched out to hug me to his side. I gladly accepted the invitation. I pressed my cheek against his soft, cotton blouse. I was like a phone on low battery for which Will was making the best charger.
"I didn't like Tony. Nor do I like Dylan. And Shane annoys me too," I complained wistfully.
I felt Will's chest tremble as he responded with laughter.
"It's not just you," Blanche interjected, right after a show-off move where she knocked three balls into two different holes at once.
Will whistled appreciatively.
"But they tease me," I remarked.
"So what, they tease me just by breathing." Blanche waved her hand before assuming another position, leaning against the table.
"You're such a grump," Will commented with amusement.
"Aye," grandma nodded, as if it were the most obvious thing, and got another point.
"What did they do to you?" my brother asked, watching Blanche's game, but with his sense of hearing completely devoted to me.
"It's about those dirts of theirs," I sighed. I was well aware of how unreadable my answer was, but here Will surprised me as he nodded with understanding.
"Do they have something on you?"
I glanced at him suspiciously.
"Do you know about these games they play?"
"Of course," he smiled at me. "I don't currently have anything on Tony, but if you need something small on Shane, I'm here to help."
I untangled myself from Will's embrace, just shaking my head.
How was it possible that they were all so wonderful and yet so annoying at the same time?
Because despite all the frequent taunting, I'd also spent some of my best moments with them. For example, the day after we rented quads and the whole gang went to ride them in the desert and on the beach. Something amazing. I didn't drive myself, but I took turns accompanying Will, Dylan, and Dad, and I could objectively judge that the driving style of all three of them was equally irresponsible, which gave me a lot of fear, adrenaline, and, in fact, a lot of fun.
On another, equally pleasant day, we went to the beach. The one next to Blanche's house. It was so special that we camped there for hours and all together. We started at lunchtime and finished a little after sunset. The beach, traditionally, was practically empty except for a few people who only occasionally walked along the ocean shore. We sat down a little further away so that the wind wouldn't blow too much. Blanche prepared lots of goodies, the boys took a supply of beer with them, and we spread out on some giant blankets.
We also had a lot of interesting conversations that I soaked up like a sponge, especially since many of them were flashbacks that gave me a glimpse into my family's past. We also had a lot of fun and this time Tony didn't have to tickle me to make me die laughing.
"But wait a minute, wait a minute," Blanche cried, whooping her squeaky laugh. She was sitting on her legs, her long, disobedient braid thrown on her back, and she was clutching a bottle of beer in her hand. "Of course everyone has their favorites. Cam, don't try to tell me otherwise."
Dad was lying on one of the blankets, also sipping his beer and propping himself up on his elbow.
"Who's your favorite, then? Me or Monty?"
"You," grandma replied without thinking. "I love Monty, he's my son, but sometimes I get the feeling he's a moron."
"Well, he's not as smart as I am, that's true."
"Otherwise he wouldn't be with Maya," Dylan interjected.
"That's it!" grandma said.
"Maya is fine," I protested, and then I remembered about my marriage arrangement proposal and added: "In general."
"She's a spoiled brat. She played on my nerves professionally when she came here," Blanche sighed. "But she doesn't have a bad character, I'll give her that. She's just too noisy for my taste and she's kind of... chirpy. Like a... like," Blanche gestured to help her describe her future daughter-in-law's behavior. "Like a little glitter-covered bell that's annoying because it jingles all the time, even when you move it the slightest bit."
She made us laugh with that comparison.
"Okay, so who's your favorite?" Blanche repeated the question she had asked our father earlier and which had started this whole discussion.
"Hailie," he replied, and I smiled, even though I knew he was probably just saying that to please me as usual. I couldn't help thinking that it was very nice to me.
Blanche rolled her eyes.
"No. Hailie doesn't count. You papmer her so much that it's clear she's the apple of you all's eye."
I think I blushed, and some of my brothers made a feeble attempt to deny their grandmother's words, which qucikly ended in silence.
"All right," dad muttered, raising his eyes to the sky. "In that case, Vince."
A smile appeared on my oldest brother's face. He was lying in a similar position to my father and I was still surprised every time I saw him taking part in such unofficial moments as a picnic with our family.
More indignant protests from the rest of my siblings rang out.
"Ah well, the firstborn son," Blanche nodded her head in understanding.
"The best," Vince muttered.
"Rather the most annoying," Dylan corrected him.
"And arrogant," Shane added.
"And pompous," Tony interjected.
"And domineering," Will sketched in.
"And bossy," I muttered.
Vince looked at all of us in turn with amusement, ending up staring at me longer, completely unconcerned. On the contrary, he seemed pleased with his list of faults, apparently seeing nothing wrong with them.
"Mhm, I'll keep that in mind the next time one of you comes to me with a problem to solve."
"Vince resembled Lindsay the most," Blanche said.
Cam shook his head.
"A little, but not exactly. Lissy looked most like Will."
"What was she like?" I asked out of curiosity, quickly regretting it. I hadn't thought it might be tactless to dredge up the character of the boys' mom, especially in their presence.
No one but me, however, thought it was in bad style. No one looked at me with dislike or raised an eyebrow, no one exchanged glances with anyone. I was pleased that I was so much a part of this family that the rest felt I had every right to be interested in such nuances. After all, the character of the boys' mother had long interested me.
"She was often sighing. So loudly" Will began. "When someone messed up, she didn't have the strength to admonish us all the time, so she just sighed so characteristically, remember?"
Vince snorted under his breath and nodded.
"I remember that she liked candles. The whole house was full of them."
Dylan suddenly burst out laughing.
"Yeah! I remember one time Shane ate one that smelled like, I don't know, fucking gingerbread or something."
"Hey, I don't know why they even make food-scented candles. And in general, such things should be hidden from children," Shane defended himself, while all the rest, led by me, were laughing.
"We should have hidden all our fucking possessions from all of you," dad burbled, shaking his head, and then he turned to me: "And to answer your question, believe it or not, Lissy and I met at church."
"I don't believe it," I answered immediately. "You at church?"
"I was surprised too," Blanche muttered.
"I had something to do there. I noticed Lissy because she was singing in the chorus, right at the front. She was so, you know, organized. I could tell she was from a good family. And I thought to myself that it would be interesting to have fun with such a girl," dad said.
"Have fun?" I repeated, raising my eyebrow.
"I was very young and stupid. I didn't even think about marriage then. Just the thought of getting a girl from a respectable family excited me. I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, princess."
I heard the twins laughing. I rolled my eyes.
"Because you know, in the past, our family was covered in a slightly different kind of fame. Lissy's family, on the other hand, was one of the more respected. Her father dabbled in politics and was one of the biggest snobs with strong conservative views. A horribly messed up man."
"Disgusting," Blanche agreed.
"We never met him," Will added.
"He had no interest in grandchildren from such a relationship." Cam shrugged his shoulders. "He disowned Lissy. He felt that she had tarnished the family honor by binding herself to one of the Monets."
"Really? He didn't want to meet his grandchildren?" I wondered. How can someone be such a judgmental person?
"He has plenty of grandchildren. Lissy had three other sisters. The oldest of them probably has around six kids."
"So do you," Shane remarked.
"That's right," Cam nodded. "And Lissy was a typical lady. She danced ballet, sang in the choir, played the piano and read poetry. Strong and feminine at the same time. I liked that about her. And so eventually love was born out of our romance."
"She was also a little spoiled," Blanche said.
"Just like Tony," Dylan chuckled.
"Shut up," Tony muttered, stretched out on the blanket as if he were sunbathing, although the sun had actually gone down, as dad had just noticed.
"It's getting dark, we should get going," he announced and everyone nodded, although no one really wanted to end this nice day. Unfortunately, the inexorably blackening sky and dropping temperature definitely forced us to do so.
I enjoyed the festivities at first, and then the next pleasant moments, and I knew that I had to squeeze as much sweetness out of them as possible, because soon I was to leave the islands and return home, where, despite the fact that I was and even felt a part of this family, it looked like I would once again have to fight for equality in its ranks. A/N: Just wanted to thank all the readers who are still there, so patient and suporting. Remember that you are all amazing!