“So, how does it feel being back in Magpie Grove?” Brendan, my brother asks.
Before I can reply, the delighted squeal of my niece and nephew pierces the air. I laugh at the way my brother cringes slightly.
“We should have stayed in,” he mutters, looking across the road at the park where his children and wife are playing.
“We didn’t need to go out for dinner.”
My brother and I sit outside The Croaky Seagull – a casual bar and restaurant on the outer edge of Magpie Grove. When Brendan’s wife and children finish playing in the park near the water, they’ll join us so that we can order dinner. I think my sister-in-law, Mara is trying to tucker out my niece and nephew before we sit down to eat. They’re pretty good kids, but they struggle to sit still for long periods of time.
“I thought neutral territory would be better.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “Why would we need neutral territory?”
Years ago, the two of us couldn’t stand each other. Now, however, we’re tight, so I can’t say I understand his comment.
“No reason,” he says, shaking his head. “You were telling me how you feel about being back in Magpie Grove.”
I chuckle. “I don’t think I was.”
“C’mon. You’ve been gone for years. You coming home is…big.”
Magpie Grove was never home, and it never will be, but for the sake of avoiding an argument, I say, “I’m not sure much has changed.”
“You mean Magpie Grove is still just as full of rich arseholes as it was when you left.”
Reaching for one of the nachos in the middle of the table, I laugh. “Yup.”
Brendan tips his beer in my direction. “You understand that you’re one of us now.”
My smile is tight and I hope he can’t see just how much his words piss me off. I’ve never been one of them and I never will be.
“I didn’t make my fortune here,” I remind him. “And I do all right, but I’m no millionaire.”
“Well, if you come work with me-”
“I love being a journo, and I’m good at it. Besides, Dad would have a coronary if he saw me working in the company he ‘built with his bare hands.’”
Brendan shakes his head. “I know you two have had your differences…and he hasn’t been the father to you that he was to me, but since the heart attack he’s been different. It’s been forever since the two of you spoke, I’d like to think he doesn’t feel the same way. I mean, he has no reason to feel that way.”
“Of course he does, I’m a reminder of his ‘one’ mistake.” I use air marks around the word ‘one’. “And your mum hates my guts because I’m evidence of his transgression before they were married.”
“But you’re his son,” Brendan declares, like that changes something.
Brendan is now a proud father who doesn’t understand how anyone can hate their child.
“Do you know how much he fought to prove that wasn’t the case?” I ask him.
Chapman Ross refused to acknowledge me as his son for the first sixteen years of my life. His name was printed on my birth certificate, but it wasn’t until the hit and run that killed my mum that he agreed to a DNA test. And I don’t doubt he tried to convince the Department of Human Services that they were barking up the wrong tree when they contacted him.
I wasn’t in the room when he received the results confirming that our DNA was a legitimate match, but I remember the first time I stood in the same room as Chapman. His hatred and resentment for me burned in his eyes, a perfect reflection of everything I felt towards him.
Considering his wealth and influence in this town, it’s surprising he didn’t try and bribe the DNA testers to fix the results.
Actually, he probably did try.
“Family is important,” he tells me.
“Then I’m lucky I have Mara, and Thomas and Tori,” I say, chuckling when he rolls his eyes. “And you’re growing on me.”
He laughs but winces a little. “I deserve that. You didn’t deserve the shit I said about you when we were younger.”
I shrug. Brendan is a year younger than me and attended a private boarding school when I moved in with Chapman. My brother was only home on the holidays, but he resented my presence as much as my father and stepmother for a long time.
“You’ve already apologized for that. Repeatedly. It was what it was. We both would have done things a little differently if we’d been older and wiser,” I tell him, thinking about Reese.
“You were the judgmental one back in high school, Knox. Calling me a stuck-up bitch to everyone else but never having the guts to tell me what you thought about me, just dumping me as a friend without any word as to why.”
Her words have chased themselves around my brain all day. Admittedly, I never thought of it that way before.
When she came back from her break, I tried apologizing again for what happened in high school, and for calling her judgmental, but she blocked my apology with one of her own.
“I’m the one who’s sorry, Knox. I overreacted. It won’t happen again.”
“It obviously still upsets-”
“It was ten years ago. I shouldn’t have brought up the past after you apologized, but nor should you have. Let’s make it a habit not to talk about high school. It’s over. We both want to be professional, so let’s act like it.”
With those words, she shut the door on the past, except that I’m afraid that door could spring open at any moment. Neither of us want to rehash history. I had no intention of it when I arrived, not beyond my initial apology, but everything that remains unsaid hangs in the air between us.
And it makes it awkward as hell to answer questions about our sex life together when every conversation and silence between us is filled with awkwardness. We wrote down answers for as many of the questions as we could, but after thirty minutes of struggling through, we both agreed to call it quits for the day and get on with other work.
“You can say that again. I was such a spoilt rich kid,” Brendan says, pulling my attention back to him.
I raise my beer. “Thank god for Mara.”
He laughs, we both do. I’m grateful for Mara, too.
A few years ago, my brother was dating a wealthy socialite, an arrangement orchestrated by Chapman. Brendan was set to marry her when he fell in love with Mara, a down-on-her-luck student on a scholarship at his university. When he broke up with the socialite and got Mara pregnant, Brendan continued to work for Chapman, but they barely talked.
The fallout between my brother and father is the reason Brendan and I reconnected. Brendan started thinking about the choices Chapman made, and his disgust grew the more he thought about the way Chapman turned his back on me. It was what caused him to reach out to me. At first, I told him to screw off, but when he came to Melbourne, showing up on my doorstep with Mara and the kids, I didn’t turn him away. That was the start of some serious fence-mending, and over the past couple of years, it’s continued.
My father had a heart attack a few months back and Chapman and Brendan have been on much better terms since, but I haven’t spoken to Chapman since I left town, after my internship. And I don’t intend to speak to him just because I’m back. Everything I need to know about the old man, I can find out from Brendan.
“What can you tell me about Chapman and Grace?” I ask.
“Well, he keeps giving away money as if it’s free water since the retreat.”
My brother explains that the financial advisors keep asking him about the regular sums of money Chapman is giving away. It reminds me of a couple of the cases I found in Reese’s file.
“Did you ask him about them?”
“Dad says we’ve always supported charities, and this is no different, but he’s spent twenty plus years donating to the same charities and it’s always the same amount. Then suddenly, he changes the charities and the amounts. And he just doesn’t…he doesn’t act the same way, Knox. He and Mum are a lot more…touchy-feely.”
Brendan nearly shudders at the thought. I’m about to ask him just how touchy-feely he’s talking about when he asks, “So, your boss really liked the idea of the article?”
“Whittleman nearly wet himself over it. Especially when I dropped the names of some of the influential people who have left testimonials. There are politicians and rock stars, and A-list TV personalities. The fact that Von Gruber has a strict no media policy makes him that much more suspicious. If all goes well, I’ll be promoted.”
Meaning I can’t let anything stand in the way. Not even my history with Reese. It’s unfortunate this case requires us to pretend we’re married after I screwed her over a decade ago, but I can’t walk away and I know Reese won’t either. She’s as invested in this as I am.
“And you’re working with Reese?”
“Mmm,” I say, finishing a mouthful of nachos.
“How are the two of you getting along?”
A shadow falls over us before I can tell him about just how badly today went, and I look up and curse when I see the person I hoped to avoid while back in town.
Chapman wrinkles his nose when he hears my curse. At twenty-eight, the cold and critical look on my father’s face shouldn’t needle me the way it does.
“What have I told you about swearing, Knox? It’s for the low-class.”
Pushing his chair back, my brother cuts him off by hugging him. “Hey, Dad. Glad you could make it.”
“What is this, Brendan?” Chapman demands. “You invite me for dinner and don’t think to mention Knox will be joining us.”
I glare at my brother. Suddenly, the need for neutral territory makes sense.
Brendan’s expression is downright sheepish. “Surprise, it’s a family reunion.”
He motions to the empty chairs before looking behind Chapman. “Hi, Mum.”
Until now, I hadn’t seen Grace, my stepmother. But she moves forward for Brendan to hug her as Chapman and I alternate between looking away from each other and glaring at one another.
“We’re hungry, Darling,” Grace says, putting her hand in her husband’s. “Let’s sit and eat. Are Mara and the children joining us, Brendan?”
“Yes.” Brendan waves over at the park, beckoning Mara to join us. “They’ll be here shortly.”
Chapman pulls out Grace’s chair for her, and she sits down and smiles tightly at me. “Hello, Knox. It’s good to see you.”
I want to laugh at just how forced she sounds. Maybe I should remind her I heard every bitter and spiteful word she hurled at Chapman about me when I arrived at their home. However, Mara and the children return to the table and provide a good reason to keep my mouth shut.
Awkwardly, we struggle through our meal, Brendan putting in the most effort to make conversation. While it’s obvious Mara doesn’t have the best relationship with Chapman and Grace, Grace is taken with her grandchildren. Listening to my niece and nephew talk about school and their soccer and gymnastics practices is the only enjoyable part of the meal.
After a long and tense silence, Chapman looks at me. “So how long will you be in town for?”
“Around a month.”
“Knox is working at the Sun,” Brendan explains. “He’s working on a story with Reese Cameron.”
“Reese is dating Max, isn’t she?” Grace asks.
I glare at Brendan as I refill my water glass. I’d like to keep drinking bourbon, but I can’t drive away from this clusterfuck of a dinner if I’m drunk. “I believe so.”
“They’re a good couple,” my stepmother says. “Max is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
“Yes, they certainly seem well-suited,” Chapman agrees. “He’s a real go-getter, just like Kenneth Cameron back in the day.”
“Such a shame what happened to Caroline,” Grace tuts.
“I’m sure she’d approve of Reese and Max,” Chapman tells her. “Kenneth must be pleased.”
The fish and chips I’ve just finished eating turns to stone in my stomach. In a town like Magpie Grove, the wealthy and powerful know everything about one another. So, Grace and Chapman know Reese and Max well enough. Reese, because Grace and Chapman were friends with the Cameron family before the accident. And they know Max very well because he was Brendan’s best friend back in high school.
Chapman always liked Max and was more interested in him than he was in me. Not that I wanted to work for my father, but Chapman would tell Max that he always had a job at the company if he wanted one – something he made sure never to offer me.
My memories and thoughts are more bitter than the lemon I squeezed onto my fish. Being back is a trigger. Talking to my father is a trigger. And so is working with Reese. I’ve worked my arse off at my career, won awards, yet Chapman will never let any words of praise for me leave his lips.
Can I blame Reese for not being over the past when I’m not one-hundred percent over it?
With that question in mind, I finish my water and remind myself that over it or not, I have a job to do. Somehow, I need to deal with the past and move on. Reese and I both do.