The engine of my little coupe rattled all the way down Mom and Dad’s driveway. The St. Clair family estate loomed up ahead, and on either side of the long, winding, uphill driveway, palm trees rustled in an early evening breeze.
I reached over the steering wheel and gave the dashboard a comforting pat. “You can do this, girl. I know all these hills are killing you. I just need you to hang in a bit longer.”
The car made a low grinding sound that vibrated my seat. I winced, took my foot off the gas, and coasted the rest of the way, passing first the staff house and then the guest house, and coming around the final bend and eventually stopping near the fountain in the middle of the roundabout driveway. I killed the ignition before anyone had a chance to hear the car in its death throes. Mom and Dad were concerned about me enough because I wasn’t living the high life like my older brother. I didn’t need them thinking my car was dying, too.
I got out of the car, muttered a quiet thank you to it for not kicking the bucket today, and moved up to the front door. I didn’t knock. Mom and Dad were expecting me. I pushed open the door and stepped into the grand foyer. Overhead, the crystal chandelier caught the light of the setting sun shining through the second-story windows. Up the grand staircase in front of me, the backlit stained-glass windows glowed in rich reds, vibrant greens, and tranquil blues.
Down the hall and somewhere in the back of the mansion, I could hear voices and laughter.
I slipped off my shoes. “Hello?”
“Hello! Gabriella! We’re on the back patio,” my mother called in her singsong, elegant voice.
I moved down the hall and into the back of the house, which opened up into the kitchen and main living area and broke off into other rooms like the billiard room and Dad’s study. I made a pit stop at the wine bar in the kitchen, where I poured myself a glass of chilled white, and carried on outside, where I found my family scattered all over the place.
Mom lounged in one of the patio chairs looking every part the rich housewife that she was. She wore a silky, copper-colored slip dress that cut off mid-calf, layers of gold jewelry, and a pair of designer sandals. Her attention was fixed on the swimming pool, where little Luna, my niece, splashed in the pool with my older brother.
Beckham hadn’t noticed me. He was far too busy scooping up Luna and tossing her several feet through the air. She’d land with a splash and her water wings would send her popping up to the surface, where she kicked and splashed gleefully and begged for him to do it again.
My mother swept up out of her chair when she saw me. “Hi, honey! We’re so glad you could make it. We were beginning to worry that boss of yours was going to keep you late again.”
“He did,” I said, hugging my mother. She was in the best shape of her life, and I was surprised by new hardened muscles in her back as she gave me a squeeze. Now that Luna was around and she and my father had the lives of being grandparents that they’d been aching for, they had stepped up their health game. Their kitchen staff were in charge of preparing regimented and healthy balanced meals, and their personal shoppers weren’t allowed to bring home any salty or sugary snacks anymore.
At first this news had devastated Dad. He’d always been the sort to relax with a bowl of candied peanuts and a beer. Not anymore.
Mom released me and instinctively reached up to smooth my hair. It must have come loose from its bun when I made the mad dash from the office to here. Not to mention the air-conditioning in my car had crapped out, so I’d made the drive with the windows down.
Mom gave me a thin smile. “Looks like it might be time for a haircut soon. Do you want me to make an appointment with my stylist?”
“No thanks, Mom. I have my own girl I go see.”
“You mean that co-worker of yours who cuts hair on the side?”
I grinned. “Yep.”
Mom shook her head. “Darling, you’re too beautiful to trust just anyone with a pair of scissors and your hair.” She reached up to touch my hair again.
I pushed her hand away. “It’s just hair.”
Dad came out of the house and saved me from my mother’s incessant pursuit of perfection. He gave me a big hug, planted a warm kiss on the side of my head, and invited me over to the outdoor dining table, where a spread of appetizers had been put out. Mostly it was fresh vegetables, but there were also cuts of specialty cheeses served with fruit and low-calorie crackers.
My stomach growled at the sight, and I helped myself to some crackers and cheese.
Over near the pool, Beck hoisted himself up out of the water. He stood at the edge and leaned down, offering his hand to Luna, who he pulled out after him in one fluid movement. She giggled as water poured off her, and he helped her out of her water wings before wrapping her in a towel when her teeth started to chatter.
Luna came running across the grass to meet me. “Aunty Gabi! Aunty Gabi!”
I grinned and dropped to a crouch. “Hey, kiddo! You were swimming like a fish! Did you grow gills since the last time I saw you?”
She giggled shyly and shook her head. “No. Humans can’t grow gills, silly.”
“You could’ve fooled me.”
Luna would turn five at the end of the summer. Ainsley, Luna’s mother, had been planning a birthday party for the ages. Beck seemed excited about celebrating Luna’s birthday, too. It would be her first one with him in the picture.
I poked Luna playfully in the tummy. “Where’s your mom?”
“She’s at work.” Luna looked up at my brother, who had come up behind her and was towel-drying his hair.
“She had to hang back to run some tests on her new chip,” Beck explained, “but she says hello and she regrets that she’s missing dinner.”
“Next time,” I said.
I always preferred when Ainsley was around. She took some of the heat off when it came to my parents constantly fretting over me. I thought buying my own place last month and settling in would have given them peace of mind that I was doing okay on my own, but they still weren’t convinced.
They worried about the neighborhood I lived in, about my transit to work, about how my boss treated me, about my bank account, my haircuts—everything. Beck had gone to work when he was young and made billions for himself. We’d both been given healthy trust funds, but I didn’t have the mind to open a massive tech start-up in Silicon Valley. I had enough to buy a place, invest in some stocks, and set some aside in high interest savings accounts for my future.
I’d realized the problem was just that my parents had no concept of money. They’d been wealthy all their lives and never had to struggle, and they perceived my status as teetering on the brink of collapse, which simply wasn’t true.
If I needed a new car, I could make that happen, I just didn’t like replacing things that still had life left. It was a matter of principle. I didn’t like waste or excessive consumption. I wanted to be responsible and do my part when it came to sustainability and the environment.
But most of all?
I wanted to build my own life, not take handouts from Mom and Dad and build the life they wanted for me.
After Beck and Luna dried off and got dressed, we all sat down at the table outside and were served our meals by the house staff. A delicious lemon and herb salmon filet on my plate made my mouth immediately water. The cheesy risotto on the side and the roasted vegetables complemented the fish perfectly, and I ate ravenously, not helping my case to convince my parents that I wasn’t in fact broke.
Mom watched me. “Nobody is going to try to take the food off your plate, Gabriella. You can breathe between bites.”
“I’m sorry.” I dabbed at my lips with a cloth napkin and sipped my water, forcing myself to slow down. “I didn’t get a lunch break today. My boss was relentless. Every time I thought I had a chance to take out my lunch and eat at my desk, he’d start barking more orders. Eventually I just gave up.” I took another bite. The perfectly cooked fish melted on my tongue. “And this is just so good.”
Luna, who sat directly across from me and beside my brother, scrunched up her nose as she pushed the risotto around on her plate. Beck quietly encouraged her to eat it, promising she’d like it once she tasted it. She took a small bite, smiled, and continued eating while my brother tucked her in closer to the table.
“You need to quit that job, Gabriella,” Dad said, shaking his head.
“This boss of yours has no respect for your time,” Mom added.
Beck gave me a sympathetic look and kept his comments about the matter to himself. He did, however, try to save me by changing the subject. “Ainsley and I have narrowed the wedding venue down to three locations.”
Mom lit up and put her cutlery down. She clasped her hands together under her chin. “Do you have pictures?”
We spent the next half hour talking about the wedding. Luna chimed in every now and then, excitedly chattering about how excited she was to wear her new dress and shoes, which were apparently a mini replica of her mother’s bridal gown. She talked about dancing with her best friend, Penny.
After dinner, the kitchen staff returned to clear our plates. Dad tried to refill my wine, but I declined, opting instead for water since I would be driving home soon. Beck hung around for another half hour or so before announcing that he had to take Luna home for bedtime. Luna pouted and resisted, but my brother wasn’t hearing it. He stressed that sleep was important and that, if they were lucky, Ainsley might be home by now and they could hang out for half an hour before they put her down.
Mention of her mother got Luna up and moving, and we all walked them to the front door and stood under the exterior light while Beck buckled Luna into her car seat in his new SUV. It had sleek lines and was some sort of Lamborghini. I didn’t know much about cars, but I felt a pang of jealousy looking at his quarter of a million dollar vehicle parked beside my coupe, which was dying a slow, tragic death.
We waved goodbye and Dad closed a hand on my shoulder. “Want to stay a little longer? We have dessert.”
“Real dessert?” I tipped my head to the side. “Or healthy dessert?”
He chuckled. “The latter, but it’s good, I promise.”
“While that is tempting, I think I should call it a night. I have a bit of a drive ahead of me and an early start tomorrow.” I also had a load of laundry to do, lunches to prep, a kitchen to clean, and a bed to make, and it was already ten to nine.
And it was all to prepare for a week at a job I hated, working for a man with no compassion or self-awareness.
“Are you sure you can’t stay?” Mom reached for my hair again, remembered she’d already told me I should cut it, and let her hand fall to her side. All the gold bangles on her wrists jingled. “We’d like to talk to you. And give you something.”
Uh oh. “I really have to run.” I started backing away from the orb of light above the front door and toward my car.
My parents followed. Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope.
Double uh oh.
“Gabriella, stop,” Dad said. His tone was kind but firm. Loving but fatherly. He held out the envelope to me. “This is for you. Your mother and I have been doing a lot of thinking and talking, and we’re worried about you. You’re a homeowner now, and this job of yours doesn’t sound like there’s much room for growth or a salary increase. It would ease our minds if you took this and kept it as a buffer.”
I knew without having to open the envelope what was inside. “How much?”
Sighing, I slid my finger under the glue and tore the envelope open. A second later, I withdrew a check with my father’s neat printing. My eyes fell to all the zeros that came after the five. They wanted to give me half a million dollars. Chances were they wanted to give me more than that, but they knew I wouldn’t accept it, so they’d settled on what they thought was a reasonable amount.
My cheeks burned.
It was no secret that my job was nothing special, and my boss was a jerk, but it was my lackluster job and mydouche-canoe boss. Even if things weren’t moving as quickly as I wanted and I admittedly did feel a little stuck, I had faith that everything would work out, and accepting this check would only bring me bad karma.
I shook my head. “I can’t take this.”
“We won’t take it back,” Mom said.
“Fine, then I won’t cash it.”
“That’s okay too,” Dad said. “But if things change and you’re in a pinch, this is yours. We know you want to carve your own path, Gabriella, but we all need a safety net in case things don’t go according to plan.”
In other words, we don’t believe you can pull off this whole setting-out-on-your-own thing.
I folded the check in half, tucked it in my purse, and slapped on a smile that made me feel like a fraud. “Thanks.”
As I drove home, I was acutely aware of the fact that there were millions of other people who needed this money way more than I did, and they’d probably think I was an ungrateful brat to turn my nose up at such an offer and have the audacity to be offended.
Maybe I could just donate it all to charity.