“No, I can do it,” I said, my heart thumping against my chest. I tried not to make my excitement too obvious.
“Yeah. Just stop saying well. It makes me feel sick.”
She stood, shaking her head. “Absolutely. Won’t mention it again.” Not two seconds after she turned the corner, her orange face popped back in, her hot-pink lipstick bordering her bright smile. “That’s not true. I’ll mention it if necessary.”
Jojo left me alone, and I leaned back, taking in a deep breath. The surface of my desk was still as empty as it had been on my first day, but for the three photographs I had framed. I picked up the metal five-by-seven, looking over the hideously cropped retake of a picture of Finley hanging on the wall of the chateau. It was ironic that that very picture had landed me the photography job in the first place, and just eighteen months later, it looked so amateur I had to lay it flat on its face several times a day.
The front door chimed, and Jojo greeted whoever approached her front desk. I could tell by the familiarity and condescension in her voice that it was Tyler.
Tyler was in the background, complaining that Jojo should just let him come back to my office.
“Tyler Maddox is here to see you. Shall I allow him back, or would you like me to suggest he return to the sea of venereal disease where he came from?”
Tyler appeared, holding two fountain drinks. “Sprite for you,” he said, sitting it on my desk. “Cherry Coke for me.”
“Thank you,” I said, wrapping my lips around the straw. “So, Chief called today.”
“Did he?” Tyler asking, feigning surprise. He sat on the love seat in the exact spot Jojo had been, bouncing a few times.
“How did you talk him into it?”
“Now how in the hell am I going to talk Chief into bringing you back after what you pulled in Colorado Springs?”
“You’re right. We all talked him into it.”
“The guys. They miss you. Puddin’ laments your grilled cheese at least twice a day.”
I nodded, and he popped out of the love seat, leaning over my desk and grabbing my cheeks to plant a kiss on my lips.
“Wow, I should say yes more often.”
“I agree. Remember what happened the night of the last time you said yes?”
He smirked. “You said yes a lot that night.”
“Shut it. What are you doing tonight?”
He chuckled, itching the side of his nose. “No, baby. You’re the only plans I have.”
“Good, because we’ve been invited to dinner at the chateau.”
“My parents would like to meet you.”
He blinked, his entire body frozen in the position it was in when I broke the news. “Oh.”
“I just thought … you know … we weren’t going to any parties.”
“Not a party. Dinner. And they’re serving sparkling water. Finley will be there.”
“So, what you’re saying is … this will be the most awkward dinner ever.”
I smiled, lifting my chin to meet his gaze. “Yeah?”
“Of course. Gotta meet the in-laws. Looking forward to all of those judgey eyes and questions about my meager salary.”
“Glad you know what to expect.”
He leaned over and kissed my cheek, waving before he rounded the corner. “Love you!” he called back just before the door chimed.
The room was quiet except for the forks scraping against the plates and Daddy sipping his water from a wine glass. Felix was standing by the door like a militant waiting for Tyler or me to attempt escape, and mother hadn’t looked me in the eye since we’d arrived.
Finley was busy texting on her phone, just as embarrassed to be in the same room with Tyler as he was with her.
Sally looked up to wink at me occasionally to make sure I wasn’t too stressed. Tyler was cutting through his lamb shank, happily eating the fourth course of a five-course dinner.
“Ellison,” Mother began in her voice that warned of impending doom. “Your father has spoken with the board, and they’re very interested in using your newfound talents within the company. I’m sure you’ll find the salary very agreeable in comparison with your current pay.”
I swallowed quickly, and then cleared my throat. “I like the job I have now.”
“You can do the same job at Edson Tech, sweetheart,” she said.
Mother pursed her lips, deepening the wrinkles around her mouth. “Precisely. Your father and I feel that your higher wages will better assist with the cost of your new condo, and—”
“Uh … you insisted on that condo, and I complied.”
“But it still costs money, dear. Money that, as an adult, you should provide.”
“I was living in a great apartment that I could afford.”
“We agreed a move would help create the feeling of a fresh start.”
“I could have found a more affordable apartment, I—”
“Meredith,” Sally interjected. I had grown to love her calm, soothing voice—a voice I once believed was manipulative and fake. Now that she was someone I trusted to call when in trouble, Daddy thought it would be a good idea to hire her back “Ellison likes the job she has now. It might be counterproductive to her path to wellness if we pull her away from a place where she feels comfortable and push her into an employment that may pay more, but is something she’s not quite as happy with.”
“She’ll like it just fine,” Mother said, blatantly dismissive.
“Philip,” Mother snapped, her voice rising an octave. She smiled, regaining her composure. “We agreed that it would be good for Ellison to find her place in the company and be an active participant in paying her bills.”
“Ellison disagrees,” Sally said. “And she’s doing very well.” She smiled at me. “She was paying bills before we moved her to the condo.”
“Actually, she does,” Sally responded. “She could just as easily move into a different apartment if you insist on holding it over her head. I’m sure that’s not what your intention was when you secured it for her. I recall you being very concerned about her recovery and wanting to offer something to reduce her stress level.”
“Sally,” Mother said with a stiff smile. She patted her mouth with her napkin. “You work for me, not for Ellison.”
Sally didn’t flinch. “I’m an independent service, one which you sought out to help you guide Ellison to a better life. She’s happy. What you’re proposing is the opposite of that. Especially now, in the beginning of her recovery … Meredith. You can’t honestly think this is what’s best for your daughter at this time.”