Daniel interrupted my idle thoughts. “So I Googled you, but I have to admit I’m a little lost about what you do. What’s Clozpin?”
I smiled, warmed that he’d made the effort. The little hope I’d felt before fluttered to life. “It’s a social network startup, focused on fashion. It helps people find outfits and connect with labels and designers, that sort of thing.”
“So you built this while you were still in school?”
“With a couple of my friends, yes. Since I graduated, I’ve been working to get angel funding, which…” I paused, questioning the words as I said them. “We got our funding today, so hopefully there are some big things to come.”
“That’s fantastic, Erica.” He smiled and tipped his beer toward me.
“How about you? Have you always wanted to be in politics?” I asked.
He scowled a bit and stared out into the darkening horizon of the ocean. “In a fashion, yes. My family’s been involved in local politics for a few generations, so I suppose going into it has been an inevitable progression of my career.”
“Are you feeling positive about the governor’s race?”
“Definitely. We have some powerful endorsements, and I think we’re running a pretty good campaign. The social media component, though I know next to nothing about the details of it, seems to be garnering results as well. You could probably tell me a thing or two about it.”
I nodded and laughed. No doubt we spoke two very different professional languages.
“About the campaign…” He hesitated, as if contemplating what he were about to say. “This will sound awkward, but it’s something I have to ask you.” He rubbed the fine stubble on his chin. “As I said, you know, meeting you was unexpected. A happy surprise, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed.
“I have a lot riding on this campaign, Erica, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding completely, I don’t know, horrible, I guess.”
“You’d rather I not come out publicly as your illegitimate daughter.” I blurted it out. Knowing politicians, he could have danced around the subject for several more minutes before he got to the point.
He his face softened and a flicker of guilt passed over his features, but I understood where he was coming from. The last thing I wanted to be was a burden or a source of stress for him.
“It’s not a problem, really. I just wanted the chance to get to know you, which I hope can still happen. But I have my own business and my own PR to work on. The last thing I want to do is complicate what you’ve built here, and I honestly have nothing to gain with your political affiliations.”
He nodded and took a long swig from his beer. “I suppose that makes sense. Obviously we know what we know, and I suppose that’s the most important thing, right?”
I nodded and ran my hand along the railing, contemplating a question I had been meaning to ask.
“Maybe it was my age, being so young when she passed. But I always wondered why my mother never spoke of you, Daniel.”
He straightened and a frown marred his brow. “We had a complicated relationship. At least, we did when we found out she was pregnant. Neither of our families were going to be happy about the news.”
“I can see that.” My mother’s family had always been distant too. With Daniel’s background, I imagined circumstances wouldn’t have been much different. A blue blood family like his wouldn’t react well to him knocking up a girl out of wedlock, no matter where she came from.
“After she went back to Chicago, I assumed she was going to take care of it. I didn’t hear from her, and I didn’t want to reach out and raise suspicions with her family.”
“So you never spoke after graduation?”
He shook his head and stared out at the ocean, as if the answers for how life had changed for him were out there somewhere, just out of sight.
A car door slammed and I looked over, catching a glimpse of a head of brown curly hair that passed the fence and entered the house.
“That would be my stepson. Just about your age too, actually.”
Daniel gestured for our return to the house and I braced myself for another awkward introduction.
Margo was setting the table with salad and a steaming bowl of rice. The aroma from the food mingled in the air, and I couldn’t wait to stop talking and start eating. The young man came through the door and walked toward her, but he stopped short when he saw me.
Everything stopped moving. The room turned cold and silent. I heard my heart beat, a deafening uneven thud, pulsing an icy pain through my veins, chilling me to the bone. In a room with others, I was alone. Alone with my memories and the shame of what he’d left me with. A sick repulsion twisted through me as I tried to comprehend the horrible nightmare standing in front of me.
I gripped Daniel’s arm, uncertain if my legs would hold me. I looked up at him, as if somehow he could know. He only stared back at me and gestured to their new guest.
“Erica, this is my stepson, Mark.”
After four years, I finally knew his name.
* * *
I excused myself immediately, finding the nearest bathroom and locking the door behind me, struggling with the effort while my hands shook uncontrollably. I splashed water on my face and looked into the mirror for help. I was pale as a ghost. Nausea hit me in relentless waves, and I fought the urge to heave, to purge his poisonous memory from my body.
I needed a game plan. My purse. It was still in the living room.
But who would I call? Beyond that, what would I say? The man who raped me in college is my fucking stepbrother. Hell, how was I going to get through this? I could barely look at the man without having a full-blown nervous breakdown. Now I needed to sit through a dinner with him, as if none of that history existed, an entire chapter of my life blurred out.
This was a personal emergency, but not an actual emergency, I told myself. We’d get through dinner and I’d find a reason to leave. I’d have to figure out how to deal with Daniel later, though the prospect of building a relationship with him seemed completely impossible now. I dried my face and tried to pull myself together before stepping out into the hallway. I could do this.
I stepped out and the second I shut the door behind me, Mark was there.
“Everything all right?” he murmured.
His eyes were dark, almost black as he stalked closer. I stepped back, pressing my palms against the wall behind me. Panic shot through me. Every nerve stood on edge, ready to fight.