My mother went quiet just as I had that thought. I turned to see what warranted the silence, and was unsurprised to find that we had entered Noah’s neighborhood.
My mother’s eyes roamed over each mansion we passed, one completely distinct from the next. When we reached the scrolled iron gate that heralded the entrance to Noah’s house, I told her to drive up. A small camera swiveled in our direction.
My mother shot me a look. “This is Noah’s house?” It wasn’t quite visible behind the trees, not until the tall gate swung open and we drove through.
“Wow,” she breathed. It was the right word. The lush lawn was bordered by white statues and anchored by a huge fountain in the center: a Greek god clasping a girl who seemed to become a tree. Tiny, low hedges sprouted off into paths, forming intricate designs against the grass.
And then there was the house. Large and imposing, architecturally beautiful and grand. My mother was rapt, but I didn’t quite see it the way she did, not now that I knew how much Noah couldn’t stand it.
We pulled up to the landing where Albert, the Shaw butler or valet or whatever he was called, greeted us with a prim smile to match his prim suit. I half-expected Noah to be waiting by the door for us but lo, it was Ruth herself.
“Dr. Shaw,” my mother said, smiling widely.
Noah’s stepmother shook her head. “Please, call me Ruth. It’s such a pleasure to meet you,” she gushed. Ruth smoothed the linen dress that covered her petite frame and ushered us inside as my mother assured her that no, the pleasure was all hers.
No further formalities were exchanged, however, because the second my sneakered feet touched the patterned marble floor, I was charged by Ruby, the vicious Shaw pug. Who was apparently vicious only to me. The snarling fur-covered sausage ignored my mother completely, but even after Noah swooped in and scooped her up in his arms, she continued to growl at me.
“Bad girl,” Noah said affectionately. He kissed her on the head as she bared her tiny, crooked teeth.
I stood a healthy distance away. “Where’s Mabel?” I asked. It would be nice to see her again, all happy and healthy and safe.
“Occupied,” he said lightly.
Hiding, he meant. Hiding from me.
My mother didn’t appear to notice anything amiss, however, not even as the dog strained for my jugular; Noah’s stepmother and his house had her full and undivided attention. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said to Ruth as we passed beneath a giant chandelier dripping with crystals.
Ruth raised an eyebrow. “Only good things, I hope?” She adjusted a vase filled with bursting white roses on a stone accent table that likely weighed over a thousand pounds. “Never mind,” she said archly. “Don’t answer that.”
Mom laughed. “Of course,” she lied, as easily as I usually did. Impressive. “It really is such a pleasure to be able to finally meet Noah’s family. We love having him around. Is your husband here?” she asked innocently. Knowing full well that he wasn’t.
Ruth’s smile didn’t falter, but she shook her head. “I’m afraid David’s in New York at the moment.”
“Maybe another time, then.”
“He would love that,” Ruth said. She lied as well as Noah.
Noah leaned over and said, “You know, this is rapidly becoming as painful as you indicated it would be.”
“Right, then,” Noah said loudly. “I’m sure you ladies have much to discuss and would rather do so in privacy, yes?”
Ruth looked at my mother for a cue.
Mom waved at us. “Go on.”
Noah handed the wriggling dog off to Ruth. “I’ll give you the tour,” she said, and led my mother away.
I had no idea how long the tour or their conversation or this meeting would last, so I urged Noah up the wide, curving staircase and raced behind him to his room, taking no time to enjoy the view.
Once we arrived, though, I couldn’t help but stare. At his low, simple modern bed, an island in the middle of a neat sea of books. At the floor-to-ceiling windows that splashed amber sunlight onto the shelves that lined his room. It felt like forever since I was last in here, and I missed it.
“What?” Noah asked, when he noticed I hadn’t moved.
I stepped inside. “I wish I could live here,” I said. I wished I could stay.
“No, you don’t.”
“Fine,” I said, my eyes drawn to all the spines. “I wish I had your room.”
“It’s not a terrible consolation prize, I’ll admit.”
“I wish we could make out in your bed.”
Noah sighed. “As do I, but I’m afraid we have a ritual burning to conduct.”
“It’s always something.”
“Isn’t it though?” Noah retrieved the doll from his desk in the alcove, and I finally tore my eyes from the books, ready to get this show on the road. Noah led me to one of probably a dozen unused sitting rooms; the walls were mint green and dotted with ornate brass sconces; there was some furniture, but it was all covered in sheets.
Noah handed me the doll and began to search the room. I immediately set it down on the arm of what appeared to be a chair. I didn’t want to touch it.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“I am preparing to start a fire.” He was opening and closing drawers.
“Don’t you still smoke?”
“Not around your parents,” Noah said, still rummaging. “But yes.”
“You don’t have matches on you?”
“A lighter, usually.” Then Noah looked up, mid-crouch. “My father had the fireplaces rewired for gas. I’m looking for the remote.”
The statement dashed my fantasy of throwing a match onto the crude doll and watching it burn. Until I approached the fireplace, that is. The logs looked awfully real.
“You sure it’s gas?”
He walked to the fireplace then and removed the screen. “Apparently not. Shit.”
“They might smell an actual fire all the way down there. I don’t know.”
I didn’t care. I wanted this over with. “We’ll think of something.” I picked up the doll from the chair with two fingers, pinching its wrist. I held it out in front of me. “Light it up.”
Noah considered it for a moment, but shook his head and turned to leave. “Wait here.”