“Are you really sure this is the right thing to do?” Yvette asked one last time while hitching her two year old daughter, Robyn, into a better position on her hip, and then trying to straighten the wrinkles the maneuver left in her yellow dress. “You’ve been happy enough to stay quiet on the matter for years.”
Jack grinned his patented rakish grin as he lightly lifted little Robyn with one hand, pulled Yvette’s dress straight with the other, and then resettled the child in the preferred position. The maneuver looked just as well practiced as it was and Yvette smiled at him in gratitude.
“To be honest, love, I should have spoken out years ago, preferably before I met you, and definitely before our delightful daughter started showing so clearly who her father is,” was his reply. His voice showed no sign of the strain he was under, holding its usual light tone, but his face, despite his habitual grin, was definitely a little strained around the eyes. Not to mention, his fatherhood was not a subject he usually brought up anywhere without several layers of wards and silencing runes, which the sidewalk before his parents’ mansion definitely lacked.
“Nonsense, she has my hair, my eyes,” she began, but he cut her off.
“Aye, but she is developing my features,” he commented as he lifted his daughter’s chin so Yvette and he could see her little features better, then bopped her on the nose to make her grin. “She’s got the same nose as my youngest nephew, and you can’t deny that that is my grin.”
Yvette could not help but agree with Jack’s assessment of their daughter’s face. She let out a deep sigh and said, “Very well,” before turning to face the walk. His hand on her arm stopped her before she took a step, though. She looked up into his face, a voice buried deep in her mind sighing at the visage that set women a’twiter all across the world.
“Stop a moment, love. You have to believe how important this is or we’ll never pull it off.” That his serious tone managed to suppress his habitual grin told her just how worried he was about this, and she knew that concern was not for himself but for Robyn and herself. “It’s complicated, but nothing about either of us has been simple since we met, aye? If this doesn’t work, someone is going to figure out about Robyn some day, and my father is going to decide you are perfect and force us to marry so Robyn can be named the Brand heir.”
She couldn’t help but grin at him presenting as a bad outcome the dreams of half the world’s young women. He shook his head and bopped her on the nose when he caught her expression.
“What?” she snapped playfully. “You did offer to marry me once, you know.”
“Aye, and thankfully you had the sense to turn me down,” he said with an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Because if we had, or if we ever do, your mother’s folk will come after you, and you know it. As long as you are an unwed mother and Robyn a fatherless bastard …” He paused to bop Robyn on the nose again and added, “and don’t you go using words like that young lady,” before continuing. “Then you two are safe from the machinations of the Du Pointe matriarchs. You want to be safe from the Du Pointe matriarchs don’t you?” He set his hand under Yvette’s chin and forced her to nod in agreement, though she would have done so without the prompting.
“Enough, Jack,” she said, lightly slapping his hand away. “But if Robyn looks so much like you, how are we going to convince your family she isn’t yours? Your medical charts will mean nothing if someone insists on a paternity test.”
“Then you, as her mother, will politely decline any tests,” he countered, turning away and collecting a handful of Floo Powder. “They can’t force either of you. Just say you are perfectly aware of who her father is and would rather keep the matter quiet.” He snickered at his own twisted logic, and Yvette rolled her eyes. Men.
“Maybe it would be best if we weren’t there … if they don’t see her then how could they guess the truth?” To be honest, she was just scared senseless at the idea of confronting his father. She’d almost had a nervous breakdown after her father’s sister accidentally sent the Du Pointe matriarchs after her last year. Only Robyn’s existence had kept her from becoming the bargaining chip her mother had been meant to be. She didn’t want a repeat of any such experience. She’d be just as happy to turn and get back in the car right now. Jack could confront his family another day.
“Given how much time we are going to be spending together they are going to want to confront you at some point, love. Might as well get it over with,” he said, wrapping his free arm about her shoulders and guiding her up to the house. “Besides, Brad’ll want to meet my new hobby. He always does.”
Yvette wasn’t sure what she thought of that comment, but she was pretty sure she didn’t like it. She considered several rejoinders but dismissed them all and settled for just focusing on her nerves as they approached the door.
The butler who opened the elaborate door at Jack’s knock provided a simple and bland welcome before wandering off to inform someone of their arrival.
“Don’t mind him. He’s always been a bit of a stick in the mud,” Jack whispered to her just before another figure stepped into the room they had been asked to wait in.
She’d agonized over the proper choice of clothing for this trip for hours. Jack’s arrival in black slacks and a simple blue button up shirt had not helped her choose. He was well known for tweaking propriety when he had the chance, and she doubted he’d be any different with his family. She’d thus chosen a dress that was a bit more formal than his choice, and the first member of the Brand family she saw still made her feel that she’d under dressed. He was wearing a gray three piece suit for goodness sakes. It was just a family tea … wasn’t it.
Once she got past the concern of cloths, Yvette noticed the man coming in was a bit taller than Jack, not hard since he was only five nine, but with the same black hair and deep blue eyes. However, her assessment made it no further than that before he spoke and she developed a deep seated dislike for him.
“So the prodigal son has returned,” he said in an insolent drawl, his accent lacking the worldly air that Jack must have developed in his years traveling the world as an international baseball player. However, even so there was a similarity between the two that clued her in to this man’s identity.
“Bradford,” Jack cried cheerfully, and chased his younger brother down to give him a huge, and rather painful sounding, slap on the back. “Good to see you, little brother. How’s the missus? And the little ones? You’re up to what? Five now? Been spacing them out well it seems.”
Yvette could see the frustration in Bradford’s stance and expression. However, he quickly mastered his expression, and, rather than answering his brother’s questions, turned his attention to her.
“Bonjour, Madame,” he purred, moving forward to capture her hand and give it a mostly gentlemanly kiss. ‘Mostly’ because she could see Jack’s brother had gotten some of the same woman charming genes as Jack. Fortunately, she was quite immune to the Brand charm at this point. “Welcome to our humble abode.”
“Thank you kindly, Monsieur,” she replied politely, and tried to retrieve her hand. Unfortunately, Bradford seemed determined to hang onto it. “However, I am afraid you are mistaken. It is Mademoiselle, not Madame.”
Well that did it. The debonair façade dropped as fast as her hand and he whirled on his brother. “Damn it, Johnathan,” he snapped. “Couldn’t you have just married the mother of one of your by blows for once. At least this one would have looked good on your arm at the family parties.”
Yvette stood rigidly, appalled at the man’s poor manners. If he had been facing her she probably would have slapped him. Sadly, it did not seem that Jack was going to defend her honor. He simply rolled his eyes and laughed.
“Really, Brad. Were you in the other room when Mother was teaching us manners? What a way to welcome a guest of the family. You are quite lucky Mother wasn’t here.”
“Lucky I wasn’t here for what?” a strong female voice said from the doorway. Only after she spoke did anyone in the room realize they had further company. She had the same black hair and blue eyes as her sons, and a darker skin tone that bespoke her Spanish heritage. Yvette was relieved to note she wore a dark blue dress of a similar cut to her own, so perhaps she hadn’t dressed quite so inappropriately after all. However, the tension in the room being thick enough to cut with a knife was a strong distraction from worries about clothing styles.
“Really, Bradford, what have you done now? From Johnathan I would expect it, but I thought Vanessa had trained you better.” There was humor in the older woman’s voice, but a core of steel showed as well. “Do you think you can put your rivalry aside just for an hour or two and have tea. It’s been so long since we have had the whole family together.”
Brad nodded, but Yvette couldn’t see his face since his back was to her, so she was unable to gauge his exact mood. He quickly stomped off, murmuring something about letting someone know to set more places at the table. With him gone, Jack’s mother came all the way into the room and gave her eldest son a hug.
“You should come home more often, Jack,” she nagged. As she straightened up, it looked like she noticed Yvette and Robyn for the first time. “Ah, but recriminations can wait. Please, introduce me to your young lady – ladies.”
Yvette swallowed a chuckle. She was no one’s young lady, and definitely not Jack’s. The man was getting closer to sixty every year, and if mages aged as fast as mundains people would be mistaking him for her father instead of husband. The fact that she was young enough to be his daughter was one of the reasons she had turned him down after she found out she was pregnant with Robyn. That, and he simply wasn’t the marrying type, and she knew it.
“Mother, of course. My apologies.” Jack wrapped an arm around his mother’s shoulders and led her over to where Yvette was standing and Robyn was starting to wiggle. “Mother, this is Yvette Frasier and her daughter, Robyn. Yvette is the young musician I’ve been helping out the last few years. Yvette, Robyn, this is my mother, Catherine Brand.”
“A pleasure, Madame,” Yvette replied with a slight curtsy, her childhood French accent coming to the forefront with her nerves. Robyn waved and reached out her arms to the interesting new woman, a grin so like her father’s plastered across her face. Yvette was beginning to wonder when her daughter would actually start talking, but as long as Jack seemed to be able to perfectly interpret her every wish from expression and the odd chirp it was unlikely. He had spoiled her so much she hadn’t started walking until she was almost two, preferring to let her father carry her everywhere. She was sure that Robyn was just holding out on her, and would start with full sentences someday. Hopefully before she was five.
Catherine seemed enchanted by Robyn, and was more than happy to take her off Yvette’s hands for the moment. “Aren’t you a darling,” she cooed, and Robyn replied with a little warbling chirp that sounded surprisingly like an actual robin. It was little tricks like that that left Yvette quite convinced as to the intelligence of her daughter.
Jack, always the perfect interpreter answered. “Of course she looks like me, she’s my mother.” This odd form of communication didn’t faze Yvette at all, but caused an odd expression to cross Catherine’s face for a moment. Yvette wasn’t quite sure of the meaning of that expression, but assumed it was related to the usual confusion most people felt when hearing Robyn and Jack communicate. Walking down the street, speaking in a combination of whistles and chirps, had garnered them more than a few odd looks over the last year or so.
“A pleasure to meet you both, my dears. You must join us for tea. We always try to get the whole family together Friday afternoons.” Yvette was amused that Catherine bopped Robyn on the nose just like Jack did. She was also relieved to receive a polite welcome from at least one member of Jack’s family. The scene with his brother had rather upset her.
“Come. You must meet the rest of the family,” Catherine said, sliding her free arm through Yvette’s and leading her from the room. “And, Jack, you can come too if you stop needling your brother,” she called back at her wayward son.
“He started it,” Jack called back as he followed them through the door.
“I don’t care,” were his mother’s final words on the matter. In fact, it was everyone’s final word for at least a minute as they walked down the rather elegantly decorated hall and out what Yvette assumed was the back door. The etched glass double doors led out onto a green lawn, which was clearly the beginning of some extensive gardens. In one direction was what appeared to be an old world rose and hedge garden, but the other way was a classic southern California succulent garden. It was an interesting blend of styles that should have seemed clunky, yet it worked.
In the middle of the lawn was a striped tent providing shade, the sides rolled up to show the elegantly set tables and a plethora of people. Catherine led them over to the smaller table, or at least shorter, decorated in an elegant, if slightly plastiky look, and surrounded by a number of children who seemed to range between the ages of five and twenty. The eldest, who they were led straight to, was a dishwater blond who took after Bradford, both in his features and his suit.
“Benji, love, how are the littles?” Catherine asked when they were noticed.
“Enjoying Maria’s sweets, as always, Grandmother,” was the response, provided along with a loving smile.
“Excellent. Benjamin, you remember your Uncle Johnathan, right? And this is his friend Yvette and her daughter, Robyn. Be a dear and introduce her around.” Catherine waved to each of them as she introduced them, and quickly offered Robyn into Benjamin’s waiting arms. Yvette wanted to protest, but a quick look at Jack showed he was unconcerned, which reassured her.
Robyn gave Benjamin an odd look when she found herself in his arms, but when she looked back at Jack and gave another little whistle, what she found in his face must have been the comfort she wanted. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her face lit up with a grin.
“Hello there, Robyn. Say goodbye to your mom and I’ll take you to your seat. I think someone set you a place by my little brother, Fredrick. He’s about your age …” Benjamin carried Robyn off after she gave her mother a little wave, talking comfortably about his various siblings and cousins, introducing Robyn around as he went. This looked rather like something he did a lot, poor young man. Yvette wondered when he was going to be allowed to leave the children’s table. If she recalled correctly, he was Bradford’s oldest, and about twenty-two. That made him a few months older than herself.
“Don’t you worry,” Catherine said, taking Yvette’s arm and leading her toward the other table. “Benjamin is Bradford’s eldest, a wonderful lad. He’ll take good care of your daughter. How old is she, anyway? Three? Four?”
“Two and a half actually,” Yvette replied, letting herself be dragged away. “She’ll be three come Christmas.” Yvette considered the proliferation of little blond heads around the children’s table, and as she looked at the table ahead, she noted there were a fair number of blonds amongst the adults as well. It rather looked like she and Robyn fit in better with the family than Jack and his brother, reddish blonde blending in much better than black.
Yvette was settled into a chair next to Catherine and Jack was placed at the far end of the table at the head … or perhaps it was the foot and his father was really at the head. Yvette had never really had an opportunity to learn these little bits of etiquette in her rather odd childhood. Disoriented by the sudden distance from Jack, her anchor, she didn’t absorb the introductions to everyone around the table. They were all related to Jack by blood or marriage, and either in his generation or his father’s, but that was as much as she was certain of.
However, she did catch what Catherine called her.
“This is Johnathan’s friend, Yvette Fraiser.” Her emphasis on the word friend clearly implied more than simple friendship, and Yvette didn’t find the implication comforting given their mission today. All the same, she tried to smile in a friendly fashion at all the people surrounding her.
“So, Yvette, where are you from? France? And where did you meet my eldest son?” Catherine said to begin conversation. Around them servants began serving the tea and offering small sandwiches.
“Canada, actually,” Yvette replied, accepting several small sandwiches, and wishing she could just focus on her food for a bit. Unfortunately it was quite clear she was going to be the center of attention for some time. “My mother is Québécoise, a Du Pointe, and my father is of the Scotts Canadian Fraisers.” Yvette could feel the glare from Jack when she admitted to her mother’s family. Perhaps saying that had not been the brightest idea. He certainly didn’t think so, and the excited looks she was receiving from the others at the table weren’t encouraging. Her old roommate had told her name dropping was a useful tact when dealing with the old families, but it was looking like it was going to backfire on her today. She needed to say something to distract them from her heritage.
“As for Jack, we met while he was coaching at the school I was attending up in Canada.”
The older woman across the way, Jack’s aunt Yvette was fairly certain, asked “Oh, that school where he was teaching … what was it, for a year? Do tell us, what did he do to get himself kicked out?” Yvette had the distinct impression she was being dragged into a gossip session, which didn’t seem quite appropriate with Jack just the other end of the table, but it did seem to provide a good distraction.
“Nothing, as far as I know,” Yvette replied with as innocent a look as she could conjure. To be honest, Jack had gotten her pregnant, but that hadn’t impacted his ability to return to teaching the following year since the administration had never been informed. His decision to follow her to California had been his own. “He just chose to leave, I guess. You would have to ask him for more details.”
“Oh, but we have tried,” the man next to her commented, “but all he says is that he found something more interesting to do.”
“Except he hasn’t been doing anything these last three years or so,” the woman next to him replied. Yvette though she was Jack’s cousin, which would make the man her husband. She was regretting not taking in all the names a few minutes ago.
“Anything would be more interesting than teaching a bunch of uninterested idiots the basics of sports,” Yvette heard Jack grouse from the far end of the table. That seem to catch the attention of the man his own age just down from him, and the two began a quiet side conversation on the difficulties of coaching and the current baseball stats. Yvette tuned them out and provided her own response.
“Well, I don’t know about those first few months, but for the last two and a half years he has been playing chief babysitter for me, which is a full time job, I assure you,” Yvette said with a laugh. Unfortunately, when she caught the looks on everyone faces, full of blatant assumptions, she kicked herself for choosing that response. She was not helping her case that Jack wasn’t Robyn’s father, a damned hard case to argue since he was.
“I never thought of Jack as much of a baby tender,” Bradford inserted in a slow drawl. Yvette hadn’t realized there was so much animosity between the brothers from Jack’s stories, but it was certainly hard to miss right now.
“Oh, he was an absolute life saver,” Yvette replied lightly, trying to ignore the glare coming her way from across the table. “I don’t know how I would survive school without him. My roommate is a doll, and the teachers are very understanding, but he’s always willing to pick up the slack at any time. I don’t know what I ‘d do without Jack’s help.”
“You’re still in school?” Catherine asked, her surprise quite evident in her voice. When Yvette turned to her, she took a moment to also run an eye over Bentley, Jack’s father. She was surprised he hadn’t chimed in at any point, and he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to anything other than his tea. She was not sure what to make of that.
“Well, I wouldn’t have been at school if it weren’t for Jack. He found out I was a musician and helped get me into a school where I could try and develop a future in music.”
“Music?” the blond woman across from her asked in a rather derogatory voice. That had to be Bradford’s wife, Vanessa. Jack had mentioned her a time or two, and rarely in a good light. If his relationship with his brother was antagonistic, his relationship with his sister-in-law was absolutely bellicose. She did not approve of his lifestyle.
“Ah, Yvette is an absolutely smashing musician,” Jack chimed in from the far end of the table. He was clearly more interested in her interaction with his family than his conversation with his … cousin? It was a bit of a stretch to converse the full length of a table with six people on either side, but he seemed determined to make his stamp. “That’s why I brought her by today. You lot are always complaining that I never let you know what I’m up to, especially Brad, so I thought I’d fix that. Baseball was getting a bit old.”
Someone commented softly, “Or perhaps you were getting a bit old for it,” but Jack ignored them. Yvette could understand why. Really, Jack had not been slowing down in the slightest despite his nearly forty years in the sport.
“And a year teaching proved to me I just didn’t have to knack for teaching or coaching, so I thought I’d try something different. Yvette is going to be a musician, and I am going to be her manager … and chief baby sitter.” He said that last with a twinkle in his eye and a challenge in his tone which was clearly directed at his brother. “Be a chance to make good use of all those contacts I’ve been making all these years.” That was also clearly a challenge, everyone here being quite aware that Jack’s main form of contact over the years had been carnal.
Catherine decided to ignore her eldest son’s input for the most part and asked, “What school do you attend?”
“Idyllwild Academy.” That comment clearly garnered her another stack of attention, though she wasn’t sure why. What could be so special about that school?
There was a supercilious snort from the far end of the table, probably from the woman next to Jack who looked to be in Jack’s father’s age range. The man beside her was the one to speak. “Awfully expensive school for one of your ladies,” he said, his emphasis on ‘ladies’ leaving no question that he was implying a word that was just a bit ruder.
“I’ve plenty of money, so why skimp. Besides, Richard will take any student who is deserving,” Jack replied, appearing to ignore the implied derision. “A good half the students are there on scholarship.”
“Merlin knows how you have any money left,” the man continued. “Unless you have been dipping into the family coffers.”
“Never touch the stuff. I prefer careful investment,” was Jack’s reply.
“You call all those children you are supporting a good investment?” the man asked, his eyebrows rose in surprise. Yvette saw this as a good opening for Jack to explain about how the children he was supporting were not his, but the infuriating man did not seem inclined to carry the conversation that direction.
“That isn’t quite what I meant, but they are an excellent one. Our future is the best investment we can make, after all. Why, the eldest is one of the foremost up and coming lawyers in France. Besides, what else should I have done, left them to starve?” It was a reasonable response, and the truth, if rather clichéd. But really, he didn’t do anything to counter the impression that the existence of those children was his responsibility.
A man about Jack’s age, sitting across from across from Jack’s last detractor, decided to change the topic and headed off what was clearly going to be an argument. “I’ve never understood how Idyllwild worked,” he said. “Half the students are nobodies on a scholarship and the other half are heirs to the old families. How does the headmaster make it work?”
“Actually, about one quarter heirs and one quarter family heads,” Yvette commented, leaning forward to look at the speaker who was on the same side of the table as her. “But why should there be a problem because of that? I’ve roomed with the head of the Du Boise family for three years, and Nimue and I get along just fine.”
“Because some groups are simply not meant to interact so,” was Vanessa’s snooty reply. “It would be unseemly for someone like the head of the Du Boise family to room with a nobody.” Yvette could now safely say she liked Bradford’s wife even less than she liked him.
“But she is rooming with a nobody,” Yvette replied calmly, not letting it show how much those words hurt.
“But you are a Du Pointe,” was the pointed response from Catherine. It appeared that the older woman had developed an opinion of Yvette, and it was going to have to be torn down.
“Only on my mother’s side,” Yvette said. She was going to explain everything, and see if they still wanted to look at her like she was a prime side of beef. “And she was practically disowned for marrying my father. The Fraisers are a mundain family, and proud of it.”
“I think I heard about that one,” Jack’s aunt cut in. “Yvonne Du Pointe was supposed to marry her French cousin but ran off with some nobody. It was the scandal of the decade some twenty odd years back.” Yvette could see the recognition in the faces around her, and was glad that fact seemed to have really hit everyone.
“Exactly,” Yvette said. “I was raised on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, and if it weren’t for Jack helping me out after I learned I was pregnant, I would still be in the middle of nowhere with my parents. But me being a nobody from a nothing family didn’t stop Nimue from agreeing to be Robyn’s godmother. Or Annabelle Savannah and Gloryanna Aradia De Julie next door from being some of Robyn’s favorite playmates.”
“The Savannah?” Bradford asked, clearly impressed by all the name dropping.
“Like I said, half nobodies, a quarter heads of families, and a quarter heirs. I have a standing invitation to stop by the De Julie compound outside of Milan, if I’m ever in Italy. But if I’m such a nobody, then why would they make such an offer?”
Maybe she should have stopped with the name dropping after Nimue, or even Annabelle. From the drop jawed looks around the table, she had gone a little too far mentioning her friendship with the Aradia heir. Even with the explanation of her less than illustrious childhood, it looked like she was still being considered an excellent marriage choice given her connections.
“They must have seen your mother’s potential in you,” was Vanessa’s response, but her nonchalance was clearly feigned as her eyes expressed as much shock as everyone else’s.
“Even the Du Pointes didn’t see any potential in me,” Yvette said lightly, though a small shudder still ran down her spine at how close her escape had been.
“Oh, they saw potential,” Jack commented loudly. “They just had a bit of a problem with the whole unwed mother thing and your refusal to say who Robyn’s father was.” His tone was mostly light, but knowing him as well as she did, Yvette could hear how nervous he was about the turn of conversation. She wondered if anyone else present could sense that.
“Who is Robyn’s father?” The question rang out across the table, startling everyone. They were the first words Jack’s father, Bentley, had spoken all afternoon, and it didn’t look like anyone else had thought he was paying attention any more than Yvette had.
“That is between me and him, but I thank you for your concern,” Yvette said, hoping she had kept her tone level enough and hadn’t stepped to far from the realm of polite phrasing. It was rather difficult to tell someone to mind their own business in a socially acceptable way, and her upbringing certainly hadn’t provided her with pointers at a young age.
“But shouldn’t he have taken some responsibility for you two?” This time it was Catherine asking the difficult question, and Yvette couldn’t help but wonder if they hadn’t passed beyond the realm of socially acceptable conversation some time ago.
“Given the whole incident was part of some kind of spell gone wrong, I saw no reason to hold him to anything,” Yvette said politely, but her eyes were fixed on the table. She was afraid if she looked up she would look at Jack and that would blow the whole thing out of the water. “He took as much responsibility as he could … and besides, Jack offered to help me out.” Actually, the two were completely the same, but by stating things that way she might be able to drive enough confusion into the mix to paint the picture Jack needed for the rest of the family.
“He should have married you. It would have been proper.” These words came out of Jack’s aunt’s mouth as though they were fighting words, demanding attention and response.
“I didn’t want to marry him,” Yvette said back, this time eyeing her accuser. This was not what she had expected when she came here today. “I don’t know that I ever will marry. I have my daughter, I will have my music career, and I have friends scattered all over the globe who will welcome me wherever my career takes me. What more do I need?” And she had Jack, one way or another, though she didn’t dare say that. In their own ways, they loved each other, but he wasn’t the marrying kind, and she wasn’t sure she was either. So life suited them as it was.
“But Robyn deserves a proper father figure,” was the next riposte, this time coming from the woman about Jack’s age sitting next to him.
Yvette laughed at how that echoed her own thoughts, but before she could formulate a reply, the cry of a hunting raptor rang out through the air and Robyn came running up to Jack.
“Well yes, such teasing is fairly common in such social settings,” he told her and he hoisted her into his lap and waved off the concerned looking Benjamin. Robyn let out another selection of whistles and chirps, but Yvette didn’t listen to the reply. She knew Jack had the situation well in hand.
“But she has Jack,” was the response Yvette finally chose, waving a hand toward the odd tableau at the end of the table that everyone was pretending not to pay attention to. She sensed an opening, and decided to run with it while Jack was distracted.
“He really would make an excellent father,” she said with an indulgent grin. “Its such a pity he can’t have children of his own. But I really don’t mind letting him use Robyn as a substitute. It suits us all just fine.”
Before, the people at the table had been at least half listening to the conversation at the end of the table, but now they were all focused on her. “What do you mean my son can’t have children?” Catherine snapped at her, the first to rediscover her voice. After the roar of her voice had faded a touch, the sound of a hard smack followed it, a sound Yvette recognized as Jack’s hand coming in contact with his forehead. Sounds like he’s listening now.
When a second, softer smack echoed the first, Yvette ignored Catherine’s question and leaned forward to look down the table at her daughter. “Don’t do that, little songbird,” she called, “Or you will lose so many brain cells all you’ll be good for is sports, like Jack.” That comment earned her a glare from Jack and a laugh from her daughter, but did not distract the rest of the table from Catherine’s last question.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a light and distracted tone. “I probably do let her spend far too much time with Jack. She is even picking up his grin. But you asked a question …”
“Yes, something about our son not having children, which seems rather odd given he is still supporting over twenty in fifteen countries.” This time it was Bentley speaking, his hand on his wife’s arm, rather looking like he was restraining her. Yvette was surprised by how much calmer Jack’s father sounded than his mother. Given everything Jack had told her about his parents, she had rather expected the reaction to be the other way around.
“But they aren’t his,” she replied in as innocent a tone as she could conjure. She really should have studied acting to get through this afternoon. “He told me all about it shortly after he offered to help me out. You’re his family … I figured he would have told you that the doctors found out he was infertile back before he started playing baseball.”
“Infertile?” The shocked word came from several directions and Yvette didn’t bother trying to figure out just who had said it. A quick scan of the table showed Jack was looking resigned, his more distant relatives shocked, Vanessa and Bradford calculating, Bentley thoughtful, and Catherine livid.
“How dare you slander my son’s good name!” came Catherine’s outburst after several moments of seething. Yvette was not sure how to respond to that one and found herself rather uncertain that pushing the matter was the right idea after all. Maybe Jack had had a plan … if so, then damn the man for not sharing it with her.
“Slander?” Yvette managed to stutter out. “I would never…” Fortunately Jack cut her off then.
“It’s not slander if it is true, Mother,” Jack said, his voice resigned. “This wasn’t quite how I meant to tell you … but I was planning to bring it up today. Yvette is telling the truth. I’ve known I couldn’t have children for a long time.” He paused there for a moment, clearly expecting an interruption from some source. A quick glance around the table showed most everyone was too shocked to interrupt, and his mother was being restrained by her husband’s touch and occasional glare.
“You’re probably wondering about all the children I’ve supported … I saw a lot of my teammates in that situation, and I thought it would be a chance to help a few people out. I made my deals carefully, picking women who needed help as much as their children. I’ve helped raise two lawyers, three a doctor, and a Soccer player so far, and two of those are the mothers. Who knows how far the rest might go. I’m not ashamed of helping them. But none of the children are really mine. There isn’t a single birth certificate that my name is on where a paternity test would prove me the father.”
Yvette shuddered slightly at that close evasion. It was true, Robyn was his only biological child, and his name was not on her birth certificate. That didn’t make it feel any less like a lie.
“If you knew, why didn’t you say anything?” Bradford asked, finally shaking off his shock. Yvette was surprised by the yearning in his voice, but quickly realized for a man with five children, the idea of not being able to have any would be painful.
“Because letting you think all those kids were mine pissed you off so much,” Jack replied in a teasing tone. Yvette let out a soft snort at the insanity. Even under these circumstances, Jack couldn’t stop needling his brother.
“Why are you telling us now?” This time it was Bentley speaking. Despite the distance between them and the large audience, it looked like this discussion was just for the immediate family.
“Perhaps because I’ve left you all hanging too long and it is time to come clean,” Jack said solemnly, but then continued in a lighter tone. “Or perhaps since nothing else I have done has gotten me disowned, I’m hoping this will.”
“Why on earth should we disown you for something that isn’t your fault?” This time it was Catherine asking the question. At least her rather red complexion from a moment ago was fading. However, her tone of voice did not imply she was any calmer. If anything, she was even angrier, just not as dramatically so.
“Mother, I can’t provide the family an heir,” Jack said, sounding deeply surprised. “Do you want the Brand name to end with me?”
“Nonsense. There are ways around that,” Catherine said, sounding rather desperate. “You could adopt one of Bradford’s children … or marry someone suitable with a child. Yvette for example.” Yvette felt Catherine’s hand clamp down on her shoulders and looked over at Jack with a sense of panic. This was exactly what they had sought to avoid, and now his mother was pushing for it.
“She has a child of the right age to easily be yours given the length of your association. Who else knows who the father is other than the father himself? I’m sure he’d keep quiet. And we have developed some excellent contacts in the local entertainment industries the last few years. The Brand name could be quite a boost for her career.”
“Mother!” Jack snapped, sounding appalled. “For one, she is young enough to be my daughter. And second, you would tie us to the Du Pointes, who would love nothing more than to have another family to manipulate. The fact that Robyn doesn’t have a father is all that keeps them safe from those bitches, and I won’t tangle our family with that mess.” He looked down apologetically at Robyn in his lap as he realized what he had just said in front of his daughter. “Don’t go using words like that when you start talking, ‘kay? Your mother will kill me,” he said to her, bopping her on the nose before gathering her close in his arms again.
Bentley actually looked pleased with that response, but it was Bradford who spoke next. “And here I thought you didn’t pay any attention to mage politics.” The intent of the words was taunting, but hidden in his voice was a hint that he was actually rather impressed with his elder brother.
“Only way to avoid them is to know them top to bottom,” Jack said flippantly, but Yvette sensed another layer to their banter now. She wondered if half the antagonism between them was because Brad wanted to respect his brother but found it difficult to respect the baseball superstar’s lifestyle.
Further development between the brothers was cut off by their mother’s return to the fray. “Then we will find someone else,” Catherine snapped. “All this just shows that you do have the ability to be a good leader, despite the mad life you have led these last few years …”
Jack cut her off with a laugh. “Last few years? Mother, I’ve been a famous baseball star for almost forty years. Jack Daw is a household name in most of the world. And he is going to continue to be when he helps discover one of the finest musicians of the twenty-first century. Jack Daw, not Jack Brand. I’ve built my life on my own terms and with my own name. I don’t want anything the Brand name has to offer.”
Catherine started to protest again, but Bentley cut her off. “Is this really what you want?” was his simple question, his voice calm and showing simple curiosity rather than his wife’s anger.
“This is all I have ever wanted, Father,” Jack replied earnestly.
“Then I don’t see what the problem is,” Bentley said with a shrug. “Bradford can be the next family head and Benjamin can follow him.”
“What?” Catherine exclaimed. “How can you do that? Jack is your firstborn son. How are you going to explain why you blocked him from his birthright?”
“I’ll sing the truth of my infertility to every paper in the world, if you want,” Jack said. “Complete with medical records.”
“How gauche,” Catherine said with a snooty sniff worthy of Vanessa.
“Perhaps you would rather tell all your socialite friends that he is illegitimate,” Bentley commented lightly, as though his words weren’t another massive bombshell. Yvette wasn’t sure if she should take that as a joke, but something told her it was the truth. It would certainly explain why Jack was a good three inches shorter than almost everyone at the table, women included.
Catherine gasped in horror, and everyone else gasped in shock. Except Jack. He just laughed. It was a long, happy, hearty laugh, to which Robyn added a soprano giggle.
Using the cover of Jack’s laughter, Catherine hissed at her husband, “How dare you?” which left Yvette struggling not to laugh herself.
“Really, love, just trying to give the boy some options,” Bentley said lightly in a tone that rather reminded her of Jack. Perhaps Jack wasn’t Bentley’s biological son, but it seemed he had picked up a few things from the man who raised him.
“You know, that really explains a lot,” Jack called out as his laughter began to fade. “How long have you known?”
“Johnathan,” Catherine began to snap, but was cut off by her husband.
“He’s given us the truth, Catherine. Can we do any less?” Bentley asked her before turning back to Jack. “You were awfully well developed for being a month or so early.”
“Did you ever legally adopt me?” Jack asked. He appeared determined to get as much information as possible as long as Bentley was feeling generous.
“And leave a paper trail? Your mother wouldn’t hear of it. My name is on your birth certificate, so who was going to ask questions? Things might have been different if Brad here hadn’t taken after his mother so much, but with the two of you looking so alike …” He trailed off with a shrug.
“So I’m not really even in the order of succession,” Jack said, his voice filled with amazement.
“Perhaps not … but since you were the first born, I didn’t intend to get in your way if you wanted it. All I ever wanted was for my boys to be happy.” Bentley didn’t qualify that statement. He didn’t need to. Simply calling them ‘his boys’ said everything Jack needed to hear, and Yvette felt a smile cross her lips. This was going to work out after all.
“So … if I had come to you years ago and said I didn’t want to be your heir …”
“I would have said that’s fine,” Bentley said with another small shrug. “I was going to explain everything when you turned eighteen …”
“But I ran off and joined a baseball team before you could say anything,” Jack said with a sharp laugh. “I see I’m going to have to reevaluate a few things.”
“Bentley,” Catherine began, a whine in her voice that would be more befitting her youngest grandson. “You swore you didn’t care, that you wouldn’t let my mistake come between Johnathan and his birthright.”
“And I haven’t,” Bentley said solemnly. “But if he wants out, I won’t stop him. I never wanted to be head of this family, Benjamina did.” As he said this he waved a hand toward the woman Yvette had been fairly certain was Jack’s aunt. She could see the similarities between brother and sister. “She’s firstborn, and has always been the one with the drive and the love of tradition … to which poor Bianca and Beauregard can attest.” Yvette struggled to restrain a laugh. She had always known the Brands had a family tradition of naming their firstborn with a name starting with ‘B’, but she didn’t realize how far some of the family might go. She felt quite sorry for Jack’s cousins. He had truly lucked out in avoiding that family curse.
“So what do we tell the rest of the world?” Jack asked.
Bentley shrugged again. “Does it matter? We could tell them you’re infertile, or that you’re illegitimate, or that your baseball career finally drove us to disown you … Did you ever legally change your name?”
“And leave a paper trail for the media to find?” Jack quipped in an appalled tone. “Never. Jack Daw and Johnathan Brand are completely different people on paper. I wanted you to disown me, not to drag the family name through the mud.”
“Why not?” Yvette was surprised to hear Bradford rejoining the conversation. He looked curious and relieved, while his wife rather looked like she had been sucking on a lemon. One would think that after learning she was going to be the first woman of the Brand Family, she would look a bit happier.
“Because, little brother, just because I didn’t want anything to do with the name didn’t mean I wanted to ruin it your you and yours. You were always the one who wanted it, not me.”
“No, Jack, I just wanted what you had,” Brad said, calling his brother by his nickname for the first time this afternoon. “When I was a kid, I wanted the attention you got as heir. After you left, I wanted to live as free as you did. I got stuck here being the responsible one but you still had all the future power.”
Jack looked rather like he had been slapped. Brad’s admission certainly brought their sibling rivalry into a new light and Yvette couldn’t help but reevaluate her own opinion of Bradford.
“Well, the power is all yours now … and any time you want some of that freedom, look me up and I will take you out to see the sights.” Jack gave his brother a grin that promised many an interesting night, and Bentley laughed at his sons’ interplay.
Bradford’s face lit up at the offer, a reaction that, unfortunately, Vanessa also caught.
“So that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh?” she snapped at her husband. “He backs down from the throne and now you are going to forgive him everything?”
“Why not?” Yvette found herself asking. “They are brothers and they love each other.”
Well, that cut the conversation off at the root. Apparently, arguing in public was fine as long as no one remembered that there was anyone other than family present. As soon as they realized Yvette was there, the topic miraculously turned to gardening techniques as though it was the most fascinating thing in the world.
She sat quietly and sipped her now cold tea, watching the sidelong glances and fidgeting of the various people at the table. The aunts, uncles, and cousins seemed the least bothered, and Bentley seemed perfectly relaxed, tuning out the inane discussion with the same aplomb he had used against Yvette’s interrogation earlier. Catherine and Vanessa were exchanging glances and glares that left Yvette wondering just how Brad had picked his wife. Did Mother pick her?
Some time later, Yvette caught an odd sound from the far end of the table. Jack had refused to give Robyn back into Benjamin’s care, and she had fallen asleep in his lap shortly after the end of the argument. It appeared that now she was waking up, and, if that odd chirping noise meant what Yvette thought it did, asking if they could go home yet.
Yvette didn’t catch his response to Robyn, but his decision was unmistakable. “Well, it has been lovely seeing you all again,” he said, his strong voice cutting through the stilted discussion, “but I think it is time to head off.” He stood and walked around to Yvette, handing her their sleepy daughter.
Yvette said, “Yes, I fear Jack is right. It was lovely to meet you all,” and received a few polite goodbyes for her pains. She stood, hoisting Robyn in her arms, and watched as Jack circled the table, bestowing hugs and goodbyes to his relatives. He paused a moment longer at Brad and Bentley, holding a quick, whispered conversation with each of them, but said nothing to his mother, only giving her a quick filial kiss on the forehead. She gripped his sleeve, clearly trying to draw him back, though unable or unwilling to express herself in words, but he just shook her off and went to say goodbye to the children.
A moment later, Jack appeared at Yvette’s side and led her off toward the house. Once they were safely out the other side and on the way to the car she asked, “So it’s all settled then?”
Jack laughed and wrapped his arm about her waist. “All settled, love. Father says we’ll sort out the rest of the details later and promises we are welcome here anytime. As far as he is concerned, we are still family.”
“And Brad?” Yvette asked, then her brain caught up with what he had just said. “Wait. We?”
“Oh yes. Apparently he knows all about Robyn, had a pretty good idea some time ago.”
Yvette was petrified for a moment. “You didn’t confirm…”
“Of course not, love. It’s only a guess, and that is all he cares for it to be.” He gave her a one armed hug, but she couldn’t quite relax. Jack had talked so long about the dangers of his father ever learning the truth about Robyn, the idea that he had guessed left her petrified. “Don’t worry, love, I think it’s Mother who’s the one to worry about, and she hasn’t a clue. We can ask Brad when he joins us in Dana Beach next Wednesday.”
“Turns out Benji’s a bit of a surfer, and Brad’s decided to encourage him to attend a contest he was invited to on Wednesday. You don’t mind spending a day at the beach to cheer on me nevvie, do you?”
Yvette laughed as they entered the room they had first arrived in. “As long as I don’t have to spend it with Vanessa,” she said.
Jack laughed and tucked Robyn into her car seat. “I don’t think that will be a concern. Apparently she doesn’t approve of her son’s chosen sport. Seems Brand men have a bit of a thing for sports. Did I ever tell you Brad used to be quite the baseball player?”
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