Prudence Swenson stood at the window on the highest floor of the massive house and watched the long line of cars arriving via the driveway down below.
Each one stopped by the front entrance. The guests inside, decked out in their finest black attire, got out and made their way to the front door while the valets, hired for the day, sped away to park the vehicle before returning to do it all again for the next arrival.
This was a popular event. People had turned out en masse. Meanwhile, she hid in what was now her bedroom, unable, or perhaps just unwilling to go downstairs. At least not quite yet. Maybe not at all.
Why should she go down and join all the strangers? Who would miss her if she didn’t? They were there to be seen, not to see her.
She had the Swenson name, but none of the power or prestige and sadly, none of the vast amounts of family wealth either.
That was the fate of the stepchild of a cousin, now orphaned and taken in by the good graces of the almighty Swenson family.
A wave of guilt hit her at the thought.
She shouldn’t think like that. Myra, as she was allowed to call the woman who was technically her great-step-aunt—or was it step great-aunt—was sweet.
More accurately, Myra was shrewd, cunning and tough as nails, but she did have a kind side for family. And although there were those among the Swensons who had never considered Prudence family, Myra was not one of them.
Neither was Cadence, Myra’s granddaughter. Similar in age, and therefore sharing a lot of interests growing up, they’d been friends since they’d both been eight. They still were, friends, although not as close as they’d been before.
There was a distance between them—literally and figuratively—after Cadence was sent away to the best boarding school in the
country at age fifteen, while Pru continued to attend public school locally. As poor relations should, she supposed. Just as she supposed she should feel lucky she’d been stashed away in the attic bedroom and wasn’t living on the streets now…
Her single mother marrying a Swenson—even one of the lesser family members—had been scandalous.
Her mother had been a factory worker. He was one of the big bosses. But they had fallen in love and, to the despair of some members of his family, Guy Swenson had married her mother. At eight, Pru had officially been adopted into the family. Guy had given her his last name and, like it or not, added her and her mom to the illustrious Swenson family tree.
Life was good for a while. For ten years the three of them—Guy, Pru and her mom—lived as a happy family in one of the four houses on the Swenson estate. Not in the “big house”, meaning the brick 1910 mansion, complete with a ballroom on the third floor.
Instead, they’d lived in the Tudor-style guest house, which wasn’t exactly roughing it. Compared to the tiny Albany apartment where she and her mother had shared a bed, the three-bedroom guest house was a castle.
Having her own room for the first time was heaven. Living skipping distance away from her new best friend had been the stuff of dreams. Not to mention Cadence’s gorgeous older brother Cal, the man she planned to marry one day…in her dreams.
That was all before Cadence went away to school and Cal Junior joined the military.
And before the crash. Or the incident as everyone referred to it within earshot of her.
A rainstorm, a slick highway and an out-of-control tractor trailer had wiped out her family and her happiness all at once.
She became an orphan the week she turned eighteen. Happy birthday to her.
The day after the accident, Myra had moved her into the main house. It was clear Calvin senior expected Pru to be grateful for his allowing her to move in at Myra’s request. She supposed she was—as grateful as she could be at the moment.
She was eighteen now. They could have turned her out onto the street with her modest inheritance that Guy, never considering his own tenuous mortality, had put in a trust that couldn’t be touched until she turned twenty-five.
So the Swensons had put her in what had once been servants’ rooms, stuck under the eaves of the third floor. Not to be cruel—it was less like Cinderella than it sounded in spite of the similarities—but because the “big house” only had five bedrooms.
Apparently, ballrooms and open center hall staircases took up a lot of space. Myra, Cadence, Cal Junior, and Calvin Senior all had their own bedrooms on the second floor. And even though Cal was in California in the Navy, Myra was ever hopeful. She kept his room just as he’d left it, like a shrine, waiting for his return.
That made two of them who were waiting for Cal’s homecoming…
Pru had opportunity to sneak into Cal’s room only a couple of times over the past years since he’d left and Cadence had been sent away. While inside, ever vigilant as she listened for the sound of footsteps on the stairs, she’d run her finger over the framed pictures around the room. Or bury her face in the clothes he’d left in the closet—mostly suits which he wouldn’t need now that he wore a uniform. All in hopes of getting a whiff of the scent of him, for lack of anything else from the boy—now man—whom she loved.
He was six and a half years older than she was. That half a year seemed very important. As a girl with a crush on her best friend’s much older brother, her kind-of, sort-of but not really distant cousin, Pru preferred to think they were six and a half years apart rather than seven.
As if he’d ever be interested in her, no matter what the age difference. To him, she was his little sister’s shadow. Nothing more. But a girl could hope. And because of that, she was happy to take the small third-floor bedroom if it meant Cal might be coming home soon to resume living in his larger one, a floor below.
So Pru had spent the last four days since the accident in her attic room with the sloped ceiling and window to the world going on below, waiting for time to pass. There, but not really there. Like a ghost. Probably not the only one, judging by the creeks and groans she heard while lying in bed sleepless at night.
She’d try to eat when they called her down to the grand dining room for meals. She’d turn off the light and lie awake when it was time to go to bed. She’d rise in the morning and put on whatever clothes her hand hit in the closet the house staff had
stuffed full of her things from home—or rather the house on the property that used to be her home.
Besides the loss of her parents, which still seemed like a nightmare she’d wake from once she finally could fall to sleep, with Cadence and Cal Junior gone, she was the only young person in the oversized museum of a house. She lived there with an old lady, a slightly younger but still old man, and the staff, who were polite but not exactly friendly. Certainly not her friends.
Cadence was getting the best education money could buy, at a school which cost more per semester than Pru’s mother had earned in a year on the Swenson’s factory floor back when she’d been employed by the family before becoming one of them and quitting that job.
Pru was lonely, but she wasn’t jealous. Not at all.
Remaining in the Albany suburb of Coeymans to finish her senior year of high school was fine with her. Preferable, actually. And she was just as happy to be attending SUNY Albany next year while Cadence would be at Wharton in Philly.
Coeymans was an affluent area and the public school system, supported by all those tax dollars from the mansions along the Hudson River, was good, as was the state university system in New York. Besides, the great divide between her and the Swenson family members who’d taken her in was already glaringly wide. She didn’t need to be the charity case among the fancy, rich prep school kids in Cadence’s school as well.
As the literal red-headed stepchild, she stood out enough from the Nordic Swenson family with her brown eyes and dark auburn locks that made her look as if she’d been dipped headfirst into a vat of dark red paint. Or blood.
At least she wasn’t the only black sheep in the Swenson family. Cal Junior also had that honor as the son who made Uncle Calvin’s jaw clench whenever someone mentioned his name.
Bad boy. Rebel. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, like the rest of his family, he was too good looking for his own good.
It might have been what made him so cocky. And made him the only family member with enough hubris to stand up to Uncle Calvin, shun the family wealth and legacy and leave. Never to return…
Cal was home for the funerals. He’d arrived last night, looking as sullen as she felt. From the tension she sensed between
him and his father during their first reunion in years, she had a feeling it wasn’t the shadow of her parents’ death that had Cal looking so dark.
The buzz of her cell phone made her glance down.
It was a text from Cadence, who was in the middle of a semester abroad. Unlike Cal, Cadence wasn’t coming home for the funerals. Pru had never felt so alone in all of her life.
Cadence: How are you?
She stared at the words on the text, not really comprehending them or much of anything right now. The sight of the open caskets and the mortician’s failed attempt at making her mom and Guy look normal still filled her brain. But she’d been at this grieving orphan thing for a few days now and it was becoming second nature.
Without thinking too much about it, she typed in a reply.
Pru: I’m fine
Cadence: So sorry I’m not there!!
Pru stared at the new text. At the double exclamation points in particular, wondering if that made it more or less sincere.
She tapped the message and marked it with a heart emoji, which seemed appropriate, then stared at her cell phone, seeing it with new eyes. And new concern.
It was on Guy’s phone plan. What would happen to it now? What would happen to her now with no money of her own?
Those thoughts broke her. Broke something free inside and brought a deluge of tears to her eyes. Tears that had refused to come during the funeral service or the days leading up to it. But they sure came now.
Was she really crying over the impending loss of her cell phone service?
She wiped the wetness away with the back of her hand when she heard footsteps on the stairs. By the time she turned toward the door Cal was standing there. His over six-foot frame filling the opening, making the room feel even smaller than before.
“Oh. Shit. Sorry.” He frowned as he swayed slightly.
It was then she noticed the bottle of booze dangling from his hand. It looked like one of Uncle Calvin’s bottles from the living room bar.
“I didn’t realize you were in here,” he continued.
In spite of that, he moved inside and flopped his long body into the one chair in the room.
She couldn’t help but notice he’d filled out in the years since he’d left. He was not only older, but he also seemed wider. Harder.
And he looked ridiculous with all his long limbs spilling out of the tiny, upholstered armchair that was covered in faded pink rosebud fabric.
“It’s okay. This is my room now. I live here, since…” She let the sentence trail off.
Of all the times over the years she’d imagined Cal being alone with her—envisioned him in her bedroom—it had not been like this.
The furrow in his brow deepened. “Yeah. Sorry about that—your parents.”
“Thanks.” The word came out as it had dozens of times at the funeral home this morning.
He looked around him. “They couldn’t find a better room for you? This is basically the frigging attic. Boxes of Christmas ornaments used to be stored in here.”
“It’s fine.” She shrugged. “I don’t mind it, really. It’s quiet,” she added, realizing he deserved more since he was the only one to comment on the lesser quality of her lodging compared to the family bedrooms downstairs.
“That it is. Quiet.” He let out a snort accompanied by a small smile. “That’s why I come up here to hide. I never had company before.”
She cringed. “Sorry—”
“Fuck that. Don’t you be sorry. I mean, hell…” He shook his head. “I don’t even know what to say to you. What to do.”
She knew what she wanted him to do. She wanted him to wrap his arms around her. Hold her until she didn’t feel alone. Kiss her until she somehow forgot the horror of the past week. Make love to her until she felt like a woman ready to face this world, instead of a scared child all alone.
Those thoughts brought a fresh flood of tears to her eyes.
He cursed under his breath when he saw them and pushed out of the chair. Coming to her, he pulled her against him.
Wrapped in his arms, she cried harder.
To his credit, Cal didn’t run. Silent, strong, he just held her with her face pressed against the rock-hard muscles of his chest, until the sobs wracking her body subsided and her tears stopped soaking the front of his white dress shirt.
She pulled back and looked at the wet spot she’d left, thankful she hadn’t bothered to put on make-up this morning. Or for the last few mornings.
“Wanna drink?” he asked, holding up the bottle he still held in one hand.
He nodded as his gaze met and held hers. It was then that it hit her how very close he was. Just inches separated them.
Such a short distance between his lips and hers. She tilted her head up, just a bit. A subtle silent invitation that he didn’t miss as his gaze fell to her mouth and his nostrils flared with his intake of breath.
His throat worked as he swallowed hard, then he raised his eyes. “I, uh, should go.”
“You don’t have to,” she said quickly as he dropped his hold on her and took a step back.
A small, crooked smile accompanied his sniff. “Yeah, I do.”
Then Cal was gone. And she was alone. Again.