SEVEN YEARS AGO, PART 3
James & Gwen
The car pulled up to a gated property on the far edge of town. Gwen had driven past this affluent division of the city plenty of times, but had never slowed down to give it a hearty look. Why would she, when she always assumed she would never, ever have anything to do with it? The large mansions with intricate landscaping, gated security, and bus stops built and serviced solely for “servants’” use was the stuff of ridiculous daytime TV. Gwen never thought in a million years that she would have anything to do with one of these manors, most of them built a hundred years ago. Some of them had been the homes of more than one family. Others, like the Meranges’, were built to the eternal tastes of the patrilineal people who inhabited them.
Her eyes rolled back as she vainly attempted to take in the sweeping maple trees bristling in the breeze. It was easier than noticing the details on the gothic fountain or deciphering what dialect of Spanish the landscapers spoke as they tore out an old rose bush and replaced it with a sure-to-be-spectacular rhododendron bush.
To think, it was a cloudy, humid day, and Gwen was still awestruck by the grandeur of James’ childhood home.
Until that day, she had only visited his two-bedroom apartment downtown. Granted, that place was luxury-and-a-half, as befitting a young man of old money means, but Gwen didn’t think it could get more ridiculous than an on-call maid or a chef who made the rounds at every apartment to make sure everyone’s refrigerators were stocked and then food prepped for dinner. James had been so proud when he made Gwen dinner for the third date together. It wasn’t until she visited him during the day that she discovered those spaghetti and meatballs were prepped by an Italian chef. All James did was cook the noodles, heat up the sauce, and throw it all together. Also explained how the meatballs were slightly cold. Gwen had loved it anyway, because James had been so proud, and she was convinced she was falling in love with him.
She wondered how far that love extended when facing the truth of his heritage.
“Ready?” James had parked his car next to a Rolls-Royce. The vanity plate said MERANGE in giant, yellow letters that suggested its owner wanted everyone in town to know his name before recognizing the make and model of his car. Oh my God, it’s his father, isn’t it? According to James, his father was the reason she hadn’t met his parents yet. They had been dating for over six months, and were only a few weeks shy of the anniversary of the first time they met. Rarely had James mentioned his parents, even though they lived in town.
Now Gwen knew why.
Everything, from the gothic façade of the manor to the uniformed housekeepers having a smoke break on the other side of a small entrance, were nothing like the image Gwen had built of her boyfriend. His wit, good-naturedness, and charisma were what pulled her into his gravity. The tender way he kissed her before fucking her hard and his romantic sensibilities he displayed while they visited local sex clubs kept her by his side.
None of that was broadcasted by his childhood home. Perhaps Gwen merely had butterflies in her stomach, but this did not bode well.
She also felt woefully underdressed in her green sundress and strappy brown sandals. James had said she looked “perfect” when he picked her up, but she hadn’t failed to notice his three-piece suit and the five-thousand dollar watch on his wrist. He only wore that when he had to see his father. It must be a Christmas present. James usually kept the more expensive and ostentatious accessories at home when he didn’t do much more than go on dates with Gwen or hang out with his college friends.
Both doors of the car opened. Gwen hesitated before stepping out, the heels of her sandals
tapping gently against the paved driveway. James rounded the back of his car and offered to take her hand. “Can you believe it?” He grinned as he led her to the front steps of the impressive manor. “Hardly a thing’s been changed since it was built in 1913. One year before the first great war. My great-grandfather considered himself a lucky bastard he finished building this thing before wars broke out.”
“Did you meet your great-grandfather?”
“Hell, no. My father’s the first man in the family to not kill himself by sixty.” When Gwen gave him an exasperated look, he explained, “I don’t mean they literally killed themselves, Gwenny. They had shitastic lifestyles.”
“So does that make your dad a teetotaler and not a fan of adrenaline?”
“Eschewing adrenaline, yes. Teetotaling? Hardly.” James left it at that as he hauled Gwen toward the gilded front doors.
Did his mother meet them there? No. They were greeted by a butler in coat and tails, who warmly greeted James and shot Gwen a devil-may-care look.
Really. The devil couldn’t care.
“Mr. Merange is awaiting you and Ms. Mitchell in the salon. He’s asked me to escort you there upon your admittance.”
“The salon, huh?” James’s hold on Gwen’s hand faltered. “Where’s Mom?”
“Lady Merange has been held up at the country club, due to the road closure on the highway.” The butler stopped before a closed door. “She assures me that she will be home in time to meet Ms. Mitchell, and apologizes that she couldn’t return in time for your appointment.”
Appointment? This man has to make an appointment to see his parents? That was a level of absurdity Gwen had never heard of before. Besides, James had said his mother had barely worked in her life, and his father only attended a few business meetings these days. He was still in charge of the family company and fortune, but most of the decisions were made by a board, and James was the chief charismatic schmoozer.
“All right.” James said that, yet the look on his face implied he wasn’t sure he wanted to enter the salon. “Let’s go meet my dad, Gwen.”
She braced herself as the door opened. Everything James had ever said about his father, Albert Merange, made her think of a man steeped in sophistication to the point he had never seen a real department store in his life. The man had been in one of the most exclusive fraternities in the country, had gone to a prestigious New England boarding school, and spent so much of his life either holed up in his manor or jet setting to other manors around the world. How can I compete with that? Gwen was from a town so small that the richest family claimed a McMansion with a dock overlooking the local lake. That was high living, and the wife still worked as a local bank manager, and the husband compensated his construction job with paid fishing excursions. Gwen had been good friends with their daughter in seventh grade. That birthday party, with the hired Pearl Jam cover band and tiered cake from the bakery one town over, was the most decadent thing Gwen Mitchell had ever seen.
She instantly recognized Albert. Not based on any pictures James had shared of him, but from the bright, insidious look in his aged eyes. His salt and pepper hair was perfectly combed so no spot had too much salt or too much pepper. His chiseled jaw made him more imposing than the police officer who once pulled Gwen over for speeding. A bespoke suit made of fine Italian fabric made Gwen itch in her department store dress.
That was what intimidated her before the man spoke.
“Son.” Albert stood with the grace of a well-trained greyhound. My God. Where did that comparison come from? Have I ever seen any greyhounds in my life, let alone well-trained ones? “So good to see you. You’re looking quite well.” They shook hands and exchanged identical grins. When Albert turned to the tall blonde woman in a green sundress, however, he lost half of his smile. It wasn’t a lecherous look greeting her, but highly critical, as if he surmised her ability to give him grandchildren or embarrass him at high-society functions with one look…
…and had found her wanting.
“Dad.” James put his arm around Gwen, forcing one of her feet forward and her hand out to clutch Albert’s. “This is my girlfriend, Gwenyth. You know, the one I can’t stop talking about?” His grin was one of pure joy and love. The careful smile on Albert’s visage, however, remained critical of the woman before him.
“Gwenyth. How lovely to meet you.” Albert offered her a curt shake of the hand before pulling his away. “Is that a Welsh name?”
“It is, I believe.” Really. The first thing I say to him is clarifying if my name is Welsh? “Pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Different spelling from the actress, though,” James said. “But we all call her Gwen.”
“Yes, I insist that you call me Gwen, sir.”
Albert said nothing, let alone any variation of her name.
They had settled at the table overlooking the gardens when a servant entered with a platter of coffees and light finger-snacks. He also carried with him a message.
“Lady and Ms. Welsh are here, sir.”
James’s eyes widened; Albert remained content. Gwen, meanwhile, had no idea what any of that meant. Was that code about her and her name?
“They must be dropping by for a quick chat.” Albert shrugged. “Show them in. I’m sure Cassandra would love to chat with her old friend.”
James was still speechless. When he turned to Gwen, she offered a shrug like Albert’s and a wan smile that suggested she was fine with anything.
Two minutes later, an older woman and her grown daughter entered the salon, the both bedecked in matching wrap-dresses that highlighted the older woman’s flawless skin and the younger woman’s bouncing curls. Cassandra, the young woman, took a step back when she saw James and Gwen. Her mother went straight to Albert and shared with him a look that Gwen instantly realized was one of love.
She should have listened to her gut when it said that none of these people would be good for her.