Sitting straight across from the man gave me an unfortunate view of everything he did. The man wasn’t near as cultured as he played at being. He had to remind himself several times to use the right fork and keep his elbows off the table. I even watched him using the edge of the table cloth instead of his napkin to wipe his greasy fingers with.
“Mr. Haroldson?” I asked again. He was playing hard of hearing and I was just about played out being nice.
“Yes Mrs. Pappas?”
“You heard my question,” I said, enunciating each word slowly in that cultured voice that suddenly had an undertone of intractable hillbilly to it.
Haroldson’s adam’s apple bobbed and he licked his too fat lips like his mouth had suddenly gone dry. Aunt Adona chose that moment to say, “Alec, I believe it is time for the men …”
I interrupted her regardless of the consequences. “Mr. Haroldson, perhaps I should make something clear. You may be used to dealing with the extremely civilized portion of this family. I am not in their number. I smell a rat … a threat to my family. I’m not the type to just let something go. I will have an answer. Now.”
Then his façade cracked like a glass left outside in the middle of winter that gets brought in and set too close to the stove. He sneered, “I’m well aware of what type of … er … female you are … Riss.” The insult was clear in his oily voice but he’d forgotten and said it a little too loud that time.
Dino’s chair started to scrape back but Haroldson drew a slim bladed knife and held it like he’d was good at using it. I’d had enough; time seemed to stop when everyone heard the hammer of a revolver being pulled back. Dino had made me start carrying something with more boom than the .22lr pistol ever since Sol had come around. “Mr. Haroldson, I’m about done with this silly dance you’ve been trying to lead. You pose a threat. I’m not sure what specific kind yet but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t have anything to do with the men you came with.”
One of the men, the squeaky one with the big bald spot in the back said in a sweaty voice, “He didn’t come with us. We met him on the way here. He claimed he was here for the same meeting we were and offered to show us the way in.”
I felt the four men of the family stiffen up at that bit of information, Ajax slower than the other three but still not too far behind. I also saw Cheryl looking at Tamara and quietly instructing her to gather those at the children’s table and then saw her pul her unwilling grandmother down the hall as well. Cheryl and Tina backed out of the way but did not vacate the room entirely.
I still had the revolver under the table but I was no longer the only one armed. Alec, trying to defuse and take control of the situation said, “Haroldson, you better explain yourself. We live in too uncertain times for any kind of subterfuge.”
Haroldson however had clammed up. Taking a guess I said, “He doesn’t smell like a raider but he is a rat of some kind.”
Got that eye flicker thing again. AJ’s face was white and something told me he thought it was the past repeating itself. I said straight to him. “No. You saw his face AJ … it doesn’t have anything to do with you or at least not directly. If it had they would have come to our place first. No … no this is business I think. I’m just not sure how.”
I saw a strange sort of look on Dino’s and Alec’s face and knew there was something I didn’t know. A slow dawning on AJ’s face told me that he’d figured something out as well. I hated being left out especially since I’d been the one to start the ball rolling so I poked the bear again. “Haroldson, I’m not going to ask you again, how do you come by so much information about our community in general … and me in particular.”
The bear started to sweat. Dino said quietly but firmly, “Riss, go on out with Cheryl and Tina.”
I started to say something, had even drawn a breath to do it, but one look on Dino’s face and I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. As I left the room I was some kind of hot. I felt like ol’ Tom must have felt that time I saw him lose a mouse he had been stalking to a hawk that just sort of swooped in and stole it from under his whiskers. Good thing Pita decided she was dying of starvation and those old hormones kicked in to calm me down. I didn’t exactly feel like I usually did when I was nursing her but nature is a strange thing and just having her close and nursing was enough to switch my gears, or at least knock ‘em down out of overdrive.
Everyone pretty much left me alone. I don’t reckon steam was exactly coming out of my ears but it didn’t take too much to know that it was close to the surface. Cheryl and Adona tried to get Kerry to come with them but he wasn’t having any of it. “Boy, this is not the time to have a fit,” I warned him.
“I’ll take a nap Momma Riss if I can stay with you.” Doggone those long, dark eyelashes anyway. He was as good as his word and laid right down beside me on that old ratty sofa. I could see Cheryl’s feelings were hurt a bit but I couldn’t help that. I also saw that Adona was more than a little frosty; I couldn’t help that either, what was done was done.
I was “in the zone” and just coming around for the hormonal slam that always accompanied a feeding session when I heard voices through one of the vents.
“It is all ruined. I had it all planned out. The buyers would have done anything we wanted and now they won’t. All because she just couldn’t …”
“Mother …” AJ.
“Don’t you dare take her side Andrew Jackson Nichols.” Well now I knew what the AJ stood for.
Another male voice. “He’s right Mother, this wasn’t her fault … any more than it was AJ’s fault when those other people followed him here. More was made of that than there should have been.” Alec? Lazily, still in the throes of that weird, drugged feeling you can get while breastfeeding, I thought a rather silly thought; I would have given a whole lot to have seen the look on AJ’s face at the moment his brother said what he did.
“Not you too?!” Adonna hissed outraged.
“Yes, me too. You know we’ve had trouble like this before. Crooks, swindlers … doesn’t matter what you call them. They come scoping out their intended target, find out what the going prices are and either undercut us with inferior product or somehow try and trash our reputation. They try and trick us into signing a contract that is completely out of our own favor. Or they try and sneak in and pretend like they are a particular company, take possession for the order paid for in advance, and then when the real buyer shows up …”
“I know this.” Who boy, Aunt Adona was fit to be tied. “But to disrupt one of our dinner parties.”
I heard what sounded like something being set down a lot harder than was necessary then Dino said, “I’ll be leaving now. And from here on out Aunt Adona, you don’t have to worry about us ruining any of your blasted parties. You are the one that chose to change what was supposed to be a family dinner into one of your uptight events. Next time just leave us out since we are such an embarrassment.”
“Dino …,” Adona said, sounding shocked he had taken it the way he had. “I didn’t mean you or Kerry of course.”
I didn’t hear his reply only his footsteps. The door opened quietly behind me and when I cracked one eye open I saw Dino with a very serious look on his face.
“You ready to go home?”
I sighed and said, “I suppose I should apologize to your aunt for messing up her party.”
He tried to play it off and said, “I don’t know …”
“The vents in this house might be great for heat but they don’t really offer much privacy.”
“Huh?” he asked.
I tucked myself back together and then stood up while pointing to an old heat register in the floor. “Sound carries.”
He got really upset and tried to say something. “It’s all right Dino. I’m still angry but …” I sighed just about heart sore for what I was about to say. “Dino, I didn’t like being kicked out in there but I put myself under your authority when I married you. I have to accept that there will be times when you have to be boss dog in more than just name. For the rest of it, to be honest I figured the new would wear off eventually and your family would tell you what they really thought about you marrying me.” He was very upset. I reached up an put my hand on his cheek and told him, “But the fact is you did and while I’ll go by what you say I … I won’t be talked down to like that. Not when I notice she didn’t include Pita in her exceptions, just you and Kerry.”
I walked quietly out to the entry way. Tina was there and helped me juggle Pita while I put my coat on. Dino was upset but was struggling how to unleash it with all of the kids standing around watching and because he carried his son that was still three-quarters asleep. The rest of the family was there as well.
I looked at Adona’s stiff face. I assumed that Alec shamed her into acting like a proper hostess but I stayed back when Cheryl and she went to give me what I knew to be fake farewells. I hugged Tina and then went to go out there door.
Apparently Adona felt rather insulted by my lack of response. “After I opened my home …”
I turned quickly and shook my head. “Don’t. I heard every word you said. I would have had more respect for you had you had the courage to say them to my face. I’ve felt insulted six ways from Sunday since I got here but I let it go because you are Dino’s kin but you chose to take it too far. First you shut me off into that back room because you just couldn’t be bothered or were too embarrassed by me and Pita. Then you treat me like a second class member of the family by getting all bent out of shape when Dino insisted on Tina, the children, and I coming out to be with the rest of the company … in Alec and Cheryl’s house,” I said adding emphasis since she’d claimed it as her own. “I didn’t mean to ruin your ever-loving cocktail party. But the plain fact of the matter is that man was a rotten apple and you just sat there and smiled and overlooked in him what you won’t in your own family. It wasn’t that hard to figure out he was some kind of threat; his manners were more fake than my speech was. By the way, you’ll really need to get that lace off the table and into a good soak if you hope to salvage where he wiped his greasy hands on it.” I turned to leave again, this time leaving Adona with a shocked look on her face, and Tina followed me out.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, near tears.
“Oh don’t Tina, it wasn’t your fault. It’s not like I haven’t faced this kind of thing in the past. Just before too long you see if Ajax can’t be talked around. Don’t bring me into it though, you do it because the two of you need it.”
She nodded, giving me a watery but solemn nod, and I finally made it down the steps to find that Chris was bringing the wagon around. Alec came down the stairs after Dino and it wasn’t easy for me to accept his help getting up into the wagon once it rolled to a stop. I took Kerry from Dino and got him into the hay and wrapped good in the quilt. Pita started whimpering as the wind tried to take her breath away so I pulled her back to me and under my coat.
Dino was silent and steaming but I just didn’t know what to say. There are times you give in and times you have to stand up for yourself. Had I laid down this time I don’t know if I’d ever found the self-respect to deal with Dino’s family on an equal footing again. I saw where it got Tina and she was a heck of a lot sweeter than me. As it is I almost felt like I was running away. I wanted to know very badly what had happened with Haroldson and the other buyers but I figured it could wait.
I wondered for a moment where AJ was then remembered he’d meant to stay the night at least to be with his mother for a few days. I wondered if I had spoiled that too.
Alec came over to the side of the wagon and said to Dino, “I’ll be by tomorrow at some point.”
Dino didn’t respond and to me that more than most everything else told me that Dino was really furious. I’d never seen him offer any disrespect to Alec except when he was funning around. Trying to not mess that up too I told Alec quietly, “I suppose it will depend on the weather. The morning didn’t look right and here it is not even three o’clock and it looks like it’ll be dark in an hour. A storm is probably moving in.”
Dino still didn’t say anything so I reached up and put my hand on the small of his back and he finally sighed, “Yeah, weather is going to be bad. Don’t endanger yourself or a horse to come over.”
Alec sighed too but he did put a hand over mine where I had it on the side of the wagon and patted it twice. I didn’t get any real comfort from it but it did let me know that maybe not everything was ruined. Not looking back Dino pulled the wagon out. I saw AJ nod from the window of a side room I knew to be Alec’s study so I guess he was with the men though I hadn’t heard what had happened to the rat yet.
We were half way home before Dino said, “I won’t ask you to go through that again Damaris.”
I told him, “You didn’t ask for me to go through anything this time. Just let it go.”
“No. You’re my wife. I’ve watched my aunt go off on people before … even on me … but …” I saw him shrug angrily.
“I know but she is your aunt so you should just give her some grace.”
I saw him shake his head. “How am I supposed to do that? Maybe if I didn’t know that you heard what she said I could pretend but not now. I can’t make you un-hear it and I can’t make her un-say it. All over a stupid party when there are more important things at stake.”
Maybe I was being ornery but I started taking Adona’s side. “From all I’ve heard and seen those parties and events she loves to plan so much are almost a part of her identity. There’s few enough things to have a party for these days and she probably feels that more than most. And when she does get to finally have one and it gets messed up for whatever reason she takes it personally.”
“I don’t care if she does or not, she was way out of line.”
“Maybe she was but that doesn’t change the fact that she is your aunt … and older … and maybe set in her ways and not able to … to be flexible enough to deal with all the rotten things going on around her. She likes things just so … in neat little packages. I think AJ inherited some of that … maybe a lot of it. Don’t let me mess up what you have with your family Dino. I can handle a lot of things in this life but that isn’t one of them.”
He hunched his shoulders. “That’s not fair Riss. I stood there and just let her talk …”
“No you didn’t. You stood up for me and don’t tell me otherwise because I heard you. You said ‘my family’ like you really meant it.”
“What do you mean like I meant it? Of course I mean it,” he growled.
I patted his back again, “I know you do and I didn’t mean for you to take it otherwise. I just mean even Adona had to have heard it in your voice.”
He was mollified some and we both fell silent again. Then he said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to wait this long to ask me about that guy.”
Since I had been hoping he’d volunteer the information I told him, “There’ve been … er … other things to think on.”
“Well don’t spend any more time on those ‘other things’ because I’ve made up my mind. Ajax may not know any better, or maybe Tina doesn’t know how to tell him, but I for one won’t tolerate …”
“Dino … please. Don’t write anything in stone you’ll regret. Just tell me about Haroldson and the other buyers.”
I heard him take a breath and then hold it for a few beats like he was counting off his anger then he said, “The other three were legit. They provided documentation with our raised seals on them. The guy calling himself Haroldson had some documentation but it was a forgery … a good forgery but still a fake.”
I said, “What I overheard … you’ve had trouble like this before?”
“Not exactly like this, no. Usually not until after product is ready for pick up. This was on the other end. Everyone always tries to take advantage of the farmer … whether it is at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the process, everyone always tries to stomp on the small independent guy. Some of it is just business and if it was just that it wouldn’t be so bad but a lot of it is they think that just because you are a farmer your IQ points must be in the low range. Alec had suspected that the men were going to try and low ball us as a group to make us under value our goods but Alec keeps pretty good contacts and we know that due to California anything we have is going to go for top dollar … already has for that matter but next season the shortage is going to be even greater. They expect a really bad winter in the Northeast which could make for a bad or late spring for New York. And Europe had a blight come through and it not only destroyed the crop but it looks like it has significantly damaged many acres of vines, enough that they are being forced to burn over some of the really old vineyards.”
“That’s … that’s bad.” Even I knew it.
“Yeah, for them, but in a sense it could be good for us. It could prove a huge thing for us, at least for a couple of years and assuming we can get the bottles and other things that we need to get our product to market. That’s the part that we think Haroldson was trying to cause us problems with. Now he’s claiming to be a contact from our bottle supplier but something is not adding up and Alec has some radio calls out trying to get confirmation of his credentials.”
“I’ve still got a couple of questions though,” I said, wondering if maybe I was making too much of it.
Dino’s answer though told me I wasn’t. “You mean how did they get to the Big House without going by our place? And how did he have so much information on you?”
At my nod he said, “He’s obviously been scoping out the farm. Apparently Haroldson tricked them into getting ‘lost’ and then brought them in the old back road. We keep it open for emergencies but the gate should have been padlocked and pretty hard to get into. That’s one thing that Alec is going to look into tomorrow.”
“And?” I asked when he kind of just stopped.
“Well … it seems …”
“Cindy?” I asked as she is really the only one I could think of.
“Actually no,” he said shaking his head. “Apparently he has some business dealings and was at a party with a certain Shantelle Bly.”
“Holy smokes!” I yelped, upsetting Pita. “Sorry baby,” I muttered and settled her again. Going back to Dino I said, “Are you serious? Will my bad choices never stop haunting me? And dang it now they’re starting to …”
“Uh uh Riss. Don’t start on that. For better and for worse and for all the rest of it including jealous cats who had the unfortunate luck of finding out the man they married was a heel on their wedding day. Coincidences happen, that’s all. These type of men socialize in certain circles looking for a way in to their next scam and who knows how long he’s been holding onto it before he got a chance to use it. And besides, I think AJ is going to have a little fun.”
“Oh no, don’t let him get started up Dino. I wanted all of that put behind us.”
He shook his head. “Sometimes you let things go only to find out you had a tiger by the tail. Let AJ do his thing. I doubt he’ll do much more than put a scare into them but it’ll help him to burn off some of that energy of his.”
“That’s got to be the worst excuse I’ve ever heard for …”
I was ready to get wound up but Dino interrupted with a quiet, “I am sorry Damaris. I had no idea that Aunt Adona would …”
“Dino, we’ve already been over this ground. Let it go.”
Easier said than done for both of us. It seems maybe that I had put something in motion that had more repercussions than any of us meant it to.