Take My Dare

By: J. Kenner

She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, and I know I’m not fooling her. Stella had taken care of both the house and Ronnie during the years that Ronnie lived with her great-grandparents. When Ronnie came to live with me and Jackson, Stella had stayed behind in New Mexico. But after Jeffery was born, she’d phoned to ask if we needed a nanny. She missed Ronnie, she’d said, and would love to help with the baby.

We’d said yes immediately and never looked back. She’s in her mid-forties, a woman who got pregnant at fifteen and dropped out of high school, then took whatever work she could in order to raise her daughter, now thirty, as a single mom. She’s caring and efficient and she adores both the kids, not to mention Fred. And though it took a full four months, Jackson and I finally convinced her to call us by our first names.

Now, she looks around at the wine, spirits, and food piled high onto the long table we’ve set up on the patio for a casual, buffet-style meal. “I wouldn’t worry about the wine,” she says gently. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

“Thanks.” I smile, understanding that she’s not really talking about the food, but about the situation. My father, a confessed murderer, returning home.

As far as she and the general public knows, Douglas Brooks killed movie director Robert Cabot Reed in order to stop the movie he intended to make about the Fletcher house—a house that Jackson designed and built, and which became the center of a murder-suicide. A movie that would have pried into the personal details of not only Jackson’s life, but Ronnie’s, because it was her birthmother who pulled the trigger.

When my father confessed to killing Reed, he told the court that he did it to protect Jackson, the man his daughter loved. But that reason was fabricated. He killed Reed as retribution for me. To erase from the earth the man who had abused me as a child—and who, over a decade later, was using those horrible photos to blackmail me and Jackson into allowing the movie to be made.

Stella has no way of knowing the true motive behind the murder. But I’m certain she knows that there is a history between my father and me, and that whatever else today is, it’s not an entirely joyful reunion  .

“Everyone will be here soon,” she says. “I’m going to go get the smaller plates for dessert.”

“That would be great.”

She heads off for the kitchen and I continue to stand there feeling uncomfortably nervous and at loose ends.

I draw a deep breath, telling myself I’m being foolish. I’m dreading the moment my dad walks through that door. And at the same time, I wish they’d hurry up and get here so that we can get this over with.

My father was scheduled to be released from Lompac prison at three in the afternoon. Originally, my mother and brother were supposed to pick him up and bring him here for some quiet family time with me, Jackson, and the kids. As it’s a two-hour drive, the plan was that they’d arrive around five, we’d have a casual dinner and talk, and then they’d drive the rest of the way to my parents’ home in San Diego so that my father could spend his first night of freedom in his own bed.

But the more that plan gelled, the more nervous I’d become. And so I’d ended up inviting Damien, Jackson’s half-brother, and his wife Nikki on the pretense that they were family, too. Then I added Cass, my best friend, because she’s as close as a sister. Then I added Wyatt Royce to the roster, a good friend who is a professional photographer, saying I wanted candid photos of my kids meeting their grandfather for the first time.

I told myself that Dad would want to be surrounded by people who are living their own lives with absolutely no interest in jumping him in the shower or sticking a shiv between his ribs. In truth, I wanted to make sure I had a crowd to get lost in. Jackson saw the truth, of course, and stopped me before my nerves had me inviting each and every one of my co-workers at Stark Real Estate Development.

Now those nerves are kicking into high gear again and a wave of longing for Jackson washes over me. I sigh, wishing that he were beside me instead of in the nursery, where he’d gone to check on Jeffery.

Reflexively I turn toward the stairs, then smile when I realize that he’s back already, just a few yards away in the kitchen. I watch as Stella puts a pile of plates in his arms. He’s dressed casually in jeans and a pale blue henley, but neither his casual attire nor the fact that he’s carrying dishes lessens the power that he projects. He is confidence and control, and he commands the room simply by being in it.

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