19 Ronnie

Okay, she thought, this was ridiculous. Not just the grounds with the sculptured rose gardens and hedges and marble statues, or the massive Georgian mansion supported by elegant columns, or even the overpriced exotic cars that were being waxed by hand in an area reserved for such things-but all of it.

It wasn’t just ridiculous. It was beyond ridiculous.

Yeah, she knew there were rich people in New York with twenty-three-room apartments on Park Avenue and houses in the Hamptons, but it wasn’t as if she’d ever spent time with those people or been invited to those homes. The closest she’d ever come to seeing a place like this was in magazines, and even then, most of those had been flyover shots taken by paparazzi.

And here she was, wearing a T-shirt and torn jeans. Nice. At the very least, he could have warned her.

She continued to stare at the house as the truck zipped up the drive, turning in to the roundabout in front of the house. He came to a stop directly in front of the entrance. She turned to him and was about to ask whether he actually lived here, then realized it was a stupid question. Obviously he lived here. By then, he was already getting out of the truck.

Following suit, she opened her door and stepped outside. The two men washing the cars glanced at her before quickly going back to work.

“Like I said, I’m just going to rinse off. It won’t take long.”

“Fine,” she said. Really, there wasn’t anything else she could think to say. It was the largest house she’d ever seen in her life.

She followed him up the steps that led to the porch and paused briefly at the door, just long enough to see a small brass plaque posted near the door that read, “The Blakelees.”

As in Blakelee Brakes. As in the national automotive chain. As in Will’s dad didn’t simply own an individual franchise but had probably started the entire business.

She was still trying to process that simple fact as Will pushed open the door and led her into a massive foyer centerpieced by a grand staircase. A dark-paneled library beckoned on her right, while some kind of music room opened to the left. Directly ahead lay a huge, sun-filled open room, and beyond that, she saw the sparkling waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.

“You didn’t tell me your last name was Blakelee,” Ronnie mumbled.

“You didn’t ask.” He gave an indifferent shrug. “Come on in.”

He led her past the staircase toward the great room. At the back of the house, she saw a massive covered veranda; near the water, she caught sight of what could only be described as a midsize yacht parked at the dock.

Okay, she admitted it. She felt out of place here, and the fact that everyone probably felt out of place the first time they came here was no consolation. She might as well have landed on Mars.

“Can I get you something to drink while I get ready?”

“Um, no, I’m okay. Thanks,” she said, trying not to gawk at her surroundings.

“You want me to show you around first?”

“I’m fine.”

Somewhere ahead and off to the side, she heard a voice calling out.

“Will? Did I hear you come in?”

Ronnie turned to see an attractive woman in her early fifties, wearing an expensive linen pantsuit and holding a wedding magazine, step into view.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. He tossed his truck keys into a bowl perched on the entry table, right next to the vase of fresh-cut lilies. “I brought someone over. This is Ronnie. And this is my mom, Susan.”

“Oh. Hello, Ronnie,” Susan said coolly.

Though Susan tried to hide it, Ronnie could tell she wasn’t pleased about having been surprised by Will’s unexpected guest. Her displeasure, Ronnie couldn’t help but think, had less to do with the unexpected part than the guest part. Namely, her.

But if Ronnie noticed the tension, Will obviously didn’t. Maybe, Ronnie thought, it was a woman thing to be able to sense things like that, because Will went on chatting with his mom with casual ease.

“Is Dad around?” he asked.

“I believe he’s in his office.”

“Before I go, I need to talk to him.”

Susan shifted the magazine from one hand to the other. “You’re leaving?”

“I’m having dinner with Ronnie’s family tonight.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s wonderful.”

“You’ll like this. Ronnie’s a vegetarian.”

“Oh,” Susan said again, turning to scrutinize Ronnie. “Is that right?”

Ronnie felt as if she were shrinking. “Yes.”

“Interesting,” Susan said. While Ronnie could see that it was anything but interesting to Susan, Will remained oblivious.

“Okay, so I’m just going to pop upstairs for a few minutes. I’ll be right back.”

Though Ronnie felt like telling him to hurry, she didn’t. “Okay,” she offered instead.

With a couple of long, loping steps, he was heading up the stairs, leaving Ronnie and Susan facing each other. In the ensuing silence, Ronnie was acutely conscious of the fact that as little as they had in common, they were united in their unhappiness at being left alone with each other.

Ronnie felt like strangling Will. The least he could have done was warn her.

“So,” Susan said, forcing a smile. She looked almost plastic. “You’re the one with the turtle nest behind your house?”

“That’s me.”

Susan nodded. She’d obviously run out of things to say, so Ronnie struggled to fill the silence. She motioned toward the foyer. “You have a beautiful home.”

“Thank you.”

With that, Ronnie was at a loss for words, and for a long moment, they faced each other awkwardly. She had no idea what would have happened if the two of them had remained alone. But thankfully they were joined by a man in his fifties or early sixties, dressed casually in Dockers and a polo.

“I thought I heard someone come in,” he said, walking toward them. His demeanor was friendly, almost jocular, as he approached. “I’m Tom, aka Will’s dad, and you’re Ronnie, right?”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she responded.

“I’m glad I finally have a chance to meet the girl he’s been talking about.”

Susan cleared her throat. “Will is going to be joining Ronnie and her family for dinner.”

Tom turned toward Ronnie. “I hope you don’t make anything fancy. The kid lives on pepperoni pizza and burgers.”

“Ronnie is a vegetarian,” Susan added. Ronnie couldn’t help noticing that Susan said it in the same way another person might have said she was a terrorist. Or maybe not. Ronnie couldn’t exactly tell. Will really, really should have warned her about what to expect, so she could have at least been prepared. But Tom, like Will, didn’t seem to notice.

“No kidding? That’s great. At least he’ll eat healthy for a change.” He paused. “I know you’re waiting for Will, but do you have a few minutes? I want to show you something.”

“I’m sure she’s not interested in your airplane, Tom,” Susan protested.

“I don’t know. Maybe she is,” he said. Turning to Ronnie, he asked, “Do you like airplanes?”

Of course, she thought, why wouldn’t the family have an airplane? Let’s just add that to the equation. This whole mess was Will’s fault. She was going to kill him as soon as she got out of here. But what choice did she have?

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course I like airplanes.”

She supposed she had an image in mind-a Learjet or Gulfstream parked in a personal hangar on the far side of the property-but it was a fuzzy image, since the only private jets she’d ever seen were in photographs. Still, this wasn’t what she’d expected at all: the sight of someone older than her father flying a remote-control toy airplane and concentrating on the controls.

The plane whined as it skirted over the trees, swooping low over the Intracoastal Waterway.

“I’ve always wanted one of these things, and I finally broke down and got one. Actually, this is the second one. The first one accidentally ended up in the water.”

“That’s too bad,” Ronnie sympathized.

“Yeah, but it taught me that I should probably read all the directions next time.”

“Did you crash it?”

“No, it ran out of gas.” He glanced at her. “Do you want to try?”

“I’d better not,” Ronnie demurred. “I’m not good at things like that.”

“It’s not too hard,” Tom assured her. “This is one of the beginner planes. It’s supposed to be idiot-proof. Of course, the last one was, too, so what does that tell you?”

“That maybe you should have read the directions?”

“Right,” he said. There was something about the way he said it that made him sound just like Will.

“Did you and Susan talk about the wedding?” he asked.

Ronnie shook her head. “No. Will mentioned something about it, though.”

“I had to spend two hours today at the florist’s looking at flower arrangements. Have you ever spent two hours looking at flower arrangements?”

“No.”

“Consider yourself lucky.”

Ronnie giggled, relieved to be out here with him. Just then Will came up behind her, freshly showered and dressed neatly in a polo shirt and shorts. Both name brand, but she supposed she should have expected that.

“You’ll have to forgive my dad. He sometimes forgets he’s an adult,” Will quipped.

“At least I’m honest. And I didn’t see you racing home to help.”

“I had a volleyball game.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that was the reason. And I gotta tell you, Ronnie here is a whole lot prettier than you let on.”

Though Ronnie smiled with pleasure, Will cringed. “Dad…”

“It’s true,” Tom added quickly. “Don’t be embarrassed.” After making sure the plane was flying straight again, he glanced at Ronnie. “He gets embarrassed a lot. He used to be the shyest kid in the world. He couldn’t even sit near a pretty girl without his cheeks turning bright red.”

Will, meanwhile, was shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you’re saying this, Dad. Right in front of her.”

“What’s the problem?” Tom looked at Ronnie. “Does that bother you?”

“Not at all.”

“See?” He tapped Will’s chest, as if he’d proved his point. “She doesn’t care.”

“Thanks for that.” He grimaced.

“What are dads for? Hey, you want to give this thing a whirl?”

“I really can’t. I’m supposed to bring Ronnie home so we can have dinner.”

“Listen to me. Even if they serve you eggplant on rutabaga with tofu, I want you to eat what they put in front of you and then make sure you compliment them on the meal,” Tom admonished.

“It’ll be probably just be pasta,” Ronnie said, grinning.

“Really?” Tom seemed disappointed. “He’ll eat that.”

“What? You don’t want me to eat?”

“It’s always good to experience new things. How’d it go at the shop today?”

“That’s what I needed to talk to you about. Jay said there’s a problem with the computer or the software-everything keeps double printing.”

“Just at the flagship or everywhere?”

“I don’t know.”

Tom sighed. “I suppose I’d better check it out, then. Assuming, of course, I can land this thing. And you two have a good time, okay?”

A few minutes later, after getting into the truck, Will jingled his keys before starting his engine.

“Sorry about all that. My dad sometimes says the craziest things.”

“Don’t be sorry. I like him.”

“And I wasn’t that shy, by the way. My cheeks never turned bright red.”

“Of course they didn’t.”

“I’m serious. I was always smooth.”

“I’m sure you were,” she said, reaching over to pat his knee. “But listen. About tonight. My family has this weird tradition.”

***

“You’re lying!” Will shouted. “You’ve been lying all night and I’m sick and tired of it.”

“Don’t even go there!” Ronnie shouted back. “You’re the one who’s lying!”

The dishes from dinner had long ago been cleared-Dad had served spaghetti and marinara sauce, as predicted, with Will making sure to clean his plate-and they were now sitting at the kitchen table holding playing cards to their foreheads in a game of liar’s poker. Will was holding an eight of hearts, Steve a three of hearts, and Jonah a nine of spades. Piles of change were stacked in front of each of them, and the pot in the middle overflowed with nickels and dimes.

“You’re both lying,” Jonah added. “Neither of you knows how to tell the truth.”

Will offered Jonah his game face and reached into his pile of change. “A quarter says you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her dad started shaking his head. “Bad move, young man. It’s over. I’m going to have to raise you fifty cents.”

“I’ll see that!” Ronnie cried. Both Jonah and Will immediately followed suit.

They paused, all of them eying one another before slapping their cards down on the table. Ronnie, seeing that she’d been holding an eight, surmised that they’d all lost to Jonah. Again.

“You’re all liars!” he said. His winnings, she noticed, were twice as much as anyone else’s, and as she watched her brother drag the change pile toward him, she observed that at least to this point, the evening had gone pretty well. She hadn’t known what to expect when she’d brought Will over, since it was the first time she’d ever brought a boy to meet her father. Would he try to give them space by hiding out in the kitchen? Would he try to become buddies with Will? Would he do or say something that embarrassed her? On the drive to her house, she’d already begun thinking of escape plans she could use as soon as they finished dinner.

As soon as they stepped inside, however, she had a good feeling. For starters, the house was picked up, Jonah was obviously under orders not to cling to their sides or question Will like a prosecutor, and her dad met Will with a simple handshake and an easygoing, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Will was on his best behavior, of course, answering questions with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” which struck her as endearing in a southern kind of way. The dinner conversation was easy; her dad asked some questions about the work Will did at the garage and at the aquarium, and Jonah went so far as to put his napkin in his lap. Best of all, her father didn’t say anything embarrassing, and though he brought up the fact that he used to teach at Juilliard, he didn’t volunteer that he’d been her teacher or that she’d once played at Carnegie Hall or that they’d written songs together, nor had he mentioned the fact that until a few days ago, he and Ronnie had been completely estranged. When Jonah asked for cookies after he’d finished, both Ronnie and her dad burst out laughing, making Will wonder what was so funny. Together, the four of them pitched in to clean up the table, and when Jonah suggested that they play liar’s poker, Will had agreed enthusiastically.

As for Will, he was just the kind of guy her mom wanted Ronnie to date: polite, respectful, intelligent, and best of all, sans tattoos… It might have been nice to have her mom there, if only to assure her that her daughter hadn’t gone completely off the deep end. On the other hand, her mom probably would have been so excited about the whole thing that she would have either tried to adopt Will on the spot or gushed to Ronnie a million times after he was gone about what a nice young man he was, which only would have made Ronnie want to end the whole thing before her mom got too carried away. Her dad would do none of those things-he seemed to trust Ronnie’s judgment and was content to let her make her own decisions without inserting his own opinions.

Which was really weird, considering he was only just starting to get to know her again, and also kind of sad at the same time, because she was beginning to think she’d made a big mistake by avoiding him for the past three years. It might have been nice to talk to him when her mom was driving her crazy.

All in all, she was glad she’d invited Will over. It certainly was easier for him to meet her dad than it had been for Ronnie to meet Susan. The woman scared the living daylights out of her. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but she was definitely intimidated. The woman had made it abundantly clear that she either didn’t like Ronnie or didn’t like the fact that her son liked Ronnie.

Normally, she wouldn’t have cared what someone’s parent thought of her, and she wouldn’t have given a second thought to the way she’d been dressed. She was who she was, after all… This was the first time in what seemed like forever that she’d felt she didn’t measure up, and it had bothered her far more than she’d thought it would.

As darkness fell and the game of liar’s poker began to wind down, she sensed Will watching her. She returned his gaze with a smile.

“I’m almost out,” he announced, fingering his pile of change.

“I know. I am, too.”

He glanced toward the window. “Do you think it would be okay if we went for a walk?”

This time, she knew with certainty that he was asking because he wanted to spend some time alone with her-because he cared about her, even if he was unsure whether she felt the same way.

She met his eyes directly. “I’d love to go for a walk.”

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