by Blythe H. Warren
Full-time marine biologist and part-time heartbreaker Liv Cucinelli knows that there are plenty of fish in the sea. So why can’t she seem to escape the lure of the one woman she hates the most?
When Liv is unexpectedly reunited with Mira Butler—the homophobic princess who ruined Liv’s college career—the last thing she wants is to spend even a second in the company of her former nemesis. Having loathed Mira for years, she’s not prepared to forgive her, let alone pursue a friendship. But Mira, who is oblivious to the destruction she caused, refuses to leave Liv alone.
Once Liv learns the truth about their shared past, she begins to see there is more to Mira than she could have ever anticipated.
Can they overcome their stormy history to become friends? Or maybe even more?
GCLS Goldie Awards
Bait and Switch — Finalist, Contemporary Romance: Short Novels.
Lex Kent's Reviews - Besides the great characters, I really enjoyed the romance. It went at the perfect pace. No insta-love here. In fact, this book stays away from many common tropes found in lesfic romance. I don't want to say what they are, cause it would be too much of a spoiler, but I will say I was impressed and happy. This is one of those really feel good romances. I'm happy right now, and I enjoy that feeling. While this book deals with a few tough subjects, it does it with a dose of humor and wonderful dialog, which just helps to make a great reading experience.
Pin's Reviews - The author has a great way with words and a witty mind. She has a wonderful way of showing the funny side to even a serious situation. A few times I found myself chuckling aloud. Very refreshing style of writing which suits me really well. With very good character development, good pacing, plausible conflict, believable romance, satisfying ending... Bait and Switch makes a great and really enjoyable read. Sincerely recommended.
My stomach fell, and my head snapped in the direction of the voice. I had no idea who had spoken, but I was certain I wouldn’t be happy to find out. No one had called me Ollie in the last fifteen years. Well, no one other than Patsy Collins, my best friend, but she never let anything go. A decade and a half after college ended she was still milking jokes that had amused her back then.
But Patsy also knew how much I hated that nickname, so she only used it when she was upset with me, which happened often thanks to my pig-headed stubborn side—her words, not mine. Since it was eight thirty on a Saturday morning—almost pre-dawn for my night-owl friend—it couldn’t be Patsy using my old nickname. But who was it?
Craning my neck, I tried to scan the crowd inconspicuously. I was surrounded mostly by children—the almost twenty young girls who had been my students for the past week. They were now milling about the lobby of the aquarium where I worked as a marine biologist and where we had all spent the night. Whenever the opportunity arose, I tried to spearhead our educational efforts by teaching classes to every group that showed an interest. I’ve had senior citizens, scout troops, kindergarten classes and just about everything in between in my classroom, but this was the first time I’d designed and offered a course specifically for young girls. The verdict on the course was still out, but I hoped it had been successful enough for a repeat the following summer.
The girls (not even a little tired after an entire night of gossiping and pranking one another) were giggling, hugging, swapping phone numbers and saying goodbye as their parents gathered sleeping bags and backpacks, trying to herd their daughters in the direction of the exit. I didn’t immediately recognize any of the parents as anyone who would think to call me Ollie.
Very few people knew my old nickname. I wasn’t wildly popular in college, even before circumstances forced me out of the dorms. While there was a chance that the voice belonged to one of the rare friendly faces from my days in undergrad, given my luck over the last twenty-four hours, I felt confident this wouldn’t be a joyful reunion. I mean, why wouldn’t a horrible reliving of my hellish college years come at the tail end of a day that had already included an abruptly cold shower (jarring even in mid-summer), no drinkable caffeine in my apartment, a flat tire on my bike and Carson Phillips (one of my students) suffering through a serious asthma attack without her inhaler? Obviously that last one was worse for Carson than it was for me. I’d just kept the situation under control until the paramedics arrived to help her, but the anxiety I felt in those endless, terror-stricken minutes before help arrived was enough to turn even the most stoic person into a nervous wreck.
As I looked tentatively about for the source of this unwanted bit of nostalgia, I heard it again. “Ollie? Is that you?” Something vaguely familiar about the voice tugged at my memory as I continued to scan the crowd. Still seeing nothing, I hoped I was in the clear, and then my eyes locked on her, the source of almost all the torment in my life, my arch nemesis—Mira Butler.
Okay, maybe arch nemesis was a bit dramatic. It wasn’t like we were in a comic book—Mira set to destroy Chicago with her super high-powered death ray unless I stopped her wicked plan. Certainly she could be a menace, but her reign of terror tended to be emotional and personal rather than physical. Somewhat less destructive (but no less evil) than obliterating the city, she was headed my way at warp speed, her expression one of oblivious good cheer. By the looks of her, she had no clue I despised her. That, or she had moved on.
In truth, I thought I had too. Even though she’d ruined my life, it wasn’t like I’d spent the last fifteen years plotting sweet revenge. I had forgotten all about what she’d done, or so I thought. But seeing her there in my aquarium, beaming as she weaved in and out of clumps of chattering girls and earnest parents on her way to the spot where I stood, feet stubbornly glued to the earth that refused to open up and swallow me whole, brought back all of the hurt and anger and embarrassment from the humiliation she’d orchestrated. It felt as raw at that moment as it had more than fifteen years earlier.
Panicked, I searched for a way out of this encounter, but damn if every one of my students (who not an hour earlier had been clamoring for my attention) wasn’t busy saying hello to parents or goodbye to classmates. I was on my own.
I just stood there, blinking stupidly and praying this was a vivid nightmare. Meanwhile, the closer a broadly grinning Mira got to me, the more I lost hope that I was still asleep. My system threatened to shut down as the very real possibility of a warm, friendly hug from my enemy grew larger, especially if I continued to stand there, silent and idle.
When I finally regained the power of speech, I blurted out the first thing I could think to say. “I don’t go by Ollie anymore.”
Her megawatt smile dimmed a kilowatt or two, and she put on the brakes far enough away that she couldn’t manage an embrace, but unfortunately still close enough to converse.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and she looked genuinely apologetic. “I didn’t know.” She waited a beat, possibly expecting me to reply, probably with what she should call me in place of Ollie. When I said nothing, she picked up the slack. “You look great.”
That was a lie. I looked like I’d spent the night in an aquarium with nineteen adolescent girls. Without needing to check a mirror for confirmation, I knew that my usually uncooperative short hair stuck out in all directions like it was sending out distress signals. I didn’t even want to think about the bags under my bloodshot eyes.
Mira, on the other hand, looked fantastic. Her long dark hair had that perfectly tousled look that comes from too much time and money spent in a salon. With her pillowy lips, large eyes and sculpted brows, I doubted Bernini could have formed a more perfect face, except for her nose. It was maybe a sliver too small, but I doubted anyone had ever complained. Her flawless beauty hadn’t changed much in the fifteen years since I saw her last. It was depressing but not unexpected.
“What are you doing here?” I managed to sound more inquisitive than accusatory because she beamed again.
“I’m picking up my daughter,” she said, and my heart sank as I watched Cassie Morgan, my favorite student, heading our way.
I knew I shouldn’t have a favorite, and I was pretty sure I had managed to keep my preference a secret from everyone, but how could I help but adore Cassie? Her sharp mind and inquisitive nature energized everyone in the class. I should have expected as much because, on the first day of the course, she introduced herself to me before class and let me know that she was the vice president of the science club at her school and how excited she was to be learning from “a fellow woman of science.”
As if that wasn’t enough, she told me all this in sign language without preamble or comment on the fact that she was deaf. It reminded me of my mother, who maneuvered through life as a deaf woman in much the same way people with green eyes would, in other words, not worrying what those who weren’t green eyed (or deaf) thought about the matter. For my mom, anyone who thought a hearing impairment was an issue or a handicap wasn’t worth her time, and I got the impression that Cassie had a similar worldview. I pretty much fell in love with the kid right then and there. She was a science loving miniature version of my mom. No one else stood a chance.
Now here she was, embracing a woman I couldn’t hate more if I tried. I stared at them, noting their physical similarities—dark hair, dark eyes, stunning smile—and prayed, in defiance of overwhelming visual evidence to the contrary, that Mira was not Cassie’s mother. Or that Cassie had been adopted. Barring that, I hoped Mira had changed since college. It seemed both impossible and unfair that someone as sweet and wonderful as Cassie could have someone as close-minded and horrible as Mira Butler for a mother. Seeing them together, though, I had to admit that Cassie looked happy to be with her mom, so maybe Mira wasn’t as evil as I remembered.
As I continued to stare and tell myself that Cassie wasn’t fated to be a she-devil just because of her unfortunate lineage, Cassie signed something to her mother that I missed. I moved to step away and give them their privacy when Mira spoke.
“So you’re Miss Liv,” she said, recognition dawning.
“Guilty as charged, I guess.”
“When Cassie hasn’t been telling me about fish and ecosystems, she’s been raving about Miss Liv. I was eager to meet my daughter’s new favorite person. I had no idea I already knew her.”
I couldn’t help my snort, but based on her grin it came off as more of a “life is funny” guffaw than the “as if you actually know me” I’d been feeling when it slipped out.
“Small world,” I said before Cassie handed me a pair of envelopes Mira had pulled from her purse.
Some of the other girls had already given me cards or even small gifts, so I wasn’t caught completely off guard, but that didn’t make me any less uncomfortable. I was glad they enjoyed the class enough to thank me, but that wasn’t why I’d created the course. I just wanted the girls to learn about science, have fun while doing it and maybe see it as an option in their futures—or at least not dread the mandatory science classes they would face in school.
I signed a quick thanks and goodbye to Cassie before my embarrassment got the better of me, and I bid farewell to Mira, thinking I was fortunate to escape before she suggested we get together to catch up. With any luck this would be our last encounter.
Once all the girls cleared out and I had a moment to myself, I opened the tokens they had given me. Most had opted for pre-printed thank you cards in which they’d written short notes in their adorably bubbly cursive. I was also now the proud owner of three World’s Greatest Teacher pencil holders and a planter shaped like a goldfish.
Cassie, whose cards I’d saved for last, had given me a thank you as well as an invitation to her thirteenth birthday party, taking place in one week. Perfect. Unless I wanted to disappoint a young girl I adored and admired, I would have to willingly spend more quality time with the woman who had accused me of rape.
Now what was I supposed to do?
I was a menace on two wheels all the way home thanks to my inability to focus on anything other than the unexpected invitation to Cassie’s birthday party. While I was touched and honored she wanted me to be a part of her celebration, I was also alarmed. I was almost forty years old. How weird would it be to attend a thirteen-year-old’s birthday party?
On top of the strangeness of going to a party where my only friend would be a child, there was the small matter of me hating her mother. Not an hour prior, I had implored the fates to keep me away from Mira from that point on. Now I was voluntarily contemplating another encounter in a week’s time.
Reeling from that disturbing and distracting thought, I focused on my commute just in time to avoid plowing into a pedestrian. When I swerved, I narrowly missed colliding with a parked car. This was not good, especially since I had already had two close encounters with cabs.
I eventually made it home (no closer to making a decision about Cassie’s party but thankfully without breaking myself or my bike) and put the kettle on for a much-needed cup of tea. While foraging in my kitchen for something to eat, I called the one person who had seen me through every crisis in the last fifteen years.
“How was sleeping with the fishes?” Patsy asked.
“Fun but exhausting.” I spotted a slightly dusty can of SpaghettiOs lurking in the back of a cabinet. “I think the girls got a lot out of it,” I said, sparing her all the rotten details of my day. I didn’t think she would want to hear about them any more than I wanted to relive them. Instead, I told her about the invitation from Cassie.
“Is she the one you’ve been raving about for days?”
“I might have mentioned her in passing.” It wasn’t like I’d spent all my free time singing Cassie’s praises.
“Liv, you’ve brought her up at least once every time we’ve talked in the last week. I know more about this girl than I do my own family. I could buy her the perfect birthday present, and I’ve never met her. That’s how much you’ve told me about her.” Perhaps I’d been less restrained when it came to Cassie than I thought. “I think you should go to the party,” Patsy advised. “She obviously likes you, and it’s clear the feeling is mutual.”
“There is a slight complication.”
“Aside from me being almost three times as old as the birthday girl, I know her mother.”
“Oh my god, did you sleep with this kid’s mom?”
“Gross,” I shrieked, unsettled by the thought. “Not in a million years.”
“You don’t need to get so defensive. The way you get around, it’s a wonder you haven’t seduced more mothers.”
“You’re hilarious,” I said. “And one to talk. Wreck any homes lately?” I knew she wouldn’t be upset by my comment. She didn’t quibble about little things like marital status when she considered sleeping with someone. It wasn’t her fault if someone ignored his (or her) wedding vows. While I couldn’t so easily facilitate adultery, I could see her point. They weren’t her vows to uphold.
“The weekend is still young,” she laughed. “What’s the problem with Cassie’s mother?”
“She’s Mira Butler.”
That said it all, I thought as I watched my lunch spinning and bubbling in the microwave. “How can the coolest kid I’ve ever met come from the worst person I’ve ever known?”
“Oh, shit,” Patsy said again, unable or unwilling to move past her shock.
“What should I do?” I whined.
“I can’t decide for you, but I think you should go.”
“Really?” I didn’t know which answer I thought I’d get from her, but I had expected her to take at least a minute to ponder my dilemma.
“After all she’s put you through, she owes you at least a piece of birthday cake.”
“You’re not really helping, you know.” The microwave beeped, but I ignored my food, my appetite suddenly gone. “If you think I’m willingly going to subject myself to Mira Butler’s brand of evil in exchange for some baked goods, you have lost your mind.”
“In all seriousness, I think you should go.”
“Why?” I sounded petulant to my own ears.
“You’ve obviously had an impact on this girl which, if I’m not mistaken, was what you set out to do when you dreamed up this class. It would be a shame to deprive Cassie of your mentorship just because her mother is a world-class asshole.”
As usual, Patsy had hit the mark. It made her a great school counselor and perpetual sounding board. It would be irritating, if not for the fact that I so regularly needed her input.
“What about Mira?”
“That’ll be easy at her daughter’s birthday party.”
“Just ask to sit at the kids’ table. The conversation will probably be more interesting, and you won’t have to worry about your deplorable table manners.”
“That’s very helpful. Thank you for your input.” I knew I was being whiny and ungrateful, but I couldn’t help it.
“The way you’re acting now, you’ll fit right in.” I deserved that, but before I could apologize for being so bratty, she moved on. “What do you do when a guy hits on you?”
“On the rare occasion when that happens, I come out, but Mira already knows I’m gay. And unless you consider fabricating a tale of felony sexual assault a positive thing, she didn’t react well to that news. I don’t want to go down that road again.”
“You know, she’ll probably be too busy hosting the party to harass you. Just go and make the best of it.”
“You’re right,” I said, not at all convinced that I could make the best of it or that I was even willing to try.
I let most of the week pass before I made a decision about Cassie’s birthday party. In part I could blame my foot dragging on work. Construction on a new wing where we planned to house a series of special exhibits had fallen behind schedule. While construction delays were nothing new, these setbacks stretched our already thin budget even further and treated everyone to an extra helping of stress. Though fundraising and finances didn’t typically fall under an aquarist’s regular responsibilities, my boss Roman Singh (under immense pressure from the board) decided to take an “all hands on deck” approach to this particular crisis.
He wanted all of us acting as rainmakers in order to cover the deficit. I couldn’t have been less qualified for a task if he’d asked me to molt or spontaneously combust. What could I even do? Host a fundraiser with my one friend in attendance? My contributions to this cause seemed hopeless, so every morning, I met his expectant grin with a frown and a dispirited shake of my head. I avoided him all day long and ended each day wanting nothing more than to drink a beer, shut off my brain and fall into bed. Planning my social calendar and calling Mira to RSVP seemed like too much effort.
That’s the excuse I allowed myself anyway, but it was only half the story. In my more honest moments, I could admit that, really, I just didn’t want to deal with it.
Even though I knew Patsy was right (and not just because she reminded me of that fact daily), I couldn’t bring myself to call Mira and commit to attending Cassie’s party. Whenever I reached for the phone, I froze. I was well aware how ridiculous I was being. It would take under three minutes to tell Mira I’d be there. It wouldn’t even amount to a conversation, but still I hesitated.
Patsy had issued no fewer than five reminders to call Mira, and when she invited me to lunch at our favorite restaurant on Thursday, I knew I should have been suspicious of her motives. But the promise of a meal that didn’t come from a can was too much to pass up. Almost as soon as the hostess seated us, Patsy (who always ordered either a cheeseburger or meatloaf and had no need to consult the menu) pointed out how rude I was being to my would-be hostess, as if I remained somehow unaware. She was unrelenting in her insistence that I commit to Cassie’s party. I ignored her—or tried to—as I hid behind the menu deciding between chicken and pasta. The fact that Mira was on the receiving end of my bad manners did nothing to discourage Patsy’s nagging. It also did nothing to make me feel better about throwing common courtesy overboard, especially when Patsy pointed out how unfair I was being to Cassie.
“She’s expecting an answer, Liv.”
“I know,” I sighed, fiddling with my water glass and offering the least possible response to her habitual harassment. Acknowledging her opinion didn’t slow her down at all.
“It’s hardly fair to toy with a little girl’s emotions like this, especially since she had no part in what happened to you.”
“I know,” I said again, feeling even worse about myself than before.
She wouldn’t even let me back out after I told her that the party was in Highland Park—hardly a convenient location for a city girl without a car. Unless I wanted to spend half of my day on public transportation (I didn’t) or ride my bike twenty miles each way, cultivating a force field of b.o. along the way, I had no way to get there.
“Take my car.”
“Have you lost your mind?” She’d saved up for the better part of a year to buy her car, even though it would have been faster and easier to ask her dad to buy it for her. She cared for her car better than most people cared for their homes. “I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can. Just bring me a piece of cake and we’ll call it even.”
“Patsy, you love your car, and I don’t drive.”
“You know how, don’t you?”
“In theory,” I said, trying to remember the last time I’d been behind the wheel. I was pretty sure we’d had a different president.
“Just be careful. I trust you.”
Though I found it odd that she was so invested in me attending Cassie’s party, I quit arguing. I had no hope of winning when she was feeling determined.
“I’ll bring you two pieces of cake.”
“Deal,” she said. Now all that was left was to call Mira when I got home.
I spent the rest of the afternoon giving myself intermittent pep talks whenever I thought of chatting with my enemy, and after a couple of false starts, I finally made the call. When Mira didn’t immediately answer, I grew hopeful I’d get her voicemail, but she picked up right before my dreams came true. She sounded distracted, like I’d caught her in the middle of something (putting together a thirteen-year-old’s birthday party maybe?), so I grew optimistic about my chances of making this a quick call.
“Mira, hi. It’s Liv. Cucinelli. From the aquarium.” I suppose I could have said from college, but if I had to have a relationship with her, no matter how fleeting and inconsequential, I’d prefer to assign it a more agreeable genesis than my former painful humiliation.
“Are you calling about the party? I hope you can make it. Cassie has been asking if you’ll be coming, and I didn’t know what to tell her.”
No pressure, I thought, glad I wasn’t calling to decline the invitation. “I’ll be there,” I told her.
“Wonderful!” Her enthusiasm was almost palpable. “I can’t wait to share the good news with Cassie. She’ll be so excited to see you. We both will, actually. We can spend some time catching up.”
“Great,” I replied, already wondering how I would evade Mira in her own home. “That sounds just great.”
I sat in Patsy’s car for ten minutes, my heart filling with dread, my soul dying as I stared at the sprawling mansion Mira called home. The longer I sat there gaping at this monument to affluence and prosperity, the larger it became and the more out of place I knew I’d be. I just couldn’t seem to make myself get out of the car and head into the party, even though I was already forty-five minutes late.
It wasn’t that I was stalling. If anything, I wanted this over with, and I would have been on time, probably even early, if not for Patsy’s GPS. It decided to take me on a tour of every wealthy neighborhood and suburb between her apartment and the party. It was like watching a parade of things I’d never be able to afford in this life or the next, culminating in the Midwest’s answer to the Taj Mahal. If not for my strong desire to get out of the car I’d been trapped in for the last ninety minutes, I’m not sure anything would have motivated me to approach the palace looming before me and ring the bell.
It shouldn’t have surprised me when a maid (in an honest-to-god maid uniform, frilly white apron and all) greeted me at the door, but I stood for another minute or two staring at this poor woman and wondering how the hell I was going to make it through the next few hours. It felt like we stood in Mira’s foyer for an hour. In actuality it was probably less than a minute, still more than enough time for me to feel even more out of place. The entryway to her palatial estate, with its polished marble floor and gleaming wood trim, was larger than my bedroom. I was pretty sure a troop of Girl Scouts could have held a meeting in her foyer with room left over for a pep rally.
Almost as soon as I left the privacy of the foyer and entered her living room, I knew coming to the party was a mistake. A quick glance around the room (chilly and not just from the air conditioning) told me I’d been a fool to think I wouldn’t know anyone but Cassie and Mira. Of course the trio of backbiters who’d followed Mira’s every move in college were sitting there, wearing the same fake smiles they’d have if their parents had photographed them on forced prom dates with their cousins. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized they’d be there (each one with a brood of genetically superior children in tow, no doubt). Mira had been their queen in college, and there was no reason to suspect things would be different now.
Still flustered from my drive and dreading the day’s events, I walked into the Lion’s Den—the opulent but impersonal living room where Mira’s friends had gathered to criticize the poor and downtrodden, no doubt. The room—a veritable paean to beige and earth tones—lacked any warmth or human touches. Part of that was probably the dearth of children playing and having fun at what was supposed to be a child’s birthday party, but the space also seemed like it was meant to be admired, not enjoyed. I got the impression that even the adults in the room were under harsh scrutiny and would be punished if anything was out of place when they left.
“Sorry I’m so late,” I said, hating the good manners that forced me to apologize to Mira.
“Don’t worry about it.” She waved her hand in the air as if physically brushing aside my apology, making me feel oddly worse, like I owed her for excusing my lack of direction. “You remember Sarah, Megan and Tiffany.” She breezed through the unnecessary introductions.
“How could I forget?” I said, sounding about as happy to see them as they appeared to be to see me. Ignoring the icy block of fear and dread settling in my stomach, I forced myself to smile instead of turning around and running back to the car.
For their part, they retained their unpleasantly surprised expressions and made no attempt at small talk. Either they’d been stunned into silence, or they were calculating the limits of outward rudeness they could show to their friend’s guest. I was calculating how long they’d last before one of them brought up the past. On the plus side, none of them called me Ollie. Yet.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Please.” I jumped at Mira’s offer, though I held out little hope that alcohol would be available at a kid’s party, not that I should indulge before my circuitous trek back to the city anyway.
Grateful for an escape, I followed her from the living room through the equally lavish dining room that could easily have held half my apartment. As we walked I mentally catalogued every item we passed that sat well outside my price range. Antique furniture. Boring but probably expensive artwork. Several pieces of ornate and delicate china. The pristine oak floors were adorned with gorgeous rugs, each of which looked like it would cost me a month’s pay. I counted four on our walk from the living room to the kitchen.
I was way out of my league here. The only real exposure I’d ever had to wealth came from a handful of meals with Patsy’s family, which was infinitely better off than mine. My mom raised me alone with zero help from my dad, who bailed the second the stick turned pink. But not even Patsy’s family had money like this.
The part of my brain not calculating Mira’s interior decorating allowance (and wondering what she did for a living that she could live so handsomely) was focused in part on the irony of Mira Butler being my savior. The thought that I might cling to her for the rest of the afternoon chilled me to the bone.
She chatted happily as we made our way from one end of her estate to the other. Apparently she hadn’t been joking about wanting to catch up with me.
“How long have you been at the aquarium?”
“Twelve years.” I sounded churlish to my own ears, and I knew I needed to shape up and act at least a little pleasant for Cassie’s sake.
“You must like it,” Mira said, unaffected by my terse response. “Five years is the longest I’ve managed to stay in any place, and I’m pushing that with my job now.”
“What do you do?” I tried to deflect her interest and satisfy my curiosity at the same time.
“I’m the cosmetics manager at a department store.”
Stunned, I took in my surroundings once more. While I wasn’t surprised to learn she had a career dedicated to convincing women their natural beauty wasn’t enough, there was no way a cosmetics manager could afford the home I was standing in. The idea that she’d married well occurred to me (not for the first time), but I couldn’t figure out why a rich housewife would work at all, let alone shoot for the stars of cosmetics management.
“That sounds…” I struggled to find an inoffensive adjective.
“I think ‘boring’ is the word you’re searching for.”
“That’s about right,” I said. “Superficial” was really what I’d been thinking, but I didn’t need to be rude.
“You don’t really seem like the cosmetics type.”
“Never have been.”
She eyed me critically and smiled. “I don’t think makeup would work for you.”
“Was that supposed to be a compliment?”
She laughed and wrinkled her nose. “That didn’t come out right. I meant you don’t need any makeup. You look good without it.”
Well, I certainly hadn’t expected anything close to praise from her. This was turning out to be an interesting party after all.
“Are you married?” She resumed her interrogation, and as the questions grew more personal, I second-guessed my decision to follow her rather than take my chances in the living room.
“Not so far.”
“Does that mean there’s hope for the future?”
How big was this house anyway? For as far as we’d walked, we should have made it to the state line by now. “I’m about as much the marrying type as I am the cosmetics type.”
“It’s not for everyone,” she said as we finally, blessedly crossed the threshold of her state-of-the-art kitchen. I got the impression the comment was more for her benefit than mine. I was pretty sure that if her marriage had been the source of her wealth, it wasn’t the source of her happiness.
I was almost feeling bad for her and wondering what one says to one’s downtrodden enemy when Cassie burst into the room, saving me from any sort of bonding or awkward attempt at comforting Mira. She was followed closely by a prim, pinched-faced woman with heavily sprayed hair and an outfit that suggested she had no concept of summer, children or birthday parties.
“Cassandra,” the pursed woman barked, apparently unaware of Cassie’s deafness. “Slow down. This isn’t a gymnasium.” She barely paused before turning her attentions on Cassie’s mother. “Mira, the caterers are roaming around the yard aimlessly. Your party is going to be an embarrassing disaster if you leave them to their own devices, and I shudder at the thought of the broken English conversation with the landscapers to undo the mess these fools are sure to leave behind. Honestly, I don’t know why you expect laypeople to show any initiative.”
The part of me that wasn’t perplexed by the idea of catering a thirteen-year-old’s birthday party was desperately trying to avoid an encounter with this woman. I must have known we wouldn’t both make it out alive.
“Excuse me, Liv,” Mira said before turning to Satan’s bride. “I’ll take care of it, Mother.” She asked Cassie to get me something to drink, and then she was gone, leaving me and Cassie alone with the living inspiration for class warfare.
Thankfully, I realized that in my commute-fueled frustration, I’d stupidly left Cassie’s gift in the car. Though I hated to leave her alone with the least grandmotherly grandmother I’d ever encountered, I figured her lifetime of experience with Mrs. Butler would offer her better coping mechanisms than the throat-punching method I favored.
Explaining my mistake to Cassie, I signed that I’d be right back. She looked resigned but not terrified. As I headed back the way I came, I felt Mrs. Butler’s judgmental gaze on me. I fled the uncomfortable kitchen, sped through the acreage of Mira’s home, past the gossiping gorgons and out to Patsy’s car, the whole time marveling that Mira wasn’t more unbearable, considering her lineage.
When I returned to the foyer with Cassie’s gift in hand, I realized I’d become the topic of conversation. I didn’t know if Mira’s friends had mistaken my return to the car for an exit, or if they just didn’t care that I might hear them, but I heard enough to know they were as petty and horrible as they’d been fifteen years earlier.
“I can’t believe Mira let her come.”
“She invited her.”
“Isn’t she worried Ollie will try something with Cassie?”
“If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t let Ollie anywhere near her.”
“What is Mira thinking?”
I couldn’t tell whose voice was whose, but I was sure Sarah, Megan and Tiffany had all offered at least one unflattering remark. As I saw it, my options were to stand there listening to their hateful comments or to shut down the rumor mill and maybe make them feel bad, assuming they had the capacity to feel.
“You know, the one thing I was really liking about this little reunion was that no one had called me Ollie. Now you’ve gone and ruined that.” They all threw on their best confused expressions, as if they had no idea what I was talking about. “It’s weird, right? That I’m more upset over a silly nickname than the snide remarks, but honestly, I didn’t expect anything else from the likes of you.”
I left and headed for the relative sanctuary of the kitchen before they noticed I was so angry my hands were shaking.
Unfortunately, by the time I got back, that space was no less hostile than the one I’d just left.
Cassie had left the kitchen, whether by choice or at the command of her grandmother, I wasn’t sure.
When Mrs. Butler saw me, she took one haughty glance at me, and based on her cold expression, she wasn’t impressed.
“You used sign language with my granddaughter earlier.”
She sounded both offended and accusatory, though I had no clue why she would be upset. I hadn’t said anything inappropriate to Cassie in our thirty-second interaction. Since Mrs. Butler’s tone made no sense, I pretended I hadn’t picked up on it.
“I did,” I answered more brightly than I’d spoken in the last decade. “It’s been a few years since I’ve gotten to sign regularly. It’s been fun to use it again.”
“There’s no need to coddle her.”
“Excuse me? How is sign language coddling?”
“Cassie can read lips.”
I rolled my eyes at her ridiculous assumption that lip reading in real life was anywhere close to being as miraculously accurate as it is in movies. How could someone be so willfully ignorant about her own family? How could she have such a narrow, hurtful worldview when it came to her granddaughter’s well-being?
“If you use sign language, she’ll be lazy about overcoming her…challenges.”
Unbelievable. This woman seemed to equate Cassie’s deafness with getting a cramp in a race, like Cassie could just tough it out or walk it off.
“You enable her disability by giving her the easy way out. She’ll never be normal if she doesn’t try, and she’ll never try if she doesn’t have to.”
“Wait. You want your granddaughter to be normal when she’s already exceptional? Why would you want her to be less than she is?”
Mrs. Butler glared at me. If I hadn’t already suspected she and Beelzebub regularly conferred, I might have been taken aback by the look of pure hatred in her eyes. As it was, she just gave me more reason to despise her.
“My family, my rules,” she said after a moment. “I’d suggest you abide by them if you intend to remain a part of my granddaughter’s life.”
“What about your daughter?”
“What about her?”
“Mira doesn’t abide by your rules for her daughter. She uses sign language with Cassie, treats her with love and respect and doesn’t think of her as an abnormality in need of changing. She actually allows Cassie to be herself and do what makes her comfortable.” Now I’d defended Mira. Could this day get any weirder?
The cold expression Mrs. Butler had favored me with earlier was positively tropical compared to the look she gave me now.
“Maybe that’s how your parents approached child-rearing, but allowing children to do whatever feels comfortable only encourages bad behavior…” Mira’s mother paused in her invective long enough to look me up and down once more “…like giving in to one’s more base impulses.”
Given my vast experience with homophobia and the Butler family, it wasn’t hard to know that her comment was directed at my lesbianism, though I’m not sure how she knew I was gay. True, I was the only female at the party in pants, and my short hair had no hope of being curled, braided, teased or styled in any manner that was close to girly, but it wasn’t like I’d tattooed a rainbow on my forehead. Her comment showed a level of perception and ignorance I hadn’t thought possible before I set foot in suburban Gehenna.
Rather than become embroiled in a debate with the incarnation of evil, I left the room without saying another word. It bothered me that she probably thought she’d won the argument and put me in my place, but I didn’t have it in me then to champion gay rights, especially when I knew my points would go unheard or ignored. Already upset, hurt, enraged and far beyond my breaking point, I decided to leave before the day could get any worse. I doubted I’d be missed.
I didn’t want to see Cassie when my anger was so close to the surface, but I wanted to make sure she got her present, which meant finding a gift table. Despite Mrs. Butler’s lack of faith in the caterers, I figured they could point me in the right direction, so I headed the way Mira had gone earlier. She intercepted me at the edge of the enormous, lush, perfectly manicured lawn, and I thrust the gift into her hands.
“Please thank Cassie for the invitation.”
“She’s just over there if you want to thank her yourself.”
“I’d rather just drop this off and go.” I bit the words off.
“Liv, what’s wrong?”
“I’m clearly not welcome, and I refuse to stay someplace where I’m insulted everywhere I go.” She flinched, and her perfect brow furrowed. “I’m glad that I came, though. At least now I get it. I finally understand why you’re such a horrible person. Who could grow up in the same house as that woman and turn out likeable? Just do the world a favor and don’t pass the Butler family homophobia on to Cassie. She’s a sweet kid and I’d hate to think she became a monster like you and your mother.”
I could tell by her expression that I’d hit a nerve with that last comment, but I left her to her anger and her party. I was done.