Chapter 7 – Alyssa
I shouldn’t be this nervous meeting Julian’s family. It’s not that serious, right? I mean, the relationship between him and me. I’m not his real girlfriend. I’m arm candy that’s meant to blend into the background and gives him someone to sit next to.
So why am I sitting in the back of his Audi, shaking from head to toe as we cruise down I5 to wine country?
Wish I could blame the weather, but it’s actually sunny and warm today. I’m wearing a sweater over my springtime baby-pink dress, so I can’t blame the AC making me shake. I don’t even pay attention to Julian, who is likewise ignoring me in favor of his tablet. Stocks from around the world, his PR adviser wanting more information about our relationship, and emails that can’t wait until later. I’m sure I could rub his thigh and get his attention focused back on me, but do I want to?
We’ve reached an impasse again. Our push and pull is mostly push right now. Julian Marcus is smoking hot and continues to plague my nighttime fantasies, but the real-life man gives me a bigger headache than he might be worth.
I’ll give him one more shot. I may have signed his stupid contract, but I made sure a clause was put in that I could exit the whole thing whenever I wanted. It should have bothered me that he didn’t put up more of a fight over that. For pretense, of course.
Come on, Julian, show me that you give a flying fuck about me. Me. Not just the sex and “wonderful experiences” I might offer you. Me.
The woman behind the vagina, yanno?
I can deal with Julian, hilariously enough. What I might not be able to deal with is already meeting his parents.
But it’s one of those things that further proves we’re not a real couple, you know? No man would take his real girlfriend to meet the family one week after meeting. I’m as good as an escort. In fact, I’ve heard a number of murmurs around the office that it’s exactly what he did before. Escorts. Can you believe it? I can, now.
The Willamette Wine Club is one of the most exclusive wine venues in Oregon, despite the simple name. It’s nestled deep in the Willamette wine country, where even on the drizzliest day everything is lush, green, and rolling in agricultural prospects. Farmers have been using this fertile valley to sell sustenance to the world since it was settled thousands of years ago. The wine ain’t that bad, either.
This particular clubhouse is far away from the freeway, and even from a single highway cutting to the coast. Apple trees line the private road leading up to a Mediterranean mansion overlooking some of the most pristine parts of the Willamette valley I’ve ever seen. Rows of expensive sport cars and safe, black vehicles like Julian’s Audi have already beaten us to the party. Nevertheless, an elderly valet greets us. I give him a little wave as we drive on. He nods his head toward me, and that’s the last I see of him.
“Did you read those dossiers I gave you?” Julian asks.
I show him the bottom of my tote bag, which I’ll leave in the back of his car. I’ve got a change of clothing in there, too, because I know I’m staying the night as his place. Wish it made me even a little excited. A part of me almost dreads it right now.
Not as much as I dread meeting his family, though.
The dossiers were full of information about his immediate family. His mother was the main one Julian wanted me to learn about, since apparently she’s the one making most of the decisions about the family behind the scenes. His father is retired and doing whatever the hell he wants around the world. His older brother Edwin (although I’m told “we” call him Ted) now runs the family company.
But his mother. Wow.
Serena Marcus has her hand in almost every pot up and down the coast. While her husband does whatever he pleases with his money and retirement, Julian’s mother co-runs a plethora of ladies’ organizations in the Pacific Northwest. The kind that has had to rebrand themselves over the past half a century due to certain images no longer standing in society. I knew everything I needed to know about Serena Marcus when I saw she was the main dissenter regarding Asian women joining one of her more “prestigious” housewife groups back in the ‘80s.
Julian’s handwritten notes to me suggest that I don’t say anything to his mother other than my name. With any luck, she won’t acknowledge my existence while we are there.
I know what that means. She’ll see me as her youngest son’s latest hussy who shouldn’t even exist. Well, at least I know it’s coming?
“Did I tell you I brought a gift for Ted and Jordan?” I ask Julian as we ascend the front steps to the club. The gift is at the bottom of my bag. “I read on an etiquette website that you’re supposed to give the engaged couple a gift when you first formally meet them. Since this is a wedding mixer…”
“I’m sure they’ll love it. They’re rather easy to please.”
Julian wraps his arm around me the moment we enter the wide, open foyer of the main mansion. A woman in a white uniform offers to take his jacket and my sweater. Julian refrains. I shrug out of my sweater and hand it over. A chill claims my shoulders. Julian rubs my left one for me, yet before I can appreciate the somewhat romantic gesture, he steps forward and flags down a man popping out of a nearby room.
I recognize Ted’s voice, even though I’ve never heard it before. How can anyone mistake Ted Marcus for someone else? The man oozes more charm than my own boss!
Granted, I wouldn’t call Julian charming, per se, but when compared to his big brother, all I can think is… sheesh, someone got all the real genes!
Julian religiously shaves and combs his hair naturally every morning. Ted, on the other hand, keeps a healthy amount of perfectly plucked fuzz on his face. His richly black hair is full of products that keep it in place, and the scent alone screams that he’s worth a billion bucks and more, if you get to know him. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a smile on my face the moment Ted has reached us, hand extended to his brother. Julian keeps his expression pleasant as he exchanges greetings with his big brother.
Do I sense a little animosity?
“Who is this striking woman, Jules?” Pearly white teeth poke out from Ted’s lips when he speaks to me. Bright blue eyes look me up and down, a mixture of critical and overflowing with admiration. “Do introduce me. She looks chomping at the bit to know your big brother.” He leans in toward me. “I’m bigger in every sense of the word, darling.”
I blush, because I can’t even imagine.
“This is Alyssa Pendleton, my new girlfriend.” Julian puts his hand on the small of my back. At first, I think he intends to push me forward, but his fingers tug on my dress, keeping me close to his side. “We became official only earlier this week, so go easy on her. She’s not used to the circus we perform here.”
“Oh, I’m sure she must be a smart and bright young woman to convince you to get official, Jules.” Ted finally releases my hand. If I thought his brother’s skin was soft… “He doesn’t bother with the women he’s only interested in bedding and nothing more.”
I’m blushing again. This time, Julian intervenes. “Where’s Jordan? I’m sure Alyssa would love to get more introductions going.”
“Jordan will be here shortly.” I’m so invested in this exchange that not even I miss the vexing flash on Ted’s chiseled face. “Held up at the airfield because of the weather back home.”
“They live in California,” Julian tells me.
“Much sunnier than the crisp, gray fog here in Oregon. I keep telling this man to move to LA, but he won’t have it. At least Seattle, man.”
“Portland’s fine. Centrally located.”
“And full of beautiful woman, it seems.”
“Forgive my brother. He’s an atrocious flirt.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” I finally get to say. “Julian talks about you all the time.”
“You mean rants about me? Because that’s the version I’d believe.”
Ted says that with mirth in his voice, but Julian tenses next to me. What kind of relationship do these brothers have, exactly? All I know is that Ted is six years older than Julian. I suppose that sort of age difference could be challenging, particularly in their kind of family.
“I brought you and your fiancé a gift.” I pull out the small gift bag from the bottom of my bag, but Ted gestures for me to keep it for now.
“Jordan loves presents. Let’s wait so we can open it together. Thank you, by the way.”
Before an awkward silence can settle over us, Julian says, “Are Mother and Father here?”
“Dad’s flirting with half the wait staff and mother’s already half-drunk on mimosas. Just another day in the Marcus clan. Welcome to the fold, Alyssa.”
“Must not be too terrible if you’ve snagged someone to marry.”
Ted does a double-take in my direction before completely turning away. “Ha! I like her, Jules.” He points to us on his way down the hall. “A billion dollars is excellent lubrication against the in-laws, sweet Alyssa!”
Julian and I continue to stand in the middle of the welcoming hall while uniformed staff come and go around us. “So, that’s my brother. Mind that he doesn’t try to seduce you. That would void our agreement for exclusivity… and would require me punching him in the fucking jaw again.”
Julian doesn’t answer me. He walks ahead, and I follow.
Doesn’t… seduce me…? Punch him in the jaw? Again?
We find the rest of the attendees, including the wedding party and some of the couple’s closest friends, enjoying a round of billiards in a bright, sunny room complete with an open bar. A woman approaches with a tray covered in skinny champagne glasses. “Can I interest you, ma’am?” she asks.
“You might want to have one,” Julian urges. “I’m going to need something stronger. Scotch, please.”
“Yes, sir.” As soon as I have a glass of champagne, the server takes the request for a Scotch to the bartender on duty.
A woman’s sharp and penetrating voice slices through the room before anyone has the chance to come up and introduce themselves to me.
“Julian? Is that you? Come over here!”
Sighing, my boyfriend silently informs me that the woman is his mother. I can’t see Serena Marcus through the group of people drinking champagne and playing billiards, but her voice alone, like Ted’s, is instantly recognizable.
Unlike Ted, she is far from happy.
“Stay here,” Julian says. “I’ll get you for introductions as soon as I have a quick talk with my mother.” He’s gone before I have the chance to ask any questions.
I’m sensing a pattern here today.
My nerves make me drink the champagne faster than I usually would. A few people give me curious glances, but nobody approaches me or offers introductions. Perhaps that’s how things work at this level of society. After all, I’m a nobody, right? I came here on Julian’s arm, but apparently that doesn’t bring any kind of prestige with it. I shouldn’t be surprised. Everything I hear about Julian Marcus suggests that he unapologetically gets around with any number of women that please him. I’m only the latest in a long string of one-time dates. People don’t want to get to know me, because what’s the point? I’ll probably be gone this time next week, and they’ll never see my face again.
I finish my champagne. It’s already going through me.
“Excuse me,” I say to the server with Julian’s Scotch. “Where’s the ladies’ room?”
Julian told me to stay here, but fuck it, he’s busy smoothing things over with some croaking gargoyle on the other side of the room. Nobody will care if I sneak out and use the bathroom, especially since it’s only down the hall.
I take my time. The ladies’ room is cozy and smells nice, so I’m not in a huge hurry to get out even after I finish my business. Since I’m the only one in here, I spend twice as long washing my hands, rubbing the flower-shaped soaps over my palms and smiling when I smell lavender and rose on my skin.
It reminds me of what I bought for Ted and Jordan. I still don’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t spring for the kind of stuff one would normally get a rich couple… whatever that is. I figure, everyone loves bath stuff, right? So I bought a couple of things from one of my favorite bath and body stores and hoped they would appreciate it. A hint of the romantic while also appealing to a bride who probably likes to be pampered. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have brought a gift. Julian hadn’t said anything about it. Damnit! I’m so stupid.
Can you blame me? I’m stressing out here. Serena probably wishes I were dead (and I haven’t even met her yet) and Julian acts like his big brother is going to cart me off in front of his bride. What kind of woman is Jordan, anyway? Julian hasn’t told me anything about her, other than her family’s from California. Would it be too farfetched to think that she and I could be friends? Comrades in this crazy world we’re wrapped up in?
Ah, hell. She’s rich like the rest of them. I’m sure that family in California is loaded as hell. We don’t have anything in common at all. Sigh.
I finally step back out before Julian can ring my phone demanding to know where I am.
The door swings into the hallway, due to some terrible design flaw, I’m sure.
Naturally, I hit someone.
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry!” I slam the bathroom door shut. “Are you okay?”
It’s a man I have yet to see. He’s taken two wild steps back, disoriented and brushing something off his black three-piece suit. “Fine, fine,” he says in a chipper tone. “Thank you for the free nose job, though. You’ll save me a bit of money.”
I’ve smacked this guy with a bathroom door, and I’m laughing!
“You’re not hurt, are you?” Speaking of his nose, he keeps rubbing it, his shaggy – yet delightfully full and silky – hair bouncing with every movement. I cock my head to the side in case I can see blood coming from his nose. Leave it to me to debilitate a member of the wedding party or someone’s cousin.
“I’m fine.” A hearty sniff has the young man in front of me recomposing himself. “I don’t believe you and I have met before, young miss. And I know everyone here.”
I laugh again. Is it nerves, or is this guy genuinely funny? “I’m Alyssa. I came here with Julian.”
Surprise tickles his face. “That so? You and Julian? Well, how about that? Good to see he has excellent taste in women. Much better than that brother of his can say.”
Oh. Well, then.
“Excuse me, I really must be getting back to the party.”
“If you’re with Julian, then I’m sure you’re off to meet Mrs. Marcus. Good luck, hon.”
I don’t think much more of the man as I steal back into the ballroom and find Julian looking for me. Relief consumes him the moment he approaches and takes my hand. “I hear Jordan’s finally arrived. Let me introduce you to the couple before making you face my mother.”
I square my shoulders. “All right. Sorry for taking so long in the bathroom.” I check to make sure I still have my bag and the present inside it. Yup. Still here.
“Ted,” Julian calls to his brother, whose back is turned while looking out the window. “Let Alyssa meet Jordan before you two are caught up in the party.”
Ted’s face lights up, but it’s not because of me. It’s because of the person approaching form behind, whose hand grazes mine on his way by.
“Allow me to introduce you to my fiancé, Jordan,” Ted says with excitement in his guttural voice. I dive into my bag and pull out my gift. Julian groans beside me once he realizes what it is. “Jordan, this is Julian’s new honey. What do you think? Should we invite her for tea and crumpets while we’re in Portland?”
“Pleasure to finally meet…” I hold my gift out to Jordan.
The man I smacked with the bathroom door not five minutes ago.
Oh my fucking God, girl, be cool!
Jordan and Ted exchange married-people glances. “Thanks, Jules,” Ted says to his brother. “I see you yet again haven’t told one of your girlfriends that I’m gay.”