“You both suck,” Dick told them. “OK, look, Nola, I didn’t want to just throw this out at you when you first showed up. I wanted you to get to know me better so it wouldn’t come as a shock. But I guess I got a little over-enthusiastic, and instead of being friendly to you, I came across like a . . .”
“Creepy stalker?” Jane suggested cheerfully.
“Sex predator?” Andrea added. “Which made me an accessory to said predator.”
Dick pointed a finger in their direction. “That.” He cleared his throat and reached toward my hand. Thinking better of it, he awkwardly changed directions and wiped his hand on his jeans. “Gilbert Wainwright, he was my great-great-, well, a couple of times great-grandson,” Dick said. “Which would make me your great-great-, several more times great-grandpa.”
My jaw dropped. The room seemed to list like a ship’s deck under my feet. I studied his face closely. I could see the slope of my mother’s nose on his face, the irregular bow to his lips. “Holy shit!”
Behind me, Andrea slapped Jane’s shoulder and hissed, “I told you so!”
Jane yelped and said, “I thought she would find Dick being a relative a preferable alternative to him wanting to sleep with her. Damn it, Andrea, get a cold rag. I think Nola’s going to faint.”
“Nope. Panic attack,” I wheezed. “My whole life is one long series of barely averted panic attacks. I’m going to sit down.”
My knees buckled as I leaned onto the bar stools. My face seemed so cold all of a sudden, and my stomach roiled. Jane exclaimed something about wanting the news to be “a surprise, not a bad talk-show reunion!”
“Are you OK?” Dick asked as my head swam.
Dick was my ancestor? Mr. Wainwright may have been a little disheveled, but he seemed respectable. But Dick? Sometimes I had to fight the instinct to clutch my purse to my chest to keep him from snatching it.
I couldn’t keep taking shocks like this. I’d lived for years believing that my life was arranged in a specific, if slightly bizarre, way. And now these little bombs of revelation kept dropping on my head and changing the way I saw myself, my family, my whole damned life. Part of me wanted to throw that stupid bottle of synthetic blood at his head and tell him not to speak to me again.
And yet there was the curve of my cheek and the odd long line of my mother’s nose in this man’s face. And I felt the loss of my nana all over again. She would know exactly what to say in this situation, and here I was as stunned as a half-dead fish. Whatever momentum I’d built toward the stool shifted, and I knew I was on a collision course with the floor. A pair of cool, strong hands caught my elbows and held me upright. And the next thing I knew, my face was pressed against the worn, clean cotton of Dick’s T-shirt.
Andrea appeared at his side with a bottle of water and pressed the cool plastic into my hand. Dick apologized over and over as he helped my bum locate the seat.
“If it makes you feel any better, for weeks, Dick has been running himself ragged, fussing over stuff like ‘Is that chair safe enough for Nola to sit in?’ and whether he should baby-proof his house,” Jane mused. Dick glared at her. “What, it’s not my fault that you’re a wide-open channel when you receive emotionally charged news.”
I stared at Dick. “Baby-proofing?”
“I’ve never been able to spend much time around my kin while they were living,” he said, shrugging. “And you look so fragile.”
“And so fixing up the house I’m living in now . . .”
“Is a much-needed business investment,” he assured me. “Which just happens to ensure your safety and comfort. While we’re talking about the house, you can take your rent checks back. There’s no way I’m going to charge my own granddaughter to put a roof over her head.”
“I want to pay my own way . . . what do I call you now? It seems wrong to call you Dick.”
“Grampy?” Jane suggested with a wry grin. Andrea threw a coffee filter at her head.
“I don’t know,” Dick said, and if I wasn’t mistaken, the slightest bit of pink-tinged moisture was gathering at the corners of his eyes. “You could call me Grandpa if you want. Or Papa. Whatever makes you happy.”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with any of them.”
“It’s going to take some time for everyone to adjust,” Andrea said. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it all out. But if you call me Granny, I will smack you so hard your eyes will cross.”
“You actually sound quite a bit like my granny,” I mused, ducking when Andrea tossed another filter my way. “Though I think if anybody has to the right to smack anybody, it’s me. I can’t believe you two kept this from me! I thought—well, Jane knows what I thought. How could you?”
“It wasn’t our place,” Jane said. “Andrea wanted to let Dick find his own way to tell you, which was clearly a mistake. And I’m not related to you, and no good has ever come of me blabbing secrets that don’t belong to me.”
“Also, it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny,” Andrea said.
“Shut it, Granny,” I said as Andrea made rude and unladylike gestures. “And while I appreciate the fact that you’re fixing up the house, none of this is necessary.”
Andrea snorted and gave me a wink. “You haven’t even seen the Christmas presents.”
“If I go out back and find out you’ve bought me a pony, I don’t know what I’ll do, Dick.”
Ruffling my hair, Dick gave me an even better gift. He handed me a family tree he’d diagrammed on graph paper, including birth and death dates, marriages, and children. It showed that Gilbert Wainwright’s father, Gordon Wainwright, was the son of Albert Wainwright, son of Eugenia Wainwright, a laundry woman who had worked on the Cheney family farm when Dick was human. She had Albert in 1879 but died a short time later.
“When Eugenia had the baby, I was young and mortal . . . and stupid. I let my parents talk me out of claiming him, even when his mama died,” he told me, a sheepish, forlorn expression wrinkling his handsome face. Andrea rubbed his back and nudged him a little, encouraging him to continue. “Albert grew up, and I was able to watch him from a distance. He married, had a son. His son married, had a son. And I watched over them, all of them, watched them live their lives, enjoy their successes, make their mistakes. I never made contact with them,” he said. “Not until Gilbert.”
“How did you make contact?”
“When his father died and his mother was having troubles making ends meet, I came forward. I didn’t tell his mama who I was, exactly, just a distant cousin who was interested in making sure the family was well taken care of. I made sure Gilbert and his sister had new clothes, enough to eat, money for college and books, and whatever else they needed.”
“Why? What was so special about my grandfather?”
“He was the first in our family who looked like he might amount to something. He was such a good boy, and he was so interested in learning more about, hell, everything. He turned everything he did into an opportunity to understand more about the world. He was the first man in our family to start college, much less finish it.” Dick smiled proudly. “And then there’s you. Look at you. You went to college. You’re a nurse. You help people. You’re just like him. And you’re a girl. Our family hardly ever gets girls.”
“That explains the pink roses you planted outside my door.” I chuckled.
“I know you’re part of a pretty long line, over there in the old country. But the line you have here? It’s just as long. Maybe not as distinguished, but we’re colorful. Please believe me, if Gilbert had known about your mama, about you, you have no idea what it would have meant to him. He was fond of Jane, but knowing that you were out there would have made him so happy. Hell, I’m happy to know you. Now, sit down and tell me all about yourself.”
So we talked. The more he talked about his love for his descendants, the more I felt sick and guilty for assuming that Dick was a polyamorous lecher. It was sweet that he was trying so hard, even if some of his gestures made me extremely uncomfortable. And he seemed to be operating under the assumption that I was both a preadolescent and an innocent flower. He was not happy that his wife had arranged for me to go on an overnight trip with “a man composed entirely of testosterone and aftershave.” I felt that was unfair.
When I’d first moved overseas, my uncles had tried to make up for the loss of my father when I was growing up, making sure that I had someone to escort me on the school’s awards days, to teach me to drive and where to strike first if my date got fresh. But they had their own children to attend to. Even if Dick was . . . unconventional, he was doing his best to show me how glad he was that I existed. And really, that’s all any kid hopes for.
Stephen called. A lot. He begged me to reconsider ending things between us, which helped settled the debate about whether I’d broken up with him. I called him back once to tell him to stop calling, but all I got was his voice mail. Unfortunately, that seemed to encourage him to double his calls. I was considering buying a new phone, but that would mean reprogramming my entire address book. I had a lot of cousins.
In less conclusive dating news, my pizza date with Jed was postponed by several nights. Jed had to work overtime on a vampire’s home theater, and then I ended up getting caught in the middle of a stomach-flu epidemic at the clinic. I came home from the clinic the following Friday smelling strongly of Lysol but determined to spend some prearranged time with him.
I did bathe first.
For some reason, discussing various aspects of witchcraft with me had inspired Jane to stock more “Crafty” items, including incense and bath oils. I was experimenting with said oils tonight—neroli, a citrus extract that was supposed to, er, stimulate one’s partner, and sunflower for creative thinking. I’d never bothered before, but it couldn’t hurt and smelled downright delicious. I sank in the warm, frothy water up to my chin. Now that I knew that Dick was trying to do something nice for me as his descendant and not draw me into a creepy love web, I could enjoy the tub.
As much as I’d come to appreciate Dick’s improvements to the house, it had made the place feel different. When I came home from work, the house felt off. Shoes that I thought I’d left in front of the closet showed up by my dresser. The furniture I’d purchased from different thrift stores around town seemed to have moved a few inches. A carnelian necklace that belonged to Nana Fee disappeared from my bathroom drawer. The house even smelled different, a strange musky note over the soft green and floral scents I preferred.
I wondered whether it could be a ghost. Jane had mentioned that my grandfather remained on the earthly plane for more than a year after he died. And this house had belonged to several generations of Wainwrights before him. But Jane insisted that Mr. Wainwright had moved on. And Nana Fee wouldn’t waste her time moving my shoes and retrieving her costume jewelry.
The examples were so minor I felt silly bringing them up to anyone. But it was making me edgy. Between my house possibly being haunted by a furniture-moving ghost and my ex-boyfriend issues, if anyone needed a bubble bath at the moment, it was me.
I closed my eyes, tipped my head back, and let my arms float to the surface. I hadn’t made any progress in my search for the two items left, the athame and the bell. The bell represented water and was usually rung to mark the beginning and end of rituals. It made sense, on a certain level. The ripples of sound waves weren’t that different from the undulating surface of water. And although some Wiccan groups disagreed over whether air was best represented by a wand or an athame, McGavocks had always favored blades to direct energy.