Brenda Murphy © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Veronica followed her mom through the grocery, navigating the phalanx of Saturday afternoon shoppers. Her thoughts wandered as she trailed behind her mother as she maneuvered their overloaded cart around people staring at the overcrowded shelves, children straying from their parents, and the occasional mobility scooter.
“Ronnie, would you go back and pick up another can of tomato paste? I need two for my sauce. I’m so out of step since they rearranged the store. I don’t understand why…”
Not ready to listen to her mom go on about the changes in the store layout for what must be the hundredth time since she had been released, Veronica interrupted her. “Relax, Mom, I got it.”
She turned and jogged back two aisles and caught sight of a familiar face. Dee stood at the far end of the aisle, her arm draped around the shoulders of Veronica’s ex-friend, Paige. A toddler, her round face and dark brown eyes so much like Dee’s she could have been a clone, sat in the basket of the cart in front of them. Paige pressed a kiss to Dee’s cheek.
Say hello. Don’t act invisible. Get over yourself. So, she’s here with Paige and their baby. Should be me. Should have been us. She looked away and gathered herself. Say something. Be a grown-up. Congratulate them. She looks happy.
Veronica walked down the aisle toward the women, working hard to keep a smile plastered on her face. She lifted her hand in greeting. Dee glanced up and made brief eye contact before a frown crossed her face. She turned her head away from Veronica. Paige looked past Dee and shot Veronica a challenging glare before she pushed their shopping cart briskly away. Fuck. No mistaking the message. She’s moved on. Let it go. She stopped and shoved her hands in her pockets to keep from balling them into fists. She turned away, walked to the main aisle, and followed the overhead labels until she reached the canned vegetable aisle.
She stood in the center of the aisle and groaned inwardly as she studied the shelves. Why do they need twelve different kinds of paste? Damn it. Where the hell is the Bella tomato paste? Mom will flip if it’s not the right brand.
A short woman dressed in a bright red T-shirt and jeans stepped up on the bottom shelf of the section. She extended her arm, her fingers straining shy of the can of tomato sauce she was trying to reach.
Veronica stepped closer. “Hey, let me…” The shelf rocked and teetered. The sharp sound of metal scraping made the hairs on Veronica’s arm stand up as the shelf tilted toward the woman.
“Watch out!” Veronica grabbed the woman around the waist and tugged her out of the way as the entire section of heavy metal shelving crashed to the floor. Cans of vegetables slid off the shelves and filled the aisle. A dented can of stewed tomatoes rolled past her shoe as cans continued to randomly slide from the twisted metal shelves.
“Are you okay?” Veronica let go of the woman’s waist. Other shoppers crowded around them, drawn by the noise.
A store employee arrived. Red faced and wheezing, he pointed to the avalanche of cans. “Is anyone under there?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Veronica leaned away from the stale smell of cigarettes and sweat wafting from the employee.
The woman stared at Veronica, her eyes wide. “You…I would have been under there. I would have…” Her cheeks grew pink. “Thank you.” She ducked her head, pushed through the crowd, and fled.
More store employees showed up and blocked the aisle with warning signs and yellow tape. The crowd filtered away. Veronica stepped back from the chaos.
The dull edge of the can she was still holding dug into her palm. What if my mom hadn’t needed another can of tomato paste? What if Dee had wanted to chat? What if I hadn’t noticed the shelf shift? We both would’ve been under there. A minute. A second. So much can change in a moment. Butterfly effect. Chaos Theory on display.
“Ronnie?” Her mother’s hand squeezed her arm. She turned and stared down the aisle, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “Good Lord, look at that. You’d have been crushed.”
Veronica held up the can in her hand and grinned at her mom. “Got the tomato paste.”
Her mother quirked her mouth, “All right, joker, let’s get the rest of the groceries before anything else falls down.”
The office was cool after the heat of late April in Richmond. The traffic on Broad Street was muffled by floor to ceiling navy-blue curtains. The desk was barren except for a black leather blotter and a single hunter-green file folder precisely centered in the middle of the desktop.
“I appreciate this opportunity, Miss Pomroy.” Veronica studied the woman sitting behind the large dark mahogany desk.
She had broad shoulders set off by a sharply tailored suit, and long black hair framed her face. Her dark eyes were arresting. The small scar splitting her lip added to the air of menace surrounding her. Veronica shifted forward in her seat and squared her shoulders.
Ms. Pomroy’s eyes fixed on Veronica’s face, her gaze somewhere between predatory and appraising.
“Call me Jaya, and my partner wouldn’t have referred you if she didn’t think you would be a good fit.”
“Doctor Kerr’s letters were my lifeline the past six years, ma’am.” Veronica swallowed on a dry throat. “I don’t think I’d have survived without them.”
“Sarah believes in you.” Jaya cocked her head, and her expression gentled. “Are you sure you don’t want an opportunity to finish your dissertation?”
“No. It’s been so long, I’d have to design a new project. I’m finished with that part of my life.”
“My offer stands to investigate the matter for you.”
Veronica chewed her lip. “I can’t afford your fees. I’m in debt to my parents as it is.” She tucked her hands under her thighs to keep from balling them into fists. “Even if I found out who set me up, what good would it do? That’s behind me now.”
“I’m sure we could work out some financial arrangement for my fees, if you change your mind.” Jaya leaned forward in her seat. “I understand about revenge. And the need to move on.”
Veronica sighed. “I’m grateful for your offer. And for everything Doctor Kerr did for me trying to get my fellowship reinstated, but I need this job. I can’t go back to the university.” Not when everyone thinks I’m a criminal. Or looks at me with pity. Or wants to talk to me like I’ve been on vacation instead of in prison. Fuck. “I want to pay my parents back. They paid my lawyer’s fees. Not that it did any good.”
“I understand.” Jaya tapped the dark green folder centered on the blotter. “Your supervisor from the prison equestrian program was more than complimentary of your skills. And other than the time you spent incarcerated your record is spotless. Not even a speeding ticket.” She sat back in her chair and rested her hands on the desk, spreading her fingers wide. Her gaze pinned Veronica in place. “You know what Rowan House is? You’re clear?”
Veronica smiled. “Yes. And I’m clear I am not expected to, um”—she flushed—“participate? I mean, unless I want to?”
Jaya raised an eyebrow. “You are expected to run the stable, and care for the horses. Anything else that transpires will be between you and your employers. My role is to evaluate your credentials, perform your background check, and pre-employment screening. Have you read the contract?”
Veronica took a deep breath. “Yes. I’m ready to sign.” As ready as I’ll ever be. Don’t chicken out now. After six years in prison how bad could it be?
Jaya opened the folder and extracted a document. She pushed the file across the desk toward Veronica. “The contract is for one year, renewable if all parties agree. All of your travel, work permits, and relocation expenses are covered, as well as medical expenses.” She held Veronica’s gaze. “The non-disclosure agreement is for the entirety of your lifetime. And it is strictly enforced.”
The nuanced threat in her voice sent shivers down Veronica’s back. “I understand.”
Jaya pulled a thick-barreled fountain pen from the inside pocket of her suit coat and placed it on the desk next to the contract. “Please sign both copies. I’ll sign it as an agent of Rowan House. Mistresses Martha, Elaine, and Lucia will sign as well and you will receive a signed copy upon your arrival at the house.”
Veronica shifted in her seat. She picked up the black fountain pen. It was heavy and a gleaming sculpted golden dragon decorated the side of it. She uncapped it and paused, weighing her decision. “What if I’m not a good fit? What if I want to break the contract?”
“That will be between you and the owners. I’m simply their agent here. Rowan House is a cooperative agency. You’ll have a vote on issues that may arise, and will be able to bring up any concerns you have with the owners. If you complete a year and decide to renew your contract you’ll be eligible for profit sharing.” Jaya’s gaze softened and Veronica found it more disturbing than her hard glare, the expression in her eyes so at odds with her fierce appearance. “You don’t have to sign it. If you have any doubts, don’t sign it. I’m sure Sarah can help you with returning to the graduate program here, or at another university.”
Sign the thing. Nothing here for me. Start over. So what if it’s a pleasure house? I’m not expected to do anything other than manage the barn. No one here will hire me. I can’t face those idiots at school. Or deal with seeing Dee again. Veronica squared her shoulders. “I’m sure.” She signed the document, her hand steady even as her body trembled.
Jaya smiled at her and pulled the contract over and signed it. She tilted her head toward Veronica. “Well done.” She held out her hand and Veronica shook it. “I’ll forward your signed contract to the owners. As soon as the travel arrangements are in place Millie Reid will message you with the details.”
Millie. What an old-fashioned name. She must be a hundred. “Is there anything else I need to do?”
Jaya reached into her desk and pulled out several forms with Veronica’s name typed across the top. “Go to this address. They will complete a physical exam and draw blood for screening.”
Papers already prepared. She was sure I’d sign. How? I wasn’t even sure. Veronica frowned. “I’m not planning on having sex with anyone.”
Jaya’s eyes were flinty; she raked her gaze over Veronica’s body before returning to her eyes. “Everyone who works at Rowan House is screened, every guest as well. Even if you don’t plan on anything”—she raised an eyebrow—“things have a way of happening at Rowan House.”
Her tone let Veronica know the medical exam and blood tests were nonnegotiable and she wiped her sweaty palms on her pants before she took the forms from Jaya. “I understand.”
Like I’m going to find anyone there. Nope. Not even going to think about it. Not with any of the whores that’s for sure.
Jaya picked up her phone. “Go now. I’ll tell them to expect you. The address is about fifteen minutes from our building. Make sure your passport is in order, and take care of anything you need to take care of here. You’ll leave as soon as your test results are complete. It’s usually about ten days from the time of the exam.”
Veronica clutched the papers in her hand. It’s really happening. This is it. This is what I wanted. Better than staying here and living with my folks. She forced a smile and left.
“Are you sure, honey?” Her mom rubbed her thumb over the back of Veronica’s hand. “I don’t give a damn what your aunt says about you, or us.”
“I know.” Veronica squeezed her mom’s hand. “I know you don’t. I want this. It’s exhausting dealing with everyone’s questions and pity. It’s been two years. I’m thirty-two years old and living in your basement. They won’t even let me volunteer at the therapeutic riding center. I’ll be able to pay you back.”
“We don’t care about the money.” Her mother’s piercing dark eyes pinned her in place. “It’s as far from her as you can get, isn’t it?”
“I need to move on, Mom. It was over with Dee the moment they led me out of the courtroom.” Veronica squeezed her mom’s hand.
Her mother sucked her teeth. “She walked right past me in the grocery store. Acted like I was invisible. So rude.” She sighed and rested her chin on her chest. “I trust you to do what you need to do for you.”
Veronica pulled her into a hug. “It’s a year, Mom.” Her mother was silent, and her unspoken sadness pierced Veronica’s soul. “I’m not doing this to hurt you.”
Her mother broke their embrace and leaned back on the couch. “Your father is going to lose it.”
Veronica sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “I know. Would you tell him?”
Her mother picked up her hand and squeezed it. “He’ll take the news better from you.”
Veronica slouched on the couch next to her mom. “You said that when I came out.”
Her mother quirked her mouth. “I love you, honey, but not that much. You’re on your own with your father.”
Veronica closed her eyes. She’s right. Damn it. She usually is. He’s going to cry. Fuck, I hate when he cries. It’ll be like every visitor’s day. She glanced at the clock. He’ll be home soon. Better get it together to tell him.
She walked outside into the cool late spring evening. The scent of hot asphalt and fresh cut grass hung in the air. She dug the toe of her boot in the loose rocks edging the driveway before she bent down and picked a small smooth stone. She rubbed her finger over the surface. Solid. Like my folks. Like my sister. Will I ever be solid?
The hum of tires on pavement made her glance up. Her dad pulled his Mini Cooper into the drive. He met her gaze through the windshield and smiled at her. She shoved the stone into her pocket as she watched him unfold his long thin frame from the car. She’d inherited his height and lank build, dark brown skin, and square jaw. It was like looking in a mirror when she looked at him and yet not.
Veronica shook her hands out and squared her shoulders. “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, baby mine, what’s up? It’s been a long time since you’ve hung out in the driveway waiting for me to get home from work.” He gripped her shoulders and pulled her close to him in a hug. “Didn’t break Mrs. Thompson’s window again, did you?” His voice was light as he teased her. She’d spent more than one Saturday doing odd jobs to make the money to pay for her neighbor’s window she had thrown a football through at least twice growing up.
“Not this time.” Veronica kept her voice even, but her father pulled her closer, and she knew he sensed her hesitancy.
“Well, whatever it is, let’s go have a glass of tea first. Everything’s better after a glass of tea.”
Veronica leaned into him as they walked through the garage into the kitchen. He’s gonna need more than tea for this.