The corner of my mouth quirks. “Your dog’s name is It?”
“Yeah.” She smiles. And it’s fucking stunning. “Cousin It. Like The Addams Family?”
It gets more riled, looking like a mop gone insane.
I meet her eyes. “About your son—”
“Nephew, actually. I’m Rory’s aunt.”
My ears perk up. Because by the look of her naked hand, there’s a good chance she’s Rory’s single aunt. Best news I’ve heard all damn day.
A baby’s wail comes from another room, piercing and demanding. Chelsea turns her head. “Could you come with me? I have to . . .”
She’s already walking and I’m right behind her. We pass by the arched entryways of a library and a conservatory with a grand piano, then go into a spacious den with a huge fireplace and cathedral ceiling. The furnishings are tasteful and clean but in earth tones, warm. Dozens of framed photographs of children cover every wall.
Chelsea pushes through a door into the kitchen, where the crying gets louder. The kitchen is about the size of my whole apartment. It has hardwood floors, mahogany cabinets, and a granite-countered center island with a second sink, and it’s chock-full of stainless-steel appliances. A round kitchen table for eight fits in an alcove backed by French doors that open out to a stone patio and garden, with a cobblestone path that leads to an inground pool farther back.
An infant seat sits inside a mesh portable crib beside the island with a vocal, unhappy passenger.
“Here ya go, sweetie,” Chelsea coos, bending over to pick up the pacifier that’s fallen to the baby’s stomach and plugging it back into his mouth.
At least I think it’s a him— it’s wearing dark blue pants and a shirt with boats on it, so, yeah, it’s male.
She caresses his blond, peach-fuzzy head and the crying is replaced with satisfied sucking. An immense silver pot bubbles on the stove and the air smells of heat and broth.
I turn to my right, where a toddler— this one definitely a girl, with golden wispy hair and a stained pink T-shirt— sits on the floor, surrounded by books and blocks.
“Hi,” I answer, straight-faced.
She gets louder. “Hi!”
I nod back. “Hey.”
Her face scrunches, her voice drops lower, and she leans forward like she’s about to tell me something serious. But all that comes out is, “Hiiii.”
“Is there something wrong with her?” I ask.
“No,” Chelsea answers, sounding slightly affronted. “There’s nothing wrong with Regan. She’s two.”
And Regan is back to smiling at me. “Hi.”
“Doesn’t she know any other words?”
“No. She’s only two.”
“Hi, hi, hi, hi!”
I give up and walk away.
“So, how can I reach Rory’s parents? It’s important that I talk to them.”
Her face goes tight. Pained. “You can’t. They . . . my brother and his wife were in a car accident almost two months ago. They passed away.”
And all the pieces fall into place. The comments Rory made, his unsubtle anger at the entire world. But it’s the name that stands out most— the name and the accident. I point at her gently. “Robert McQuaid was your brother? The environmental lobbyist?”
She smiles, small and sad, and nods her head. “Did you know Robbie? DC’s such a busy city, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s like a small town too. Everybody knows everybody.” When it comes to political circles, and legal ones, it’s exactly like that.
“No, I didn’t know him. But . . . I heard good things. That he was honest, sincere. That’s a rare thing around here.”
And suddenly she seems younger somehow. Smaller and more . . . delicate. Is she on her own in this huge house with the kids? Just her, Rory, One Word, and Baby Boy?
Chelsea looks up from her hands. “I’m Rory’s guardian, so whatever you were going to say to my brother and his wife, you can say to me.”
I nod, refocusing. “Right. I drove Rory home because—”
But I don’t get the chance to finish the sentence. Because the rumble of feet, like a stampede of rhinos, booms over our heads, cutting me off. Chelsea and I eye the ceiling— like it’s about to fall down on us— as the sound travels, getting closer. And there’s screaming. The atom-splitting, banshees-from-hell kind of screaming.
“I’m gonna kill you!”
“I didn’t do it!”
“Get back here!”
“It wasn’t me!”
Even the two-year-old looks concerned.
The racket reverberates down the second staircase and spills out into the kitchen, and the two screeching, running kids who are making it do laps around the island like a fucked-up Hunger Games version of ring-around-the-rosy.
“I told you to stay out of my room!” one of them, a tall girl, yells. She’s a curly-brown-haired predator, ready to pounce.
“I didn’t do it!” the shorter one squeals, arms outstretched, searching for cover.
Jesus Christ, what kind of madhouse is this?
Chelsea steps between them, grabbing them both by their arms and keeping them separated. “That’s enough!”
And now they’re yelling at her, pleading their cases at the same time, each trying to be louder than the other. I can’t make out what they’re saying; it just sounds like: hiss, blah, she, hiss, squeak. But the aunt appears to speak the native tongue.
“I said enough!”
She holds up her hands, bringing instant blessed silence. It’s impressive. There are sitting federal judges who can’t rally that much respect in their own courtrooms.
“One at a time.” She turns to the taller girl. “Riley, you first.”
Riley’s finger slashes the air like a saber. “She went in my room when I’ve told her a thousand times not to! And she went through my makeup and ruined my favorite lipstick!” Chelsea’s head turns to the smaller one, who, now that she’s not a screaming lunatic, reminds me of a blond Shirley Temple.
One Word and I watch eagerly, waiting for the rebuttal . . . but all she comes out with is: “I didn’t do it.”
Which, in my professional opinion, wouldn’t be a bad defense . . . if her mouth and chin weren’t completely covered with thick, blazing pink, like she’s Ronald McDonald’s illegitimate daughter.
“You are such a—” Riley starts to yell.
But Chelsea’s raised hand stops her cold. “Tut, tut— shush.”
She scoops the little one— Rosaleen— up under her arms and perches her on the counter. “And I’d almost believe you,” Chelsea tells her, plucking two baby wipes from a tub next to the sink, wiping the girl’s chin, and showing her the pink-stained cloth, “except for the evidence all over your face.”
Great minds think alike.
The little girl stares at the cloth with quarter-sized blue eyes. Then, like any defendant who knows she’s nailed, she does the only thing she can— throws herself on the mercy of the court.
“I’m sorry, Riley.”
Riley is unmoved. “That won’t give me my lipstick back, you little brat!”
“I couldn’t help myself!” she pleads.
And I unconsciously nod. That’s it, kid— go with insanity. It’s all you’ve got left.
“The lipstick was in there, calling to me . . .”
Voices. Voices are good. Always an easy sell.
Her hands delve into her blond curls, ruffling and tugging at them, until they’re wild and crazed. “It made me nuts! It’s so pink and pretty, I had to touch it!”
Chelsea closes her eyes and breathes deep, making those fabulous tits press against her blouse even more. I enjoy the show, praying for a button to pop or for the sink to spontaneously spurt water all over that white shirt.
A guy can dream.
“Riley, what are your chores this week?”
“I have to set the table for dinner.”
Her voice is kind but firm. “Okay. Rosaleen, you’ll do your sister’s chores for the rest of the week. And when you get your allowance on Sunday, you’ll use it to replace the lipstick you ruined. Understood?”