The Pawn(10)

By: Skye Warren

The door to the back parlor is open. Landon Moore sits on the lumpy couch, his vest impeccable, one oxford-clad foot slung over his leg. He has a full head of silver hair, a beard and mustache, and striking blue eyes. He reminds me of those old English gentlemen, minus the accent.

Part of me hates that he’s encroached on the only thing I have left of my father. The practical part of me knows there aren’t any other sofas in the house. No furniture. There’s nothing left. Panic rises in my chest.

He’s here to help you, I remind myself.

“Uncle Landon,” I manage. “It’s so good to see you.”

He stands, his expression somber. “My dear girl. What a trying time this must be for you.”

For reasons I can’t explain, my lower lip trembles. His sympathy is harder to bear than the challenge in Gabriel Miller’s chiseled face. I can’t afford to feel sorry for myself. I can’t afford to break down, not when I don’t know if I’d be able to put myself back together again.

“I’m fine,” I assure him. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Oh but I do, especially with your father out of commission. How is his health?”

His pallid skin, his weakened movements. The excruciating pain I can see in his eyes between doses. “He’s improving every day. I’m just so grateful that he’s healing.”

“Good, good.” He gestures to the sofa—my mother’s sofa. “Come sit down with me. I must speak with you.”

The front parlor was carefully constructed to provide decorum, to allow space. I could have sat in the beautiful Scottish armchairs with a small oak table between us. I could have maintained the smile on my face.

But the back parlor is made for comfort. For intimacy. And when I sit down, the cushions tilt sideways, sliding me closer to his body. He doesn’t move away. Instead his hand lands on my knee with a squeeze. Every muscle freezes as I stare at the faint age spots on his skin, unable to comprehend what’s happening, unwilling to think about why he’s touching me like this.

“My dear, we need to discuss your future. We need to discuss the house.”

“The house—” My voice cracks, and I take a deep breath. This isn’t my house. It isn’t even my father’s. He built it for my mother. He gave it to her outright—a gift. And when she died it passed to me in trust. “You said we’d be able to keep the house.”

“Yes, it’s protected by the trust. But maintenance on an estate like this is, I’m sorry to say, a luxury you can no longer afford.” He glances out the window with an expression of disapproval. The bushes had once been perfectly rounded. Green puffs of cotton candy, I once thought. Now they’ve grown unruly, jagged branches covering the window.

The house isn’t luxury. It’s the only thing I have left. I can’t lose the house. It would break my father to find out how far we’ve fallen. It would break me.

“I had hoped to keep Daddy here. It’s important.”

Landon’s face turns faintly pitying. “Unfortunately the real estate taxes are due soon. We haven’t been paying into escrow for years, as the total would be easily covered by your family’s accounts. But with the recent restitution payments…”

My mouth turns metallic with fear. “How much are the taxes?”

He reaches down to his leather folio and pulls out a folded paper. I take it with trembling hands, shaking hard enough to blur the numbers. When they finally come into focus, my breath expels completely. “Oh God.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “It was laudable to try and keep your father here, but I’m afraid it’s quite impossible. I’ve already been in touch with a realtor and explained the need for a fast sale.”

He goes on about the details of selling the house, but all I can hear are my father’s faint words. You’re a good girl. For so many years he took care of me. It’s my turn to protect him.

“Wait,” I say.

Landon’s expression softens, the lines of his face relaxing. “I know how hard this must be for you. That’s why I wanted to speak to you about a proposition.”