I was seventeen when we moved to Black Mountain, a neighborhood brimming with affluence in such a coveted zip code that the idea of knowing someone without massive wealth was like knowing a Martian.
In this case, me.
I took in my clothes, all purchased on a frugal budget at Target, and then my eyes drifted to the massive stone and brick mansion with the large, rounded wooden door, adorned with a large lion knocker.
This mansion was the size of our entire block back home.
With slow movements, I edged open the door of the car and stood. I stretched my legs, eyes taking in the property and looking for any nearby neighbors. But the main house, two small guesthouses, and acres upon acres of forest dominated my view. The land around us was absolutely breathtaking, a country hamlet in the midst of the city chaos, but the house was the most surprising of all–Gothic spires and cold, hard angles, in complete contrast with the lush green of the trees.
“Debbbbbie! Oh my gosh, you’re finally here! How long has it been? Almost twenty years?” A tall, elegant blonde approached my mother, embracing her warmly.
“Nineteen to be exact. It’s so good to see you, Monica. I’ve missed you,” my mother said, smiling. “This is my daughter, Madison. Maddy, come here and say hello to Mrs. Sinclair.”
I walked around the front of the car, offering my hand to the woman. Her hands were long and elegant; I couldn’t help but wonder if she played the piano.
“Oh, come here,” Monica said after shaking my hand, pulling me to her for a hug. I liked her instinctively; she was warm, and her eyes looked kind.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Sinclair. You have a beautiful home,” I said, both my hands in hers.
“Oh, hon–you’re Debbie’s baby girl, please call me Monica. No need for all that Mrs. Sinclair business.” She smiled at me, and I noticed how her eyes seemed to light up when she did.
She looked genuinely happy to see my mother and me; her kindness made me feel a little better about being there.
“You two must be starving, I have lunch waiting.”
My mother put her arm around me, and as we walked into the house, I looked up to the intricate detail of the widow’s peak, shocked to see a figure in the window peering at us.
A man dressed in what looked like all black clothing.
As soon as my eyes connected with his, he dropped the drapes and disappeared from sight.
Monica ushered us in through the front door, and I was overtaken by the magnitude of the house. It felt like I was just plucked out of an ordinary life and plopped into the house of a celebrity. Luxury dripped from every corner of the opulent home. The floors of the grand entrance were a cream marble, leading all the way to and around a large mahogany staircase in the middle of the space. Solid gold mirrors and trim highlighted the crimson and wood-hued details.
Art covered nearly every wall, and sparkling drops of crystal hung from the grand chandelier.
“Wow, Monica. Your home is breathtaking,” my mother said, her voice laced with awe. I couldn’t help but feel the sting of pain and shame. For as long as I could remember, my mother had worked her fingers to the bone–until she was tired and deflated, with little time or energy left over for chaperoning school dances or volunteering for field trips.
When my father died, life wasn’t easy. Bills piled up, debt suffocated us, and my mother, being the woman she was, refused to let life ruin her. After a few weeks, she was in the workforce, making the most of it for us.
I never felt slighted or that we wanted for anything, and it was because she wouldn’t allow that to happen. I was her everything, and there wasn’t a day that she didn’t show it.
She even moved us here–to Black Mountain–one of the wealthiest areas in the country, and took a job working for her private-school best friend, so we could afford the tuition for my own private education. She wanted me to have the choice of the best universities, and she knew that would come with a price. My grades qualified me for a small grant to attend the prestigious Black Mountain Academy, but it nowhere near covered the full cost of my schooling. Luckily, I only had one year before I graduated and then I would be off to college, Black Mountain fading in my rear-view mirror.
I knew deep down Mom hadn’t wanted to come back here. She never talked about her time going to college with Monica, it was almost as if her life started after she left here–after she moved to the small town I was born in. She never talked about her past; it was as if life never existed before me.
“This old house is a mausoleum. I absolutely hate it, but it’s been in Edward’s family for generations.” Monica interrupted my train of thought. “If it were up to me, we’d be living somewhere else. This place is completely void of warmth. Every few years I mention listing it, just to see if we’d catch any bites, but he won’t hear of it,” Monica said, her perfectly manicured hand gliding across an art sculpture on a white marble table. “The kitchen’s this way; the chef has put out a gorgeous spread. I wasn’t sure what you might like to eat, Madison, so it may look like a lot,” she said with a laugh, putting her arm around my mother.
Their heads pressed together like a couple of girls plotting their next adventure. I was surprised how drawn I felt to Monica, but what the house lacked in warmth she made up for tenfold.
I especially loved how relaxed my mother was with her. I’d never seen that young and carefree smile on her face before.
I followed quietly behind the two of them, down the long hall, admiring the various rooms as I went by: a living room, an old-fashioned parlor, and a powder room that was probably larger than our entire old apartment.
When we got to the dining room, a vast spread awaited us. A table covered in sandwiches, delectable fruits, and pastries that looked like they’d fallen out of some Parisian bakery drew me in.
“Please, eat,” Monica said, handing each of us a tiny decorative plate, embossed with the initials of the house. Precious china with gold lacing the edges.
I couldn’t help wondering exactly how rich you had to be to afford gold-embossed plates.
“Thank you so much–this looks amazing,” my mom said, taking a bite of a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich. I picked up a square and nibbled, the taste of decadent cream and puff pastry invading my mouth and creating a delicious symphony.
“This is absolutely divine,” I said in a moan, immediately embarrassed at my sheer pleasure.
“It’s good, isn’t it? We fly those in from this amazing French pastry shop in New York City. They’re vegan.” Monica smiled.
“Wait, this doesn’t have any butter in it?” I asked.
“No butter. They’re Kyler’s favorite. He is anti-any-animal. Just one of his many idiosyncrasies.” She waved her hand in the air.
“How is Kyler doing?” Mom asked, shades of sympathy lacing her warm, dark eyes.
“Kyler is Kyler. He at least does well in his studies,” Monica said, her own eyes shadowed with longing, elegant features now etched with sorrow. “If you see him around the house, just give him a wide berth. I don’t know what to do with that boy. For the last seven years, all he’s been doing is getting into trouble. We’ve tried everything. I think he just likes to torture his father and me. He used to be such a good, sweet boy. I remember when he would curl up beside me in the library and read one of his picture books while I read one of my mystery novels. At least his love of reading hasn’t changed.” Monica took a sip of her coffee. My mother rushed over to her and placed her arms around her shoulders, like she was trying to help unload some of the burden her friend carried.
“Monica, is it okay if Madison visits the library? I think she would really enjoy it up there.” My mother sent me a look. Monica may not have noticed my mother’s motivations, but I knew my mom well enough to know she wanted me out of the room in order to talk to her best friend. Mom didn’t want me to hear that particular conversation. I wondered how close they were back then, and what my mom might say to her now, after so many years apart.
“Oh, yes! Of course, Madison. It’s up the stairs on the left; you can’t miss it. Please feel free to treat it as your own; any book you want–take and read.”
I nodded gratefully, getting up from the table and leaving all those pastries behind me. I paused at the massive staircase and then began climbing it slowly, gliding my hands along the smooth carvings on the wood railing. This house felt more like a museum than a home. I wasn’t sure how anyone could actually live here. At least, that’s what I was thinking until I saw the large room stashed wall to wall with books.
The library was a paradise, it smelled of leather and rich, oiled wood. All the walls, covered with bookshelves, thousands of leather bound works, and just whispering the pads of my fingers along the spines made my heart flutter. A desk sat in the corner, and comfortable seating consisting of large chocolate-brown leather chairs, decorated the space. It looked like it belonged in a showroom more than someone’s personal residence. I crossed the formal space, touching each book I passed as if saying hello, until my hand found an old copy of Pride and Prejudice, my all-time favorite. I flipped through the pages and picked a random one. I began to read, and then all of a sudden a deep voice read the words before me.
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters,” the voice deepened at my ear, “and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”
I jumped, turning around to face the voice that’d interrupted me. There stood the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. He leaned against one of the bookcases, dressed in black jeans and a t-shirt, his jet-black hair falling in his face, piercing blue eyes mesmerizing. My gaze settled on his full lips, adorned with a silver loop on the right side.
My eyes trailed down his lean yet muscular body, and I couldn’t help but notice his thick arms and neck, covered in tattoos. He didn’t look like he belonged in a house like this, or in a town like this one. He looked like someone who didn’t want anyone to notice them, but I noticed.
I noticed so much that I couldn’t yank my eyes away.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked, his voice deep and demanding. I was stunned.
I stood frozen, not sure what to do.
The way he looked at me was like he was trying to set me on fire. His eyes looked to be filled with hatred and I wasn’t sure why. Those hard eyes traveled down my body and made me feel exposed and vulnerable. His index finger came out and he trailed the top edge of the leather bound book in my hands, his fingers slender just like Monica’s.
I noticed the letters tattooed boldly.