Being an adult sucked while watching time tick down when there was a temptation to be had. I praised myself for having resisted for four hours, only for the nervous excitement and imagining what I’d look like in what I’d bought, to become too much. I remembered to save my work and shut down my computer, then made a quick attempt at tidying up the small office desk I’d set up on the third floor.
For a moment, I let myself glance out the window at the house next door. Seeing only Austin sitting at his office desk, typing away at his computer, I sighed with disappointment. The other large desk on the other side of the room, where Warner sat, was empty. The building was so close that it made it easy to look into the room without being obvious, or so I hoped.
Both men were as commanding as my father, and it transpired they had both worked with him. Not that any of them went into detail about that. They’d bought the large, four-story house next to ours while I was in college. Ours was a home; they had bought purely theirs for the business purposes. That being said, I got the sense Warner spent nights in the place, with the lateness of his comings and goings. Not that I spied on them, I didn’t… I was just inquisitive and being a good neighbor.
The two men were an enigma, one I didn’t think I’d ever figure out. That’s not to say I hadn’t tried where Warner was concerned. The guy looked at me with those cerulean blue eyes and appeared to see right into me. The feeling had never changed in all the time I’d known him.
A shiver ran down my spine and I turned away from the window and from the ‘what if’s’ that came with who I was, deep inside. Before I gave in and lingered on the off chance I might get to see Warner, I left my office. Checking the hallway was second nature.
I lived alone, sort of. Father spent a lot of time away, so staffed the house during the day. The night was the only time I was completely alone, if I didn’t count that Sylvia and her husband lived in the converted garage out back. The temptation to try on my new things wouldn’t be denied, or let me wait for the evening when everyone left me alone.
Seeing no one about, I darted for the stairs, all the time listening out to guess where everyone was. The noises indicated the maid was vacuuming down on the second floor, which meant Sylvia, who ran the house, would be in the kitchen with the chef, overseeing the evening meal preparation. The chef was her husband, and they liked to spend some of the afternoon talking in the kitchen.
The staff had been with my family for years, so their habits had gotten easy to predict. Avoiding the creaking steps, I took the stairs to the attic room two at a time. I had adopted the attic space as mine as a child. Father hardly used for anything, including storage, as my father had no time for keepsakes. The attic was huge and spanned the house, so I’d split the room into two, making sure anything that migrated its way up there didn’t encroach on my space.
The plush, slate gray rug was a demarcation line to where my space began. I shut the door behind me soundlessly, the grease I’d used to oil the hinges doing its job. I released a breath and leaned back against the wood, heart thumping against my ribs as I eyed my ‘little space’.
I’d worked hard to make it not appear that way. The old table I used had come from the dining room. Scratched in places, I’d covered it with a huge tablecloth that I’d found in a cupboard not used in decades. The house had been in the family since built at the turn of the nineteenth century. Much of the furniture remained from that time, old, dark, and heavy, that made rooms gloomy. Which was why I preferred to spend my time up here, in the sunroom or in my bedroom, where I’d made the space to suit me.
Angling my head to look at the table, I checked as I always did to ensure no one could see what it hid under the cloth that draped over the rug. It was sitting under the eaves, so it didn’t draw the eye. It was perfect. I’d taken two steps into the room when my gaze went to the window. Eyes widening, a shuddery breath left my lungs. The present fairy has been!
I gulped and on shaky legs walked to the windowsill, all thoughts of why I’d come up forgotten. I blinked slowly to make sure I wasn’t seeing things and a slow smile lit my face at the small, gaily wrapped parcel sat on the ledge of the open window.
How had they done it? Had I left the window open again?
The surprise little gifts started appearing about six months after my return from college. I’d been having a crappy couple of days and, with Father having left once more, I was… lonely. I’d come home after Father had asked — more demanded — I come home to prepare for taking on the business responsibilities that generations of Cunningham’s had built.
Before I realized I was reaching for the parcel, my gaze scanned the room, much like it had the dozen times I’d found a gift. Was someone watching me? Who was it? I’d lost count of how many times I’d asked myself these questions over the last year and a half. And still I hadn’t come up with an answer, or one that made any sense.
Hairs rose on my arms as I picked up the prettily wrapped box, the breeze touching my uncovered arms. I peeked out, feeling daft as I was four stories up and the closest thing to the house was Austin and Warner’s building next door. The nervous knots were back as I tried not to think about the possibilities either man knew about me… about what I did in this room. I’d spent years being careful.
Yet…? I shook off the thought, or I tried to. I couldn’t see either man attempting to climb out of their building and traverse the gap to place presents on my window ledge. It was silly. It had to be one of the house staff who felt sorry for me.
Fingers trembling, I ripped the paper off the box with childish glee. The paper crinkled loudly in the room’s quiet and fell to the floor in my hurry to see what was inside. The first gift had been a dragon squishie, which was tucked away at the back of my closet. It was the cutest thing, bright purple with a green underbelly and two deep blue eyes with a silly grin on its face. When I was feeling stressed, it was small enough to carry in a baggy pair of shorts or sweats. I would reach in and touch it and it had a way of making me feel better with its softness and malleability.
Doing my best to stop my choppy, excited breaths, I slowly opened the lid and cooed at the fifth little squishie to add to my collection. The color of the rainbow, it was little and round, with a tuft of fur on its head that turned out to be super tactile. My grin widened as I rubbed my thumb over the head repeatedly.
“Aren’t you a cutie,” I cooed.
As I stared at the new squishie, I didn’t focus on how I’d come to get it, but let the wonder of it ease through me. Any tension I’d been holding bled away and my gaze traveled to where I’d stashed my new clothes.
“You want to play with me?” I rubbed my nose against the top of the squishy. “What am I gonna call you?” I tilted my head and eyed my hand, my brows knotting together.
“Oh, I know, you can be Softie, ‘cause you’s super soft.” Pleased with myself, I popped Softie in my velvet chair. “You sit there while I get changed. I got some new clothes. I hope they feel as soft as you.”
Stripping quickly, I dropped all the clothes to the floor in my eagerness to get my new all-in-one suit. It had poppers and everything. I ripped into the parcel the way I’d done with the gift; the wrapping ended up on the floor with everything else. I grinned at the tiny rainbow-colored bears over the cream suit. I didn’t really need the poppers because I didn’t have a Daddy. A wave of sadness came. I rubbed my face in the material, giggling at the soft cotton and how it would feel against my body.
Dressed, I sat on the floor after pulling out my playmat and finding my pacifier. Chewing on it, I lined up my squishies, then clapped my hands at how pretty they all looked together.
“What… what are you doing?”
Panic engulfed me at the screechy voice. My thoughts all tumbled together as I twisted and found my secret world was front and center for Linda, the maid, to witness. The air couldn’t find its way out of my lungs as my mouth opened and shut around the pacifier, highlighting my exact predicament. I tried to think of a rational reason for what she could see, but all I could imagine was Father’s reaction to this. To what I loved.
The stuttered reason I’d given had not stopped Linda gossiping to Sylvia and now Jerry, Father’s lawyer, was here, looking like he had a rotten fish stuck under his nose. Not that his expression was ever friendly to me. The man had made his thoughts on me very clear with his dismissing tone. I’d overheard him several times telling Father I wasn’t fit to take control of the Cunningham business interests when I hit twenty-five. Which was this year, at Christmas.
It wasn’t what I wanted, either. I enjoyed doing graphic designs for websites. It paid well and used the artistic flair I’d discovered as a child. Only, Father wasn’t a person anyone argued with.
Jerry sat on the couch, crossed his legs, and eyed me through the designer spectacles that made him look like an owl. The brown tweed suit he favored washed out his pale complexion. The narrow nose meant he spent half his time pushing up his glasses. His salt and pepper hair was sparse on top of his head, and had been for as far back as I could remember. He had a few wispy bits he grew out and then swiped over his head like they’d hide the bald patch. All it did was make it more obvious. No one rocked a comb over.
I waited him out. I was never confident around him and he played on it when Father wasn’t here. He appeared to think he was ‘the boss of me’. He tapped at his knee, the one he’d folded over his other leg. “So it’s been brought to my attention that… you were acting out a strange role play on your own. What perversions is this? What will people think when they know you act in this obscene way? It’s perverted. You are a pervert!”
The biting tone cut at me with lethal accuracy. My lips pinched together as I struggled to hold in the cry of anguish at the harsh cruelty for something he didn’t understand. Something there was no way I was going to explain to this smallminded person.
A glint appeared in his eyes that could have been satisfaction. “As your father’s legal representative, I feel honor bound to protect his interests from this type of behavior and harmful gossip. Therefore, I’ve taken measures, as is my right under the terms of your father’s written guidance to me in protecting the businesses. I have given the staff severance pay and will leave today. The girl, Linda, has signed an agreement never to mention this… incident to anyone or she’ll find herself sued—”
“What? You can’t sack the staff. They’ve been with our family for years. They’ve done nothing wrong.”
He ignored my outburst and continued on as if I’d said nothing. “A woman of my choosing will replace them.” He got up off the seat, his top lip curling into an ugly sneer. “One you will act in a manner befitting a Cunningham in front of, even when not in her company. Is that understood?”
It was clearly a rhetorical question, as he was already heading to the door. When he reached it, he glanced back over his shoulder, the glint remaining. “You will refrain from all perversions or I will tell your father.”
The threat hung in the air as he walked out of the room without another backward glance, appearing satisfied I’d listen.
The first tear rolled down my cheek, and I swiped at it.
Did he have that level of control?