Amber draped the sheet across the canvas, then took a couple of minutes to adjust it so it was hanging just right. It was a silly ritual that she always performed when she stopped painting for the day, a way to turn off that part of her brain so that she could think of other things. She had a meeting at the community center and couldn’t be late, she’d been late far too many times before, so distracted by her painting that she didn’t hear the alarm she’d set on her phone.
That happened to her a lot, once she started painting everything else around her seemed to fade. It was one of the things that annoyed her mother the most, but no matter how hard she tried, at times she just couldn’t pull herself from her work, couldn’t stop, even for things that were important. Today was certainly one of those important days, and the two alarms that she’d set had worked, pulled her out of her creative fog with plenty of time for her to get ready.
She was just going to head back to her little bedroom at the back of the cottage when she heard a car pull into her drive, it stopped and she heard the door slam, then steps on the front walk. Panicked she looked at the clock, but she still had an hour before she had to be ready for the meeting and Denise, who was going with her, was never early. That meant that she had an unexpected visitor, but before she could decide who might be showing up at her door, a loud rapping began and she knew.
It was still a shock to see her mother standing on the porch, especially since she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt, as if she’d spent the day on a boat. “Mother, what are you doing here?” Amber asked, still standing with the door partway open, blocking her mother’s way into the house.
“Oh, I just spent the most wonderful day out on the ocean in a beautiful boat,” her mother said, pushing past Amber and walking into the cottage. She only went a few steps then stopped and waved her hand in front of her face, “I don’t know how you stand the smell of paint in here, it’s almost impossible to breathe, especially after all the fresh air I got today.”
Her mother was clearly avoiding her question so she asked again, “What are you doing here?”
“Can’t a mother make an unannounced visit to her daughter, I was just up the coast so I thought I’d stop by on my way home.” Her mother said it as if it was perfectly normal for her to visit Amber, when in truth she’d only been to the cottage twice in the two years she’d lived there.
Amber was immediately suspicious, but she had a meeting to get to so she got right to the point. “Mother I have a meeting at the community center in less than an hour and I absolutely can’t be late. I’m glad you stopped by, but I really do need to start getting ready.”
“Oh, is that the place where you help the homeless or something?” her mother asked, wandering further in to the big room that was both her studio and her living area.
Amber sighed, they’d been over this several times, but once again she explained what she was doing. “No, mother. The community center is a place where local artists can display their work, people come from all over the country for the art shows there. They’ve commissioned me to do the art work for the main entrance, I have to meet with the director to work out the schedule for installation,” she said, pointing to the stack of canvases against the wall that represented more than a year of her life.
The last canvas was the one on the easel now, only a few hours from completion. She was a bit sad that the project was over. But it would take months to get the pictures hung and the light exactly right, a process that she’d never been a part of but was looking forward to helping with. When she’d been given the commission almost a year and a half ago, it had taken months for her to decide what she wanted to paint. She’d been desperate for an idea when she’d stumbled across a beautiful beach hidden from the public by a little path behind the town’s cemetery.
Clearly only the locals knew about the beach, secluded as it was, but there was a lovely little bench up under the trees and the view was almost as beautiful as the one out of her own windows at the cottage. Although she’d grown up in Seattle, a child of the city, she’d always loved the contrast of the lush forests and rocky ocean shores that could be found up and down the coast of Washington. When her father had given her the opportunity, she’d fled the city to the quiet of the artist community where her cottage was located.
Her mother hadn’t been happy, but for once her father had stood his ground, buying her the cottage and giving her enough money so that she could devote herself to her painting. Only a few short months later, she’d been given the commission at the community center. Sitting on the bench watching her neighbors enjoy the ocean on that hot summer day, she got the vision she’d been looking for.
Now over a year later, the paintings were nearly completed. The last one, a summer view, was nearly done. While she’d been thinking about the last year, her mother had gone over to the stack of paintings and begun shuffling through them one by one. She made dismissive noises in her throat as she looked at each one, then rested the stack against the wall again.
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve gotten some of this out of your system and that you’re ready to join the real world again. I don’t know why your father thought that it was a good idea to indulge you this way,” she said, gesturing to the little cottage that Amber loved so much.
Built of stone, it had been around for over a hundred years, survived all kinds of storms, and was her sanctuary from a world that didn’t understand her. “Mother, there’s no getting this out of my system, this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing and this commission for the community center is just the beginning.” Amber repeated what she’d been telling her mother for two years, “And before you even bring it up, I’m not leaving here, this is where I live.”
Her mother looked around the crowded room, “It’s not much of a place to live, if you ask me, but if it makes you happy who am I to judge,” her mother said, her sudden change of attitude alarming Amber.
“Mother, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, well there was something I wanted to discuss with you, something that might be just what you need to get your life on a better track. Amber, you know how much I worry about you out here all alone, spending so much time by yourself can’t be good for you,” her mother said, her voice dripping with concern.
“Just spit it out mother, I have to go to that meeting and it starts in less than an hour,” Amber said, losing what little patience she had left.
Daniel stood leaning against the mantle in front of the big fireplace in his parents' living room. His mother had called him there, explaining that she had something important to discuss with him, something that would change his life. She’d done this to him several times before, only for him to discover that it was because she’d set him up on another blind date with one of her friend’s daughters. But like a dutiful son, he’d come running like he always did, one of the reasons he was her favorite.
Although after what Theo had pulled last year, it was no wonder that his mother preferred him, he hadn’t gone off half-crazy, hired a surrogate then promptly fallen in love with her. He was the good son, the one who always did what she asked of him, the favorite who used that to his advantage but knew that there was a price to pay for his position in the family.
Watching his mother primp in the mirror hanging on the wall, he had to admit that for a woman her age she still looked pretty good. Everyone said that he got his looks from her, they shared the same dark black hair, striking blue eyes and trim build. His mother’s skin was fair almost to the point of being pale, years ago someone had likened her to the fabled Snow White and ever since then she’d worn bright red lipstick, which she was applying as he watched.
“Mother, what was so important that I had to drop everything and rush over here?” he asked, knowing that his mother would stretch out this visit as long as she could.
Ignoring his question, his mother took her time finishing with her lipstick, then carefully tucked it back into the little bag she carried. She turned from the mirror and looked at him, then crossed the room and put her hand on his cheek.
“You look tired,” she said, stepping back. “And you’ve lost weight.”
“I’ve been working sixty or seventy hours a week since the earthquake, mother. You know that,” Daniel said, wishing his mother would get to the point but knowing that it was impossible to rush her when she got this way.
“You need to get outside and get some sun,” she said, grasping his chin and turning his face side to side. “You’re pale.”
Daniel took a deep breath and slowly stepped away from his mother. “I was on my way to the marina when you called and said it was an emergency.”
“I didn’t say that, I said that I had news that would change your life,” his mother said, smiling at him in a way that immediately put him on guard.
“My life is fine, well it was until the earthquake last year. But we’ve finally gotten all the repairs to the fleet done, and the insurance is finally paying all the claims so things should go back to normal,” Daniel said, hoping that what he said was true.
His job at Taylor Industries had been perfect, as the person in charge of keeping the fleet maintained, his job took little of his time. He’d spend his mornings at harbors and marinas all over the shore, inspecting the many boats the company owned and scheduling repairs or making crew adjustments. Then his afternoons were free for him to pursue his greatest love, competitive sailing.
Since the quake, he’d had little free time and certainly not enough to race. For weeks he’d been desperate to get out on the ocean, to feel a ship beneath him and hear the sounds of the ocean, with little hope of making it happen. But this morning the biggest of the insurance payments had come in and he’d decided that everyone in the office, including himself, deserved an afternoon off. He’d been heading to the marina and his forty-foot Catamaran, when his mother had called.
“I’m glad to hear that, you’ve been working way too hard. Now maybe you’ll have time to come to some of the functions you’ve been missing. People are starting to talk,” his mother said, stepping away from him and sitting down on the couch.
“Mother, I’ve never gone to those things. I hate them,” Daniel reminded her, then wished he hadn’t because he knew what her next words were going to be.
“You’re too much like your brother Theo,” she said, letting out a sad sigh. “Promise me that you’ll never do anything like he did.”
“I promise never to hire a surrogate and fall in love with her,” Daniel said, for probably the hundredth time.
“I just couldn’t take the embarrassment if another one of my sons did something so outlandish,” she said, putting her hand over her heart and sighing dramatically again.
“Mother, I have no plans to get married, nor do I want any kids right now so you’re safe,” he said, “Now what is this news you have for me?”
His mother looked at him, then asked, “Do you love me?”
Daniel sighed, knowing that something big was coming. “Of course I love you.”
His mother acknowledged his statement with a nod of her head. “And you know how difficult it’s been for me to show my face in public since your brother…well you know what I’m talking about. It’s been such a scandal, everyone is still talking about it, asking me questions. It’s almost unbearable.”
“I know how hard that’s been for you mother, but I’ve never seen Theo so happy,” Daniel said.
“But what about me? I’m not happy,” his mother whined.
“What can I do to make you happy?” Daniel asked without even thinking.
“I’m glad you asked,” she said, then rang the bell on the table next to her. “I’ll get us some refreshments.”
Her mother looked at her like she’d just cussed at her. “I’m sorry if I worry about you, you’re my only child and a mother does worry. Bridget Taylor and I were just talking about it this morning on her yacht, it doesn’t matter how old our children get, we still want the best for them and worry about them. She has three boys, and even through they’re all grown men, she still worries. Just like I do,” her mother said, shaking her head side to side sadly.
“I’m sorry mother, but I don’t want to miss this meeting,” Amber said, softening like her mother knew she would.
But her mother wasn’t quite done laying on the guilt, her favorite weapon. “Even though you’re not my real daughter, I couldn’t love you more.”
Amber suppressed a sigh, nothing ever changed. When her mother wanted to get her way, she never hesitated to remind Amber how lucky she was to have been adopted by them. “I’m sorry mother. You said you had some news for me,” she said, resigning herself to the fact that she was going to be late to her meeting again.
“Oh, yes. It’s so exciting. Bridget and I were talking today, you know how women do, husbands, kids, all the usual. As it turns out, she’s as worried about her middle son as I am about you, and we think we have the perfect solution. It was so obvious once we thought of it, I’m surprised I didn’t think of it before,” her mother said, a smile of satisfaction spreading across her face.
Amber didn’t like that smile at all because she knew all too well that when Elaine McIntyre got that smile on her face, she had a scheme brewing in her mind. The fact that she was here told Amber that she was a part of that scheme and she was suddenly on her guard. She should have expected what came out of her mother’s mouth next, but she’d promised to stop meddling in Amber’s love life.
“Bridget and I think that you and her middle son, Daniel would be perfect for each other,” she said, then started to go on, but Amber interrupted her.
“Mother, you promised,” Amber groaned.
Her mother ignored her and continued. “He’s perfect for you, tall and handsome, from the right family and best of all he loves to sail.”
“Mother we’ve been over this a million times, I don’t fit in with your friends or their kids, it’s just a waste of time,” Amber said, waving her hand in the air.
“But Daniel doesn’t like any of them either, so you two already have something in common,” her mother said.
Amber sighed, “Mother I’m just not interested in romance right now, I want to focus on my painting.”
“Well, maybe that’s a good thing, because I’m not talking about romance, I’m talking about marriage.”
Amber stared at her mother for a second, before asking, “How did we suddenly get to marriage?”
“It’s part of the plan,” Elaine said, as if Amber was an idiot.
“Mother, you’re not making any sense. What plan?” Amber asked, wishing she didn’t have to.
“Let me explain it to you,” Her mother said, taking seat on the couch and making herself comfortable. “Bridget and I would both like to see our children settled into good marriages, we’ve both given our children ample opportunities to do this on their own but since that’s never going to happen we’re taking things into our own hands.” Elaine squared her shoulders as if ready for a fight.
“What does that mean?” Amber asked, her stomach sinking.
“That means that you and Daniel Taylor are going to meet, fall in love and get married,” Elaine said, as if she was giving an order.
Amber could only stare at her mother for a long time, this was the last thing she’d expected, could have ever imagined her mother would suggest. Finally, hoping that her mother was joking she said, “You mean like an arranged marriage.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” Elaine said, pleased that Amber was beginning to understand.
“Why would I ever agree to marry a man I’ve never met, don’t love, and oh, this is crazy. Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Not at all, it’s the perfect solution,” her mother pronounced in that tone of voice that told Amber there wasn’t any changing her mind.
“What did dad say? You can’t force me to get married.” Amber began to pace around the room, if her mother had managed to get her father on her side, it could mean disaster for Amber.
“Your father just wants to see you happy too,” her mother said, evasively. “He’s agreed that this would be good for you, get you out of this cottage and out into the real world. Plus, it’s good for business, your father has been wanting to do business with the Taylors for a long time.”
“And if I refuse?” Amber asked, knowing what the answer was.
“Well, we’ll really have no choice but to think that you don’t appreciate all we’ve done for you,” her mother said, avoiding her eyes.
Amber’s heart sank, she knew what her mother was trying not to say, that if she refused they’d cut her off. “I can’t believe you’re going to do this.”
“Oh, don’t worry darling, it won’t be that bad. If it doesn’t work out you can always get a divorce, there’s no shame in divorce any longer. I don’t expect you to stay married to him forever, just a year or so,” Elaine said, obviously thinking that she was being very reasonable.
“A year or so? You want me to agree to marry someone I don’t even know, then promise to stay married for a year? Have you lost your mind? Why would I even consider doing that?” Daniel roared when his mother had finally laid out her plan.
Knowing that any hope she’d had that he would cooperate had just flown out the window she didn’t beat around the bush. “Because if you don’t, I’ll see to it that the funding for your racing boat dries up,” she said smugly.
Daniel had known that it was a mistake to let his mother and her friends fund his racing boat, but league rules required that there be multiple investors so that someone like him who had billions of dollars didn’t have an unfair advantage. When she’d suggested it he’d been pleased that she wanted to be involved, but now he realized that she’d done it so she had something to hold over his head.
“You wouldn’t dare.” He narrowed his eyes at her.
“Oh, I would and I will. It’s only a few years of your life, and it will erase the scandal of your brother’s marriage,” Bridget said, rising to her feet. “Here’s the girl's number, call her.” Then she gathered up her purse, umbrella and rain jacket and walked out the door, leaving Daniel staring after her.