"And you know Caulter's mother, Ella Sterling," he says.
I've been so focused on Caulter that I haven't even registered the other person in the room. Ella Sterling. Caulter's mother. She’s a huge movie star, a Hollywood icon. If I had met her in any other setting, I'd be star-struck right now.
Why are she and Caulter in my living room? I silently pray this is all about some kind of political fundraiser, even though that might require that I play nice with Caulter. You know you'd like to do more than just play nice with him. The thought jumps right into my head, unwanted, and I banish it.
"Hello, Katherine." Ella steps forward and extends her hand. She’s looking at me with the kind of affectionate expression you reserve for children and puppies, her eyes soft. "I've heard so much about you."
Before I can think about why she's looking at me the way she is, my father speaks, his tone staccato, clipped. Business as usual. "Ella and I have an announcement to make, and we want the two of you to hear it from us first."
He’s using her first name. They’re on a first name basis.
Caulter's eyes are on me, but I can’t bring myself to look at him. Instead, I stand there paralyzed, afraid to draw in a breath, watching as Caulter's mother reaches for my father's hand and covers it with hers, then looks up at him, positively beaming.
Oh my God.
It’s like watching two trains moving in slow motion toward certain collision. I know what my father is going to say before he even says it, but I just can't bring myself to believe it.
"We've managed to keep this out of the press, but we're planning to make an announcement soon. And the two of you have been shielded from it at boarding school. That wasn't intentional on our part. We meant to tell each of you over the holidays, but it just didn't seem like the right moment." He clears his throat. "And you should know first."
No, no, no.
"This may come as a shock."
That’s the fucking understatement of the century.
"Ella and I have been seeing each other for some time. And we're getting married. It will be tasteful, respectful of your late mother, of course. But it will have to happen this summer, before the major campaign push."
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I’m screaming the words inside my head.
I’ve just lost my virginity to my new stepbrother.
I'm completely fucked.
I’m going to be sick. I feel dizzy, detached from the entire situation as if I'm watching it happen from outside of my body, the three of them lined up in front of me, waiting for me to respond. Like some kind of emotional firing squad.
Maybe I’ll faint, I think, matter-of-fact. The casualness with which I consider it almost makes me laugh. Except that the situation is essentially a tragedy, not a comedy.
I’ve only fainted once before. It was during one of my mother’s appointments. The word makes it sound like we were going to the hair salon or the spa, but it was her chemotherapy. I’d insisted on going, despite her protests that I needed to be in school, that I was in eighth grade and I’d soon have to compete for a spot at one of the prestigious private high schools in the DC area. It was obviously an excuse, her way of trying to shelter me. But even then, despite my parents’ attempts to hide the severity of my mother’s disease from me, and maybe from themselves, some part of me knew she was dying.
Do not pass out, I tell myself now. Not over this.
“It’s obviously a lot to take in,” my father says.
“Obviously,” I parrot, my voice sounding robotic.
My father clears his throat. “Caulter was just saying that he knows you well from school.”
I narrow my eyes at Caulter, hoping my murderous glare is enough to silence whatever the hell the unpredictable jackass is considering saying. Caulter's eyes crinkle at the edges, and the smirk makes me think he considers this entire situation a joke.
Oh shit. What if he knew about our parents before...what happened between us that night? The thought triggers a fresh wave of nausea.
“Brighton’s not exactly a big place,” Caulter says. “Everyone knows everything about everyone. It’s practically incestuous.”
Ella Sterling’s face blanches at the word, and my father clears his throat. If I weren’t so completely and entirely enraged with Caulter, I’d almost be amused by my father’s obvious discomfort. Senator Jed Harrison is not the kind of man around whom you casually toss words like incestuous.
“Caulter,” Ella says, her tone sharp. “Perhaps we should give Katherine and her father a moment.”