Chapter Title: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Rating: PG (adult language).
Word Count: ~4,753.
Characters: Maraina Stratten, Helena Caine, Kirk James, Riley Stratten, Noel Cruz, Lucia Stratten, Abigail Haynesworth Stratten,
Word Count: ~4,753.
Characters: Maraina Stratten, Helena Caine, Kirk James, Riley Stratten, Noel Cruz, Lucia Stratten, Abigail Haynesworth Stratten,
Synopsis: Dinner at the Stratten household always makes strangers into family.
“You are so weird and hanging out with a bunch of scribbling nerds is just going to exacerbate that character flaw.”
Author's Note: Thanks Betty! :)
“What’s up?” Riley asked. “Jose said you were looking for me." He looked at Noel’s book. “I thought you were reading about parallel universes.”
Noel looked up. It was well known by the Civilized Pleasures crew that when he felt a need to go outside for some ‘light reading’ by Stephen Hawkins, no one should interrupt unless summoned because hell hath no fury as an out of sorts Noel Cruz.
“That was last week. Good way to decompress.”
Riley snorted. “If you say so, man.”
Noel nodded over his shoulder at the parked limo and the driver standing guard beside the door. “The driver came over and asked for you. At first, I thought you were in trouble for over charming some heiress, but then he gave the name Abigail Stratten.”
The easy grin slipped from Riley’s face and he stiffened. “Yeah, we don’t really talk much about my father’s family.”
“I noticed, but I’m not one to judge considering my relatives. Are you going to see what she wants or do you want me tell them to move along?”
“No, I’ll get rid of them.”
“I’ll be here if you need backup.”
Riley gave him a half-hearted grin and walked up to the car. The driver had the door open, waiting for him to enter. She looks old, was the first thought that popped in his mind. Abigail Haynesworth Stratten had a cold, sophisticated beauty that screamed old money and it was still evident even in her seventh decade of life, but now there was a fine sheen of frailty that was starting to invade the ice armor that surrounded her. She certainly didn’t look as intimidating as he remembered, but then again, the passing of time is the enemy of everyone, rich or poor.
“Riley,” she said, greeting him with a slight nod. Her eyes zeroed in on the tattoos on his arm, but it plethora of scars on his forearm which made her mouth hitch in distaste. “I can recommend a renowned plastic surgeon who can minimize that disfigurement.”
Normally, he would have pulled down his sleeves when faced with such rude revulsion, but in this case, he simply made himself comfortable on the leather seat facing her.
“That’s might generous of you, Abby, but I’m good.” He took perverse pleasure in seeing her stiffen at his lack of respect and reverence.
Her lips tightened and she gave him a brusque nod. "Roger says he’s left several messages for you, however, you have yet to reply.”
“That was me replying.”
“I expected your time in the military had matured you sufficiently to have quelled this petty need to rebel. Apparently, I was wrong.”
He met her disapproving glare without flinching. If she thought that little jab was going to affect him, then she was seriously out of touch. He wasn’t that fifteen-year old boy who sought approval from her any longer. Her lips tightened when he failed to take the bait.
“Your grandfather wishes to see you and you will go see him.”
It was the haughty tone that really irritated him. After all these years, after neglecting the grandchildren that were ‘tainted’ by the blood of spirited and clearly non-blue blood Latina, she thought she could order him around like the other sycophants that surrounded her.
“Perhaps you failed to recognize that the only reason your are not rotting away in some military prison is because of your grandfather’s interference.”
There it was, the hammer. Maybe Alexander Stratten had actually moved mountains on his behalf. Maybe that truly was the reason he had been honorably discharged instead of prosecuted for assault. But he hadn’t asked for help and therefore, had no qualms not feeling obligated to reciprocate.
“I didn’t ask for his help and any deals he might have brokered were not for my benefit.”
“We could hardly allow a Stratten to be prosecuted and imprisoned for violently assaulting a superior officer, now could we?”
“The horror. The embarrassment. It was bad enough your son married a low class whore? Isn’t that what you called my mother?”
“Your mother has nothing to do with this conversation,” she said tightly.
“You never even bothered to meet or see Mari, much less attend your own son’s funeral, so don’t tell me my mother has nothing to do with this conversation. She has everything to do with any conversation we will ever have. You disowned your son and cut us off like a diseased limb. But now that the king of your little empire is dying and your spare is dead without any heirs of his own, you come to me bearing gifts? I owe you nothing. Don’t come back here. Don’t have your minions contact me. Let’s go back to the way things were. We don’t exist for you and you are nothing but someone who shares our last name to us.”
He opened the door and started to get out, but her hand snaked out and grabbed his arm, holding him in place.
“If you think this new career choice of yours or your mother’s livelihood are safe from my wrath, you are sadly mistaken.”
He wanted to hit her. Pummel her expertly made up face into raw beef. Hurt her like she’d hurt his father and mother. Hurt her for all the misery she and his grandfather had caused all of them. But he wasn’t a rash boy, anymore, and she wasn’t nearly the intimidating monster she’d been. He pried her fingers off his arm.
“If you threaten my mother or my sister or anyone I care about again, you’re going to find out how much of Stratten I really am.”
He dropped her hand and pushed the door open, disregarding the startled driver as he stormed away from the vehicle. He needed to hit something. Hell, he’d wanted to hit that bitch that had birthed his father so bad he could actually taste blood. He stopped and wiped his mouth, realizing he was tasting blood, his own. He never realized he’d bitten through the fleshy part of his lip.
“Do I need to get the body bags?”
Riley ignored Noel and headed inside. It didn’t take long for two hands to start pushing him through the kitchen and towards the walk in freezer.
Noel snapped his fingers and pointed to the two cooks. “One of you open that door then skedaddle.” He gave Riley a non too gentle shove and closed the door.
All things considered it was probably for the best. The cold air would eventually dampen his anger and his need to beat something to a bloody pulp. He took a few deep breaths and was surprised when the door opened again. Noel entered carrying a hand sanitizer, which he promptly threw at Riley who caught it handily.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness especially when dealing with food,” he said, nodding to the bottle. “Chop chop.”
Riley glared but liberally pressed the nozzle and rubbed his hands and forearm. When he was done, he handed it back to Noel, who in turn gave him gloves, an apron and a hair net.
“No need to have you shedding all over the place.”
Riley dutifully put everything on without a word. He was still seething, but the one lesson he’d taken to heart from his father was to never speak in anger. To top it off, it wouldn’t be fair to take it out on Noel. That and the fact both his mom and Mari would skin him alive if he even tried.
“Good,” Noel said, then pulled out a very large meat hammer and handed it to Riley. “I call this one Mjolnir. It’s saved for very special occasions.” He pointed to the slab of beef hanging from a hook. “Go forth and beat the shit out of that, then when you’re tired or ready talk or it becomes ground beef, come and find me.” He turned and walked out.
“Noel,” Riley called out, waiting for the other man to turn before continuing, “don’t tell Mom or Mari. Please.”
It was probably the please that won Noel over, so he just nodded. “I won’t mention it, but if in any way, this little drama queen diva nuclear meltdown of yours affects either one of them, I’m going to use Thor’s mighty hammer on your head.”
Mari slid her phone into her pocket and looked up. “Okay, Mom says dinner will be ready in about an hour and since Jerrod is assigned to us for the rest of the night, he can drive us.”
After a quick and painless check-in, they had settled in Helena’s ridiculously large suite at the Hawthorne. Kirk, probably exhausted from Mari’s non-stop chatter about the new plans for Odyssey, opted to settle in his own suite across the hall. It was convenient that they were on the same floor, but maybe not really surprising since HR had been in charge of the reservations. Mari wouldn’t be surprised of the rest of the First Five also ended up in the same floor.
Helena barely glanced at her room before pulling out her laptop to review Mari’s files and bombard her with questions. She hadn’t even bothered unpacking her clothes, her suitcases neglected by the door. The only time she actually disconnected with the computer was to grab a bottle of water from small refrigerator or to go to the bathroom.
“Wait. What?” Her head snapped up “No. No way. No dinner, no time. Have you seen this schedule?” She whipped out the neatly typed itinerary that had been waiting for them in the room.
Of course Mari had seen it. The first time Helena had freaked out over it. And the second. This was firmly, the third freak out in the span of an hour. Not nearly a record for either one of them so it was barely worth remembering, but it was, nonetheless, the third time Helena had asked that same question.
“I have to go through your files again. Take notes. Study. I can’t go into those meetings deaf, dumb and blind. You have to give me the insider information on these people. What are their likes, dislikes? What are their weak spots?”
Mari bit off a laugh, then got up and walked to Helena’s spot, which had a lovely view of the city, not that it had been appreciated by the room’s official occupant. She rolled Helena away from the table she’d spread out across and pushed her dearest friend down so that her head was between her knees.
“Breathe,” Mari ordered. “Of course we have time. You can take the lappy to Mom’s and we can make it a working dinner.” She looked down. “Are you breathing?”
“You mean with your ham fisted Hulk hands twisting my body into a pretzel?”
Mari let released her. “Everyone’s a critic.”
“We don’t have time.”
“Sure we do. Sweetie, this isn’t a defend your thesis type of meeting. It won’t be confrontational and you won’t need to know their weaknesses in order to survive. This isn’t Hunger Games, you know? The odds are in your favor in this case.” She walked back to the sofa and plopped down. “They’re going to love you, just like I do.”
“I hate you.”
“You keep saying that as if I’d care.” They glared at each other before smiling.
“I know, right?” She looked at the desk and her notes. “There’s just so much and I’m terrified I’ll screw it all up, not only for me, but for you too. ‘Cuz you know, guilt by association and all.”
“You’ll be fine. In fact, you’ll dazzle them with your brilliance.”
“Now you’re just lying.”
Mari laughed. “How about we pack up and head on out? I told Jerrod fifteen minutes.” She closed her laptop and shoved it, and her notebooks, into the bag before looking up suddenly. “Should I go see if Kirk wants to come with us?”
Helena froze, then loudly sucked the air through her teeth and cringed. “Um, tough call there.”
“Why? He’s really sweet and nice and I just think he’s on the extreme end of shy.”
“And extremely socially inept?” Helena quipped. Mari frowned. “Look,” she continued, “you talked the poor guy’s ear off and that might have been too much for him for one day. I mean I’m used to your non-stop natter and I needed a breather.” It was the twitch of the lips that gave her away.
“Now who’s the witch?” Mari grumbled. With the laptop case strapped across her body, she headed for the door. “I’m going over there, meet you outside. Besides, what’s the worse that could happen?”
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Helena called out.
Mari ignored her and walked to Kirk’s door, her hand was primed to knock, but she hesitated. Maybe she had overdone. She wasn’t normally a Chatty Cathy, but with finally meeting Helena in person, getting this huge opportunity to work together on the show they loved and meeting one of her favorite artists, well, she’d been rather giddy. And after talking his ear off, he’d become a lot less threatening. In fact, he’d gone from potential serial killer in training, destroyer of life as we know it, to a shy, gentle giant cuddly bear. Not that he was her cuddly bear type. An illicit image of Patrick Westfield, who definitely was her cuddly bear type, flashed through her mind, but she quickly banished it and promptly knocked at the door. It didn’t take long for him to open the door and Mari looked up. Way up and wondered if he somehow managed to get taller. Really, she didn’t often feel short, but he definitely managed to make her feel downright petite.
“We’re going to dinner at my house. Solid, middle class, no frills, great food and not so bad company, if I say so myself. Wanna come?”
Kirk looked at her for a solid minute before answering. “I was going to eat in my room.”
How was she supposed to respond to that? She just nodded and they stood there looking everywhere but each other.
“It’s Brazilian-American. Do you like South American food? It’s really good, or at least my Mom’s version is because she’s a total rock star in the kitchen and if you come we can make it a working dinner and I’ll tell you more about the new season.”
He blinked. “There’s more?”
He was silent for another minute. “Can I bring my sketch books?”
“Sure,” she nodded, “we’re bringing our computers.
He turned and went back inside, the door gently closing behind him. Mari stood there. Was that a yes or a no?
He came back and opened the door, but this time he had the messenger bag and scary jacket, but instead of the spiked beanie, he had on black rimmed glasses. It made him look like an adorkably sweet nerd. One that could kill with the swat of his hand, but still sweet.
She nodded, but stared until he fidgeted and scratched his head, he slouched again, hands in his pockets. “I had to take off my contacts. I think it was the flight.”
“I like it,” she said.
“I’m not really good with people.”
“You don’t say,” Helena quipped behind them, earning a glare from Mari.
“Don’t worry, we’re not people. We’re family.”
The drive to her house was relatively short compared to the trip from the airport. When Jerrod pulled into the quiet, older neighborhood, Mari started to have second thoughts about bringing them over to dinner. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed about her middle class roots, but more because when compared to the opulent Hawthorne, she knew the house she’d grown up in and loved, was going to come out seriously lacking in luxury.
“I did mention middle class, no frills, right?”
Helena looked at Kirk. “I normally don’t speak for other people, but I’m going to go out on a limb here.” She turned to Mari. “Do either of us,” her hand waved between Kirk and herself, “look like the caviar and Cristal type?”
Mari smiled and nodded before getting out when the door opened. “Jerrod, my mother will strip my hide if I don’t repeat the invitation to join us for dinner.”
His head dipped slightly. “Thank you Miss Stratten, but I grabbed something earlier and, between you and me, management frowns on that type of mingling.”
Though Mari accepted the answer, she knew her mother wouldn’t be easily swayed and if it came to it, she’d so push Jerrod under the bus. So with that in mind, she led Helena and Kirk up the walkway and through the wooden gate that enclosed the small front yard. The house was exactly like the others in the aging neighborhood. Not much greenery, but then with the perpetual drought in California, that wasn’t really surprising. The neighborhood as a whole had taken to desert landscaping like a duck to water. Artistically positioned rocks, cacti and low water succulents were now the benchmark for the entire block.
Mari pushed open the door and was immediately enveloped by a multitude of rich, savory smells of spices and meat.
Lucia walked out of the kitchen and greeted them with a smile. “You’re right on time. We’re eating out here today since it’s going to be a full house tonight.”
“Mom, this is Helena.”
“I’ve heard so much about you, that I feel I already know you,” Lucia said, warmly embracing her.
“Only the good things, I hope,” Helena responded, stepping forward. “I loved everything in the Christmas pack you and Mari sent.”
“I'm glad, because you’ll be getting one every year now.” Helena laughed and moved to the side, while Lucia turned to Mari, or more to the point, who was behind Mari. She looked up and considering she was a full two inches shorter than Mari, kept looking up.
“Mom, this is Kirk James. He’s the artist that I raved about and is also part of the Odyssey contest.”
Lucia’s eyes narrowed, and Mari could actually see the wheels spinning which always made her a little nervous when it came to her mom.
“Do you like Brazilian food, Kirk?” Lucia asked.
“I’ve never tried it,” he replied.
“Hm.” She stepped around Mari and grabbed his arm. “You’re going to like it.” She patted his arm and pulled him deeper into the house. “A big boy like you needs good food. You’re too thin. All you need is a few home cooked meals to put some meat in your bones. And don’t slouch, dear, it’s bad for your posture.”
Mari chewed her lip, worrying that poor Kirk looked like a lost lamb being led to the slaughter that was her mother. She turned to Helena who was also trying not to laugh. Mari sighed and pushed the door closed, only to have it pushed back.
“Hello beautiful.” A sweaty Riley walked through the door, eyes fully checking Helena out.
“Paws off,” Mari warned, “she’s family and you stink.”
“Not by blood so it’s all legal.” Riley winked at Helena, before looking at Mari. “At least I exercise, midget.” He flicked her forehead and started down the hall. “Ten minutes, Mom.”
“At least I got all the brains,” Mari yelled at his back. She blinked when he turned and headed back.
He leaned on the archway. “Hey, Mari.” His tone friendly, but the volume was ridiculously loud and her eyes narrowed. “Is that your driver who is waiting outside in the car all by himself?”
“Maraina Elisabetta Stratten!”
“Judas,” Mari hissed at Riley who made a run for it the minute their mom walked out of the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you invite the poor man to eat with us? You getting too big for your britches, Ms. Hollywood Writer? I raised you better than that.”
“I did! He—” Lucia stormed past her and out the door. “And I’m speaking to myself.”
“I’m here,” Helena said. “And will totally back you. At least until your mom comes back, then you’re on your own because I not sacrificing my Christmas package.”
“Oh good, you’re here.” Noel walked out of the kitchen holding a steaming casserole. “Is Riley back? I’m starving.” He walked to them. “You must be Helena. I’m Noel. Welcome to the family.” He handed her the dish. “Make yourself useful.”
The door opened again, only this time Lucia was followed by a very contrite Jerrod, sans his hat and gloves.
“Don’t feel bad,” Mari told him, “she’s an unstoppable force of nature.”
“So I’ve noticed,” he replied.
“Well, hello gorgeous,” Noel said with an appreciative smile. “Who might you be?”
“This is Jerrod,” Mari answered, “he drew the short stick and got stuck driving us around today. Jerrod, this is our friend Noel.”
They shook hands. “Lucky girls,” Noel said and turned only to stop short when he finally noticed Kirk. “And where have they been hiding you, tall, dark and broody?” He looked at Mari. “You really are starting to collect them, aren’t you?”
“Noel, behave and back to the kitchen. We aren’t done.”
“Yes, General. Right away, General, sir!” Noel snapped his heels and saluted.
“Are you sassing me, boy?”
“Nope.” He smiled and ducked back into the kitchen.
Lucia followed, but she wasn’t done handing out orders. “Cara, make sure our guests are comfortable. Dinner is almost ready.”
Riley came out shortly after and once further introductions were made, they settled in for what turned out to be a quiet a successful dinner. The food was wonderful, that was a given and nothing made Lucia beam brighter than having everyone gush about the meal and go back for seconds and even thirds. But the conversation also flowed naturally, never stalling despite half of the party starting out the day as complete strangers. Whenever there was a lull, someone, usually Noel, would jump in to keep it going smoothly.
“Are you gay?”
Everyone froze. Mari, who had been looking at Helena’s notebook, slowly turned to her left and stared at Kirk. He hadn’t actively participated in most of the conversation, he’d been too busy shoveling mountains of food into his mouth and nothing had made her mother happier than to actively encourage him to sate his voracious appetite, but he hadn’t shut out the others, either. He’d answered all questions which had been directed at him, but this was the first time he had instigated a topic.
Noel blinked. “Only when I’m making out with boys. Do you have a problem with that?”
Kirk was silent for several seconds as if thinking about that answer and Mari couldn’t help but worry because the last thing Noel needed was a flashback to his family’s ridicule.
“No,” Kirk finally answered, then he returned to his food. He finally noticed that the conversations had not returned to normal and looked up, then at Mari. “Was that rude?”
Mari gave a small shrug and dipped her head towards Noel.
“Normally, people don’t ask like that,” Noel answered. “That’s what she’s trying to tell you know. They’ll make assumptions about my preferences or just wait until I tell them.”
Kirk nodded slowly.
“What if I asked you?”
“I’m not gay,” Kirk replied. It must have been the honest lack of denunciation in his tone, that made Noel smile.
“But would you have been insulted if I asked if you were gay, or straight for that matter?”
Kirk paused again, but Mari was finally realizing that his pauses weren’t calculated or intentionally rude, he was simply processing the question.
“I don’t insult easily.”
Noel rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Thick skin?
Kirk inhaled deeply, then let it out in a slow, deliberate manner. “I just don’t care what other people think about me. My mother used to say I needed to try to empathize more. That if I put myself in their shoes, I’d understand better and I’ve tried, but I simply don’t care.”
“All the time or just some of the time?”
“Most of the time,” Kirk replied. “I’ve often been mistaken for someone who is mentally challenged because I take my time in answering questions. But when I don’t consciously think about my answers, I’ve been told that I come off as rude with a healthy dose of megalomania and that my compliments ring false.” He turned to Lucia. “I really am enjoying your food and not merely trying to be nice.” She nodded and patted his hand gently, satisfied, he turned back to Noel. “Where you insulted that I asked? Should I apologize?”
“No,” Noel shook his head, “but if you don’t absolutely gush over the dessert I made, then I’m going to have to hurt you.”
"You do know that boy ain't right?” Riley dumped another dish into the soapy sink.
“Then he’ll fit right in with our crowd,” Mari replied as she continued to scrub the last platter. Riley tossed the dish towel over his shoulder and leaned back on the sink watching the crowd through the bar opening. Mari glanced over her shoulder and smiled.
Their mom was sitting on the sofa, oohing and aahing over one of Kirk’s sketch pads while he surreptitiously worked on another. Helena was madly scribbling away on her notebook, and Noel and Jerrod where comparing something or other on their phones. Yes, somehow their mom had worked her magic again and strangers were about to become like extended family.
“She’s probably going to adopt him.” He shook his head and sighed.
“She’s already adopted all of them. She made sure that she has contact information for both Jerrod and Kirk.”
“Care packages?” Mari nodded. Riley’s mouth twisted in a warped half-smile. “The guys loved it when you sent stuff. They counted down the days.”
Mari dried her hands, then gently squeezed his arm. “We can still send them, you know.”
“Well, what would all my boyfriends think if I just ditched them cold like that without an explanation?”
He rolled his eyes. “You are so weird and hanging out with a bunch of scribbling nerds is just going to exacerbate that character flaw.”
“I bet you can’t even spell that.”
“See,” she said and walked out of the kitchen. “Okay, peeps, chop chop. Time to leave the gravy train.”
“Are you sure you girls don’t want to stay here? I can make breakfast tomorrow before you leave.” Lucia got up and handed Kirk his book.
Mari kissed her mom’s cheek. “Mom, I love you, but there’s no way I’m passing up on an opportunity to spend the night at The Hawthorne.”
“Besides,” Helena said, “we still have to notes to go over before tomorrow.” She gave Lucia a hug. “Thank you for the delicious dinner.”
“Well, don’t forget your food and don’t stay up too late.” Lucia turned to Jerrod. “It was lovely to meet you and don’t be a stranger. You don’t have to be driving Miss Princess there, to visit.” She placed a hand on Kirk’s forearm. “Don’t stay up too late, either.” She wiggled a finger menacingly. “And don’t slouch, dear. You’re too talented to stoop.”
Kirk gave her a small smile and nodded. With a quick flick of his wrist, he ripped a page off his pad and handed it to Lucia. “I wanted to thank you.”
Lucia took the piece of paper and looked down. A sharp gasp escaped her lips forcing Mari and Helena to look over her shoulder. Their eyes widened and they stared back at Kirk who started to shift nervously.
“I can do better,” he said, reaching for the paper only to have Lucia smack his hand away.
“You can’t take it back. It’s mine now.” She handed the picture to Riley so he and Noel could see it, then stopped in front of Kirk. “Now, you’ll have to slouch a bit.” She motioned for him to come closer and she cupped his face, giving him a gentle kiss on the cheek. “You are a sweet, talented boy and you’re coming to Sunday dinner. I’ll make you something nice.”
“That’s amazing,” Noel said, looking down at the life-like penciled drawing of a smiling Lucia.
“And I know what I’m getting her for their anniversary,” Mari said quietly to Riley, who nodded.
“Let me know how much you need and I’ll chip in,” he said.