“Bring her out.”
I looked up from my plate as the host spoke. He was about my grandfather’s age, and his baritone voice carried the authority of the nobleman he was.
One of the servants nodded, and turned slightly as two people entered the room from a side door. A middle aged woman walked in with a young, slim girl at her side. The girl’s dark hair was pulled back into some elaborate hairdo, and she wore a simple green dress that came to just below her knees.
“Come,” the host called to the girl, and she stepped over beside his chair. “This is Eretria, my granddaughter.” He looked at my grandfather, who was seated across the table from me. “I wish to offer her in marriage to your grandson.”
I jerked upright in my chair, and just barely managed to clamp my jaws shut to staunch my shocked cry. I glanced at my grandfather, and the total lack of surprise on his face spoke volumes. I leaned back and took a breath, assessing the situation with more logic than emotion, as I’d been taught.
My family was, in the vernacular, filthy rich, old money; all of that and more. My parents and my younger brother had died three years ago when their car was caught in an avalanche and was swept off a mountain road, and I was their only surviving child. My grandparents had taken custody of me, and they loved me as only grandparents can.
At sixteen now, I was a lot of things. But, a spoiled brat wasn’t one of them. My grandfather had only one heir, and that was me. He was a practical man, and he set about to teach me what I would need to know about the family business when he and my grandmother passed on. I went to meetings, parties, tours of our businesses, and, occasionally, a vacation to some exotic place. My grandparents showed me the follies of my peers, too, and they warned me against emulating those lifestyles.
Between those duties and my studies, I had little time to indulge in frivolous activities. Interestingly, my grandparents insisted that, each and every day, I find an hour of quiet time. I was to read a book – nothing electronic, but paper – on a non-business subject, and just relax. I was still working my way through my grandfather’s eclectic library as a result.
“On my grandson Ryan’s behalf, I accept your offer,” my grandfather solemnly intoned.
I turned to look at Eretria, only to find her looking back at me with an enigmatic smile.
Later that evening, I was summoned to my grandfather’s room in our host’s opulent home. I entered to find him sitting in a chair, with Eretria seated next to him in a matching chair. “Ah, there you are, Ryan. Thank you for coming. Won’t you sit?”
“Thank you, but I’d prefer to stand, Grandfather.”
A smile flickered across his face as my mood registered. “Of course. You are no doubt wondering if I’ve lost my mind. Allow me, then, to share my reasoning with you. Eretria here is the youngest of five children. Her father and siblings are much older, as her mother was her father’s third wife. Sadly, the lady passed away, leaving Eretria somewhat at loose ends. I will leave it to her to tell you more.” He looked at the girl. “Please don’t think me unkind for speaking in such terms, my dear.”
He sat back and looked at me. “Eretria is quite talented in the area of business analysis, even at her tender years. Her grandfather wishes that she have an opportunity to use her talent, and I think you will need her in your life. Your grandmother and I have spoken with her and her family at some length, and we all believe that the two of you are a superlative match.”
“But, she’s what, nine?!” I fought to keep my voice level. “That’s way too young to marry, and it’s illegal, too.”
“She just turned ten, and she is my ward until she is old enough to legally marry. I will emancipate her when the time comes.”
I looked at her. “What do you think of this?”
“I think it’s better than what I had,” Eretria replied. She looked back at me, manifestly unwilling to say more.
I closed my eyes and counted to fifty. Slowly. “So, she’s coming home with us?”
“Yes. You will include her in everything you do as much as is practical. As long as she is my ward, you will not be intimate with each other beyond how brothers and sisters should properly act. But, you are still betrothed, so neither of you may pursue another romantic or sexual interest.”
“What if she, we, doesn’t want to marry?”
“When she is emancipated, then you will each make that choice. If she chooses to not marry you, then I will grant her such funds as she may require to build her own life.” He looked at her. “We’ve talked about this, Eretria. I will not force you to marry Ryan, or anyone else.”
“Thank you, Grandfather,” she said with a nod.
I sighed. “I don’t know if I agree, but I will do as you say.”
“Fair enough. Now, let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
For the first few weeks, Eretria and I maintained a cautious distance from each other. We shared a home, but our grandparents’ house was huge. We had our own suites, each with a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room. Since we were in different grades, we had our own tutors. The one exception was in the business classes – she and I sat together for those, and, as good as I was, I struggled to keep up with her.
We ate meals together, and I would take her with me to community youth activities. My grandmother arranged for us to participate in these, as she felt it was important. No one but the community center director knew who we were, so we were just two more kids when we were there. Eretria and I were careful to not speak of our businesses or families in front of anyone. We played all sorts of games, went on field trips, and generally acted like kids.
It was fun, but living a double life was stressful, too. I would tell people that my family traveled a lot, so I wasn’t able to attend a regular school. Eretria copied me on this, and she seemed to enjoy interacting with girls her age.
In speaking with the other kids, we were squarely faced with the fact that our home life was nothing like theirs. My, our, grandparents spent some time with us, and the couple who cared for the house devoted time to us, as well. But, none of them were our parents.
About six months after she’d moved in, Eretria knocked on my suite door one evening during my quiet time. I set my book aside, and went to the door. She stood there, looking at her toes, her arms wrapped around her belly. “Are you okay?”
“Will you hug me,” she said in a tiny voice.
“Uh, okay.” I wrapped my arms around her slim shoulders in a loose embrace.
“No,” she said with a sniffle. “A real hug.”
“I need to sit down for that. I’m a lot taller.” I released her and sat in my chair.
I expected her to stand in front of me. What she did was to climb in my lap, wrap her arms around my neck, and bury her face in my chest. I wrapped my arms around her as she started to sob into my shirt. Her distress reminded me of the last time I’d seen my parents. My brother had fallen down, and my mother had hugged him while he cried over it. The memory stung, and I leaned against Eretria’s shoulder and started to cry a little myself.
Her tears eased after a few minutes, and she settled deeper into my lap. Leaning back, I shifted her to a more comfortable position with her cheek on my shoulder. Without thinking, I turned my head to plant a soft kiss on top of her head. The chair was sinfully comfortable, so when she began to softly snore, I too fell asleep.
Sometime later, she stirred and sat up in my lap. “Ryan?”
I opened my eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Husbands and wives are family, right?” Eretria studied my face.
I nodded. “Yes they are.”
“Then, we’re family, too.” She laid her head on my shoulder again. “Right?”
I sat still for a moment as my heart expanded in my chest. “Yes, Eretria. You’re right, we are family, too.” I held her close, and closed my eyes as she relaxed in my arms.
Our lives settled into a pattern that remained unchanged – for a few years.
“I don’t care, Ryan!” Eretria turned to face me.
“I told you, we were just talking!” I barked.
She crossed her arms under breasts that had developed after her fourteenth birthday. “She was hanging all over you, making a spectacle in front of everyone. Trust me; talking was the last thing on that witch’s mind!”
I growled in frustration and turned my back on her. My twenty-first birthday party had been a lavish affair, introducing me into the business world as the heir to my grandfather’s business empire. Everyone who mattered in my world was there, including Eretria’s family. And then, she showed up. Andrea.
She was the daughter of one of our CEOs, and I felt an immediate connection as we chatted. No, let me be honest. I was smitten with her. I talked with her all evening, while Eretria stood with my grandmother. She was fifteen, and still girlishly slim. Compared to Andrea, she was still a child.
“What happened to us, Ryan?” Eretria said quietly. “We used to be family. We used to say we loved each other, every day. We used to cuddle together as you read your books to me.”
“I don’t know,” I replied without turning around. If she saw my face, she’d know I was lying.
“Look at me, please.”
I grimaced and turned to face her.
“What happened to us, Ryan?”
“I don’t know.”
Eretria closed the distance until she was standing in front of me. “I was so angry with you, Ryan. For so long, you were my family to me. You were all I had, and you are still all I have. My father and my siblings literally don’t care if I live or die, and my mother is dead. My grandfather is old, as are your grandparents.”
She took a breath. “I talked with Grandmother while you were with Andrea. She is a wise woman, you know, and she told me some things. She told me to ask you some questions.”
I looked up at her. “What kind of questions?”
She pointed at the kitchen bar. “Sit, please.” I complied, and she sat on the barstool next to mine. “First, why did you push me away?”
“I haven’t pushed you away.” That was a lie, I told myself.
“I haven’t sat with you in over a year, Ryan. You haven’t hugged me in months.” I shrugged, and she sighed. “Grandmother said you’d do this. Fine, let me tell you why. You started getting erections when I sat on your lap, and you were embarrassed.”
She lifted her eyebrow like she always did when I avoided a question. “What, I wasn’t supposed to notice? Ryan, you are practically my husband. Why would it bother me that you found me attractive?”
“You’re too young,” I looked down, as I was unable to meet her gaze. “It felt – wrong.”
“What about the rest of it? Am I too young for you now?”
“I don’t know, Eretria. I was ashamed of myself, and then you started getting taller, and, uh, filling out.”
“These?” She cupped her breasts. “You’re scared of boobs?”
I looked at her while I tried to put my feelings into words. “I, I didn’t want to hurt you, Eretria.”
She sat quietly for a moment. “Yep, she’s a wise lady. I was about to walk out on you at the party when she told me you’d say that. It still sounds like a trite excuse, but now I know it isn’t. I believe you.”
“Do you love me, Ryan?”
“Yes.” I looked up and met her gaze.
“Do you still want to marry me when I turn sixteen?”
My heart turned over. “I don’t know.”
“Okay. Thank you for your honesty.” She stood. “I will be gone by noon tomorrow.”
I practically leapt off the barstool. “What?” I reflected that we were using that word a lot tonight.
“I am leaving, Ryan. I will remind you, we are still betrothed under the terms of our families’ agreement. If either of us has sex with anyone else, the agreement is broken. When I reach my sixteenth birthday, I will be emancipated, and then we can end the agreement.”
My heart dropped, and I swallowed to moisten my mouth. “When will you be back?”
“I won’t be back, Ryan.” She turned to walk away, and then she stopped and turned to face me. “When you are ready to either marry me, or release me, come find me on my sixteenth birthday. I will let you know where I am at that time. Don’t try to find me in the meantime. All of our security people have been informed that you are not to follow me, and they are bound to honor my wishes. My family knows, so they will not help you, either.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I will keep studying so I can help you with the businesses, or run my own if you decide to go your own way.”
“I do love you, Eretria. Please don’t go.”
She smiled sadly. “This is killing me, Ryan. I love you more than anyone else in this world. I want to be your wife. I want to have children and build our own family. Together. I will wait for you, as I’ve said.”
With that, she turned and walked to her suite.
The next morning, I rose to find that she’d left. I stood in her bedroom door, where I saw an envelope laying on the bed. I walked over, noted that the envelope had my name on it, and I picked It up. The note was short. “My dearest Ryan. Forgive me for leaving early, but I couldn’t face saying goodbye to you. When the time comes, I will be waiting for you. Love, Eretria.”
I had to put the letter down to avoid smearing it with my tears.
I looked up from my book, and peered through the pilot’s window. The airstrip’s owner, a wizened brown man in his late three hundreds waved at me from the shack that served as the airport’s terminal. “What is it?”
“You have a call on the sat phone.”
I set my book down on the glare shield and stepped out of the Turbo Porter that I’d been flying for the last six months. I walked to the shack as my mind wandered.
After Eretria left, I lasted a week in the house. I visited my grandfather and told him that I wanted to go away for a while. He made me promise to not look for Eretria, and that I would take a satellite phone with me so he could contact me.
I had learned to fly when I was seventeen, and I took a job flying in the African bush as soon as I could qualify for the job. The job was dirty, exhausting, and sometimes dangerous. Crashes were commonplace, and I’d seen several young men and women killed while flying into the remote airstrips we used.
I scratched at my beard as I walked into the hut. The owner pointed at the phone, and I picked it up. “This is Ryan.”
“Ryan, this is Anna Seacrest, your grandfather’s attorney. I’m sorry to inform you that your grandparents are very ill. If you wish to see them, I would advise that you return home immediately.”
There was no point in asking questions, except one. “Can you arrange to have a jet meet me at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia in twenty-four hours?”
“Yes. Anything else?”
“No, not right now. Thank you.”
The phone disconnected, and I turned to the old man. “I need to leave, and I probably won’t be back.”
“Go find your woman.” I looked at him in confusion, as I’d never spoken to him about Eretria or anything else not associated with work. He shrugged and smiled grimly. “You’ve been running, and that’s always about a woman.”
Thirty-six hours later, I stepped out of the car and walked up the steps to my home. I found both of my grandparents in a shared bed. They were both on oxygen, and a woman dressed in scrubs looked up at me as I stepped into the room. They appeared to be sleeping, so I spoke quietly. “How are they?”
She led me outside the room. “Not too good, I’m afraid. Your grandmother was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and your grandfather had a serious heart attack right afterwards. To be honest, I think they are just waiting to see you and your fiancée.”
“She’s coming here?” I looked stunned.
“She’s visited them several times, and she was here two days ago. Congratulations, but I wish it was under more pleasant circumstances.”
I felt light headed, and I nodded. “Yes, me, too. I love them both very much. I’ve been out of the country for a while, and I didn’t know they were sick.”
“They found out about the cancer a month ago, and your grandmother was responding to the treatment. Then, she took a turn for the worse, and then your grandfather had the heart attack. They really want to see you, though.” She looked over my shoulder. “Ah, there you are, Eretria.”
I turned around to see Eretria standing in the hallway a few feet from me. The intervening months had been kind to her; she’d filled out more, and her hair hung halfway down her back in dark, wavy ringlets. I tried to say her name, but I couldn’t make my voice work. Tears stung my eyes, but I managed the two steps to stand directly in front of her. “I...” She was just too lovely, and I couldn’t speak.
How long we stood there, I couldn’t say. For me, I just looked at her while tears ran down my face. Finally, she stepped up and embraced me. I wrapped my arms around her, and we cried on each other’s shoulders.
“I love you, Eretria, and I missed you so much,” I managed after a minute. “I’m so sorry. Please don’t leave me again.”
“It’s okay, Ryan. We need to see our grandparents.” She released me and stepped back.
We entered the room together and walked over to my grandmother’s side of the bed. They both awoke and slowly turned their heads to face us. “Ryan, you came back,” my grandmother said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were sick, or I’d have come sooner.” I wiped my eyes and tried to smile.
My grandmother smiled. “You were off doing good for others, and good for yourself, too. There is no reason to feel guilt over that.” She took a labored breath. “It is good to see you, all the same.”
“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eretria took my hand as she spoke.
“Just one thing, if you are both ready,” my grandfather said.
My grandmother patted his hand. “Now, dear, you promised that you wouldn’t push them.”
“What is it?” I asked.
Grandmother sighed. “We would so much like to see your wedding. But, if you are not ready, we understand.”
Eretria’s grip tightened on my hand. “I won’t be sixteen for another month.”
“I can contact a friend who is also a judge,” Grandfather replied. “He can advise us.”
“Yes,” Eretria nodded. “Please.”
We left my grandparents’ room, spoke briefly with their housekeeper, and went to the kitchen. “Are you hungry?” Eretria stood with her hand on the refrigerator door. “I can make us something.”
“Let me help,” I said as I stepped up next to her. Together, we assembled sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks, and then we sat down to eat. “So,” I said at length, “do you want to marry me now?”
“I’ve wanted to marry you since I was ten, Ryan,” Eretria said with an enigmatic smile. “I would have, too, if I’d been allowed to do it.”
“You were a child,” I pointed out.
She waved her hand. “Oh, I know all of that. Kids don’t know what they want, and I know there is a lot of truth to that. People take advantage of children, and the argument could be made that my own family took advantage of me by offering me to you.”
“I think it was wrong of them,” I said. “My grandfather stepped in and made you his ward, which was the right thing to do. He protected you.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she agreed. “Now, though, things are different. To answer your question, yes, I will marry you. Now.”
I took a drink of my soda and set the can down. “Not to be morbid, but how soon can we put together a wedding? There’s the venue, the dress, all of that. It’s a big deal.” Eretria giggled. “What?”
“Ryan, that’s silly. I don’t need a big deal. First of all, I have lots of nice dresses. Secondly, everyone I want to invite is in our grandparents’ room.”
“We need rings,” I insisted.
“I don’t want a chunk of compressed carbon on my finger, Ryan. If you insist, I will wear a plain gold band, but that is all.” Her dark eyes flashed with passion.
“As you wish,” I agreed. It was her choice, in the end. “As long as I have you, I’m happy.”
“Thank you.” She stood and enveloped me in a tight hug. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I held her for a moment, and then released her with a sigh. “Let’s clean up, and then go tell our grandparents.
A few minutes later, we stepped into their room to find an attractive Hispanic woman standing next to my grandfather’s side of the bed. She was dressed in jeans and a button-down blouse, and held a small portfolio tucked under her left arm. She smiled as we stepped in. “And there they are now,” she said in a perfect Boston accent.
“Eretria, Ryan, meet Judge Helena Fong. She’s a friend,” my grandfather said.
“Judge Fong,” I said with a slight bow.
“Madam,” Eretria said with a bow of her own.
“Good afternoon. I understand the two of you wish to marry?” The judge looked at each of us in turn.
“I do,” Eretria replied.
“As do I,” I responded.
“When would you like this to happen?”
“We need a few minutes to change clothes, if that’s okay,” I answered. “I don’t have the rings, though.”
“Go get dressed,” Grandmother said with a smile.