Emilio slid Victoria a glance as they walked hand-in-hand through the hotel lobby. She seemed surprisingly calm, but then, she loved giving presentations. He wasn’t particularly prone to butterflies before he performed, either, so the fact that she wasn’t really was no surprise.
He barked a laugh and she looked at him. “The introvert and the extrovert, both born performers.”
She smiled, but her smile was tight.
Ah. “You’re angry,” Emilio said softly, stopping and pulling her gently into his arms.
She wrapped her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. “I don’t understand them,” she said thinly. “I don’t understand what they want from me. Some days it’s this. Some days it’s that. Some days it’s something completely different. It’s like they’re speaking another language. I could never have predicted they would refuse an invitation to come here.”
“Are you upset because they turned down the invitation or why they turned it down?”
“I’m upset because it confuses me on everything else they’ve ever done or said they wanted from me. Emilio,” she whispered plaintively, “I don’t know those people. I never have.”
“That’s their fault, not yours.”
“No, it’s totally consistent with everybody else in the world.”
“Everybody else in the world didn’t bear and rear you.”
She sighed and he stroked her back.
“I propose we allow them to speak first.”
“No, Emilio. They’ll call you all sorts of names.”
“Victoria, I’ve been on their side of the fight. I understand and I don’t blame them for thinking of me as they do because whatever they know or think is probably mild by comparison to the truth.”
“But if I—” She huffed. “Never mind. You aren’t the issue. My idiocy is.”
That was true, so Emilio didn’t address that. “I’ll translate for you if you want.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
The door to Sebastian’s suite was open. Victoria’s parents were already there. Sebastian seemed to be working and Victoria’s father was reading a French newspaper. Her mother was embroidering and watching TV.
They all looked up when Emilio led Victoria in. Yves glared at Emilio, but his face softened a little when he looked at Victoria.
As Emilio suspected. A loving father who had no idea who this child was.
Her mother wouldn’t meet Emilio’s eyes nor Victoria’s, but she was fidgeting.
“Hrmph,” was the only thing Sebastian said.
Emilio pulled Victoria across the room and offered his hand to Yves, who refused it with a contemptuous sniff.
“Papa!” Victoria barked, startling all of them. “Stop being such a cliché. I do not care how much you hate Emilio, you will respect him because he’s the man I chose to marry.”
Her father looked at her funny. “Cliché?”
“Rude Frenchman,” she snapped. “And people wonder where I get it.” She turned to her mother. “Tell me that story again? The one where Grandpa questioned your judgment in marrying Papa? And believed he joined the church because he just wanted to get you in bed? And wouldn’t let you have a temple recommend because of it? And so you moved into another stake so he wouldn’t have authority over you? And then almost didn’t come to your wedding because you went around him? And then threatened to castrate him if he took you back to France to live? But he did anyway?”
Yves’s mouth tightened. Harriet heaved a sigh. Sebastian drawled, “Oh, yeah. I forgot about all that.”
It didn’t seem as if Emilio would be needed to translate after all. He found a chair, sank into it, and relaxed with a smirk. He looked at Sebastian. “Your grandfather was a stake president?”
Sebastian nodded with a chuckle.
“Tell me something, Papa,” she demanded. “Were you a virgin when you married Mama?”
Emilio choked. So did everyone else.
“Victoria!” her mother gasped.
Victoria looked at her mother with an expression of shock. “Mother!” she said, laying a hand against her chest. “You’re here because of Emilio’s indiscretions, are you not? The same way Grandpa questioned Papa’s? You feel free to question my husband’s sexual history, so I feel free to question yours.”
Emilio was watching Yves’s face, which was pale with fury.
“Victoria,” he growled. “That was washed clean when I was baptized, as you well know.”
“But Grandpa didn’t see it that way, did he? No. Grandpa got Grandma pregnant to win a bet—”
Emilio gaped between Yves and Sebastian, who both looked as shocked as Emilio felt.
“How do you know that?” Harriet croaked.
“Grandma told me. After I came home from my mission, all dreamy over a matador I’d seen.”
Emilio smirked at Sebastian’s incredulous glance.
“I don’t know why she told me the story because it had nothing to do with what I was talking about—or maybe it did and I just didn’t know it yet—but she was practically floating through the whole thing.” She rounded on her father again. “So if Grandpa, a bastard who would do this horrible thing, would object to you, it meant he knew a bastard when he saw one!”
It was obvious to Emilio that she’d already worked this through, probably long ago, and hadn’t cared until she was forced to.
“And now you’re doing the exact same thing he did, not even giving you a chance, except I already know Emilio’s a promiscuous bastard, which is more than I can say for Grandma! I’m not asking for my health. I really want to know how many women you slept with before you noticed Mama and if Mama knew you were a bastard when she married you.”
As entertaining as Emilio was finding this, he couldn’t let it go on. She would never understand the consequences of pursuing this—not for her, but in her parents’ marriage, because Harriet looked a little too stricken for his comfort.
“Mama, you’re happy with Papa. Grandma was happy with Grandpa. Everybody was happy no matter how they got there. Why can’t you let me have my chance to be happy with a bastard, especially when I got the one I already knew I wanted?”
“That’s a fair point,” Sebastian muttered.
“Well?” Victoria insisted of her mother. “Do you know how many women Papa slept with before he married you? Did he trick you the way Grandpa tricked Grandma?”
But Sebastian spoke before Emilio could. “That’s enough, Vic. Stop.”
She rounded on Sebastian, her mouth open, but when Sebastian’s eyebrow shot into his hairline, she shut her mouth with a sharp click.
Emilio would have to remember that trick and find out why it worked.
“Okay, so now we’ve got all that aired out,” Sebastian drawled, “let’s talk about why nobody but Emilio showed up at Vic’s keynote. Vic, siddown.”
Everyone was silent, but Victoria was looking to Harriet for her explanation.
Harriet took a deep, shuddering breath. “Arsène had decided she wanted to participate in the ward talent show and we didn’t have time to get here and back.”
Emilio watched Victoria’s face because he didn’t know why that would be significant. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but her fingers curled into the arm of the chair.
Then she said simply, “Oh.”
The hairs on the back of Emilio’s neck suddenly started to tingle. He wanted to ask questions, but he didn’t know where to start.
“Why didn’t you tell me that instead of saying a ‘church commitment’?” Victoria asked quietly.
“I thought you were inviting us to be polite and that you would be happier if we didn’t come.”
“I am not polite!” she roared, bolting out of her chair to stand over her father, who rose with the same bluster. Victoria and Yves were the same height. “I have needed your support exactly twice in my life: When I graduated from college. When I was granted my doctorate. You didn’t come to either of those.”
“You didn’t ask us to!” her father yelled back.
Emilio’s mouth fell on the floor and it was Sebastian’s turn to gasp. It didn’t seem to surprise Victoria, though.
“Why would she have to ask?!” Sebastian demanded.
“But now,” she said quietly, “I know you wouldn’t have even if I’d asked. Why? What is it about me that you hate that much?”
That was when Yves cracked. “Hate you?” he whispered as if heartbroken. “I don’t hate you. I don’t understand you.”
That much was clear.
“You understand Étienne!”
“No I don’t!” he bellowed, flinging his hands into the air.
Clearly, Victoria was shocked. Her face fell into confusion. “Then why do you lavish so much attention on him and not me?”
“ÉTIENNE DOES WHAT HE’S TOLD! I DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND HIM!”
Emilio and Sebastian traded looks.
But Victoria looked even more confused. “But Felix doesn’t do what he’s told. He’s constantly in jail.”
“Felix isn’t a genius,” Yves snapped. “He’s idealistic and passionate about serving the poor and he hates authority, but he’s not a genius. His needs are simple, his heart is pure, and his motives are easy to understand. What could I have done, Victoria?” he demanded. “What could I have done that would have fulfilled you?”
“Take me into the workshop with Étienne and Felix!”
He took a step toward Victoria and pointed at her. She stepped back, her confusion now mixed with wariness. Emilio clutched the arms of his chair, prepared to go after Yves if he got violent, but caught the shake of Sebastian’s head.
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember,” he growled.
“Yves, she was only four,” Harriet said softly.
Victoria’s head snapped to her mother. “What?”
“You never did what you were told in the workshop. It was dangerous, tools and chemicals everywhere. You wouldn’t sit still. You wouldn’t keep your hands out of anything. You figured out the combinations of all my locks and wouldn’t stay out of them. You wouldn’t stop talking! I wouldn’t have minded if you were asking questions about what I was trying to teach you, but you couldn’t or wouldn’t keep a single thought in your head long enough to get your curiosity satisfied. Halfway through any explanation I gave you, you were asking about something completely different and you didn’t hear the answer to the previous question. And you wouldn’t stay away from the chemicals and tools!”
Emilio groaned and put his face in his palm because he knew from experience that children and labs don’t mix.
“Ah, well, there then! Your husband seems to understand this. I couldn’t teach you alone because you refused to be taught. I couldn’t teach the three of you together because you wouldn’t stay out of anything and you refused to stop talking. I put you out of the workshop the day you almost killed all four of us.”
Victoria looked like she was about to fall over, but Emilio was quicker. He caught her and pressed her toward a sofa so she could take refuge against him.
Yves watched this with some detachment and waited until she was settled before continuing. It was short and sweet. “You put bleach in a cup of ammonia.”
Emilio almost had a heart attack.
“I didn’t know … ” Victoria whimpered.
“YOU KNEW!” he roared. “I told you repeatedly what those were and what would happen if you mixed them. I had them stored apart, in locked metal cabinets. You did it because you thought I was stupid and you were going to show me that you knew better!
“And the minute I turned my back on you, you walked away from us in Paris when we were in no position to be able to chase after you. You looked back and waved! Then you disappeared in the crowd. No idea where you’d go because you’d spoken of several places you wanted to go that day. You got a map, read it, plotted out your entire dream itinerary and made sure we knew about it! And to hell with what anybody else wanted to do. NO, WE DIDN’T THINK YOU’D GONE HOME BECAUSE IT WAS THE LAST PLACE YOU WANTED TO BE!”
Victoria’s shoulders were beginning to tremble and she bowed her head to put her face in her hands.
“You have done,” he growled, “exactly what you wanted to do since you were born. And you are exactly like Julien, who pulled the exact same types of stunts for the exact same reason—because you knew better. You were chasing after a ball, I know. Yours was an accident. But Julien didn’t get hit by a car. He wanted to try that stunt in Indiana Jones where he crawls underneath a speeding truck! I told him how the stunt was done and that it wouldn’t work in real life—no, I showed him how it was done. But he thought he knew better than I and he was going to show me that I was wrong. He died because he was arrogant and willful, not because he was careless!”
Victoria bent over double to sob.
“You are Julien! We weren’t trying to bury you because we thought you were too stupid to survive on your own. We were trying to keep your hubris and willfulness under control before it killed you the way Julien’s killed him.”
Emilio rubbed her back, but didn’t attempt to keep Yves from piling on. He needed to say it and Victoria needed to hear it.
“And her escapades around town?” Sebastian asked quietly, apparently having come to the same conclusion Emilio had. “You weren’t paying attention to her at all.”
Yves sneered at him. “Between Felix’s antics and Arsène’s health problems and our two youngest daughters, we lost track of her and Étienne. We assumed they’d be together and Étienne would forestall some of her impulses. Our error was in assuming Étienne would be with her at all.” Yves’s attention snapped to Emilio and his eyes narrowed. “It is true,” he snarled, “that Victoria kept Étienne’s brain. But Étienne kept Victoria out of trouble—because he did what he was told and he was the only person she would listen to.”
Emilio inclined his head a little to acknowledge the correction, no matter how nastily delivered.
“I wondered how Étienne lost track of you, but I realized when he and Felix helped you go on your mission that he doesn’t see danger any better than you do. Of course Felix would encourage you to rebel. But Étienne apparently had better things to do than protect his sister.”
“Did you know Étienne got on a plane the second I told him she was dating a matador?” Sebastian asked quietly.
Yves and Harriet, surprised, looked at Sebastian and shook their heads.
“He would’ve intervened if he thought she was getting in over her head with Emilio. He never neglected her. He trusted her.”
Suddenly there was silence in the room except for Victoria’s sobs and Harriet’s quiet weeping.
Yves sat heavily into his chair and rubbed his face. “We knew,” he said quietly, “about your sneaking out on your companion to see a bullfight. Your mission president called us and asked us to come get you.”
Victoria groaned through her sobs and even Emilio was surprised.
“We said we’d come right away, but he had to put us on hold. When he came back he said that wasn’t necessary after all. We said we’d come anyway, and he said he’d just realized that you were there independent of us. Then you came home wanting a graduate degree in English. That would be like going to kindergarten for you, so it made us suspicious.”
“But why didn’t you go to her graduations?” Sebastian asked as if he were a little hurt, too. Then Emilio remembered: His father had refused to go to Sebastian’s graduation from Harvard.
“We have always regretted that,” Harriet murmured. “As for your keynote— If Arsène hadn’t had her program—” She looked up at Sebastian. “You know Arsène.”
Sebastian nodded and looked at Emilio. “She’s almost impossible to live with under the best of circumstances. If they’d missed her concert, I can’t even imagine.”
Victoria’s reaction made a bit more sense. “Ah.”
“Don’t think it didn’t keep us up at night,” her mother muttered. “We didn’t come to save you from yourself and got here too late. We came as soon as we could arrange to be away from her.”
“Every time we get a call in the middle of the night,” Yves said low after a pause, “every letter you ignore, every visit we see your car and the shape it’s in, we worry. You accused us of living life in fear for you and yes, we do. You’ve given us ample reason to.”
Sebastian made a noise of impatience. “When she was four?” he demanded. “And six? She was doing what kids do. Why can’t you see she hasn’t screwed up since and get off her back?”
Yves’s mouth tightened. “And now she’s thirty-two and married a man she’s known for three months, who plays with chemicals and dares bulls to kill him twice a week and likely has a few dozen as-yet-unidentified sexually transmitted diseases.”
Emilio barked a laugh.
That reaction surprised Yves, who looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. “Hrmph. Half a dozen, perhaps.”
“None,” Emilio drawled with amusement.
“Yes, but did she give it any thought whatsoever?”
“She asked me up front.”
That clearly surprised Yves. “Did she ask for proof?”
“She took your word for it,” he said flatly. “That’s—”
Emilio’s eyebrow rose. “Please remember she is my wife before you insult her again. I understand your perspective, but I have come to the end of my patience.”
He harrumphed. “I do not like that she is your wife. Étienne finds you useful, so I consider his opinion of you to be irrelevant. But Sebastian has told us how this … relationship developed. He believes you do have some honor and that you genuinely love her and you understand her. I have my doubts about that, but I suppose I will have to take his word for it, as he is generally a good judge of character.”
“High praise,” Emilio murmured, impressed in spite of himself.
“Didn’t get it from his father, that’s for sure.”
Sebastian growled a little, but said nothing.
The room grew quiet again and Emilio simply stroked Victoria’s back, letting her cry herself out.