Authors: Carrie Cox
I took a deep breath and changed the subject. “Um, I haven’t seen your brother yet,” I said, fiddling with one of the many pieces of cutlery in front of me. “Will we meet him tonight?”
It was now Alexander Harding’s turn to look uncomfortable. “I don’t think so. Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow. I thought I’d let you get settled in first.” He smiled. “I don’t want you to think I’m a slave driver.”
“Oh,” I said and attempted to smile. “Okay.”
Just as Alexander opened his mouth to say something else, there was a commotion from the other end of the room.
“God damn it.” A deep male voice boomed from the doorway.
We all turned.
“This infernal chair. It costs a fortune and it won’t even pass through a normal-sized doorway.”
The voice came from a dark-haired man seated in a wheelchair, struggling to get through the door. The chair’s wheels had caught on the archway.
His shirt sleeves were rolled up and the muscles in his forearms bulged as he grabbed the wheels, turning the chair and maneuvering himself into the room. He pushed himself into the center of the room and stared at us sitting at the table.
I swallowed. He was easily the hottest man I had seen in my life. Alexander was good looking. But his brother … his brother was something else.
The contrast between them couldn’t have been greater. Alexander Harding was cool and distant, his brother was fiery, and at the moment, clearly furious.
He glared at us all in turn.
“I see we have guests.” He addressed his brother. “How lovely,” he said in a tone that implied the opposite. “My name’s Jack. Jack Harding. I’m the crippled brother.” He looked at Lauren and then at me. “And which one of you is my new babysitter?”
If I had wished the ground would swallow me up a few minutes ago, right now I was longing for an earthquake - anything to get me out of this room.
I shrugged. “I guess that would be me.”
I looked at Alexander. His mouth had tightened into a disapproving line. “This isn’t a good time, Jack. They’ve just arrived. They’ve had a long flight. Can we do this tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. They’ve had a long flight. How awful for them and how inconsiderate of me. I mean, I’m only stuck in a wheelchair after an accident ruining my career. How unreasonable of me to want a say in the people who you employ to look after me day after day.”
He stared at me with such fury, I actually flinched.
“Did you know that my dear older brother employed you as my babysitter without my knowledge?” His hands gripped the armrests of his wheelchair.
Lauren and I exchanged horrified glances.
“Enough.” Alexander practically growled at his brother.
I raised an eyebrow. That was interesting. At least I now knew Alexander did have some emotions. He wasn’t quite as cool as he seemed on the surface.
Jack Harding smirked. “Embarrassing you, am I? It can’t be nice to have a crippled brother. A problem you can’t solve no matter how much money you throw at it.”
Alexander’s grip on his wine glass tightened so much, I thought it would shatter. “You are not a cripple. The wheelchair is temporary. The doctors say —”
“The doctors say that because you pay them!”
I could understand why Jack was so annoyed. I felt sorry for him. If someone tried to control of my life like that it would irritate the hell out of me, too.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have to confess my secret. Perhaps I wouldn’t even get a chance to start work. If Jack had taken an instant dislike to me, I’d be fired before I even got started.
After Jack wheeled himself off mumbling a string of muttered curses, Lauren, Alexander and I ate the rest of our dinner in uncomfortable silence.
When Alexander offered us coffee after dinner, Lauren was quick to refuse. I imagined she couldn’t wait to get away. And under other circumstances I would too, but I needed to speak to Alexander alone.
When I accepted Alexander’s offer of coffee, Lauren gave me a puzzled look. She’d obviously expected me to follow her upstairs where we could gossip and analyze the events of the evening.
But I had to do this. I avoided her gaze as she got up from the table.
After Lauren left the room, I turned to Alexander. I needed to tell him now. I needed to confess before I lost my nerve.
I breathed in the warm roasted scent of the coffee and it steadied my nerves. I raised my eyes and looked at Alexander.
“Mr. Harding…” I began.
“It’s Columbian,” Alexander said. “My favorite. Coffee is a weakness of mine.” He pushed a tiny silver jug towards me. “Cream?”
Distracted, I reached for the cream, added some to my coffee and stirred it with a tiny silver teaspoon. It rattled against the side of the china cup, betraying my nerves, so I quickly put it down.
He was staring at me intently, but I did my best to avoid eye contact.
“The thing is, Mr. Harding, I…”
“Please, you can call me Alexander. You make me feel very old when you call me Mr. Harding.”
I smiled, and my eyes flickered up to meet his. He regarded me with a cool, steady gaze. I tried to read his expression and judge his mood, but I couldn’t. He was so difficult to read.
I tried again. “Alexander,” I said. “I think I need to get something clear before I start working for you and looking after your brother. I think you should realize that, although I did start a nursing degree, I never actually finished it. I’m not qualified.”
The words left my mouth in a rush, tumbling over themselves in my haste to make my confession. It took me a few seconds before I gathered the courage to look up and see his reaction.
He was sipping his coffee and looking quite unconcerned.
“I know,” he said and smiled. “As you have been so honest with me, I’ll repay the favor and tell you the truth. Kristina, my brother is very important to me, and I wouldn’t bring just anyone into his life, especially at the moment if I weren’t convinced they’d be good for him.”
I frowned. “But I don’t really have any experience with this type of nursing. I’m sure your brother needs specialized care.” My voice shook a little as I spoke. “I don’t want to let you down.”
Alexander smiled. “Jack has medical staff on standby. He has a physiotherapist who visits every day, a team of doctors and a therapist who he refuses to talk to. You’re here not so much in a medical capacity...” His voice faded a little and he looked off into the distance as if he were searching for the right words. “You are here because Jack needs someone his own age, someone to talk to.
“Before the accident, Jack was adventurous, full of life, always trying new things and basically full of fun. Now he prefers to sit in his rooms and be on his own. At first, I thought that was normal after such a terrible accident, but now I’m worried. I want my brother back. I want him how he used to be.”
I didn’t really understand how I could help Jack, and I didn’t know what to say in response to Alexander. He seemed to be being very honest.
Pulling my cup towards me, I took a sip of my coffee. My mind was whirring. Why would Jack want to talk to me? What could we possibly have in common? I’d spent the past five years living in a trailer park, mixing with a bad crowd. He had grown up with all the privileges money could buy. We couldn’t be more different.
But I felt myself warming to Alexander. He might be quite cold and distant on the exterior, but he obviously cared deeply for his brother.
My hands shook as I lifted my coffee cup to my lips again.
Alexander tried to hide a laugh. “You were really worried about telling me that, weren’t you?”
I flushed. “I just didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I didn’t want to mislead you and make you think I was qualified to do something I’m not.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re an honest person, Kristina. I think that confirms I made the right choice. I’m convinced you will be good for my brother.”
I swallowed the rest of my coffee. It was too hot, but I wanted to finish and get up to my room. My head was spinning, and I was really not sure what to make of the Harding brothers. I had been so convinced Alexander was going to chuck me out as soon as I confessed I wasn’t qualified for the job. But now that it looked like I still had a job, I had something else to worry about: Jack Harding.
“Jack didn’t seem too pleased to see that I would be working here. Do you really think he’s going to want me around?”
“I think we’ll bring him around.” Alexander smiled. “I think you’re just the person we need to bring Jack to his senses.”
I was just about to ask Alexander what he meant by that when Maria entered the room.
“There’s a telephone call for you, sir. I’m sorry to interrupt, but the caller said it’s urgent.”
Alexander put his napkin on the table and pushed back his chair. “I’m sorry, Kristina. Would you excuse me?”
I nodded. “Of course. I’m finished anyway. I’ll go up to my room now. Thank you for a lovely dinner.”
After Alexander left to take his phone call, I hastily got to my feet and left the dining room to catch up with Maria.
I wanted some answers and who better to ask than somebody who had worked here for years.
“Maria,” I called out to her. She stopped and turned.
“Do you live here, at the house?”
Maria smiled. “Sometimes I stay overnight during the week.”
I nodded and wondered how to bring up the subject of the Harding brothers. I had so many questions, mainly questions about Jack Harding. Now that I knew I was staying, I was quite terrified of what Jack would be like tomorrow.
I decided to be blunt and just ask. I couldn’t be bothered with games.
“Maria, I’m meant to be working with Jack tomorrow and…” I lifted my hands and shrugged. “I really don’t know much about him.”
Maria looked at me sympathetically, which didn’t make me feel any better. Did she pity me for having to work for Jack Harding? Was he really that bad?
“It’s a terrible shame,” Maria said. “He was such a live wire, such an adventurer, until the accident.”
“How did the accident happen?” I asked in a lowered voice in case we could be overheard.
Maria’s eyes widened. “You haven’t heard?” She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “It was such a tragedy. Have you never heard of Jack Harding?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t heard of Jack Harding until I’d been offered the job.
“I don’t think so. Should I have?”
“He was a racing driver. World Champion, three times running.”
That triggered something in my memory. I thought I vaguely remembered something about a world champion called Harding
“The Formula One driver? I had no idea.”
Maria nodded her head. “Yes. And at the end of the last season, just as the championship was in his grasp again, he was forced off the road. Some say deliberately.” Maria leaned a little closer. “It was terrible. He was in the hospital for two months. He broke both his legs and bruised his spine, and he hasn’t walked since.”
“Is he paralyzed?”
“He isn’t paralyzed, but the doctors say he will never race again. I don’t think his brother wants to believe it. Alexander wants Jack to be whole again. He doesn’t want to accept his brother is broken.”
“Broken.” I repeated the word as it resonated with me. That was just how I had felt for the longest time.
“Not so much his body,” Maria said, “but his… How do you say it? His spirit. Yes, his spirit is broken.”
Maria stopped talking when she heard footsteps, and we both turned to see Alexander walking back from his study. He gave us a tight smile as if he knew we’d been gossiping.
I smiled back, feeling guilty, and wished them both good night then headed towards the stairs.
It was only ten pm, but to me it felt so much later. I put it down to jet lag. Despite the fact I felt tired enough to sleep for a week, I didn’t think I was going to get much rest that night. I was wired. My mind was whirring, trying to process everything that had happened.
As I climbed into bed and pulled the crisp, cotton sheets up to my chin, I shivered. Tomorrow I would see Jack again, and I was absolutely dreading it.
“God damn it, this stupid chair.”
I spat the words out in frustration, then tried again. This time I was able to maneuver the wheelchair through the ridiculously narrow doorway.