Two mornings later, and the weird gossip Annette heard about Shark and Sinbad hadn’t left her mind. It made too much sense to ignore, but she kept her cool about it without proof. Such was the way of the “cool aunt.”
It didn’t even sour her to Shark, as she still hung out with her nephew whenever their schedules intersected. Two mornings later, and the town declared a snow day. Municipal employees like Bill got a day at home, and teachers did too. And Julienne gave her the night shift. Even without a snow day for Bill, Annette got plenty of time with her husband regardless. She could sacrifice half a morning to chat with Shark after they did the dishes. Meanwhile, Amy and Sinbad shared a post-breakfast smooch, and Shark had the look of awkward guilt on his face.
“What’s eatin’ you?” Annette asked. He snapped back, a little bit, but still looking eaten up.
“Are you familiar with the ‘mandated reporter’ obligation?” he asked her. Annette shrugged.
“Is this a teacher thing?”
“Yep. It means that Amy and I have to report child abuse whenever we suspect it. So…you remember Franco’s little friend? The one with the plaster on her face?”
Her mind flashed back to something else Hannah told her. Nothing about getting hit at home. But again, Annette kept her persona intact. “Sure do. But, did rich bastards like you never get into trouble as a kid? You never slid down the banister, only to knock your nose on the radiator right at the foot of the stairs?”
“Jesus Christ, what was wrong with you?” Shark asked, his face contorting in disgust.
“Bad example. So that’s it, huh?”
He took a deep breath. “Just that. But, child abuse is pretty scary, and I hoped I never had to come close to it.”
“So it’s just for your job, and not to win brownie points with a special someone in this house?”
Shark chuckled. “I don’t need Sinbad’s approval. And look at him, I think he has all he needs from someone else.”
Amy did lavish a lot of attention on her auburn-haired hunk. Especially because she could spend the whole day in her comfy shorts, leaned up against her boyfriend’s shoulder in plain sight of everyone. It was clear that Shark might have stared…but that meant nothing either! Clearly, his broken heart just yearned for a love like theirs. Not for another pair of green eyes to gaze into while making love.
After a while, Annette forgot about those two. Well, them as a couple. She just had ways to stay busy with the other aspects of her life.
And sometimes, she cared about family too!
Some might ask about Annette: why did she focus so much on the diner, when she owned a pond? One with a bar built right on its edge? It existed for private functions of her own, and owning a cheap place was too easy to be considered successful to her. It was a place for us. The most use it saw outside of us was for the events of the extended family. Such as when Lolly gave in and let Annette rent out her own place for Lolly’s wedding. The backdrop was gorgeous, and there was room and alcohol for the reception as well.
The ceremony itself went off without a hitch, and Annette stood in the aisle like the obnoxious in-law she was. It offered her a good vantage point, and she needed something easy after struggling with dressing up for the event.
Shark found his way next to her, just to visibly sob at the sister he had issues with getting hitched after all that time.
“I dunno if you’re jealous, or mourning, or just happy for her after all,” Annette whispered.
“Very well then.”
The rest of their little crowd had a more subdued reaction to their exchanged vows, but the thing overall got a great reception.
And when everyone got to see the bliss on the faces of Lolly and Justin, cheers and grains or rice were thrown around. At the reception, Annette got a few compliments on the food (her gift to the couple) and on the cake too. But as happy as she was for her niece, the night was barely about Lolly to her.
She had taken to following Shark around places, because he always proved to make great company. He could hang around Annette all day without getting her distracted like her husband could. That had its uses. Shark, being an adult, said he’d get a glass of wine inside for both of them. He then stopped in his tracks.
He never got to know Justin that well before the wedding. Lolly started dating him years after Shark moved out, and the two siblings preferred to avoid each other. He scratched his chin while observing the way Justin acted around his former roommate. He nearly spilled his wine, like the clumsy goof he likely was. His favorite subject seemed to be “The Internet of Things.” He tried working for a startup company that made internet-integrated stereo systems, but that project fell through. And Shark cared for none of it.
Instead, he observed the physical parts of Justin. His thick, dark hair and golden-tan skin. Round, hazel eyes. A thick, fit build.
“Are you ogling your new brother-in-law?” Annette asked, in a loud voice. Right behind her, Lolly heard and chuckled a bit.
“Typical Shark, you lousy perv,” Lolly giggled.
“Let’s take this outside,” he said to his aunt.
She continued once they were on the expansive, empty deck together. “Actually, he doesn’t seem like your type. He’s tan, but you like ‘em small enough for even me to throw around.”
“I fear what you guys did before me,” Shark said. “But that’s not it. I think I caught a break! And it’s all because of Justin.”
“I get it. I too want a hacker on my squad.”
“Not that! I’ve been having a bugger of a time with CPS. I shoulda listened to Sinbad about them, because they didn’t help him until it was too late. And now they’re just screwing over Hannah the same way. A few of the teachers have noticed some weird bruises on her. But I think I might have a lead. She might have another home to go into.”
“Either you want your sister to adopt her or…what, you think you can tell someone’s father just by looking at their faces?” Annette asked. “You know, for Harwood’s kids, almost all of them look just like him, and I still needed the power of science to confirm that for me. Terrebonne State is still throwing a fit at me for making them do that. And I’ve seen Hannah and her mum. They’re almost like twins.”
“How hard can it be to test two people?” he asked his aunt. “As you said, you were able to do it for one dead guy and…seven others, right?”
“Fine. I don’t like child abuse either,” Annette said. “I just need to get Sinbad to do this with me. I have a feeling I’ll need to do those bad things.”
“Hey guys! Want to see ol’ Dennis here make a fool of himself?”
Dennis had something for them to watch. The karaoke machine that Annette rented would have some use after all. Shark warned her that his dad sounded a little strangled when singing. She got a few shots down and thought she’d have some fun with it.
Even though Dennis was paired up with DeAndre Wolf himself, neither of them sounded great. Dennis was a thief, not a musician. DeAndre was a guitarist and infamous in the music industry for having a downright awful voice. It made a few buzzed patrons chuckle, though.
Shark and Lolly decided to put aside their differences to pull of a duet with “Face Your Demons.” And something weird happened to those two children of Dennis, because they sung like near-professionals. Drama and choir in school did that to them. Lolly didn’t miss any of the belted high notes during the chorus either!
Annette still tried to put a nice face on for her nephew, while Bill scowled like usual. “Come on,” she told her husband. “You’ve heard the original song. They’d rival it!”
“Come on, wouldn’t you at least cheer for the bride?”
“I watch these things for stuff like my brother embarrassing himself. This is…boring,” he said.
“Then we can go home, and I can find a good way to wipe that frown off your face.”
That got Bill running from the scene, dragging his tiny wife along with him like she was a ragdoll. She just had to count her blessings; at least she was anticipating some sort of sexy time for the whole day.
It took her ages to get out of that strappy, long dress when she got home. The eye hooks that held it together hid well. Then it was getting those silk gloves to stop sticking to her sweaty arms, or undoing the buckle to her heels. Of course, it was meant to be Bill’s job to do that for her in the heat of passion and desire, but she wanted out of that dress.
She whacked the door open and posed in front of their bed with a hand on her hip. Dressed in her favorite lingerie, Annette felt like a sexy conqueror. “You ready for some fun?” she asked Bill, who was reclining on the bed and still in his formal blazer.
“So what’s the fun if you did all the work for me?” he asked her. “You know that’s my favorite part!”
“You’re telling me that me, your beautiful young wife, barging into your room in her best undies somehow kills your boner? And I always know how to get you back up anyways.”
“Then do your work, Annette. I mean…yeah, there’s always a lot you can do.” He made some grabby-hands in her direction, for added effect.
They had barely started making out before they heard…something else. Annette always hated that, especially just as she started unbuttoning Bill’s shirt. Just as she felt the growing erection within his trousers too. Someone else was upstairs! And if she heard its source right (big pointy ears had a way of picking those things up), it came from Shark’s room. Someone opening the door and getting slammed against the wall.
If he ended up nabbing Lolly’s new husband after all, she’d be pissed.
She listened against the walls for whatever was going on, even if she was sure it was going to be sex. After so many years, she could pick out Shark’s moaning from anywhere in the house. However, the number of available men there at the wedding was…minimal. Whoever was his date confused Annette, which gave her more to think about.
But instead of speculating all night, she could get a glimpse. They left the door open.
Sure, it wasn’t a newlywed man, or any sort of married one. But Sinbad? Yes, Annette knew about Shark’s crush on the man, but his other relationship must have overshadowed that! Or maybe he had the world’s strongest fetish for peridot-green eyes. She didn’t even try to count all the ways this affair was wrong, ones that went beyond Sinbad being in a happy relationship without him.
She watched for a little bit, as they couldn’t notice her in the heat of the moment. Shark seemed to get into it. Deep into it, tracing his fingers over Sinbad’s extensive tattoos. Caressing all of that bare flesh. Not that Sinbad looked disinterested, but the desire looked lopsided.
Annette got herself downstairs before she was caught. She stayed in her underwear, and got a cold beer out of the fridge. After finishing its bitter goodness, she buried her head into her hands, a little sick at what she saw. First, it was pretty stupid of her not to believe Hannah when she told her about what happened months ago during the sleepover. Second, she could go over the many wrong reasons that affair existed for. Was Amy not good enough for Sinbad? Did Shark see too much of his former lover in that red-haired man?
Of course she wanted her nephew to be happy, above all else. But he needed to reconsider that as his outlet.
Because they believed they were home alone, the two men proceeded to have what Annette guessed was loud, rough anal. She could tell when it ended, and when things quieted down. And that was confirmed when Shark moseyed downstairs to the kitchen, right where Annette sat at the island counter.
“Barely noticed you were here,” he said to her. “You did some gross things too, I assume?” Even without the soundtrack, he had the disheveled, unbuttoned dress shirt to tell its own story.
“No, I got distracted. So let’s talk about the past, shall we?”
“Tonight? But this is supposed to be a fun night. I have plenty of crying time penciled in later this week, if you really need to discuss this stuff with me-”
Annette gave him an authoritative, tough glare, which caused him to start and back away. “No, we’re doing it tonight. So you know how I am usually your yes-woman? How I, compared to everyone else, harbored the best and most tolerant feelings towards you getting up up the ass from a man who grew up with your grandparents? I want those days back, Shark!”
“And I do too!”
“So why are you doing this, then? Doing this to…your own co-worker! You work with Amy and then you betray her trust like that? By taking her man?”
He spread out his arms, raising his voice as he grew more livid. “You wanna think that you understand this, but you don’t! You don’t understand what this does for me, and what this does for him too.”
She raised a finger. “Maybe I don’t. But…fine, I can’t stop you guys. But I hope you can just see where I’m coming from. You know all the reasons I’m angry at you.”
“So I do,” said Shark. “But why aren’t you angry at Sinbad?”
“Well, he still has a lot of work he can do for me.”
She wasn’t wrong or lying.
First, Annette had something to do for her nephew. Even if he was a cheating bastard, he had a losing battle with the incompetence of CPS. But he raised a point. If he could prove that Hannah had a biological father who could offer a better living situation, then she would be safe! And instead of having Terrebonne State University process eight or more samples, she could buy a paternity test from the pharmacy. Get saliva samples from the both of them and cross her fingers.
She just needed to do it without rousing Justin’s suspicion. She knew where he lived; not with Lolly, as he had a lot of delicate electronics to pack and that would take a while. But he lived in a place that provided her with a challenge. Her favorite type of challenge.
“Sleeping like an angel,” she whispered to Sinbad, who accompanied her for such a journey.
“You know I went to school with his roomie, right? I could’ve just asked him to let us in,” said Sinbad, keeping a low tone.
“C’mon, it’s fun doing this.” They stopped as they thought they saw Justin flinch himself awake, but it was a false alarm. He went bad to dreamland and his mild snoring.
“I got the q-tip. So what are you gonna do?”
“My real job. They better have some nice gadgets around.”
He got on the bed to see if there was a puddle of drool on Justin’s pillowcase, and found a place to swab after a bit of delicate searching.
Meanwhile, Annette tip-toed in and out of each of the three bedrooms, ransacking the empty ones for graphics cards or smart watches. She did get an Apple Watch 5 off one of the desks, but she forgot how long graphics cards were. They couldn’t quite fit under her loose shirt, at least not while being comfortable.
She tried to get downstairs. The house seemed quiet enough for that to be safe. But alas, Annette met another face at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hey, woah! What…what are you doing here? Thought everyone was out,” Annette said to the older man in the red t-shirt. He was busy screaming in panic, though. “Wait, aren’t you Jules’ ex? Think we’ve met before.”
He quieted down, but still spoke to Annette through teeth clenched on his fingernails. And she was right: she broke into the house of Wei Keane, and his roommates too.
“Oh no, is this a robbery?” he asked, in a fretting tone.
“What? No! I was here getting something for Justin’s wife. Couldn’t find that necklace, though. I bet she lost it in that huge mansion of hers,” said Annette. “I’ll…I’ll see myself out now.”
She squatted down on the deck while waiting for Sinbad to finish up. If he got out of the situation without panicking, then what became of his character? She waited for him to run out the door, screaming in a frenzy.
Any moment, he would.
“RUN, HE HAS A BLOWTORCH!”
As she knew, any moment. None of them called the police on them, which meant that the only victim was Sinbad’s emotional stability. He needed to get that back for the upcoming job #2. Which, funny enough, was the closest thing Annette had for him that was an actual career.
Her plan with DeAndre and Julienne was not a failure after all, but rather slow-acting. They did get married, which under any other circumstances would do little to put Julienne’s career on hold. Annette was called as a witness for their little eloping at City Hall. As happy as she was for her boss, she kept a little evil laugh inside of her. Oh sure, she still worked at the kitchen whenever she wasn’t sleeping, but Julienne had something to soon stop her in her tracks.
Yay for shotgun weddings. Of course, Julienne still looked gorgeous for the occasion, but she couldn’t hide the obvious. And everyone at work knew already. Julienne would know the joys of babies that Annette already considered long past her.
All those joys, and multiply them by three. Triplets meant mandated bed rest for Julienne in the upcoming weeks, and no working through her pregnancy like she otherwise would have attempted. It also meant that Annette got her temporary dream: standing in for Julienne.
That meant not only did she have some power, but that someone needed to be Annette’s Annette. Sinbad could cook meth, which meant that food had to be easy! He caused only one grease fire during his first week on the job, but soon he had prep and cooking grits down like he was a professional.
He did his job as if he cared about it, while Annette reveled in the joys of having full control of the place. Not only did she loosen the dress code (at last!), but she also got to be nosy. The diner’s taxes were in her slimy hands. And she noticed a few discrepancies in the records over the years, which she smiled at during her shift.
“Don’t you have to prep some things for the night crew?” Sinbad asked her.
“Done and done. But c’mon, look at this with me,” she said. “Come on. Tell me if you notice what I do.”
He looked over her shoulder to read the papers. “500 grand…that sounds a little like a false report.”
“You bet. So you know what this means?” she asked her new subordinate.
“You’re in deep shit?”
“I’m not in deep shit, but Julienne is. And this diner is hers! If she’s nabbed for this, then who else can the diner go to but me?” She said it all with a blissful grin. “If I can find a way to bring this to the officials, I might have my dream after all. I just need to be…discrete.”
“Hey guys, let’s turn up the night!”
Gala, the default night shift cook due to her own condition, gave Annette a wave from behind. “You can talk papers all you want to now. And thanks for the new aprons!”
“You sure you’re honest with this? Your husband steals from the city, for fuck’s sake,” said Sinbad, in a low voice. However, everyone in the kitchen knew that.
“We pay our taxes,” said Annette. “Like honest people. And Julienne doesn’t.”
She celebrated, but in a mundane way. Spaghetti Night with the Rackets was neither special nor uncommon. Bill had a way of getting his favorite meal whenever he pleased Annette in her preferred way. But, it was a good way to celebrate her own victories. Everyone enjoyed her spaghetti. She would die before serving sauce made anywhere but in her fabulous kitchen, after all. They also enjoyed Annette abiding by the law, when she did. And finding bad taxes was something lawful, anyways.
That dinner was special beyond Annette’s intention, though, or it was after the dishes were cleared. Bill and Franco had dish duty, though it seemed to be the only way they effectively bonded as father and son. Franco was still soured over learning what his father did to the city. The other four sat at the table, finishing up conversations. Shark and Annette were about to leave before they saw Sinbad take a small brown box out of his pocket.
He held Amy’s hands as they spoke. “It’s not even because I’m stuck here. You’ve stayed by my side when everyone else left me in the dust,” he said, his green eyes starting to sparkle with tears. “That’s why I wanna give you this.”
He was referring to the box, which he opened on the table. The slim golden ring inside even had a garnet in the center. Her birthstone.
“My god, Sinbad!” she cried. “It’s so beautiful…this will be beautiful.”
“Is that a yes?”
She looked him in eyes, smiling and shaking. “Yes it is.”
Perhaps the other two were happy for them on the inside. But their faces showed the shock and growing horror instead, at different things.
“I’m fucked, aren’t I?” Shark whispered to his aunt.
“Yes, but I am too if I don’t do this,” she said.
“I just need to decompress, get some tea…just cope with this. This might be tough.”
“You’re not going to help me? I could be risking my life here.”
“Wait, is this another one of your crazy schemes?” Shark asked.
“The letter.” Whispered through her clenched teeth. “That thing.”
She ran from the table and to her garden, and down the stairs to her private chambers. The letter was still on the table, but she swore that she kept the amethyst ring out in the open. That was a concern for later. Annette grabbed the letter and headed upstairs and up further, to Sinbad and Amy’s bedroom. They had already retired there for the night.
Annette managed to catch them before they did anything she shouldn’t watch. Just talking in their undergarments, with Sinbad looking calmer than ever in his boxer briefs and next to his new fiancee.
She stood near the door, smiling and holding envelope in plain sight. “Delivery for Mr. Rotter!” His look soured again. He sat up in bed to try and shoo her away.
“Of all nights, this one? Can’t I celebrate my engagement in peace?” He had an extra dose of whining in his voice.
“Yeah Annette, I haven’t intruded on your sexy times in, like, two years,” Amy added. “We were just about to get it on!”
Annette crossed her arms and smirked, unphased by her rudeness. “You can get it on, don’t worry. I just have a letter I’d like you to read. And by that, I mean Sinbad here. It’s just something I think he should know before you get hitched, and I’ll forget if I don’t do it now.”
“Fine, leave it on the table. We’ll get to it later,” Sinbad said, rubbing his forehead in a time of unneeded stress.
“Just as long as you get to it. See ya! I have a special guy who needs a handjob tonight too.” No, Bill did not get such a reward that night, and Annette wasn’t even planning on it. She instead hung out near Shark’s bedroom, listening to them through the wall. The bedsprings remained quiet. They just spoke in a worried murmur, the least sexy of tones.
Finally, someone tore open the envelope.
A/N: First off, song credits! “Face Your Demons” is a song by After Forever.
Uh, it has significance because Shark definitely has some demons to face.
Worldbuilding stuff! So, I don’t really like diamonds. This goes beyond the issues of conflict/blood diamonds. I think they’re a super-boring gem. This means that this world goes by different rules for engagement rings: birthstones. I probably should have mentioned this earlier, considering that Chapter 18 revealed that Harwood’s amethyst ring was an engagement ring he received, and as revealed in Chapter 3, amethysts are his birthstone (for February). But here we are again with Amy and Sinbad getting engaged, and her ring having her birthstone. This is me constructing a perfect world where a variety of gems can be used to propose with.
(Funny enough: I was born in April, making my birthstone…a diamond. I’m screwed under any rules!)
So…let’s talk Hannah now. This applies mostly to veteran readers who knew her as occupying a different sort of role.
Yes, she is Justin’s daughter in this version of the story, instead of how she was one of Harwood’s kids in the original. My reasons for this are as follows:
- There was no way for Harwood to father her without: a) him being a gross old lout who cheated on Shark, or, b) Sofia being one of the people he “donated” to, which would make her somehow both really wanting a child and also being all but shown (so far) as openly despising her child’s mere existence. Neither was quite meshing with me. Meanwhile, Justin easily could have had a past before meeting Lolly. I leave it kinda vague, sorry. But he seemed like a more believable choice and easier to write as at least somewhat sympathetic.
- Having Harwood be her father would have made the family tree so horribly inbred…which it was when I was playing the dynasty, but this is just a few steps away from being an “In Name Only” adaptation of that. If I can gloss over my shames simply by assigning a different father to Hannah, so be it!
- Hannah was so much just a palette-swap of her mother in the original dynasty that I could have named any tan-skinned guy in Twinbrook as her father and it would be believable. While I did do a completely new genetic blend of Sofia and Justin to make Hannah 2.0 for this story, she’s almost indistinguishable from the original Hannah because I still went with making her largely resemble Sofia.
- Even if this was basically a touched-up version of the original story (it’s well-beyond that), Hannah’s father could be anyone and the story would not change much, if at all. Really veterans, beyond a few mentions, the connection between Hannah and Harwood may as well not have been there. She was a character shaped by the traumas inflicted by her mother. And I kept that half of her the same.
Really, we’re not going to be lacking for a multitude of Harwood descendants here without her.
Also: Mandatory disclaimer that I think that Shark/Sinbad as a couple would be much better in anyone else’s story. Hell, I got the idea from Nessa because she ships them HARD (as anyone who follows her story will know). But here…no, it’s not gonna be sweet. Nothing is! 😛