Rule number one: you don’t mess with my family. David broke that rule. His first mistake. His only mistake, but it was a pretty big one. A massive testament to the absolute arsehole I should’ve always known he was, that lapse in judgement is something I will never repeat.
You see, people who mess with my family – people who disrespect, steal from, cheat on someone within our, admittedly very close-knit circle, they rarely come out of that in one piece. Some have never come out of it, period, but David did. Because I made sure of it. Yeah, the man who cheated on me, stole from me, had some weird kind of assumption that he could get away with all that shit, well, he was either extraordinarily brave, or blindingly stupid, and knowing what I know now my money would always go on the latter and yet, he still got to walk away. Intact. Not even a bruise. Thanks to me.
“Do you regret it?” Ollie asks, perching his arse on the corner of my desk. “Letting David off the hook so easily?”
“I have my moments.” I look at my brother, throwing him a slight smile. “But I think it was the right decision.”
“Yeah,” Ollie sighs. “Not one everybody was happy with.”
I sit back in my chair and rest my steepled fingers over my stomach. “By everybody, you mean Dad.” Not a question. Of course he means Dad. Mikkel Nielsen. Outrageously successful. Extremely powerful. A man you don’t make a habit of crossing.
“He likes to deal with things in his own way, Lena. You stopped him from doing that.”
“David’s an idiot, but I’m not sure he deserved the kind of punishment Dad would’ve doled out, had he got his hands on him.”
“He stole from this family.”
“He stole from me.” My dignity, mainly. But also money that didn’t belong to him, the main reason this family wanted to deal with him their way, not mine. But when all was said and done, it was a couple of hundred pounds, a drop in the ocean to the Nielsen family.
“From us.” Ollie points out before sliding down from my desk, digging his hands into his pockets as he walks over to the wall of glass that looks out over the River Tyne, the Quayside, and – if you’re from this neck of the woods in north-east England – the iconic Tyne Bridge from this contemporary, purpose-built office block, erected by our family’s own construction company. The company I run. “Anyway,” Ollie turns around and leans back against the glass, “if it had been left up to me…”
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t.” I spin my chair around so I’m looking at Ollie. “David fucked up, big time. He lost his job, his home, the life we’d started to build together. A good life. ” I shrug. “He fucked up.”
“Understatement.” Ollie sighs and glances back over his shoulder. “We’ve got a meeting tonight. Me and Dad.” He looks back at me. “At the High Grange Hotel.”
I let out a low whistle and spin my chair back around. “Must be important business.”
My chair spins around again. “Novak? When did we start doing business with that family?”
“This isn’t business as such. Over the past few months we’ve noticed the Romanians’ presence growing, and now they’re starting to infiltrate our territory. We need to have a quiet word, that’s all.”
I arch a brow. “That’s all? Novak has links to known terrorists…”
“We’ve known him a long time, Lena, and for the most part our families have respected each other, and kept our distance because you’re right. We don’t get involved with people like him, but he’s given us no choice now. We can’t just sit back and let him take what isn’t his. We don’t do that, either.”
“You should be careful. I’ve never trusted him. Never trusted anyone who’s close to him.”
“He needs to know there are rules. And he needs to know he’s breaking them.”
Children of a Danish father and an American-English mother, me and Ollie, we were never kept in the dark as to what kind of family we were being brought up in. The things my father did. The kind of man he was. Alright, maybe in the beginning, when we were just kids, our parents shielded us from it as much as they could, but as we got older we became very aware that we were no ordinary family. We were different. To the outside world, Mikkel Nielsen is nothing more than an extremely successful businessman, but he’s so much more than that. Yes, he’s a very wealthy man, a very powerful man. But he’s also a man many fear, like I said, you don’t mess with my family. That has consequences, which is why David was, quite literally, lucky to walk away.
“Did he ever say thank you?” Ollie crosses his arms and takes another glance back over his shoulder. He’s changing the subject, which is about par for the course. I only get to know so much before the drawbridge is pulled up.
“Did who ever say thank you?” I’m facing my desk again, checking through another batch of emails.
“David. Did he ever thank you, for saving his life?” Ollie finally pulls himself away from the window and heads for the door.
“Saving his life might be a bit of an exaggeration.”
“He’s still breathing, isn’t he?”
I narrow my eyes again as I look at Ollie, a slight smile on my face, which is matched by him. We both know my ex-fiancé got off lightly. We also know he’ll spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, which is less than he deserves, but I’ll take it.
“Is Jake around?” Ollie asks, grabbing his jacket from the chair by the door. “We need him to drive us tonight.”
“He’s on site, at the apartments in Netherly Bridge. I’ll text him.”
“Thanks.” He reaches for the door handle, and then stops and turns back to look at me. “Oh, I forgot to tell you, Mum’s on her way over.”
“Yep. She’s missed you, Sis.”
He throws me a wide grin before leaving my office, and I sit back and sigh heavily, spinning my chair back around to look out at the view of the river. I can see all the way over to the other side of the Tyne, to Gateshead and beyond. A mixture of smart office suites, art galleries, music venues, bars, restaurants and exclusive apartments surround us, we blend in here. This place, the glass-fronted offices of Nielsen Construction, it’s exactly the kind of front my father needs to run the kind of business he does in the shadows. The kind I try to avoid getting mixed up in, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid. And I’m not ignorant enough to think he doesn’t use this business, in some shape or form, as a front, I just try to side-step all the shit I don’t need to know about. But at the same time, I think I need to be a part of it, for my own safety. But in terms of my involvement within the family business – the real family business – well, Dad’s always tried to keep that to a minimum. We all have our roles. I run the construction company from this ultra-modern, riverside building. Mum’s the dutiful wife, and Ollie– well, he’s part of Dad’s world. I was never really given that option. And sometimes that bothers me. As soon as I finished university I was put front and centre of Nielsen Construction, I was to be the face of the family company, and that was the only choice handed to me. The only choice. And yeah, I could’ve walked away, looked for something else, but I wanted to work with my family. I wanted to do some good, because Nielsen Construction also heads up a vast range of charities here in the north-east. What my father does behind the scenes, it has nothing to do with that side of the business. The side the world sees. And it’s my job to make sure the two stay entirely separate. But I know – of course I know – that I’m only told what I need to hear. Need to know. And that unsettles me, more than I care to admit.
I swing my chair back around as my phone rings out, and I check to see who’s calling. It’s Mum. And I contemplate rejecting it but that won’t keep her at bay forever, so I sigh quietly, and reluctantly answer it.
“Lena, sweetheart! I’m down in reception. I was just passing and thought I’d pop in and take you to lunch.”
I close my eyes and silently count to three before taking a deep breath. “Come on up. I just need to finish a couple of things here and I’ll be done.”
I fire off a quick reply to an email that can’t wait until after lunch for a response, and then I get up and go over to the full-length mirror in the corner of my office and check my reflection. I look okay. A bit tired, but that’s because I’m still holding onto some of that residual anger caused by finding out my ex-fiancé is actually a grade-A cheating son-of-a-bitch. It’s done fuck all for my skin, and I’m sure it’s caused a few more fine lines to appear around my eyes, and now I’m beginning to wonder if letting him walk free was such a good idea, but I’m stopped from taking those dark thoughts any further by my mother’s appearance. She doesn’t do knocking.
“Are you all done?” she asks, setting her handbag down on a nearby chair. Sometimes I think she honestly believes that I’m nothing more than a figurehead in this company. That I do nothing more than pop in every day for a couple of hours just to show my face.
“Yeah. I’m all done.”
Mum knows I’m not really a fan of these “girly” lunches, but she’s only doing it because she wants to spend some time with me. Ollie’s right, she’s missed me, and in reality I’ve missed her too, while I was giving way too much of my time to a man who didn’t give a shit about me. Us. Yeah. I’m really starting to double-down on those second thoughts now.
“That colour really suits you, darling.”
“Hmm? This?” I glance in the mirror again, at the russet-toned pant-suit I’m wearing, teamed with an open-necked white shirt and high-heeled ankle boots, my long, dark hair pulled back into a side-ponytail. “It was the first thing that fell out of the wardrobe this morning that didn’t need ironing.”
My mother lets out a disapproving cluck and comes over to me, tugging gently on the lapels of my jacket before smoothing it down over my hips. “You’re lucky you’ve inherited my ability to make anything look good.”
Tawnee Nielsen. A woman who oozes glamour and power in equal measure, she’s a remarkably beautiful woman, tall and elegant with shoulder-length, slightly curled silver hair, high cheekbones and perfect skin, for a woman her age. An ex-model, it was love at first sight for my father, or so he tells us. It could just be another one of his stories, I don’t know, but the way he looks at Mum whenever he tells us that particular story, it feels real. And if there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain of it’s that my parents love each other with an almost fierce intensity. They love their kids. To everyone looking in we’re this perfect, successful, happy family but that’s because they don’t know the truth. They have no idea of the reality: of the shit that goes on behind the clever façade my father’s built up.
“When was the last time you had a facial?” My mother takes a step back, folds her arms, and cocks her head slightly. “You look tired.”
Yeah, ’cause I really needed that confidence booster. “I’m fine.”
“Are you drinking?”
“I have a couple of glasses of wine every now and again.” Every night, to be accurate. And there were a few of those nights when glasses were swapped for bottles, just after I found out what David had done, but that didn’t last. He wasn’t worth the extra calories.
“Alcohol is so bad for the skin.”
“Is there a point to this? Only, I’m starting to feel a little self-conscious now.”
“I’ll book you an appointment with Garth. He does the most incredible facials, I swear he’s knocked ten years off me.”
I turn back around to face the mirror, leaning in to take a closer look at my face while Mum contacts her miracle-working beauty therapist. Do I really look that bad? I thought I looked okay, to be honest. I mean, I’ve looked better, but that was before the stress of making sure my father didn’t end the walking abilities of my dip-shit of an ex-fiancé.
“Alright. Let’s go.” My mother slides her phone into her no-doubt obscenely expensive handbag and smiles at me. “I’ve booked us a table at Daphne’s.”
I pull myself away from the mirror and grab my own, less expensive handbag. I could easily afford the kind my mother leans more towards, but I don’t see the point in spending money unnecessarily. “You’re pushing the boat out, aren’t you?” And did she just say booked? Past tense? There was never any way I was getting out of this lunch, was there?
“Well, it’s a special occasion, isn’t it?” She throws me another smile, but this one is tinged with something I can’t quite put my finger on. And now I’m beginning to think there’s an ulterior motive to this lunch. Great! That’s almost always a bad sign, in this family. “It’s been a while since you and I have been able to spend time together like this.”
She’s right. It has. So I return her smile and link my arm through hers, planting a quick kiss on her perfectly made-up cheek. “Come on, then. Let’s get out of here, I’m starving! I say we order the mezze sharing platter and a bottle of dry white wine. How does that sound?”
My mother squeezes my arm, and this time her smile is brighter. Wider. “It sounds perfect.”
Daphne’s is a pretty little Greek restaurant situated right on the Quayside, with a small outdoor terrace that overlooks the river. It’s a friendly, quaint, family-run restaurant, and we’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. The food is always amazing, the atmosphere warm and friendly, and today is no exception. And even though it’s not quite summer yet, the weather’s been kind to us so far this week, so we’ve chosen to eat outside. The perfect place to people-watch.
“How are things at home?” Mum asks.
I tear off a piece of flatbread and dip it into some hummus. “Quiet.”
“It must be quite strange, living alone, after being with someone for so long. The house must feel rather empty.”
I narrow my eyes and stare at my mother as I pop the hummus-laden piece of flatbread into my mouth. “You’ll be asking if I miss him next.”
“Do you? Miss him?”
I pick up my wine and take a sip. “There isn’t a single thing I miss about him. Not one single thing.” And that’s true. When the man you’re about to marry sleeps with someone else – someone I, mercifully, didn’t know – it can render them suddenly meaningless. And I know it isn’t that way for everybody, some people can’t just switch those feelings off, no matter what that person’s done to them, but for David it was safer, for him, that I felt the way I did. That I let hate overtake any remaining remnants of love. Anything else could’ve been disastrous. “And this conversation, is it leading somewhere?” Because I can read my mother, like the proverbial book. And the way she’s just dipped her gaze there, albeit briefly, that tells me all I need to know. “Okay. What’s going on?”
Her eyes lock on mine, and I sit back and take another sip of wine. Now I know why she brought me here. Somewhere familiar. Somewhere I’m comfortable. Neutral territory.
“Your father and I, we think you should move back home, with us. Just for a little while.”
I wait a moment before I respond to that. Is she serious? “Why?”
She drops her gaze again, because she knows this is a conversation she didn’t want to have, it’s one Dad’s told her to have. I’m only too familiar with how this shit works.
“You’ve been through a lot over the past month, Lena.”
“I’m single again, Mum, I’m not ill. I think I can just about cope with things.”
“Yes, I know, but living alone, in that empty cottage…”
“I lived alone in that empty cottage for four years before David arrived on the scene.”
She sighs, an exasperated one, I’m frustrating her, as I do quite a lot. I’ve never accepted anything without a fight, and this just doesn’t feel right, what she’s asking me to do. It’s an odd, out-of-the-blue request, and I’m not buying it.
“I just don’t get why I need to move back home. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Lena, please, can you just do as I ask, for once?”
Her tone is quite sharp, and it takes me a little by surprise, causing me to sit back in my seat and just stare at her. It’s unusual for Tawnee Nielsen to be anything other than calm and in control, but this afternoon she’s showing signs of deviating from that, and that’s what’s making me nervous. And then she sighs again, and drops her head, and I watch as she takes a long, deep breath. Okay. Something’s definitely going on, and I’d put money on me not liking it, whatever it is.
“Alright.” Mum raises her head, her eyes once more locking on mine, and she smiles. She’s flicked that switch and brought calm and in control Tawnee back to the forefront. “How about a compromise? Why don’t you come for dinner, Friday night?”
I narrow my eyes again and open my mouth to say something, but then decide against it. “Dinner?”
“Yes. A family dinner. You could stay over, make a weekend of it, your father would love to see you.”
“He saw me two days ago.”
It’s my turn to sigh. “Okay.”
“You’ll come? For the weekend?”
“Yes.” If it means that much to her, but I still think there’s something going on. And I still don’t think I’m going to like it. “Will Ollie be there?”
I’m not sure he knows about that yet, but he won’t be given much of an option to say no, either. And it doesn’t really matter whether he’s there or not, but I’ve a feeling I might need him for moral support.
“It’s a weekend with your family, Lena, that’s all.”
Well, I beg to differ on that score. There’s no such thing as “that’s all” with this family, but this is another fight I’m not sure I stand a chance of winning. So I might as well just give in and go for it. Besides, my mum’s a fabulous cook, and a weekend of her homemade meals isn’t something to be sniffed at. She does the best bacon sandwich I’ve ever tasted, in bread she makes herself. Beats the hell out of my shop-bought, standard white loaf version.
“And you never know, you might actually have some fun.”
Doubtful, but I push my suspicions to one side and leave it there. Whatever’s going on, I’ll find out soon enough.
Tearing off another piece of flatbread I wrap it around a chunk of lamb that’s so tender it almost falls apart between my fingers. I should be getting back to work, really. I still have a ton of things to do, phone calls to make, and I don’t particularly want to stay too late at the office tonight.
“What have you got planned for this afternoon?” I ask my mother as I shovel up a forkful of Greek salad.
“I’ve still got a few things left to buy for the newly-decorated summer house, so it’s a quick trip into town and then home to get your room ready for the weekend.”
It’s Tuesday. How long does it take to change the sheets and whip the vacuum round?
“I should be getting back soon.”
“To the office?” My mother arches a perfectly-threaded eyebrow, and I raise both of mine.
“Yes. To the office. I don’t just turn up there every day and pretend to know what I’m doing while someone else does all the work. I actually have a job to do.”
She crosses her legs and picks up her glass of wine, taking a small sip. “I don’t know why you wanted to take on all that responsibility.”
I do. I did it because I didn’t want to end up a privileged princess who did nothing but shop for shoes and eat lunch with her mind-numbingly irritating girlfriends, that wasn’t the life I wanted. I actually wanted to do something. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted the chance to show that this family could actually do some good: give something back to a community that welcomed us with open arms, that’s why Nielsen Construction concentrates on building affordable homes for those who need them most. My idea. And some might say that’s something I’ve done to try and ease my privileged guilt, and that’s fine. People are allowed their opinions, but that isn’t what that is. It isn’t. I can’t help the family I was born into, but I can try and use its wealth and power to make a difference. I just have to try and ignore the reality of what’s going on in the background. What my father and brother are mixed up in. Their world is a very different, very dangerous one.
“You should make more time for yourself,” Mum continues. “You have the power to delegate, right?”
“Of course. But I like to do things myself, my way. Sometimes it’s just easier.”
“You get that from your father.”
“I frown. “Get what?”
“The need to be in control.”
And she knows as well as I do that that’s a trait shared by the entire Nielsen family.
“That’s not always a bad thing.” I wipe my hands on a napkin and finish the last of my wine. Just the one glass for me, like I said, I’ve still got work to do. “Okay. I really do have to get back to the office now.” I stand up and lean over to plant a quick kiss on my mother’s cheek. “Thank you for lunch. It was lovely.”
She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “You’re welcome, my darling. I’ll see you Friday?”She phrases that as a question, almost as if she’s making sure I’m still coming. “You’ll see me Friday.” It would be more than my life’s worth to back out now. “Give my love to Dad.” I shout over my shoulder as I make my way down from the small but pretty little terrace and back out onto the Quayside, it’s no more than a few minutes’ walk back to the office. I love it here, this place is so full of life, filled with so many different people, I thrive on the atmosphere, I really do. And I smile as I walk, I’ve almost got a spring in my step, despite my misgivings about this forthcoming family get together. And I may well be overthinking it, it may not be as bad as I fear, but I know from experience – I know, because it’s happened once too often, that the one thing it won’t be is nothing.