If one more person tells me to be strong, I will explode.
Raphael closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the sound of people talking in low voices and the string quartet playing somber music in the corner go to white noise in his ears.
If his best friend, Lily, had been here, she would have made him sneak out through the open French doors into the fancy backyard filled with fake Greek statues.
But Lily wasn’t here. She was about two hours down I-95, back in New York, probably thinking it was her fault when it was really Raphael’s.
He should have been there. They should have all been there. New York was where his family had lived. It was where they had died. It was where this reception should be; not in some fancy funeral home in Connecticut, pretending to mourn over empty caskets.
Unfortunately, Raphael was only sixteen, so, despite being the sole heir to a moderate fortune, he had no actual control over anything. For two more years, his fortune and his fate were in the hands of Camille Belcourt.
Raphael could count the number of times he had met the woman on one hand with fingers to spare. His father’s sister was not a pleasant person. She was a stone-cold bitch who’d do anything, sacrifice anyone, to gain money and power. Those were his father’s words, not Raphael’s.
For all their prudence and business savvy, his parents had made a huge mistake with their will. They had never named a guardian for their children in case anything happened to them before the oldest turned 18. Then again, it wouldn’t have mattered if Raphael had been at home that night where he was supposed to be.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to ignore the hot itch building up behind his eyes.
The voice cut like a butcher knife in careless hands. Camille snapped her fingers once in his direction and waved him over.
He suppressed a shudder and joined her, flinched when her bony hand landed on his shoulder and dug pointy carmine nails into the sensitive spot at is collarbone.
“This is my nephew, Raphael Santiago,” she said. “I’ll be taking care of him now.”
Raphael cringed. Camille made him sound like a pet or a houseplant that had fallen into her hands because her brother had left on an unexpected trip.
“I’ll try not to be a nuisance,” he muttered under his breath.
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Her nails dug deeper into his shoulder, a warning. “It’s the least I can do.”
The man in front of them smiled in a slippery way that didn’t reach his eyes. The power tie around his thick neck reminded Raphael of the one he had stared at two days ago, sitting across the table from the corporate lawyer who had laid out the provisions of his parents’ estate like a text-to-speech program reading terms of service.
“It must be a relief for him to be able to stay with family,” the man said to Camille in a tone more slippery than his smile. “And how selfless of you, especially so soon after--”
“Oh, I try not to think about it.” Camille waved off her fourth husband’s death like a minor inconvenience. “All that matters now is that I’m here for Raphael. And I promise I’ll continue to be here for Ragnor’s constituents, well, my constituents now, I suppose.”
The rest of the reception passed in a blur. Raphael did what he was told, stood where he was the least visible, and remained silent during the long limousine ride to Camille’s estate while she talked non-stop business and politics into the silver Bluetooth nestled in her ear.
When the enormous oak doors of the main entrance banged shut behind him, Raphael stood in the middle of a gaping foyer with an unfamiliar suitcase full of brand-new clothes at his feet.
“Don’t bother unpacking.” Camille was halfway up the marble staircase, her stiletto heels beating the soft stone like hammer blows. “I’ve enrolled you at Alicante Academy. You’re leaving tomorrow morning.”