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Mist hung over the Ohio’s sluggish waters like the breath of God, and the trees on the Charlemont shore side of River Road were so many shades of spring green, the color required a sixth sense to absorb them all. Overhead, the sky was a dim, milky blue, the kind of thing that you saw up north only in July, and at seven-thirty a.m., the temperature was already seventy-four degrees.
It was the first week of May. The most important seven days on the calendar, beating the birth of Christ, the American Independence, and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
The One Hundred Thirty-ninth running of The Charlemont Derby was on Saturday.
Which meant the entire state of Kentucky was in a thoroughbred racing frenzy.
As Lizzie King approached the turn-off for her work, she was riding an adrenaline high that had been pumping for a good three weeks, and she knew from past experience that this rush-rush mood of hers wasn’t going to deflate until after Saturday’s clean-up. At least she was, as always, going against the traffic heading into downtown and making good time: Her commute was forty minutes each way, but not in the NYC, Boston, or LA, densely packed, parking-lot version of rush hour—which in her current frame of mind would have caused her head to mushroom cloud. No, her trip into her job was twenty-eight minutes of Indiana farm country followed by six minutes of bridge and spaghetti junction delays, capped off with this six – to ten-minute, against-the-tide shot parallel to the river.
Sometimes she was convinced the only cars going in her direction were the rest of the staff that worked at Easterly with her.
Ah, yes, Easterly.
The Bradford Family Estate, or BFE, as its deliveries were marked, sat high up on the biggest hill in the Charlemont metro area and was comprised of a twenty-thousand-square-foot main house with three formal gardens, two pools, and a three-hundred-sixty degree view of Washington County. There was also twelve retainer’s cottages on the property, as well as ten outbuildings, a fully functioning farm of over a hundred acres, a twenty-horse stable that had been converted into a business center, and a nine-hole golf course.
That was lighted.
In case you needed to work on your chip shot at one a.m.
As far as she had heard, the enormous parcel had been granted to the family back in 1778, after the first of the Bradfords had come south from Pennsylvania with the then Colonel George Rogers Clark—and brought both his ambitions and his bourbon-making traditions into the nascent commonwealth. Fast forward almost two hundred fifty years, and you had a Federal mansion the size of a small town up on that hill, and some seventy-two people working on the property full – and part-time.
All of whom followed a feudal rules and rigid caste system that was right out of Downton Abbey.
Or maybe the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s routine was a little too progressive.
William the Conqueror’s times were probably more apt.
So, for example—and this was solely a Lifetime movie conjecture here—if a gardener fell in love with one of the family’s precious sons? Even if she were one of two head horticulturists, and had a national reputation and a master’s in landscape architecture from Cornell?
That was just not done.
Sabrina without the happy ending, darlin’.
With a curse, Lizzie turned the radio on in hopes of getting her brain to shut up. She didn’t get far. Her Toyota Yaris had the speaker system of a Barbie house: there were little circles in the doors that were supposed to pump music, but they were mostly for pretend—and today, NPR coming out of those cocktail coasters just wasn’t enough—
The sound of an ambulance speeding up behind her easily overrode the haute pitter-patter of the BBC News, and she hit her brakes and eased over onto the shoulder. After the noise and flashing lights passed, she got back on track and rounded a fat curve in both the river and the road . . . and there it was, the Bradfords’ great white mansion, high up in the sky, the dawning sun being forced to work around its regal, symmetrical layout.
She had grown up in Plattsburgh, New York, on an apple orchard.
What the hell had she been thinking almost two years ago when she’d let Lane Baldwine, the youngest son, into her life?
And why was she still, after all this time, wondering about the particulars?
Come on, it wasn’t like she was the first woman who’d gotten good and seduced by him—
Lizzie frowned and leaned forward over the wheel.
The ambulance that had passed her was heading up the flank of the BFE hill, its red and white lights strobing along the alley of maple trees.
“Oh, God,” she breathed.
She prayed it wasn’t who she thought it was.
But come on, her luck couldn’t be that bad.
And wasn’t it sad that that was the first thing that came to her mind instead of worry over whoever was hurt/sick/passed out.
Proceeding on by the monogrammed, wrought-iron gates that were just closing, she took her right-hand turn about three hundred yards later.
As an employee, she was required to use the service entrance with her vehicles, no excuses, no exceptions.
Because God forbid a vehicle with an MSRP of under a hundred thousand dollars be seen in front of the house—
Boy, she was getting bitchy, she decided. And after Derby, she was going to have to take a vacation before people thought she was going through menopause two decades too early.
The sewing machine under the Yaris’s hood revved up as she shot down the level road that went around the base of the hill. The cornfield came first, the manure already laid down and churned over in preparation for planting. And then there were the cutting gardens filled with the first of the perennials and annuals, the heads of the early peonies fat as softballs and no darker than the blush on an ingenue’s cheeks. After those, there were the orchid houses and nurseries, followed by the outbuildings with the farm and groundskeeping equipment in them, and then the lineup of two – and three-bedroom, fifties-era cottages.
That were as variable and stylish as a set of sugar and flour tins on a Formica counter.
Pulling into the staff parking lot, she got out, leaving her cooler, her hat and her bag with her sunscreen behind.
Jogging over to groundskeeping’s main building, she entered the gasoline – and oil-smelling cave through the open bay on the left. The office of Gary McAdams, the head groundsman, was off to the side, the cloudy glass panes still translucent enough to tell her that lights were on and someone was moving around in there.
She didn’t bother to knock. Shoving open the flimsy door, she ignored the half-naked Pirelli calendar pinups. “Gary—”
The sixty-two-year-old was just hanging up the phone with his bear-paw hand, his sunburned face with its tree-bark skin as grim as she had ever seen it. As he looked across his messy desk, she knew who the ambulance was for even before he said the name.
Lizzie put her hands to her face and leaned back against the doorjamb.
She felt so sorry for the family, of course, but it was impossible not to personalize the tragedy and want to go throw up somewhere.
The one man she never wanted to see again . . . was going to come home.
She might as well get a stop watch.
• • •
New York, New York
“Come on. I know you want me.”
Jonathan Tulane Baldwine looked around the hip that was propped next to his stack of poker chips. “Ante up, boys.”
“I’m talking to you.” A pair of partially covered, fully fake breasts appeared over the fan of cards in his hands. “Hello.”
Time to feign interest in something, anything else, Lane thought. Too bad the one-bedroom, mid-floor, Midtown apartment was a bachelor pad done in nothing-that-wasn’t-functional. And why bother staring into the faces of what was left of the six bastards they’d started playing with eight hours ago. None of them had proved worthy of anything more than keeping up with the high stakes.
Deciphering their tells, even as an avoidance strategy, wasn’t worth the eye strain at seven-thirty in the morning.
“Give it up, honey, he’s not interested,” someone muttered.
“Everybody’s interested in me.”
“Not him.” Jeff Stern, the host and roommate, tossed in a thousand dollars’ worth of chips. “Ain’t that right, Lane?”
“Are you gay? Is he gay?”
Lane moved the queen of hearts next to the king of hearts. Shifted the jack next to the queen. Wanted to push the boob job with mouth onto the floor. “Two of you haven’t anted.”
“I’m out, Baldwine. Too rich for my blood.”
“I’m in—if someone’ll lend me a grand.”
Jeff looked across the green fleet table and smiled. “It’s you and me again, Baldwine.”
“Looking forward to takin’ your money.” Lane tucked his cards in tight. “It’s your bet—”
The woman leaned down again. “I love your Southern accent.”
Jeff’s eyes narrowed behind his clear-rimmed glasses. “You gotta back off him, baby.”
“I’m not stupid,” she slurred. “I know exactly who you are and how much money you have. I drink your bourbon—”
Lane sat back and addressed the fool that had brought the chatty accessory. “Billy? Seriously.”
“Yeah, yeah.” The guy who’d wanted to go a thousand dollars into debt stood up. “The sun’s coming up, anyway. Let’s go.”
“I want to stay—”
“Nope, you’re done.” Billy took the bimbo with the self-esteem inflation problem by the arm and escorted her to the door. “I’ll take you home, and no, he’s not who you think he is. Later, assholes.”
“Yes, he is—I’ve seen him in magazines—”
Before the door could shut, the other guy who’d been bled dry got to his feet. “I’m out of here, too. Remind me never to play with the pair of you again.”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” Jeff said as he held up a palm. “Tell the wife I said hello.”
“You can tell her yourself when we see you at Shabbat.”
“Every Friday, and if you don’t like it, why do you keep showing up at my house?”
“Free food. It’s just that simple.”
“Like you need the handouts.”
And then they were alone. With over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of poker chips, two decks of cards, an ashtray full of cigar nubs, and no bimbage.
“It’s your bet,” Lane said.
“I think he wants to marry her,” Jeff muttered as he tossed more chips into the center of the table. “Billy, that is. Here’s twenty grand.”
“Then he should get his head examined.” Lane met his old fraternity brother’s bet and then doubled it. “Pathetic. The both of them.”
Jeff lowered his cards. “Lemme ask you something.”
“Don’t make it too hard, I’m drunk.”
“Do you like them?”
“Poker chips?” In the background, a cell phone started to ring. “Yeah, I do. So if you don’t mind putting some more of yours in—”
Lane shifted his eyes up. “Excuse me?”
His oldest friend put an elbow on the felt and leaned in. His tie had been lost at the start of the game, and his previously starched, bright white shirt was now as pliant and relaxed as a polo. His eyes, however, were tragically sharp and focused. “You heard me. Look, I know it’s none of my business, but you show up here how long ago? Like, nearly two years. You live on my couch, you don’t work—which given who your family is, I get. But there’s no women, no—”
“Stop thinking, Jeff.”
The cell phone went quiet. But his buddy didn’t. “U.Va. was a lifetime ago. Lot can change.”
“Apparently not if I’m still on your couch—”
“What happened to you, man.”
“I died waiting for you to bet or fold.”
Jeff muttered as he made a stack of reds and blues and tossed them into the center. “’Nother twenty thousand.”
“That’s more like it.” The cell phone started to ring again. “I’ll see you. And I’ll raise you fifty. If you shut up.”
“You sure you want to do that?”
“Get you to be quiet? Yup.”
“Go aggressive in poker with an investment banker like me. Clichés are there for a reason—I’m greedy and great with math. Unlike your kind.”
“People like you Bradfords don’t know how to make money—you’ve been trained to spend it. Now, unlike most dilettantes, your family actually has an income stream—although that’s what keeps you from having to learn anything. So not sure it’s a value-add in the long term.”
Lane thought back to why he’d finally left Charlemont for good. “I’ve learned plenty, trust me.”
“And now you sound bitter.”
“You’re boring me. Am I supposed to enjoy that?”
“Why don’t you ever go home for Christmas? Thanksgiving? Easter?”
Lane collapsed his cards and put them face-down on the felt. “I don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny anymore, goddamn it, and turkey is overrated. What is your problem?”
Wrong question to ask. Especially after a night of poker and drinking. Especially to a guy like Stern, who was categorically incapable of being anything but perfectly honest.
“I hate that you’re so alone.”
“You’ve got to be kidding—”
“I’m one of your oldest friends, right? If I don’t tell you like it is, who’s going to? And don’t get pissy with me—you picked a New York Jew, not one of the thousand other southern-fried stick-up-the-asses that went to that ridiculous college of ours to be your perpetual roommate. So fuck you.”
“Are we going to play this hand out?”
Jeff’s shrewd stare narrowed. “Answer me one thing.”
“Yes, I am seriously reconsidering why I didn’t crash with Wedge or Chenoweth right now.”
“Ha. You couldn’t stand either of those two longer than a day. Unless you were drunk, which actually, you have been for the last three and a half months straight. And that’s another thing I have a problem with.”
“Bet. Now. For the love of God.”
As that cell phone went off a third time, Lane got to his feet and stalked across the room. Over on the bar, next to his billfold, the glowing screen was lit up—not that he bothered to look at who it was.
He answered the call only because it was either that or commit homicide.
The male Southern voice on the other end of the connection said three words: “Your momma’s dyin’.”
As the meaning sank into his brain, everything destabilized around him, the walls closing in, the floor rolling, the ceiling collapsing on his head. Memories didn’t so much come to him as assault him, the alcohol in his system doing nothing to dull the onslaught.
No, he thought. Not now. Not this morning.
Although would there ever be a good time?
“Not ever” was the only acceptable timetable on this.
From a distance, he heard himself speak. “I’ll be there before noon.”
And then he hung up.
“Lane?” Jeff got to his feet. “Oh, shit, don’t you pass out on me. I’ve got to be at Eleven Wall in an hour and I need a shower.”
From a vast distance, Lane watched his hand reach out and pick up his wallet. He put that and the phone in the pocket of his slacks and headed for the door.
“Lane! Where the fuck are you going?”
“Don’t wait up,” he said as he opened the way out.
“When’re you going to be back? Hey, Lane—what the hell?”
His old, dear friend was still talking at him as Lane walked off, letting the door close in his wake. At the far end of the hall, he punched through a steel door and started jogging down the concrete stairwell. As his footfalls echoed all around, and he made tight turn after tight turn, he dialed a familiar phone number.
When the call was answered, he said, “This is Lane Baldwine. I need a jet at Teterboro now—going to Charlemont.”
There was a brief delay, and then his father’s executive assistant got back on the connection. “Mr. Baldwine, there is a jet available. I have spoken directly with the pilot. Flight plans are being filed as we speak. Once you get to the airport, proceed to—”
“I know where our terminal is.” He broke out into the marble lobby, nodded to the doorman, and proceeded to the revolving doors. “Thanks.”
Just a quickie, he told himself as he hung up and hailed a cab. With any luck, he would be back in Manhattan and annoying Jeff by nightfall, twelve midnight at the very latest.
Ten hours. Fifteen, tops.
He had to see his momma, though. That was what Southern boys did.
Three hours, twenty-two minutes, and some number of seconds later, Lane looked out the oval window of one of the Bradford Bourbon Company’s brand-new Embraer Lineage 1000E corporate jets. Down below, the city of Charlemont was laid out like a Lego diorama, its sections of rich and poor, of commerce and agriculture, of homesteading and highway displayed in what appeared to be only two dimensions. For a moment, he tried to picture the land as it had been when his family had first settled in the area in 1778.
Woods. Rivers. Native Americans. Wildlife.
His people had come from Pennsylvania through the Cumberland Gap two hundred and fifty years ago—and now, here he was, ten thousand feet up in the air, circling the city along with fifty other rich guys in their various aircraft.
Except he was not here to bet on horses, get drunk, and find some sex.
“May I refresh your No. Fifteen before we land, Mr. Baldwine? I’m afraid there’s quite a queue. We could be a while.”
“Thank you.” He drained what was in his crystal glass, the ice cubes sliding down and hitting his upper lip. “You’re timing couldn’t be better.”
Okay, so maybe he would be doing a little drinking.
As the woman in the skirt uniform walked away, she looked across her shoulder to see if he was checking her out, her big blue eyes blooming underneath her fake lashes.
His sex life had long depended upon the kindness of such strangers. Particularly blond ones like her, with legs like that, and hips like that, and breasts like that.
But not anymore.
“Mr. Baldwine,” the captain said from overhead. “When they found out it was you, they bumped us up, so we’re landing now.”
“How kind of them,” Lane murmured as the stewardess came back.
The way she reopened the bottle gave him a clue to how she’d take down a man’s fly, her full body getting into the twist of the cork and the pop free. Then she leaned into the pour, encouraging him to check out her La Perla.
Such wasted effort.
“That’s enough.” He put his hand out. “Thanks.”
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No, thank you.”
Pause. Like she wasn’t used to being turned down, and wanted to remind him that they were running out of time.
After a moment, she kicked up her chin. “Very good, sir.”
Which was her way of telling him to go to hell: With a whip around of the hair, she hipped her way off, swinging what was under that skirt like she had a cat by the tail and a target to hit.
Lane lifted his glass and circled the No. 15. He’d never been particularly involved with the family business—that was the purview of his older brother Edward. Or at least, it had been. But even as a company outsider, Lane knew the nickname of the Bradford Bourbon Company’s bestseller: No. 15, the staple of the product line, sold in such tremendous numbers that it was called The Great Eraser—because its profit was so enormous, the money could eclipse the loss from any internal or external corporate misstep, miscalculation, or market share downshift.
As the jet rounded the airstrips for the approach, a ray of sunshine pierced the oval window, falling over the burled walnut folding table, the cream leather of the seat, the deep blue of his jeans, the brass buckle of his Gucci loafers.
And then it hit the No. 15 in his glass, pulling out the ruby highlights in the amber liquor. As he took another pull from the crystal rim, he felt the warmth of the sun on the outside of his hand and the coolness from the ice on the pads of his fingers.
Some study that had been done recently put the bourbon business at three billion dollars in annual sales. Of that pie, the BBC was probably upward of a quarter to a third. There was one company in the state that was bigger—the dreaded Sutton Distillery Corporation, and then there were eight to ten other producers—but BBC was the diamond among semi-precious stones, the choice of the most discriminating drinkers.
As a loyal consumer, he had to concur with the zeitgeist.
A shift in the level of the bourbon in his glass announced the descent to the landing, and he thought back to the first time he had tried his family’s product.
Considering how it had gone, he should have been a teetotaller for life.
• • •
“It’s New Year’s, come on. Don’t be a wuss.”
As usual, Maxwell was the one who started the ball rolling. Out of the four siblings, Max was the troublemaker, with Gin, their little sister, coming in at a close second on the recalcitrant Richter scale. Edward, the oldest and the most strait-laced of them, had not been invited to this party—and Lane, who was somewhere in the middle, both in terms of birth order and likelihood to get arrested at any early age, had been forced into the excursion because Max hated to do bad without an audience—and girls didn’t count.
Lane knew this was a really poor idea. If they were going to hit the alcohol, they should take a bottle from the pantry and go up to their rooms where there was zero chance of being busted. But to drink out in the open here, in the parlor? Under the disapproving glare of Elijah Bradford’s portrait over the fireplace?
“So y’all saying you aren’t going to have any, Lame?”
Ah, yes. Max’s favorite nickname for him.
In the peachy glow from the exterior security lights, Max looked over with an expression of such challenge, the stare might as well have come with sprinter blocks and a starting gun.
Lane glanced at the bottle in his brother’s hand. The label was one of the fancy ones, with the words “Family Reserve” in important lettering on it.
If he didn’t do this, he was never going to hear the end of it.
“I just want it in a glass,” he said. “A proper glass. With ice.”
Because that was how his father drank it. And it was the only manly out he had for his delay.
Max frowned as if he hadn’t considered the whole presentation thing. “Well, yeah.”
“I don’t need a glass.” Gin, who was seven, had her hands on her hips and her eyes on Max. In her little lace nightie, she was like Wendy in Peter Pan; with that aggressive expression on her face, she was a straight-up pro-wrestler. “I need a spoon.”
“A spoon?” Max demanded. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s medicine, isn’t it.”
Max threw his head back and laughed. “What are you—”
Lane slapped a palm on his brother’s mouth. “Shut up! Do you want to get caught?”
Max ripped the hold away. “What are they going to do to me? Whip me?”
Well, yes, if their father found them or found out about this: Although the great William Baldwine delegated the vast majority of fatherly duties to other people, the belt was one he saved for himself.
“Wait a minute, you want to be found out,” Lane said softly. “Don’t you.”
Max turned to the brass and glass beverage cart. The ornate server was an antique, as most everything in Easterly was, and the family crest was etched into each of its four corners. With big, spindly wheels and a crystal top, it was the hostess with the mostest, carrying four different kinds of Bradford bourbons, half a dozen crystal glasses, and a sterling-silver ice bucket that was constantly refreshed by the butler.
“Here’s your glass.” Max shoved one at him. “I’m drinking from the bottle.”
“Where’s my spoon?” Gin said.
“You can have a sip off mine,” Lane whispered.
“No. I want my own—”
The debate was cut short as Max yanked the cork out and the projectile went flying, pinging into the chandelier in the center of the room. As crystal chattered and twinkled, the three of them froze.
“Shut up,” Max said before there was any commentary. “And no ice for you.”
The bourbon made a glugging noise as his brother dumped it into Lane’s glass, not stopping until things were filled as high as the milk was at the dining table.
“Now drink up,” Max told him as he put the bottle to his mouth and tilted his head back.
The tough-guy show didn’t last but a single swallow as Max barked out a series of coughs that were loud enough to wake the dead. Leaving his brother to choke up or die trying, Lane stared down into his glass.
Bringing the crystal lip to his mouth, he took a careful pull.
Fire. It was like drinking fire, a trail blazing to his gut—and as he exhaled a curse, he half expected to see flames come out of his face as if he were a dragon.
“My turn,” Gin spoke up.
He held onto the glass, not letting her take it when she wanted to. Meanwhile, Max was having a second and a third go of it.
Gin barely drew from the glass, doing nothing more than get her lips wet and recoil in disgust—
“What are you doing!”
As the chandelier was turned on, the three of them jumped, Lane catching the bourbon that splashed out of his glass down the front of his monogrammed PJs.
Edward stood just inside the parlor, a look of absolute fury on his face.
“What the hell is wrong with you,” he said, marching forward, grabbing the glass out of Lane’s hands and the bottle out of Max’s.
“We were just playing,” Gin muttered.
“Go to bed, Gin.” He put the glass down on the cart and pointed with the bottle to the archway. “You go to bed right now.”
“Unless you want me to kick your ass, too?”
Even Gin could respect that logic.
As she headed for the archway, shoulders hunched, slippers sloppy over the Oriental, Edward hissed, “And use the staff stairs. If Father hears anything, he’ll come down the front.”
Lane’s heart went into full-thunder. And his gut churned—although whether it was the getting caught or the bourbon, he wasn’t sure.
“She’s seven,” Edward said when Gin was out of earshot. “Seven!”
“We know how old she is—”
“Shut up, Maxwell. Just shut up.” He stared down Max. “If you want to corrupt yourself, I don’t care. But don’t contaminate the pair of them with your bullshit.”
Big words. Cusses. And the demeanor of somebody who could ground the both of them.
Then again, Edward had always seemed like a grown-up, even before he’d made the leap into the teenage world.
“I don’t have to listen to you,” Max shot back. But the fight was already leaving him, his tone going weak, his eyes dropping to the rug.
“Yes, you do.”
Things got quiet at that point.
“I’m sorry,” Lane said.
“I’m not worried about you.” Edward shook his head. “It’s him I worry about.”
“Say you’re sorry,” Lane whispered. “Max, come on.”
“He’s not Father, you know.”
Max glared at Edward. “But you act like it.”
“Only because you’re out of control.”
Lane took Max by the hand. “He’s sorry, too, Edward. Come on, let’s go before anyone hears us.”
It took some tugging, but eventually Max followed along without further comment, the fight over, the bid for independence dashed. They were halfway across the black and white marble floor of the dim foyer when Lane caught sight of something way down at the end of the hall.
Someone was moving in the shadows.
Too big to be Gin.
Lane yanked his brother into the total darkness of the ballroom across the way. “Shh.”
Through the archways into the parlor, he watched as Edward turned to the cart to try to find the cork, and he wanted to yell out a warning for his brother—
As their father entered, William Baldwine’s tall body blocked the view of Edward.
“What are you doing?”
Same words, same tone, deeper bass.
Edward turned around calmly. With the liquor bottle in his hand and Lane’s nearly full glass front and center on the cart.
“Answer me,” their father said. “What are you doing?”
He and Max were dead, Lane thought. As soon as Edward told the man what had been going on down here, William was going to go on a rampage.
Next to Lane, Maxwell’s body trembled. “I shouldn’t have done this,” he whispered—
“Where’s your belt,” Edward countered.
“I did. Where is your belt.”
No! Lane thought. No, it was us!
Their father strode forward, his monogrammed silk robe gleaming in the light, the color of fresh blood. “Goddamn it, boy, you’re going to tell me what you’re doing here with my liquor.”
“It’s called Bradford Bourbon, Father. You married into the family, remember?”
As their father lifted his arm across his chest, the heavy gold signet ring he wore on his left hand glinted like it was anticpating the strike—and looked forward to making contact with skin. Then, with an elegant, powerful slice, Edward was struck with a backhanded slap that was so violent, the cracking sound ricocheted all the way out into the ballroom.
“Now, I’ll ask you again—what are you doing with my liquor,” William demanded as Edward stumbled to the side, clutching his face.
After a moment of heavy breathing, Edward straightened. His pajamas were alive from his body’s shaking, but he remained on his feet.
Clearing his throat, he said thickly, “I was celebrating the New Year.”
A trail of blood seeped down the side of his face, staining his pale skin.
“Then do not let me ruin your enjoyment.” Their father pointed to Lane’s full glass. “Drink it.”
Lane closed his eyes and wanted to vomit.
The sounds of choking and gagging went on for a lifetime as Edward consumed nearly a quarter of a bottle of bourbon.
“Don’t you throw that up, boy,” their father barked. “Don’t you dare . . .”
• • •
As the jet bumped down on the tarmac, Lane jolted out of the past. He was not surprised to find that the glass he was holding was shaking, and not because of the landing.
Putting the No. 15 on the tray table, he wiped his brow.
That hadn’t been the only time Edward had suffered for them.
And it wasn’t even the worst. No, the worst one had come later as an adult, and had finally done what all the lousy parenting had failed to do.
Edward was ruined now, and not just physically.
God, there were so many reasons Lane didn’t want to go back to Easterly. And not all of them were because of the woman he loved but had lost.
He had to say, however . . . that Lizzie King remained at the top of that very long list.
The Bradford Family Estate, Charlemont
The Amdega Machin Conservatory was an extension of Easterly’s southern flank, and as such, no cost had been spared when it had been added back in 1956. The construction was a Gothic-style masterpiece, its delicate skeleton of white-painted bones supporting hundreds of panes and panels of glass, creating an interior that was bigger and more finished than the farmhouse Lizzie lived in. With a slate floor and a sitting area with sofas and armchairs done in Colefax and Fowler, there were hip-height beds of specimen flowers down the long sides and potted greenery in each of the corners—but that was all just for show. The true horticultural work, the germination and the rehabilitation, the nurturing and pruning, was done far from the family’s eyes in the greenhouses.
“Wo sind die Rosen? Wir brauchen mehr Rosen . . .”
“I don’t know.” Lizzie popped the top off another cardboard box that was long as a basketball player’s leg. Inside, two dozen white hydrangea stalks were wrapped individually in plastic, their heads protected with collars of delicate cardboard. “This is the whole delivery, so they’ve got to be in here.”
“Ich bestellte zehn weitere Dutzend. Wo sind sie—?”
“Okay, you need to switch to English.”
“This can’t be everything.” Greta von Schlieber held up a bundle of tiny, pale pink blooms that was wrapped up in a page of Colombian newspaper. “We’re not going to make it.”
“You say that every year.”
“This time I’m right.” Greta pushed her heavy tortoiseshell glasses up higher on her nose and eyed the stack of twenty-five more boxes. “I’m telling you, we’re in trouble.”
Annnnnd this was the essence of her and her work partner’s relationship.
Starting with the whole pessimism/optimism routine, Greta was pretty much everything Lizzie wasn’t. For one, the woman was European, not American, her German accent cutting into her pronunciation in spite of the fact that she’d been in the States for thirty years. She was also married to a great man, the mother of three fantastic children in their twenties, and had enough money that not only did she not have to work, but those two boys and a girl of hers didn’t have to, either.
No Yaris for her. Her ride was a black Mercedes station wagon. And the diamond ring she wore with her wedding band was big enough to rival a Bradford’s.
Oh, and unlike Lizzie, her blond hair was cut short as a man’s—which was something to envy when you were stuck pulling your own back and tying it with whatever you could get your hands on: trashbag twist ties, floral wire, the rubber bands off bunches of broccoli.
The one thing they did have in common? Neither of them could stand to be immobile, unoccupied, or unproductive for even a second. They had been working together at BFE now for almost five years—no, longer. Seven?
Oh, God, it was close to ten now.
And Lizzie couldn’t fathom life without the woman—even though sometimes she wished Greta could be a half-full, instead of half-empty, kinda gal.
“Ich sage Ihnen, wir haben Schwierigkeiten.”
“Did you just say we’re in trouble again?”
Lizzie rolled her eyes but fell into the adrenal trap, glancing over the assembly line they’d set up: Down the sixty-foot-long center of the greenhouse, a double row of folding tables had been lined up, and on them were seventy-five sterling-silver bouquet bowls the size of ice buckets.
The gleam was so bright, Lizzie wished she hadn’t left her sunglasses in her car.
And she also wished she didn’t have to deal with all this in addition to the knowledge that Lane Baldwine was probably landing at the airport at this very instant.
Like she needed that pressure as well?
As her head began to pound, she tried to focus on what she could control. Unfortunately, that only left her wondering how she and Greta were going to manage to fill those bowls with the fifty thousand dollars of flowers that had been delivered—but that still needed to be unpacked, inspected, cleaned, cut and arranged properly.
Then again, this was the crunch that always happened forty-eight hours before The Derby Brunch.
Or TDB, as it was called around the estate.
Because, yup, working at Easterly was like being in the Army: Everything was shortened, except for the work days.
And yes, even with that ambulance this morning, the event was still going on. Like a train, the momentum stopped for no one and nothing in its path. In fact, she and Greta had often said that if nuclear war happened, the only things left after the mushroom cloud dissipated would be cockroaches, Twinkies . . . and TDB.
Jokes aside, the brunch was so long-standing and exclusive, it was its own proper name, and slots on the guest list were guarded and passed down to the next generation as heirlooms. A gathering of nearly seven hundred of the city’s and the nation’s wealthiest people and political elite, the crowd mingled and milled around Easterly’s gardens, drinking mint juleps and mimosas for only two hours before departing for Steeplehill Downs for thoroughbred racing’s biggest day and the first leg of the Triple Crown. The rules of the brunch were short and sweet: Ladies had to wear hats, no photographs or photographers were allowed, and it didn’t matter whether you were in a Phantom Drophead or a corporate limousine—all cars were parked in the meadow at the bottom of the hill and all people filed into vans that ran them up to the front door of the estate.
Well, almost all people. The only folks who didn’t have to take the shuttle? Governors, any of the Presidents if they came—and the head coach of the University of Charlemont’s men’s basketball team.
In Kentucky, you were either U of C red or Kentucky University blue, and basketball mattered whether you were rich or poor.
The Bradfords were U of C Eagles fans. And it was almost Shakespearean that their rivals in the bourbon business, the Suttons, were all about the KU Tigers.
“I can hear you muttering,” Lizzie said. “Think positive. We got this.”
“Wir müssen alle Pfingstrosen zahlen,” Greta announced as she popped the top on another carton. “Last year, they short-changed us—”
One half of the double doors that opened into the house swung wide, and Mr. Newark Harris, the butler, came in like a cold draft. At five feet six inches, he appeared much taller in his black suit and tie—then again, maybe the illusion was because of his perma-raised eyebrows, a function of him being on the verge of uttering “you stupid American” after everything he said. A total throwback to the centuries-old tradition of the proper English servant, he’d not only been born and trained in London, but he had served as a footman for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and then as a butler for Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, at Bagshot Park. The House of Windsor pedigree had been the linchpin of his hiring the year before.
Certainly hadn’t been his personality.
“Mrs. Baldwine is out at the pool house.” He addressed only Lizzie. Greta, as a German national who still rocked that Z-centric accent, was persona non grata to him. “Please take a bouquet out to her. Thank you.”
And poof!, he was back out the door, closing things up silently.
Lizzie closed her eyes. There were two Mrs. Baldwines on the estate, but one only of them was likely to be out of her bedroom and down in the sunshine by the pool.
One-two punch today, Lizzie thought. Not only was she going to have to see her ex-lover, she was now going to have to wait on his wife.
“Ich hoffe, dass dem Idiot ein Klavier auf den Kopf fallt.”
“Did you just say you hope a piano falls on his head?”
“And you maintain you don’t know German.”
“Ten years with you and I’m getting there.”
Lizzie glanced around to see what she could use of the massive flower delivery. After the boxes were unpacked, the leaves needed to be stripped off the stalks and the blooms had to be fluffed one by one to encourage petal spread and allow for a check of quality. She and Greta hadn’t gotten anywhere close to that stage yet, but what Mrs. Baldwine wanted, she got.
On so many levels.
Fifteen minutes of choosing, clipping, and arranging later and she had a passable bunch shoved into wet foam in a silver bowl.
Greta appeared in front of her and held out her hands, that big mine-cut diamond ring flashing. “Let me take it out.”
“No, I got this—”
“You aren’t going to want to deal with her today.”
“I never want to deal with her—”
“I’m okay. Honest.”
Fortunately, her old friend bought the lie. The truth? Lizzie was so far away from “okay,” she couldn’t even see the place—but that didn’t mean she was going to wimp out.
“I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be counting the peonies.”
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
As Lizzie headed for the double doors that opened into the garden, her head really started to thump, and getting hit with a solid wall of hot-and-humid as she stepped outside didn’t help that at all. Motrin, she thought. After this, she was going to take four and get back to the real work.
The grass underfoot was brush-cut cropped, more golf-course carpet than anything Mother Nature dreamed up, and even though she had too much on her mind, she still made a mental To Do list of beds to tend to and replantings to be done in the five acre enclosed garden. The good news was that after a late start to spring, the fruit trees were blooming in the corners of the brick-walled expanse, their delicate white petals just beginning to fall like snow on the walkways beneath their canopies. Also, the mulch that had been laid down two weeks before had lost its stink, and the ivy along the old stone walls was sprouting new leaves everywhere. In another month, the four squares marked with Greco-Roman sculptures of robed women in regal poses were going to be all pastel pinks and peaches and bright whites, offering a contrast to the sedate green and gray river view.
But of course, it was all about the Derby right now.
The white clapboard pool house was in the far left corner, looking like a proper, doctor/lawyer/family-of-four Colonial as it sat back from an almost Olympic-sized aquamarine body of water. The loggia that connected the two was topped by a controlled wig of wisteria that would soon enough have white and lavender blooms hanging like lanterns from the green tangle.
And beneath the overhang, stretched out in a Brown Jordan recliner, Mrs. Chantal Baldwine was as beautiful as a priceless marble statue.
About as warm as one, too.
The woman had skin that glowed, thanks to a perfectly executed spray tan, blond hair that was streaked artfully and curled at the long ends, and a body that would have given Rosie Huntington-Whiteley an inferiority complex. Her nails were fake, but perfect, nothing Jersey about either their length or color, and her engagement ring and wedding band were right out of Town & Country, as white and blinding and big as her smile.
She was the perfect modern Southern belle, the kind of woman that people in the Charlemont zip code whispered about having come from “good stock, even if it’s from Virginia.”
Lizzie had long wondered if the Bradfords checked the teeth of the debutantes their sons went out with—like you did with thoroughbreds.
“—collapsed and then the ambulance came.” That heavily diamonded hand lifted to that hair and pushed the stuff back; then brought the iPhone she was talking into over to her other ear. “They took her out the front door. Can you believe it? They should have done that around the back—oh, aren’t those lovely!”
Chantal Baldwine put her hand in front of her mouth, all geisha-demure as Lizzie schlepped over to the marble-topped bar and set the blooms on the end that was out of the direct sun. “Did Newark do that? He is so thoughtful.”
Lizzie nodded and turned back around. The less time wasted here, the better—
“Oh, say, Lisa, would you—”
“It’s Lizzie.” She stopped. “May I help you with something else?”
“Would you be so kind as to get me some more of this?” The woman nodded to a glass pitcher that was half full. “The ice has melted and the flavor’s become watered down. I’m leaving for the club for lunch, but not for another hour. Thank you so much.”
Lizzie shifted her eyes over to lemonade—and really tried, honest-to-God tried, not to imagine dousing the woman in the stuff. “I’ll have Mr. Harris send someone—”
“Oh, but he’s so busy. And you can just run it in—you’re such a help.” The woman went back to her iPhone with its University of Charlemont cover. “Where was I? Oh, so they took her out the main front door. I mean, honestly, can you imagine . . . ?”
Lizzie walked over, picked up the pitcher, and then strode back across the gleaming white terrace to the green grass. “My pleasure.”
Yeah, right. But that was what you were supposed to say when the family asked you to do something. It was the only acceptable response—and certainly better than, “How ’bout you take your lemonade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, you miserable piece of veal—”
“Oh, Lisa? It’s a virgin, okay? Thank you.”
Lizzie just kept on going, tossing another “My pleasure” grenade over her shoulder.
Approaching the mansion, she had to pick her point of entry. As a member of the staff, she wasn’t allowed to enter through the Four Mains: front, side library, rear dining room, rear game room. And she was “discouraged” from using any other doors but the kitchen’s and utility room’s—although she got a pass if she was delivering the three-times weekly house bouquets around.
She chose the door that was halfway between the dining room and the kitchen because she refused to reroute all the way around to the other staff entrances. Stepping into the cool interior, she kept her head down, not because she was worried about pissing someone off, but because she was hoping and praying to get in and out without getting caught by—
“I wondered if you’d be here today.”
Lizzie froze like a burglar and then felt a sheen of tears prick the corners of her eyes. But she was not going to cry.
Not in front of Lane Baldwine.
And not because of him.
Squaring her shoulders, she kicked up her chin . . . and started to turn around.
Before she even met Lane’s eyes for the first time since she’d told him to go to hell when she’d ended their relationship, she knew three things: One, he was going to look exactly the same as he had before; two, that was not going be good news for her; and three, if she had any brains in her head at all, she would put what he’d done to her almost two years ago on auto loop and think about nothing else.
Leopards, spots, and all that—
Ah . . . crap, did he have to still look that good?
• • •
Lane couldn’t remember much about his walking into Easterly for the first time in forever.
Nothing had really registered. Not that grand front door with its lion’s-head knocker and its glossy black panels. Not the football-stadium-sized front foyer with that grand staircase and all of the oil paintings of Bradfords past and present. Not the crystal chandeliers or the gold sconces, nor the ruby-red Orientals or the heavy brocade drapes, not even the parlor and the ballroom on either side.
Easterly’s Southern elegance, coupled with that perennial sweet lemon scent of old-fashioned floor polish, was like a fine suit of clothes that, once put on in the morning, was unnoticeable throughout the rest of the day because it was tailor fit to your every muscle and bone. For him, there had been absolutely no burn on reentry at all: It was immersion in ninety-eight-point-six-degree calm water. It was breathing air that was perfectly still, perfectly humid, perfectly temperate. It was nodding off while sitting up in a leather club chair.
It was home and it was the enemy at the very same time, and very probably there was no impression because he was overwhelmed by emotion he was shutting out.
He did, however, notice every single thing about seeing Lizzie King once again.
The collision happened as he was heading through the dining room in search of the one who he had traveled so far to see.
Oh, God, he thought. Oh, dear God.
After having had to rely on memory for so long, standing in front of Lizzie was the difference between a descriptive passage and the real thing—and his body responded instantly, blood pumping, all those dormant instincts not just waking up but exploding in his veins.
Her hair was still blond from the sun, not some hairdresser’s paintbrush, and it was pulled back in a tie, the blunt ends thick and sticking straight out like a nautical rope that had been burn-cut. Her face was free of makeup, the skin tanned and glowing, the bone structure reminding him that good genetics were better than a hundred thousand dollars’ of plastic surgery. And her body . . . that hard, strong body that had curves where he liked them and straightaways that testified to all that physical labor she did so well . . . was exactly as he remembered. She was even dressed the same, in the khaki shorts and the required black polo with the Easterly crest on it.
Her scent was Coppertone, not Chanel. Her shoes were Merrell, not Manolo. Her watch was Nike, not Rolex.
To him, she was the most beautiful, best-dressed woman he’d ever seen.
Unfortunately, that look in her eye remained unchanged as well.
The one that told him she, too, had thought of him since he had left.
Just not in a good way.
As his mouth moved, Lane realized he was speaking some combination of words, but he wasn’t tracking. There were too many images filtering through his brain, all memories from the past: her naked body in messy sheets, her hair threaded through his fingers, his hands on her inner thighs. In his mind, he heard her saying his name as he pumped into her hard, rocking the bed until the headboard slammed against the wall—
“Yes, I knew you’d come,” she said levelly.
Talk about different wavelengths. He was off-kilter down to his Guccis, in the midst of reliving their relationship, and she was utterly unaffected by his presence.
“Have you seen her yet?” she asked. Then frowned. “Hello?”
What the hell was she saying to him? Oh, right. “I hear she’s already home from the hospital.”
“About an hour ago.”
“Is she okay?”
“She left here in an ambulance on oxygen. What do you think.” Lizzie glanced in the direction she’d been headed in. “Look, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to—”
“Lizzie,” he said in a low voice. “Lizzie, I’m . . .”
As he trailed off, her expression became bored. “Do us both a favor and don’t bother finishing that, okay? Just go see her and . . . do whatever else you came here to do, all right? Leave me out of it.”
“Christ, Lizzie, why won’t you hear me out—”
“Why should I, is more the question.”
“Because civilized people give others that common courtesy—”
And BOOM! they were off.
“Excuse me?” she demanded. “Like just because I live over the river and I work for your family, that makes me some kind of an ape? Really—you’re going to go there?”
“That is not what I meant—”
“Oh, I think it is—”
“I swear,” he muttered, “that chip on your shoulder—”
“Is what, Lane? Showing again? Sorry, you’re not allowed to twist things around like I’m the one with the problem. That’s on you. That has always been on you.”
Lane threw his hands up. “I can’t get through to you. All I want to do is explain—”
“You want to do something for me? Fine, great, here.” She shoved a half-full pitcher of what looked like lemonade at him. “Take this to the kitchen and get someone to refill it. Then you can tell them to take it back out to the pool house, or maybe you can deliver it yourself—to your wife.”
With that, she spun around and punched out the nearest door. And as she strode off across the lawn toward the conservatory, he couldn’t decide what held more appeal: putting his head into the wall, throwing the pitcher, or doing a combination of both.
He picked option four: “Goddamn, motherfucking, shit . . .”
“Sir? May I be of service?”
At the British accent, Lane glanced over at a fifty-year-old man who was dressed like he was the front house of a funeral parlor. “Who the hell are you?”
“Mr. Harris, sir. I am Newark Harris, the butler.” The guy bowed at the waist. “The pilots were kind enough to call ahead that you were en route. May I attend to your luggage?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Very good, sir. Your room is in order, and if you require ought further than your wardrobe upstairs, it will be my pleasure to procure any necessaries for you.”
Oh, no, Lane thought. Nope, he was not staying—he knew damn well what weekend was coming up, and the purpose for his visit had nothing to do with the Derby social circus.
He shoved the pitcher at Mr. Dandy-man. “I don’t know what’s in here and I don’t care. Just fill it up and take it where it belongs.”
“My pleasure, sir. Will you be requiring—”
“No, that’s it.”
The man seemed surprised as Lane pushed past him and headed in the direction of the staff part of the house. But, of course, the Englishman didn’t question him. Which, considering the mood he was in? Not only was that proper butler etiquette, but it would fall under a self-preservation rubric as well.
Two minutes in the house. Two damn minutes.
And he was already nuclear.
Lane marched his way into the massive professional kitchen and was immediately taken aback by both the olfactory “noise” and the auditory silence. Even though there were a good dozen chefs bent over the stainless-steel counters and the Viking stoves, none of the white coats were speaking as they labored. A few of them did look up, however, recognized him and stopped whatever they were doing, he ignored their OMG! reaction. He was used to that double take by now, his reputation having preceded him across the nation for years.
Thank you, Vanity Fair, for that exposé on his family a decade ago. And the three follow-ups since. And the speculations in the tabloids. And don’t get him started on the Internet.
Once that lowest-common-denominator, media-packaged celebrity status sucker-fished you?
No getting it off.
As he went over to a door marked PRIVATE, he found himself retucking his shirt, pulling up his slacks, smoothing his hair. Now he wished he’d taken time to shower, shave, change.
And he really wished that meeting with Lizzie had gone better. Like he needed another thing on his mind?
His knock was quiet, respectful. The response he got was not:
“What are you knocking for,” barked the Southern female voice.
Lane frowned as he pushed open the door. And then he stopped dead.
Miss Aurora was at her stove, the hot-oil smell and snare-drum crackle of chicken frying in a pan rising into the air in front of her, her weave done in a short bob of super-tight black curls, her housecoat the same one he’d seen her in when he’d left to go up north.
All he could do was blink, and wonder whether someone had played a sick joke on him.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” she snapped at him. “Wash y’all hands and get out the trays. I’m five minutes out.”
Right, he’d expected to find her laying in bed with a sheet up to her chest and a fading light in her eyes as her beloved Jesus came for her.
“Lane, snap out of it. I’m not dead yet.”
He rubbed the bridge of his nose as a wave of exhaustion sandbagged him. “Yes, ma’am.”
As he closed them in together, he searched for signs of physical weakness in those strong shoulders and those set legs of hers. There was none. There was absolutely nothing about the sixty-five-year-old woman to suggest that she had ended up in the emergency room that morning.
Okay, so it was a toss-up, he decided as he eyeballed the rest of the food she’d prepared for him. A toss-up between him being relieved . . . and him feeling furious that he’d wasted the time coming down here.
One thing he was clear on? There was no leaving before he ate—partially because she would hog tie him to a chair and force feed him if she had to, but mostly because the instant he caught that scent, his stomach had gone hollow-pit hungry on him.
“Are you okay?” he had to ask.
The glare she sent him suggested if he wanted to continue that line of questioning, she’d be more than happy to spank him until he shut his piehole.
Roger that, ma’am, he thought.
Crossing the shallow space, he found that the TV trays the two of them had always eaten off of were exactly where he’d seen them last—over in the corner, propped up between the entertainment console and the bookcase that was set at an angle. The pair of Barcaloungers were the same, too, each one in front of a tall window, crocheted doilies draped over the tops where the backs of heads went.
Pictures of children were everywhere and in all kinds of frames, and amid the beautiful, dark faces, there were pale ones, too: There was him at his kindergarten graduation; his brother Max scoring a goal in lacrosse; his sister, Gin, dressed up as a milk maid in a school play; his other brother, Edward, in a tie and jacket for his senior picture at U.Va.
“Good Lord, you are too thin, boy,” Miss Aurora muttered as she went to stir a pot that he knew was filled with green beans cooked with cubes of ham. “Don’t they have food up there in New York?”
“Not like this, ma’am.”
The sound she made in the back of her throat was like a Chevy backfiring. “Get the plates.”
He discovered his hands were shaking as he took two out of the cupboard and they rattled together. Unlike the woman who had birthed him, who was no doubt upstairs “resting” in a medicated haze of I’m-not-an-addict-because-my-doctor-gave-me-the-pills, Miss Aurora had always seemed both ageless and strong as a superhero. The idea that the cancer was back?
Hell, he couldn’t fathom her having had it in the first place. But he wasn’t fooling himself. That had to be the reason for the collapse.
After he’d gotten the silver and napkins on the trays and poured them both a sweet tea, he went over and sat on the chair on the right.
“You shouldn’t be cooking,” he said as she started to plate up.
“And you should’na been gone so long. What’s wrong with you.”
Definitely not on her deathbed, he thought.
“What did the doctor say?” he asked.
“Nothing worth hearing in my opinion.” She brought over all kinds of heaped-to-Heaven. “Now be quiet and eat.”
Oh, sweet Jesus, he thought as he stared down at his plate. Fried okra. Chitterlings. Potato cakes. Beans in that pork boil. And the fried chicken.
As his stomach let out a roar of starvation, she laughed.
But he didn’t, and abruptly, he had to clear his throat. This was home. This food, prepared by this specific woman, was home—he’d had exactly what was on this plate all of his life, especially back in the years before his mother had retreated from everything and she and his father had been out five nights a week socializing. Sick or well, happy or sad, hot or cold, he and his brothers and sister had sat in the kitchen with Miss Aurora and behaved themselves or risked getting swatted on the back of the head.
There were never any troublemakers in Miss Aurora’s kitchen.
“G’on now,” she said softly. “Don’t wait to where it gets cold.”
Talk about digging in, and he moaned as the first taste flooded his mouth. “Oh, Miss Aurora.”
“You need to come on home, boy.” She shook her head as she sat down with her own plate. “That northern stuff is not for you. Don’t know how you stand the weather—much less those people.”
“So you going to tell me what happened?” he asked, nodding at the cotton ball and surgical tape in the crook of her elbow.
“I don’t need that car you bought me. That’s what happened.”
He wiped his mouth. “What car?”
Those black eyes narrowed. “Don’t you try to play, boy.”
“Miss Aurora, you were driving a piece of—ah, junk. I can’t have y’all like that.”
He could hear the Southern creeping back into his voice. Didn’t take long, did it.
“My Malibu is perfectly fine—”
Now he held her stare. “It was a cheap car to begin with and had a hundred thousand miles on it.”
“Don’t see why—”
“Miss Aurora, I’m not having you in that junker no more. Sorry.”
She glared at him hard enough to burn a hole in his forehead, but when he didn’t budge, she dropped her eyes. And that was the nature of their relationship. Two hard heads, neither of whom was willing to give an inch about anything—except to the other one.
“I don’t need a Mercedes,” she muttered.
“Four-wheel drive, ma’am.”
“I don’t like the color. It’s unholy.”
“Bull. It’s U of C red and you love it.”
As she grumped again, he knew the truth. She adored the new car. Her sister, Miss Patience, had called him up and told him that Miss Aurora had been driving the E350 4MATIC all around town. Of course, Miss Aurora never dialed him to thank him, and he’d been expecting this protest: She’d always been too proud to accept anything for free.
But Miss Aurora also didn’t want to upset him—and knew he was right.
“So what happened this morning with you.” Not a question on his part. He was done with that.
“I just got a little light-headed.”
“They said you passed out.”
“They said the cancer’s back.”
“Who is they.”
“My Lord and Savior has healed me before and He will again.” She put one palm to Heaven and closed her eyes. Then looked over at him. “I’m going to be fine. Have I ever lied to you, boy?”
That command pretty much shut him up for twenty minutes.
Lane was halfway done with his second plate when he had to ask. “You see him lately?”
No reason to specify who the “he” was: Edward was the “he” everyone spoke of in hushed tones.
Miss Aurora’s face tightened. “No.”
There was another long period of silence.
“Y’all gonna go see him while you’re here?” she asked.
“Won’t make any difference. Besides, I should get back to New York. I really came here only to check if you were okay—”
“You’re gonna go see him. Before you go back north.”
Lane shut his eyes. After a moment, he said, “Yes, ma’am.”
After a serving of thirds, Lane cleared their plates, and had to ignore the fact that Miss Aurora appeared not to have eaten anything at all. The conversation then turned to her nieces and nephews, her sisters and brothers, of which there were eleven, and the fact that her father, Tom, had finally died at the age of eighty-six.
She was called Aurora Toms because she was one of Tom’s kids. Word had it in addition to the twelve he’d had with his wife, there were countless others outside the marriage. Lane had met the man at Miss Aurora’s church from time to time, and he’d been a larger-than-life character, as Deep South as Mississippi, as charismatic as a preacher, as handsome as sin.
Not that he was being arrogant, but Lane knew he had always been her favorite, and he figured that father of hers was the reason she indulged him so much: Like her dad, he’d also been called too handsome for his own good all his life, and he’d sure done his share of womanizing. Back in his twenties? Lane had been right there with good ol’ Mr. Toms.
Lizzie had cured him of all that. Kind of in the way an embankment would stop a speeding car.
“You go up and greet your momma before you leave, too,” Miss Aurora announced after he’d washed and put away their dishes and silverware.
He left the frying pan and the pots on her stove. He knew better than to touch them.
Pivoting around, he folded the dish towel and leaned back against the stainless-steel sink.
She put her palm out from her Barcalounger. “Y’all need to save it—”
“Do not tell me you flew over a thousand miles just to look me over like I’m some kind of invalid. That don’t make no sense.”
“Your food is worth the trip.”
“That is true. Now go see your momma.”
I already have, he thought as he stared across at her. “Miss Aurora, are you going to get help for the Derby?”
“What do you think all those fools out in my big kitchen are for?”
“It’s a lot to manage, and don’t tell me you aren’t ordering them around.”
That infamous glare shot his way, but that was all he got and it scared him. Normally, she’d be up from her chair and muscling him out her door. Instead, she stayed sitting. “I’ma be fine, boy.”
“You better be. Without you, I got no one to keep me straight.”
She said something under her breath and stared off over his shoulder—while he just waited in the quiet.
Eventually, she waved for him to come over, and he did right away, striding across the linoleum and getting down on his knees by her chair. One of her hands, her beautiful, strong, dark hands, reached out and ran through his hair.
“You need to get this cut.”
She touched his face. “You’re too handsome for your own good.”
“Like I said, you gotta stick around and keep me right.”
Miss Aurora nodded. “Count on it.” There was a long pause. “Thank you for my new car.”
He pressed a kiss to her palm. “You’re welcome.”
“And I need you to remember something.” Her eyes, those ebony eyes he’d stared into as a child, a teenager, a young man . . . a grown man, roamed around his face, like she was taking note of the changes that gathering age was bringing to the features she had watched for over thirty years. “I got you and I got God. I’m wealthier beyond means—we clear, boy? I don’t need no Mercedes. I don’t need a fancy house or fancy clothes. There is no hole in me that needs filling—you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He closed his eyes, thinking she was the single most noble woman he’d ever met.
Well, she and Lizzie, that was.
“I hear you, ma’am,” he said hoarsely.
• • •
About an hour after the lemonade-Lane run-in, Lizzie left the conservatory with two large arrangements. Mrs. Bradford had always insisted that fresh flowers be in the main public rooms and all of the occupied bedrooms—and that standard had been preserved even as she had retreated to her suite about three years ago and essentially stayed there. Lizzie liked to think if she continued the practice, maybe Little V.E., as the family called her, would once again come down and be the lady of the house.
Easterly had a good fifty rooms, but many of them were staff offices, staff quarters and bathrooms, or places like the kitchen, wine cellar, media rooms, or empty guest rooms that didn’t require flowering. The first-floor bouquets were in good shape—she’d already done a run-through and pulled out the occasional withering rose here or there the night before. These new ones were for the second-story foyer and Big Mr. Baldwine’s room. Mrs. Bradford’s vase wasn’t due to be refreshed before tomorrow, as were Chantal’s and . . .
Would Lane be staying in his wife’s room?
Probably, and didn’t that make her want to vomit.
Heading up the back staffing stairs, the two sterling silver fluted vases strained her hands and wrists and tightened up her biceps, but she toughed it out. The burn wasn’t going to last long, and taking a time out somewhere along the way just prolonged things.
The main hallway upstairs was long as a racecourse, bifurcated by an upper level sitting area, and the conduit to a total of twenty-one suites and bedrooms that opened off on either side. Big Mr. Baldwine’s quarters were next to his wife’s, with both sets of rooms overlooking the garden and the river. There was a connector that linked their dressing rooms, but she knew it was never used.
From what she understood, once the children had been born that part of the relationship had not been “resumed,” to use the old-fashioned verbiage.
When she’d first started working at Easterly, she’d been confused by the names—and had slipped up and called Mrs. Bradford by her legal name of Mrs. Baldwine. No go. She’d been firmly corrected by the head of staff: The lady of the Bradford house was going to be a “Mrs.” and a “Bradford” no matter what the last name of her husband might have been.
Confusing. Until she’d realized that that husband-and-wife team had no more overlapping lives than their separate sleeping accommodations. So it was Mr. Baldwine in the suite with the navy blue accents and the heavier mahogany antiques and Mrs. Bradford in the ivory, cream, taupe, and blush suite with the Louis XIV furniture and the canopy bed.
Actually, maybe the pair of them did have something in common: He hid in his office in the business center, she in her bedroom.
Lizzie proceeded down to the curving formal stairs and swapped out the bouquet on the coffee table in that sitting area. Then she went over and stopped at Mr. Baldwine’s suite. Knocking twice on the broad panels, she waited even though there was no way he was on the other side. Every morning, he left for his business center next door on the property and he did not return until the seven o’clock dinner hour.
Putting the old foyer bouquet on the floor, she cranked the ornate doorknob, pushed inside, and strode over to an antique bureau that belonged in a museum. There wasn’t anything hugely wrong with the flowers already in place, but nothing was allowed to fade at Easterly. Here, in the cocoon of wealth, entropy was not permitted to exist.
As she switched the vases, she heard voices in the garden and went to the windows. Over a dozen men had arrived and were carting in the huge white canvas rolls and long aluminum poles that, with enough manpower and some hydraulics, were going to be The Derby Brunch’s eighty-by-forty-foot tent.
Great. Chantal was probably calling up Mr. Harris right now and complaining that the no-fly zone had been violated: If a member of the family or a guest were using the pool, the pool house, or any of the terraces, all work had to cease in the garden and all workmen had to beat feet out of the area until their royal highnesses were finished with their enjoyment.
The good news? Greta was out there already, corralling the men. The bad news? The German was probably telling them to set it all up right next to where Chantal was sitting.
Fearing that confrontation, Lizzie wheeled—
She froze as a flash of color caught her eye. “What the . . . ?”
Leaning down, she wasn’t sure what she was looking at. Like everything at Easterly, William Baldwine’s room was spotless, all objects and belongings where they should be, the masculine accoutrements of a powerful businessman in drawers, tucked away in shelves, waiting for him in that walk-in wardrobe.
So what was a piece of peach silk doing between the back of the headboard and the wall?
Well, she could guess.
And the lingerie sure hadn’t been taken off Virginia Elizabeth Bradford Baldwine.
Lizzie couldn’t wait to get out of the room, going across to the door fast, opening it—
“Oh, I’m sooooooo happy to see youuuuuuuu!”
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Praise for J.R. Ward’s Novels of the Black Dagger Brotherhood
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