Hellishly busy time...beginning of a semester. No time to even respond to all the reviews and to weigh in on the forum...even though it's been extremely entertaining!
August 2, 2003
Bridgemont House, UK
The helicopter banked over the massive home and settled gently down onto the huge expanse of lawn in front. I was mindful that I was arriving in much the same way that the Duke of Suffolk had arrived at Goodwell. As the helicopter blades wound down, I grabbed my briefcase, thanked the pilot, and ducked out of the door. The staff would take care of my luggage for me. I strolled a few feet away from the arc of the blades to find Alex waiting for me. “Welcome!” he said enthusiastically.
“Thank you,” I said politely.
“You have arrived early enough for a ride,” he said.
“I think that will have to wait until tomorrow,” I said.
“Well then we will get you settled in and feed you,” he said. He was being pleasant, which was no surprise. Alex and I got along well; the only time we hadn’t was when we’d been dating.
“I appreciate your hospitality,” I said. We walked up the steps and through the doors, which were opened wide by one of the servants. As soon as I passed through the threshold, I found the Duke and Nana waiting for me.
“Wade,” the Duke said to me warmly, even as he gripped my hand. “How good to see you!”
“It is good to see you as well,” I said, returning his smile, and then I focused on my grandmother. She’d been in a relationship with the Duke for a while now, and it had made her seem even younger and more vital than before.
“I have missed you,” she said, and gave me a very long hug.
“I have missed you too,” I said. “Where is Mary Ellen?”
“She went into town,” Nana said. She knew I was coming, and she was avoiding me, but I didn’t point that out. “Alex, will you show Wade up to his room?”
“Of course,” Alex said, and led me up the impressive flight of stairs. The servants had already collected my bags, and they followed behind us and set them down on the floor. We chatted briefly while I got a few things from my briefcase, then we went downstairs to the dining room. “I assumed you would be hungry.”
“That is usually a good bet,” I said. Nana and the Duke joined us, and I regaled them with stories of Africa while trying to eat at the same time.
“I am impressed that you are able to maintain such good manners and still eat so quickly,” the Duke said.
I smiled. “Thank you, it’s an acquired art,” I joked, and then got more serious. “Is there someplace private that the four of us can meet?”
“My study should serve our purposes,” the Duke said. He got up and led us into his old and ornate study, one that looked not too dissimilar to JP’s office at Escorial.
“I’m assuming that you want to talk about those horrible articles in the press,” Nana said. “How is JJ doing?”
I noticed that Alex cringed just slightly when JJ was mentioned. “He is surviving. He’s been drummed out of skating for the rest of the year, so he’s decided to move to New York and finish school.”
“Good for him,” the Duke said, and seemed sincere. “I really feel terribly about what they said. Our newspapers are quite lawless.”
“Unfortunately, that story was but the tip of the iceberg,” I said. “In fact, it was all part of a fairly thorough plan, one that was complicated and far reaching.”
Nana looked at me and read my mind. “Your mother was the mastermind,” she accused.
“Perhaps, but we have all been part of it,” I said.
“You are accusing me of being part of some nefarious and infamous scheme?” the Duke demanded, full of outrage.
“Unwittingly, yes,” I said firmly. I wasn’t about to be bullied by the Duke. My ancestors had fought a war a couple of hundred years ago to ensure that I didn’t have to kowtow beyond showing normal respect.
“If this is one of my daughter’s schemes, there is no one more likely to figure it out than Wade,” Nana said. “Tell us what you know.”
“I’ll tell you what I think happened, and then we can go back and I can provide proof where possible,” I said.
“That’s fine,” Alex said.
“Mary Ellen told JJ that he wasn’t allowed to come back to England with Alex this summer. She told him that at their wedding, and she told him that again when you first returned here after school ended,” I said, with the last line being directed at Alex.
“It is hardly her place to banish someone from this country,” the Duke noted. I ignored him, hoping that he’d truncate comments like that; otherwise this would be a lengthy meeting.
“When he did come back, I think that is when she must have made common cause with my mother. And it would seem that Isidore and Frank’s wedding was the key to the timing of this plan.”
“Mary Ellen explained that to JJ when he returned from Boston with Alex?” Nana asked.
“She did. Mary Ellen told him she had been nice to him up until that point, but that if he returned after Isidore’s wedding, she would ruin his life,” I said, paraphrasing her words to JJ.
“Looks like she did just that, with that article in the press,” Nana said sadly.
“She didn’t plant the article in the press,” I said. “Lord Preston did.”
“My son?” the Duke asked, aghast. “Are you certain?”
I’d be lying if I claimed that I didn’t derive some small satisfaction in telling them that. The Duke and Alex had been looking at me in a slightly condescending way, as if it were only my family that was fucked up enough to be this evil. “I am. I flew back to England with Professor Crampton and Stefan Schluter, and we’ve spent the last four days in London trying to piece this plot together.”
“That is a rather bold accusation to make, nonetheless,” Alex said, but I could tell he was reeling from this.
“Yet I discovered it by talking to a source at the Daily Mail,” I explained, remembering not to look too smarmy. They all said nothing, just digested that, so I went on. “It would seem that the plan was to isolate JJ, so when all of this happened, he would find himself completely alone. He would have no one to lean on, and no one to help him fight back.” I glanced at Alex, a damning look, since he had deserted JJ pretty fucking quickly, but he avoided my gaze.
“Why would they need to isolate him?” Nana asked.
“Because when you’re tangling with a family like JJ’s, which is both rich and powerful, if you go after them, you should expect there to be some retaliation,” I explained. “JJ, by himself, is not very formidable compared to the rest of them combined.”
The Duke and Alex looked a little annoyed at the thought that they should be afraid of the Crampton-Schluter brood, but Nana was under no illusions. “I would suggest that they are at least as powerful as either of our families,” she said. No one said anything, but that was left there as a silently agreed upon fact.
“JJ was isolated by ensuring that other members of the family were dispatched to various parts of the globe. Mother arranged for me to go to Kenya, a plan I should have seen through but did not,” I said bitterly.
“I think you should give yourself credit for deciphering the riddle, not for writing it,” the Duke said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Professor Crampton went to a conference, one that you arranged,” I told the Duke.
“That was done as a favor to a friend, not as part of a plan to remove him from his family!” the Duke objected firmly.
“No one is suggesting otherwise,” I said gently. “That is why I said we were unwittingly pulled into this.”
“Didn’t Brad and Marc go to China?” Nana asked.
“Marc was offered an opportunity to exhibit his art in China, and Brad went with him,” I said.
“That was my doing,” Alex said sadly.
“And again, you were merely doing a good deed as far as you knew,” I said. “Darius was sent on a naval cruise, and while I’m not certain, I’m fairly sure that my mother set that up.”
“That would make sense,” Nana agreed. “That leaves Will.”
“Trevor went to see Zach Hayes, and blackmailed him into ending his relationship with Will,” I said.
“Trevor Armistead? My nephew?” she asked, horrified. Trevor was actually not her nephew, he was my father’s nephew, but Nana had always classified him that way because she was fond of him.
“The very same. I was able to talk to him, and Mother evidently put him up to it. Zach was told that he would be outed, courtesy of some pictures they’d gathered of him and Will, unless he ended things with Will and had no contact with him.”
“That must have been very hard on Will,” Alex said, with real sympathy.
“It was,” I agreed, and focused my explanation on Alex. “But my mother has never understood the true meaning of family obligations in the same way that you and I were raised to understand them. She didn’t realize that when Will found out JJ was in trouble; he would put his own issues aside and help out his brother. In fact, Will flew here to retrieve JJ, and helped him land, literally, in New York.”
“Mary Ellen swore she did not talk to the press,” Alex said, and he was clearly flustered. “She even passed a lie detector test.”
“She didn’t talk to the press, she merely got my mother, and your father, to do her dirty work for her,” I said.
“This is a very dirty business,” the Duke said with disgust.
“As we sit here, what has been the damage?” Nana asked.
“Until today, I would have thought that JJ had suffered the most. His skating career is all but destroyed, although maybe in a year, if the dust settles, he’ll be able to rekindle it. It won’t be easy, because the figure skating association wants him gone.”
“And they’ll use all kinds of subtle tricks to drive him out,” Alex noted. “He will most likely never get a fair score in a competition again.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Will has been traumatized, and while he’s very angry about it, he probably could have been talked into a moderate course of action.”
“Who was injured the worst?” Alex asked.
“Zach Hayes,” I said.
“They didn’t release those pictures, did they?” Nana asked.
“No, but someone hired his roommate to put methamphetamines into his energy drinks,” I explained. “He tested positive in a supposedly routine drug test.”
“Trevor did that?” Nana demanded.
“No, I suspect that Mother arranged it,” I told her. “Trevor said he never met Julius, Zach’s roommate, and I believe him.”
“Why would she do that?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know, but that is what makes this particularly evil. Zach did what he was supposed to do, but she was going to ruin him anyway. His roommate had been slipping him meth for the past few weeks, starting even before JJ got to England after Isidore and Frank’s wedding. There was no reason for that, other than to be vicious.”
“Maybe,” Alex said, thinking carefully. “It is also possible that the drug interfered with Zach’s judgment.”
I pondered that. “That makes a lot of sense.” Zach was a bright guy, and he probably would have thought more about this after the initial shock wore off. He wouldn’t have been so easily manipulated if the meth hadn’t fucked with his mind.
“So she had Zach blackmailed into doing what she wanted, but she was going to ruin him even if JJ hadn’t returned with Alex?” Nana asked, truly horrified.
“Apparently Zach is but an expendable minion,” I said ruefully. We sat there, repulsed yet intrigued by the whole scheme.
“I was not happy about your relationship with JJ, and now I am even more unhappy about your relationship with Mary Ellen,” the Duke said to Alex.
“I think it is important to recognize that Mary Ellen isn’t the only guilty party here,” I said acidly, unwilling to let one of my family members take the entire fall for this.
“She set up this entire scheme!” Alex asserted, much too loudly.
“As awful as this scheme is, her motives seem relatively pure,” the Duke noted, as he started to more logically evaluate the situation. “She was merely trying to defend her family, and have her husband with her.”
“That is not what we agreed on when we got married,” Alex objected.
“You underestimated her,” I told him. “You knew she was upset about JJ being here, but you told him to come anyway, and you told him that you would protect him. You didn’t.”
“So this is my fault?” Alex asked, clearly outraged.
“Partially. You thought Mary Ellen was going to act like a helpless princess, and merely snipe at JJ in an attempt to make him uncomfortable enough to leave. It’s understandable that you’d be surprised when she pulls something pretty massive like this.”
“Yet she is the one who did, indeed, pull this off,” Alex said, trying desperately to deflect the guilt.
“She is,” I agreed.
“I feel terribly for JJ. He must hate me,” Alex said, letting some of his feelings show through his shields, but I wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily.
“I would guess that he does not hate you; I would guess that he has lost most of the respect he had for you. You promised him that you would handle this, that you would keep Mary Ellen in line, yet when this went down, instead of doing that, you deserted him,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “He would see that you have violated your word and your oath to him.” That hit Alex like a ton of bricks, and even if it hadn’t, the reproving look he got from the Duke would have laid him low.
“Perhaps this will end up as a good learning experience for all of you,” the Duke said. His tone was patronizing, and it irritated both Alex and me.
“Perhaps,” I said, in a slightly smarmy way, to let him know that he’d pissed me off.
“So what will happen now?” Alex asked.
“They will strike back,” I said. “This was not a knock out punch. This family has survived worse. This is more like Pearl Harbor.”
“Awakening a sleeping giant,” the Duke said ruefully.
“Yes,” I said. Every person in the room was vulnerable to public embarrassment, and everyone dreaded what could ultimately happen if the whole plan was public. “My mother’s name is already destroyed, so she has little to lose.”
“I suspect that your father will also be able to shield himself behind his disreputable reputation,” the Duke said to Alex, with real venom.
“Undoubtedly,” Alex agreed.
“Professor Crampton is flying to New York. It is our hope that maybe he can prevail upon everyone to try and defuse this situation.”
“What will he need to do that?” the Duke asked. In other words, he wanted to know what peace would cost.
“I don’t know, but he’ll let us know shortly,” I said.
“In the mean time, let us try to enjoy your visit,” Nana said.
A knock at the door surprised us, since the Duke had explicitly stated he did not want to be bothered. “Enter!” he said.
“Your Grace,” the butler said respectfully. “Lady Bridgemont has just come through the gates. There were several reporters trailing after her.”
“Thank you,” he said, dismissing the man. “Perhaps Professor Crampton was unsuccessful?”
“He hasn’t even been in New York long enough to have a conversation with everyone,” I noted, glancing at the clock. “It looks like someone struck back on their own.”
August 2, 2003
Fly-Over Country, USA
Zach was back in the sleeping compartment, pouting, while I sat up front with my computer out, going through some e-mails. We had a couple of hours left in the flight, so I figured I’d check up on what was going on. Turned out to be pretty boring, so I decided to play some computer games instead. I’d just loaded up SimCity when the phone rang. It was standard procedure for us to forward calls to the plane when we were flying, and I’d made sure to do that this time, since so many of us were traveling today. I figured it would be Aunt Claire, or maybe Stef. “Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” I heard my father say. I could tell he was pissed off, and that made me smile. “Just what the fuck are you doing?”
“I’m in the air,” I said nonchalantly, just to annoy him.
“Another charter flight?”
“Another charter flight,” I confirmed.
“Where are you going this time?” He was talking through clenched teeth he was so mad. It was all I could do not to laugh my ass off.
“New York,” I said.
“I got your expense reports for July,” he said. “I guess you’re proud of yourself.”
“I am proud of myself,” I said. “I got all ‘A’s on my report card last semester.” He completely ignored that, but that didn’t really matter to me. My academic performance was for me, and for Grand. It made me happy to know how satisfying it was to Grand that I did so well in school.
“Between the two of you, you and JJ have managed to burn through ten million dollars in two weeks!” he shouted. I ended the call. I absolutely refused to put up with him yelling at me on the phone, so when he did that, I simply hung up on him. I made him call back twice before I answered it.
“Hello,” I said, as if I had no clue it would be him.
“Ten million dollars!” he said, but not so loudly. He knew the drill, and knew exactly why I’d hung up on him.
“Am I responsible for JJ’s bills?” I asked acidly.
“No, you’re not, but I know you put him up to this, because he doesn’t usually spend that much money,” he snapped. “And you’re responsible for eight of the ten million.”
“Sounds about right,” I said casually, like it was no big deal.
“You spent almost $1.5 million on charter flights, and you bought a $750,000 car? What sixteen-year-old needs a Ferrari Enzo?”
“Evidently this one does,” I said.
“And I’m supposed to pay out four million to some trust for God knows what!? What did you spend four million on?”
“Real estate,” I said simply.
“You think this is some kind of game? You think that money grows on trees?”
“No, since it’s mostly made of cotton, I’d say it grows on plants,” I said.
“Very funny,” he snapped. “I don’t know where you think you’re going to get the money to pay these bills.”
“From my trusts,” I said.
“There’s not enough liquid cash for that,” he said. I knew that, which was why I’d been trying to burn up some serious dollars.
“Then I’ll have to sell enough stuff so there’s cash to pay the bills,” I said simply.
“Only you’re not the trustee,” he said.
“And neither are you,” I said, dropping that bomb on him.
“When you eventually check your mail, you’ll find you’ve been terminated on all the trusts that I can remove you from,” I said coldly.
“You can’t do that!” he said, even though he knew I could.
“I can do it for cause. I can and I did.”
“I can’t wait to hear this. What’s your cause? You’ve made great returns in those trusts.”
He was right, the returns had been good, but that wasn’t the issue. I pulled up a copy of the termination letter Sean had prepared and read it to him. “The letter you’ll get will tell you that I’ve terminated you as a trustee because you have shown incredibly poor judgment. That is evidenced by the lack of confidence shown by Stefan Schluter in removing you from your role with Caruthers & Schluter in China, and as evidenced by your total abandonment of your family.”
“Right,” he said, but with less venom. That had hit him hard. I was almost through his shields. “When I get back, we’re going to sit down and set up a budget for both you and JJ.”
“Really? When you get back?” I laughed. “Looks like JJ and I don’t have anything to worry about.”
“I’ll be back by the fifteenth of August,” he said evenly.
“You won’t even know where to find us,” I said.
“You’ll probably be flying all over the globe, while JJ will either be in England or Boston,” he said, like he had all the answers.
“JJ won’t be in either one of those places,” I said. My calm tone, with a huge dose of sarcasm, had to be driving him to the limits of his ability to maintain his patience.
“He doesn’t live in Boston anymore.”
“What do you mean? Since when?”
“Since the newspapers in England ran a story about Alex and JJ having an affair and since that all but ruined his relationship with Alex and destroyed his skating career,” I said rudely. “That’s since when.”
“Where is he going to live?” I could hear the confusion in his voice. That had shocked him.
“You should probably ask him, but since you never bother to call either one of us, I’ll save you the effort. He’s moving to New York.”
“What’s he going to do in New York?”
“I’m guessing that he’s going to do a lot of shopping. It is the fashion capital,” I said. “Plus he’s going to finish up school. While you were out of the country, ignoring the rest of us, JJ dealt with being dumped by Alex, fought a battle with the USFSA, moved to New York, and enrolled himself at St. Ann’s School.”
“So you’re going to New York to see him?” he asked.
“I’m going to New York to meet with Grand, Stef, JJ, and Aunt Claire to figure out how to handle these people who have tried to ruin our lives,” I said.
“Oh. I didn’t know about that,” he said. He was reeling now. Good.
“You know why you didn’t know about that? Because you’ve blown us all off, and now you’ve become useless. Even though we’re in the middle of a war, and outsiders are attacking us, no one called you, because no one needed or wanted your help or your input. You have made yourself irrelevant.” I’d spat those last words out loudly, a strong contrast to the calmness I’d shown before. I sat there for at least a minute, with neither one of us saying anything.
“I figured you’d spend most of your summer in Malibu with Zach. That was nice of you to take the time to go to New York and see JJ.”
“First of all, the reason my charter flight bill was so high was because when all this shit went down with Alex, I flew out to London to get JJ,” I said, unable to hide how pissed off I was. “So yeah, I guess that was nice of me.”
“I’m sure he appreciated that,” he said. His voice was soft and sad now.
“And the second reason why you’re wrong about that is because Zach and I broke up two weeks ago,” I said.
“What?” And with that, I ended our call. I knew my father, and I knew that for the first time in a long time, I’d actually gotten through to him and made my point. Now the big question was what, if anything, he’d do about it.
August 2, 2003
New York, NY
My phone rang, and I saw that it was Will calling me. “Hello,” I said formally.
“Hey there!” he said cheerfully. “We all landed around the same time, so we decided to ride in together.”
“That’s great,” I said unenthusiastically. “How long till you get here?”
“Probably about half an hour,” he said, after consulting with the limo driver.
“I’ll look forward to seeing all of you,” I told him. That was only partially true. I knew that Stef and Grand had spent a bunch of time with Wade in London, and I had no idea what kind of strategy they’d cooked up, but I hadn’t been standing still. I’d launched my revenge attack against Mary Ellen yesterday, but it would have only hit the press there today. I smiled when I thought about how annoyed she would be, and how perfect my plan was.
I walked through the condo, making sure everything was perfect. I’d adopted this as my new home, and I’d started to make some changes. I’d moved into the master bedroom, since that seemed only reasonable, and I’d drawn up some plans to change it. I’d gotten some new furniture and accessories for the other rooms, and I’d had Carullo’s cousin repaint about half the place. It was fun, something I enjoyed doing. In the evenings, I’d ponder a room, think about how it should look, and then start figuring how to make that happen. Will smoked pot, and I decorated. We all chilled in our own ways.
It turned out to be only twenty minutes when the door burst open and Will came bustling in, panting because he’d run up the stairs. “Hey!” he said, and gave me a big hug. I pretended that it wasn’t reassuring to have him act so happy to see me, even though it was. “Good to see you!”
“Good to see you too,” I said. “Hey Zach,” I said.
“JJ,” he said. I was pissed at him for hurting Will, and he felt guilty for the same reason, so our normally warm greeting turned into a stilted man-hug. Will noticed that but didn’t say anything.
“Carullo should be back later on,” I told Will.
“Cool,” Will said. The elevator door opened and Grand, Stef, and Aunt Claire came out. “Beat you!”
“Sometimes being fast is not a good thing,” Stef said to him, which was pretty funny. “And how are you?” The three of them gave me really warm greetings.
“Doing really well,” I said, and it was true.
“Let us see this new color you selected,” Stef said severely, even as we walked into the great room.
“I thought this room needed a blue with a grayer tone,” I said confidently.
Aunt Claire winked at me, to tell me I’d made the right call. “You are right,” Stef pronounced. “This is perfect!”
“Thanks,” I said, so happy that he wasn’t mad about that. “I changed a few other things, and I’ve been drawing up plans for some of the other rooms.”
“Show me!” Stef said. Grand’s phone rang, so he excused himself to go off into a corner and chat, while I showed Stef and Aunt Claire the changes I’d made, and the plans I was working on.
We got back to the great room after about twenty minutes of touring and chatting to find Grand looking dour, while Will and Zach were grinning. “We don’t have enough rooms for everyone, since Carullo is living here now,” I announced.
“We can just crash with him,” Will said, irritating the crap out of me, even though I hid it well.
“Or you can grab the staff quarters,” I said in a snobby way.
“You don’t have a staff?” Stef asked.
“Not yet,” I said. “But we’re working on it.”
“How are you doing that?” Claire asked.
“John Carullo is related to half the damn city,” I joked. “Every time I talk about getting something done, he tells me he has a cousin who can do it. So maybe I’ll hire one of his cousins to be our cook and housekeeper.”
“Who painted the condo?” Will asked.
“Carullo’s cousin,” I said, making him chuckle.
“He certainly did a good job,” Claire said. “I am really impressed with how organized you are. You certainly didn’t let that whole issue with Alex get you down.”
I nodded, because it had bothered me, but not as much as I thought it would. And it sure as hell didn’t fuck me up as bad as Will’s drama with Zach had fucked him up. “It’s like skating. When you fall, you have to get up, paste a smile on your face, and move on.”
“That is an excellent attitude to have,” Stef agreed. Grand had been aloof, watching us and not saying much. I looked at him curiously.
“I just spoke to Wade,” he said.
“How is he doing?” Will asked.
“He is enjoying Bridgemont, although there has been a bit of controversy,” he said, even as he stared at me.
“Oh?” I asked, feigning innocence.
“It seems that charges were filed against Mary Ellen in Virginia yesterday,” he said.
“What for?” Will asked.
“Child molestation,” he said. “She is accused of having sex with a young man who was only 16 years old, when she was 21.”
“Seriously?” Will asked, and started laughing. “And that made the papers in England?”
“It did,” Grand said. “In fact, it happened so quickly, it is most likely that the news was leaked to them on purpose.”
“Awesome,” Will said, getting a dirty look from Grand. “Do they know who she perved on?”
Grand’s annoyed look at Will continued, but the rest of us were trying not to laugh. “When a minor is involved in a complaint of this nature, his name is not usually revealed. Yet somehow it was picked up by the tabloid press in England.”