“We are getting nowhere in South Africa,” Sean said, sounding very annoyed. To be honest, it was disappointing that a law firm the size of his couldn’t put together a plan to find out about the life of an English Marquess living near Cape Town.
“I think I’m going to have to enlist an ally,” I said.
“My sister,” I told him. “I’ve been thinking about this, and I think that she can at least do some probing from England. It might be a bit easier to figure things out from there.”
“Can you trust her?” he asked.
“No, I can’t, but I think that if I can secure a pledge from her that she’ll work with me on this, she’ll honor it. And I think that once I put the bug in her ear, she’ll be on it in a big way,” I said.
“Well it’s your call…” he said, in essence telling me he didn’t agree with me.
“If you’ve got a better idea, I’m open to suggestions,” I said acidly. “As it is, you haven’t been able to do any better than I have using Google.”
Now, in addition to being annoyed with him for doing poorly on this project, I was annoyed with myself for letting my temper get away from me. “It’s been one of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with,” he said, basically admitting to failure. That was even more foreign to me.
“Let me give this approach a try,” I said, then hung up the phone.
I hadn’t talked to Brad lately, so I dialed his number. I heard it click a few times until his assistant Grace answered, and then there were several more clicks as she transferred me to Stef’s plane. “Hello,” I heard Brad say in a nice way.
“Hello,” I responded.
“You’re on speaker phone with me, JP, Stef, and Will,” he said. We all greeted each other.
“Well I am in DC,” I explained. “My mother is still in the hospital.”
“How is she doing?” JP asked.
“Evidently she thought that I, or we, may have had something to do with it,” I said, referring to her rape.
“We have taken a pledge of non-violence,” JP said.
“Has anyone talked to Jake lately?” I asked, which was my backhanded way of tossing him out there as a possible suspect.
“You think he did it?” Will asked. I said nothing, waiting for them to think it through. “I don’t think he would do that.”
“I agree with Will,” JP said. His opinion on this was more important, since Will may have his judgment clouded by Jake’s amazingly handsome looks.
“I’ll talk to him the next chance I get,” Brad said. “Just to make sure.”
“I have another dilemma, and I wanted to get your input,” I said.
“Go on,” JP said.
“I’ve run into a brick wall when it comes to figuring out the deal with Lord Preston,” I told them. I explained the limited info I’d found, and how Sean hadn’t been able to turn anything over either.
“So what do you plan to do?” Brad asked.
“I’m thinking of involving Mary Ellen in this thing,” I said. “I think that she can certainly pin down Alex and the Duke better than I can, and she will be in England where presumably she’ll have access to better information.”
“Can you trust her?” Brad asked, just as Sean had.
“This is one of those times when our interests align,” I said. “There was a time that you were even able to do that with my mother. Mary Ellen is less insidious.”
“That is true,” Brad mused, even as we chuckled a bit, then his tone changed to one of resolve. “You’re more than capable of making the call on this Wade. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said. No sooner had I hung up on that call than the phone in my suite rang. I got up and answered it promptly.
“Mr. Danfield, there’s a young woman here who requested access to your suite,” the front desk employee said over the phone. “Her identification says she is Mary Ellen Danfield Granger, but she refers to herself as the Countess of Bridgemont.” I smiled at that, at how Mary Ellen had embraced her acquired title. The front desk clerk probably thought she was some delusional escapee from an asylum.
“Please provide Her Ladyship with a key and have someone escort her up here,” I said.
“Certainly, sir,” the employee replied. I looked around the suite, checking to make sure things were tidy, which made me actually laugh. It was inconceivable that a room I was staying in would be messy. I was too anal-retentive for that.
There was a noise at the door, followed by a hunky bellman who escorted Mary Ellen into the room. Once she was through the door, he went back and dragged her rather large suitcase in. “Please put the suitcase in that bedroom,” I said, gesturing at Mary Ellen’s room. I tipped him well, and then I turned my attention to her. “It is good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, and nice to be back in the states,” she said. Despite living in Britain, her accent hadn’t changed. Maybe the southern drawl she sported was genetic, and impervious to an English influence. “How is Mother?”
“She seems to have recovered,” I said. “She’s been in the hospital since they found her after the rape.”
“That’s a long stay, isn’t it?”
I chuckled. “Not if you’re trying to draw attention to yourself.”
“Why would she want anyone to know that had happened to her?” Mary Ellen asked.
“I can’t be sure, but if I were to guess, I’d say that being in a hospital after being raped would spark some sympathy,” I said.
“Her reputation is so bad, it’s going to take more than that to restore it,” Mary Ellen said with a sneer.
“I agree with you, but Mother is evidently an optimist,” I said. “She’s being transferred home later today. You got here early enough that you can be part of her entourage.”
“What terribly bad timing on my part,” she said. “I suppose I should pull myself together and go visit her.”
“You look fine, but feel free to unpack,” I said. I studied her more closely, and saw that she was almost glowing. “You seem effervescent.”
She laughed, a beautiful laugh, and then smiled. “I am doing my duty.”
“I am pregnant again,” she said.
“That’s pretty fast,” I replied. “You’re quite fertile.”
“So it seems,” she said. “Alex is thrilled, of course, and so is the Duke. He and Nana are just adorable together.”
“But not so adorable that you wanted to stay up at Bridgemont with them,” I teased.
“The effect wears off quickly enough,” she said.
“And how is Ricky?” I asked, remembering to inquire about my nephew.
“He is doing quite well, but he is a handful, so I am most grateful for nurses,” she said. Mary Ellen was never much for babies or toddlers. I hoped that she’d develop more maternal feelings for her son as he got older.
“They require a certain degree of effort,” I said. We went on, chatting about our various family members and talked, at a very superficial level, about what they were doing with their lives. She spent half an hour unpacking and spiffing up her appearance, then we went over to see my mother. Beau was there as well, completing the family montage.
“It seems that it takes a tragedy for me to get a visit from all three of my children,” Mother said in her somewhat bitchy way.
“We can only hope for more of them, so we have a reason to come see you,” Mary Ellen said. She made it hard not to laugh. “I take it you will live.”
“This time,” Mother said. Mary Ellen regaled us with stories about her life in England. I was impressed with how much she seemed to enjoy it, and how she seemed to have adapted to society there.
“Mrs. Danfield, I’m terribly sorry to interrupt you,” a nurse said, stopping our conversation cold.
“That’s quite alright,” my mother said, with the tone she always used when dealing with staff people.
“We need to do some final tests and get you ready for your discharge,” she said courteously.
“Then perhaps my children will excuse me while I do that,” she said.
I looked at my watch. “We can do that. We’ll get a late lunch, then come back and escort you home.”
“That would be wonderful, Wade,” Mother said with faux pleasantries.
“I need to get back to school,” Beau said. He hadn’t talked to either Mary Ellen or me, other than to be polite. “I’m going to head out.”
“That’s fine, Beau,” Mother said, kissing him on the cheek and patting his shoulder in her doting way. He gave Mary Ellen and me brief hugs, then he was gone.
“It seems that you’re stuck with me for a lunch date,” I said to Mary Ellen.
“This day is not looking up,” she joked. We left the hospital and went to a nice café in Georgetown. I managed to get us a secluded table in the back, where we could talk without being overheard. It helped that we were now well past the lunch hour.
“I need to talk to you about your father-in-law,” I said to her.
“The Duke?” she asked.
“No, you skipped a generation,” I said.
“Ah, you mean Lord Preston,” Mary Ellen said, screwing her face up in a sour expression.
“That is exactly who I mean,” I said. “Do you know what he does for a living?”
“My understanding is that he’s a real estate developer,” she said.
“My understanding is that he is not. That is a front for some other business, and I’m guessing it’s a less-than-reputable endeavor,” I told her.
“How did you find that out?” she asked.
“I heard a rumor, and Mother all but confirmed it. He apparently married a DeBeers heiress,” I explained.
“If he has money, why did Alex need to marry me and bring a huge dowry into the family?” she asked.
“And that is but one of the mysteries,” I said.
“Well I don’t know anything about him,” she said, then grinned. “Yet.”
I laughed at that. “I need to find out what his deal is. It’s become more important after Mother’s machinations this summer.”
“And why is that?”
“Because Mother obviously knows him, and because she spent a lot of time talking to him at your wedding. I’m going to guess that’s not the only time they chatted,” I said. I didn’t tell her about Alexandra’s warning to Brad.
“Why should that bother you?”
“It bothers me, and it should bother you, because there’s a good chance that whatever they’re plotting involves both of us, and probably your husband and son,” I said.
“I can’t imagine what they could possibly do to me,” she said, almost arrogantly.
“You can’t?” I challenged.
Her expression got pretty dour. “I suppose I could end up dead in a ravine,” she grumbled.
“It would be nice to know if that is within his power,” I said. I saw that she got my point. “I would like to ask for your help on this.”
She raised an eyebrow in surprise. “My help?”
“I need to know what his deal is, and I haven’t been able to find out a thing. I think you can,” I told her.
“Why me?” she asked.
“Because you have the right to know, and you can bully Alex into telling you. And even if he isn’t entirely forthcoming, that should give you enough information to do some investigating on your own. And finally, I would think that he would be more well-known in Britain, and you may have better luck going at him from that venue.”
“What’s in it for me?” she asked.
“This is something you need to know, if only for your own benefit and safety,” I said firmly. “If you don’t tell me what you find out, that just makes my job harder, but you still need to know.”
“I’ll work on it,” she said. We finished our lunch, and then went back to the hospital to escort my mother home.
August 29, 2003
“The whole town is named after them?” Will asked as we landed. He followed that up with a yawn. We’d had to leave at an ungodly hour this morning, and he’d used his extra time on this flight to nap.
“The town and the county,” JP confirmed.
I looked out the window at the relatively sparse airfield. “This looks pretty desolate.”
“There is a larger airport closer to Fort Hood, but this one can handle Stef’s plane, albeit just barely,” JP said. “The advantage is that it is much closer to the Dalby Ranch.”
“That is worth the lack of amenities,” I joked, then got serious and focused on Will. “So how tight are you with Dally?”
He gave me a relatively unpleasant look. “Well, I haven’t even met him yet, but we talk on the phone a lot.” He was clearly reluctant to tell me about this, something I completely understood.
“I get that you want your privacy on this, but in this case, you may need to be a little more open,” I said.
“This?” he asked.
“Your relationship with him,” I said, in an annoyed way.
“I think what your father is trying to say is that you should remain cautious, because we are not sure how all these people relate to each other, and it seems there is some level of friction,” JP said.
“You’re telling me not to get involved in their soap opera?” Will asked, once again distilling his sentences down to a simple thought.
“Yes,” JP said in his snippy way.
“I’ll keep my eyes open and my mouth relatively shut,” Will promised.
“That may be a challenge,” Stef said, in his catty way. He’d finally pushed Will to the edge of his patience.
“You promised you’d be nicer to me. When’s that supposed to happen?” Will demanded of Stef at a volume level just within JP’s allowable range.
“I beg your pardon?” Stef asked, feigning innocence.
“We cannot be fighting with each other in front of strangers,” JP chided, which was funny enough to make me chuckle. Stef and Will just glared at each other, even as the plane stopped taxiing. JP’s tone switched to one that was severe and scolding. “If there were no issues here, then Stef would not be the executor of Buzz’s estate, and Bradley would not be nominated to be Dally’s guardian. It is incumbent on you two to remain alert, and part of a cohesive team. If you cannot do that, I recommend that you remain aboard this plane.”
“You are banishing me from Dalby, Texas?” Stef asked, outraged.
“Inasmuch as it is in my power to do so, I am threating you with that,” JP said icily.
“That’s probably like being banished from Claremont,” Will joked, and while that irritated JP, it got a smile from Stef, and helped melt their animosity.
We were distracted from that when the stairs were pulled up and the door opened. “Why don’t you go first,” Stef said to Will, a nice offer since he usually liked to make an entrance.
“Thanks,” Will said, then paused. He held up his finger to Stef, and Stef smiled, and did the same thing to Will, meshing their fingers as they had when they’d become blood brothers. “Let’s see if there’s any cute cowboys out here.”
Stef chuckled, and followed Will out of the plane. I was just about to disembark when my cell phone rang. I noticed it was a number in Hawaii, and that made me think it was Mike calling. “Hello,” I answered crisply.
“Brad Schluter, please,” a vaguely familiar voice said.
“This is Brad Schluter,” I responded, even as I saw Stef, JP, and Will walk down the stairs.
“This is Keenan, from Maui,” he said nervously.
“I remember you,” I said pleasantly, to try and relax him. He’d been a hustler Robbie had fucked back when we were having problems, but he’d also turned out to be Kai’s cousin and a good friend of Scott Slater.
“I called to tell you that Scott is in the hospital,” he said somberly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I hadn’t been totally focused on our conversation before, but I was now. I saw Will gesturing at me from the tarmac but I waved at him in a way to tell him this was important.
“Someone robbed his store and beat the crap out of him,” he said. “He’s in pretty bad shape.”
“How bad?” I asked, even as my mind reeled from this latest problem.
“Several broken bones and a concussion,” he said.
“Where’s he at?” I asked. Keenan gave me the name of the hospital. “I’ll get in touch with Jeff and let him know. I’m stuck in Texas until at least Monday.”
“Oh. OK,” he said. He sounded lost, and worried.
“I’ve got to go meet some people,” I said, so frustrated at the simultaneous timing of his call and our arrival. “Is this your number?”
“What number?” he asked. I read the number back to him from my caller-ID, and he confirmed that it was.
“Let me call you back in a bit, alright? And I’ll get out there to see him as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, Brad,” he said and ended our call. I sighed and walked down the stairs, and got straight into the waiting limousine, neatly avoiding spending much time in the Texas heat. It had to at least be in the high 80s. The privacy screen was already up.
“No one was here to welcome us,” Will said, clearly annoyed.
“They are probably busy,” Stef said.
Will shrugged. “I mean, I’ve talked to Dally every day now. He was really anxious for me to spend the weekend here. Kind of weird that he didn’t show up to greet us.”
“It’s just as well, since we have another matter to discuss,” I said. “That was Keenan, from Maui. Scott Slater got the shit beat out of him.”
“Is he alright?” Stef asked.
“No, but I don’t know how bad he is. I need to call the hospital,” I said. “I need to go see him as soon as I can.”
“You are pretty much stuck here until Sunday evening,” Will noted. “Unless he’s really bad off.”
“I’d better call and check,” I said. I called Grace and gave her the info, and asked her to track down someone for me to talk to, then refocused on our group.
“Who did it?” Will asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It happened at his shop, so it could be a random robbery, or it could be related to all of this crap.”
“Do you think Elizabeth had something to do with this?” Stef asked.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” JP cautioned.
“I was not making any conclusions, I was merely hypothesizing,” Stef said coolly, using JP’s own language, which was pretty funny.
“I guess it’s possible that she could have found out about Scott,” I mused. Scott was living under a fake name, having changed his identity after he’d bailed me out in my battle with Omega. He’d stayed pretty low profile, but Elizabeth was an amazing resource of information.
“Perhaps this is payback for her assault,” Stef postulated.
“That’s assuming she thinks I’m to blame for it,” I said, shaking my head at how confusing this all was.
“If she thought that, or found out that someone close to you orchestrated her rape, then I could see her deciding this was an adequate revenge,” JP said. It was funny that he evidently couldn’t resist jumping on the speculation bandwagon.
“Only I didn’t have anything to do with her rape,” I asserted strongly.
“That you know of,” Stef said, reminding me in a subtle way that it was possible that Jake had indeed set Elizabeth up.
Grace called back and I was able to talk to Scott’s doctor. He wasn’t in good shape, but he’d live. I promised I’d get out to see him next week.
August 29, 2003
The Dalby Ranch
I was trying not to be completely annoyed, but it was tough. Stef had busted my balls on the entire flight here, and the one thing I’d been looking forward to, meeting Dally, hadn’t happened. If I’d invited him out to see us, I’d have been at the airport to meet him. It seemed to me that was just common courtesy. I wished Grandmaman or Aunt Claire were here to give me their read on the etiquette of the situation.
We’d been driving for a good fifteen minutes when the limo turned off the main road and passed through an elaborate archway that announced we were entering Dalby Ranch, along with the obligatory signs warning people not to trespass. I’d expected that we’d be at their place, but this was yet another long drive.
“This must be part of the 100 acres that was cut out of the corporation,” Grand said. Just then, the house came into view. It was massive, a structure that looked a little bit like Goodwell, but more ornate. Goodwell had a tasteful simplicity to it, while this place had a lot more decorations on the outside. Regardless, the basic look, with huge white pillars, was the same.
“Quite a place,” Dad said, as we drove up to what must be the front entry. There was no one there either, and I had the feeling we were being either ignored or snubbed. Just as the limo stopped, the front door opened, and two older people walked out, followed by a bevy of servants. The servants were all either Hispanic or Black, while the older couple was white.
“That must be Buck and Laddie Mae,” Stef noted coolly. The limo door opened and the hot, muggy Texas air blasted us as we exited.
“Welcome to our home,” the man said as he stepped forward. “I’m Buck Dalby, and this is my wife Laddie Mae.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Grand said cordially, and shook hands with them. He introduced each of us in turn, and we shook hands with them. I thought they looked at me a bit oddly, but I didn’t say anything.
“Let’s get you inside where it’s cooler,” Laddie Mae said pleasantly. We went into the entry foyer, which was quite large, and definitely designed to impress us. It might have succeeded but for the large signed picture of George and Laura Bush that was prominently displayed. It made me want to vomit. “And which bags are yours?” she asked me.
“Just this one, ma’am,” I said, adopting the same attitude I did when I was with Nana.
“You call me Laddie Mae,” she demanded with a smile, then turned to a servant. “Take this one up to Dally’s wing, then the others go in the annex.”
“Yes, Miss Laddie,” he said.
“Dally wanted to be here to greet you, but he had school today,” she said to me. “He should be home around 2.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” I said politely.
“I thought we’d give you a tour so you don’t get lost around here, then we’d have lunch,” Laddie Mae announced. She was like the social director. Beyond his initial greeting, Buck hadn’t said a thing.
“Excellent,” Grand said. Buck vanished, while Laddie Mae showed us around the main house, which was pretty unique. On the ground floor were the main rooms one would expect a house like this to have, as well as a bedroom suite for Buck and Laddie Mae. The upstairs had been divided into three separate areas, each the province of one of their children. Each was set up with a large open area, and was ringed by individual bedrooms. Buzz’s area was where Dally lived; I found my bag in one of the bedrooms off a big main area. After the tour of the main house, they took us to see the outbuildings. There was an annex for guests that was much like an upscale hotel, albeit on a smaller basis, which was where Grand, Stef, and my father were staying.
“Buzz told me that y’all enjoy riding,” Laddie Mae said pleasantly. It was odd that mentioning her son’s name didn’t seem to unduly bother her. “We have our personal stables over there,” she said, gesturing at another building a bit further off. “There are other stables on the ranch where we breed and raise horses.”
“When we have some time, I would enjoy seeing them,” Grand said.
“We can have someone show you around,” she said. I caught my father’s eye and raised an eyebrow. I guess she didn’t ride horses, or she didn’t want to show us around. “Lunch should be ready.”
Buck was waiting for us in the massive dining room. The table had been shortened to accommodate a smaller party. That no one else was around seemed strange to me. “This is an impressive ranch,” Grand said.
“Been in my family for generations,” Buck said simply. “We made a few changes along the way, but it serves.”
“It is decorated beautifully,” Stef said to Laddie Mae. It was one of the few comments he’d made, which was unlike him. It was even more unlike him to call the décor beautiful, when it was not. It was bordering on gaudy in most cases, and there was no theme to it. Each of the rooms was markedly different from the other, which worked in some places, but here there was nothing to unify them. Laddie Mae looked at Stef blankly, even though the comment had ostensibly been directed to her.
“We’ve got a daughter who likes to do decorating,” Buck said, as if to explain why Laddie Mae wasn’t all that receptive to Stef’s kind words. Food arrived, and it was standard fare one would expect in Texas, only there was no Tex-Mex option, which was surprising. I almost laughed as Stef looked disdainfully at the huge steak that was set in front of him. It was good, though, as we found out when we all began to eat.
“I’m sorry we’re meeting under such unpleasant circumstances,” Grand said.
“We expected no less,” Buck said, almost a snarl. “If Buzz would have stayed on the ranch like he was supposed to, none of this would have happened.”
“He wasn’t meant to be a rancher,” Laddie Mae said cautiously, getting a glare from Buck.
“He wasn’t meant to be dead either,” Buck snarled back. Watching this interplay, it was pretty clear how things worked here at the ranch. Buck was the man in charge, and brooked no opposition. I watched how he acted and decided that if I’d been Buzz, I’d have gotten out of here too. “And I’m sure as hell not happy about his legal shenanigans.”
“Legal shenanigans?” Stef asked. I couldn’t help but giggle, getting a glare from all of them.
“Sorry,” I said. “Some words are tougher for Stef to pronounce. ‘Shenanigans’ is obviously one of them.”
Stef gave me a dirty look, which I ignored. “I am French, by heritage, and my grandson is correct.”
“Your people sure haven’t gotten much good press lately,” Buck said with a sneer, which was his way of agreeing with all the shit the Republicans had said about France lately.
“I am an American, so they are not necessarily my people, but I am confident they are unconcerned about their reputation here,” Stef said boldly. The implication was that no one with any brains would care what the idiots in DC thought about them. It was funny to see that check Buck’s attitude a bit.
“Probably smart to ignore the press,” he said. It would have been incredibly easy for anyone to start an argument about that, since it wasn’t the press who started the anti-French attitude, it was the GOP, but we let it pass.
“I can understand why you would find it disconcerting to have someone unknown to you suddenly involved in your family matters,” Stef said in a slightly sympathetic way. I knew that was his olive branch to Buck. I was surprised that Buck took it.
“Well, now that you’re not unknown to me, it doesn’t seem so bad,” Buck said with a slight smile. “Maybe after lunch, we can chat about things.”
“I would be happy to,” Stef said. “I would like to have my partner join us as well.” That really got visibly unpleasant looks from both Buck and Laddie Mae.
Buck swallowed, and then forced himself to smile. “Fine with me.” It was kind of sad that he didn’t invite Laddie Mae to be involved too, and even sadder when I looked beneath the mask that was her façade to see that it bothered her.
“I can walk you back to the annex,” I said to my father.
“That works,” he said. “I’ve got some phone calls to make.”
“Thank you for a wonderful lunch,” I said to them as we got up.
“We’ll see you at dinner,” Buck said.
“That’s at 7:30,” Laddie Mae added. “Gives everyone time to get home. You’ll get to meet the rest of the family.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” I said for both of us, then found our way out of the dining room and headed toward the annex.
“Wow,” Dad said, when we were outside and out of range of unfriendly ears.
“Dude, I thought the Danfields were fucked up,” I said. “These people may put them to shame.”
That made him laugh, as I’d planned. “I guess we’ll have to see about that. In the meantime, be careful.”
“I have condoms,” I said to annoy him, but smiled to show him I was joking.
“I’m sure,” he said. “This place feels like a powder keg about to blow up.”
“There is a lot of tension,” I agreed. I dropped him off at his room, and then went back to the main house to wait for Dally.