The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 11

The following morning, Rose woke up especially early, knowing that if she meant to catch the person she wanted to call, she needed to call first thing. She dug through her purse to find an international calling card she hadn’t used in several months, checked she still had enough time on it, and searched through her address book for the number of an old friend.

She slipped on her reading glasses, dialed the number for the card company into her cell phone, and carefully punched in all of the tiny numbers below the barcode. She dialed the country code for the United Kingdom, then squinted and punched in the number of her friend, tapping her fingers on the end table as it rang. She must have missed him, however, because she heard an answering machine.

“You have reached the mobile of Ewan MacDougal. Please leave a name, number, and a brief message, and if this is Clive, you can bugger off. If it’s not, I’ll call back as soon as I can.”

Rose sighed, rubbing her eyes and waiting for the beep. She spoke quickly but clearly, wanting to ensure she could fit in everything she needed to say, but clearly enough that Ewan could find what she needed.

“Ewan, hello, sorry to bother you. It’s Rose McFarland. I’m working on a case in California, and as it happens, I find myself with a couple of details in Scotland I’d like you to take a look at, see if you can find anything that’s odd to you. There’s a girl who died in a car crash named Julia Whitney, American studying abroad. And there’s a police officer named Michael Barron, used to live and work in Scotland. They might be connected, but check them out separately as well. Call me as soon as you can with whatever you find. Someone’s life might very well depend on it.”

She felt bad leaving him such a tense message to come off work to, but if Annabelle was in some sort of danger, Rose didn’t want to wait around and find out.

Because it was when she woke that morning that she realized what nagged at her last night. The girls said Michael Barron came to town after Julia Whitney’s death, and yet he told Rose about her at the police station as if he’d known the girl. The only way that could be was if he met her in Scotland, and it would be an awfully big coincidence for him to meet her probably weeks or months before she died, then move to her hometown and start dating her best friend. A very big coincidence, indeed.

But Rose could accomplish nothing without some sort of proof, and she needed to wait on that, at least until Ewan came off work and had some time to dig around for her.

She went downstairs thinking she would find breakfast, but she found instead – or rather, in addition – Adyson on her cell phone with coffee in the other hand, pacing the dining room frantically while Sonia watched over her own coffee with weary eyes.

“Good morning, Aunt Rose,” Sonia sighed, her hair curtaining half her face. “The lawyer’s just dropped by, read us the will; left a copy. Adyson’s been given the company, and she’s turned into a monster.”

Adyson hissed at her sister to be quiet as whoever was on the line began talking. She set down the coffee and kept muttering words of acknowledgement as she scribbled away on a notepad.

“Mmm-hmm. Yup. ’Kay. Mmm-hmm. Wait, say that bit again.” Sonia and Rose held their breath and raised their eyebrows as Adyson frowned. “So you’re saying we have nothing? Absolutely nothing on this guy? What have you been up to for the past three years, Chloe, ignoring Luke Hatfield and hoping he would go away? No, I realize. Look, send someone with any files you have up to La Casa, and I’ll place some phone calls, and we’re going to tackle this my way now. If he’s prepared to fight dirty, he’s going to get himself a nasty little shock.”

She hung up the phone and tossed it aside, picking up her coffee again and sipping it as she scribbled some more down on the notepad. Without looking up she said good morning to Rose and continued to scribble. Sonia raised her sculpted eyebrows significantly at Rose, who simply shrugged.

Chloe obviously informed Adyson about the issue with Gwenllian Kerr and Luke Hatfield, which couldn’t have sat well with the girl, especially considering everything else going on.

Annabelle wandered sleepily downstairs with wild bedhead and tired eyes as breakfast dragged on into lunch, and Adyson scrolled on her phone, presumably searching the internet, texting people, scribbling more things on her notepad. Sonia rummaged up a chessboard and played a few games with Rose. Annabelle finally asked what Adyson was up to, and Rose told her, “Something for the company.”

Just after the servants brought lunch, Samantha came downstairs and ate as if nothing happened the day before. She looked paler than usual, but otherwise she had made herself up as always. Twenty minutes later, the files arrived, and Adyson turned the far end of the table into her own personal office. Samantha looked affronted by this, as noted by the irritated twitch of the corners of her lips, but even she grasped something important was happening, so she quickly pretended nothing at all was happening.

“This man is infuriating,” Adyson finally whined. “I’m sure he’s breaking a regulation or two somehow. I’m sure of it, something sketchy or illegal or just unethical, but I can’t catch him at it! There must be some way, something I can do to incapacitate him.” She looked up at Sonia and grinned. “Sonia, come over here and tell me everything you know about Luke Hatfield.”

“None of it’s business-related,” Sonia said, wiping a bit of stray jam off the crust of her sandwich and onto her finger.

“Doesn’t matter.”

Sonia grinned and stood, moving down toward Adyson and muttering, “In that case....”

While the girls pored over the notes and Adyson continued texting someone she didn’t mention the name of, Annabelle started twirling the chess pieces around, bored. Samantha sat there, reading over the will, obviously perturbed about something. Rose was too polite to ask, but she didn’t need to wait long before Samantha slammed down the will and blurted out the problem.

“She’s placed my annuity into Chloe Blackburn’s hands until the girls turn twenty-five.”

Everyone looked up at her, nervous and tense.

Annabelle, in a sour mood, said, “Then?”

“Then you’re in charge of it, Annabelle,” Samantha snapped. “This is ridiculous. That’s my money; I’m a grown woman. I don’t see why you all see fit to keep me from it!”

“Mom, Daddy just—”

“Don’t you bring your father into this,” Samantha hissed.

“Samantha, dear,” Rose said gently. “Technically, this is your husband’s money, his to distribute as he saw fit, and he could have given all of it to the girls, if he wanted. Now, you and I know Conrad would never, but that’s not the point. The legal situation was already set up. Evelyn dismantling it would have been incredibly complex. This way, she’s still keeping to her father’s wishes.”

Although the fact Evelyn adjusted her will to include aspects her father’s will felt suspect, especially considering she hadn’t known the contents of Conrad’s will until after he died. Between the reading of his will and her own death, she must have drawn up a new will, which meant either she was incredibly conscientious about her affairs – possible – or she already knew she might die.

Considering the chaos her family had been in with the investigation about her father, the second one appeared more and more likely, and the word SAFE on the file about Annabelle still nagged at Rose. Evelyn thought whatever the problem – because Rose wasn’t fully convinced it connected to Michael, but possibly Julia’s death – the threat to Annabelle could also become a threat to her, but why? If they worried Annabelle would take her own life, then why would Evelyn be in danger? And how did this lead to the deaths of Evelyn and Conrad?

The afternoon wore on, and to Rose’s surprise, no one left the dining room for longer than it took for a trip to the restroom. An unspoken requirement apparently existed that they all be together, and she couldn’t fathom why. Until Annabelle spoke up about a quarter after three.

“I’m going out,” she said, standing, pulling her hair absently into a ponytail.

“Sit back down,” Samantha snapped. “You’re not going anywhere.”

Rose started at this sharp statement, and Sonia and Adyson pointedly ignored the confrontation at the other end of the long table.

“I’m not a child, Mother. I’m going out.”

“Our family is grieving, and you cannot leave the house,” Samantha said firmly. “You know the rules. And besides, it’s nearly time for dinner.”

“It’s still three hours,” Annabelle sighed. “If you want me back by dinner, I’ll be back by dinner.”

Sonia looked over at them, nervously. Rose thought it odd Samantha made a family rule about staying in the house while grieving, but perhaps it was something developed when Conrad died, or perhaps it was social thing formed to keep up appearances. Rose didn’t understand why Annabelle couldn’t go out for air, but she couldn’t defend her, not knowing what was supposedly a danger to her. Keeping her in the house could buy Rose a bit of time.

“I don’t want you out there driving when you’re upset like this,” Samantha said, still just a touch away from screaming. “I’ve already lost your father and sister, Annabelle. I’m not losing anyone else!”

Annabelle gave a strange, animalistic sound of frustration and anger that came out as a kind of shriek, and she rushed out of the room. Samantha screamed after her, but Rose stood up, placing a hand on her cousin’s shoulder.

“I’ll see if she’s okay.”

Rose followed Annabelle up the back stairs, down the hall, to Annabelle’s room, where the slamming of the door caused it to not latch properly, and Rose followed her right in, through the sitting room, to the beautifully furnished bedroom, where Annabelle sobbed into her baby-blue silk sheets.

“You’ll stain them,” Rose said gently, sitting on the edge of the bed. Annabelle didn’t look up, wiping her eyes on her arm. “I know things feel hard right now, dear, but you can talk to me. What’s on your mind? Why did you blow up at your mother like that?”

“I want out of this house,” Annabelle choked out. “She does this when bad things happen: we close the doors and lock ourselves in and do this whole faux-solidarity thing and Adyson goes bonkers with business stuff and Sonia’s one step from taking a knife to Luke Hatfield just to feel better, and my mother’s only functioning because she doesn’t like how it looks to lay in her bed all day and cry her eyes out.” Rose must have looked startled by the list of reactions because Annabelle said, “No, really. It happened when Daddy died, and when Sonia nearly died. They’re horribly predictable.”

Rose stroked Annabelle’s hair gently, trying to decide what to say. Obviously, she didn’t want Annabelle leaving the house, but if her harming herself posed the problem, then she wouldn’t be any safer locked up in her own room. On the other hand, after that explosion, it didn’t strike her as practical to keep Annabelle in a room with her mother, either.

“Where were you going to go?” she asked. “Does Blake have the day off?”

“No, he’s at the station,” she sighed. “I just wanted a bit of a drive. I don’t know.”

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Rose said slowly, “but I think your mother is right about the driving. At least for a couple of days. To be safe.” The word nearly stuck in her throat. “There’s nowhere you really need to go, is there?”

Annabelle sighed, wiping her eyes.

“No, I suppose there isn’t,” she said bitterly. “I just can’t stay in that room with her anymore. Daddy and Evelyn died, and all she can think about is the fact someone is going to be managing her annuity for her.”

Rose nodded. Frustrating, but that was just Samantha’s way. She couldn’t talk about things, about real things. She didn’t want to think about everything not being perfect. In essence, that was why she’d married Conrad: he allowed her to have everything exactly how she wanted it.

“You don’t need to go back down until dinner,” Rose suggested, giving her a weak smile. “As you pointed out, that’s not for another three hours or so. Perhaps you could just take a nap here.”

Annabelle tilted her head, considering.

“I didn’t sleep much last night,” she said softly. “I had nightmares. About Julia and Evelyn. Am I cursed, Aunt Rose?”

“No, don’t be silly,” Rose said, thinking of the ghost she’d thought about, the one she’d half-jokingly mentioned to Michael Barron. “Sometimes, bad things just happen to people. And whatever happened to your sister and father was likely connected. Julia died in an accident, right?”

Annabelle wiped her eyes again and murmured agreement.

“It’s just bad luck sometimes,” Rose said, glancing at her watch. If Ewan still kept to his same work hours, he’d be off work within the next hour and any time after that he could find news for her. “Why don’t you take a nap until dinner, and maybe then you’ll feel better, and if you mother permits, we can go for a walk on the grounds.”

Annabelle wiped her eyes again and nodded.

“I’d like that,” she muttered. “I’m sorry about everything, Aunt Rose. Your visit was just meant to be a quick thing, you telling us for certain Daddy died on accident, and now—”

“Now, don’t fuss, Annabelle. I’m happy to be here,” Rose said earnestly, smoothing a bit of silky hair off the girl’s face. “Imagine the state your mother would be in if I stayed in New York.” Annabelle groaned and rolled over. “Shall I ask a servant to wake you before dinner?”

“Never mind that, I’ll set an alarm,” she said, fiddling with her phone. “Wake me if Adyson makes a breakthrough, though. I would like to see Luke set down as well as anyone. I just don’t think she’ll come up with anything in the next twenty-four hours.”

Rose kissed Annabelle’s forehead and closed the door behind her, turning the handle to ensure it was unlocked in case of emergencies, and glancing up to check that the security system keyed to her room was unarmed before going back downstairs to check on Sonia and Adyson’s progress in their vendetta against Luke Hatfield.

“She’s taking a nap,” Rose told Samantha, who paced the dining room frantically. “I think she’s just emotionally exhausted, and she said she didn’t sleep very well last night. I don’t think she meant to upset you.”

Samantha scoffed, still pacing. The frenetic motion appeared to put some color in her cheeks, if nothing else. Adyson continued to tune out everything, frantically texting someone, and Sonia only glanced up occasionally, when she thought no one was looking.

“Annabelle is headstrong,” Samantha said, sighing. “Her father playing favorites with her obviously turned her lazy and selfish, but I will not let that ruin her, I won’t.”

Rose almost raised her eyebrows, thinking that description suited Sonia much better, the favorite of their mother, but even if she’d dare say such a thing to Samantha, she certainly wasn’t stupid enough to say it in front of Sonia. But then, Rose suspected Sonia already knew.

“She’ll be fine, Mom,” Sonia said softly from the far end of the table. “Remember, she’s lost more than us.”

The reminder of Julia led Rose to glance at the clock. Any time, Ewan could call, and if he hadn’t by twenty minutes before dinner, she would call him again, since she wouldn’t be able to after, with her walk with Annabelle.

She hoped he would find something, anything, to work with – either to set her on the right path or comfort her, telling her that whatever she feared might be connected actually couldn’t be connected at all, and Annabelle was perfectly safe.

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