At Natalie’s request, Rory met her at her house for the interview. “I don’t want anyone knowing I’m talking to you yet,” she explained over the phone. “The last thing I need is it getting back to Charles or Richard. They’ll find out soon enough, and I’ll deal with it then.”
Now, sitting in Natalie’s living room, Rory contemplated asking her just how dysfunctional the family had become since Julie’s disappearance. Shouldn’t they be together, supporting each other, at a time like this? Then again, Rory remembered, Charles and his stepchildren had barely gotten along in general. As she waited for Natalie to come back from the kitchen, she realized that there wasn’t a single photograph on display, giving the room an overall sense of sterility.
“I can’t thank you enough for meeting with me,” Rory said when Natalie returned and handed her a crystal tumbler of iced tea.
“We both know what the media will do to her memory, Rory, so I may as well have my say and try to salvage the Daniels name.” Natalie answered, sitting down in the armchair opposite Rory, her crystal tumbler filled with wine. “Are you sure I can’t get you something stronger than tea?”
“I would, but technically, I’m working. Thanks, anyway.”
Natalie took a long drink from her glass, draining nearly half of it. “I’m not an alcoholic, honest, but this makes talking about Julie easier. Where do you want to begin?”
Rory watched Natalie’s hands play with the crystal, nervously turning it, fingers tracing the etched design, and wished she didn’t have to ask anything. How much easier it would be to sit and reminisce. Instead, she was here for the sole purpose of tearing into already raw wounds. “Let’s begin with the basics, a few facts to make sure my own memories are clear.”
Natalie took another drink. “Okay. Go ahead.”
“I know that Julie graduated from St. Avoline’s with a major in political science and was going to work with Charles after graduation.”
“Are you talking to him, too?”
“Yes. He’s meeting with me at two o’clock today at The Franklin Lounge in the Wharton.”
“His favorite hotel and watering hole. No doubt this will be in full view of his cronies.”
Rory ignored Natalie’s tone, hoping to avoid a rehash of his failure as a husband and stepparent. “I wouldn’t know. I simply asked to meet him. Regardless, Nat, you know me, I don’t work for the tabloids. If his cronies are there, they’re there. I can’t stop them. My job is to put him at ease so that I can write a killer article about Julie.”
Natalie drained her glass. “Nice choice of words.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m just trying very hard to distance myself from this, emotionally. If I don’t,” Rory paused and swallowed. “If I don’t, I’ve failed her.”
Natalie stared at Rory for a moment, deciding. “You’re right. She needs you to be objective. Someone has to be.” Natalie fell silent then, studying the empty glass in her hand. “Are you going to talk to my brother, too?”
“No. He’s not interested.”
“Just as well.”
“Can you tell me what he’s been up to with his career? Just a sentence or two to round out the article.”
“Mom always hoped you two would get back together. She always thought you were good for him.” When Rory didn’t reply, she continued. “He moved out after Julie disappeared and converted the summerhouse into a studio and apartment. You probably know he’s had a few shows since then, and they did pretty well. He’s able to support himself.” Natalie stood and walked to the kitchen. “I’ll be right back. Can I get you a refill?”
“No, thank you.”
“I never drank until she disappeared, you know,” she said when she returned. “Never touched it. My dad was an alcoholic. He took off when we were little, leaving Mom in charge of three little kids. Her only talents were being a mother and making poor choices in men. If Charles hadn’t hired her as his secretary when he worked in Virginia, who knows where we would be today. As much as I dislike him, I can at least admit that he did right by her when she was dying, which is what matters.
“I don’t drink much. I’ve found that I can keep a bottle in the cabinet and that a small glass sometimes helps me sleep on certain nights, like on Julie’s birthday or the anniversary of her disappearance. I just keep going over that night when she called me. She and Alex were out for the night at some club, and she’d been drinking, I could hear it in her voice.” Natalie’s hands stilled and tears filled her eyes. “ I should have gone to get her, Rory. I could have been there in fifteen minutes, tops. I’m sorry,” she swiped her arm across her eyes. “I can’t help it. But that call, God, Rory, I should have gone to her.”
Rory’s pen moved quickly, jotting down Natalie's version of the phone call word for word. “What else can you tell me about her relationship with Alex?”
“Nothing much. She said she loved him, but I had my doubts as to how deeply. At times, I thought she was with him for the connections, you know? The two of them would have looked wonderful together at all those political functions she would have had to attend. As for his feelings for her, he was crazy for her. He sent her flowers, gave her gifts. Everything was appropriate – not too expensive, not too cheap. Well, you know Alex, he has good taste. Julie seemed pretty happy, she never said anything about wanting to break up or anything. She never said anything to you, did she?”
Rory shook her head. “When we were in high school, we talked about getting an apartment together after college, but by the time we were seniors, we knew it was a pipe dream. She felt that her career wouldn’t allow her to live the bohemian life we’d talked about as teenagers.”
“Was that what you two argued about?”
“Richard read Julie’s diary a few days after she disappeared. He thought that Alex did it and that he’d find proof in her writings. The last entry was about you and the argument you two had.”
No wonder he blamed her.