“All in all, that went better than I expected.”
Madison made the admission to her children as she drove home from Dallas Sunday afternoon. If she overlooked the subtle snubs from her so-called friends and Annette’s endless snide remarks, the weekend had not been a total loss.
A meeting with her lawyer revealed good news. The debt she still owed creditors had shrunk considerably, to an amount that was now more manageable. A few more years, and she might be free of the disaster Gray shackled her with. While Annette and Charles might fork out plenty of money to keep their son’s name in good standing, their generosity did not extend to rescuing their daughter-in-law from the jaws of bankruptcy. She had to dig out of that hole by herself.
But the best news of all was that the IRS had dropped the investigation into her late husband’s business dealings. No doubt her in-laws had something to do with the sudden decision, but Madison did not care. As long as the law did not come after her, she was fine with the older couple paying to keep their precious son’s name out of the mud.
That was what this weekend had been all about, even if Annette would never acknowledge as much. She claimed it was a celebration of her son’s memory. She insisted the downturn in Gray’s business was due to the economy, and that things would have turned around, had he lived.
“The decorations were fabulous. You did a great job helping with them, Beth,” Maddy continued, making eye contact with the teen through the rearview mirror.
“Thanks. It was sort of fun.”
“I’m glad you had fun,” her brother sulked from the front seat. “Because I thought the entire party sucked. Big time.”
“Blake.” Madison used her best mom-tone on him.
“Hey, I can’t help it if the whole thing was one pompous show of ‘up-yours.’”
“Blakely Grayson Reynolds, you watch your mouth!”
“Sorry, Mom, but it’s true. I loved Dad and thought he was a swell guy, but to hear Grandmother Annette tell it, you would think he was a god. Nobody bought all that crap. She laid it on too thick. It was obvious she was just trying to buy her way into their good graces, and she made us all look like fools in the process.” His normal smiling face was replaced with a dark glower.
Madison secretly agreed. She wished Annette could hear her grandson’s assessment of the weekend. When Annette told her version of the event, it would be a glowing success and an understated tribute to a most deserving man. Bleh.
“Blake, honey, your grandmother was only doing what any mother would do.” It galled her to take Annette’s side. Not only did she need to keep peace in the family for her children’s sake, but in this case, she spoke the truth. “She took up for her son the only way she knew how. I would do the same for you.”
“If you had the money,” he inserted on a grunt.
“If I had the money,” she echoed.
The teen turned toward her from his seat. “The thing is, Mom, it may be the only way she knows, but it’s not the only way you know. You know how to express your love without just throwing money around.” He peered at his sister over the seat back. “The whole time we were there, did she ever hug you?”
Bethani searched her memory banks. “I don’t think so,” she finally admitted.
“Yeah, me neither. And she never stepped foot in the kitchen. She never made us cookies or made us our favorite meal. She didn’t come in to tell us goodnight or tell us goofy stories about when she was little.”
“Hey, I resent that. My stories are not goofy!”
“Some of them are pretty corny, Mom. And they all have some little pearl of wisdom buried in them. It may be buried deep, but if you dig far enough, you’ll find it. Kind of like an earthworm.”
Inexplicably touched by his odd characterizations of a mother’s love, Madison blinked back a tear. “Odd as it seems, I actually missed your smart attitude these last few weeks.”
“Does that mean I finally get a home-cooked meal?”
With his broad and charming smile, Blake looked so much like his father that it momentarily took Madison’s breath away. It was good to be reminded that she once loved her husband. It kept the guilt at bay for now hating him.
I don’t hate him. I don’t hate him. Madison repeated the silent mantra to herself. I’m no longer angry at him. Brash was right, it is a waste of my time and energy, and it eats away at my heart. I can’t hate a man I no longer feel anything for.
“Mom? A home-cooked meal?” he repeated hopefully.
Madison laughed. “I suppose that’s your definition of a mother’s love.”
He looked confused, as if it were a trick question of some sort. “Of course.”
“Well, my dear and precious son, it just so happens I already have tonight’s menu all planned out. We’re stopping by the store on the way home. I’ll fire up the—” She stopped mid-sentence, as a thought suddenly occurred to her.
“Mom?” Blake questioned.
“Are you okay?” Bethani could see her mother’s expression in the mirror. She was immediately worried.
“Oh.” Madison snapped out of her trance with a weak and non-convincing, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. I just thought about a job I’m working on.”
“A case for the investigator?” Blake asked, his expression hopeful. He thought it was cool that his mother sometimes worked for a private investigator.
“No,” she said slowly.
It suddenly occurred to her that, while sorting through the unlabeled file in the lawyer’s office, she had absorbed more information than she thought. She had been concentrating on alphabetizing the names, but inadvertently, she had seen some of the confidential content.
She suddenly knew what they all had in common.
Brash picked up his phone on the second ring.
“This is a pleasant surprise,” he greeted Madison. “I didn’t think you’d call this evening.”
“Beth is on the phone with Megan, telling her every detail of the last six weeks. Blake’s version is much shorter, but his call list is longer. Apparently we did our catching up in the car, because here I sit, all by my lonesome again. It’s almost like they are still gone.”
“I could come over and keep you company.”
“A generous offer, and one I’m sorely tempted to accept. But not tonight.”
“When, Maddy?” She heard the frustration in his voice. “I leave for another conference on Friday.”
“This is your last one, isn’t it? You’ve been gone all summer.” She could hear the whine in her own voice.
“Believe me, I know, sweetheart. And yes, this is the last one. When I hit town next Wednesday, I don’t plan on leaving again anytime soon.”
“Just so you know, if you leave again, you’ll have a hitchhiker along for the ride. Me.”
She heard his pleased smile. “Now that would make packing a suitcase again all worthwhile.” Judging from the sounds on the other end of the line, Brash leaned back against the headboard in his bedroom, his knee popping as he unfolded his long legs and stretched out on the mattress. “So where would we go?”
She played along with his game. “Mmm, let’s see. What about… Shreveport?” It was the first town to pop into her mind.
“Really?” he sounded surprised. “Why there?”
She laughed at her impromptu answer. “Probably because Granny and Miss Sybille are talking about going gambling. While they’re there, they want to swing over to Monroe and see the Duck Commander warehouse. I think they have a crush on the older man that carries around that glass of sweet tea.”
“You mean Uncle Si?”
“Does he have a beard?”
“They all do.”
“I think that’s his name. They argue over him like they might actually have a chance with him. They’re like schoolgirls.”
“I hate to burst their bubble, but I’m pretty sure the old guy is married.”
“They’ll be crushed,” Madison predicted.
“So we won’t go to Shreveport.” Brash ruled out that possibility. “I’m not much of a gambler anyway.”
“So where else would we run off to?”
“Hmm, not Vegas, either. Mexico?”
“Too hot this time of year.”
“This isn’t a family vacation. Just you and me.”
Her mouth watered at the thought. She conjured up the most romantic city she could think of. “Paris?”
“Too bad I don’t speak French.”
“So you pick.”
“What about… New York City?”
She squealed with amusement. “Yeah, I’d love to see you up there with your cowboy boots and cowboy hat, talking all Texan to their Yankee talk. You might need a translator,” she teased.
“That’s what you’ll be there for, sweetheart.”
“I don’t speak Yankee, either.”
They played their game for several more minutes, suggesting and discarding a dozen cities around the world. Brash ended the game when he made the perfect suggestion.
“I know the perfect place. It has everything we need. A river. A night sky as big as Texas, filled with twinkling overhead stars. A soft breeze. Bullfrogs and crickets, chirping out a sweet, romantic song. No one around but you and me.”
Their special spot on the river. Maddy closed her eyes and breathed in the beauty of the dream he painted. “It sounds wonderful.”
“I have an idea I’d like to run past you.”
“What would that be?”
“When I get back home, how about we plan a family outing? You, Beth, Blake, Megan, and me. Granny Bert and Genny are welcome to come along, too.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“We have a nice pond out at the ranch, stocked with catfish. We could spend the afternoon out there fishing, then have a fish fry right there on the banks. The kids can swim and play in the water. Adults, too, for that matter.”
“That sounds really nice.”
“Bethani has been out to the house a few times with Meg, but I’d like for her to see you and me together, to see how well we complement each other. And I’d like to spend more time with both your kids, getting to know them better.”
Madison was touched. “That’s really sweet of you, Brash.”
“I told you I want a future with you, Maddy. Beth and Blake are a part of that future. And even though it might not be my place to say so, I think Blake could use a male influence in his life right now.”
The air squeezed from Madison’s lungs. She gripped the phone so hard her knuckles turned white. “Wh—Why? Have you heard something? Has he been getting into some sort of trouble I don’t know about?”
“No, sweetheart, nothing like that,” Brash was quick to assure her. “Blake is a great kid. So is Bethani. But it’s gotta be tough for a fifteen-year-old boy, losing his dad so suddenly. It’s not intentional, but girls get more attention in situations like these, because they show their emotions more. Boys hurt just as much, but usually in silence. I just think it might do him good to bond with a male authority figure.”
Was this man wonderful, or what? Tears clogged her throat.
“I thought I might even take him dove hunting when season opens in a few weeks, if you don’t object.”
She could barely get the words out on a whisper. “Not—Not at all.”
“I know he’ll be starting football soon. As a former player and coach, I strongly encourage sports. It builds leadership qualities, teaches the importance of teamwork, and establishes a strong code of ethics and accountability. But hunting… now that teaches an entirely different skill set. There is nothing like being in the great outdoors, surrounded by nature, learning to depend on yourself. Hunting teaches personal responsibility, firearm safety, sustainability, and common sense practices. And it fosters a need that all men have to provide for their families. If he’s interested, I’d be happy to take him with me to South Texas this fall to my deer camp. With your permission, of course.”
He could not hear her head nodding.
“Are you crying? What’s wrong, sweetheart? If you don’t want to take him hunting—”
“No, no, it—it’s not that!”
“Then, what? Why are you crying, sweetheart?”
“Because-because you’re trying. You care. You have no idea how many times Blake begged Gray to take him hunting, or fishing, or just camping. But Gray was always too busy. He never took the time to bond with him. I—I can’t believe you’re willing to do that for my son.”
“I told you, Maddy,” Brash said, his voice rough with emotion, “I want Blake to be a part of my future, too.”
The words were on the tip of her tongue. It was so hard holding them in, to not voice the sentiments surging through her very being. She loved him. Yet she could not, would not, say the words until they were free to explore their relationship. The tricky part, in her mind, was that it had to be with her children’s blessings.
“You have no idea how much I appreciate that, Brash. And he will, too. He’ll love it. I can’t wait for you to invite him.”
“So you like my idea about the family outing?”
“I love it.” Just like I love you. She spoke the words silently, hoping they reached him through telepathy.
His quietly spoken agreement brought another smile, telling her he understood her message. “Me, too, sweetheart.”
Clearing the emotion from her throat, Madison made a conscious effort to change the subject. “So I have a professional question for you…”
Something about the jumbled file at Lone Star Law still tugged at Madison’s mind. Even if Gloria Jeffers was known for her overzealous imagination, she wondered if there was a story there. And the fact that Gloria, a woman Carson Elliot insisted did not drink, compiled the file shortly before she died of alcohol poisoning was too coincidental for
Maddy’s analytical mind. At the risk of being as dramatic as the deceased woman herself, it was worth looking into.
“How do you go about investigating a cold case?” she asked.
“Dead and buried. Doubtful it was ever a living creature to begin with.”
“Hmm. Well, I suppose the same way you would any case, cold or otherwise. Research. Lots and lots of research.”
It was sheer luck that Madison’s gig with Lone Star Law coincided with the investigation Carson Elliot hired her to do. Being at the law firm offered Madison the perfect opportunity to learn about Gloria’s work habits and professional conduct.
According to Shawn Bryant and the few clients Madison spoke with, the woman was well-liked and quite efficient. Absolutely no evidence indicated that the lawyer’s late secretary had a drinking problem. Everything in the office — other than the filing system itself — was neat and meticulous. And Madison suspected that no drunk could decipher the way Gloria Jeffers filed. That particular method of organization demanded a clear and sober head.
Yet if the woman was an alcoholic, it stood to reason she had a stash of alcohol hidden in the office. Madison spent a full hour searching for it.
Digging deep into a corner cabinet, Madison did not hear the door chime as it tinkled out the first notes of the Aggie War Hymn. Shawn was a proud alumnus of Texas A&M, as evidenced the moment clients stepped through the door. This time, however, Madison never realized someone entered until a voice spoke from behind her.
“Hello? I had an appointment with Mr. Bryant?”
Madison banged her head on the cabinet as she jerked from the dark recess. “Ow!” she cried in surprise. She straightened and whirled, rubbing at the offended spot on the back of her head. “I’m sorry. I did not hear you come in.”
Lisa Redmond eyed her dubiously. Several weeks ago, the slender woman had hired In a Pinch to provide evidence her husband was cheating on her. Despite rewarding Madison with a bonus for a job well done, she seemed none too pleased to see the would-be sleuth now. Madison wondered if it might be embarrassment. After all, who liked to admit her husband was unfaithful? She certainly had trouble discussing Gray’s duplicity.
“I have an appointment,” Lisa repeated.
“Oh, yes. Certainly.” Madison dusted off her hands and shut the cabinet door. It hadn’t revealed much more than files and spider webs. Certainly no secret stash of bottles.
“If you’ll have a seat, I’ll let Mr. Bryant know you’ve arrived.”
“I had no idea you worked here.” Lisa’s words were as stiff as her body as she perched on the edge of the maroon leather armchair, clearly uncomfortable.
“Just while he’s in a pinch.” Madison offered the tongue-in-cheek reply as she pressed the intercom and lifted the receiver to her ear.
“Yeah, I heard about the other lady,” Lisa murmured, letting her eyes trail over the desk. She seemed to avoid Madison’s eyes, choosing to study the filing cabinets and custom built-ins as Madison announced her arrival.
“Mr. Bryant will see you now. Shall I show you to his office?”
“I know the way.” Lisa scrambled to her feet and disappeared down the hallway.
Madison noted that her appearance had improved since the first time they met. That first day, she had mistaken the stringy-haired, nervous-acting young woman for a drug addict. With a new haircut and a fashionable outfit, Lisa Redmond looked far more confident of herself now. And despite whatever paranoid beliefs Barry held, this was the first time the two women had seen each other since May.
Making a face to herself, Madison knew that if Barry got wind of Lisa showing up here today, he would read something more into it. He would probably accuse Madison of orchestrating the meeting, or suggesting Lisa hire Lone Star Law to handle the divorce.
For all she knew, that was exactly why Lisa was here.
Not that it was any of her concern. She had more pressing matters to worry with. Now that she had a new filing system in place for the law office, her job here would soon be done, which also meant her dual-purpose time was coming to an end.
Something about the jumbled file she had found still bothered her. Something about the fact that all five cases revolved around fire.
Madison knew she walked a fine line.
She had access to the files, but the contents were confidential. Even with Shawn Bryant’s permission, she had no legitimate reason to review the cases. Short of contacting each client and obtaining their approval, she could not ethically read the details within.
What she could do was examine the names, dates, and brief descriptions used for filing purposes. Before tucking the folders into their proper new homes, she took a few notes.
Jerry Don Peavey vs. Omega Insurance: Fire damage to barn
Ray Sams: Motor Home fire
Tomas Montelongo: Small fire at restaurant, personal liability insurance
William Shanks: Chimney fire
Carson Elliot: House fire
Her eyes backtracked over the last name, making certain she read it correctly. Yes, it was right there in black and white. Carson Elliot.
The list covered three towns, two counties, and five years. The only link of commonality was that they each had something to do with fire.
Was it another of Gloria’s contrived conspiracy theories? Or was there a legitimate reason the files were combined into one file? Madison’s mind hummed with possibilities.
Perhaps she had been doing research on fires in the community. Considering her gentleman friend was one of the victims, she might have had a personal interest in the outcome of such research.
Perhaps she was gathering information for a class-action suit.
Or researching insurance fraud.
Perhaps Gloria had been drunk at the time she shuffled the files together.
…Gloria did not drink alcohol…
Carson Elliot’s words, spoken with such absolute certainty, echoed in Madison’s head.
Tempting though it was, reading the files was unethical. But there was nothing unethical about asking questions around town.
Her grandmother had an uncanny inside track to most everything that happened in the twin cities. When it pertained to fire, surely Cutter would be a source of information. And if William Shanks was any relation to her Granny’s friend Wanda Shanks, surely Miss Wanda would answer any questions she had. As would Carson himself.
A satisfied smile twitched Maddy’s lips. While she might not be free to read the files, she could still find out what they contained.
As Granny Bert was fond of saying, there was more than one way to skin a