The Last Thing He Told Me (20 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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Then he smiles. And I do the one thing I can. I smile back. I smile like I trust him that he knows why Owen is still gone, like I trust a relocation will be the answer he and his daughter need to be together.
To be safe. Like I trust that anyone is capable of keeping Bailey safe—except for me.

Grady's phone rings. “Give me a minute?” he says.

I point toward the restroom. “Can I?”

“Sure thing. Go ahead,” he says.

He is already walking toward the windows. He's already focusing on whoever is on the other end of his phone call.

I head down the hall, and in the direction of the restroom, turning back to make sure Grady isn't watching. He isn't. His back is to me, his phone to his ear. He doesn't turn around as I walk past the restroom's door and the elevator, where I press the down button. He keeps staring out the conference room windows, staring at the rain while he talks.

The elevator arrives blessedly fast and I jump in, alone, pushing the close button. I'm in the lobby before Grady gets off his phone call. I'm outside, in the rain, before Sylvia Hernandez is sent into the ladies' room to check on me.

I have turned the corner before she or Grady look on the conference room table and see what I left there for them to find. I left the note on the table, beneath the phone. The note that Owen left me. I left it for Grady.

Protect her.

And I walk at a quick clip down the unfamiliar Austin streets to be there for Bailey now, to be there for her and Owen the best way I know how, even though it's taking me back to the last place I am supposed to go.

Everyone Should Take Inventory

Here's what I know.

At night, before he went to sleep, Owen did two things. He turned on his left side and then he leaned into me, wrapping his arm around my chest. He would fall asleep that way—with his face against my back, his hand on my heart. He was peaceful.

He went for a run every morning to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and back home.

He would live on Pad Thai, given the choice.

He never took off his wedding ring even to shower.

He kept the windows open in the car. Ninety degrees or nine degrees.

He talked about going ice fishing on Lake Washington every winter. He never went.

He couldn't turn off a movie, no matter how awful, until he'd made it to the credits.

He thought champagne was overrated.

He thought thunderstorms were underrated.

He was secretly afraid of heights.

He only drove a stick shift. He extolled the virtues of only driving a stick shift. He was ignored.

He loved taking his daughter to the ballet in San Francisco.

He loved taking his daughter on hikes in Sonoma County.

He loved taking his daughter for breakfast. He never ate breakfast.

He could make a ten-layer chocolate cake from scratch.

He could make some mean coconut curry.

He had a ten-year-old La Marzocco espresso machine that was still sitting in its box.

And he was married once before. He was married to a woman whose father defended bad men—even if he thought it was a little simplistic to call them bad men, even if he thought it was incomplete. He accepted his father-in-law's work because he was married to this man's daughter and that's who Owen was. Owen accepted his father-in-law out of need, out of love, and maybe out of fear. Though he wouldn't have named it as fear. He would have named it, incorrectly, as loyalty.

Here's what else I know. When Owen lost his wife, it all changed. Every single thing changed.

Something broke open in him. And he became angry. He became angry with his wife's family, with her father, with himself. He was angry about what he'd allowed himself to turn a blind eye to—in the name of love, in the name of loyalty. Which is part of the reason why he left.

The other reason is that he needed to get Bailey away from that life. It was primal and it was urgent. Keeping Bailey anywhere near his wife's family felt like the greatest risk of all.

Knowing all that, here's what I may never know. If he'll forgive me for what I feel like I have to risk now.

The Never Dry, Part Two

The Never Dry is open now.

There is a mix of the after-work crowd, a few graduate students, and a couple on a date—spiky green hair for him, tattoo sleeve for her—completely focused on each other.

A young, sexy bartender in a vest and a tie holds court behind the bar, pouring the couple matching manhattans. A woman in a jumpsuit eyes him, tries to get his attention for another drink. She tries, simply, to get his attention.

And then there's Charlie. He sits alone in his grandfather's booth, drinking a glass of whisky, the bottle resting beside it.

He runs his finger along the glass, looking lost in thought. Maybe he's playing it back in his head, what happened between us earlier, what he could have done differently when he met this woman he didn't know and his sister's daughter whom he only wanted to know again.

I walk up to his table. He doesn't notice me standing there, at first. When he does, instead of looking at me with anger, he looks at me in disbelief.

“What are you doing here?” he says.

“I need to talk to him,” I say.

“Who?” he says.

I don't say anything else, because he doesn't need me to clarify. He knows exactly who I'm talking about. He knows who I'm angling to see.

“Come with me,” he says.

Then he stands up and steers me down a dark hallway, past the restrooms and the electrical closet, to the kitchen.

Charlie pulls me into the kitchen, the door swinging closed behind us.

“Do you know how many cops have come in here tonight? They're not asking me anything yet, but they're coming in so I can see them. So I'll know they're here. They're all over the place.”

“I don't think they're cops,” I say. “I think they're U.S. marshals.”

“Do you think this is funny?” he says.

“None of it,” I say.

Then I meet his eyes.

“You had to tell him we were here, Charlie,” I say. “He's your father. She's your niece. You've both been looking for her since the day he took her away. You couldn't keep that to yourself, even if you wanted to.”

Charlie pushes open the emergency door, which leads to a back staircase and the alley below.

“You need to leave,” he says.

“I can't do that,” I say.

“Why not?”

I shrug. “I have nowhere else to go.”

It's true. In a way I'm uncomfortable acknowledging to myself—let alone to him—Charlie is the only shot I have left to make this okay again.

Maybe he senses that because he pauses, and I see him falter in his resolve. He lets the emergency door close.

“I need to talk to your father,” I say. “And I'm asking my husband's friend to help make that happen.”

“I'm not his friend.”

“I don't think that's true,” I say. “I had my friend Jules find Ethan's will for me.”
Ethan,
using that name. “His real will. And he put you in it. He put you in it as a guardian for Bailey, along with me. He wanted her to have you if anything ever happened to him. He wanted her to have me and he wanted her to have you.”

He nods slowly, taking this in, and for a second I think he is going to start crying. His eyes water, his hands move to his forehead, pulling on his eyebrows, as if trying to stop the tears. These tears of relief that there is a window open to his seeing his niece again—and tears of utter sadness that seeing her for the last decade has been an impossibility.

“And what about my father?” he says.

“I don't think he wants her to have anything to do with Nicholas,” I say. “But the fact that Ethan put you in there lets me know that my husband trusted you, even if you seem pretty conflicted about that.”

He shakes his head, like he can't believe this is his reality. It's a feeling I can relate to.

“This is an old battle,” he says. “And Ethan isn't innocent. You think he is. But you don't know the whole story.”

“I know I don't.”

“So what do you think? That you're going to talk to my father and broker some peace between him and Ethan? It doesn't matter, nothing you say matters. Ethan betrayed my father. He destroyed his life and ended my mother's life in the process. And if there's nothing I can do to mend this, then there's nothing you can do either.”

Charlie is struggling. I see it. I see him struggling with what to tell me about his father, what to tell me about Owen. If he offers up too little, I won't walk away from him. Maybe I won't walk away if he says too much either. And he wants me to walk away. He thinks
it's better for everybody if I do. But I am playing past that. Because I know there is only one way to make things better now.

“How long have you been married to him?” he says. “To Ethan?”

“Why does that matter?”

“He's not who you think he is.”

“So I keep hearing,” I say.

“What has Ethan told you?” he says. “About my sister?”

Nothing,
I want to say.
Nothing I know to be true.
She doesn't, after all, have fierce red hair or love science. She didn't go to college in New Jersey. She may very well not know how to swim across a pool. I know now why he told us all those things—why he made up such an elaborate backstory. It was so, on the off chance the wrong person ever approached Bailey, if the wrong person ever suspected Bailey of being who she actually was, she'd be able to look that person in the eye and honestly deny it.
My mother is a redheaded swimmer. My mother is nothing like the person you think I belong to.

I meet Charlie's eyes, answer honestly. “He hasn't told me much. But he once told me how much I would have liked her,” I say. “He told me we would have liked each other.”

Charlie nods, but he stays quiet. And I can feel all the questions he has about my life with Owen, all the questions about Bailey: about who she is now and what she likes now and how she may still be a little like his lost sister, who he clearly loved. But he can't ask any of those questions, not without fielding questions of his own, questions for which he doesn't want to provide answers.

“Look,” he says, “if you want someone to tell you that there's enough goodwill because of Kristin that my father can get over what happened between him and Ethan, that they can reach some kind of truth, they can't. He won't. It doesn't work like that. My father isn't over it.”

“I know that too,” I say.

And I do know that. But I'm banking on the fact that Charlie wants to help me anyway. Or we wouldn't be having this conversation. We'd be having a different conversation—a conversation neither of us wants to have about what Owen has done to this family. And to me. We'd be having a conversation that would break my heart wide open.

He looks at me more gently. “Did I scare you earlier?” he says.

“I should be asking you that.”

“I didn't mean to come at you the way I did. It was just that you surprised the hell out of me,” he says. “You wouldn't believe how many people come here, stirring up trouble for my father. All these crime junkies who saw the trial coverage on Court TV, who think they know my father, who want autographs. Even all these years later. I think we're on some criminal enterprise tour of Austin. Us and the Newton Gang…”

“That sounds awful,” I say.

“It is,” he says. “It's all awful.”

Charlie looks at me, taking me in. “I don't think you know what you're doing. I think you're still hoping for a happy ending. But this story doesn't end well,” he says. “It can't.”

“I know it can't. I'm just hoping for something else.”

“What's that?”

I pause. “That it doesn't end here.”

On the Lake

Charlie drives.

We head northwest of the city past Mount Bonnell and into Texas Hill Country. Suddenly I'm surrounded by rolling hills, trees and foliage everywhere, the lake muted outside the car windows, tepid. Unmoving.

The rain abates as we turn down Ranch Road. Charlie doesn't say much, but he tells me that his parents bought their Mediterranean estate nestled on the shores of the lake a couple of years ago—the year Nicholas got out of prison, the year before his mother died. This was his mother's dream house, he says, this private retreat, but Nicholas has stayed there since her death, on his own. I learn later that it cost them a cool ten million dollars—this estate which, as I see on a plaque at the foot of the driveway, Charlie's mother, Meredith, named
THE SANCTUARY
.

It is easy to see why she has chosen this name. The estate is enormous, wildly beautiful, and private. Entirely private.

Charlie enters a code and the metal gates open to reveal a cobblestone driveway, at least a quarter of a mile long, that slowly winds its way to a small guardhouse. The guardhouse is covered in vines, making it inconspicuous.

The main house is less inconspicuous. It looks like it belongs on the French Riviera—complete with cascading balconies, an antique-tile
roof, a stone facade. Most notable are the gorgeous bay windows running at least eight feet tall, welcoming you, inviting you in.

We pull up to the guardhouse and a bodyguard emerges. He is pro-linebacker huge, dressed in a tight suit.

Charlie unrolls the window as the bodyguard bends down, leans against the driver's-side window. “Hiya, Charlie,” he says.

“Ned. How you doing tonight?”

Ned's eyes move in my direction and he gives me a small nod. Then he turns back to Charlie. “He's expecting you,” he says.

He taps on the car's hood and then goes back into the guardhouse to open a second gate.

We pull through it, drive onto the circular driveway, and stop by the front door.

Charlie puts the car in park and shuts off the ignition. But he doesn't move to get out of the car. It seems he wants to say something. He must change his mind though—or think better of it—because, without a word, he opens the driver's-side door and gets out.

I follow his lead and step out of the car into the cool night, the ground slick from the rain.

I start walking toward the front door, but Charlie points to a side gate.

“This way,” he says.

He holds the gate open for me and I walk through it. I wait as he locks the gate behind himself and we start heading down a pathway that runs along the side of the house, succulents and plants lining the path's edges.

We walk side by side, Charlie on the path's outer edge. I look into the house—look through those long, French windows—to see room after room, every one of them lit up.

I wonder if it's all lit up for my benefit—so I can see how impressive the design is, how every detail has been considered. The long, winding hallway is lined with expensive art, with black-and-white photographs. The grand room has cathedral ceilings and deep wooden couches. And the farmhouse kitchen, which wraps around the back of the house, is accented with a terra-cotta floor and an enormous stone fireplace.

I keep thinking how Nicholas lives here alone. What is it like to live in a house like this alone?

The pathway winds around to a checkered veranda, which displays antique pillars and a breathtaking view of the lake—small boats twinkling in the distance, a canopy of oak trees, the cooling calm of the water itself.

And a moat.

This house, Nicholas Bell's house, has its own moat. It's a stark reminder that there is no getting in or out of here without explicit permission.

Charlie points at a row of chaise lounges, sitting down in one himself, the lake glistening in the distance.

I avoid meeting his eyes, staring out at the small boats instead. I know why I needed to come here. But now that I'm actually here, it feels like an error. Like I should have heeded Charlie's warning, like nothing good is waiting inside.

“Take a seat anywhere,” Charlie says.

“I'm fine,” I say.

“He could be a little while,” Charlie says.

I lean against one of the pillars.

“I'm okay standing,” I say.

“Maybe it's not you that you should be worrying about…”

I turn at the sound of a male's voice, startled to find Nicholas
standing in the back doorway. He has two dogs by his side, two large chocolate Labradors. Their eyes hold tightly on Nicholas.

“Those pillars aren't as strong as they look,” he says.

I step away from the pillar. “Sorry about that,” I say.

“No, no. I kid, I just kid with you,” he says.

He waves his hand as he walks toward me, his fingers slightly crooked. This thin man with a struggling goatee—frail-looking with those arthritic fingers, his loose-fitting jeans, his cardigan sweater.

I bite on my lip, trying to hold my surprise in check. This isn't the way I expected Nicholas to look—soft, gentle. He looks like someone's loving grandfather. The way he talks so softly—with the slow cadence, the dry humor—he reminds me of my own loving grandfather.

“My wife bought those pillars from a monastery in France and had them shipped here in two pieces. A local artisan put them back together, returning them to their original presentation. They're plenty sturdy.”

“They're also beautiful,” I say.

“They are beautiful, aren't they?” he says. “My wife had a real flair for design. She picked everything that went into this house. Every last thing.”

He looks pained, even speaking of his wife.

“I don't make it a habit of talking about the workmanship of my home, but I thought you'd appreciate a little history…” he says.

This stops me. Is Nicholas trying to suggest he knows what I do for a living? Could he know? Could there be a leak already? Or maybe I'm the leak. Maybe I said something to Charlie without realizing it. Something that has given us all away.

Either way, Nicholas is in charge now. Ten hours ago, that might not have been the case. But I changed all of that when I arrived in
Austin. And now it's Nicholas's world. Austin is Nicholas's world, and I've walked us back into it. As if cementing the point, two bodyguards walk outside—Ned and another guy. Both of them are large and unsmiling. Both of them stand right behind Nicholas.

Nicholas doesn't acknowledge them. Instead he reaches out his hands to take mine. Like we are old friends. What choice do I have? I put my hand out, let him wrap his palms around mine.

“It's a pleasure to meet you…” he says.

“Hannah,” I say. “You can call me Hannah.”

“Hannah,” he says.

He smiles—genuine and generous. And suddenly I'm more disturbed by that than I am by the idea of him presenting as the opposite. At what point was Owen standing in front of him thinking,
Nicholas has to be good
? How could he have a smile like that if he wasn't? How could he have raised the woman who Owen loved?

It's hard to look at him so I look down, toward the ground, toward the dogs.

Nicholas follows my eyes. Then he bends down, pets his dogs on the back of their heads.

“This is Casper and this is Leon,” he says.

“They're gorgeous dogs.”

“They certainly are. Thank you. I brought them here from Germany. We are in the middle of their
Schutzhund
training.”

“Meaning what?” I say.

“The official translation is ‘protection dog.' They're supposed to keep their owners safe. I just think they're good company.” He pauses. “Did you want to pet them?”

I don't think it's a threat, but it also doesn't feel like an invitation, at least not one I'm interested in accepting.

I look over at Charlie, who is still lying down on his chaise lounge,
his elbow covering his eyes. His casual pose seems forced, almost like he is as uncomfortable being at his father's as I am. But then Nicholas reaches out, puts his hand on his son's shoulder. And Charlie holds his father's hand there.

“Hey, Pop.”

“Long night, kid?” Nicholas says.

“You could say that.”

“Let's get you a drink then,” he says. “You want a scotch?”

“That sounds great,” he says. “That sounds perfect.”

Charlie looks up at his father, sincere and open. And I understand that I misread his anxiety. Whatever he's feeling badly about, it doesn't seem to be about his father, whose hand he still holds.

Grady was apparently correct about that much—whoever Nicholas might have been in his professional life, however ugly or dangerous, he's also the man that puts his hand on his grown son's shoulder and offers him a nightcap after a hard night at work. That's who Charlie sees.

It makes me wonder if Grady is right about the rest. Or, I should say, how right Grady is about the rest. That to stay safe—to keep Bailey safe—I should be anywhere but here.

Nicholas nods toward Ned, who walks over to me. I flinch and move backward, putting my hands up.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“He's just going to make sure you're not wearing a wire,” Nicholas says.

“You can take my word for it,” I say. “What would I have to gain by wearing a wire?”

Nicholas smiles. “Those are the type of questions I don't get involved in anymore,” he says. “But if you wouldn't mind…”

“Raise your arms, please,” Ned says.

I look toward Charlie to back me up—to say this is unnecessary. He doesn't.

I do what Ned asks, telling myself that this is like a pat down at the airport, someone checking me out for the TSA. Nothing to think about. But his hands feel cold, and the entire time he moves them down my sides, I can see his gun on his hip. Ready to be used. And I can see Nicholas watching. The protection dogs by his side, apparently ready to be used too.

I feel my breath catch in my throat, trying not to show it. If one of these men were to see my husband, they would hurt him. They would hurt him so badly that nothing I do now would matter. Grady's voice runs through my head.
Nicholas is a bad man. These men are ruthless.

Ned steps away from me and motions to Nicholas, which I assume means I'm all clear.

I meet Nicholas's eyes, still feeling the bodyguard's hands on my body. “Is this how you welcome all your guests?” I say.

“I don't tend to have many guests these days,” he says.

I nod, straightening out my sweater, wrapping my arms around myself. Then Nicholas turns to Charlie.

“You know what, Charlie? I'd like some time alone with Hannah. Why don't you enjoy a drink by the pool? And head home.”

“I'm Hannah's ride,” he says.

“Marcus will take her where she needs to go. We'll talk tomorrow. Yeah?”

Nicholas gives his son a final pat. Then before Charlie can say anything, as if there is anything to say, Nicholas opens the doors to his house and walks inside.

He pauses in the doorway though. He pauses in the doorway, leaving me with a choice to make. I can leave now and go home with Charlie or I can stay here alone with him.

These are my choices—stay with Nicholas and help my family or leave my family and help myself. It feels like a weird test, as if I need to be tested, as if I haven't already gotten to the place where helping my family and helping myself have become the same thing.

“Shall we?” Nicholas says.

I can still leave here. I can still leave him. Owen's face is in my mind. He wouldn't want me here. Grady's face.
Go. Go. Go.
My heart races in my chest so loudly that I'm sure Nicholas can hear it. Even if he can't, I'm sure he can feel it—the tension coming off me.

There is a moment when you realize you are out of your depth. This is mine.

The dogs stare up at Nicholas. Everyone stares at Nicholas, including me.

Until I move in the only direction I can. Toward him.

“After you,” I say.

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
5.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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