DECEMBER 29, 2008
“‘ … personal estate to be divided equally between my daughter, Eilis Hilliard Logan Taight and my nephew, Fort Knox Oliver Hilliard, both of whom I deprived of what was rightfully theirs.
“‘To Celia Giselle Cox Kenard, I leave this box.
“‘To Celia Gertrude Dunham Hilliard, I leave nothing because I have nothing left to give you. I gave you everything I had and, ultimately, I sacrificed my life and my salvation to make you happy. And I failed.’”
Fifty adults sat or stood in a conference room meant for thirty, shocked into silence, the only sound the soft swish of a box across the conference table and the weeping of two women.
Mr. Jerome Larkin looked around the table at the beneficiaries of James Fenimore Hilliard’s largesse, unable to understand the exact nature of their distress. The beautiful blonde to his left, Eilis Taight, had turned into her husband’s chest to cry softly. King Midas urged her to sit on his lap so he could hold her close and whisper in her ear. Of all the people in the room, only Taight himself seemed unconcerned—perhaps even pleased—with Fen’s death, which Jerome could understand, all things considered.
Eilis’s half-brother, Knox Hilliard, sat to Jerome’s right, his hands clenching the arms of the fine wooden chair so tightly it would probably break. He stared down at the floor, an expression of rage on his face so intense, Jerome now believed every rumor he’d ever heard about the man. Hilliard’s young wife slid one hand across his back and reached up with the other to caress his cheek. She watched him with great concern, then she leaned in to him to press her lips against his cheek.
The diminutive strawberry blonde who sat just beyond Taight took possession of the box she had been bequeathed with great reluctance, as if it were laced with poison and she didn’t want to touch it. She studied it carefully. The size of a large dictionary, it was an elaborate affair: ancient, cracked tooled leather, gold leaf, and utterly masculine. Jerome had wanted one for himself, but when he’d inquired of Fen as to its provenance, Fen had said something like “brukka.” Jerome had had no idea where or what “brukka” was and Fen had not elaborated. The only word left marginally legible looked like it might spell “BRUGES,” but the leather was mostly smoothed over and the gold had long worn away.
Not only did Jerome not know where the box came from, he had no idea what was in it. Fen’s niece folded her arms on the table and ducked her head into them to sob, obviously heartbroken. Her husband buried his fingers in her hair to play with her curls, his scarred face betraying anger and worry.
Jerome looked around at the rest of the gathered: All eight of Fen’s sisters-in-law were present, some with spouses, some not. A goodly number of Fen’s other nieces and nephews and their spouses were present, including inventor Étienne LaMontagne and economist Morgan Ashworth. Another of Fen’s favored nieces, Victoria LaMontagne Bautista, sat at the table next to her husband, Emilio. They had flown from Spain to attend the funerals and reading of the will. Victoria, in shock at what had transpired in her family, simply stared at something far beyond the room, clutching her husband’s hand with what must have been a painful grip.
There were children present, the infants all asleep in carriers scattered around the room or in their grandmothers’ arms. The older children were the most well behaved Jerome had ever seen and obviously knew better than to disrupt the proceedings. Granted, from the looks on their faces, they were frightened by the extreme emotion their parents displayed and whispered amongst themselves, trying to make heads and tails of the level of vulnerability that must be foreign in this family.
Truth be told, Jerome was as shocked as the children at the grief and anger in the room; he had never presided at such a meeting where the rage did not involve money and what had been left to whom. No, here, the rage and grief had nothing to do with money and everything to do with the sick and twisted relationships Fen had had with his family, part love, part hate, one warring with the other every minute of every day. And it seemed most of these people returned that lovehate, unable to decide which.
Jerome knew why: Trudy, Fen’s wife.
Jerome had despised Trudy and, he was not ashamed to admit, he was very happy not to have to deal with her. Her suicide had relieved him of a task he had not wanted to face. Naturally, Fen would have never guessed she would take her own life, nor would Jerome. Narcissistic to her core, Trudy had loved the vicarious attention; bad or good, she didn’t care, as long as she controlled the strings and made every one of these people jump at the twitch of her hand without appearing to do so. While it was possible Trudy had wanted her suicide to be a legacy of everlasting control, Jerome didn’t think so. A narcissist’s death was transient in survivors’ lives so he couldn’t deduce what she’d thought to accomplish, unless …
… it had less to do with an extravagant way to inflict posthumous damage and more to do with the reality of facing life alone without her beauty. After an unfortunate—albeit unexplained—accident a year and a half ago that had shattered Trudy’s face and required her to undergo a great deal of plastic surgery to rebuild it, Trudy very rarely ventured outside of the Hilliards’ estate.
To Jerome’s eye, of the three specifically named in Fen’s will, it seemed Fen had loved his niece Giselle the most; Trudy had despised her the most. Jerome wasn’t sure why. Perhaps the two were inextricably entwined. Jealousy did strange things to narcissists.
“So … that’s it?” asked Lilly Cox, Giselle’s mother. “One page?”
“That’s it,” Jerome answered, still a little amazed himself. It was the shortest will he’d ever drawn up, two days before Fen’s death because Fen had known he would die, on what day, and by what method. He’d planned to commit suicide-by-Knox-Hilliard—and succeeded.
One of the babies awoke and began to whimper. Dianne Taight, King Midas’s mother, went to retrieve the child—Jerome didn’t know to whom it belonged and apparently, it didn’t matter; it seemed every child in this family was fair game for love and care. This family was its own village.
Giselle Kenard raised her head finally and looked to her husband helplessly. He pulled out a handkerchief and began to gently dry her face of tears. Once he’d finished, he murmured, “What’s in the box, Wife?”
She took a deep breath and looked down at it. Touched it. Caressed it. She hesitantly worked the key out of its hidden pocket (how she found it was anybody’s guess, as Jerome hadn’t been able to find it even after hours of searching), then unlocked it.
A piece of paper fluttered with the opening of the lid; she picked it up gingerly and began to read silently, her husband looking over her shoulder. The husband-and-wife grew matching expressions of shock and horror as they read until Giselle stuffed it back into the box and slammed the lid closed.
She bolted out of her chair and wove through the room’s occupants, sobbing, her husband following, trying to catch up.
When Taight reached out a hand to open the box, Belinda Ashworth, one of his aunts, slapped it. Hard. “Not yours,” she snapped.
It was the first time Jerome had ever seen a forty-two-year-old man—a powerful one, at that—reduced to the affect of a guilty ten-year-old boy.
These people made Jerome terribly uncomfortable; he had never encountered such collective passion and loyalty, such respect, such love. The power that these people represented, in terms of personal strength and nationwide influence, was suffocating. Jerome checked his watch.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I do have another appointment I need to prepare for. If you would excuse me … ”
No one said a word, so Jerome stood, gathered his papers, and left unnoticed.