Chapter 1

 

BRIAN PAULSON stood in his living room surrounded by people he knew, holding a martini glass that one of his friends refilled as he passed through the crowd. They’d recently stopped mixing drinks, so all Brian got this time was a splash of gin to resoak his olives. Not that it mattered in the least. He was on top of the world, literally. His condominium near the top of Cudahy Tower was one of the most prestigious addresses in the city, he was surrounded by the crème de la crème of young people in Milwaukee, and he was the center of attention. “Eat, drink, have fun!” he said to no one in particular. That was his motto. Well, most of it. He lived his life on the philosophy that if life was a banquet, he was going to have the biggest, best, and most popular, so “eat, drink, fuck, have fun, and don’t worry about anything” was probably more accurate.

A cry went up from the assembled people, and the man who’d come with Peter Gervais wrapped an arm around Brian’s neck and pulled him into a deep kiss that dang near curled his toes. “Let’s go somewhere for a little of that fun you’re so famous for,” he tried to say, but the guy was drunk enough that the words were slurred. Besides, Brian didn’t even know the guy’s name. He was hot enough to meet Brian’s standards, but in his liquored state, he doubted the guy could get anything up for more than two seconds.

“How about we get you another drink?” Brian offered.

“Petey,” the slobbery guy called as Peter passed by. He dislodged himself from Brian and glommed on to Peter, kissing him sloppily.

“If you two want to get it on, go down to your own place,” Brian told Peter, who grunted without dislodging himself from the guy and headed toward the door.

“Brian,” Simone Lavender said as she sidled up to him. “I know you’re gay, honey, but I was talking with Giles over there, and he says you know what you’re doing with what you’re packing, so I was wondering if you’d like to take a walk on the wild side to see what you’ve been missing.” She normally had a voice that was as smooth as silk, and she never wanted for companionship, but when Simone drank, she sounded huskier than a trucker after a week on the road. She also had the manners of one, which she demonstrated by groping him and giggling. “Damn, honey.”

Brian removed her hand and settled her down on the sofa. He handed her his glass and went in search of something else.

“Thanks for the evening,” Dennis and Richie said as they half held each other up.

Dennis was an art gallery owner, and Richie had inherited three car dealerships from his father. Brian waved as someone turned up the music, and he began to sway his hips, letting the music take him.

God, he loved having a good time, and it continued even as it grew later and the party settled down. People drifted away, and the group got smaller.

“Hey, Brian, there’s some guy on the phone who says he’s your uncle,” Ryan called from the bar area. He tottered over and pressed Brian’s phone into his hand.

“Brian,” his uncle snapped. “I hear you’re up to your usual.” His voice was filled with condemnation, the hypocrite.

“How’s the mistress, Uncle Harry?” Brian asked, then covered his mouth. “I guess I wasn’t supposed to say anything about that, was I?” He laughed evilly. “Or was that okay as long as Aunt Jean isn’t around?”

“Brian,” he snapped again.

Dang, he loved getting under the asshole’s collar—just part of the fun with his fucked-up family.

“Your grandfather passed away this afternoon.”

Uncle Harry was all business, and for a second, the pang that jabbed at Brian’s heart and gut drove away the people in the room as well as the music, and all was quiet.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I did.” Slowly the sounds around him returned, and the momentary jolt of loss drained away. How could he lose what he never fucking had in the damned first place? “What do you want me to do about it?”

“The funeral will probably be in a few days, so for God’s sake, show up, and be sober. You don’t need to embarrass the rest of the family.”

“Lord, we can’t let that happen,” he added snidely.

“Good-bye, Brian, and sober up.” His uncle hung up.

Brian placed the phone on the table next to him. He looked around the room, which swam for a second and then steadied. Suddenly he felt sober, which was the very last thing on earth he wanted at this very moment. Brian walked behind the bar area and opened the cabinet, then grabbed the nearest bottle of tequila, a fancy triangular-shaped bottle. He pulled out the stopper, upended the bottle, and gulped down the strong alcohol. Damn, that felt better.

“What happened?” someone asked from behind him.

Brian didn’t bother answering. Instead he walked back to the center of the room, hopped up on the sofa, and stood on the cushions.

“Let’s have a toast.” Brian looked into the bottle and tried to think for a few seconds. Of course he was beyond that at the moment, so very little came. “To my grandfather, Marvin Paulson, the man behind the money that pays for everything. Never around and distant as you were, you’re at least the perpetual life of the party.” He was about to drink but stopped himself. “Wait, you can’t be the life of the party anymore, because you’re dead. So rest in peace and leave me to mine.” Brian drank again, not noticing or caring if anyone else did. He wanted to forget everything, and the quickest way to do that was through the bottom of the bottle he had in his hand. He sank down onto the sofa and barely registered as the last of his guests left.

 

 

BRIAN’S MOUTH was dry and tasted like dirt. He cracked his eyes open and tried to move. Damn, his back ached, and his leg felt wonky. It took him a minute to realize he was lying on his sofa, head buried in a pillow, and that his leg was twisted up in the cushions. He slowly extricated himself and went to stand, instantly wishing he hadn’t moved at all.

“Sorry, Mr. Brian, did I wake you? I try not to.”

“It’s okay, Maria.” He groaned and slowly sat up, holding his aching head. He kept his eyes closed.

“You need this,” she told him, and Brian cracked his eyes open enough to take the bottle of water she offered. Like manna from heaven, he opened it and drank half, throat burning for a second before the fire was quenched.

Most of the mess from the party had been cleaned up, tucked away in large black bags sitting by the door. The vacuum had been brought out but set aside, unused for now. Brian didn’t think he could stand the sound without puking and was grateful she’d been quiet. He managed to stand and shuffled to his bedroom, which was clean and the bed made. He flopped down on it, closing his eyes and letting his hangover do its worst.

He didn’t remember closing the door, but Maria must have, and then the muffled hum of the vacuum reached his ears. He grabbed a pillow off the bed and dragged it over his head, waiting for the sound to end.

“Mr. Brian,” he heard a few minutes later once it had quieted.

“Yeah?”

“I’m all done,” Maria said quietly. “I take out trash.”

“Thank you.” He reached for the water and drank the rest of it. At least that made him feel better. Slowly he got up off the bed and went into the bathroom, where he took some painkillers and stared at his scraggly face in the mirror. He needed to clean up and get himself presentable, but first he needed more water. He drank a glass and then cleaned up before leaving the room.

“I’m sorry about your grandfather,” Maria said from the front door as she got ready to leave.

He wasn’t sure what to say. He bit back the sharp comment about his elder relation that was on the tip of his tongue. Instead he merely said thank you to the middle-aged Latino woman and heard the door close behind her. Thank God for her. The place had been cleaned and put back to normal. He lowered himself back onto the straightened and fluffed cushions and pillows of the sofa his interior designer had picked out for him.

Up until that moment, the alcohol had done its job, and he hadn’t been able to remember, but now his grandfather’s death came rushing back. More than anything he wanted another drink, but that wasn’t a good idea. So instead he went in search of his phone. He found it and noticed a number of missed calls and texts. They all seemed to be about the same thing, some sort of family meeting his uncle was trying to call together at four o’clock that day. Brian decided to bite the bullet and actually return his father’s call.

“So you are alive,” his father said when he answered the phone. “I was starting to wonder if the party you were having when your uncle called was going to last all night.”

He and his father didn’t see eye to eye on very much, especially his father’s third wife, Candy, who was a year or two older than Brian. And Brian thought it was common knowledge that he was gay. He hadn’t made a secret of it for quite a while. What a family he belonged to.

“I figured I’d call you to see what this family meeting is all about.”

“The funeral, of course. It’s expected that someone as important as Marv will have a proper sendoff, and the family wants to make sure everyone is on board.”

“Yeah, on board with what Uncle Hypocrite wants to do.”

“Your Uncle Harry is the head of the family now. At least that’s how he sees it, and I doubt you’re going to be able to challenge him for that honor any time soon.”

“Why do you care? Since Mom died, you’ve been free of the whole mess, and with what you got from Mom, you’re considered quite a catch, apparently.”

“I loved your mother,” his father said, and Brian paused for a few seconds, hearing genuine emotion from his father for the first time in recent memory. “She and I were happy together, and we had you.”

“Then what happened, Dad?” Brian asked. “You remarried, and I was sent away because Debbie, dear wife number two, didn’t want children.” It rankled that his father wanted the second bimbo wife more than he’d actually wanted him in his life.

“You got the best education possible. That was what was important,” his father protested. “We don’t need to go over all this again. Things were done, and decisions were made that neither of us is happy about, but it’s the way it is. I’m going to the meeting to see what’s being planned, and you’re welcome to ride along if you like.”

“No. I’ll get there myself. See you at Uncle Harry’s house.” He hung up and tossed his phone on the cushions. Then he checked the time. It was nearly two in the afternoon. At least his head was clearing. He had time to shower, change, and get something light to eat before he showed up. If he was lucky, his uncle would serve hors d’oeuvres. That was probably a little much, but after the funeral, Brian fully expected his uncle to break out the champagne, because it was likely he’d end up with all the money and power he’d craved for so many years. Not that Brian really fucking cared. As long as they stayed the hell out of his life, he’d be happy and could go on as usual.

Brian went into the bathroom, undressed, and showered, wishing now he hadn’t gotten so drunk that he hadn’t asked someone to stay. That way he could work off the agitation that seemed so close to the surface with some hard and heavy fucking. That was what he got for deciding to bury his hurt in alcohol. He needed to be more long-sighted in the future, at least where it came to a good fuck. Once he’d showered, he dried himself and pulled on a pair of boxers. Then he opened his huge closet and walked in to decide what to wear.

He had a myriad of choices from every designer known to man. His shopping trips to New York were legendary. He did a quick walk-through and settled on a pair of nearly black Armani jeans and grinned when he saw the scarlet silk Prada shirt he’d bought last month. If they thought he was going to be as fake somber and act as dour as the rest of them were sure to be, they could kiss his ass.

Brian pulled the shirt off the hanger and held the lush fabric in his hands. His grandmother would have scolded him for that last thought. Without thinking, Brian put the shirt back and got the light blue version. His grandmother had always told him it was his best color. “It brings out your eyes, sweetheart,” she’d told him once while they’d been shopping together. And it had stuck with him, like so many of the things she’d said to him. His grandmother had passed away less than a year after his mother had died while in West Africa working to help villagers there. Fucking hell, it seemed that everyone had something or someone who was more important than he was. To his grandfather it was either business or all the charities and foundations he worked with up until his death. To his mom, it was children halfway around the world. To his dad…. Things had been good once, but then chasing tail became more important than he was. Only his grandmother had always been there, and within a year he’d lost his mother and his grandmother.

Brian shook off that crap and put on the shirt. Then he got a belt, choosing a fine leather one. He checked himself in the mirror before slipping his feet into a pair of Italian loafers. After a last look, he went back into the kitchen, pulled out the blender, and mixed up a protein shake that he drank down, thankful his stomach didn’t rebel, then got ready to go. He grabbed a leather jacket that cost more than most people’s mortgage payments, shrugged into it, and then left the condo and rode the exclusive upper-floor elevator down to the parking garage, where he got into his Porsche. He drove up along Lake Drive with the top down, thankful for the jacket but wanting the fresh lake air, until he pulled up in front of the huge mock-Tudor mansion and turned into the drive to park behind a line of expensive cars that would put a dent in the debt of some small countries.

Getting out of the car, he looked up at the mansion and wondered why in the hell everything about his family was as fake as they were. Nothing had any permanence, and houses, cars, people, all seemed fleeting. Once he’d closed the car door, he pulled his jacket a little tighter and strode up to the door. It opened as he got closer.

“They’re in the living room,” Mrs. Carson said without smiling. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Brian.”

“Thank you,” he answered automatically. The one he felt sorry for was her. Mrs. Carson had worked for his grandmother and grandfather for years, and now the nearly sixty-year-old woman was apparently stuck working for his uncle. He smiled at her, remembering how she always had cookies and milk ready for him when he visited his grandparents and never forgot a single Christmas until he went off to college. Each year she always placed some small gift in his hand and then pressed her fingers to her lips so he didn’t tell anyone. They were never expensive, but he knew they always came from the heart. Too bad he no longer had one.

“Well, Brian is here, late as usual, so I think we can get started,” his uncle said, holding a glass of something clear, probably gin, with a few cubes of ice. “Dad’s funeral is scheduled for Friday, and it seems he planned it himself. At least that’s what his lawyer said a few hours ago. It’s apparently a simple service and interment next to Mom.”

Brian took an empty chair as far from his uncle as he could and spent most of the time looking out the windows.

“I was also informed that the reading of the will is to be on Saturday.”

“There goes your golf game,” Brian said just loud enough for everyone to hear. “What a shame. At least the greens will be safe from your divots for one day.”

His uncle ignored him, but Brian saw his hand clench and hoped the damned glass broke.

“We’ve been asked to be there at ten… sharp.”

His uncle glared at him, and Brian turned to look out the window at the sparkling water of Lake Michigan once again. He loved the view. Of course that was probably why his uncle bought the place. Looking one way you could see up the coast to the north, and the other you could see all the way to downtown. It was a unique vantage point because of the shape of the land.

“Are there any questions?” his uncle said louder than necessary. “I do expect some sort of press coverage, so for goodness sake, dress appropriately.”

He knew that was directed at him, but Brian didn’t even acknowledge it at all. “Is this little meeting over?” he asked.

“You could be more respectful,” his aunt Jeanette whispered from next to him. “This is your grandfather you’re saying good-bye to.”

She always made herself out to be the arbiter of propriety and manners, even with a man half her age sitting next to her, expression as vacant as ever. He was probably wishing for all the world he was pumping iron at the gym or something, at least from the way he kept watching himself in the mirror across the room.

“And you could act your age,” he whispered back. “But then again, you must have looked a long time to find someone on your intellectual level.” Brian had decided some time ago that he wasn’t going to take his family’s crap. They were all pretty messed up.

“All right, then…,” his uncle said, and Brian looked at his watch.

What a total waste of time. Uncle Harry always tried to make himself out to be something important and had to be the center of attention.

“We’ll gather on Friday to say good-bye to our father and grandfather.”

How his uncle kept the threatening grin off his face was a miracle as far as Brian could see.

The rest of his relatives began to mill and talk. Brian wasn’t interested in spending any more time with his relatives than he absolutely had to, so he left the room, heading back toward the door.

“Good-bye, Mr. Brian,” Mrs. Carson said as he passed her.

“Don’t let any of them get to you,” he told her.

She smiled that same indulgent smile he remembered from when he was a kid. “None of them bother me. I’m only here because your uncle asked me to help during the funeral. After that I’m going to retire. Your grandfather and grandmother saw to it that I’d be able to do that.” She took his hand. “Now that my time with your family is nearly over, I can say what I’ve wanted to say for a long time. Your grandparents thought more of you than you know, and they both loved you very much.”

Brian had no doubt about his grandmother’s love. “He had a lousy way of showing it.” Still, Brian appreciated that she cared enough to say something. He leaned forward, kissing her on the cheek. “But thank you.” He squeezed her hand and left, getting in his car and driving away from the house as fast as he dared.

He wasn’t interested in going home and had no particular place to be. He went back in the direction of downtown and parked outside one of the entrances to Lake Park. This was where he liked to come to think. He locked the car and pocketed his keys. The sun had come out full force, and the wind had died away, so he left his jacket in the backseat and decided to walk for a little while. The park was full of paths, lawns, and glades. It had been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who designed Central Park in New York, so it had some similar features, including bridges, a lighthouse, sculptural lions, and massive specimen trees. Parts of the park were magical, and Brian headed toward one of the areas with an amazing bridge that afforded a commanding view of the lake.

He walked halfway across, past the stone seating area and the huge lions, onto the bridge, and stood in the middle, staring out at the water. People passed around and behind him as they walked, but he paid them little attention. It had been a shitty day on top of a crappy night, and the rest of the week wasn’t going to get any better.

His phone interrupted the beginning of his downward thought spiral. “Hey, Bri-Bri, it’s Peter. Do you want to go get some dinner and then take in a club?” He paused a second. “Oh shit, I forgot about your grandfather. I should….”

“No. I’d like to go out.” At least it would give him something to do and think about other than his stupid family.

“What are you doing?” a man called in a rather high-pitched voice.

Brian turned and saw a man racing full bore in his direction.

“Stop him, please,” another man called.

“What’s going—” he heard Peter say and then dropped his phone as the guy barreled into him. Brian prevented himself from falling hard by grabbing the guy and taking him down with him, using him as a cushion. Brian recovered quickly, but the guy who’d been on the run wasn’t as fast, remaining still as a small man raced up to them.

“Bastard!” he yelled at the fallen man and grabbed what he was still clutching in his hands. “Steal my wallet.” The small guy kicked the other one and looked about to beat him half to death.

“Hey, man,” the fallen guy slurred.

Brian grabbed the little man’s arm. “Leave something for the police.” He found his phone on the bridge decking and made a call. The guy on the ground started to get up. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, or I’ll let him at you again, and I think he’s ready to kick your ass into next week.”

“What?”

He looked at Brian. The man was stoned out of his mind. Brian was well aware of what that looked like. The police arrived on foot, racing up and taking charge of the situation. They quickly ascertained who the real victim was and hauled the stoner off toward a police car.

“Thank you,” the small man said, and Brian noticed his huge blue eyes and medium-length blond curls. He could probably use a haircut, but he was cute nonetheless.

“You’re welcome, tiger,” Brian said with amusement.

“He tried to take all I have for the next week, and if he’d gotten away…. Sorry, you don’t need to know that. I’m Cade McAllister, and I might have gotten a little carried away,” he said, running at a mile a minute. “That tends to happen a lot, especially when I get excited.”

“I’m glad I could help.” Brian found himself smiling without thinking about it. Cade had this energy that seemed to spread in all directions. “I’m Brian, by the way,” he added, remembering his manners and extending his hand.

Cade shook it and then turned anxiously toward the police officers. “Do you think I can go? Today is my first day of work at Bartolome’s, and if I’m late….” He almost danced from foot to foot as he checked his watch. “I left extra time, but I only have a few minutes now.”

One of the police officers came over and took Cade aside. After a few minutes, Cade raced back.

“I gotta go, but thank you again, and if you eat at Bartolome’s, ask for me, and I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

Cade hurried away, almost running along the path. Brian watched him go, wondering how anyone could have that kind of energy and spirit after being mugged. Then, once he was sure the police were done with him, Brian decided spending more time in the park probably wasn’t a good idea, even though he had no idea what he was going to do for the rest of the day. He figured he’d call Peter back and go clubbing.

 

 


Chapter 2

 

THE FUNERAL had been as awful and depressing as he’d expected. His father had insisted he sit with him and his third wife, Candy. Her name was Candice, and his father actually called her Candy. He did as his father asked for the sake of appearances and to avoid a fight. They were supposed to be one big happy family, after all. Jesus, he should have brought a date. That would have shaken everything and everyone up, but dammit, no one had wanted to attend a funeral with him.

Finally the service was over and so was the graveside thing, which was wet as hell. More than once Brian had looked up at the gray sky knowing his grandfather would be happy. One last thing and that would be it: the reading of the damned will tomorrow. He wasn’t expecting anything, and that was for the best—he didn’t want anything from his grandfather, at least not now. What he’d needed from him hadn’t been given, and he had little use for him now that he was dead.

 

 

BRIAN PURPOSELY showed up five minutes late. His entire family was gathered around a huge polished mahogany conference table with a stately older woman sitting at the one end. He figured she was holding the place for his grandfather’s lawyer. At a nod from her, the room quieted, and the doors were closed. Two other people from the firm took the empty chairs next to her.

“I’m Lydia Maxwell, Marvin Paulson’s attorney and the executor of his estate.”

That one sentence explained a lot. He’d seen the Maxwell name on the firm letterhead. Well, that was a surprise.

“I knew Marvin well, and we worked together for many years. I feel his loss professionally as well as personally. He and I were colleagues as well as friends.”

Brian stood in one of the corners in the back. He thought of tugging one of Uncle Harry’s brats out of a chair so he could take it, but he figured standing out of sight would allow him to make a quick exit.

“Are you ready to get started?” Uncle Harry asked impatiently. He could never wait for anyone else.

Lydia opened a folder. “Marv specified that the will be read. It’s in his own words because he wanted all of you to know these are his specific wishes. I will dispense with the legal formality sections and come right to the points of interest. ‘To my son, Harry Paulson.’” She paused and looked at Brian’s uncle. “I leave my majority share in the Milwaukee Sea Captains hockey team. You were always a sports fan and spent more time in front of the television or out on the golf course than you did anywhere else, so this should be right up your alley.” She paused and raised her eyebrows. “It is estimated at nearly twenty million dollars.”

“That’s it?” Uncle Harry growled, slapping his hands flat on the table.

“Yes. You may leave the room,” Lydia said.

“I want to know what everyone else gets,” he said, glaring around the table.

“Those were your father’s wishes. Once you’ve received your bequest, you are to leave.” She folded her hands over the folder and calmly stared at him. “I can go no further, and your father did make an additional provision. He insisted that I was authorized to have you removed, forcibly, if necessary.”

The other two members of her staff added their glares, and Uncle Harry got to his feet and then left. The drama was mildly interesting. His uncle loved to bluster and put on a show.

“To my daughter, Jeanette. Jean, I leave you my interest in Paulson Brothers Brewery. You spent much of your life drinking and spent way too much money because of it. However, since you never had a head for business, control of the company will remain under the board of directors.”

“A brewery,” she sneered. “How much is that worth? And how soon can I sell it?”

“You can’t unless the board agrees,” Mrs. Maxwell said levelly. “Good day.”

Once again she waited, and Brian’s aunt left. Other family members got small bequests, including trust funds of various sizes for the various younger grandchildren.

Finally only Brian, his dad, and Candy were left in the room.

“To my son-in-law, Jerry Northway.”

Brian’s mother had kept her own name, and when Brian was born, his grandfather had insisted Brian be a Paulson. His father perked right up, but not nearly as much as Candy did.

“I know you loved my daughter, and her loss was a blow to both of us. However, since her death, you have shown very questionable taste in companionship. Therefore, I leave you the house in Shorewood where you currently live, as well as a managed trust large enough for its upkeep that will last as long as you live and is not transferrable to anyone else.” Meaning his grandfather had cut Candy out of everything, as well as any future wives. “Beyond that, I suggest you man up and get a job.”

His father seemed resigned, but Candy was livid and seemed about ready to explode at any minute.

The three of them got up to leave the room. Brian wondered what was to be done with the rest of his grandfather’s money. There was certainly more. But then again, maybe his grandfather had given most of it away within his lifetime.

“I need to get out of here,” Candy said snippily, grabbing his father’s arm. “We need to find you a high-paying job of some sort, because….”

Brian tuned out her cloying voice, and when a nearly full elevator car arrived, he stepped back and let them get on. Spending any more time around her was more than he could take. He supposed Candy could have been a good person, even a nice person, if she’d taken a more conventional path in life and hadn’t hung her hopes and dreams on Brian’s father’s financial prospects.

The elevator doors closed, leaving Brian standing in the corridor.

“Mr. Paulson,” a young woman dressed in a lawyerly gray business suit said. “Please come with me.”

“There’s nothing for me.”

“How do you know, Brian?” Mrs. Maxwell said from her chair in the other room.

He wondered for a second how she knew who he was, but then she’d known everyone in the room earlier, so it was probably her business to know the people in his grandfather’s family. He followed the younger woman, and she closed the door behind them.

“This is Emily Forester, and she is fully briefed on all the clauses and stipulations in your grandfather’s will.”

“What do you want with me?” Brian asked.

“I’m going to let Marv speak to that.”

Lydia motioned to Emily, who handed her a large manila envelope that had been sealed with red wax.

“You see that the seal is intact. This was affixed by Marv in our presence.”

She opened the envelope, pulled out a memory stick, and handed it to Emily, who placed it into a laptop. The huge flat-screen monitor on the wall came to life, his grandfather’s face front and center.

Brian was taken aback at first at how old he seemed. The truth was that he hadn’t spent a great deal of time with him over the last few years. “When was this taken?” Brian asked, looking at the still image.

“The will was executed almost a year ago,” Lydia answered and motioned to Emily.

“Brian, if you’re watching this, then we both know what happened, and you’re in the large conference room with Lydia Maxwell and one of her partners. And I’m here to talk to you about your inheritance.”

“What inheritance? I don’t want anything from you,” Brian said.

“You may say you don’t want anything, but I know you did. I’m not perfect, Brian, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life. After we lost your mother, your grandmother and I thought our hearts would shrivel up and die. Then I lost your grandmother, and I think my heart did just that. I know it’s no excuse and that I should have been there for you, and I wasn’t.”

“Yeah, you weren’t.” Brian turned to Lydia. “This is bullshit. If he wants some sort of absolution, he can go to hell. I’m out of here.”

Brian stood and headed for the door. Lydia met him with a hand gently placed on his shoulder.

“Sit back down and listen to the rest of the message,” she said with a quiet strength that had him moving back to the chair.

“I can’t make up for what happened, but know this. Your mother was the best and brightest hope for our family, and when she died, so did her light. I’m hoping she passed on some of that light to you. Up until now, you haven’t been given a chance to demonstrate that, but we’ll see. As part of my will, I have set up a number of lessons that I need to know you have learned. They will be explained by Lydia when she feels the time is right, and she will also be the sole judge of completion. So you will want to get on her good side. If you fail, it’s over, and you walk away.”

The screen went blank, and Brian turned to the lawyer.

“That’s it?”

“For now. I want you to meet me in this room at eight o’clock Monday morning, and I will explain the first step in your journey.”

She stood and extended her hand. Once Brian shook it, she stepped back, and Brian opened the door to the conference room, completely confused but not willing to let it show. Without another word, he left the office and called the elevator.