Butt-dialing the Billionaire: Chapter 1



My parents’ man of business, Barclay, waits for me in the dayroom, clutching his hat in his hands so tightly he’s liable to crush it. “I took the first flight from Heathrow. My condolences, Mr. Henningsly.”

“I should offer you the condolences,” I say. “You knew them better than I did.” The man probably talked to them every day, carrying out their directives and updating them on their empire.

I haven’t talked to them in years.

And I never will again now.

“Nevertheless, Mr. Henningsly,” Barclay says. “Very good.”

Nevertheless and very good are phrases staff members use when dealing with me. Verbal blank screens, able to deflect anything. I sometimes think there was a memo: “If you’re not sure what to say to the terrible son, very good will work in most circumstances. Otherwise, try nevertheless.”

This man has used both now, a mark of his extreme unhappiness about having to work with me now.

No doubt he wishes I’d been the one to land a plane at the bottom of the Channel. Most people would prefer me dead—after suffering a bit, preferably. Made to feel sorry for how I am and all that.

For the record, I’m not sorry for how I am.

Still holding his hat, he follows me down blindingly polished marble floors. “Two of the finest people I’ve ever met.”

I can understand him saying that sort of thing in public. My parents put a lot of work into their smoke-and-mirrors image and fooled most everybody who’s anybody. Such a close colleague of my parents would know what they were. I don’t appreciate being lied to and treated as a fool.

We continue down another endless hallway. I’m hoping the police, the aviation people, and the rest of the officials are gone. In the twenty-four hours since my parents died, it’s been an endless parade of officials in and out of their Paris residence.

My residence now. One of them, anyway.

We’re in the redundantly named Mansion Room, with high ceilings traced in gilt moldings and a roaring fireplace the size of a minivan. The window has a view of the elaborate gates that surround the place, topped with gold spikes and fleur-de-lis as if it’s the official residence of the President of France himself. Those gates were creaking open and closed all through the night last night, operated by a nervous young security guard who quickly embraced my suggestion to oil them.

Very good, sir. Very good!” he said, nearly melting with terror. As though I might rip his head off if he didn’t comply.

The officials have indeed left. It’s only my cousin Charley, along with my manservant, Arnold. Arnold has been with me my whole life; he’s seventy now—a sporty and hale seventy with a thick pelt of white hair.

“Security cleared the paparazzi from the entire block,” Arnold says.

I nod. My parents always did have effective security.

“Doing okay?” Charley asks, maybe mistaking my somber mood for grief.

“It’s been a long night,” I say simply.

Barclay stands there regarding me warily, still squeezing his hat.

“Is there something else?” I ask.

“So sorry to trouble you further…at such a difficult time.”

“What is it?”

“A request, Mr. Henningsly. It’s…the business. The board hopes you’ll deliver a few optimistic words of reassurance to the troops.”

“They want optimistic reassurance out of me?” I say. “God help them.”

He blinks, unsure how to answer. Then, “Nevertheless, Mr. Henningsly, there are a great number of companies, investment houses, individual stockholders, and various entities across the globe under the umbrella of Wycliff Inc. that need to know that they can count on you to continue the tradition of stability and wisdom in terms of leadership, et cetera. People need to hear that you intend to keep an even keel. People are worried, you know…”

It’s me they’re worried about, but Barclay doesn’t want to say it.

“The death of your parents has thrown a number of entities into panic,” he continues. “There’s the stock to consider, valuations in jeopardy…”

“Let’s get rid of it, then. Dump the whole thing.”

Barclay looks alarmed. Even my cousin Charley looks surprised.

“It’s a bloated empire built on deceit and corporate espionage,” I say. “While I suppose I can get behind that, Wycliff has that whole do-gooder image. If I’m going to run a predatory and underhanded international corporation, I wouldn’t want it to have a fake good façade. It’s just not me. I have a reputation to think about, you know.”

“You can’t just dump it all,” Barclay says.

“According to the rules of the trust, I can,” I say.

“Hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs,” Barclay says. “It would spark a sell-off. Share prices would plummet. Employees’ retirement accounts could be decimated. People across the globe would be affected. The markets themselves—”

“And I care about that why?” I ask.

Charley glares at me from his perch on a green velvet chair. The white porcelain cup in his hand gleams almost as brightly as his blond hair.

When you’re me, you tend to deal with a lot of glares, and you get to know them the way grizzled old sailors get to know the wind. There’s the garden variety what-an-asshole-I’m-in-shock style glare, the hate-you glare, and of course, the want-to-kill-you glare, which tends to be the most amusing of all, especially when people really put their hearts into it.

Charley has perfected the I-expected-better-of-you glare, a grand and well-practiced glare of his. “Hundreds of thousands of people, Jaxon! For once can’t you do the right thing?”

I fix my shirt cuffs. “I’d prefer not to if it can at all be avoided.”

Charley deepens his glare.

I give him a smile.

Barclay straightens. “You care because if you keep their business running as is, at least for the near future, it would be infinitely more wealth for you. As opposed to a sudden dump the day after this…this tragedy.”

“I already have more wealth than I want,” I say. “I need nothing from my parents.”

Arnold pipes up now. “But Jaxon, if you had infinitely more wealth, you could more easily destroy your enemies.”

“I’m comfortable with my current ability to destroy my enemies,” I say.

“But with vastly more wealth, you could destroy them with impunity,” Arnold points out.

I finish with my shirt cuffs. “Well, when you put it that way…I do love impunity.”

“You’ll do it, then?” Barclay asks.

I sigh wearily. “Fine.”

“Excellent, sir,” Barclay says. “We’ve got your father’s PR man working on the address. We’ve got businesses across the globe synchronized to hear you read it. We’ll set up in the third-floor great room. A few minutes and you’ll be on your way. We’ll have you deliver it at lunchtime, which will be morning in the US and dinnertime in Asia.”

Barclay and Arnold head off, presumably to set up the third-floor great room, leaving Charley and me alone.

“Oh, Jaxon,” Charley says, placidly sipping his tea.

Most people hang around me for the proximity to wealth or the notoriety of being linked to Villain Number One, as pronounced by the Eurozone tabloids not to mention each and every fan of the Formula One racing world. As the good-natured son of a branch of the family easily as wealthy as mine, though, god knows why Charley hangs around. Obligation, I suppose. An unhealthy fixation on family togetherness. Tradition. We were sent on a lot of countryside errands as boys.

“Well then,” Charley says, setting aside his teacup. “I suppose I’ll get back to the guest wing.” He’s looking at me expectantly. That’s Charley, always expecting more.

“You won’t stay for late lunch?” I say. “A bit of sushi, maybe?”

Charley straightens, examining my face for signs of how to take this. “Really?”

“I’m thinking we could eat it off the backs of softly weeping virgins,” I add.

“Oh, Jaxon,” he says. “You keep pushing me away, but you’re family. And I happen to know that it’s hard to deal with this sort of thing alone. I had my sisters when my parents died.”

“Is this where I cry on your shoulder?” I ask him. “You do recall the part about them being monsters.”

“No man is an island, Jaxon. Or at least, he shouldn’t be,” he adds.

“What’s wrong with being an island? Islands are great. Especially the ones that are rich in resources with nice weather and little places you can have a drink in, and you never have to deal with people’s bullshit.”

“I’ll come back for moral support on the company-wide address,” he says.

“Please don’t.” I sink into an incredibly uncomfortable couch.

“Someday you’re going to be sorry for playing the villain all the time, Jaxon. Someday reporters will get sick of hearing you say scathing things about royals and socialites and even your frenemies won’t come to your parties anymore.”

I sigh. “Don’t be ridiculous; frenemies have to come to my parties. It’s practically in the job description.”

“You got unlucky in the family department, Jaxon, but I’m here,” Charley says.

“Oh, I don’t know about unlucky,” I say. “Having the family I did saved me a great deal of delusion about human nature.”

Charley presses his lips together, a sign that he has something more to say. It’ll be something about Jenny, my old nanny. He’s dying to bring her up. Kind, sweet, loving Jenny who ran off in the middle of the night.

He won’t dare—not with the way I’m glowering at him now.


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