Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 2


TWO WEEKS LATER

Vicky


I ALMOST DON’T ANSWER the buzzer. I’m not expecting anyone. And who just shows up and buzzes? A drunk or a freak, that’s who.

My sister, Carly, is busy fulfilling her duty as a sixteen-year-old girl to make us late due to hair styling operations that are more complex than a Space-X mission.

The buzzer sounds again and again. Smuckers barks.

I pick him up. “Shhh!” We’re not technically supposed to have dogs in the building.

Carly answers it. “For you,” she says.

I go and push the intercom button. “This is Vicky.”

“Certified letter for Smuckers care of Vicky Nelson.”

“A letter for Smuckers?”

“Yes. Care of Vicky Nelson.”

A Venn diagram forms in my mind.

The circle that contains people I know who would think of such a moronic joke does not touch the circle that contains friends who would be up this early. “No, thanks,” I say.

Buzzzzz.

“Reading the envelope,” comes the voice. “Smuckers care of Vicky Nelson. From the law offices of Malcomb, Malcomb, and Miller.”

It occurs to me then that maybe Bernadette remembered her promise to help pay for Smuckers’s upkeep, after all.

She’d mentioned it when she was asking me to care for him, once the diagnosis was in. Take care of my baby. I’ll see you’re compensated, she’d said.

I never thought she’d actually follow through. Bernadette made a lot of promises and vows in her life. She liked making them way more than fulfilling them.

I didn’t offer to care for Smuckers to earn any kind of allowance. The little dog had grown on Carly and me over the years. I couldn’t bear to let him go to a home that wouldn’t love his fuzzy little face.

But what if?

“Coming down,” I say.

I spin and eye Carly. She’s not ready yet. “I’ll take Smuck down and we’ll handle this and wait. Five minutes.” I look over at the corner where Buddy the parrot eyes me. “And feed Buddy!”

I carry Smuckers down all six flights. Smuckers is for shit on stairs.

I never saw Bernadette after that day in the hospital with Henry Locke. She died soon after and Henry’s assistant called me with an alert that Smuckers was being sent over, and it was indeed in a limo. Carly and I just laughed, seeing his furry little snout in the backseat window of the sleek, black, mad-money ride.

Instagram!

I didn’t go to Bernadette’s funeral. Nobody invited me—not that I expected it after meeting jerky hard-ass Henry Locke.

Carly’s been telling me all along to track down Henry and make him follow through on Bernadette’s promise to defray Smuckers’s upkeep. I told Carly I’d take a job as a gloryhole attendant at the Glory Daze massage parlor before I’d approach Henry for money. The Glory Daze is an actual place in the shitty Bronx neighborhood where we used to live before we got our very sweet long-term apartment-and-parrot sitting gig. And it’s what you think.

I will never ask Henry for anything.

Henry is exactly the kind of rich, entitled asshole I’ve constructed my life around avoiding.

I find a courier waiting outside the doorway. He hands over a large envelope and gets my signature.

I thank him and put Smuckers on the green leash that goes with today’s green bow tie.

I open the envelope while he poops next to his favorite light pole with its graffiti-covered base. My heart sinks when I see there are only some letters inside. No check.

Oh well. I walk Smuckers up to the block to throw the poop bag in the trash. He smells the small fence around the scrubby little tree, investigates a sticky dark puddle with yellow bits in it that I’m hoping is a smashed ice cream cone, and noses a crumpled coffee cup.

That done, we sit on the top step of the stoop, just outside of the stream of people rushing back and forth, and I get to reading.

It takes a good minute for me to get that it’s not just any letter; it’s a summons to a reading of the last will and testament of Bernadette Locke.

“Because that would’ve been too easy,” I say to Smuckers, who is straining toward the suspicious possible ice cream cone.

A young woman with wild magenta hair that has a streak of yellow down one side comes by, and Smuckers forgets about his quest for food in favor of stranger petting, which he gets.

Carly arrives and smiles at the woman. “I love your hair! I want your hair.” The woman smiles and walks off, and Carly discreetly snaps a photo. “Did you see that?” Carly says. “That’s the exact hair I want.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I say.

“There’s this cute place on Eighty-fourth that does it. Bess is doing purple there this weekend, and I’m thinking about maybe a change.” She twirls a red curl. “Of the purple and yellow kind…”

“You know the rule,” I say.

“But I want to go with Bess. She’s not going to want to delay.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Twenty-one-day cooling-off period. All major financial and appearance decisions.”

“Colorful hair is not really major.”

“That’s what you’re going with? Hair in two different Skittles colors is not major?”

She pouts.

I grab her backpack. “Come on. That’s our pact.”

“It’s not fair. You never make money or appearance decisions. You have everything the same all the time.”

“It’s our pact. End of story.”

We head down the crowded sidewalk, expertly sidestepping people on their phones and navigating around wandering tourists with the precision of fighter jets in formation.

“I’m going to tell Bess to delay twenty-one days and then I’ll do it with her,” she says when we come back together.

I give her a look.

“What?”

“That’s a commitment. When you’re good for your word, like we are, committing is the same as doing. Telling Bess to delay because you’ll do it with her?” We’ve been over this before. “We keep our word, us two.”

She snorts and huffs. But it’s our thing, and she knows it.

We two sisters keep our word. It’s a thing.

Also, our pact has kept her from quite a few misguided tattoos.

“What was the courier? Was it the Smuckers allowance?”

“Who knows?” I say. “Maybe she put the dog food allowance in her will. I have to take an afternoon off work and trek halfway across town to find out. Rich people have no concept of life.”

Carly zeroes in on another fashionable woman with wild-colored hair and then gives me the side-eye.

“Bird,” I say, which is our sisters version of fuck you, from flipping the finger, the bird.

But really, that’s what I want for her—to only have to worry about things like hair and pop music and selfie lighting techniques. I’ll fight to see she gets that. She’s decided to be an actress but she has to wait until she’s a senior in high school before she can be in nonschool productions.

I know I keep her too close. She doesn’t get to kick around town at night like other girls her age. The helicopter sister. But better that than our shipwrecked mom back home in Deerville.

“Tell you what,” I say. “If I get Saks, we’ll go get ourselves two-hundred-dollar blowouts.”

“Hold you to it.”

The preliminary buyers liked my collection of jewelry for humans. Sedate elegance, they called it, which is about right. It’s not the big, wild, exuberantly colorful stuff that I used to be attracted to, but I’m good with that. My life these days is geared for staying under the radar. Coloring inside the lines.

I’d do anything to distance myself from when I was Vonda O’Neil, the most hated teen in America for one very long summer some seven years ago. The girl who cried wolf. Except there really was a wolf.

Nobody believed me.

Carly hates the clothes I wear even more than Bernadette ever did. You’re not on trial anymore, she always says. You can stop living like a monk now. You don’t have to wear those boring-ass outfits.

But the pencil skirts and dark sweater sets my lawyer recommended grew on me. For the record, they’re not boring-ass. They project an image of trustworthiness, and that’s important to me.

Anyway, there’s just one more hurdle for my jewelry line—the VP of merchandising. A huge order from Saks would make such a difference. Carly doesn’t know how hand-to-mouth we actually live; we’re still in the hole from two years of braces, but I’ll never let her know. I don’t just want to protect her from Mom; I want to protect her from everything.

“Can a person even do that? Leave an allowance to a dog in a will?”

“Rich people can do anything they want to,” I say, and then I swallow my bitterness, because Carly doesn’t need it. She doesn’t need to hate rich, entitled people, and specifically rich, entitled men, the way I do.

It still shocks me that Bernadette was fabulously wealthy. She was pretty successful in hiding it; she seemed post-rich, if anything. I sometimes wonder if she concealed it because she picked up my disdain for the wealthy.

After the shelter fundraiser fair, Bernadette suddenly started showing up on this bench that Carly and I couldn’t avoid passing in getting to Carly’s school, and she’d call us over and ask for a reading—just a few impressions, she’d sometimes say. And I’d politely decline.

Carly thought she was stalking us, because she kept on showing up. I don’t know about that, but she definitely got madder and madder that I wouldn’t read Smuckers for her. She clearly thought it was a personal thing I had against her. The woman had a paranoid and highly suspicious nature.

Then there was the day she was in distress, out in the heat. We were on the way to school, as usual, and she was half slumped on that bench, so pale and frail, with Smuckers panting at the end of his leash. We stopped to make sure she was okay. She told us she felt faint; she asked us to help her home.

Her home turned out to be a gorgeous prewar building several blocks down. We got her up and settled in and hydrated. As soon as she bounced back to her regular self, she offered me money for a special Smuckers reading from the whisperer.

It was then I saw Smuckers’s bone-dry water bowl.

“Okay, one quick free read,” I said.

Carly widened her eyes as I unhooked Smuckers’s leash and picked him up. I put my hand on his head, kind of a Vulcan mind-meld thing, and closed my eyes. So thirsty. I need a lot of water. So very thirsty, Bernadette.

Bernadette seemed pretty upset when she looked down at Smuckers’s water bowl. I made Carly fill it and we got out of there as quickly as possible after that.

That was the first step down the slippery slope of being a pet whisperer.

Bernadette’s next move was a masterful one. From a different bench, she spotted Carly playing Frisbee in the park with some girlfriends. She asked her if she’d walk Smuckers for thirty bucks—just around the park.

Carly jumped at it and treated her friends to frozen yogurt afterward. Days later came the big ask—Bernadette wanted Carly to be her permanent dog walker, once a day, an easy thirty bucks. No doubt she suspected how badly Carly would want it, and probably figured I wasn’t going to let Carly walk the streets of Manhattan alone with that dog.

I said no to Carly at first, but eventually I relented, after making Carly agree that twenty-five out of every thirty bucks would go to a college fund. And, really, dog walking is a legit service, unlike pet whisperer. Especially for Bernadette.

From then on, we’d stop off at Bernadette’s apartment on the way home from Carly’s school. We’d grab Smuckers and do an errand or two. Sometimes we’d take him to watch the neighborhood mimes. We feel sorry for them, because they are really not at all talented, but they always brighten up in a gleeful mime way when Smuckers comes around.

Little by little, Smuckers began delivering safety-conscious or morale-boosting messages to Bernadette. She was so alone, and Smuckers was the only one she seemed inclined to listen to. It felt like a public service.

Sometimes I’d wonder if Bernadette sensed our kinship—my summer as a universally hated media sensation and her present as a despised neighborhood fixture.

Either way, that money was a kindness to Carly and to me. Another reason I didn’t feel inclined to press for more for Smuckers’s upkeep.

True, I’d switched over his food from frozen raw rabbit meat to a sad dime-store brand, and the closest Smuckers has had to a blowout at a dog salon with original Warhol art is a brightly colored dog brush dragged through her fur, but Smuckers has a great life with lots of fawning attention from teenaged girls.

I decide I’ll go to the reading anyway, though, because if Bernadette left money for Smuckers to go to his special groomer and vet and all that, well, that was the bargain I’d made.

Luckily, the reading is during school hours the following week. It takes place on the Upper East Side and the letter specifically requests Smuckers’s presence.

I brush him extra well, put a dapper black-sequined bow tie on him, bundle him into his flowered carrying case, and set off. I throw a buck into the mimes’ hat set on the way to the subway station. I transfer at 59th and Lex and then walk a few blocks. I budgeted extra time so I wouldn’t have to splurge on a cab.

It’s cool for early September—autumn is definitely in the air. My iPhone map function guides me deeper and deeper into a neighborhood where I’ve never been, though I’m more inclined to call it an enchanted glen; the trees are huge and healthy, the streets are clean, and the buildings have a fairy-tale sheen to them. Will a unicorn soon bound out from the foliage?

I arrive at the address on the letter, which turns out to be an impossibly vertical mansion made from white marble, of all things. I go up the walk, ascend the strangely spotless stairway, and push through beveled-glass doors.

The inside is all lush carpet and ornate woodwork, even on the ceiling. I take Smuckers out of his case and carry him in my arms as I go in search of room eleven. I’m glad I have the letter with me, because I’m thinking they might not let me in, even though I’m wearing an ultra-trustworthy outfit with a delicate obsidian necklace of my own design.

Room eleven turns out to be full of illustrious-looking people standing around talking against a backdrop of chandeliers and dark carved wood. It’s like I stumbled into a photo shoot for Dior.

I spot Henry right away. He’s not technically in the middle of the room, but he’s definitely the center of gravity, forcing everyone to orbit around him with his asshole sheen of power.

Most of the people here have the blue eyes and gold-burnished dark hair of Henry, as well as the imperious stature, though nobody wears it quite like him. It reminds me of the way a high school girl gets into a certain style and all her friends follow her, but nobody quite pulls it off like she does.

Henry spots me immediately, or more accurately, glowers at me immediately, a disturbance in the field of poshness, and then they all turn to glower at me, as if on the silent and kingly command of Henry. And they all have this look like they can’t even!

Henry is the one to address me. “What are you doing here?”

My belly squeezes. My throat feels thick. Standing there, squirming under the power of Henry’s glower, I’m suddenly sick, sick, sick of myself. How did I get back here, cowering before the overwhelming force of wealth and power?

I’m suddenly grateful for Smuckers in my arms, a canine shield of cuteness. I squeeze him tight. “I was called. Or…Smuckers was. This letter came to Smuckers care of me. A summons, I suppose is the word. I don’t know. It seemed official…”

Stop over explaining, I tell myself. You’ve done nothing wrong. He can’t hurt you. Hold your head high.

“In other words, you think you got your payday, after all,” Henry says.

I straighten my backbone. “Sorry, Richie McRichface, we were summoned, just like the rest of you probably were.”

A hush comes over the room. I look around.

“What? Did somebody murder the butler with a golden candlestick?”

Henry’s eyes glitter. He’s every inch the lion at the gates of the palace, the epitome of the kind of person I vowed never to be pushed around by or terrorized by ever again.

I hold out the letter, heart pounding, a mouse in Henry’s mighty jaws, dangling by my tail. No way will I let him know it.

He stops in front of me and takes the letter.

“Who is this?” another guy asks. Another one of the relatives. Younger than Henry, from the looks of it—maybe twenty-seven, whereas Henry is around thirty.

Henry doesn’t answer; he’s performing an intensive examination of the letter.

“It’s real,” I say.

He turns it over. Holds it up to the light. And suddenly I’m back there, sixteen years old, everyone acting like I’m the liar, trying to intimidate me. Challenging me on things no regular person would be challenged on.

“Oh, please,” I grab it from his hand. “You know it’s real, so don’t bother.”

“You know her, Henry?” the younger relative asks again.

“She was in Mom’s hospital room.” Henry eyes me. “Pretending to read the dog’s mind.”

Umm…what to say to that. It is definitely what I was doing. I shift Smuckers to the other arm. “The dog has a name,” I say. “It’s Smuckers.”

Henry gazes down at me imperiously. “And now she’s hoping for a payday. So, how long did you have your hooks into my mother?”

Sometimes a question is a question. Other times, a question is a finger, aggressively poking your chest.

That’s what this question is, a bullying finger jab. “I didn’t fool her or have hooks into her,” I explain. “I never expected anything from her. I took Smuckers out of kindness.”

The younger relative snorts, like I’m being ridiculous, but I keep on.

“Did she think I’m a dog whisperer? Yeah, even though I told her repeatedly I wasn’t. Excuse me if I tried to use it to help her now and then.”

“You mean help yourself,” says Henry’s younger but equally burnished relative. “If there are signs you manipulated her with your shady dog psychic act…” The relative frowns, like the implications are too troubling to name.

“What?” I say, heart racing madly. I don’t really want to know, but I learned with bullies that you have to pin them down. You can’t just be scared. “Or what?”

The Henry clone raises his brows, like, you’ll see.

I snort. “I thought so.”

Everybody’s looking at me, but it’s Henry’s gaze I feel, like a silken ribbon on my skin. I don’t dare look at him. He’s a raging inferno of assholishness and powersuitedness with a dash of hotness that makes him…uh.

I spot a tray of champagne flutes. I walk over and take a glass, just to do something.

Also, alcohol.

I concentrate on the holding of Smuckers and the sipping of champagne while I wait for whatever is supposed to happen to start happening.

Henry and his clan are all on the other side of the room, quietly affronted and maybe they really are eyeing the candlesticks. There are several large candlesticks, all of them good and hefty.

I was surprised Bernadette funded so much of the hospital, with her apartment being so shabby and all, surprised that she was a somebody from a long line of somebodies, the kind that show up on the society websites. I was actually surprised there were society websites at all, but maybe that’s not a shock since I’m allergic to rich personages of every stripe.

Carly was actually the one who ushered me into the world of society websites and Henry Locke soon after I came home from the hospice and uttered his name.

“Wait—the Henry Locke?” she said.

“There’s a the Henry Locke?”

“Uh!” Carly has about fifty varieties of Uh! This one I recognized as her can-you-be-more-clueless?-Obviously-NOT! variety of Uh. She fired up her phone and promptly handed it over, and I found myself staring at a smiling tuxedo-clad Henry with a beautiful, dark-haired woman on his arm, dressed in Givenchy.

“So, he’s supposed to be somebody?”

She fixed her most incredulous gaze on me. “Henry Locke? Playboy starchitect? Cock Worldwide?”

“Wait, what?” Cock Worldwide is our joke whenever we pass one of the gigantic Locke Worldwide cranes that dominate the construction site of every giant project. I assure you, we’re not the only ones who make the joke, not the only ones who look at the logo of circles in the shape of a building and see quite a different image, not the only ones who think it’s funny to combine the sighting of a Cock Worldwide crane with erection commentary. “He and Bernadette are that Locke?”

“How many Lockes do you think fund New York hospitals?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Umm…”

She snorted, disgusted with my ignorance of New York’s leading luminaries. Billionaire Henry Locke is one of New York’s top ten most eligible bachelors, according to another image she showed me, this one from This Week NY.

Judging from the scowl he wears in the photo, Henry wasn’t any happier about being named one of New York’s leading bachelors than he was finding a fake dog whisperer in his mother’s hospital room.

“Most eligible bachelor if you’re a masochist,” I said, handing the phone back to her. “Did you call him starchitect?”

“It means star architect,” she’d informed me.

All in all, my little sister was far more enthused about the personage of Henry Locke than I was.

I’m draining the last of my champagne when the team of lawyers enters the room. They don’t say they’re lawyers, but I know lawyers when I see them. They take a table set up near the fireplace.

Members of the Locke clan take the front chairs that face the lawyers’ table. I take the back, the disreputable kid with her fluffy sidekick.

Members of the Locke clan wear nice outfits and they’re impossibly beautiful. The women all have amazing blowouts, though it’s possible they just have good hair genes. People with good hair genes tend to marry other people with good hair genes, and through the generations end up having kids with even better hair, and those kids find each other.

Like Pekinese noses, but far more desirable.

So that’s the theory I’m spinning as the reading of the will begins with a distribution of money from various overseas bank accounts.

Every time I think the bank accounts portion of the will reading is over, there are more overseas bank accounts for the lawyer to list off. It’s like a clown car of overseas bank accounts.

I really am pleasantly surprised Bernadette thought of Smuckers. It would be good if I could take him to the Park Avenue vet who has known him since puppyhood, and if there’s money for his fancy food, I’m all there. I’m guessing there will be some bill submittal process, which is fine with me as long as I don’t have to interact with these Locke heirs.

The lawyer has moved on to real estate parcels. I pull out my phone and check Twitter.

That takes forever, of course, and then we move onto the listing of unoriginal corporate names portion of the reading. It seems the Locke empire stretches far beyond Locke Worldwide. There is Locke Companies, Inc., Locke Holdings, Locke Capital Group, Locke Asset Management, Locke Architectural Services, and more.

I’m in the middle of an important operation that involves me retweeting a meme of a raccoon in a ballerina skirt when the listing of unoriginal names concludes with, “To Smuckers, whose intentions and decisions in all matters will be interpreted by Victoria Nelson.”

I look up to find a dozen threatening glares. Except Henry. A man like Henry doesn’t need to expend energy on things like a threatening glare. He just flicks his fingers and you’re destroyed.

The lawyer is continuing. Something about a term of Smuckers’s natural life or ten years, whichever comes first, and then something something something stipulate something.

“Um, could you repeat the whole Smuckers part?” I ask.

“This is ridiculous.” Henry stands. “I contest this. All of it.”

The lawyer holds up his hand. “Henry.” He says it in a calming tone, a warning tone. “Please recall that any challenge to the will nullifies the real estate and holdings provisions. Upon any legal challenge…”

“She can’t do this,” a woman says.

I stand. “Please, can somebody explain…”

“Come off it,” an older man says. “You know exactly what happened.”

After my dad died, one of Mom’s less scummy boyfriends took us to Cocoa Beach one spring, and at night we’d shine lights into holes in the sand and little crabs would pop out and scurry away. I feel the way those crabs must have felt, suffering the glares on every inch of my skin, wanting to scurry away.

But I know not to obey that instinct. It just makes things worse. You have to stand up for yourself, or at least try.

“Can I just get that last part repeated? Whatever came before the To Smuckers?”

“You don’t know?” Henry asks, all steely calm. “Are you sure you didn’t help Bernadette write the will herself?”

I’m getting a queasy sense of déjà vu. “I would never. I didn’t even know she was, you know…” I gesture at the chandelier. My protest is met with stares of derision.

The younger, less hot Henry gets in on the action. “Maybe Smuckers helped write it. Did Smuckers dictate the will?” He gives dictate air quotes.

Sweat trickles down my back. “Look, when she asked me to care for Smuckers, she told me she’d defray the costs of his special salon and vet. So if she left something for that…”

Henry’s eyes twinkle coolly. “I’d imagine control of a multibillion-dollar conglomerate would defray a few costs.”

I frown, unsure if this is a joke or what.

“People go to jail for this kind of thing,” Henry’s young relative says.

“Let’s dial it back, Brett,” the lawyer says.

“Why should I dial it back?” Brett barks. “I’m not dialing back shit!” Brett wants to dial it up. Brett will be dialing it up to eleven, thank you very much.

“This was…supposed to be about vet bills and things,” I say. And ultrapuff blowouts at the Sassy Snout salon and Baby Poochems Perfect Pawz free-range rabbit meat for dogs.

But I don’t see those specific details improving anybody’s mood at this point.

Henry watches my eyes. “You’re trying to steal the company my grandfather founded. How about not insulting our intelligence on top of that?”

One of the Locke women grabs the lawyer’s arm. “A dog can’t control fifty-one percent of an international conglomerate, can he?”

Fifty-one percent? A chill goes over me as the reality of what’s happening sinks in. Bernadette left a lot more than vet and dog food money.

“With Ms. Nelson acting as regent?” the lawyer says. “Yes, then it’s no different than awarding control to an infant with a guardian acting in that infant’s best interests.”

Control of a corporation?

Brett gets in the lawyer’s face about his incompetence and disloyalty to the family, handing the company to a grifter.

Brett has unlocked full-blast freak-out mode—so much so that Henry has to pull Brett back and physically restrain him until he calms down. Another lawyer, the estate attorney, takes questions, too. They’re arguing about some point of Locke Worldwide bylaws. Everybody has the bylaws up on their phones.

I smooth my dress, the simple, demure dress designed to say I’m innocent, I’m not the bad person you say I am. I really didn’t lie! Please believe me. Somebody. Anybody.

Needless to say, it’s not having the desired effect.

Carly is forever on a quest to get me to buy something colorful—pastels, jewel tones. Anything not gray or black or brown. I say I don’t want to, but the truth is, I can’t.

My court clothes from when I was sixteen are like the ridges of the Grand Canyon, violent gashes etched by infinite splashes of hatred and derision. It’s seven years later and the onslaught is long gone, but the clothes stay.

A room of angry people. How am I in this position again?

Henry has that dangerous sparkle again. “Explains why you wanted custody of the dog so badly.”

“I wanted custody because I gave my word to Bernadette, and Smuckers needed a nice home,” I say. “I really just expected money for fancy food and vet bills.”

Henry pulls out his phone. “I’m calling the police.”

“What? What did I do?”

“You defrauded a vulnerable individual,” he says. “You pretended you could read the dog’s thoughts.” He turns his attention back to the phone. “Harry Van Horn, please.” That last he says into the phone. Because men like this have friends in the police department.

Just like Denny Woodruff and his family upstate in Deerville. The Lockes might even know the Woodruffs, or travel in the same circles at least.

Frantically I review the reading in my mind. The endless list of companies. Fifty-one percent. Which suggests Smuckers either owns or controls all of them. Or both.

And I control Smuckers.

Henry pockets his phone.

I take a centering breath. “Look, you guys. I’m not here to take anybody to the cleaners. Honestly? I came here because it was Bernadette’s deepest wish that Smuckers maintain his same lifestyle after her death…”

“And that’s all you want? And you’re willing to sign a piece of paper to that effect?” Brett barks.

“Only Smuckers can designate a new heir,” the lawyer says.

“The police are on their way,” Henry says.

The police. Smuckers starts fussing in my arms. I loosen up on the death grip of distress.

“How about you have Smuckers designate a new heir, then?” Brett rakes his eyes up and down me. “Then again, you’d look okay in orange. Malcomb, what does the will say about Smuckers’s regent reading his mind from a jail cell?”

Everybody’s talking at me or about me. “Make her sign something…affidavit…criminal background check…” Only Henry is silent, apart from the crowd, just like in that toddler picture, but his glittering gaze speaks volumes.

I cling to Smuckers, feeling like it’s us against the world. Even Smuckers is upset, though I suspect that’s more about being surrounded by strangers who are clearly aware of him yet who mysteriously have all failed to rush over to pet him.

“Let’s all take a breath.” The main lawyer, Mr. Malcomb, is next to me now. “This is all getting a little close to duress for my comfort. A contract created under duress isn’t valid.”

Everyone looks at Henry.

“I am an officer of the court, Henry,” Malcomb adds.

“Yeah, you’re an officer of the court who stood by while Mom was getting soaked by a scam artist,” Henry says. “That’s the problem I’m having here, Malcomb.”

“She was of sound mind, Henry,” Malcomb retorts. “It’s what she wanted.”

Malcomb and Henry go on to debate the concept of sound mind.

I have to admit that Henry has a point. A toy dog whose head fur is frequently groomed to resemble a large marshmallow seems a very poor choice to run an international corporation.

Lawyer Malcomb turns to me. “In the decade prior to her death Bernadette assigned a longtime officer of the company, Kaleb Rowland, to cast the vote of her late husband’s fifty-one percent along with his own twenty percent, with her son Henry acting as CEO. Kaleb and Henry have been excellent stewards of Locke Worldwide. Under their guidance, the firm has expanded enormously and created a massive amount of wealth. While we’re working all of this out, I’m going to suggest that Smuckers might see his way clear to allow Kaleb to retain his proxy while Henry continues on as operational CEO. You’ll stay on, Kaleb?”

Everyone looks at an older man with a thick pelt of shiny gray hair. Kaleb, I’m guessing. He crosses his arms and grunts.

I scratch Smuckers’s neck, trying to think when he last peed.

Breathe. Think.

Another thing I learned while a pariah is to understand things fully before making big decisions, because one of the ways people push you around is to make you think you don’t have time.

“Can you please explain the terms in a way I’ll understand?” I say to Malcomb.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Henry sighs. “Do we have to go through this charade?”

I turn to him. “Okay, I’m getting a little tired of your attitude.” I pull Smuckers’s little face closer to mine. It comforts Smuckers, but I kind of think it makes me harder to yell at. “Here’s the situation—an old woman who felt utterly alone in life left things in her will to her dog. You want somebody to feel angry at? Go look in a mirror.”

The room seems to still. Henry regards me coolly, like he’s totally in control, but a vein in his neck has become more defined, like a violin string tightened beyond factory specs. “You don’t know anything about this family,” he finally says.

“I know you’re all…a bit unpleasant.” Even Bernadette was unpleasant, but I don’t say that.

Henry undoes his one suit-jacket button, wristwatch glinting in the dazzle of the chandelier. And then it’s gone, back under his perfect sleeve. He says nothing, just undoes the button. I don’t know, maybe it’s the wealthy man’s version of rolling up his sleeves. He then turns and huddles up with Brett and Kaleb. Talking about me, of course.

Talking about charging me with a crime. Maybe paying me off. That’s how rich guys control poor women. Young women. Me.

Been there. Done that. Vowed never to do it again.

Back in Deerville, Denny Woodruff’s family went with paying me off—half a million dollars for my silence about what Denny did. My life would have been half a million percent better if I’d taken that money, but I was sixteen and idealistic. I wanted to make sure other women would steer clear of Denny.

I sometimes miss that brave, strong girl who wanted justice. That girl who believed if she stood up for herself and told the truth, nothing could hurt her.

We’ll bury you, Mr. Woodruff said when I refused to take the money.

We’ll bury you.

And they did it.

Or, at least, they buried brave, carefree, teenaged me. The brave girl named Vonda who wore bright, pretty things and wouldn’t back down from a fight. The one who didn’t have to fake a backbone.

They made me regret not taking the money. They made me regret standing up. The regret’s almost worse than having been dragged through the mud of real life and social media hatred.

Regret for doing the right thing is a kind of poison in your veins.

And standing there in the middle of that lavish room of Lockes, I want to rage at the world.

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