Los Angeles, California
THE CALL CAME in the middle of the night. Keith Lazarow was so deeply asleep that he probably wouldn’t have heard his phone if not for the attractive brunette who stirred in bed beside him.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” she mumbled.
“No.” He was too exhausted. Five years ago, he’d replaced the drugs he’d once used to anesthetize himself against the demons of his past with daily cross-fit training. High-intensity exercise was the only thing that could command his full focus and calm his mind. It forced the anger and resentment back into the shadows so he could be functional instead of destructive. But once he’d left the gym, Dahlia Dooley—someone he’d met at a charity event downtown last week—had called and asked to come over, and after that, he’d put in a completely different sort of workout. After expending that much energy, he felt he could sleep for a week, which was nice, since he used to have trouble sleeping at all.
Dahlia rolled onto her other side and, seconds later, his phone stopped making noise.
He’d just begun to sink back into blissful oblivion when the buzzing started again.
Dahlia yawned. “There must be something wrong at work.”
No, he didn’t have anything to worry about there. He wasn’t a policeman or a medical health professional; he was in real estate. Over the last five years, he’d acquired quite a collection of large commercial properties—office buildings, warehouses, shopping malls and strip centers. But he had property managers as well as project managers to take care of his holdings. If there was a problem, those were the people who’d be getting disturbed after hours, not him. He handled acquisitions, which was the fun part, and he had nothing particularly important on the horizon—nothing that he might get a panic call about, anyway. Whatever this was, it could wait until he’d had his wheatgrass juice in the morning and was ready to turn on his computer.
He shot up in bed and grabbed for his phone. Sure enough, it was his sister Maisey calling from South Carolina. They’d always been close, but these days she had her husband, Rafe, who did such a good job of loving Maisey, his daughter, Laney, and Bryson, the two-year-old boy they’d had together, that Keith never worried about them. He and Maisey spoke on the phone every week, and she’d flown out to visit him three or four times since he left Fairham Island—twice with her family—but she never called in the middle of the night.
Something had to be wrong…
His stomach cramped at the thought.
With a curse, he gazed at the LED screen while trying to collect his faculties.
When he continued to let it ring, Dahlia mumbled, “What is it?”
Suddenly wishing she’d gone home instead of staying over, he looked at her tousled head. “Nothing. Go back to sleep. I’ll take it in the study.”
Lord knew his house was big enough to provide him with plenty of privacy. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Malibu, where he had a gorgeous view of the ocean, the ten-bedroom rambler had once belonged to Robert De Niro. The place was way too big for a man who lived alone, and coming here every night meant he added a time-consuming commute to his day. A condo downtown would’ve been more efficient and would’ve suited him just as well, since he rarely entertained. But he supposed he was still trying to prove to his megalomaniac mother that he really didn’t need the fortune she’d held over his head for so long.
Who would’ve guessed he’d be as adept at making money as his beloved grandfather?
No one. Until he’d walked away from the Coldiron empire and everything he stood to gain by staying, and started making it on his own, even he would never have dreamed he had it in him. After winning his first million as a professional poker player, which required no education at all—a good thing, since he hadn’t paid attention while he was getting his degree in communications—he’d invested in real estate, where he earned even more money—so much that he eventually quit poker, other than the odd charity tournament now and then.
Before he could pull on a pair of pajama bottoms and move to a room where he felt comfortable speaking to Maisey, the call transferred to voice mail. He waited to see if she’d leave a message, give him some indication of what was going on, so he’d be prepared when he talked to her. But she didn’t.
“Come on, Mais,” he muttered and called her back.
“There you are,” she said, sounding tense, breathless, as if she’d panicked when she couldn’t reach him.
He tried to control his own anxiety. “You’re surprised I didn’t answer right away? Gee, I wonder why I didn’t. Could it be that it’s four o’clock in the morning?”
He regretted his sarcasm when she didn’t come back at him with her own smart-ass comment. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I was joking. What’s going on?” Holding the phone that much tighter, he lowered his voice. “You okay?”
“I’m…fine, I think.” Her voice broke, telling him that she wasn’t fine at all.
His heart began to pound so hard his chest hurt. “Is it Rafe? Or the kids?” When Keith left Fairham Island, Maisey had been so in love with the building contractor and his blind little girl that Keith thought he could rely on his sister’s happiness indefinitely. The confidence he’d had in Rafe was the only thing that had made it possible for him to turn his back on South Carolina without the guilt that would otherwise have dragged him back.
Well, knowing his sister was with a man she loved wasn’t the only thing that had allowed him to escape. His life had always revolved around his autocratic mother and what he was supposed to do and be in order to honor his Coldiron heritage. Escaping the jaws of her expectations had required more grit and determination than he could ever have imagined. No way could he have done it without Maisey and Roxanne, his other sister. Their support had been constant and unwavering.
He owed them both a lot…
“They’re fine, too—thank God.” Maisey sniffed. “So are Roxanne and her family,” she said, anticipating his next question.
Their oldest sister lived in Louisiana—and had lived there for most of her life, away from them. That in itself was a long story and should never have happened; it was yet another life-altering event he could blame on his mother. He was just glad they’d managed to find Roxanne when they did, because she’d added so much to his life.
He crossed to the window and stared out at the white, moonlit caps of the waves rolling toward the beach. Even in full daylight, he couldn’t see the sand for all the trees and hills. But he wasn’t studying his current surroundings. He was recalling another beach—the private beach below Coldiron House, the ostentatious Southern mansion where he’d been raised. “Then it must be Mom,” he said with a fatalistic sigh.
Closing his eyes, he pressed his forehead to the cool glass. He’d known he’d have to face what he’d left behind eventually. Was he ready for whatever had happened to Josephine? Had he changed sufficiently to cope with what it might mean? Put enough safety nets in place to make sure he never slipped back into the darkness from which he’d so painstakingly climbed? “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s dead, Keith.”
The blood began to roar in his ears. “What’d you say?”
“It’s true. She’s gone. I’m so sorry. I know…I know how difficult this is going to be for you, how complicated your feelings about her have always been. Mine aren’t any simpler. I hate that I had to wake you in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t wait. I wanted you to know before…before you could see it on the news or…or someone else called.”
LA could get cold in January. Feeling a sudden chill, Keith straightened and stepped away from the window. Most deaths, even of someone as wealthy and powerful as Josephine Lazarow, weren’t reported on the national news—not unless foul play was involved. Was that what his sister was about to tell him?
“What happened?” he asked as he made his way to the desk and perched on the edge of the expensive leather chair his interior designer had claimed he’d love.
“When Pippa arrived an hour ago—”
“Wait,” he broke in. “That’d be six your time.”
“Why was she coming so early? Mom’s housekeepers have always arrived at eight.” Even when his mother was running her flower shop instead of letting Nancy Dellinger do it, she didn’t get out of bed until later. The shop didn’t open until ten; she generally prepared the night before.
“Mom needed to be at the airport. She was planning a trip to see Hugh Pointer—a new love interest.”
Of course. Since their father died, when he was twelve and Maisey was ten, Josephine had been through three marriages (after which she’d always gone back to the Lazarow name), and a long list of other relationships. Considering she could have just about anyone she wanted, there was nothing to stop her. Not only was she rich, she was beautiful.
Had been rich. Had been beautiful.
God, could he really be thinking of his strong, determined and often acerbic mother in the past tense?
“Hugh owns a pharmaceutical company, a ranch and a few other assets in Australia,” Maisey was saying. “They’ve been dating, mostly online, for the past few months. She met him in first class the last time she flew to New York and she’s been planning to go down under to see him ever since.”
They’d been dating for months? Keith would know about Hugh if he and his sisters ever discussed his mother, but she was the one subject that was off-limits. They’d grown accustomed to pretending she didn’t exist. Keith had insisted on it. She could trigger a relapse quicker than anyone or anything. “So Pippa was supposed to show up at the house before she’d usually appear to drive Mom to the airport.”
“That’s right.” When Maisey paused, overcome by emotion, a lump rose in his own throat. But no tears followed. Something seemed to be jammed up; he couldn’t cry. Where Josephine was concerned, he’d cut out his emotions almost as precisely as a surgeon might use a scalpel to remove a malignant tumor. He’d had to. Anything less was too painful.
“But…” he prompted when his sister couldn’t continue.
He heard her gulp for breath, heard Rafe in the background speaking soft, soothing words.
“Mom wasn’t waiting for her in the entry like she’d said she’d be. And when Pippa went upstairs to see about the hold-up, she…she found her in the tub.”
His mother often took long baths. They were part of her beauty regimen. She’d even had a TV installed in the bath-room. But why would she take a bath first thing in the morning, before heading to the airport? Why not use the shower, like she usually did to get ready for work? “She drowned?”
Another sniffle. “Apparently. There was a wine bottle and a…a glass that’d been knocked over, as well as s-some candles—”
“Then it must’ve happened last night,” he said. “She wouldn’t light candles first thing in the morning. She doesn’t like getting up early. She was always in too much of a hurry.”
“The coroner hasn’t determined the time of death. He…he just arrived a little while ago. But I agree. Seems that way to me, too.”
“So…they think it was an accident?”
She sniffed again. “They’re not saying, Keith. They won’t even let me in the house, won’t let me see her. I don’t under-stand what’s going on. I only know that she’s dead.”
His sister ended with a sob—and still his eyes remained dry. “I’m sorry, Maisey.”
That sounded so mechanical, but he was glad to feel numb. Numb beat the hell out of the devastation he could be feeling. He’d worked hard to overcome anything that made him weak or vulnerable.
“I don’t want this to set you back,” she said. “You’ve been doing so well. I—”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.” He hoped that was true. He didn’t have the best track record…
Maisey continued to cry. “This is terrible. Mom would not have liked going out this way.”
She must’ve been drunk, he thought. But how? She considered it gauche to have more than a single glass of wine in the evening. Unless things had changed more than he realized since he’d been gone, he couldn’t see her imbibing too much, even when she was alone.
“Were her bags packed?” he asked.
“How am I supposed to know? I told you. The police won’t let me in the house. All I can tell you is what they’ve told me.”
Dropping his head into his free hand, he tried to imagine that the strong-willed, demanding person who’d been their mother was gone. For good. That she was completely out of his life, whether or not he wanted her to be.
What did that mean? And did it help or hurt his quest to remain whole and healthy and to keep moving forward with his life?
“Are you all right?” Maisey asked.
“Yeah. I just… I’m trying to come to terms with the news, that’s all.”
“It’s a lot to take in. Don’t let it…don’t let it throw you, Keith.”
Even after five years, she felt she had to worry about him. He was screwed up, had always been screwed up. He suspected that if he ever visited a psychologist he’d be diagnosed as bipolar. That term had been thrown around a great deal back when he was acting out. But he didn’t want to hear a professional say those words, didn’t want to be pumped full of medication—not as long as he could manage on his own.
With cross-fit, his business and his sisters, he’d developed some coping skills. And they were working for him. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to backslide.” He was still taking it one day at a time, though, and this was a hurdle he hadn’t expected—maybe in twenty years, but not this soon.
“Okay,” she said. “I—I’d better go. I have to call Roxanne.”
How would Roxanne react to the death of their mother? he wondered. She’d been kidnapped and raised by a former nanny. Roxanne had a dim recollection of what a tyrant Josephine could be, but she didn’t have the memories and stories he and Maisey did. Since Roxanne had reconnected with Josephine, the two had built some semblance of a relationship. Roxanne probably got along with Josephine best, because she didn’t feel the same resentment. Neither did she live close by. Staying a considerable distance away definitely helped.
Considering all of that, would Rocki be heartbroken by the news? Would at least one of Josephine’s children be able to sincerely mourn her passing?
Or would even Roxanne be left to wonder if she was a horrible person for not experiencing more grief?
“I’ll call you back as soon as I can give you more details,” Maisey promised.
“Wait,” he said. “What about Mom’s Yorkie, Athena? Some-one needs to take care of her.”
“Pippa took her home, which is the best place for her. She doesn’t get along with Laney’s cat.
Max would tear her to shreds. And Pippa pampers that little dog as much as Mom did.”
He rubbed the goose bumps from his arms. “Okay.”
“Would you like to be on the call with Rocki? I could conference you in…”
“No, I’ll let you break the news. I could use a few minutes.”
“No problem. I love you,” she responded and hung up.
After pushing the end button, Keith set his phone on the desk as if it were a bomb that might explode, rocked back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. His mother’s death had so many implications. What would happen to the Coldiron fortune, which she’d controlled since her father died? Who had she left it to? Roxanne—or Maisey?
Perhaps she’d split it between them. But she couldn’t split Coldiron House and would never want to see it sold. So what would become of their ancestral home? Would Maisey move out of the bungalow she shared with Rafe on the other side of the island—from which they managed the eight neighboring vacation cottages for Josephine—and take up residence at Coldiron House?
Keith knew Roxanne wouldn’t move. She and her husband ran two businesses in Louisiana. They couldn’t leave their livelihood behind. Neither would Rocki uproot her three kids.
A sudden longing sprang up, to walk through the halls of Coldiron House, to see his childhood home through different eyes, to somehow find the peace that had eluded him there. He’d loved visiting his grandfather on Fairham Island, before they moved there, when Grandpa Henry was alive. He used to say that Keith would own it all someday, that he would be the one to carry on the Coldiron legacy. Although Keith had never been close to his own father, not like Maisey, and he’d struggled just to get along with his mother, he’d been Grandpa Henry’s favorite. Henry had always admired strength and spirit, even when it turned into willfulness—what had gotten Keith in so much trouble. Grandpa Henry had said he was once the same.
Maybe Keith would’ve put his grandfather’s traits to better use if Henry had lived longer. Sadly, he’d died when Keith was only eight and that house hadn’t represented the same thing since. They’d moved in after his death and it had been the family home ever since. But going back wouldn’t be easy. For one thing, he’d be stepping out of his current routine, which kept him busy and focused on the right things. His schedule, the distance and his refusal to think about the past were what kept him safe from himself.
Still, he had to attend his mother’s funeral. Had to help lay her body to rest in the family cemetery behind the house, beneath the moss-draped trees. Common decency demanded he attend the service, even if he didn’t stay any longer.
After waiting a few minutes, he called Rocki. She’d just hung up with Maisey and was crying.
“You okay?” he asked.
“For the most part. Are you?”
“I don’t know.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Are you planning to attend the funeral?”
“Of course. We’ll fly to South Carolina as soon as we know when it is. We can’t come before that. With our financial situation, we can’t take much time off.”
“Things are that bad?”
“They’re not good.”
She hadn’t mentioned this to him before. She’d always said they were getting by.
“Is there something I can do to help? I’ll pay for your flights, give you a loan—”
“I appreciate the offer,” she broke in before he could list other options. “But we’d rather not accept that kind of help. I’m afraid it would make Landon feel…inept. Just between you and me, he’s already been dealing with some kind of midlife crisis. And even if we didn’t have the financial pressure, the kids are in school.” She sniffed and he pictured her wiping her face. “What about you? Will you go to the funeral?”
“Do I have any choice?”
“Sure you do. Don’t go if it’ll threaten your sobriety, Keith.
Your first obligation is to remain drug-free and healthy. Do what you need to in order to avoid a relapse. That’s what the past five years have been about, right? If returning to Fair-ham could create a problem for you, Maisey and I will handle everything.”
He wouldn’t rely on his sisters to take care of burying their mother and dealing with the aftermath. What kind of brother would dump it all on them? “No, I’ll be there. You and Maisey have enough to worry about,” he said and opened the lap-top on his desk to purchase a plane ticket to Charleston. He had to attend an important meeting tomorrow afternoon, so the earliest he could reach Fairham Island would be Tuesday.
He wasn’t convinced he was ready to gamble on the progress he’d made. But he had to go. If he couldn’t do his part when his family needed him, what was the point of changing at all?