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Nora MacKenzie slipped a complacent smile on her face. It was a look that she had mastered over the past year. A mask she donned to protect herself from the horde of lawyers, accountants, and other corporate hit men who had invaded her life since Mike's death. Most of them were here now, assembled around the massive oak conference table in Mike's office, shuffling papers, murmuring, jotting notes. Their work was done. Like jurors, they were poised to deliver a verdict.
She sat alone at the far end of the table, one against so many. Nora felt the bulk of her dark wool suit, the high blouse collar like a cinch around her neck. She had chosen the respectable outfit deliberately. Despite the gossip, she would show them that Michael MacKenzie's widow was a lady.
There was a chill in the morning air. No one had offered her coffee. Clasping her hands tight in her lap, Nora peered from behind her mask to study the men and women who would decide her fate. A few had the air of pompous boredom that she long ago discovered hid incompetence. She recognized those that had played the role of her supporter and those that had taken the attack. There were more of them. A few she had talked to daily for almost a year. Today, however, she was universally ignored. Dismissal was clear in their eyes.
Ralph Bellows sat across the length of polished wood, his gray hair flowing from his broad forehead like a periwig. Nora knew he would act as judge. Bellows relished the role. A clearing of his throat served as a gavel, and he called his court to order with a firm "Shall we begin?"
Nora's shoulders tensed. She had no doubt Mike would be found guilty in the eyes of his peers. He had committed the worst of crimes: bungled his finances, destroyed his businesses, and left them without a profit. Yet the one to serve the sentence would be her.
Straightening in the stiff leather chair, Nora appeared calm and dignified. She offered Bellows a gracious nod.
well, we are not strangers in this room. We have endured together a long, arduous year. May I address you as Nora?"
His smile revealed teeth the color of ripe bananas. Nora nodded again. They'd endured? Nora clenched her hands in bitterness. She had endured. They'd conducted business as usual. No matter how disastrous her estate, they would be assured their pay before creditors got a dime.
"The untangling of Mike's business dealings has been more complicated than we originally envisioned," Bellows began gravely. "Our work is not yet completed."
A short gasp escaped from Nora's lips. It had been a year since Mike's suicide. What more could they need to accomplish before settling the estate?
Reading her frustration, Bellows continued in a conciliatory tone. "No one realizes the futility of further delays more than I. However, to put it bluntly, Michael MacKenzie left behind a mess. No one, least of all family, understood the extent of his holdings. We are doing our best to put together the pieces of his myriad dealings, but some critical bits of information are still missing."
From under his bushy brows, Bellows's pale eyes searched hers intently. Nora felt like the prey of an owl. She paled, yet steadfastly returned his gaze with the wide eyes of innocence.
You bet they're missing, she thought from behind her mask. There wasn't a man or a woman at this table who hadn't rifled through every nook and cranny she and Mike possessed. Who hadn't read every personal letter they could find. Who had bothered to ask her permission. There was a frenzy to their search that raised her suspicions and her ire. Even the break-in at her New York apartment disturbed her less than their blatant disregard. Nothing had been stolen, but Mike's desk had been ripped apart.
"Don't trust anyone." Those were Mike's final words to her, whispered urgently the night before he died. Nora had heeded his words and hidden every paper she could find on his desk.
Bellows cleared his throat again with a frustrated staccato, glancing at the papers on the table. When he looked up again, his gray eyes were as cold as the rainy sky outside the windows.
"Even without further information the result is clear." Bellows tapped the report with finality.
Nora leaned forward, focused on his lips.
"The bottom line is, the estate is bankrupt."
Nora blinked. "You mean his business is bankrupt."
Bellows screwed up his lips under his red bulbous nose.
"No, I mean you are bankrupt. For all that we loved Mike, he did a stupid thing. He made himself personally liable for his debts."
Bellows's voice ended abruptly, leaving everyone to finish his thought: and then blew his brains out before pulling himself out.
"What do you mean, personally liable?" Nora asked, reality taking hold. She was fighting to maintain her composure. Suddenly she loathed the alcoholic nose that Bellows peered over.
"Mr. MacKenzie put up his personal estate as collateral for loans," contributed a young clean-shaven accountant. His voice shook and he fingered his papers nervously. "The family's seventy-five percent stake in MacCorp., personal propertyhe pledged it all. Mike was so deep in hock he was unable to make the repayment schedule."
Nora did not acknowledge him. The family's stock? What family? There was only her. She had a name. Nora remained rigid in her chair and continued to stare at Bellows.
"Ralph, what does this mean to me?"
Bellows's features softened as he laced his fingers together and rested them on the stack of papers before him. Nora wasn't fooled for a moment. Bellows had nothing to lose by offering kindness now.
"What this means, Nora, is that Mike left you with nothing. Worse than nothing, actually. We have paid back as many of the loans as possible, but you still owe a great deal of money. You will have to sell everythingand even then you may still owe."
"Owe? If everything is gone, how will I pay it?" Her voice was a whisper.
"The company is in receivership. Your goods will be auctioned off in October by a reputable house. Fortunately, your antiques and art collections are quite rare. Properly managed, the auction should bring in a satisfactory amount."
"Enough to pay off the debts?"
"Hopefully. With enough left over to give you a start. These are estimates," he said, opening up the collection of papers in front of him. Immediately, the dozen other people opened their packets. With dread, Nora followed suit.
"If you direct your attention to the bottom of page three," Bellows continued, "you will see the amount I believe we can salvage for you from the estate."
Nora quickly flipped to the third page and read, then reread the dollar figure they had allotted for her. It was less than she had imagined, and she had imagined a scant amount. Surely there was an error somewhere. She scanned the other fourteen pages of notes carefully, ignoring the impatient sighs and tapping fingers. The report listed, with astonishing accuracy, her personal possessions and their estimated worth: houses, cars, jewels, furniture, art.
"You even list the few personal possessions that I brought to the marriage." She indicated the report with an exasperated flip of her hand. "My grandmother's jewelry, for example. It may not be worth much monetarily, but to me" her voice almost cracked and she swallowed hard "to me, they are priceless."
"I'm sorry, Nora." Bellows shrugged, running his fingers down the columns. "Maybe we could take out a few
less valuable items." He seemed embarrassed now.
"This is wrong," Nora said, deeply feeling the injustice.
"It was Mike's doing."
A familiar ache gripped Nora's heart. Her feelings lay somewhere between anguish and anger. They made her breath come short. Calm yourself, she told herself. Get through this last step and you will be free from the lot of them forever.
"I don't blame Mike," she lied. "What I don't understand is how he could appear so successful and suddenly I learn he is bankrupt. How did it get this bad?"
Bellows's look implied all that he did not say, all that everyone already knew. That she had left Mike. How, their eyes accused, could she expect to know about Mike's finances after she walked out on him? Left him in his hour of need? Nora knew they saw her as the New York socialite who collected antiques and art. A pretty blonde who couldn't be bothered with bank balances.
Nora looked at the accusing eyes and despite her vow, shrank inward. Guilt was an unwelcome shroud for a widow to bear. It kept one mourning without resolved grief. Deserved or not, it was a heavy burden. If Mike had died naturally, perhaps she could have escaped it. He had chosen suicide, however, and with that final act he had completed his seven-year campaign of verbal abuse. Nora's hand moved to rub her brow, but she arrested the gesture in her lap. She tightened her fists and raised her chin.
"He took a new direction in his last year," Bellows explained.
"This 'new direction' is not detailed in the report," she replied icily.
Bellows raised his brows. "Quite right. The purpose of today's meeting is only to explain the status of your estate prior to settlement."
"Since my money seems to have been lost as well, I should think I am entitled to a full disclosure."
Mumbles sounded at the table. Nora still focused on Bellows. Always work at the top, Mike had said.
She sensed a new appreciation in Bellows's eyes. Up until now, her encounters with him had been purely social. Despite his gentlemanly facade, his hand always seemed to find a way to her waist. In what might have appeared a mindless motion, the broad expanse of his palm would caress her ribs while his long thumb would nudge upward toward her breast. Beneath his fastidious apparel, Nora always found him dirty.
"I'd be happy to set up a private meeting to outline Mike's past projects, Nora." Bellows's voice projected the cooperating attorney. His rheumy eyes spoke of another project he had in mind, and to emphasize his intent, he presented her with a magnanimous smile. Be good to me, the smile said, and I'll be good to you.
"That won't be necessary," she replied firmly. "A report in the mail should suffice. I plan to leave town as soon as possible."
Thirteen pairs of brows rose in unison.
"Leave? To where, my dear?" Bellows asked.
Truth was, she didn't know. Anywhere but here, Nora thought, her gaze traveling across the impassive faces surrounding her. She'd had enough of false friendship. She'd had her fill of dismissal and rejection, of sympathy with strings attached. Somewhere along the line, she'd lost sight of her values. Looking back, she couldn't remember what it was she had hoped to achieve by thirty.
This was a turning point. Nora wanted to go somewhere she could work hard, earn her own living, and reevaluate her values. Somewhere, she wanted to build a life that mattered.
Nora's hand stilled in her lap. An entry from the report came to mind with a flash. Such a place existed, she realized, a smile escaping from her rigid control. Excitement bubbled. She knew exactly where that place was.
Leaving Bellows's question hanging, Nora dove into the report and began flipping quickly through the pages.
"I assure you we went through everything thoroughly," an attractive woman lawyer commented.
"I'm sure you have," Nora replied tersely. She remembered the blonde from the "attack" team. Nora ran her finger along the listed property, unconsciously holding her breath. When she spotted what she was looking for, her breath exhaled with a satisfying gasp. The estimated value was fairly low.
"Looking for anything in particular?" asked Bellows, his interest clearly piqued.
"Just one moment, please," Nora replied without looking up. Grabbing a pencil she made notations, referring back to page three. Always facile with numbers, Nora reviewed the estimated values, made a few more notations, and calculated an alternative plan.
When she looked up again, the twelve lawyers and accountants were slouched in their chairs in exaggerated poses of boredom. Their noses seemed to have grown inches, the way they peered down at her from behind them. Nora coughed back a laugh. Only Bellows viewed her with intense interest.
"I'll take the Vermont farm instead of the cash," she announced.
Twelve chairs creaked as the men and women snapped to attention and shuffled through their papers.
Bellows seemed both amused and curious. "The sheep farm? But why, Nora? It is a small operation, risky at best. Its only purpose for Mike was as a tax write-off."
"All true," she replied, holding back her excitement.
His eyes narrowed. "I believe the house is unfinished. Have you and Mike ever lived there?"
"No," she said emphatically. "Never."
"I see," he replied, leaning back in his chair. His eyes never left her. "Then why the farm?"
"Why not?" She wasn't about to confide in Uncle Ralph. "I want it," she said bluntly, "and according to my calculations, I can have itplus enough to establish an interest-bearing account of about three hundred thousand dollars. That should give me enough to eke out a living." "A meager living, to be sure."
"I'm not afraid," she lied again. As he went through her figures, adding a few of his own, Nora maintained her icy composure. She could not let on how much this meant to her.
"I don't want any surprises," she said. "Not without a cushion. I assume your calculations are correct?"
An indignant harumph sounded from her left as an accountant's face mottled. Nora focused only on Bellows. This was between the two of them, Mike's personal lawyer and his widow.
She could sense the growing surprise and antagonism of the men and women around her. These were Mike's people. She, his wife, was the outsider.
And that was the way she wanted it. Her foot began tapping beneath the heavy table as she put together the pieces of her new, even radical plan. In her mind she could envision the farm the last time she saw itwhat was itthree years ago? The verdant lushness of the Vermont mountains, the fat red raspberries hanging ripe on the bush, fields of oxeye daisies, Queen Anne's lace and clover sprouting up between rocks, dark woods with cool breezes, and the bucolic bleating of the lambs. It could all be hers. She could make something of her life there, she felt sure of it.
A heady kind of enthusiasm raced through her no-longer-complacent veins. An excitement that ran slipshod over her rational constraints, delivering a new confidence. The kind that in the past had inspired her to impulsively buy a piece of furniture, or a painting. Though based on knowledge, the decision was instinct. She was born with what some people called "a knack."
She had to have the farm, she thought with quiet desperation. It was right. And it was all she had to hold on to.
Bellows cleared his throat, once again bringing his court into session. "Well," he said with both resignation and mirth. "I see no reason why this can't be arranged."
Amid the grumbling of disapproval at the table, Nora beamed.