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Perceptions didn't always reveal the truth about a man. What he appeared to be and what he was could be two different things. Surface and depth. The surface reflected the shell of the man, what he looked like, what he said, what he did. Underneath that, a well of secrets lurked. Painful secrets that death exposed. Ruthless and indifferent in life. Human in death. That about summed up Reginald Adair. Few had liked him, but then, no one had really known him, had they?
Carson Adair marveled over how little he knew his father when he thought he had. He spread his hands over the top of the desk. How would his father have felt sitting here? Powerful. Accomplished.
Carson would not have associated that word with his dad prior to his murder. But a gnawing curiosity had nestled inside him. If his father hadn't been who he'd thought, who had he been?
He imagined what it must have been like to be the man at the top of a thriving telecommunications corporation, running the competition into the ground, doing whatever it took to keep shareholders happy and revenue flowing. Not caring about anything or anyone else. Maybe he rarely noticed the spectacular view of downtown San Diego. Maybe he rarely enjoyed a lunch or dinner for anything other than a business meeting.
His wife. His kids. He couldn't have had many fond memories about them. Turns out Reginald had been consumed by the kidnapping of his first-born son. Indifference had hidden his grief. No one had known about Jackson Adair until the reading of the will. Carson had seen the reports from his father's secret investigation.
Lost in what it must have been like to be Reginald Adair, he still couldn't say he knew or even liked his father. He definitely couldn't say he loved him. But he was moved by the discovery that the man had real emotions, that he'd carried such a weighty burden all these yearsand kept to himself. It explained so much. That his father was capable of love, that he must have loved his firstborn son and his first wife, two things he'd never mentioned to anyone. Carson wondered if Patsy would have been a different woman had she been able to make Reginald love her the way he must have loved his first family. Had his aloofness led to her killing him? It would appear so, since she had fled the country and was the prime suspect in his murder case.
Although his father was dead, Carson was getting to know him for the first time. That dredged up so much conflict in him. Until now, he'd strove to be everything his father wasn't. Do and be whatever earned his father's disapproval. Now he felt a connection to the man. He cared about giving him justice and finding the son who had been taken from him. And in the process, knowing him as he'd never had.
People said he was just like Reginald and that had always annoyed him. Maybe it still did. Back then, he'd wanted to get as far away from his father and his empire as he could. His mother, too, but as a boy, it had been his father's approval he'd craved. To get that, he'd have had to devote his life to his father's dream. AdAir Corp. When he'd grown into a young man, he'd done the opposite. He'd rebelled and joined the Marines. His father had been so angry when he'd informed him. And Carson had been nothing but glad that he was mad.
His gaze fell to a photograph facing him on the desk. It was of Landry and Whit with Reginald. They stood in this office, smiling with warmth Carson would have called fake before learning about Jackson. Something in the background caught his eye. It was a blue ceramic bowl on top of a wood-and-glass display case along the wall next to the door. Carson looked there. The cabinet was there but the ceramic bowl was missing. The picture looked fairly recent.
Where was the bowl, and was there anything significant about it?
"Meeting's started, Mr. Adair."
Whit's secretary stood in the doorway of the office.
Carson stood. "Right. Thanks." He'd lost track of time. "You have the envelope?"
"Yes, sir. I'll wait for your call."
"Thanks." He hoped he wouldn't have to call her.
Taking the papers he'd been studying earlier, he left the office and walked down the bright and wide hallway of AdAir Corp with a limp that embittered him when he dwelled on it too much. Nothing like facing the rest of his life with a constant reminder of what he could no longer have. Mobility. A career in the Marines.
Reaching the conference room where the mediation meeting had been scheduled regarding Patsy's dispute over his father's will, Carson entered. Everyone was already there: his brother, Whit, sister, Landry, Georgia Mason and her stepmother, Ruby, and two attorneysone Patsy had apparently hired on her own to represent her dispute, and the mediation lawyer. Despite the crowd of people, Carson noticed Georgia right away. Long, luxurious, dark red hair cascaded over her shoulders. The pencil skirt trimmed her curvy waist and her long, slender legs were bare from the knees down. Her dark green eyes glared at him from across the room. Everyone else had taken a seat but her. She was still mad at him. Mad at every Adair in the room. But her beauty struck him just as much as the first time he'd seen her. The sight of her really got his testosterone going.
"Glad you could make it," she said.
"Sorry. I got hung up in Reginald's office." He limped over to her. It wasn't a horrible limp, beastly but only a little.
After nodding to Whit and Landry, he put the papers facedown on the table, then went to Georgia and pulled out a chair for her.
Her eyes traveled down and then rose up his body, curious about his limp and then all fire when she met his eyes.
"Have a seat, Ms. Mason," he said cajolingly.
"After you, Mr. Adair." She didn't reciprocate his tone, hers having a decided edge.
He grinned and saw Ruby smiling at the exchange. At sixty, she was a little thin but attractive with light brown hair and hazel eyes. She looked nothing like Georgia, although Georgia would probably age just as gracefully as Ruby had.
"Mrs. Mason," he said.
After acknowledging the mediation lawyer, he saved his next greeting for last. It was Patsy's attorney. Before she'd left the country, she'd given him explicit instructions regarding her dispute over Ruby Mason's inheritance and the authority to sign on her behalf. Carson planned to squash her intentions today.
The beady-eyed, short, stocky, balding attorney gave a nod in greeting.
"Shall we begin?" the mediation lawyer said. His name was Schmidt. He was skinny and had all of his blond hair. Georgia had chosen him, and the rest of them had agreed to meet to sign an agreement today, to settle this dispute outside of court.
Carson waited for Georgia to sit down.
When she did, he took the seat beside her, seeing how she sat straighter, ramrod stiff. She didn't like him at first sight, and his desire to charm her went beyond what would be required for a casual acquaintance. Luckily, he had enough of his father in him to maintain a business sense and stay professional.
"We're here today because Patsy Adair doesn't think Ruby Mason should have any share of the inheritance," the mediator started things off.
"I believe I speak for my brother and sister when I say Ruby is entitled to whatever our father decided to give her." Carson took over the meeting.
Schmidt looked at him, not approving but not stopping him.
"He obviously wanted her to have something," Carson continued, "so I propose we make this meeting short and simple and agree that it isn't our right to change his will. Are we all in agreement?"
"I am," Whit said. Dressed in a dark suit, impeccably trimmed and looking the part of Adair's new leader, he sat in a confident pose.
"I am," Landry echoed. She seemed loopy, as if she'd taken something before coming here. Ever since their father's murder and especially the announcement that Patsy was his suspected murderer, she had not been herself. Carson was getting worried about her.
"Speaking on behalf of Patsy," Patsy's attorney said.
"You'll sign this agreement or I'll contest her share. I've already spoken with Whit and Landry. They support my decision."
"You can't do that," Patsy's attorney said. "All parties have to be present and sign a mediation agreement. Patsy would never agree to this." He swung his hand toward the document on the table in front of Schmidt.
"Yes, I can contest her share. She is suspected of murder, as you are well aware."
"Being suspect and proven guilty are two different things, Mr. Adair. I won't sign any agreement that gives Ms. Mason any portion of Reginald's will."
"You're authorized to sign on her behalf."
"Yes, I am." He wore a smug look. He had the power.
All right. Carson preferred to keep this civil, but Patsy's attorney gave him no choice. "Might I have a word with you in private?"
Carson stood. He extended his hand to the conference room door.
Patsy's attorney's smug look changed to confusion.
"Anything you have to say should be said in front of everyone," Schmidt said.
"I'm sure you won't want me to say what I have to say in public."
Patsy's attorney's eyes twitched in question. And then concern. A guilty person always knew when their crimes had been discovered.
Whit looked at him with a nod of encouragement, and Landry looked as if she didn't care. She probably just wanted to get out of here.
When the attorney didn't move, Carson said, "I'm more than happy to oblige Mr. Schmidt."
Patsy's attorney stood. "Excuse us a moment."
Carson led him across the hall to a smaller conference room he'd had one of the assistants reserve. On the table was an envelope that contained copies of what Whit's assistant had.
"I hired a private investigator to obtain these photographs. If you don't sign on behalf of Patsy, they go to your wife."
Patsy's attorney looked from the envelope to Carson. Then he snatched up the envelope and slid out the first of several photos. He didn't look at any others. The first one was enough, as Carson suspected it would be.
"What kind of businessman are you?" Patsy's attorney asked.
"I'm not." He'd run as far and fast away from business as he could. He didn't even work for AdAir Corp. And he didn't like feeling as though he was acting just like his father, using blackmail to get what he wanted. His only justification was that he had to right a wrong, Patsy's wrong, and to honor his father's wishes. For that, he'd do anything. This was a quick and sure way to see that Patsy no longer poisoned his family.
"You think you can get away with blackmailing me?"
"I prefer to think of it as blackmailing my mother."
Patsy's attorney scoffed. "Your family is despicable."
"I'll be sure to tell Patsy that if she isn't guilty of murdering my father." Otherwise, he'd have to agree that at least his mother was despicable.
"Your mother has a legitimate reason for disputing Reginald's will."
"Jealousy is not a legitimate reason." Carson took a step closer. Taller than him by six inches or more, he loomed over him. "Sign the agreement or your wife finds out about your double life."
"Don't you care at all about your own mother's wishes?"
He shook his head. "Not in the least."
"This is preposterous!" Patsy's attorney slapped the envelope down onto the table. "I won't stand for it."
"Your choice." Carson pressed the speaker on the phone and called Whit's assistant.
"Yes, Mr. Adair," she said.
"Go ahead and deliver the package."
"Right away, sir."
"Wait!" Patsy's attorney jerked forward toward the phone as though the assistant could see him try to stop her. "That won't be necessary."
"You'll sign?" Carson asked.
"Never mind, Carol. Wait for me to stop by your desk."
Carson ended the call. "If you don't go into that conference room and sign the agreement, I will have those photos couriered to your wife this morning."
"You're as ruthless as your father."
Carson had never blackmailed anyone before, and it didn't come easy to him. "Perhaps you should be more particular about the clients you represent." He stepped toward the door.
"What about these?" Patsy's attorney gestured to the photos.
"They're yours. The originals will go into my personal safe."
Anger flared from the attorney's eyes. He picked up the envelope and took it with him.
Back in the conference room, Schmidt looked suspicious. Whit already knew what this was about.
"I signed the agreement, Carson." Landry stood. "I'm going to go now."
"Okay, I'll talk to you soon."
She left the room while Schmidt, Georgia and Ruby watched Patsy's attorney stuff the envelope into his briefcase.
"We're all ready to sign the agreement."
Georgia looked stunned, gaping at him, no doubt wondering how he'd done it. And why.
Patsy's attorney signed the agreement and stood, picking up his briefcase. With a last glare at Carson, he stormed out of the conference room.
"What did you do?" Georgia asked.
"That's between me and him." He handed Ruby a pen. "It's not important anymore. What's important is that he signed."
She took it and signed the mediation agreement.
"I'll let you know when the transaction takes place," Carson said.
She smiled warmly up at him. "Thank you, Mr. Adair. Your father would be so proud."
He grunted derisively. "You have no idea."
You're as ruthless as your father. He'd done whatever was necessary to repair the damage Patsy had left behind when she'd fled. He wasn't happy about having to use a strong arm to make her attorney do the right thing.
Whit came up behind him with a pat on his back. "Thanks for taking care of this, Carson."
"No problem. Hey." He stopped Whit from leaving. He leaned over and picked up the papers. "Did you know about these?" He showed the pages to Whit, who studied them.
"There's contact and background information on Reginald's housekeeper and the neighbor. He must have gotten this just before he died."
"And planned to go to North Carolina to talk to them?"
"That would be my guess."
Whit put the papers down and looked at Carson. "Are you going to check it out?"
"Police report said they talked to everyone, but maybe Dad had a reason for talking to them again."
"I'd have to agree with that," Whit said. "Where'd you find these?"