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Six years later
"Mother, I'm never getting married again," Madeline vowed with a roll of her eyes. "Now, will you just drop it?"
Cecelia Murray-Anderson-Farris-and a few more hyphenated names that currently ended at Howardgave her daughter an arctic smile while she reached for her glass of wine. "Don't be silly, child. Of course you'll remarry. You're too beautiful to waste away on the shelf. We both are." She looped a lock of hair behind her ears to give anyone who was looking, and there were quite a few, a good look at the sizable diamond-studded earrings she wore.
Madeline sighed instead of laughed even though nothing tickled her more than her mother's bougie vanity.
"Don't give me that look, little girl," Cecelia snapped, reading her daughter like the open book she was. "With careful selection, marriage is nothing more than business contract and transaction. Men want something nice and pretty on their arms and a brat or two until the next showroom model turns eighteen. We simply provide a service. Nothing more," she said.
"That might have been so once upon a time," Madeline replied, "but I'm officially retired. Russell left me and the kids more than I'll ever need."
"There's no such thing as enough," her mother scolded without missing a beat. Cecelia's disappointment in Madeline radiated from her body like a nuclear missile. Another sip of her wine and then, "You can't tell me this little hobby of yours isn't going to cost a pretty penny, possibly even put your whole nest egg at risk?"
Hobby. Madeline chomped down her salad so hard her teeth rattled.
"Now, don't get me wrong" Cecelia smiled, sensing she'd hit a nerve "I've always thought you had talent but the fashion industry is like diving into a pool of piranhas. Why risk everything for a a"
"A dream?" Madeline supplied, her anger festering. "You ask why and I ask why not?" She leaned forward in her chair to hiss, "Pardon me if I want to be more than just a pretty face on some rich man's arm."
Cecelia arched one delicately groomed eyebrow in reprimand at Madeline's tone.
Chastised, Madeline cleared her throat and apologized.
Silent, her mother sipped her wine while she stared at her.
Madeline shifted in her seat until she couldn't stand it anymore. "I appreciate everything you've taught me, Mother."
"Apparently not," Cecelia seethed. "But children have been known to rebel since the dawn of time. I guess you're entitled to your first temper-tantrum."
Madeline longed to remind her mother that at thirty-one she was hardly a child. To do so would have been just as effective as trying to kill a lion with a fly swatter.
"Do your little fashion line," her mother said. "And when you lose your butt, as well as your children's financial security, don't say I didn't warn you."
"I knew I could count on you for your support."
Her mother rolled her eyes at the barb. "You know, it scares me how alike we are," she said.
Madeline nearly choked on her meal. She was not like her mother. She'd gone through great pains to make sure of that.
"Instead of fashion, I wanted to dabble in acting."
"Really?" Madeline questioned, surprised.
"What? You think you're the only one who can dream?"
"No. It's just Well, what happened?"
Cecelia lowered her fork, having already digested her maximum allowance of six bites of food. She shrugged indifferently. "I was nineteen, thinking I knew better than my mother and struck out for the bright lights of Hollywood. There were more rich men interested in casting me on a couch than any film projects. I lasted six months, but managed to snag an engagement from an up-and-coming director. Of course, he died two months later from a drug overdose, but he came so close to being my second husband," she said.
Madeline just shook her head. Her mother was a deep well of amazing stories. Getting an accurate count of Cecelia's husbands was just as hard as discovering her true age.
"Six months," Cecelia said after another sip of her wine. "Six months and you'll be running back to me with your tail tucked between your legs."
Madeline remained silent, praying that their weekly lunch date neared its end. "Are you coming to Russ and Ariel's Thanksgiving school play?"
Cecelia shuddered. No doubt the idea of spending an evening watching a bunch of tone-deaf children singing holiday tunes would be just as horrific as buying her winter wardrobe at Wal-Mart.
"Maybe next time," she said with a painted on smile, and reached for her clutch bag. "I almost forgot. Guess who I saw the other day."
"I give up. Who?" Madeline also reached for her purse.
The groan was out of her mouth before she could think, and Cecelia's eyes narrowed to half their size. "He's a good catch."
"Mother, I'm not interested."
"Made number forty-three on Forbes's richest entertainers."
"Then you take him," Madeline snapped. "I told you. I'm not getting married again."
"He likes you. He makes a point of asking about you every time I see him," Cecelia said.
"That's because he gets off thinking he can have something, or someone, that used to belong to Russell. You remember how competitive those two were."
"Who care's about why? He's loaded."
"My answer is still 'no.'And if by some strange miracle I did decide to get married again, the last thing I'd do was marry a man who reminded me of Russell Stone."
Hip-hop and fashion mogul, Christopher Stone nursed his third drink before noon. Some people needed a bowl of Wheaties, he needed a half a bottle of Crown Royal to get the creative juices flowing. In the evening time, his addictions required something much stronger.
He didn't care. He welcomed anything that numbed his emotions. The direct line on his office phone rang and despite his sluggish thoughts, his intuition told him the unwanted caller was his wife or his new gold-digging playmate he'd met down in Atlanta last weekend.
Either one, undoubtedly, was calling for money.
Christopher drew a deep breath and picked up before the call went to voice mail. "Stone," he said.
"Christopher Stone?" a man asked.
"Who else?" Christopher snapped, annoyed. What idiot didn't know his baby brother has been missing for six years? Missing, not dead, he emphasized. Russell was too good a pilot to go down in a storm and his body had never been found. In Christopher's book, that left the playing field wide-open.
"Sorry, Mr. Stone," the unidentified caller said in an irritating gravel. "I wanted to make sure I was talking to the right man."
"Talking or wasting my time?" Christopher drained the rest of his drink. "State your business. I'm a busy man."
"Terry Shaw, private detective. We met about five years ago?"
Silence crackled over the line.
"You hired me to look for your brother," Shaw went on.
Straightening in his chair, Christopher's alcohol-induced fog lifted. "What you got? You found something?" No, he didn't recall meeting the investigator. He'd hired so many, but if there'd been some break in the case, if Russell had been found
"We've found, my assistant and I, someone we think you'll want to talk to."
"You think or you know?" he tested, this thread of excitement already shredding. The last thing he needed was another private dick peddling false hope. It was painful enough getting rid of the last one that came snooping around last year.
Money brought out the worst in people and the ten million dollar reward he'd advertised for information that led to his brother's body or whereabouts had brought out every con artist and flimflam man east of the Mississippi.
Russell Stone sightings were only topped, narrowly, by sightings of Elvis Presley. Witnesses claimed to have spotted Russell in Manhattan, Albuquerque and even Kalamazoo. It all amounted to a pathetic game of 'Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?'The wasted money wasn't important, but the time and pain had slowly transformed Christopher into a bitter man.
A man, most of the time, he didn't recognize.
"I know, Mr. Stone. I'd like to set a meeting up with you."
Another wave of silence buzzed over the line while Christopher weighed whether he could ride another roller coaster of emotions that would eventually end in disappointment.
Christopher sighed and reached for the bottle of whiskey again. "Yes, yes. When do you want to come in?"
"I can be on a plane first thing in the morning and in your officesay, about eleven?"
"Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I won't be in the office, but you can swing by my house," he said, certain that it wouldn't take more than a few minutes to deal with Mr. Shaw. What difference did it make? The guy would, undoubtedly, be another waste of time.