Red or gold?
My entire livelihood could hang in the balance of this one simple choice. How will the Collins Group see me as I make my pitch? Sharp? Powerful? Trustworthy? All of the above? That’s what I’m aiming for. Normally, I wouldn’t put much stock into the color of a tie but today I will. There isn’t any detail too small to fret over.
If I remember correctly, red symbolizes passion. It’s an intriguing option. I want the Collins Group to know that I’m passionate about their business and about their investments. But gold symbolizes wealth. And isn’t that what this is all about? Gold might make all the difference when it comes to investing millions of their pounds through our firm, Montgomery & Lewis.
My hand squeezes around gold instinctively. Gold is good. Gold is safe. Gold has been the right choice ever since Trevor bailed me out of an Australian jail cell. All I had going for me was a busted lip, a surfboard, and a punk-ass attitude. He took me under his wing all those years ago and now he’s letting me fly with this Collins Group deal. I hope to God I don’t crash and burn.
Gold it is.
I pull off the towel that’s been hanging loosely around my waist and put on my lucky Armani suit. I’m not taking chances today.
My freshly shined shoes gleam against the glass staircase as I step down to the first floor of my penthouse. One quick glance outside and I see that the weather is fucking miserable, even for London. Summertime, my arse. I tap out a quick text to my associate Victoria, letting her know I’m on my way.
Just in time, the intercom chimes. My driver is waiting in the garage. I grab my briefcase off the foyer table and go to press the call button on the lift but stop short when my phone vibrates. It’s Trevor but not his mobile. The call’s coming from the home he shares with his wife, my Aunt Anna, all the way out in Wells. I bite the inside of my cheek. Trevor’s got to be on his way to the office by now. There’s no way he’d miss this meeting with the Collins Group, even if his life depended on it. That can only mean one thing.
“Good morning, Anna. What can I do for you?” I answer and press the call button on the lift. The doors open at once.
The caller clears his throat and in a Scottish accent asks, “Mr. Lewis?”
I stand, motionless, as the lift waits for me. “Yes?”
“It’s me, sir. Mr. McHenry from your aunt’s estate.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. McHenry. What is it?”
“It’s Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery, sir.”
Panic spreads through my chest. I drop the formality. “What is it, Hamish?”
“They’re gone, Reid. Trevor and Anna are dead.”
One word explodes in my head and brings me to my knees, hard against the tile floor. Alone. All of my family is gone. I’m entirely on my own.
“Non-fat cinnamon dolce latte!” I holler over the steamer to the pack of customers circling like sharks at the smell of blood. I slip the cup into a sleeve and hand it over to the largest shark in the pack. He’s gigantic with a shaved head and neck tats. The only ink I have are some smudges from the matte paperback I was reading on my break. It’s one of the many reasons I have a soft spot in my heart for hardbound books, especially in this humidity.
The guy swipes it off the counter and pushes through the yoga moms and men in skinny ties like he’s in some biker bar. They all look up from their phones, stunned. Even I’m shaken and offer a less than compelling, “Come again.”
Freddie slides beside me at the espresso machine. “How are they?”
“Rabid,” I answer as I untie my apron like I’m breaking free from a straitjacket underwater.
“Flee my darling, while you still can,” he says and grabs for the next marked-up cup.
I don’t even say goodbye—he’ll forgive me for it—and dart into the back room to clock out. I sling my unreasonably heavy backpack over my shoulder and am out on the street unlocking my bike in less than a minute. It’s not that I don’t like work, I do. But it’s a gorgeous day in San Diego and I’m caught up on all on my graduate program work. The weekend is mine and the possibilities are endless. As I leisurely ride to the apartment I share with my best friend Julie, I make a mental list of all the things I want to do. Hit up the new taqueria I’ve got that coupon for. Play pick-up volleyball at Mission Beach. Ride over to my favorite used bookstore and dig through their free bin. It’s been at least two weeks since I’ve been there and I’ve shaved off at least three books from my mountain since then. I’m due for some more freebies.
When I get home, Julie’s doing the dishes and singing along to a Rihanna song we both love. I change into some weathered flip-flops that I keep near the door and toss my sunglasses on the kitchen counter.
“Heyyyy,” I sing, weaving into the song.
“Hey, baby girl,” Julie says as she dries off the best skillet we own.
I grab a handful of grapes out of the fridge and start sifting through the mail that’s been piling up. Between takeout menus and junk flyers, there’s a pamphlet from the Fitzwilliam Library. It’s the second one I’ve received. My breath goes short while I let myself imagine interning there for a full five seconds. When my five seconds are up, I toss it, along with everything else, into the recycling bin. My brush with the Fitzwilliam Library is over.
Another Rhianna song comes on and we both sing way too loud and off-key as dance around the kitchen. It’s just what we do. No shame, no embarrassment.
After our performance, my phone starts ringing in my bag. When I pull it out and see who’s calling, I end up doing a double take. The unusual string of numbers starts with a distinct 44. England.
Could it be him?
It’s my first thought, and the question comes from somewhere deep within me, a place where hope for an answer was squashed long ago. Those double fours resurfaced it faster than I can even process. Because the truth is, my father—a man I’ve never met and don’t even know the identity of—most likely lives in England.
It can’t be my father. It would never be him. I convince myself quickly. My mom made sure of it.
And then I think of my grandfather, the man who helped raise me when I was young, and true worry strikes. I’m struck with a terrible feeling.
“Something wrong?” Julie asks as I hold the phone in my hands, hesitating.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
I was born near Wells, England and spent my first seven years living under my grandfather’s roof, before my mom and I moved to California. We haven’t been back since. What’s worse is that we haven’t seen or spoken to her father in all that time. Nearly twenty years. Panic roots itself right into the center of my chest and I can’t get enough oxygen from my short and shallow breaths.
“Are you going to answer it?” Julie asks.
Instead of responding to her, I swipe across my phone to answer the call before I lose it to voicemail.
“Hello?” I sound seven years old again.
“Hello, may I speak to Miss Cara Montgomery?” an Englishman asks. He doesn’t sound like my grandfather. At least not the way I remember him.
“Speaking,” I croak out.
“My name is Thomas Leeds. I’m a solicitor for Trevor Montgomery, your grandfather.”
“Hi,” I respond, not sure what I’m about to hear, but feeling dread right down to my toes. I take a seat on the raggedy futon we’ve had since undergrad and pull in the deepest breath I can manage.
He starts to speak and words like regret, Trevor, Anna, car accident, and funeral pop out.
My bottom lip begins to tremble and my sight clouds over.
“You are one of the beneficiaries of their estate, Miss Montgomery.”
“What is it?” Julie whispers. I hadn’t even noticed that she’s sitting next to me with her arm around my shoulders.
I shake my head in response.
Mr. Leeds goes on. “Your grandfather was well prepared and organized. He insisted that if you return to England for his funeral your travel expenses are to be covered, and the same goes for any travel companions. It was his hope that you would return.”
“Okay,” I say, too stunned to come up with something more intelligent or concrete.
He goes on with more details about the arrangements, and then ends with, “My assistant will be in touch for the travel arrangements. My deepest condolences.”
The phone goes silent and I drop it on my lap.
“What’s wrong?” Julie asks.
“It’s my grandfather. He died in a car accident, with Anna, his wife.” I struggle over that last word. It’s strange to say it out loud.
A hard pit forms in my stomach and it feels a lot like regret. My mom and I should have spoken to him. I should have done so, even if I didn’t have her blessing. Now I never can.
I know a sob is coming and I try to keep it together, but I’m not sure why. Julie has seen me sob like a blubbering fool while binge watching Grey’s Anatomy.
“Oh no,” Julie says and wraps me in her arms. She knows the whole unfortunate tale—how after my grandmother died, my mom found out her dad had been having an affair with Anna for years. How we left and never looked back.
“Do you think your mom knows that he died? I’m surprised you found out from a stranger,” she remarks.
She’s got a good point. Please, Lord, I hope I’m not the one who has to tell my mom that her father is dead. We have worked so hard to sweep away our past that the idea of lifting up our very lumpy rug scares the shit out of me. Twenty-six is too young to deal with this. “I don’t know. I’ll have to call her.”
“Did you get along with your grandfather before all the drama happened?” Julie asks.
I nibble on my trembling lip while I think about how to answer that question. My grandfather could be so prim and proper, but he was playful with me. He always made me laugh and he always told me that he loved me before bed. He sparked my love of books, reading to me all the time from his library of classics. He’s probably the reason why I’m pursuing a masters in library science. He used to call me his little ballerina, a nickname that I haven’t thought about in years. I cried so hard the day we drove away from him, and I’ve never been as sad as I was when my mom told me we would never go back.
The sob I’ve been holding finally comes and it’s ugly. I melt into Julie’s arms and she lets me cry there for God knows how long.
There are some things I remember really well about living in England, like how apologetic people are, how every meal comes with peas, and how everyone is obsessed with the weather. I’m reminded of this last tidbit on the drive from London to Wells because it’s the primary topic of conversation we’ve been having with our driver through the fog of our exhaustion.
Let’s just say it’s been a long journey since I got the phone call. In two days’ time, Julie and I have gone from San Diego to New York to London in a blur of airport soft pretzels, horrifying turbulence over Greenland, and managing stiff neck pillows as we tried to get any form of sleep.
But all of that air travel feels like warp speed compared to this dreadfully long two-hour car ride. For the past hour, I’ve been keeping myself busy by fiddling with the leggings I’m wearing beneath a pale pink jersey dress, pulling it away from my knee and letting it snap back in place.
Just as I pull the fabric away from my leg again, Julie takes hold of my hand. “Cara, stop. That’s driving me crazy.”
The driver looks back in the rearview mirror and winks at her, clearly happy she said something about it.
“Sorry. I’m just really nervous. What if I’m not welcome?”
“It will be fine.” Ah, Julie. Ever the optimist.
“Well, my mom wasn’t exactly Anna’s biggest fan, I’m not sure her family is going to welcome me with open arms.”
“You never met them?”
Julie’s confidence fades and she takes hold of my hand. “Okay, you’re right, that is a little scary, but I’ve got you. We’ll get through this.”
“I’m glad you came with me, cause I’m not sure I could do this alone. I know it’s not easy for you to take time off from work.”
“Hey, I’ve always got your back, you know that. But I am sorry that your mom couldn’t come.”
“Wouldn’t come,” I correct her.
Julie opens her mouth to respond but gets distracted when we exit off the highway. Oh boy, here we go. My stomach tightens as we pass through the town of Wells. Shops and pubs I totally forgot existed ignite fuzzy memories from when I was little, but the town’s Cathedral sharpens the edges as I remember attending services there, the last being my grandmother’s funeral. I suppose I’ll be back there soon enough for another funeral. The notion is devastating, but I hold my shit together the best that I can. Mostly for the sake of our driver. And Julie. And whoever might be on the receiving end of our arrival.
After weaving through town, we venture back into the country on a narrow two-lane road. The car slows and I know we’re close to the estate. We take a right turn and I squeeze Julie’s hand. She squeezes back as we ascend up a long winding drive.
As the house comes into view, Julie drops my hand and leans forward. “Cara,” she blurts out.
The house is just as I remember, only aged with time. The buff-colored sandstone is a little more washed out and the casement windows are a little dimmer, but the house, which was originally built in the 18th century, and renovated countless times since then, still stands strong.
Julie’s jaw is practically in her lap. Even I’m a bit in awe as if it’s my first time. It is for lack of a better word stately, with a large footprint, three towering stories, and sharp cathedral spires. It massively dwarfs the tiny studio apartment my mom and I moved into when we left England.
We drive past an impeccably manicured lawn, then wind around an old sleepy pond that ripples with each movement of the Queen’s twin swans that call it home. The gravel driveway crunches beneath our tires as we veer toward the side entrance to the house.
When I spot the cars parked along the roundabout, my palms start sweating. I’m about to come face-to-face with my past and I’m terrified.
Julie turns to me and narrows her eyes. “You have so much explaining to do. Look at this place. It’s like Pemberley.”
“I know,” I barely get out. My mouth is uncomfortably dry.
The driver hops out to get our bags and Julie follows with a kind of enthusiasm that kids have when their parents park the car at Disneyland. On the other hand, I stay put, because I’m suddenly a little ill.
I have no idea how I’m going to do this. Maybe I don’t have to. I’m sure the driver is going back to London. But as soon as the thought of fleeing pops into my brain, two familiar people emerge from the house. They’ve aged, but I remember them and even though their names are on the tip of my tongue, a pleasant sensation rushes through my chest. They worked here when I lived here. The woman is a housekeeper and the man sort of manages things, indoors and out. They’re married too.
“McHenry. Mr. and Mrs. McHenry,” I remember and whisper to myself. A huge sense of relief washes through me. Feeling a little silly for being so worried, I pry myself out of the car. How bad could it be? After all, these people had once been like family to me, especially Mrs. McHenry. She was more like a grandmother than my own gran was.
Their faces light up as I approach them.
“Cara?” Mrs. McHenry asks with a Scottish accent and smiles brightly.
“Hi, Mrs. McHenry, right?”
She nods and pulls me into a long hug while Mr. McHenry pats me lightly on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you, dear,” she whispers in my ear and then leans back to look at me. Her gaze is full of love and tears well in my eyes. Hers do the same and she wipes them away with a crumpled tissue. “Your mother?” she asks and looks around.
I shake my head. Her face drops into a deeper frown and I place a gentle hand on her shoulder. “She couldn’t leave work, and she—”
“You don’t have to tell me, dear. I know how your mum felt about things.”
Relief settles in. I’m glad she understands.
“This is my friend, Juliana Rodriguez. I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead and tell you that she was accompanying me.”
"No worries at all, dear, there's plenty of room," Mrs. McHenry says in all seriousness. “As you may recall, this house has twenty-two guest rooms.”
“Whoa,” Julie whispers.
“Julie, this is Mr. and Mrs. McHenry. They run things around here.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m sorry for your loss,” Julie says. They all shake hands and we make small talk about our journey.
“Let’s get you settled in before Mr. Lewis arrives,” Mrs. McHenry says.
“Mr. Lewis?” I ask.
She pauses and gives me a quizzical look. “Oh right, you probably don’t know one another. Reid is Mrs. Montgomery’s nephew and he worked with your grandfather. He’ll be along shortly, from London.”
“Oh, okay,” I respond, then curiosity gets the better of me. “And what about the rest of Anna’s family?”
“Only Mr. Lewis. Mrs. Montgomery doesn’t. . .” She gulps, and her eyes fill with tears again. “I mean didn’t, have much of an extended family. Mr. Lewis’ father passed away when he was in prep school, and his mother passed away from cancer when he was at university. A little while after that, Mr. Montgomery took him under his wing.”
Even though I don’t know this Reid Lewis guy, my chest tightens. As an only child, I’d be devastated if I lost my mom, no matter how maddening she can be.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mrs. McHenry grabs my hand and leads me into the house. Crossing the threshold is like stepping back in time. She regales us with history, but I’m not really listening, because memories from my childhood overwhelm my senses. Like Christmas morning in the parlor, when I got my first big girl bike and started a lifelong love of riding. And that time I got in a lot of trouble with my grandmother for having a tea party for my stuffed animals in the formal dining room and spilled water all over the table and rug. Soon after that, maybe that same day, my grandfather set up a tea party in his office for my stuffed animals and me with actual tea. It was the greatest. Each room we walk through is familiar in its own way. The musk of antique furniture and fabrics, mixed with lemon wood polish and lavender potpourri centers me in such a way it’s nearly indescribable. Home. It makes me feel a sense of being home.
The tour continues until we stop in a hallway full of bedrooms. Mrs. McHenry leads me to the first room on the right. “Your old room.”
I take it all in. “Wow, it’s so much smaller than I remember. All the furniture is the same, that’s amazing. Well, except for that rather new chair in the corner. What happened to the red monster?”
“Red monster?” Mrs. McHenry asks.
“Remember, it was a big comfy chair with bright red fabric?”
“Oh yes, I’d nearly forgotten about it. I believe it was worn, so we stashed it away somewhere around here. Mr. Montgomery had it replaced. He used to like read in here, just like when he’d read to you. I think he always had hope, you know…”
“I see,” I tell her and choke back some tears. I can’t even process how that makes me feel. All the words associated with regret and guilt fit.
I spot one more familiar item, an oil painting in an ornate gold frame of a classic French ballerina, mid-pirouette, wearing a pale pink floral tutu. It was a gift from my grandfather. Her blurry round face, with black offset eyes and softly rounded feet, takes me back to so many nights when I would stare up at this dream-like work of art, pretending that I could be as graceful as her. My heart is fuller, knowing it’s still here.
“And you’re right here, Miss Rodriguez,” Mrs. McHenry says and leads my friend away to her room.
I take the opportunity to peak into the room next to mine. It used to belong to my mother. It had always been hers, since the day she was born until the day we left. She never lived outside this house or with my father.
The room has been completely transformed. There’s a monstrosity of a bed with dark grey linens, a watch box on the dresser, and a digital glass clock on one of the nightstands, as well as a dark walnut suit valet that sits beside a matching full-length oval mirror. There’s a faint trace of men’s cologne in the space, but while it doesn’t spark any memories, it does arouse something that’s hard to put my finger on. Curiosity, maybe?
“This was your mum’s room,” Mrs. McHenry says as she joins me in the bedroom.
“I remember it well.”
“Now it belongs to Mr. Lewis when he stays here.”
“Well it certainly is much more masculine,” I joke.
She laughs a little as if it’s the first time she’s let herself do so in a while.
Back in my room, I consider unpacking, but it’s not necessary since we’re only staying for a few days. Screw it. I kick off my ballet flats, crawl onto the bed and stare up at that old painting. I’m not sure which came first, the portrait or the nickname my grandfather gave me, but I guess it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. A few tears slip down my cheeks at the memory of him and exhaustion sets in.
As my eyes grow heavy, a familiar old voice whispers, “I love you, my little ballerina.”
This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill said that. He was probably talking about some battle we were caught up in, but I don’t have a clue. You’d think I’d know my British history better based on the schools I attended, but I was too caught up in my own family drama to follow that of the Tudors and Windsors.
Plus, I’ve had two glasses of Scotch and I’m not so keen on history.
Whatever it was about, old Winnie’s words are entirely apropos. Not only was it one of Trevor’s favorite quotations but my Aunt Anna’s living room is starting to feel very much like a battlefield. Now I’m just waiting to go to war.
My opponent? Trevor’s one and only grandchild, Cara Montgomery.
From what little information I have about her, I know that she once lived in this house, moved to California as a young child, and never talked to her grandfather again. That last part is especially rich because she’s been named the co-beneficiary of Trevor and Anna’s estate, along with me as Anna’s only surviving relative.
The absurdity is mind-boggling. What on Earth were they thinking?
At least they had the right mind to keep the Scotch in good supply at all times. I think I’ll have another.
Mrs. McHenry stops me in my tracks. “Mr. Lewis, Miss Montgomery and her companion, Miss Rodriguez, will be down shortly.”
“Thank you,” I tell her and turn to check in on my own companion, Victoria. One side of her mouth turns up. She looks so goddamned determined as if she’s ready to step between the ropes into the ring. As a burgeoning partner at Montgomery and Lewis, she’s heavily invested in the outcome of this mess. We’re in the midst of trying to hook the Collins Group. If they don’t sign on and we miss out on the commission, we may need extra capital from this estate to expand the business like we’ve planned. Especially since we’ve signed a lease on another floor in our office building and we’ve got offers out to six new analysts.
Needless to say, the tension has turned up to ten and adding in Trevor’s long-lost granddaughter hasn’t helped matters.
“Refill?” I ask Victoria while I pull off the top of the decanter.
“No, thank you. It’s important to stay sharp, Reid.”
It’s a knock on my drinking. Well, Victoria didn’t lose her mentor and the only remaining family she had left in the world in a terrible car accident. A scotch, or three, is deserved.
I’ve been around high society most of my life and I know how a gentleman drinks. This is not it. I drain my drink in one desperate go and relish the burn. It dulls the nasty ache I’ve felt since I got the call about the accident. It’s the same hollow feeling I had after mum died and dad before her.
Mrs. McHenry joins us again with a conciliatory smile. “Any moment now.”
The three of us wait silently for their arrival. I tap my foot against the carpet and keep checking my watch. I really want a chance to get on the same page with Miss Montgomery before Bishop Thomas arrives to discuss the funeral arrangements. Finally, the distinct chatter of two American women can be heard as they click-clack their way down the hall. I set the glass down and run a hand through my hair.
As they turn the corner and step into the room, I start to grumble, “Well it’s about time—” but stop when I see her. She’s easy to pick out from the pair, with her fairer complexion, pretty pink freckles that spread across her nose, green eyes, and wild caramel hair that’s pulled up into a messy bun. She’s most definitely a Montgomery, but that’s not what stopped me mid-sentence, no. I lost my ability to speak because she is so bloody beautiful and I was not expecting that.
How does she respond? She shuts her eyes tight as she extends her arms over her head and yawns so wide I can see her molars. An exhausted moan slips out on the exhale and the sound sends an unacceptable vibration through me. She wraps her arms around her torso, hugging herself quite snuggly, so much so that her cleavage peeks out the top of her dress causing my traitorous blood to start stirring. With a simple yawn, she's fired the first shot.
Cara Montgomery is going to be a battle indeed.
© 2023 Persephone Publishing LLC