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What the Cat Saw

Carolyn Hart - Author

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ISBN 9781101611593 | 304 pages | 02 Oct 2012 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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National bestselling author Carolyn Hart presents an original new novel about a woman with a curious ability that drops her headfirst into a world of intrigue and murder…

Ever since the death of her fiancé, Nela Farley has found herself plagued by a sixth sense: she understands the thoughts of cats when she looks into their eyes. Nela knows that what she’s experiencing is completely irrational and tries to convince herself that she is simply transferring her own thoughts that she doesn’t want to face.

When her adventurous sister, Chloe, goes on a trip and asks for a favor, Nela welcomes the distraction and agrees to substitute at Chloe’s job at a charitable foundation. Chloe has arranged a place for her sister to stay, but when Nela shows up, she encounters the previous tenant’s cat and gets a flash of thought: “. . . dead . . . dead and gone . . . She loved me . . . board rolled on the second step . . .”

Nela wants to ignore what the cat saw, but the idea that the death of former tenant Marian Grant wasn’t an accident is something she can’t ignore. As Nela begins to do some research into Marian’s life, strange events begin to occur, all seeming to lead back to the Haklo Foundation. But when a detective becomes suspicious of Nela’s sister and a second murder occurs, Nela realizes she’ll have to make the most of her unwanted ability to figure out what’s really going on, before she meets her own untimely end…


Chapter 1

On the upside, the airport was small. On the downside, a blustery wind took Nela Farley’s breath away as she stepped out of the terminal, pulling her small wheeled bag. She shivered in her light coat. She’d expected cold temperatures, but she’d not expected a wind that buffeted her like a hurried shopper in a crowded mall. She’d also known she wouldn’t be met. Still, arriving in a strange place without anyone to greet her was a reminder that she was alone.

Alone . . .

She walked faster, hurried across the double drive to a parking garage. Chloe’s call this morning had been even more fragmented than usual. “. . . on the fourth level, slot A forty-two. Leland’s car is an old VW, I mean really old. Pink stripes. You can’t miss it.”

In the parking garage elevator, Nela opened her purse and found the keys that had arrived by overnight FedEx from her sister. They dangled from what seemed to be a rabbit’s foot. Nela held it gingerly. In the dusky garage, she followed numbers, chilled by the wind whistling and moaning through the concrete interior.

She spotted Leland’s VW with no difficulty. Why pink stripes? The decals in the rear window would have been distinctive enough. In turn, they featured a mustachioed cowboy in an orange cowboy hat and orange chaps with OSU down one leg, a huge open-mouthed bass fish, a long-eared dog with the caption, My Best Friend Is a Coonhound, and a gleaming Harley with the caption, Redneck at the Ready.

Nela unlocked the driver’s door. Soon she would be off on an Oklahoma adventure, all because Chloe had roared off one sunny California day on the back of her new boyfriend’s Harley, destination the red dirt state. Plus, Nela had lost her job on a small SoCal daily and was free to answer Chloe’s call that she come to Craddock, Oklahoma.

Nela was both irritated with her sister—one more call for a rescue, this time to protect her job—and grateful to have somewhere to go, something to fill leaden days. As for Chloe’s job, she would have been grateful if she’d had an inkling of what to expect, but in her usual fashion, Chloe had spoken of her job only peripherally.

Nela expected she’d manage. It definitely would be different to be in Oklahoma. Everything was going to be new, including subbing at Chloe’s job, whatever it was. Knowing Chloe, the job could be raising guppies or painting plastic plates or transcribing medical records. Only Chloe could hold a job for several months and, despite hour-long sisterly confabs on their cells, always been vague about where she worked or what she did. Nela had a hazy idea she worked in an office of some kind. On the phone, Chloe was more interested in talking about what she and Leland had done or were going to do. The wind blows all the time, but it’s kind of fun . . . Hamburger Heaven really is . . . There’s a farm with llamas . . . went to see the Heavener Runestone . . . However, she’d promised to leave a packet full of “stuff” on the front passenger seat.

Nela popped her suitcase in the backseat. She breathed a sigh of relief as she slid behind the wheel. Indeed, there was a folder and on it she saw her sister’s familiar scrawl: Everything You Need to Know. Nestled next to the folder was a golden box—oh, she shouldn’t have spent that much money—of Godiva. A sticky note read: Road treats. Confetti dangled from the rearview mirror. Taped to the wheel was a card. She pulled the card free, opened the envelope. The card showed an old-fashioned derrick spewing oil. She opened it. Chloe had written: I gush for you. Nela, you’re a life saver. Thanks and hugs and kisses—Love—Chloe

Nela’s brief irritation subsided. She smiled. She wished her little—though so much taller—sister was here and she could give her a hug, look into those cornflower blue eyes, and be sure everything was right in Chloe’s world. So long as she could, Nela knew she would gladly come when her sister called.

She picked up the folder, opened it to find a garage parking ticket, a letter, and a map with directions to I-35.

. . . turn south. It’s an hour and a half drive to Craddock. They say Hiram Craddock, a rail gang supervisor for the Santa Fe railroad, took a horseback ride one Sunday in 1887 and saw a cloud of butterflies stopped by the river. When the tracks were laid, he quit his job to stay and build the first shack in what later became Craddock. This fall when the monarchs came through, I loved thinking about him seeing them and saying, This is beautiful, I’ll stay here. He married a Chickasaw woman. That was real common for white men who wanted to be able to stay in the Chickasaw Nation. He opened a trading post. Anyway, I don’t know if I explained about staying at Miss Grant’s apartment after she died. I did it as a favor and I know you won’t mind. It’s because of Jugs. You’ll love him. In case your plane’s delayed, there’s plenty of food and water, but the last I checked, your flights were on time. Anyway, it’s sad about Miss Grant but I didn’t mind helping out. Nobody knows you’re coming in today and I didn’t take time to explain but I left a note and said Jugs was taken care of. But they do expect you Monday morning and there are directions in the folder. The key with the pink ribbon is to Miss Grant’s place. Oh, I left my car coat in the backseat. I won’t need a coat in Tahiti! There’s a pizza in the fridge. Anchovies, of course, for you. (Shudder.) When you get to Craddock . . .

Nela scanned the rest of the disjointed message, obviously written in haste. But Chloe could have a day or a week or a month at her disposal and her communications would still careen from thought to fact to remembrance to irrelevance. Nela retrieved Chloe’s map and the ribbon-tagged key. She placed the map on the passenger seat and dropped the key into her purse.

Nela drove out of the garage into a brilliant day. She squinted against a sun that was surely stronger than in LA. Whatever happened, she intended to have fun, leaving behind the grayness now that was LA, and the sadness.

Bill wouldn’t want her to be sad.

Occasional winter-bare trees dotted softly rolling dun-colored countryside. Nela passed several horse farms. Cattle huddled with their backs to the north wind. The usual tacky billboards dotted the roadside. Nela felt more and more relaxed. The little VW chugged sturdily south despite its age. The traffic was fairly heavy and it was nearer two hours when she turned onto the exit to Craddock. After checking the map, she drove east into town, passing red-brick shops, several banks, and a library, and glancing at Chloe’s directions, turned off again to the south on Cimarron. Ranch-style houses predominated. After a few blocks, the homes grew more substantial, the lots larger, the houses now two and three stories, including faux colonials, Mediterranean villas, and French mansards.

Nela noted house numbers. She was getting close. She came around a curve. Her eyes widened at a majestic home high on a ridge, a Georgian mansion built of limestone with no houses visible on either side, the grounds stretching to woods. Nela slowed. Surely not . . . Chloe had clearly written of a garage apartment.

Nela stopped at stone pillars that marked the entrance and scrabbled through Chloe’s notes.

. . . so funny . . . I use the tradesman’s entrance. Keep going past the main drive around a curve to a blacktop road into the woods. It dead ends behind the house. That’s where the old garage is and Miss Grant’s apartment. It’s kind of prehistoric. You’ll see the newer garages, much bigger, but they kept the old one. It isn’t like Miss Grant rented it. People like Blythe Webster don’t have renters. Miss Grant started living there when she first came to work for Harris Webster. He was Blythe’s father and he made a fortune in oil. That’s the money that funds everything. She went from being his personal assistant to helping run the whole deal. Now that she’s gone, I imagine they’ll close up the apartment, maybe use it for storage. Anyway, it’s a lot more comfortable than Leland’s trailer so it’s great that someone needs to be with Jugs. Be sure and park in the garage. Miss Webster had a fit about the VW, didn’t want it visible from the terrace. No opener or anything, just pull up the door. It’s kind of like being the crazy aunt in the attic, nobody’s supposed to know the VW’s there. It offends Miss Webster’s “sensibilities.” I’ll bet she didn’t tell Miss Grant where to park! Anyway the bug fits in next to Miss Grant’s Mercedes. Big contrast. The apartment’s way cool. Like I said, nicer than a trailer, but I’d take a trailer with Leland anytime. So everything always works out for the best. I mean, except for Miss Grant.

Even with the disclaimer, the message reflected Chloe’s unquenchable cheer.

Nela pressed the accelerator. Names bounced in her mind like errant Ping-Pong balls . . . Grant, Webster, Jugs . . . as she chugged onto the winding road. If delivery trucks actually came this way, their roofs would scrape low-hanging tree limbs. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Nela felt sure that FedEx, UPS, and any other delivery service would swing through the stone pillars into the main drive. Tradesmen entrances had gone the way of horse-drawn buggies, milk bottles, and typewriters.

As the lane curved out of the woods, she gazed at the back of the magnificent house. A rose garden that would be spectacular in summer spread beneath steps leading up to a paved terrace. Lights blazed from huge windows, emphasizing the gathering winter darkness that leached light and color from the dormant garden. Lights also gleamed from lantern-topped stone pillars near the massive garages Chloe had described as new. Almost lost in the gloom was an old wooden two-door garage with a second-floor apartment. The windows were dark.

Nela coasted to a stop. She put the car in park but left the motor running while she pulled up the garage door. The bug fit with room to spare next to the Mercedes coupe. She glanced at the elegant car as she retrieved her suitcase. Very sporty. It would be interesting to see Miss Grant’s apartment. It would be odd to stay in the apartment of a woman whom she’d never met. But ten days would speed past.

And then?

Nela shook away any thought of the future. For now, she was hungry and looking forward to pizza with anchovies and taking sanctuary in a dead woman’s home. Miss Grant, wherever you are, thank you.

She didn’t take time to put on Chloe’s coat, which surely would hang to her knees. She stepped out of the garage and lowered the overhead door. Pulling her suitcase, carrying Chloe’s coat over one arm, she hurried to the wooden stairs, the sharp wind ruffling her hair, penetrating her thin cotton blouse and slacks.

On the landing, she fumbled in her purse until she found the ribbon-tagged key, unlocked the door. Stepping inside, she flicked a switch. She was pleasantly surprised. Despite January gloom beyond the windows, the room was crisp and bright, lemon-painted walls with an undertone of orange, vivid Rothko matted prints, blond Danish modern furniture, the sofa and chairs upholstered with peonies splashed against a pale purple background. A waist-high blond wood bookcase extended several feet into the room to the right of the door.

Her gaze stopped at car keys lying there next to a Coach bag. Had the purse belonged to Miss Grant? Certainly Chloe had never owned a Coach bag and, if she had, she wouldn’t have left it carelessly in an empty apartment. Nela shrugged away the presence of the purse. The contents of the apartment were none of her business.

As for Miss Grant, she wasn’t the person Nela had imagined. When Chloe wrote, Too bad about Miss Grant, Nela knew she’d been guilty of stereotyping. Miss Grant was dead so she was old. Until she’d read Chloe’s note, Nela had pictured a plump elderly woman, perhaps with white curls and a sweet smile. This apartment had not belonged to an old woman.

So much for preconceived ideas. Nela closed the door behind her. She set the suitcase upright and turned to explore the rest of the apartment. She took two steps, then, breath gone, pulse pounding, stared across the room. She reached out to grip the back of a chair, willing herself to stay upright. She began to tremble, defenses gone, memory flooding, not hot, but cold and dark and drear.

The cat’s huge round eyes seemed to grow larger and larger.

Lost in the intensity of the cat’s gaze, she was no longer in a strange apartment half a continent from home. Instead, numb and aching, she was at Bill’s house with Bill’s mother, face etched in pain, eyes red-rimmed, and his sobbing sisters and all of his huge and happy family, which had gathered in sorrow. Bill’s brother Mike spoke in a dull monotone: He was on patrol . . . stepped on an IED . . .

Unbearable images had burned inside. She had turned away, dropped into a chair in the corner of the room. Bill’s cat was lying on the piano bench, looking at her. Splotches of white marked Big Man’s round black face.

Big Man stared with mesmerizing green eyes. “. . . He’s gone . . . dead . . . yesterday . . . legs blown away . . . blood splashing . . .”

Through the next frozen week, Big Man’s thoughts recurred like the drumbeat of a dirge. But, of course, they were her thoughts, too hideous to face and so they came to her reflected from the cat Bill loved.

The next week an emaciated feral cat confronted her in the alley behind the apartment house. Gaunt, ribs showing, the cat whirled toward her, threat in every tense line. She looked into pale yellow eyes. “. . . starving . . . That’s my rat . . . Get out of my way . . .”

Rat? She’d jerked around and seen a flash of gray fur near the Dumpster. Back in her apartment, she’d tried to quell her quick breaths. Her mind had been jumbled, that’s all. She’d seen a desperate cat and known there was garbage and of course there might be rats. She had not read the cat’s thoughts.

Of course she hadn’t.

Like calendar dates circled in red, she remembered other episodes. At the beauty shop, a cuddly white cat turned sea blue eyes toward her. “. . . The woman in the third chair’s afraid . . . The redhead is mean . . . The skinny woman’s smile is a lie . . .” At a beach taco stand, a rangy black tom with a white-tipped tail and a cool, pale gaze. “. . . rank beef . . . People want the baggies from the blue cooler . . . afraid of police . . .” On a neighbor’s front porch swing, an imperious Persian with a malevolent face. “. . . I’m the queen . . . I saw the suitcase . . . If she boards me, she’ll be sorry . . .”

Now, a few feet away from her, a lean brown tabby with distinctive black stripes and oversize ears stood in a circle of light from an overhead spot—of course the cat chose that spot seeking warmth from the bulb—and gazed at Nela with mournful eyes. “. . . Dead . . . Dead and gone . . . She loved me . . . board rolled on the second step . . .”

Nela fought a prickle of hysteria. She was tired. Maybe she was crazy. Boards didn’t roll . . . Unless he meant a skateboard. Skateboards were rolling boards. Was that how a cat would describe a skateboard? Was she losing her mind? Cats and a board that rolled and skateboards. How weird to think of a skateboard on a step. She hadn’t thought of skateboards in years. Bill had done the best ollies in the neighborhood. His legs were stocky and strong. The IED . . . Oh God. Maybe it was because the cat had such distinctive black stripes. Bill’s skateboard had been shiny orange with black stripes. She had to corral her mind, make her thoughts orderly. No one saw what was in a cat’s mind. She was making it up. From a board that rolled to skateboards. Maybe she needed to see a doctor. No. This would pass.

The cat gave a sharp chirp, walked across the parquet flooring.

She backed away, came up hard with her back against the front door.

The cat looked up. “. . . Hungry . . . Feed me . . . We’re both sad . . .”

With the beauty of movement peculiar to cats, he moved swiftly past her toward the kitchen.

We’re both sad . . .

Nela looked after him. Slowly her frantic breathing eased. The cat—he had to be Jugs with ears like those—was not a threat. She was fighting to keep away memories that hurt. It made sense that she’d ascribe sadness to a cat with a dead mistress. Cats needed attention. Maybe he’d let her pet him. As for imagining his thoughts, her mind was playing a trick. Maybe she wasn’t quite crazy. She struggled to remember the professor’s droning voice in Psych 1. What had he said? Then she remembered. Displacement. That’s what she was doing. Displacement. She clung to the word.

It took every fiber of her will but she quieted her quick breaths, moved with deliberation toward the kitchen. Food would help and the welcome distraction of finding her way about in a strange place.

Next to the refrigerator, she spotted a sheet of paper taped to a cabinet door. Chloe had printed, neatly for her:

Feed Jugs a.m. and p.m., one-half can and one full scoop dry food. Fresh water. He’s a sweetie. He adored Marian. Of course I called her Miss Grant at the office. You remember Marlene Dietrich in a black pillbox in No Highway in the Sky? That was Marian Grant, a cool blonde, always efficient, knew everybody and everything and scared everyone to death.

Jugs stood on his back paws, scratched at the cabinet door.

Now she was able to look at the cat without a sense of dread. They were fellow creatures, both of them hungry, both of them grieving. “All right, Jugs.” As Nela gently opened the door, Jugs dropped to the floor and moved toward his bowl. She emptied a half can into a blue ceramic bowl with Jugs painted in white on one side. Nela placed the bowl on newspaper already spread on the floor. She added a scoop of chicken-flavored dry pellets to a yellow bowl with his name in blue. She poured fresh water in a white bowl.

Nela found, as promised, pizza in the fridge. In only a moment, thanks to the microwave, she settled at the kitchen table with two slices of hot crisp anchovy pizza, a small Caesar salad, and a glass of iced tea.

Jugs thumped onto the other end of the table. He made no move to come toward the food. Instead, he settled on his stomach, front paws flat on the table.

Nela studied him gravely as she ate. “You are obviously a privileged character. But you have very good manners. Did Miss Grant allow you to sit on the table when she ate?”

The cat blinked. “. . . She was worried . . . She didn’t know what to do . . .”

Determinedly, Nela looked away. That was the human condition. Worry about the rain. Worry about cancer. Worry about war. Worry about money. Worry about . . . The list could go on and on, big worries and little, everyone had them. Whatever worries had plagued Marian Grant, she was now beyond their reach. Nela felt puzzled. Chloe spoke of Miss Grant as if she’d seen her recently at the office but she’d made no mention of illness. If Marian Grant hadn’t been old or sick, how had she died? Why had she been worried?

Nela finished the second slice. She’d do the dishes and look through the rest of Chloe’s notes. Surely, tucked in somewhere, she’d left directions to her job and explained what she did.

Nela carried Chloe’s folder into the living room. She looked around the room at colorful Rothko prints. Nela’s gaze stopped at a bright red cat bed near the desk. Jugs was curved into a ball, one paw across his face, taking an after-dinner snooze. She was, of course, wide awake. It was almost ten here and darkness pressed against the windows, but her body was still on California time. Oh well, she was in no hurry. No one expected her to do anything until Monday morning.

No one would call who really mattered to her. Not since Bill died . . .

Nela hurried to the chintz sofa, sank onto one end, opened the folder, looked at a haphazard pile of loose sheets. She began to read the handwritten notes, glad to push away remembrance.

. . . different world. You know, the rich. They really are different. If I had Blythe Webster’s money, I’d go around the world. But I guess she’s been there, done that. She’s pretty nice. She just started spending a lot of time at the foundation last fall. Blythe’s around forty, kind of stiff and prim. Think Olivia de Havilland . . .

Nela’s stiff shoulders relaxed. It was almost as comforting as pulling up one of her grandmother’s afghans. She and Chloe had grown up on old movies, the free ones on Turner Classic Movies.

. . . in The Heiress, dark hair, one of those cameo-smooth faces, neat features, but something about her makes you remember her. It’s probably all that money. You think? She’s looked washed-out since Miss Grant died. I don’t know if she can handle things by herself. Miss Grant’s the one that made the place go.

Nela felt a spurt of exasperation. What place, Chloe? Nela scanned more tidbits about people.

. . . Abby’s soooo serious. I mean, you’d think Indian baskets were like religious relics. Sure, the mess was a shame but a basket’s a basket. If she’d use a little makeup, she has gorgeous eyes, but with those sandy brows you kind of don’t notice them. Of course, Miss Grant took everything seriously too. Maybe that’s why she ran four miles every morning. You’d think handing out money would be easy as pie. I could hand out money and not act like I had boulders on my shoulders. Anyway, everything’s been kind of nuts since the fire alarm and the sprinklers. I was afraid Louise was going to have a stroke. Usually she’s pretty nice. The director’s kind of like James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. When he walks by women, it’s boobs up, butts tucked. They don’t even realize they’re doing it!!!

Nela smiled at the triple exclamation points though she’d chide Chloe for her language. Or maybe not. Chloe was Chloe.

. . . He’s tall and angular and has this bony appealing face. I’m pretty sure I glimpsed lust even in the eyes of the T. People call Miss Webster the T because she’s the trustee. Not to her face, of course. I wonder if the job description for director of the Haklo Foundation stipulated: Only handsome dudes need apply.

Nela seized on the clue: Haklo Foundation. A few sentences later, she hit pay dirt.

. . . It’s a five-minute drive. Kind of quaint after LA. Hills and trees and cows and stuff. The foundation’s a yellow stucco building with a red-tile roof. When you leave the apartment, turn right on Cimarron and keep going. You can’t miss it. Leland’s dad—his mom’s dead—had me over to dinner when we got to Craddock.His dad had some connection to the foundation. He tried to get me a job there but they didn’t need anybody. Louise told him if anything opened up, they’d be glad to have me. When Louise’s assistant quit, I got the job. Louise is the top dog secretary. I was lucky there was an opening. She probably wouldn’t have left except for the car fire. She shouldn’t have left her car unlocked. I didn’t know there was any place in the world where people didn’t lock their cars. Of course, she wasn’t in the car when it happened and I think the foundation got her a new car. At least that’s what Rosalind told me and she always knows everything and she loves to talk. She’s a sweetheart. Anyway, I’ll bet it was just somebody raising hell, though Rosalind thinks the point was to screw things up for the T. She’s kind of under fire from some of the old hands because she’s the one that brought in the new director and has made a bunch of changes. But I mean, that’s a pretty roundabout way. Anyway, I got the job and Leland drops me off and picks me up. How about that! Chauffeur service and . . . Oh well, you get the picture.

Nela’s lips curved. In a perfect world, she’d like to see Chloe walking down the aisle with a regular guy, not hopping on the back of a vagabond’s Harley. On a positive note, Leland had brought her to his hometown and introduced her to his father. As usual, Nela wasn’t clear what Leland did—if anything—but Chloe always sounded happy when she called. Besides—one of Chloe’s favorite words—her sister’s boyfriends might have their quirks, from a vegetarian chef to a treasure hunter, but so far they’d all turned out to be nice men. Otherwise, Nela would have been worried about a faraway jaunt to Tahiti with a guy Chloe had known only since last summer.

Nela closed the folder. Tomorrow she’d scout around, spot the foundation, do some grocery shopping.

A creak startled her.

She looked up in time to see a cat door flap fall as lean hindquarters and a tall black tail disappeared into darkness through the front door. So Jugs was an indoor-outdoor fellow. He’d had his nap and was ready to roam.

An in and out cat. That meant he went down the garage apartment stairs. That’s how he would see if a board rolled on the second step . . . Nonsense. Boards didn’t roll and that’s all there was to it.

Except for skateboards.

“That’s enough, Nela.” She spoke aloud. That was enough, more than enough, of her odd and silly imaginings about the thoughts of cats. She forced herself to focus on what she felt was an improvement. She and Jugs were sharing space. That was definitely a step in the right direction. Thankfully, he’d remained aloof. Maybe the next time she looked at him, she’d be able to discipline her mind. Maybe his presence would help prove she had nothing to fear from cats. Maybe she’d finally be able to face what was in her mind, come to grips with grief.

Bill . . .

She pushed up from the couch, willing away memory. She walked swiftly to the bookcases that lined one wall, looked at titles to try to force other thoughts into her mind. It hurt too much to think of Bill and their plans that ended in blood and death. The phone rang.

Startled, Nela turned. After a moment’s hesitation, she walked swiftly to the cream-colored phone on the desk near the bookshelves. “Hello.” Her answer was tentative.

“Nela, you’re there! How’s everything? Did you find the pizza? Isn’t Jugs a honeybunch?”

Nela had felt so alone when she arrived. Hearing Chloe’s husky voice was like a welcoming hug. “He’s great. I’m great. How about you and Leland?”

“Oooooh.” It was halfway between a squeal and a coo. “You can’t believe how gorgeous everything is. We had to catch a red eye to get to LA in time for our flight but we made it. We just checked in and we’re leaving to ride an outrigger. Doesn’t that sound like fun? He’s already downstairs so I better scoot. Thanks, Nela. You’re the best.”

Nela shook her head as she replaced the receiver in the cradle. Talking to Chloe was like trying to catch a shooting star. None of her questions were answered: What was the job? Where was it? What happened to Miss Grant? Perhaps she should follow Chloe’s example and let the good times roll. In Chloe’s world, everything seemed to work out. Nela smiled. Have fun, sweetie. Be happy. Love him because . . .

Again there were images to block, pain to forestall. She swung again to the bookshelves. She’d find a weighty tome, read until she felt sleepy. Midway through the first shelf, she pulled out a large picture book and carried it to the sofa. The cover photograph featured a marble statue of a tall, lean man. Even in cold stone, the hard-ridged face compelled attention. Deep-set eyes, a beaked nose, and jutting chin proclaimed power, strength, and ruthless determination. Behind the statue rose wide steps leading to a pale yellow stucco building. The title was in red Gothic letters: The Haklo Foundation, the Story of Harris Webster and the Fortune He Shared.

She thumbed through the beautifully crafted book. No expense had been spared in its production. She turned back to the introduction. Harris Webster was the descendant of an early Craddock family. Caleb Webster arrived in the Chickasaw Nation in 1885. After his marriage to Mary Castle, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, he began to prosper. He wrangled horses for her father, later opened an early dry goods store, apparently on very thin credit. He prospered, added a livery stable, and established a bank. His son, Lewis, increased the family’s wealth with a cattle ranch. The Websters were one of Craddock’s leading families, but the great wealth came from Caleb’s grandson, Harris, a hugely successful wildcatter in the nineteen fifties and sixties. He sold Webster Exploration to Exxon for one hundred million dollars in 1988. Harris Webster married Ellen White in 1970. Their first child died at birth. A daughter, Blythe, was born in 1973 and a second daughter, Grace, in 1985. Ellen died in 1987 from cancer.

Webster set up a trust, establishing the foundation in 1989 with an endowment of fifty million dollars. He served as the sole trustee until his death in 2007. His designated successor as sole trustee was his oldest daughter, Blythe.

The following facing pages featured portraits in oval frames. Caleb Webster’s blunt, square-jawed face looked young and appealing, the black-and-white photo likely taken when he was in his late twenties. His hair was parted in the middle, his collar high and stiff. Mary Castle’s dark hair was drawn back in a bun, emphasizing the severity of her features, deep-set eyes, high-bridged nose and high cheekbones, thin lips pursed. She had looked gravely into the camera with a questioning gaze. The rest of the portraits were in color. Lewis Webster was dark-haired and narrow-faced with a strong chin. A merry smile curved the lips of his round-faced, blond wife, Lillian.

Harris Webster’s color portrait, taken possibly when he was in his forties, exuded vigor and strength. Unlike the other photographs, he was pictured outdoors against a leafy background, a breeze ruffling thick black curls. Bronze skin suggested hours spent under the sun. His brown eyes stared confidently into the camera. His smile was that of a man who met any challenge with complete expectation of victory. His pale blond wife Ellen appeared fragile. Her expression was pensive, a woman turned inward.

The portraits of the Webster daughters hung side by side, affording an interesting contrast. Blythe Webster looked intelligent, imperious, and reserved. Ebony hair framed an oval face with a pleasant, though aloof, expression. The straight, unwavering stare of her dark brown eyes hinted at unknown depths. Her much younger sister Grace was blue-eyed with a fair complexion. Strawberry blond hair cascaded in thick curls. Her smile was amused, possibly wry, but there was something in the cast of her face which suggested a will that would not bend.

Nela bunched a pillow behind her and began to read.




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