“Aunt Katherine, how was your trip?” Bonnie’s lips brushed the air by my cheek. Though her greeting held a facade of friendliness, beneath the cordiality a distinct coldness hummed. She drew back, but the cloying sweetness of her perfume lingered.
Of all Lars’ children, she resembles him the most. She’s a tall blonde with skin tanned to a golden hue. Her graceful movements imbued her with the essence of a magnificent jungle beast on the prowl for prey. The leopard skin coat she wore added to the picture.
“Uneventful until I...” Before I finished, she glided away.
“Don, where’s Daddy? There are some important matters he and I need to discuss.” She tossed her coat on one of the chairs facing the fireplace.
Her brother replaced the receiver in the cradle. “He’s not here and we hoped he was with you. When Aunt Katherine arrived, she found the front door open and his partly eaten breakfast on the table.”
“Oh lord, maybe he’s had a heart attack. Did you check the house? What about the grounds? I really need to talk to him.”
I joined the pair. “I’ve checked the house twice. He’s not here.”
She brushed her hair from her face. “I’ve been out all day. Been busy with preparations for the party. Did you try Carl or Damon?”
Don raked his hair in an awkward parody of his sister’s graceful gesture. “The office was the second place I called. Carl and Damon were in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. The secretary said Dad wasn’t with them.”
“Maybe Daddy had some last minute shopping to do in preparation for Aunt Katherine’s visit.”
“He sent Consuela to the store.” Don glared at his sister. “Didn’t you notice his car’s still here?”
“Never looked.” She smoothed her blue sweater over her slim hips. “What’s eating you? Ever since Ramona died, you’ve been jumping at shadows.”
“We’ve talked about what I plan to do.”
“And I’ve said it’s impossible.”
Don rose. “Right now, I’m worried about Dad. Haven’t you noticed how edgy and distant he’s been lately?”
Bonnie laughed. “That’s just your imagination. He’s been fine.”
“He’d never go off without leaving a note for Aunt Katherine. You know how much he’s looked forward to her visit.”
Bonnie planted her hands on her hips. “He was more worried about how she’d fit in with our friends. I’m sure he’s gone off with one of his cronies.” She turned and manufactured a smile that left her blue eyes as cold as diamond. “No disrespect meant, but you don’t move in the same circles as Daddy and I do.”
My jaw clenched. Back east Lars and I have the same set of friends. While the people here were unknown to me, as a nurse and former choir director, I’ve dealt with the rich, the poor and the in-betweens.
A few calming breaths controlled my anger and my need to lash out at this rude young woman. I couldn’t allow myself to forget what was important and that was my friend’s whereabouts.
“For heaven’s sake, have you forgotten Dad’s missing?” Don grasped his sister’s shoulders.
“You don’t know if he is. He could be anywhere. Maybe he’s planning something for my party. I know he wants the affair to be as perfect as mine usually are.”
“So glad you’re pleased with your social success, but get real. Did Dad mention having any new problems with the business?”
While they bickered, I tried to recall the little I’d learned from Lars’ phone call. “Last night when we talked he seemed worried about his retirement plans and --”
“Just what did he say?” Don asked.
Bonnie jerked away from her twin. “I doubt he would tell her anything and there couldn’t have been a problem or I would have known. He’s turned everything over to me.”
“Are there missing records?” Don asked.
“What do you care about the business as long as you and your br...child can live off the profits?” She stabbed her finger toward the sleeping child.
“I’ve never taken a cent I haven’t earned.”
“Pardon me if I don’t believe that. What about the house where you’re living rent free?”
“You have the same benefit. Does Dad charge you rent for the mansion you talked him into building to enhance your image?”
“The house is necessary.”
Don rolled his eyes. “Maybe Carl and Damon know something. Let me try the office again.”
She glared. “How could they? When Daddy’s not around, I’m in charge.”
He shook his head. “This isn’t about you being boss. They might have some idea where he is.”
“I doubt that.”
“I’ve been thinking.”
Bonnie cut him off. “About time.” A sneer distorted her perfect features. “Did you call the police?”
“I doubt they can do anything yet,” I said.
She waved me aside. “This isn’t your problem.” She pointed at Don. “You call the hospital. I’ll use my cell phone and call the police. They’ll listen to me or else.”
Megan stirred and grasped the kitten. “Aunt Bonnie, look what Aunt Kaferine bring me. Rose Prairie.”
Bonnie stepped back. “Keep that beast away from me. I detest cats.”
Megan flinched as if she’d been slapped. “Sorry.”
“Go play. Your father and I don’t have time for your nonsense.”
“Bonnie, that’s enough,” Don snapped. He crouched beside his daughter. “It’s all right. Your aunt’s upset.”
Since Bonnie had taken charge of the search for Lars, I crossed to the couch and took Megan’s hand. “Why don’t you and Rose Prairie come with me? I’ll see if I can find you a snack.”
Megan nodded. When we reached the kitchen, she put the kitten down. “Stay here, Rose Prairie. Aunt Bonnie don’t like you. She don’t like Mommy either. She yell at Mommy. Then Mommy don’t come home.”
The child’s matter-of-fact statements about her aunt chilled me. Was there a connection between the quarrel and Ramona’s death? How long before the accident had the argument occurred?
I saw tears in Megan’s eyes and gathered her close. “I like you and I liked your Mommy. Let’s see if your pop has some cookies hidden away.”
While I rummaged in the pantry, I wondered what Bonnie and Ramona had quarreled about. Dare I ask? Was their disagreement somehow connected to Lars’ disappearance? Except Ramona had died eight months ago. I pushed the child’s words aside until I had time to ponder their meaning.
After putting several cookies on a plate and pouring a glass of milk, I heated the remainder of the tea in the microwave. Had I left home to become involved in another incident leading to someone’s death?
Gooseflesh covered my arms. Not Lars. I had to hold onto the belief he would be all right.
“What do you mean you can’t do anything?” Bonnie’s voice, shrill with anger, carried into the kitchen. “Do you know who I’m calling about? Lars Claybourne is no ordinary citizen. He’s an important businessman in this community. He’s not senile and he doesn’t wander off. What if he’s been kidnapped?”
Silence followed her outburst. I edged toward the archway between the kitchen and dining room and studied her. Though her voice had been loud and shrill, no emotion showed on her face.
She paced around the gleaming oak table. “No, there hasn’t been a demand...I see...If anything happens to him, you’ll be sorry.”
The front door banged. I rushed past Bonnie to reach the foyer. “Lars.” Neither of the men was my friend.
Bonnie ran to them. “Daddy isn’t here. He wasn’t home when Aunt Katherine arrived. None of his friends have seen him. He’s not at the hospital and the police won’t do a thing.” She grasped my arm. “Tell them what you found.”
After relating the tale of my arrival, I led them to the dining room. Unfortunately the table had been cleared. I should have told Consuela to leave the dishes, though I wondered if the unfinished breakfast would have told anyone a thing other than Lars had departed in haste.
The tallest of the men had to be Lars’ son-in-law. Though I’d never met Carl Grayco, Lars had shown me pictures. Carl was darkly handsome with penetrating anthracite-colored eyes. He was a perfect foil for Bonnie’s blonde beauty.
The other man must be Lars’ executive assistant. He was shorter than Carl, but more muscular. His blond hair had been razor cut to attain a tousled look. Hazel eyes held glints of humor. Did he find the situation amusing or did he possess secret knowledge? An odd question surfaced. What connection other than employee did he have to the Claybourne family?
Bonnie touched my arm. “Aunt Katherine, I’m so rattled about Daddy’s disappearance that I forgot to introduce you. This is my husband, Carl Grayco, and this is Damon Webster. I’m Daddy’s right hand and Damon’s his left. Mrs. Miller and her husband were dear friends of Mommy and Daddy.”
Both men turned to me. “Pleased to meet you,” Carl said.
Damon took my hand. “A pleasure. Lars has told me so much about you.”
Bonnie linked arms with him. “Now don’t be repeating Daddy’s stories.”
As though I’d been shocked by static electricity, I sucked in a breath. The heat pulsing between the pair startled me, but I couldn’t decide if what I sensed was animosity or attraction.
Damon shrugged off Bonnie’s hand. “Lars has so many plans for your visit, but he wished you had come in the summer.”
“Maybe next time.”
Don entered the dining room. “Could Dad have gone off with someone to check some potential investment?”
Bonnie cast a sneering glance at her twin. “I would have known. Besides all our new projects are out of state and I’m handling them.”
“She’s right,” Damon said. “He cleared his desk so his guest could have his full attention.”
“Did anyone check for phone calls?” Carl asked.
“How? Daddy refused to have an answering machine.” Bonnie walked to the living room. “Would someone do something? I can’t stand this.”
Damon followed her. “We could search the grounds unless that’s been done.”
Bonnie pressed her hands against her chest. “I have a bad feeling about this. I have to go home. If Daddy’s been kidnapped, I’ll have to cancel the party. What will people think if I do that two days before the event?”
“Not a good idea,” Carl said. “I’ve heard that when there’s a kidnapping people are supposed to live as though nothing’s happened.”
Bonnie nodded. “You’re right, but I don’t think I can pretend. What excuse could we give to explain his absence?”
An odd look passed between Bonnie and Carl. Something more than Lars’ disappearance was in the air.
“Is anyone coming with me?” Damon asked. “Carl? Don? You know this place better than I do.”
Don glanced at me. “Would you?”
“Stay with Megan, of course.”
Bonnie put on her fur coat and followed the men to the door. “I can’t stay here. I’ll be at home. If Daddy calls here, let me know. Oh, Aunt Katherine, if you decide to go home, we’ll understand.”
“Why would I do that?” She vanished before the question was out. Her departure was welcome. Some of the heaviness drained from the atmosphere. Something about her attitude troubled me. I wondered if she knew more than she had said.
Don’t be foolish. She’d never let anyone harm her father.
Since her mother’s death, Bonnie had clung to Lars. When she and Don had come here for college, Lars had moved to
to be near them.
Any time he stayed in the East for more than a month, she found a reason to
bring him rushing back. Santa Fe
I returned to the kitchen and found an eye roast in the freezer, then rummaged in the pantry for potatoes and onions. Cooking one of Lars’ favorite meals might nip my fears. In the refrigerator I found the ingredients for one of my chocolate cakes.
Megan sat on the floor beside a basket lined with towels where the kitten slept. Consuela must have made the nest before she left.
“Aunt Kaferine, where my pop?”
“I don’t know.”
She climbed on one of the chairs. “What you doing?”
“Making dinner and baking a cake. Want to help?”
She nodded. “Daddy don’t make cakes. He buy ‘em. Mommy did. Her and the baby fall a long way.” Tears trickled down her cheeks.
I hugged her. “It hurts when someone you love dies. I know you miss your Mommy, but I bet your daddy takes good care of you.”
She nodded. “I have bad dreams and cry real loud. He come and pet me.” She looked up. “Aunt Bonnie don’t like me. Her yell.”
“Does she now?”
“Her don’t like me bringing dirt in her house and making her ‘spensive fings messy. Her yell at Daddy. Then her cry and he say sorry.”
The child’s tales of her aunt’s behavior didn’t surprise me. Bonnie had always been overly selfish with her possessions. She’d also staged tearful tantrums to persuade her father and brothers to give Bonnie her way.
Her mother had curbed her willful daughter, but after Marie’s death, Lars had failed to provide the needed controls. Bonnie’s whims and demands had ruled the family. I’d often wondered if this had caused the coolness between Lars and his older sons.
I put the ingredients for the cake on the table. Using a towel, I improvised an apron for Megan so she wouldn’t get her pink jeans and shirt dirty. After seasoning the beef, I put it in the oven. Then we began the cake. Megan stirred while I added flour and sour cream to the egg, sugar and chocolate mixture. Soon the pans were in the oven. Megan watched while I peeled potatoes.
About an hour after the men left, Don returned. He sat at the table. Megan crawled onto his lap.
“Nothing.” He hugged his daughter. “Something smells good.”
“Would you and Megan like to stay for dinner?”
“Yes.” Megan looked at her father. “We make a cake.”
Don laughed. “Wouldn’t dream of missing a cake you baked, Button. Aunt Katherine, would you like to stay at our house tonight?”
“I’ll stay here. He might call.”
Doubt filled his eyes. Had he given up? I felt sure his thoughts were colored by memories of waiting for his wife to come home and then learning of her death.
“Rose Prairie can sleep with you,” Megan said.
“She’s your kitten and needs to get used to being at your house with you and your daddy.” I tested the cake to see if it was cool enough to ice.