Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Is he willing to fight?



PROLOGUE

France



September, 1918

He remembered a flash of light. Blinding brilliance like the sun reflecting off the snow in the mountains where he’d skied with his college fraternity brothers. Searing heat. A burning more intense than he’d ever felt from the early afternoon sun on the sandy beach where he’d frolicked as a half-naked boy. He forced his eyes open in the light of midday, but there was nothing. The darkness, blacker than any he’d ever experienced, terrified him. His mouth felt full of cotton. “Water,” he begged hoarsely. “Please...in God’s name... water!” The tin cup pressed against his lips was warm, and so was the water that trickled onto his tongue. “Who is it?”
“Rycroft, sir.”
“The others?”
“Dead.”
“My God.” Shock gave way to pain. He groaned.
“I thought you were, too, but then you moved. Rest easy, Captain Ashley. Help’s on the way.”
****
Brookston, New York
November, 1918

She sat unmoving, her rigid back pressed against the wooden slats of her mother’s low sewing chair. Her father caressed her small, delicate hands. “I’m so sorry, Lenore. I wish I could tell you that it’s a mistake, but here’s the telegram Mrs. Broome sent over.”
The young woman shook her head, gently at first, then so vigorously that her glossy black hair loosened from its pins and fell over her shoulders. “No. No!” She had been nineteen a few minutes ago when her father led her to the chair. Now, though she rocked her body rhythmically, reminiscent of her early childhood, her youth had fled.
****
Barnwell, Texas
May, 1920

“She’s a beautiful baby, Roberta. Just look at her.”
“I don’t want her. I never wanted her! I thought I was going to die. The pain was terrible!”
The man transferred his gaze from his new daughter to his wife. “Dr. Smithwick said you did very well.”
“Dr. Smithwick wasn’t lying here being ripped apart, and neither were you.” The woman’s
attractive face twisted in anger.
“Roberta...”
“Get out, Albert. Get out and take her with you. And send in the nurse.”
He did as he was told. Cradling the infant in his arms, he walked into the nursery he had furnished alone and laid her in the white wicker bassinet. “You’re my best little girl, you know, my shining star. Never forget that, sweetheart. Never.”
The doctor paused at the door. “She’s a fine, healthy girl, Rycroft. Your wife’s all right, too.”
Albert Rycroft didn’t look up. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow to check on both of them. Meanwhile, the nurse can handle things. Roberta says she doesn’t want to feed the baby.”
“No, I’ll take care of it.”
The doctor sighed. “Well, it would be better if...oh, maybe not. I don’t know. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He watched the new father bending over the cradle. “My beautiful little girl, my best little girl. You’re my shining star, you know. You’re Papa’s shining star.”
****

Brookston, New York
1921

Judge Amos Sutherland, recently retired from the New York State Supreme Court, turned the pages of the thick file on his desk as he contemplated his first case since returning to private practice. The will he had just finished reading for the second time was straightforward; the pending litigation seemed without merit. He had known Alan Ashley, Sr. and disliked him intensely. He wondered if the son, to whom everything had been left, was anything like the father, though it didn’t really matter. It was for Samuel Bernard, a former student and clerk, now counsel for the son, that he had agreed to serve as co-counsel when Ashley Senior’s nephews decided, belatedly, to contest the will. “I won’t argue the case for you,” he told the younger attorney. “Turning this over to me would be a clear admission that you don’t feel competent to represent your client.”
“I don’t. Frankly, I’m terrified at the idea of going up against Trotham and Dunbar.”
“All you have to do is prove your case.”
“I’m not in their league. I didn’t even go to law school.”
“You read law with me and passed the bar on your first try. Don’t sell yourself short, Samuel.”
“I’m just being realistic.”
“The will is straightforward. Everything belongs to the son.”
“I know that, but they’re saying he can’t successfully assume the directorship of Ashley Enterprises because he’s blind.”
“Can he?”
“Of course. He studied business at Harvard and graduated summa cum laude, then took an advanced degree before enlisting in 1918. He’s spent the past two years at the Institute for the Blind, learning Braille and every other method that’s available for adapting to a sightless world.” Sam pounded his fist into his palm once, then again.
“Is he as angry as you are?” The judge sat back in his cracked leather chair, his faded eyes boring into Sam’s.
“I’m sorry. I lost control.”
“Not a good thing to do, especially in the courtroom.”
“I know, and to answer your question, yes. Yes, Alan’s angry about everything. His blindness, the fact that his fiancĂ©e broke their engagement because of it, how my father has betrayed him...and I don’t blame him.”
“Perhaps not, but you’ll counsel him against displaying his emotions, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“All right. I’ve looked at the will. Now tell me why they think it can be broken almost ten years later, and how they plan to do it.”
“Percy’s and Geordie’s father was Alan’s uncle and a partner in Ashley Enterprises until 1910, when he sold his interest to his brother. My father moved up as second-in-command. Two years later, when Mr. Ashley and his wife were killed, Father took charge because Alan was still in school. He was also Alan’s guardian. That was eight years ago. But he should have known that Alan would step up as soon as he could.”
“Perhaps he didn’t want to know.”
The quick mottling of Sam’s neck crept into his face. “My father has always liked being in charge of everything and everyone.”
“He opposed your marriage, I understand.”
“That’s putting it mildly.
“But you married Ellen despite the opposition.”
“I have no regrets. She’s everything to me.”
“I’m pleased that you’re happy. Now about the cousins.”
“Their father died two years after Alan’s parents, and they ran through their inheritance within a few years. Now they see an opportunity to recoup their fortunes. They told my father that if they were in charge, he could remain in the directorship, but they’d draw the lion’s share of the profits after expenses.”
“Those profits are considerable?”
“Ashley Enterprises is worth several million dollars—without the subsidiary holdings.”
“How do you know?”
“Alan requested the books when he came back, and Jerome Vannoy, the comptroller, thinking that Alan was going to step in immediately, produced them. Alan and I went over them carefully before my father found out and told Jerome to get them back.”
“Were there any irregularities?”
“I’m not an accountant, but they seemed in order to me.”
“Tell me about Jerome Vannoy.”
“He’s a few years older than Alan. In fact, they knew each other slightly at Harvard. Alan seems to think he’s honest. I suppose I trust him as much as I trust anyone at this point.”
“So your father and the cousins are going after Alan on the grounds that he’s incompetent because of his disability.”
“I don’t want it to come to trial for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it would be an additional humiliation for Alan, in view of everything he’s experienced already.”
“I don’t think they have grounds to bring it to trial.”
“Their attorneys, Trotham and Dunbar, seem to think so.”
“Well, the legal-beagles will profit, in any case. What do they bill an hour?”
“I couldn’t begin to guess. More than I do.” Sam ran his hand through his hair. “I really need your help.”
“Young Mr. Ashley is willing to fight?”
“To the death, he says.”
“All right. I’ll speak with him. But remember, this is your case. Because of the Ashley name, it will get a great deal of notice all over the state. When you win it, your career will be assured.”
“Don’t you mean if I win it?”
“Unless these men know something we don’t, they haven’t a prayer.” He glanced at the young woman sitting a few feet away with her stenographer’s pad. “Did you get all of this, Miss Seldon?”
“Yes, sir, I believe so.”
“Make a typewritten copy and a carbon. I’ll want you to go with me to Rumers Crossing tomorrow. If your mother is concerned, assure her that Mrs. Sutherland will make a proper chaperone and that you won’t have time to get into any trouble.”
Lenore Seldon’s normally pale face took on more color. “I’m sure Mother won’t have any concerns, sir. How long will we be there?”
“A week, perhaps. I don’t think it’s going to take that long, but we’ll prepare for all
eventualities.” He lifted his spare frame from the chair and addressed himself to Sam again. “Go back and tell young Mr. Ashley that he needs to decide on something for your father, whether it be a settlement or outright dismissal, and I’d advise you to learn whatever you can about where the loyalties of the others in the executive offices lie. If Ashley Enterprises needs to be restructured, it will fall to your friend to do it. He’ll need an independent audit of the books immediately. I’ll subpoena them if necessary.”
“I can’t tell you what a relief this is, sir. I was in well over my head.”
“Up to your eyebrows, perhaps, but not completely over your head.” The judge chuckled. “Don’t worry, Samuel. You were one of my brightest clerks on the court. I was sorry to lose you. Your practice is going well, I take it?”
“Ellen grew up poor, so she knows how to manage. We aren’t starving.”
“You’ll appreciate good times more, having experienced the lean ones.” He extended his hand. “All right. I’ll see you in Rumers Crossing tomorrow. There’s still only one hotel, I suppose.”
“It’s not elegant, but you’ll be comfortable enough. I’ll make your reservations as soon as I get back this afternoon.”

TOMORROW:

Alan and Lenore meet for the first time under less-than-optimal circumstances. Has he finally met his match in this quiet, unassuming young legal secretary?

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