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Authors: Mary Campisi

Tags: #Romance

Simple Riches

BOOK: Simple Riches
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Dedication

To my mother—the inspiration behind Stella Androvich’s wisdom and skill in the kitchen. May you continue to feed our minds, bodies, and spirits for many years to come.

 

 

Prologue

She stared out the window, waiting. They would be back soon, wet and dripping from the water and then it would be time for breakfast. Oatmeal with yellow raisins, two sprinkles of brown sugar. Her stomach grumbled. She leaned forward, pressed her nose against the glass. The water was dark today, the waves loud and mean looking, like a lion roaring when they hit the rocks and burst apart. She wished she could run outside right now, in her nightgown, fast, all the way down to the beach, with the sand between her toes, the salt stinging her face as she flung herself into the water. But she’d promised them she wouldn’t.
Next year
, Daddy told her.
Next year, you can come with us and I’ll show you what heaven looks like.

She couldn’t wait until she was nine, then she could go with them, see what they saw, see Daddy’s heaven. Just the three of them. It had always been that way, unless she counted Chessie next door. She guessed she was as close to a relative as she had. Chessie was like an aunt, kind of big, with a soft voice and a shiny black braid. She’d miss her when they left next week, but Chessie said she’d save all the best seashells for when they came back next summer.

Her stomach growled again. She squinted out the window. Maybe she should go to Chessie’s, bring over the oatmeal and raisins, see if she’d fix them, maybe give her an extra sprinkle of brown sugar. Maybe… no, she would wait.

She picked up the mirror Mommy and Daddy had given her yesterday. It was blue and green with a long handle and the most beautiful jewels all around; red, green, blue, yellow—sparkly and bright. She turned it from side to side, stared into it, blew her breath onto it.
The true jewel is in the mirror
, her father had said.
Look into it, Alexandra, look into it and see the jewel.
Where? Where was it? Where?

The red numbers on the clock moved forward, one click at a time… 8:24…8:32…8:51. She put the mirror down, got up and went into the kitchen, grabbed a graham cracker from the cupboard. 9:11…915. Nibble, nibble, nibble. 9:38…9:59…10:00. She brushed her hands against each other, watched the sugary crumbs fall in her lap.

Maybe she should go down to the beach, dig for sand crabs, look for her parents. Maybe… no, she would wait.

10:05…10:07…10:13. She pressed her nose against the glass again, harder this time. Her eyes were starting to burn, like they did when she got suntan lotion in them. Mommy knew how to take care of that… she put drops in and told her to blink, blink, blink. Daddy told her to cry and it would wash everything away. She swiped a hand across her nose.
I’m crying now, Daddy. See? I’m crying now and it still hurts
.

Maybe something was wrong… wrong, wrong, …
very
wrong. At 10:29, she jumped up and ran out of the house.

***

“Look at her.” The woman with the shiny necklace and smelly perfume shook her head. “That blond hair all knotted up… and those feet. They’re filthy. She looks like an urchin, Walter.”

The man, tall with a deep voice, said, “Not in front of the child, Helen.”

“Oh, Walter, for heaven’s sake, she hasn’t spoken a word since we got here. For all we know there’s something wrong with her. A genetic malformation…” The woman patted her big, yellow-white hair in place. “Who knows? Between that brother of yours and that Russian woman”—her voice dropped—“she could be deficient.”

“Peter had the IQ of a genius,” the man said. “And Nadia certainly was more than borderline functional.”

“You know what I mean.”

The man pinched the top of his nose, let out a long breath. “What I know is that my brother and his wife are dead and this child is headed for the orphanage if we don’t take her in.”

The woman named Helen sniffed, her blue eyes darting to the corner. “I don’t think we should rush things. Couldn’t we at least have her tested? Just to be certain there isn’t a deficit of some sort.”

“There’s no deficit,” the man said, his voice stiff. “She’s just lost her parents for God’s sake. She doesn’t know us from the stranger on the street. How do you expect her to act?”

The woman pinched her red lips together. “I’m sure I have no idea. I never had a brother who slept under the stars and believed in Karma. For all we know, she’s been weaned on magic mushrooms and has no brain cells left.”

“Peter was an artist, not a junkie.”

The woman laughed. “Walter, this self-righteous attitude does not become you.” Pause. “Or is that guilt I hear?”

“That’s enough.”

She ignored him, laughed again. “It
is
guilt. I think I’ll bask in the glory of it. The great Walter Chamberlain in a moment of guilt. How utterly… unique.”

“I said that’s enough.”

“I’m not going to be stuck with this child because you feel guilty about cutting your brother off from the family money. Neither should you. You gave him a choice and he took it.”

“I thought he’d come back.” The man ran his hands over his face and his words softened. “After a month, maybe two…”

“He didn’t want the money, Walter.”

“But he could have had anything. Instead, he chose
this
?” He swept a hand around the room. There was a red and gold couch, three folding chairs and an easel. “
This
is what he wanted?”

The woman walked up to him, raised her face to meet his. “He wanted freedom, the one thing you couldn’t give him… or take away from him.” She stepped back, opened her purse. “I’m going outside for a cigarette while you decide what to do about her.”

The girl hugged her knees closer, her eyes following the lady’s yellowish-white head out the door. They’d been talking about her. The tall man named Walter looked like Daddy in an old kind of way. Uncle Walter and Aunt Helen. That’s what they’d called themselves. How could they be her aunt and uncle? She didn’t have any relatives. Just Mommy and Daddy and herself. Just the three of them. That’s all it had ever been
. Mommy! Daddy! Come back!

“Alexandra?” The man, Uncle Walter, was looking down at her.

She lifted her head, stared back at him. Maybe the policeman was wrong. Maybe the man and woman they found washed up on the beach three days ago weren’t really her parents after all. Maybe they just looked like them… Maybe…

“Alexandra?” he said again. “Do you hear me? Can you understand me?”

Uncle Walter had said something about losing somebody. Maybe Mommy and Daddy were just lost. Maybe he was going to help find them.

“Aunt Helen and I are going to take you back with us… to Virginia.”

She opened her mouth. “Mommy…” She sucked in a gulp of air. “Daddy…”

He shook his head. His hair was the same brown as Daddy’s. “I’m sorry, Alexandra. They’re gone.”

Gone.
“Can you find them?”

“No. I can’t.” He looked out the window, toward the ocean. “They’re in heaven now.”

She bit her lip, hard, harder.
They’re in heaven now…
The sound of the waves beat in her ears…
heaven… heaven… heaven.

“I promise you, Alexandra, I’ll make it up to you.” Her uncle’s voice reached her from far away. “I’ll give you everything that should have been your father’s. He didn’t want it, but you will. You’ll see…”

 

 

Chapter 1

Arlington, VA

26 years later

“You’ll save the maple tree, won’t you?” The man rested his hands on the desk. His fingers were gnarled and weather-beaten, the nails thick with yellow deposits. “You know,” he said, his faded blue eyes on Alex, “the one I showed you yesterday.”

Alex looked away and rifled through the papers in front of her. This was the part she hated the most, looking into their eyes, seeing the loss, the pain of leaving, the agony of knowing their homes would be bulldozed. Gone. Nothing left but snap shots, bunches of them, stuffed in shoeboxes or photo albums in a vain attempt to hold onto a moment in time that would prove as elusive as a grain of sand. Some left the remembering inside their head, buried under layers of inconsequential nothingness, crowded between mounds of garbled data. Underneath it all, crammed together was a history,
a life—
a remembering that faded and disintegrated with time.

Was it really so much to ask that a tree be saved? At least it could serve as a landmark for what had been before, a compass of sorts to lead generations of families back to their ancestral home. A simple tree. “I made note of it,” Alex said. “And we’ll certainly try—”

“Mr. Oshanski”—her associate, Eric Haines, cut her off in his typical lawyer style—“we’ll make every attempt to save your tree.” He smiled, a quick flash of white, before adding, “And hundreds of others like it.”

The old man leaned back in his chair, blew out a long breath. “My father planted that tree when my sister, Emma, died. She was only two. Scarlet fever, they said.” He stared at his hands, clasped them together. “He told us it was Emma’s tree and every time we looked at it, we should think of her.”

They could promise to save one tree, couldn’t they? Alex looked at Eric, waited for him to tell Mr. Oshanski he’d make certain the tree stayed. For Emma. But Eric was already shuffling through the document in front of him, reaching for his pen.

“We’ll see what we can do. Now, let’s get the rest of this paperwork out of the way and we’ll be all set.”

The old man smiled at them. “Thank you.” His eyes were wet. “Thank you for doing this for me. For Emma.” He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. Twenty minutes later, Mr. Oshanski shuffled out of Alex’s office, a cane in one hand, a check in the other.

“We just made Leonard Oshanski one rich old man.” Eric tossed his pen on the desk, leaned back, and clasped his hands behind his head.

Alex fiddled with her own pen, a Montblanc, black with gold. “You did mean what you said to him, didn’t you? About saving the tree?”

“Why do you always doubt me, Alex? Of course, I meant it.”

She nodded. “Good.”

“It’ll never happen, though. You can’t bulldoze
around
one tree. Think of the time and money it would cost.” He shrugged. “Even if that wasn’t an issue, the heavy equipment would kill the roots. The tree would never make it and then, somewhere along the line, you’d have to come back in and dig it out. More time and even more expense.”

Alex stared at him, wondering how she’d ever thought there was a soft side to this man. How could she not have noticed the pauses, so calculated, the way he played with words, spoken and unspoken, twisting and massaging them to create his own justifications, state his own case? He was a lawyer, and a damn good one. Negotiation was his forte. That’s why WEC Management employed him as legal counsel and that’s why it was one of the premier developers of exclusive vacation resorts in the country. Eric Haines knew how to make his words come out in a voice that wrapped itself around the listener, soothing, calming, lulling. There was something about the way he looked at a person, as though they really mattered, as though
he
really cared. He could convince them that signing over their property was the right choice, the noble choice, for the betterment of family and personal interests. And it all seemed so genuine, so damn real, that people believed him. Even people who knew better.

“So, basically, you had no intention of saving that tree?”

Eric sat up, rifled a hand through his hair. It was a pale gold color, like wheat in a field. “Why is it that every time we finish a deal, you go through this thirty-second guilt trip, which by the way only lasts until Walter gives you his ‘well done’ nod and you see your name in the
Wall Street Journal
?”

“It’s not a guilt trip.” She stared down at Leonard Oshanski’s signature. Each letter was well formed, written with pride and confidence that right would be done. “The man just signed over thirty-three acres of land and all he’s asking is that you save one tree.”

“Wait a minute.” Eric slid his wire-rimmed glasses to the bridge of his nose. “He received a chunk of money for those thirty-three acres. Let’s not pretend it was a charitable donation.”

“I know that.” Money. It was always about money.

“And you heard me say I’d try.” He shrugged. “So I will, but I’m telling you the architect is going to laugh in my face.” His voice softened, “I’ll buy the old man a new tree. You can pick it out. What kind did he say it was, again?”

“Maple. And it wouldn’t be the same.”

“Says who? We’ll get the same size, plant it in the same spot, who would be the wiser?”

She stared at him. “Well, we would for one.”

“It’s a damn tree. Next, people will be asking us to leave their flower patches or mark off the spot where they buried Fido.” He reached out, touched her hand. “This is business. We make deals, both sides get what they want, but neither side gets everything. That’s what makes a good deal. Compromise, so nobody feels like they’re getting screwed.”

Alex sighed. “I know. It’s just the look on his face… it was so sad.”

“I’d like to see how sad he is when he takes that check to the bank.”

She sat there, watching his fingers lightly stroke the back of her hand and felt nothing. It had been a long time, sixteen months to be exact, since she’d had any emotions where Eric Haines was concerned. She pulled her hand away, slid it into her lap.

He pretended not to notice. “Just wait until Walter hears the deal is final. Then I’ll have to listen to how his niece once again exercised brilliance and strategy in the selection of a WEC resort.”

Uncle Walter would be proud, though he’d never come right out and say it. She could expect a hefty bonus and a handful of prospectus regarding mutual funds, as well as annual reports on his latest stock picks. He spread charts and other investment data in front of her like a grandfather showing off pictures of his grandchildren, with a warm gentleness and overriding concern. She would never dream of telling him that at thirty-four, with an MBA from Wharton, she didn’t need his recommendations.

“So let’s go find Walter and tell him the news,” Eric said.

“Sure.” No sense mentioning Mr. Oshanski’s tree. She already knew what her uncle would say.
There’s no room in business for sentiment, Alex. Once you start letting your heart rule your decisions instead of your head, you might as well close up shop, because you’re as good as done. Bankruptcy court will be waiting with your name on the docket.

“Then maybe you and I can go celebrate,” Eric said, his voice dipping. “Pop open a bottle of champagne, go to Emilio’s for fettuccine primavera.”

“Eric.”

“Come on, Alex”—the softness was gone—“how long are you going to punish me for one stupid mistake?”

She met his blue gaze. “I’m not punishing you, Eric. I’m just not interested.” And it was true; finally, after all of these months it had become more than just a handful of rote sentences. It had become the truth.

“Christ, Alex, I made a mistake.” He leaned forward, splayed his tanned fingers across her desk. “I want to be with you… I love you.”

Love? What did he know about love? For that matter, what did she know about it? Alex shook her head, priding herself on how well she maintained control, how she had come to terms with the whole situation without the aid of anyone—therapist, family, friend. “I’m sorry.”

“She didn’t mean anything, I told you that.” Frustration crept into his voice. “Why won’t you believe me?”

“I do believe you, but it doesn’t matter now. It only mattered before, before you hopped into bed with Miss September.”

“Christ.”

“Why can’t we just let the past go, all of it? I respect you as a lawyer, and you’re a valuable asset to the company, but you’re no longer a part of my personal life.”

“But I could be if you’d only let me.” He turned his hands over, palm side facing up. “We could take it slow. I wouldn’t even press you to get married again, not right away.”

“I don’t love you anymore, Eric.” Why couldn’t he just let it go?

“That could come back given time.” His voice turned persuasive. “Even Walter thinks so.”

Alex clenched her hands in her lap, sucked in a deep breath. “Don’t you dare get him started again.”

He threw her an innocent look. “Take it easy, okay? I didn’t say anything.” He shrugged. “Can I help it if he thinks you made a huge mistake when you divorced me?”

“He wouldn’t think so if he knew the truth.” If Uncle Walter knew about Eric and his playboy bunny, he’d fire him, no questions asked. He would, wouldn’t he? No matter how important Eric was to WEC Management, family still came first. Didn’t it?
Well, didn’t it
?

“Then I guess I’ll count myself lucky that your loyalty to the company overrides your personal feelings.”

“Uncle Walter depends on you. Why disrupt the infrastructure of the company because of our…”—she searched for the right words—“personal differences?” Besides, just the thought of confiding the truth to her uncle turned her stomach.
Eric chose a silicone-enhanced woman with collagen-injected lips and a 1.8 GPA over me, Uncle Walter, over me!
It was too humiliating, too degrading to even consider. Alex knew all about Miss September, Tanya Wells, had studied her as though she were preparing to present her Master’s thesis; born Tanya Lynnette Welleshanko in Tulsa, Oklahoma, age, 23, height, 5’ 9”, weight, 108 lbs., college, attended OSU three years, majoring in Communications. Currently employed as a hostess at Outback Steakhouse in Tulsa. Participated in Playboy’s College Search during her sophomore year, selected for September issue. Favorite color, pale pink. Favorite food, McDonald’s French fries dipped in a chocolate milkshake.
Gag!

And then there was the other reason, the one even she didn’t like to think about. What if she told Uncle Walter the truth and he
didn’t
fire Eric? What if he decided Eric’s little indiscretion shouldn’t interfere with the company, and continued on as though nothing had happened? Uncle Walter loved her even though he never said it.
But the company was his whole life
and she did not want to be pitted against it for his allegiance, mostly because deep down, she feared she might lose.

So she pretended her divorce fell under the blanket of ‘irreconcilable differences’ ranging from
I didn’t like the way he squeezed the toothpaste
to
marriage was too intimate a relationship for me.

“Alex?”

“What?” She looked up, pushed the past away. “What?”

He was studying her, his blue eyes intent behind his glasses. “I know I screwed up, but I’m not giving up on us. I won’t quit until I have you back.”

“Eric—”

A knock on the door cut her off. Walter Eugene Chamberlain, CEO of WEC Management, poked his head in and said, “Well, should I call Armand and tell him to chill the champagne?”

“Tell him two bottles,” Eric said, grinning.

“He agreed to everything?”

“Yes,” Alex said, avoiding Eric’s gaze. Her uncle wasn’t interested in anything as inconsequential as an old man’s sentimental fondness for a tree.

“Good. Very good.” He smiled, a sliver of upturned lips, and settled himself in the chair next to Eric. “This is going to be a phenomenal addition to Krystal Springs.”

“Preliminary projections indicate revenue will almost double once the ski lodge is in place,” Alex said. “Krystal Springs could be our most profitable venture yet.”

Her uncle’s smile spread, bit by bit. Talk about development and rate of return could do that to him. When he smiled, which wasn’t often, his thin lips pulled across his face in a slow, calculated manner, as though at sixty-four years of age, he still wasn’t comfortable with the exercise. He was a handsome man, his skin golden from hours spent on the green, his pale blue eyes sharp, his silver hair neat and tapered from weekly trims, his nose long and straight, his body, tall and erect. Walter Chamberlain was like a father to Alex, fitting the role with more ease and right than her real father, who, with each passing year became less reality and more of a scattered memory, torn with gaping holes. She had nothing, not even a picture to remember him or her mother by. Only memories that faded and an old chipped mirror they’d given her when she was eight, a few days before they died.

“I want you to run the numbers again, use an eight percent rate of return, see what that does,” he said.

Alex jotted a note on her legal pad. “I’ll get it to you this afternoon.”

“And I’ll have Sylvia make lunch reservations at Emilio’s,” Eric said, standing. “With two bottles of Dom Perignon.”

When he left, Uncle Walter stretched out his legs and sighed. “Ah, Alex, there’s nothing like the thrill of a good deal pulsing through your veins to keep you going.”

She smiled. “I think
any
deal, good or bad, would keep you going, Uncle Walter.”

His mouth twitched. “True, but you aren’t much different than me, young lady. You love the chase as much as I do.”

He was right, of course. She did enjoy the challenge of finding locations for WEC resorts. It was like putting together a thousand-piece puzzle of an ocean where three quarters of the pieces were blue, a slightly different shade perhaps, but still blue. Selecting the ideal site was a lot like that, at least initially. There was only one major criterion, the same one for every project—the location needed to be within a one-hour proximity to a metropolitan area. Once Alex established those boundaries, she gathered charts, maps, and graphs, studied water tables, terrain, and climates. Depending on the type of resort they were considering, summer, winter or a combination, she made her initial recommendations and then went to scout out the place.

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