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Sylvie was fighting the urge to throw her laptop.  All that work down the toilet!  She’d been trying to uncover something in Connor’s friends’ backgrounds to indicate one of them was capable of murder.  No such luck!  She’d gone back and taken another look at all the research she’d done on them and found…zilch!  The only fact she’d discovered was that all his friends had been legacy students at Collegiate.  All the male members of their respective families had attended the school.  Fathers, grandfathers, brothers.  The same was true of Jameson and the Frommer boys.  Connor was the only exception.  His dad had attended a less prestigious prep school in the city.  By his friends’ standards, Connor’s family wasn’t wealthy at all.  They were just getting by.  Their lifestyle was hardly opulent.  They only owned two houses and didn’t even have a yacht.  His friends came from old money; their families filthy rich for generations.  It must have been difficult for them to see this interloper come into a school their families had endowed for years and best them.  And best them he did…at everything!  Especially as they got older.  Drake’s elder brothers, father, and grandfather had all been captains of the high school basketball and track teams or class presidents in their time.  Drake didn’t get that opportunity.  Connor took those positions, all of them.  Sean had a similar experience when he lost out to Connor for Lacrosse team captain and student council president, a position his father had once held.  Jameson also lost the position to Connor.  Which probably infuriated him, since he was a senior and Connor was only a junior.  Connor vied with him for captain and high scorer on the basketball and lacrosse teams too.  Connor won handily.  The only thing Jameson was better at was baseball.  By all accounts, his friends were superior athletes too, but it was Connor who was moved up to the varsity teams while still a sophomore.  The rest of them languished on the school’s JV squads another year before moving up.  Connor excelled academically too.  He was the valedictorian of his class with an overall average of 96.5 and gave a speech at their commencement.  He’d squeaked by Nathan, whose father, and his father before him, had held that honor.  Poor Nathan, second best with an average of 96.1, became the salutatorian and sat through his graduation without being allowed to speak.

Sylvie could see why they’d be jealous of Connor’s prowess and accomplishments back then.  She also realized that was likely the source of their continuing rivalry today.  But nothing that happened years ago could be construed as a valid motive for murder.  Hell, it was only high school.  Everybody knows high school doesn’t matter!

She’d managed to unearth some interesting tidbits, however.

Good old Nathan had been accused of possible date rape while in college.  A female classmate of his had gone to a kegger at his fraternity.  She’d gotten shitfaced and passed out.  The following morning she’d awakened to find herself in bed naked with Nathan.  He said the sex had been consensual.  She said it was rape.  Campus security investigated, but he was never charged.

There’d been two similar allegations lodged against Sean while he was in college.  But nothing ever came of them either.  Three years ago a female employee of his accused him of sexual harassment.  Sylvie didn’t know the specifics; just that it was settled out of court.  Another woman accused him of attempted rape five years ago.  She found the initial article, but nothing more.  Sylvie had no idea what the outcome was.

Jameson had a wrongful termination suit brought against him.  Seems he’d been sleeping with one of his underlings and when she decided to end it, he’d fired her.  That one was settled out of court too.

These guys all seemed to have problems keeping their peckers in their pants!

Sylvie wasn’t sure if these were legitimate accusations, or whether the men had been targeted and accused simply because they were rich.  The women involved might have been trying to shake them down, figuring they and their families wouldn’t want a scandal.  None of the accusations  resulted in criminal charges.

She also came upon two very interesting pieces of information she hadn’t previously been aware of.  The first was that Alex and his family were estranged.  He’d fought his father and brothers for control of his old man’s billion dollar real estate empire and had callously thrown them out of the business.  His dad died shortly thereafter.  One of the articles she read said his father had suffered a fatal heart attack while meeting with members of the corporation’s board of directors.  He’d been attempting to win their support to take back his company.  With a son like that, who needs enemies?  Alex was a real snake!  He’d always given her the creeps.  Now she knew why.

It was the information on Drake that surprised her the most.  She’d thought he was a hard charger like the rest of his friends, but nothing could be further from the truth.  He’d inherited tens of millions from his grandparents and other relatives.  His net worth was estimated at a half billion dollars.  Drake was related by blood to 25 of the richest and most prominent families in the country.  Money that was passed down from generation to generation.  There were presidents, vice presidents, governors, senators, and ambassadors in his family tree.  With all his wealth and education, you’d think he’d be involved in the day-to-day operation of his family’s corporation.  But he wasn’t.  His father and brothers ran it.  He’d been sidelined after a short stint as a corporate vice president, and given the dubious honor of running the family’s charitable foundations.  Like Sean, he’d sowed a lot of wild oats in his time.  Problem was he was still sowing them.  Drake had been cited for speeding on numerous occasions, making frequent appearances in traffic court, and had lost his license at least twice.  The accident he’d had on the LIE when he was a teen was nothing compared to those he had later on.  He’d totaled Maseratis and Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris.  One of the accidents had paralyzed a woman for life.  Not to be outdone by his skeevy friends, he’d also been accused of sexual assault…inappropriate touching.  It happened on wet T-shirt night at an off-campus bar while he was in college.  Drake had gotten drunk and tried to feel up one of the contestants.  The cops were called, but nothing was done.  Five years ago he was accused of attempted rape.  Sylvie didn’t like Drake; but after reading the account that appeared in the paper, even she had to admit it sounded like a setup.  The woman was most likely trying to extort money from him.  The cops must have felt that way too, because he was never charged.  Aside from fast cars and fast women, Drake’s main pursuits seemed to be golf, skiing, running 5K races and marathons, attending yachting events, and horses.  He owned and bred both race and show horses.

Sylvie had to admit, for all their faults and shortcomings; it was unlikely that any of them was the serial killer.  Assholes?  Yes!  Murderers?  Probably not!

Still, she had a gut feeling about this that wouldn’t go away.  Then again, maybe she was just a freaking lunatic, grasping at straws!  She’d spent the last two days sniffing soap until she was so nauseous she nearly puked.  Were these the actions of a rational woman?  Connor might be right.  He said her obsession with the case had taken over her life.  He accused her of conducting a vendetta against his friends and old classmates.  All her research, all her suspicions, focused solely on them and no one else.  ‘It isn’t fair and it isn’t right,’ he lectured her, hoping to appeal to her better angels.  ‘I want you to stay out of it and let the experts, the investigators do their jobs!’ he’d warned.  He told her he was on the verge of  taking away her laptop and forbidding her from doing anymore internet snooping.  He was also planning to beat her ass if she didn’t cut it out!

The thing he didn’t seem to grasp, the thing no one seemed to understand, was that she had a stake in the case.  The biggest stake of all!  Sylvie wasn’t doing it to be mean or vindictive.  Or because she was jealous of their wealth or position.  She was just trying to unmask a murderer!  It wasn’t him or the cops, or the FBI, or the private detectives this maniac tried to kill.  It was her!  She had every right to want to get this motherfucker; and if that was obsession, so be it!

She’d promised Connor she’d be on her best behavior when they arrived.  They’d be here for dinner at 7 tonight.  She wasn’t looking forward to it.  Sylvie thought they’d be coming Wednesday morning.  She hadn’t realized they’d show up today.  Sylvie could only tolerate these guys in small doses.  The last thing she wanted was to have those idiots underfoot, bending her ear, bragging and boasting, acting like a bunch of drunken frat boys!  If these were the best and brightest America had to offer, our titans of industry and commerce…we were screwed!

Tomorrow morning they’d be here at the crack of dawn for a big breakfast before they set out to hook, torture, and maim their limit of fish.  They’d return in the evening to gorge on broiled trout and then they’d leave.  It couldn’t happen soon enough for Sylvie.  As it was, she’d better get used to having them around.  They were Connor’s best friends, after all, and he was loyal to them.  Sylvie didn’t have any friends, only family.  Maybe that’s why she didn’t understand the friendship dynamic at play here.  Her suspicions aside, she hoped it wasn’t one of his friends for Connors sake.  He’d be devastated.

He was in a really crappy mood today.  She was making it a point to stay out of his way.  Lettie called to announce that she and Warren had gotten married.  Sylvie thought he’d be happy for them, but he was miffed that they’d married without consulting him.  He thought it highly improper that Warren would go ahead with the nuptials without asking his permission first.  She would have told him that was a stupid, antiquated, paternalistic notion, harkening back to the bad old days when women were viewed as chattel, except she’d learned that Connor had done just that.  He’d called her father and asked his permission before proposing to Sylvie.  OK so he was old-fashioned.  But Sylvie was 26!  Lettie was in her 70s and had already been married three times.  It was a little different.  What was Connor complaining about anyway?  He liked Warren.  Sylvie advised him to ‘get over it’ and then called the happy couple to offer her congratulations and wish them well.

She grabbed the palm-sized tape recorder off her desk.  Her witchdoctors had decreed that she needed an hour of fresh air every day.  That was all well and good when she was in warm and sunny Belize; but she was in freezing, cold, upstate New York now.  They were so worried about her lungs and yet they kicked her out the door every day to freeze her ass off, get frostbite, and possibly catch pneumonia?  Where was the sense in that?  But Connor insisted.  ‘It’s for your own good!’ he said.  Oh Please!  He also demanded she get to work on a sequel to Intimate Pleasures.  ‘The readers won’t wait forever you know!’  He said it would take her mind off the investigation.  As if!

He was also pushing her to make some decisions about the wedding.  What decisions?  She wanted to elope!  But Connor was thinking of a June wedding where they’d be surrounded by friends and family.  She’d made the mistake of telling Sara that, and her sister had once again morphed into her wedding planner Nazi persona.  ‘Leave it to me,’ she’d told Sylvie.  Wrong!  Sylvie didn’t want to leave it to her.  This was her wedding.  She was being hounded day and night by that infuriating woman.  Phone calls!  Emails!  It was driving Sylvie berserk.  If she had to have a traditional wedding, then she wanted it to be small and simple.  Out on the back lawn here.  Or in the meadow on her dad’s farm.  She didn’t want an extravaganza.  The wedding would be low key.  Tasteful.  Sara originally thought it should be a formal black and white wedding, with men in tuxedos and women in long summer gowns.  What part of simple didn’t she understand?  Sara was upset that Sylvie wasn’t sharing her vision.  Too frigging bad!  Sara had done the same thing to Leona–just barged right in and taken over her and her dad’s wedding.  Not this time!  She wasn’t going to  be steamrolled by her sister.  Sylvie told her thanks, but no thanks!  She’d pick the wedding colors herself and get back to her.

Sylvie studied the digital voice recorder in her hand.  Connor had given it to her, saying the recorder would make her time outdoors more productive.  She could dictate ideas, scenes, and dialogue for her new book while her hands stayed warm in her gloves or mittens.  What the hell, she’d give it a shot.

She waved good-bye to Connor as she passed by his office, pointing to the window and the broad expanse of yard outside.  He nodded and then returned to his conference call.  There was a problem about which actress would be the voice of Fiona the Fumbling Fairy Princess in the new animated movie they were making.  Their first choice had upped the ante and was now demanding a percentage of the movie’s gross profits.  Second choice wasn’t nearly as greedy, but she had a prior commitment and had to complete another movie before beginning work on Fiona.  That would delay the movie’s release date.  The film company and producers didn’t want that, so they were currently considering choice number three.

Sylvie peered out the window.  Brrrr!  It looked really cold out there today.  The wind was blowing, causing the crystalline snow to swirl, forming little whirling funnel clouds around the back yard.  Sylvie didn’t really want to go out in this weather, but she’d never hear the end of it if she didn’t.  She got her coat from the closet; along with her hat, scarf, and mittens, and headed downstairs.  She might be nuts, but it always felt colder sitting on the upstairs deck then it did on the downstairs patio.  She was sure it must have something to do with the wind.  But the way the snow was blowing around, she wouldn’t be comfortable sitting anywhere.  Maybe she’d just take a stroll down to the lake and see if anybody was out on the ice today at the fishing huts.  Sometimes she could see smoke rising from the outhouse-sized structures, but she never saw actual people around.  With the weather being what it was, it would be a couple of weeks before the ice began to melt and the shacks disappeared.  The ice was extra thick this year because of the polar vortex that had kept the area in a deep freeze most of the winter..  One of the groundsmen had cleared a path down to the boathouse so she wouldn’t have to struggle through the snow.  The exercise would keep her warm and she could still dictate while she walked.  She was passing through the game room on her way outside when she heard Estelle humming in Connor’s man cave–the gun and trophy room.

‘Estelle, what are you doing in here?’ Sylvie inquired, peeking through the doorway.  They both avoided the room like the plague.  The décor left a lot to be desired.  The stuffed animals hanging on the walls and sitting on the floor seemed to stare at you.  It gave her the willies!  The room held specially made cabinets filled with guns of every caliber and description.  Rifles, shotguns, handguns; even antique six-shooters and little one-shot derringers.  Aunt Tiz would be green with envy.

‘I’m cleaning the glass doors on the gun cabinets.  They need to be washed inside and out.  It’s a tradition that the men assemble here the night before opening day for drinks and cigars after dinner.  Mr. Hudson is very particular and likes the room to be immaculate when his guests arrive.  The glass sparkling, the guns dusted, all the wood surfaces polished and gleaming, the leather wiped down and buffed.  He and his friends like to sit and reminisce about their various exploits and adventures.  They’ve done a lot of hunting, fishing, and exploring over the years.  You see that brook trout mounted over on the far wall?’ she asked pointing in that direction.  ‘It was taken on opening day four years ago.  Mr. Hudson is very proud of it.  It weighed over five pounds.  That’s the biggest fish ever caught by this group on opening day.  Where are you off to?  Are you sitting or walking today?’

‘Actually I’m working.  I have my trusty recorder and I’m going to be dictating thoughts on my new book as I hike down to the lake and back a couple of times.’

‘You’re writing a sequel?  That’s wonderful!’ Estelle gushed.  ‘I love Sara.  She’s so sweet, patient, and down-to-earth.  But that Chase?  He’s a real stinker!  I hope he has a change of heart in the next book.  Sara deserves better!  Mr. Brady and I both agree that…’

‘You and Brady read my book?’

‘Well of course we did.  And we both loved it.  Although I’ve got to tell you, some of the sexy parts really made me blush.  You’ve got quite the imagination.’

Sylvie’s face heated.  ‘Yes, you’re right,’ she smiled sheepishly.  ‘Quite the imagination!‘  Unable to look the woman in the eye, Sylvie stared at the cleaning supplies and continued.  ‘Thanks so much for buying the book.  That was very nice of you.  And Brady too.’  An image flashed in her head of Brady and Estelle sitting on a couch somewhere, reading and discussing the more erotic, intimate parts of her book.  Did they realize she was describing her and Connor?  Sylvie blushed.  She certainly hoped not.  Hold it…Estelle and Brady?  Together?  Reading dirty books?  What was that about?

‘Nonsense dear.  You’re my employer now.  I want to get to know you better and I thought reading your book might help.’

‘First off I’m not your employer,’ she protested, her eyes focused on Estelle now.  ‘I’m your employer’s fiancé.  And furthermore, you’ll never be just an employee to me.  You’re my friend.  A member of the family.  And you always will be.  I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me these last few months.  Helping me.  Taking care of me.  You gave me a comforting shoulder to cry on when I was afraid.  A reassuring hand to hold when I felt I had no strength to go on.  And a kick in the butt to keep me going when you thought I needed it.’

Tears welling in her eyes, Estelle threw her arms around Sylvie and hugged her tightly.  ‘Somebody else said that very same thing to me once.  Mr. Hudson’s mother Elizabeth.  She was a wonderful, kind, gentle woman and she would have loved you to pieces.  You’re very much like her.  I’m so glad Mr. Hudson found you.  He’s had a hard time of it since his parents died.  Emotionally I mean.  His fiancé being murdered and then those other women.  All the tragedy, all the pain, it changed him.  For years it seemed like he was cursed.  And then you came along.  You’re good for him Sylvie.  I see it in the way his eyes light up when you walk into a room.  For the first time in years, I think he’s happy.  He needs you.  Oh he tried to convince himself he didn’t, sending you off to New York the way he did.  But he was miserable the whole time; dragging himself around, acting like a crabby old bear, growling and grumbling all the time.  He knows better now.  He loves you very much you know,’ Estelle assured her, smiling .  ‘Now be off with you before I get all teary-eyed.  I’ve got a million things to do before the men arrive.’

‘Did I hear you right?  Just men?  Seanna and the girls aren’t coming?’

‘No it will be just the gentlemen tonight.  No ladies.  So I will be making only one meal instead of five this evening.  As far as I know we have neither vegans, nor anyone gluten intolerant coming to dinner.  Neither will there be guests who can’t eat carbs or dairy, nor who only eat fresh-caught fish, free-range chickens, grass-fed beef, organic produce, or brown rice.  Therefore, we’ll be having a Caesar salad, with lots of croutons and parmesan; a juicy, well-marbled prime rib of beef with a tasty Yorkshire pudding; twice-baked potatoes loaded with sour cream and cheddar cheese; plus glazed carrots, Brussel sprouts, and buttermilk biscuits with scads of butter.  And for dessert, apple pie and ice cream.  What do you think?

‘Sounds fabulous!  No bitches huh?  That’s a relief.’

‘No bitches!’

Sylvie was turning to leave when she noticed a picture of ‘the six’ hanging on the wall, all shirtless and standing beside the lake.  She took a closer look, studying each man.  Victor was the tallest.  The other five appeared to be the exact same height.  They could be clones!  The same shaped heads, flat bellies, narrow hips, well-muscled arms…except for one thing.  One of them was slightly thinner than the others.  Her mind was whirring.  She’d passed that picture many times.  Why hadn’t she ever taken the time to look at it before?

‘Sylvie is something wrong?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.  Aren’t you feeling well?’

‘No it’s nothing.  I’m fine.’  Sylvie said as she hurried out of the room

Estelle heard the door bang shut.  Sylvie seemed upset.  She took the picture down from the wall and examined it.


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