Hidden Agenda – Chapter 11 to 15
The executor arrived promptly at one forty-five, and Melissa greeted him at the front door. Mr. Lassiter had been Nana’s attorney for many years and had assisted with Melissa’s exodus to Columbia. She greeted him warmly.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Lassiter. I will show you to the living room.”
“Thank you, my dear. You certainly look well. Allow me to offer my condolences; your grandmother was a fine woman.”
After declining something to drink, the attorney began separating out various forms on the desk in the room. Melissa excused herself to collect the others who had been requested at the reading. While heading to the kitchen, she heard the front door and returned to the foyer.
She grimaced as she saw her father greet T.C. Livingston, the current CEO of Shayne Enterprises. What’s he doing here, she thought as she turned and continued back toward the kitchen.
* * *
At two o’clock, all the parties gathered in the living room, taking their places on the couches and chairs that had been arranged for the occasion. There were several servants and employees there; her father was standing by the fireplace, a snifter in his hand as he focused on the desk, and the man sitting there.
As Mr. Lassiter cleared his throat and began the proceedings, Melissa sat at the edge of the wing-back chair her father had occupied the night before and tried to be calm. Her grandmother had discussed with her what her intentions were for her estate on several occasions, so Melissa was not surprised with the bequests to several long-standing employees and charities that Nana supported. Melissa looked around. Nick was not at the proceeding. But why would he be there? He likely did not get the chance to know Nana. Nevertheless, she wondered what her grandmother would have thought of him.
Nick had showed her several emotions; happy, professional, angry, passionate. She mentally shivered as she remembered the feel of his firm lips outlining the edge of her jaw, his hands along her shoulders, his tongue plunging into her mouth in imitation of other, more intimate invasions. It was almost comical when her father showed up. Her heart slowed as she remembered the partial conversation she overheard when she first arrived at the office. Had Nick somehow become aware of the results of the investigation by the police? Did he know what happened to her father’s car?
Melissa was startled out of her reverie when she heard her name. The excited whisperings of the other people in the room sounded like a light breeze, and Melissa knew she missed something important. She first glanced at her father and was puzzled by his clenched fist on the mantelpiece. She then turned to the executor, who was looking at her expectantly. Melissa nodded and smiled as if she had listened to what he said. Mrs. Keane, one of the recipients at the reading, gave her a broad smile from the couch.
Mr. Lassiter spoke again. “This concludes the announcement of all transfers and distributions for the decedent, Caroline Madeline Fischer. Thank you all for coming this afternoon.”
Melissa quickly stood up. As the others crowded towards the desk, she turned to speak with her father. Oddly enough, he was no longer by the fireplace. She scanned the room but did not see him; how had he disappeared so quickly? She turned and walked to the desk where Mr. Lassiter sat, waiting until the others had completed their transactions with the executor.
“Ah my dear, thank you so much for showing up for this. I know your grandmother dearly wanted you to be here. She left a letter for you. Did you want to go over your holdings now, or continue this at my office? There will be a lot of information that will need to be passed before we complete the transfer paperwork.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lassiter. I kind of zoned out there at the end,” Melissa said self-deprecatingly, “Can you repeat what is in the will?”
“Why, Miss Shayne, your grandmother left you her entire estate, including all property and buildings.”
Melissa sat on her bed, idly tracing the counterpane draped over the bed as the enormity of the events this afternoon ran through her head. Her grandmother, in one fell swoop, had made her independently wealthy, with shares in several businesses, including Shayne Enterprises, a number of light industrial buildings, and Nana’s home. It was all too much. Mr. Lassiter had given her a packet of information, briefly outlining the estate. It also included the keys to Nana’s house in Port Royal.
She had made an agreement to stop by Mr. Lassiter’s office later this week in order to go over all of details of her inheritance. With the stock, it appears she was now a member of the Board of Directors. She didn’t remember her grandmother ever sitting in a BOD meeting, but possibly her father had a proxy for those shares. Now that they were hers, she would have to make a decision whether to do the same.
She picked up the phone, called her supervisor in New York, and advised him she would need to stay a few days longer. That short phone call completed, she was suddenly restless. I’d like to drive up to Port Royal to see Nana’s house, she thought. However, there was Cheryl’s party tonight. She had promised to go, although the events of the day would have given her plenty of reason to send her regrets. But she needed a distraction. Nick’s beautiful cougar eyes and golden skin came into mind. She thought about the secret purchase she made at the dress shop yesterday, and she was now glad of her impulse buy. After checking her watch, she started gathering her things for tonight.
* * *
Nick was with Susan and their team at their operations center during the reading of the will. They listened in on the reading and were now discussing the next step in their operation.
“It has to be significant that Livingston showed up at the house uninvited, at least by the attorney. Did we get any intel from the other locations in the house?” Susan asked.
“Shayne and Livingston appeared to exchange some heated words in the hallway just outside the office, almost immediately after the final disposition was announced,” Matt said, “one of the cameras caught it, but they were too far away for the mike to pick up anything.” Nick studied the grainy figures, noting that Livingston was gesticulating in a threatening manner towards the congressman. His eyes narrowed. Something about the will upset the CEO, and Nick was determined to figure it out.
“Can you play back the will reading and see if Shayne reacted to anything?” Nick asked. Matt, with a few clicks of the mouse, obligingly restarted the clip. Nick saw the Congressman as a blurry figure standing near the background of the recording. He was momentarily distracted by the cool outline of Melissa, sitting to his side, those mile-long legs demurely crossed, a dreamy look on her face. Nick wondered what she had been thinking about at that time. The attorney droned on.
“…and lastly, all other holdings and property, both real and personal, are bestowed on my lovely granddaughter, Melissa Caroline Shayne, in gratitude for all her support and love during my life.” Nick saw movement in the background as the congressman suddenly straightened out and thumped his fist on the mantelpiece. Ah ha, it had something to do with Melissa receiving the bulk of the estate.
“Do we have a listing of the holdings Fischer-Shayne owned?” Susan asked, when Nick pointed out the movement in the video. Matt typed for a moment. The printer beeped as several sheets of paper came out of the machine in the corner; the list was also flashed onto the virtual blackboard at the head of the conference table. They studied the list.
“There are some stocks and bonds, including voting shares in Shayne Enterprises. There’s also some pretty significant real estate. My guess would be the buildings. Since there was a proxy for the voting shares, Miss Shayne will more than likely leave it that way, at least in the interim. If there is any illegal activity, the best bet would be something near water. It’s fairly easy to travel the waterways, without having to worry about weight stations, scales, road conditions, law enforcement, etc. I see there’s a small warehouse at the Deep Water Terminals in Richmond. There’s also the house in Port Royal, which appears to have Riparian rights on the Potomac River. Which gives them two easy access points to the Chesapeake Bay.”
What Mattie said made sense, Nick thought. The tricky question would be what to choose for the primary target. Susan answered his unspoken question.
“Given the behavior of Livingston after the reading, I think we should start with the warehouse. It seems the more likely candidate, so I’ll send team Bravo to investigate. Team Alpha is still in surveillance mode on the family and businesses.” After more discussion, the meeting broke up.
“Stay a moment,” Susan ordered when Nick made a beeline for the conference room door. Reluctantly, he turned back. “I understand you will be accompanying Melissa Shayne to Cheryl Wolfe’s party. Do you know anything about the guests? Is it something that we should try to infiltrate?”
Nick thought a moment. “I don’t think so. The invite seems coincidental, even though the host came up on our radar. I’ll keep an eye out for anything odd and yell if I need help.”
Susan walked around the table and stood directly in front of Nick. “You like her, don’t you. Don’t let your guard down. We’re getting close. You need to keep your eye on the big picture.” Nick held in a sudden flare of anger, tempered with a smidgen of guilt.
“I know. I am aware of what is at stake. I’m fine.” Susan looked at his expression for a moment, shrugged, then nodded.
“You know, you are one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with, and I trust you to stay objective. Be careful. And Nick,” Her gaze sharpened. “If anything important happens tonight, we need to know ASAP, ok?” Nick nodded as he left, wondering what Susan had seen when she searched his face.
As Melissa appeared at the balcony over the foyer, Nick suddenly lost breath at the vision above him. The off-shoulder gown of blue and green draped her figure, falling to her ankles. A small, silver rose adorned the fabric-covered shoulder, drawing his eyes along the sweeping arches of her collarbones that he remembered stroking during the kiss in the garage. She looked like a goddess wrapped in a Monet painting as she descended the stairs, one eyebrow arched quizzically over eyes that seem to shine like aquamarine. Nick felt uncomfortably constrained by the fabric of his pants, and wished he had the privacy to adjust himself. He draped his jacket over his arms in front of him hoped Melissa didn’t notice what was happening. As she stared at him, he nodded his approval and smiled slightly. Her cheeks flushed a muted pink as she descended towards him, her new heels peeking out from the hemline. Nick let out his breath, wanting to howl and stamp her with his ownership before they reached the party. Or, better yet, stay home and keep her all to him.
As she reached the final steps, Nick reached out a hand and steadied her down to the tiled foyer.
In spite of her heels, Melissa still had to look up at Nick. Dressed in double-breasted gray pinstripe, he looked so handsome her breath hitched as she licked suddenly dry lips. The tailored suit showed off his broad shoulders; the creases in the pants looked sharp enough to cut. A discrete gold-colored watch winked under the white cuffs of his dress shirt. He looked like a strong man at the top of his game.
Nick was mesmerized by the sight of that pink tongue reaching out to touch her glossy red lips. His body temperature rose as focused on the alluring shape flowing under the gown. With an effort, he tamped down his response as he rubbed the top of her hand with his thumb.
“Are you ready to go?”
Those amazing eyes looked up. “Just let me get my wrap.”
They walked out to the garage, and Melissa expected to see the Lincoln. Nick, however, escorted her to the rear of the building, where a gleaming gunmetal gray convertible was parked. Melissa looked at it in disbelief.
“Is that a Lotus Elise?”
Nick shrugged. “Yes. I bought it at an auction several years ago and restored it. It was originally in pretty bad shape. Do you like it?” Nick took a lot of ribbing from his friends and colleagues for having a “dainty” European car instead of some type of American made muscle car, but the aerodynamic curves of the hood and fenders kept the vehicle sleek, fast, and economical, and he loved to drive it.
The brilliant blue shine in Melissa’s eyes said that, yes, indeed, she liked the car. “I think it’s beautiful.”
“Not as beautiful as some.” Nick murmured quietly. Melissa’s blush grew. Nick walked to the passenger door and handed her in. As she sank into the buttery leather seats, she felt like a princess going to a ball. Her prince strolled to the driver’s side and climbed in.
“Top up or down?” Melissa thought for a moment.
“Best to leave it up. I don’t want to mess up my hair. At least, right now.” Nick’s eyes shot up to her face and her open, laughing expression. He felt a sudden thump in his chest as his heart gave a leap and started to beat faster.
“Your wish is my command.” As Nick drove around the garage to the main driveway, Melissa looked up at the house. The lights were on in her father’s room, and he was standing on his balcony, watching them.
* * *
By the time they reached the Wolfe estate, Melissa was more relaxed that she had been since that phone call two weeks ago. Nick drove the vehicle like a professional race car driver, the twists of the mountain topography barely registering in the movements of the Lotus.
Nick understated, “That’s some house.” Melissa smiled.
Cheryl’s house was located in the mountains to the east of Charlottesville, with a spectacular view of the city below. All white clapboard, with a series of chimneys and dormers along the peaked roof, and a wrap-around porch, it looked like a scene from a Southern romance.
“It was built about 150 years ago as a horse farm. It’s nice, but a little extravagant. My ideal house is something much smaller…” Melissa fell into silence as she pictured Nana’s house in Port Royal as the perfect home. It was always a haven for her, and now, it was hers. She just wished the circumstances of her ownership were different.
Nick glanced over at her cameo-like profile. Tendrils of her sable hair artlessly framed her face. With the rest in a smooth chignon, and that waterfall of a gown, she looked every bit a pampered southern aristocrat. But Nick knew she was just as comfortable in casual or business clothes. His grip tightened on the steering wheel when he realized that, after the reading of the will, she may be in more danger than he had imagined.
* * *
They drove past deep green fields and dark brown wooden fences, finally arriving at the front of the house. Coach-style street lamps glowed along the driveway and side parking lot, and loud music and the sounds of conversation could be heard.
A red-vested valet took the keys from Nick and expertly drove the Lotus away. Nick gallantly offered Melissa his arm. As she tucked her arm around his, she felt a tingle like a promise of magic.
After handing off their coats to the checker, they strolled through the foyer. The single, wood staircase dominated the view below a substantial pewter colonial chandelier that sent little sparkles of light throughout the foyer. There were glimpses of people upstairs and in rooms on either side of the foyer. The loudest music seemed to be coming from the rear of the house. Melissa tugged Nick to the right, where small groups of people where chatting in a large rectangular room dominated by a long table filled with various dishes and finger foods. A uniformed bartender presided over a well-stocked bar. As they approached the bar, Melissa realized she had no idea what Nick liked to drink. Or very much else about him, for that matter.
“I think I’d like a glass of white wine.” Melissa announced. Nick pulled out a silver money clip, slipped a bill into the tip jar, and, speaking in a low tone to the bartender, received her wine, and a highball glass of amber liquid with a lime twist. She sipped, enjoying a crisp chardonnay, and glanced around the room.
There seem to be the usual mixture of party guests. She noted there appeared to be people from the college set as well as the artsy and the rich, each little group clinging to their own kind like herds of avant-garde or conservative species. Melissa smiled. “We should Cheryl and say hi.” They continued towards the rear of the house, where a pair of French doors opened up to a deck. The deck overlooked a large pool surrounded by white furniture. A live band was playing at one end, with a small dance floor temporarily set up near the hot tub. White lights sparkled in the azaleas, and candles floated in the pool.
On the far end of the deck, Cheryl sat, surrounded by admirers, resplendent in a halter-top dress of shimmering dragonfly-green, her legs fully displayed by the long slits. She laughed gaily at something one of her guests said, faltering slightly when she saw Melissa and Nick walking towards her. Rising gracefully from her seat like a movie queen, she greeted the two of them.
“I’m so glad you came tonight,” she said, “We haven’t had a chance to chat in ages.”
Not unless you count yesterday, Melissa thought wryly. “Thank you for inviting us.” She said out loud. “I’d love to show Nick around, but, of course, I wanted to say hello first. The house looks fabulous.”
Cheryl waved a bejeweled hand. “Feel free to mingle; there’s plenty of food and drink.” She sat back down and resumed her audience.
“Like I said before, a flair for the dramatic.” Nick chuckled. He tucked Melissa’s arm in so that she was against his side, her dress whispering against the wool fabric of his suit, as they strolled along the edge of the deck. “She definitely seems in her element here, reeling suitors into her web.” Melissa laughed, a tinkling sound that made Nick’s body get hard and his heart skip a beat. Had it only been yesterday when she was charming him in Richmond?
Melissa recognized several people that she grew up with; it seemed Cheryl had kept in touch with many of their class. Thanks to her ‘youthful indiscretion’, Melissa never really socialized with them past sophomore year. Still, they were the next generation of money; she nodded and smiled in passing. She did notice signs of feminine interest in Nick, but her arm firmly locked in his brooked no miscommunication as to whom got to take him home. Her body heated at the thought.
She thought of Nick when she tried her dress on at the shop, and his reaction when she glided down the stairs was gratifying. She hoped to extend the magic further into the night.
As they wandered around, they passed a group that appeared to be talking in earnest.
“Jabberwocke has a terrific spinach dip, and really good sliders, but for pizza you can’t beat The Mellow Mushroom.” Nick suddenly felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach at a familiar voice in the group. He quickly turned Melissa towards the house, to try and distance them, when that voice called out.
“Jase! Hey Jase!”. Nick walked a little faster; Melissa looked up at him with puzzled eyes as she tried to match his stride in her taupe heels. Nick, realizing his actions, slowed down again and looked at her face. “Melissa, I…” He got no further as a figure in brown tweed pulled up alongside the couple. “I thought that was you. You’re looking terrific. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing well, Dr. Singh. And you?”
The small, dark-skinned man grinned. “Bringing up the next generation of do-gooders. Do you know Cheryl from school?”
Nick closed his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts, then opened them to see Melissa’s frown. “No, she’s a friend of a friend. This is Melissa Shayne. Melissa, this is Dr. Singh, one of the department heads at UVA.”
As they politely shook hands, Melissa appeared outwardly calm and friendly, but inside she was shaking. Who was Jase? Did Nick somehow lead a double life? Melissa decided to risk a question.
“Do you know Nick?” The professor smiled at her.
“Yes, Ms. Shayne, this kid came through my graduate program several years ago. Although I didn’t know he was using his middle name now.”
Melissa gaped at the information, then turned to Nick.
“You graduated from UVA?” she asked incredulously, “then why are you working as a chauffeur?”
Dr. Singh’s eyes widened as he stared expectantly at Nick, waiting for an explanation.
Nick suddenly felt uncomfortable at the half-truths he was about to give both of them, but he had to maintain his cover. “Well, I got a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia after doing my bachelor studies at another college. Dr. Singh was my advisor. Ultimately, I just didn’t see the point in working for some alphabet government agency. I’m good with cars, and it seemed like a good position to have, at least for the foreseeable future.”
“Well, I for one am disappointed, Jase. You seemed very determined to become a government agent, and were one of the best students I had. Well, I’m glad you are doing ok, and in such beautiful company. Have a good evening, Jase, Ms. Shayne,” Dr. Singh concluded as he walked off back to the original group.
“I think we need to talk, Nick, or Jase, or whatever the hell your name is,” Melissa said in a strangled voice. The rigid set of her shoulders did not bode well for Nick, but he knew he needed to have some plausible explanation. For a moment, he wished he had brought his comlink to Susan and his team, but they had deemed it unnecessary. Nick nodded.
“Let’s find someplace a little more secluded.”
He led her to a quiet table at the far end of the deck, away from the band and partygoers around the pool. At this end, the tables, lit with candles, were domes of yellow light in the darkness. As they sat down, Nick was suddenly at a loss for what to say. As he was marshalling his thoughts, Melissa spoke up.
“Why are you working for my father?” The pointed question, spoken in a cool, remote voice, surprised Nick. As he searched her face, she never seemed so far away from him.
“I told you, it was a job that seemed interesting while I decided on my final career choice,” Nick hedged. “I get room and board, and the work isn’t hard. It seemed a good solution. I’ve been here for six months without any problems.”
“You’re a little too educated to play undecided, Nick. And then there’s my father’s accident,” Melissa retorted, a note of anger finally entering her voice, “If you are such a skilled mechanic, how could the brake lines have gotten damaged? Didn’t I see you under the car that morning? What were you doing under there?”
Nick began to feel a trickle of unease. Her questions were direct, sharp…and nearly impossible to skirt around.
“I didn’t see any damage to them when I was checking the undercarriage. He must have struck something while driving.” Nick suddenly realized the team hadn’t followed up on the obvious accident question – if the lines were good in the morning, at what location did the congressman stop long enough for someone to tamper with them? He decided to file that away while he dealt with the current crisis. “I plan to look over the vehicle carefully before it is towed to the repair shop, to see if I can spot anything to determine what happened.” Although she didn’t seem satisfied with that answer, Melissa looked ready for the next question.
“Why do you use two different names?” Nick thought this one might be easier to answer.
“My full name is Jason Nicholas Alvarez. My study group in college started calling me “Jase”, but I never really liked it much, so I asked people to call me Nick.” The explanation sounded lame even to his ears, but he couldn’t come up with a more plausible reply.
Melissa thought for a moment. “You previously told me you grew up in North Carolina, and have siblings. Is that true?”
Nick nodded. “I lived near a town called Roanoke Rapids. There’s not much employment there but logging, but it was still a good place to grow up. And, yes, my sister lives in Tampa.”
“Did you actually do this driving school too?” Nick felt a little warmed that she remembered their conversation in the Lincoln on the way from Richmond to the mansion. Maybe they could still regain some of their former ease.
“Yes, its run as a subsidiary of a security training facility in Moyock, near the Virginia border. It included the driving, firearms, and defensive tactics training I had previously mentioned. I went there during the summer between my final two years at UVA.” It was at the expense of the government, but Melissa didn’t need to know that.
Melissa still looked unconvinced. Nick took the opportunity to take her hands in his.
“I promise we can sit down somewhere and hash out everything. I’ll even give you a free punch in my shoulder, if that’s what you want. But for tonight, can we start over?” Nick closed his eyes and hoped this would work. He opened them.
“Hello, my name is Nick Alvarez and you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Would you like to dance?”
Melissa mourned the loss of the magic, and agreed they needed to clear the air between them. However, it was still early evening; she wore this fabulous dress, and Nick’s response to it was everything she had hoped. She decided her questions could wait for daylight.
“I am Melissa Caroline Shayne, sir, and I think I would love to dance.”
Nick breathed something that sounded like “Thank God”, as he took her hand, helped her up, and led her back to the end of the deck that was bright with lights and sounds.