OK - THAT WAS WEIRD - WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CONTENT?????? Let's try again...
Jarrod watched the Endicott heirs from the darkened hallway, for the moment satisfied to observe them unseen. So far, nothing had contradicted his initial impressions: Desmond drank far too much, Annabel was selfish and self-centered, Myrtle was lonely and starved for affection, Frank was down to earth and deeply devoted to his wife, Matt was a sullen human bump on a log, and Clement was a bully. Interesting, the people this family surrounded themselves with. The cliché that opposites attract didn't seem to work for the Endicotts. Clement's wife looked anything but cowed, Annabel's young man wore his own sense of entitlement like a second skin, and Frank's Belinda seemed just as warm and friendly as her husband. Only Matt, raised far from the family's influence, seemed to break the pattern; Martha's hard mouth and piercing eyes proclaimed that she possessed all the energy and ambition so lacking in her husband. For a moment, Jarrod amused himself thinking about the kind of woman Heath might marry someday. Thankfully, from what he had seen so far, Heath didn’t seem attracted to the quiet, brooding, mysterious type, nor did he seem likely to settle down with a shrew.
The private room was large, so it might have been difficult to keep all thirteen of them under his eye, but for now they were ignoring the long dining table in favor of the divans and small tea tables clustered to one side. So intent was Jarrod that he wasn't immediately aware that someone had approached. It was a fleeting touch on his arm that alerted him to the second presence; the touch, and a finger raised to lips in a wordless plea for silence.
Jarrod should have been surprised, but somehow the back of his mind he had been expecting him. The appearance of the dark haired young man who had approached Myrtle Dougherty the previous afternoon had been far too fortuitous to be accidental. The newcomer stood with him for a moment, watching and listening, then looked at Jarrod again. Something about the humor lurking in the blue-gray eyes and hovering around the lips curved into a half smile, and the way they contrasted with the tension in his tall, lean body, piqued Jarrod's curiosity, and he gave a brief nod of acquiescence. The half-smile blossomed into a full-fledged grin and the young man eased his way inside the door just as Clement Endicott rubbed his hands together and called out,
"Now that all the relatives are here, we can tell the kitchen to send in dinner."
The young man took a deep breath and stepped further into the room, announcing in a loud voice,
"There's one more relative you haven't met yet…"
Jarrod had a perfect view of their reactions. They stood out in the brightly lit room like actors on a stage, frozen into poses that revealed their characters. Clement's smug face was melting and transforming into an expression of outrage. Matt, who was off to one side with Martha, was looking with something like relief at the source of the interruption from his wife's lecture. Frank's eyes went first to wife, then to the newcomer with a smile of welcome. Myrtle's mouth opened and a look of bewilderment settled over her face, while Annabel flushed and her eyes narrowed. Only Desmond seemed uninterested. He didn't even pause, draining the glass in his hand and refilling it without even glancing in the direction of the speaker.
Jarrod was slightly surprised that it was Heath who spoke first. His eyes were cautious, but he gave a friendly smile as he stepped forward and extended his hand.
"I'm Heath Barkley. You're one of my new cousins?"
"Heath? You're … Elnora's grandson, right? I'm Edward Slaughter, Charity's son."
"Nonsense," Clement snapped sharply. "Charity never had children."
"I met your ma once," Frank said, stepping forward. "I'm Maude's son, so I guess that makes us first cousins."
"I know. Nice to meet you."
"Let’s see, my grandma and your grandma were cousins, so I guess that makes us … " Heath's brow wrinkled as he tried to work out the relationship.
"Related," Edward laughed, with a flash of white teeth. "I've got the genealogy somewhere, but 'cousin' works fine for me."
"I repeat," Clement ground out, "Charity had no children." He looked around the room and raised his voice. "This man is an imposter."
"Oh, I think I can offer all the proof anyone will need," Edward smiled. "I was born while she was traveling, two months prematurely, and I was too small and sickly to take home with her right away. She intended to come back for me, but the birth had been too difficult for her. She died before she could return. I have my mother's wedding ring, her Bible, a letter – they should be enough to convince Cousin Lawrence. And respectfully, sir, it is Lawrence I need to convince, not you."
"Bah, anyone can buy an old wedding ring or scribble some letters. Let's see what that lawyer has to say about things. Where is he?"
It was Jarrod's cue, and he wasn't going to miss it. He stepped obediently into the room and bowed to Clement, then turned and smiled to the assembled relatives.
"Humph, seems you were right on the spot," Clement huffed suspiciously.
"I was sir," the lawyer answered respectfully. "I was merely giving the family some private time before burdening you all with matters of business."
"Oh dear." Myrtle's eyes had clouded with tears. "I had forgotten about poor Simeon … "
"I understand," Jarrod, putting every scrap of sympathetic understanding he could into his voice. "No one can take his place, but I will do my best to be of service to the family."
"What's your name, anyway?" Clement demanded, reasserting his claim to head of the family.
"My name is Jarrod Barkley, Mr. Endicott."
"Barkley? Barkley? You mean you're related to this Heath?"
"That is absolutely unacceptable. It is completely inappropriate for the estate to be represented by the brother of one of the potential heirs. Consider yourself fired."
Jarrod was suddenly glad he had accepted the commission to replace Simeon Gray. Nothing got his back up like a bully, and Clement Endicott definitely fell into that category.
"I work for Lawrence Endicott, not you," he answered coldly. His mother appeared by his side and laid a calming hand on his forearm. "He is already aware of my relationship to Heath, and is perfectly satisfied with my representing him in this matter."
Edward added maliciously, "Perhaps, Cousin Clement, you are unaware of Jarrod Barkley's reputation. He's one of the most highly regarded attorneys in the state, and Cousin Lawrence undoubtedly considers himself lucky to have him."
"Thank you," Jarrod returned, somewhat surprised. "Have we met before, sir?"
Edward shook his head and smiled. "No, but all well-informed Californians should be familiar with your name, sir."
"Call me Jarrod."
"Edward." His eyes scanned the room, and lit on Audra, who blushed slightly. He approached and extended his hand. "I for one am hungry. Miss Barkley, may I have the pleasure of your company at dinner?"
"Well, I – " Her eyes sought out her brothers' and when they both nodded she smiled. "I would be delighted, Mr. Slaughter." Her eyes sparkled, and they crossed the room to the long table.
When everyone paired off, Heath and Jarrod were left to escort their mother. Jarrod snagged the waiter and quietly asked him to add another place setting to the table.
By the time they had crossed the room to the table, Clement had usurped the position at its head, but Jarrod took the opposite seat at its tail, with Heath to his right and his mother to his left. It was further from the fireplace, and thus much more comfortable, and Jarrod couldn't help but note how frequently Clement mopped his brow. A little smile was playing around Heath's lips, and Jarrod knew instantly that while he had been arranging for another seat at the table, Heath had been arranging for the fire to be built up.
The meal was excellent and enjoyable, even if it seemed more dinner theatre than dinner. Clement had done his best to arrange the seating to suit his own purposes, but Victoria had been hostess at far too many occasions to let the man have his way. She efficiently outflanked him, putting Matt and Martha at his end of the table, as far as possible from Heath. She noted Desmond's sudden drunken awareness of Audra and was too late to stop him from taking a seat at her other hand, but she did manage to have him at her own left where she could keep an eye on him. Audra, situated between Desmond and Edward, facing Andrew Pickering across the table, had enough attention to satisfy even the most romantically inclined girl, though it was tempered somewhat by the face of Annabel who glared at her from her fiancé's side. Or perhaps that only heightened her enjoyment. Audra could be a bit of a minx.
If Clement had hoped putting Trixie to Edward's left would encourage the young man to make some misstep, he had guessed wrong. Clement's wife's behavior just barely avoided crossing the line to disgraceful, as she did her best to distract the good looking young man from his dinner partner. She leaned in frequently, giving him indiscreet glimpses into her deep décolletage, touched his hand or arm, raised her voice in loud, inappropriate laughter and simpered coquettishly. Nothing worked. Edward simply nodded and then turned back to Audra, who guessing by her sparkling eyes, was having a delightful time.
Poor Heath did his best with Myrtle, who was so pathetically grateful for the attention that she could barely utter a word. Her future son-in-law was seated on her other side, but as far as Jarrod could tell, Pickering hadn't spoken a word to her. In fact, he said little to his fiancée, either, preferring to engage Audra across the table.
Annabel was obviously as furious as she was unaccustomed to being ignored. She had lobbied openly for this seat in the center, which should by right have been her mother's, expecting to be the focus of attention. Instead, it forced her to watch all the eligible men in the room fawn over that Barkley girl. She made a few half-hearted attempts to engage Frank, on her right, in conversation, but Frank was far more interested in flirting openly with his wife than in fawning over a girl half his age.
That left Clement to stew and perspire at the coveted seat at the head of the table with only Martha to converse with. But Martha's conversation was confined to criticisms of her husband's table manners and sputtering outrage over the other women's necklines. Finally, he threw down his napkin in disgust, even before his relatives had finished the last bites of their desserts.
"Mr. Barkley," he called out down the length of the table, half rising, "have you any intention at all of dealing with the business at hand?"
"Well," Jarrod replied mildly, taking a sip of his coffee, "I had intended to allow everyone to finish their meals, first."
"It's late," Clement snapped. "Just get on with it."
Jarrod looked around the table, where some faces looked embarrassed, some annoyed, and even one or two anticipatory. One of the last, he noted, was Andrew Pickering's, and the other was Martha Simmons'.
"Then with your permission?" Jarrod waited, but no one objected. He rose, and waved a hand when others followed. "Please, remain seated. I can talk while you’re finishing your coffee and cake.
"First, as you now know, I am Jarrod Barkley. I was asked by Attorney General Hamilton and Lawrence Endicott to fulfill the late Simeon Gray's obligations to the estate.
"My understanding is that those obligations consist of very little other than seeing you all safely to the island tomorrow and noting Mr. Endicott's decision regarding the disposition of the family estate on his will. The will is to be signed and witnessed next week before you all return and I will bring it back with me."
"So you'll be staying on the island with us, Jarrod?" Frank asked.
He shook his head. "No, I shall ride over with you in the morning, and then return. I'll be back next week and finish up the legal work before you all leave the island. That way there can be no suggestion of impropriety or undue influence." He looked at Clement, who still seemed dissatisfied, but said nothing. With a slight nod, Jarrod continued,
"I've asked the hotel to make this room available to us again in the morning for breakfast, but you are in no obligation to join us if you prefer to sleep late or eat in your rooms. However, your luggage will be picked up at nine o'clock tomorrow morning and transported to the dock, so if you do intend to rest in the morning, please have it outside the door of your suite tonight before you retire.
"You are free to see the sights of San Francisco tomorrow morning, as long as you are back here by one o'clock. The boat leaves at two, and the carriages taking us to the dock will leave promptly at one-thirty. I have been instructed to tell you that it will not wait. If you are late, you miss your opportunity and you will be left behind." And out of the will. He didn’t speak the words out loud, but everyone understood them.
"What about lunch tomorrow?" Martha demanded. "We don't – "
Jarrod held up a hand. "Any meals ordered at the hotel are included in your bill, and paid by Mr. Endicott. Should you decide to dine elsewhere, that will be your own responsibility."
The tension in the room was palpable, and so Jarrod smiled and looked at each of them in turn.
"I did not have the opportunity to meet all of your earlier, so I'd like to take this opportunity now for us all to introduce ourselves. You'll be living together for the next week, so you should get to know one another. I am Jarrod Barkley, as you know, of Stockton. Clement? Why don't we begin with you?"