“Who were James Angus Stuart and Regina DeBrizzi Stuart?” Mary asked, trying to ignore the mounted heads of murdered animals staring down at her from the lawyer’s wood-paneled walls.
Conrad Browning took off the silver-framed eyeglasses that matched his full head of hair and peered at her. “You don’t know who they were?”
“No. Until I got your letter, I’d never heard of them. Since they’re Stuarts and so am I, I thought they might be distant relatives, but why would they leave me everything they own?”
Mr. Browning cleared his throat. “It’s simple. They were your grandparents.”
Mary shook her head. “I don’t have any grandparents. My father’s parents died before my birth, and my mother’s parents died shortly after.”
“Be that as it may, James Angus Stuart and Regina DeBrizzi Stuart were your grandparents. They had one son, Peter Thackery Stuart, who married Gwendolyn Jane Smith. They, in turn, had one daughter. Mary Louise Stuart. You.”
“I don’t understand. My father told me they were dead.”
Mr. Browning shuffled through the papers on his massive black walnut desk. His age-mottled hands moved slowly, as if weighted by the six turquoise rings he wore.
“Ah, yes. Here it is. According to the note appended to this file, your father had a falling out with his parents.”
“How did my . . . my grandparents die?”
“Shot. They had been bound and gagged, and the house ransacked. The police have no suspects. It seems to have been another senseless act of violence.”
She swallowed to keep the lump in her throat from turning into tears, not wanting to cry in front of Conrad Browning. He appeared to be a kindly older man, but he was a lawyer, after all.
Besides, she’d never known her grandparents, so how could she feel sad?
“Did you know them?” she asked.
“I must have met the Stuarts, but I don’t remember.” The brown leather chair groaned as he leaned back and steepled his fingers. “I wrote the wills twenty-five years ago and never revised them.”
She bit her lower lip. So they had known about her all along. It didn’t seem fair she’d only heard about them a few minutes ago.
Mr. Browning droned on about probate and the small trust fund her grandfather had established to pay any inheritance taxes. She tried to listen, but her mind struggled with the realization that her father, her stern, upright father, had lied to her.
“James and Regina Stuart died two weeks ago,” Mary said casually.
Whatever reaction she had been expecting, it wasn’t her father’s bland, “Please pass me the potatoes, Gwen,” or her mother’s calm, “Certainly, dear. Anything else?”
Mary glanced at each of her parents in turn. “Is that all you have to say?”
Gwen’s brow furrowed. “Watch your tone of voice, young lady. You might not live here anymore, but we’re still your parents.”
“I find out you’ve been lying to me my whole life, and you reprimand me?”
Mary’s fiancé Bill Spindler, a handsome, dark haired man of medium height, swallowed the mouthful of food he’d finished chewing twenty times. Mary knew it was twenty times because he always chewed every bite twenty times.
“This is a lovely meal, Gwen,” he said. “You outdid yourself.” He cut a tiny piece of roast beef, then turned to Mary. “Who’s been lying to you?”
She nodded toward her parents. “They have. They told me my grandparents were dead, but they aren’t. I mean, they are now, but they weren’t.”
“You’re not making any sense.” Bill put the forkful of meat into his mouth and chewed.
When Mary found herself counting his jaw movements, she averted her eyes. “A few days ago I got a letter from an attorney telling me a James Angus Stuart and a Regina DeBrizzi Stuart named me in their wills. Today, at the reading of their wills, I discovered they were my grand-parents. They’ve been alive all this time, and I didn’t know it.” Looking at her father, she drew an unsteady breath. “Why did you tell me your parents were dead?”
Pete dropped his napkin by his half-filled plate and stood. “They were dead,” he said quietly. “Dead to me.” Then he left the dining room.
“How come you didn’t tell me the truth, Mom?”
Gwen’s mouth thinned. “I didn’t know they were alive.”
Becoming aware of her trembling legs, Mary put her hands on her knees to still them.
“What about your parents?” she asked. “Are they really dead? Or are they alive, too?”
Gwen frowned at her. “You never know when to let well enough alone, do you?” She rose and followed her husband out of the room.
A feeling of helplessness washed over Mary. This hadn’t gone at all the way she’d envisioned.
“What did they leave you?” Bill asked, cutting off another tiny piece of meat.
Mary gave him a blank look.
“Your grandparents. What did they leave you?”
“Oh. Everything they owned, including their farm, where they raised my dad.” She shoved a few stray peas around her plate. “I thought he grew up in Denver. I didn’t know he was a farm boy.”
She sighed. “Why am I not surprised? He’s talked to you more in the past few months than he’s talked to me in my entire life.”
“What are you going to do with the farm?”
“I don’t know. The lawyer said they already have an offer for it.”
Bill set his fork on the table and dabbed at his lips with his napkin. “Great! Now we can get married. We always planned to wait until we had enough money for a sizeable down payment on a house.”
Mary winced. You’re the one who always planned to wait, she told him silently. Aloud, she said, “The lawyer let me have the key. I’m going out there tomorrow to take a look.”
He nodded. “I can fit that in. You want me to pick you up? Or are you going to drive?”
She hesitated, not knowing how to tell him she wanted to go by herself. “I’ll drive,” she said at last.
“What a dump,” Bill said when Mary pulled in front of the old farmhouse.
Much as she wanted to defend it, Mary had to admit, if only to herself, that the place had seen better days. The once white paint peeled, the porch roof sagged, and the shutters hung at odd angles, giving the house a rakish appearance.
She couldn’t imagine that the house had ever been charming, not even when new. It was a plain, two-story structure, the kind small children draw. The few scraggly bushes did little to soften the graceless lines, and it had no lawn, just bare dirt dotted with clumps of weeds. The house’s one pleasant feature appeared to be the stand of old cottonwoods shading it.
“I sure don’t envy the new owners,” Bill said. “It will cost a fortune to have those trees cut down.”
Feeling like a mother whose child has been insulted, Mary stared at him. “What do you mean, cut them down?”
“They’re old, brittle. The first strong wind to come along will uproot them, probably destroying the house in the process, though that won’t be any loss. I’m surprised it hasn’t already happened. Out here on the eastern plains, high winds are the norm.”
“Well, I know one thing,” she said. “I’m not going to cut down those trees. I don’t understand why people hate trees so much. All they do is destroy them, it seems.” She got out of the car and spread out her arms. “The first thing I’m going to do is plant more trees, lots of trees.”
Bill scrambled out of his seat and slammed the car door. “You’re not thinking about keeping the place, are you? I thought we decided—”
“No. You decided.” Mary took a deep breath. “Smell that clean air. And listen—no traffic.”
Rolling his eyes, Bill shook his head. “You barely make enough to support yourself. How are you going to manage the taxes, insurance and upkeep for this place? From the looks of things, your grandparents didn’t have much money to leave you.”
Not wanting to hear any more, Mary ran up the porch stairs. She fumbled with the keys, pushed the front door open, and paused, thinking there should be a drum roll to mark this momentous occasion. Then she stepped into the house. Her house.
She sucked in her breath as she stared at the mess in the living room. Not one inch of space remained untouched. Furniture had been overturned, cushions ripped apart, lamps shattered. Glass crunched beneath her shoes, and wisps of white stuffing clung to her black jeans.
Tears stinging her eyes at the thought of her unknown grandparents caught in such violence, she checked out the rest of the house. The old-fashioned kitchen that no one had remodeled in forty years. The two bathrooms with rust-stained fixtures. The dining room, the den, the four bedrooms, all of which looked as chaotic as the living room.
“There you are,” Bill said when she returned to the living room. “I thought you’d hurt yourself walking around in here. The inside is worse than the outside, and outside was ghastly. You’re not thinking of keeping this rat hole, are you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“One thing’s for sure, whoever put in an offer for this place isn’t buying it for the house. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. How many acres are there?”
“Eighty, I think the lawyer said.”
He nodded reflectively. “Not bad. You should be able to get a good price, enough so we could buy our house outright, though with mortgage rates so low, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“If I gave up my apartment and moved out here, I could save money. Then maybe I could afford the taxes and whatever.”
“You’d have a ninety mile commute one way. The gas alone would cost more than you’re spending for your apartment.”
“Maybe I could rent out the land.”
“I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn about this. The best thing for us—you—is to get rid of the place as quickly as possible.”
Mary turned away, unable to look him in the eyes. She didn’t understand it either. In fact, she hadn’t known she could be stubborn. She considered herself to be wishy-washy, usually giving in to preserve the peace. So why this desire to keep the house? She certainly didn’t feel any affinity for it. If anything, its decrepitude repulsed her.
“God damn it,” Bill said. “Why won’t you listen to reason? The place is crumbling to bits. It won’t take much for the whole thing to crash on top of your head. Look.” He thumped the wall. A chunk of plaster fell to the floor. “See what I mean?”
Mary pointed to the wall. “What’s that?”
“A hole. Believe me, there will be a lot more of them, too.”
She shook her head. “No. There’s something inside. I think I caught a glimpse of metal.”
“There’s nothing.” Reaching behind him, he ripped out a handful of plaster. “See?”
Mary stared open-mouthed into the hole. Instead of the dining room, which should have been on the other side of the wall, there was a windowless room not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
“What are you looking at?” Bill turned around. “What the—?” Within minutes he had ripped away enough of the plaster so they could squeeze through the struts.
Once inside, they could barely move around. A folded rollaway bed, a shallow wooden cabinet, a metal desk and chair took up most of the available space.
“A secret room,” Mary breathed. “It’s like something out of Nancy Drew or the Hardy boys.”
“It’s a storage area,” Bill said.
“Then where’s the door?”
“Probably behind the gun cabinet.”
“Can’t be there. How could someone have dragged the cabinet in front of the door once it was closed? There must be a hidden entrance somewhere.”
Bill raised his right shoulder in an indifferent shrug. “Maybe it is a secret room. So what?”
“I think it’s romantic.”
He snorted. “You would.”
She jerked her head around to stare at him. “Did you say gun cabinet?”
“Yes.” He reached over and tugged at the double doors of the wooden cabinet. “See? Guns.”
She took a step back. “Ooh. I hate guns.”
He didn’t seem to hear. He ran his fingers over a long, sleek rifle, and something akin to awe sparkled in his eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“Oh, ick. How can you say that?”
“Look at it. It’s either a refinished old west lever action rifle, or a handmade replica, complete with a hardwood stock, engraved brass receiver, and blued octagonal barrel.”
Mary leaned closer to peer at it, then drew away again. “Looks like a plain old rifle to me.”
“Oh, wow! Look at this one. A Chicago typewriter!”
“It’s a nickname for the Thompson submachine gun. You’ve heard of a Tommy gun, right?”
“In old movies.”
“Well, you’re looking at the real thing.”
But Mary wasn’t looking at the gun; she was looking at Bill. She’d never seen him get so excited about anything.
“How do you know so much about guns?”
“I had a collection of miniature weapons when I was a boy. I wonder what happened to them. I think I’ll call Mom, see if they’re packed away somewhere.”
As Bill exclaimed over the other guns in the cabinet, Mary searched the desk. Most of the drawers held typical office supplies, but the bottom drawer contained a locked metal box. She found the key in a small glass bowl full of paper clips and rubber bands.
“What do you have there?” Bill asked, looking over her shoulder.
She palmed the key. “A box. I’ll take it home, see if I can find a way to open it.”
“You should take the guns, too. They’re worth a small fortune.”
She shuddered. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep with them under the same roof.”
“Then I’ll take them.”
He raised his eyebrows.
Averting her gaze, she mumbled, “I’m not allowed to take anything until after probate.”
He looked pointedly at the box she hugged to her chest, but merely said, “Then we’d better do something about the hole in the wall. Don’t want someone walking off with the few valuable things in this place.”
After cleaning away the plaster, they moved a tall bookcase in front of the hole.
“I suppose it will do,” Bill said, sounding doubtful. “You’re sure you want to leave the guns here?”
* * *
Mary sat cross-legged on her bed and slowly unlocked the metal box. She told herself not to expect too much, but she couldn’t help feeling a rising excitement. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid.
Money! Maybe enough so she could keep the house.
She spread the cash out on the bed and counted it. Though it looked like a lot, the bills were small denomina-tions—fives, tens, a few twenties—and added up to about three thousand dollars, nowhere near what she would need. Swallowing her disappointment, she set the money aside and rummaged in the box again. She discovered a small stack of snapshots—young men in old-fashioned clothes, older men in more modern attire. She studied the pictures, but could not guess which of the men, if any, was her grandfather.
Looking in the box once more, she found a small black address book with faded entries and two gold coins—a ten-dollar gold piece and a five-dollar gold piece.
Her pulse quickened. Real gold! Except for jewelry, she’d never seen gold before. She picked up the coins, and smiled. They had a satisfying heft to them, not at all like ordinary money.
Still clutching the gold, she reached into the box for the remaining items—four envelopes yellowed with age. Three of the envelopes held Christmas cards, the personalized kind with family photos. Mary recognized herself as a small child standing beside her parents. The fourth envelope contained a birth announcement for Mary Louise Stuart. All the envelopes were addressed to her grandparents in her mother’s distinctive handwriting.
Mary’s hand trembled as she took the envelopes out of her purse and laid them on the table in front of her mother. Although she had wanted to dash over to her parent’s house last night to demand the truth, she had decided to be mature about it and calmly discuss the situation after a good night’s sleep. So today, before noon, she’d stopped by her father’s plumbing supply business where her mother worked as office manager, and invited her to lunch at a nearby sandwich shop. She waited until after they ordered—spinach and avocado salad for both of them—but she couldn’t wait any longer.
Gwen grimaced at the envelopes. “I hoped they hadn’t saved them.”
“Well, they did.”
“I can see that.” A touch of impatience crept into Gwen’s voice. “What do you want from me?”
“The truth. You said you didn’t know they were alive.”
“This is between your father and his parents. It has nothing to do with you.”
“But they were my grandparents.” When Gwen remained silent, Mary asked, “What were they like?”
“I never met them, and Pete never talked about them.” She touched one of the envelopes with a forefinger. A faint smile curved her lips. “I was young, in love. I thought if Pete’s parents saw how much we cared for each other and our new baby, they’d soften toward him. Maybe they did, I don’t know. But he didn’t soften toward them. I stopped sending the cards when I realized Pete would consider it a betrayal.”
When their salads came, Gwen ate two bites, then pushed her plate away. “I wish you’d drop this whole thing. You have no idea what it’s doing to your father.”
Suddenly weary, Mary said, “Fine, I’ll drop it.”
And, for the moment, she meant it.