Chapter 9

 

Michael Bruce glanced across the lobby. He had made the full rounds of his guests, chatting with everyone important, and had finally managed to get a few moments to himself. Picking a vantage point on the powered-down escalator, he surveyed the crowd, looking for any sign of Martin Bling and his date.

“How much longer until we close?” Ravenswood asked in a burst of static.

Michael held a hand to his ear, adjusting the earpiece. “Twenty minutes. I think we have a no-show.”

“All right. I’m going to make one last sweep before we start kicking people out the door.”

Michael smiled. Ravenswood had a no-nonsense approach to security, which had caused a few problems in the past, but overall Crystal Towers was one of the safest multi-use buildings in the city—a fact the CEO was quite proud of.

About ready to make one last walk-through himself, Michael stopped as he caught sight of a redhead near the revolving door.

Sara looked a bit lost. She glanced at her watch, then craned her neck to see into the crowd. Michael hung back for a moment, waiting for Bling to appear. When it was clear she had come alone, he pushed through the crowd, trying to appear casual as he approached.

“Mr. Bruce,” she said as she caught sight of him.

“Sara, how are you? And please, call me Michael.”

The woman flushed, twisting her foot. “I’m sorry I’m late. I wasn’t sure if I was going to come, and then, well... I decided to at the last minute.”

“I’m glad you did.” Michael glanced around. “Where’s Bling?”

“Martin and I aren’t seeing each other anymore.”

The upset in the woman’s voice caused a twinge of pain in him. “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”

“Well, he decided to move on to bigger and... blonder things.”

“Ah.” Michael nodded sympathetically. “I have a friend like that.”

The woman turned and motioned to the large space. “My gosh, I think this lobby is bigger than our whole building.”

“Well, we just got done with a huge two-year renovation. Everything is new and shiny.”

“It’s beautiful. So now it’s all open?”

“Mm hmm. If you’re looking to lease a place, I can hook you up.” Sara laughed, but Michael could tell she was fighting to hold back the tears. “You know, I’m kinda glad you’re here alone,” he continued, trying to keep his tone cheerful. “I had wanted to talk to you the other night, but it was so crazy with everyone around.”

“Really? What about?”

“I don’t know if you know this or not, but I lost my family in an accident when I was very young. I really admire the kind of work you do. I wanted to talk to you about your programs and the orphanage.”

“Group home,” Sara corrected.

“What?”

“They call them group homes now.”

“Oh.” It was Michael’s turn to blush. “Maybe we can get together in the next few days. I’d like to discuss ways that I could possibly help.” The CEO pulled out his phone, checking his scheduler. “What would be good for you?”

A bit excited, Sara fumbled in her purse, pulling out an old-fashioned Day-Planner. “I’m free tomorrow morning, but afternoon is bad.”

“That doesn’t work for me. How about Friday?”

Flipping the page, Sara shook her head. “Can’t do it. I have an adoption officiation. Next week, maybe?”

Michael didn’t relish the thought of waiting so long to talk to the woman. He was already wracked with worry about their possible family connection, and the idea of fretting the whole weekend was not appealing. “Next week isn’t good either. Listen, I know this may sound crazy, but are you free now? I mean, after the party. You don’t have plans tonight, do you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“How about you stay here? I’m gonna tie things up soon and then we can head upstairs and talk. I’ll even order in dinner.”

“All right.”

“Great. Let me just get everything settled and we can go up.” Michael headed back into the crowd and scanned for his head of security. Ravenswood caught sight of him first and headed over.

“Hey, I see she showed up. Where’s Bling?”

“They broke up.”

Ravenswood sneered. “I bet it was that waitress.”

Michael waved the man on. “Don’t worry about that now. I convinced her to meet with me tonight to talk about her work at the Home. I need you to go upstairs and set up the camera and recorder. I’m going to ask her about her family, too.”

“I’m on it.” Ravenswood turned to leave and then stopped. “What about your dad?”

“He flew to New York for a closing. He won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“Alrighty then, let me get everything together.” The private eye thought for a moment. “When you bring her in, take her through the gallery.”

“Oh, yeah. Good call.” Michael smiled and headed back into the crowd.

 

It was about a quarter past six before the final guests milled out of the lobby. Michael turned over the “goodbyes” to Christine and went to look for his guest. He found Sara flipping through a magazine at the newsstand.

“Ready?”

“Sure,” she nodded.

As he guided her back to the lifts for the residential tower, Sara looked over at the bank of elevators on the other side of the lobby. “Aren’t we going to your office?”

“Well, my staff’s all gone for the day. I thought we would be a little more comfortable at my penthouse.”

A look of panic crossed the woman’s face. “Penthouse?”

The reaction was enough to concern Michael. He didn’t want to blow the opportunity to talk with her. “I have a small office up in my condo. It’s a bit more casual, but if you’d feel better, it’s no problem if you want to go up to my regular office.”

The woman wrung her hands and Michael wondered what could have spooked her. After a few moments, she took a deep breath and forced a smile. “I’m sorry. It’s fine. We don’t need to go to your office.”

The lift stopped at the 27th floor. There were only two doors, and the furthest one displayed a gold nameplate with the word “Bruce” inscribed on it. Leading her into the penthouse, Michael watched as she took in the scenery. The main area was open, two stories tall with a staircase leading to the second level. It was painted a warm beige with dark wood trim and white carpet. There was a large seating area, a wet bar, and a grand piano. Bookcases lined the side wall, and beyond was a small walkway to a large picture window. Although he loved his home, a part of him felt guilty as he realized the woman’s living arrangements must be far more modest.

“Listen, why don’t we set up in the dining room. There’s more room there and I can bring in a laptop.”

“Okay,” Sara agreed.

Michael led the woman through the living room, veering off and heading back to a short hallway. The narrow corridor was brightly lit, both sides of the walls covered with portraits. Sara’s mouth widened into a smile as she scanned the images.

“Are these pictures of your family?”

“Most of them.”

“I love family photos,” she said wistfully. “I don’t have any of my own so I adore looking at other people’s.” Her eyes scanned the wall, stopping briefly on each picture. She pointed to a portrait of two boys—the older one was holding up a little fish while the smaller child had a fish the size of a football. “Is that you?”

“Me and my brother. He actually caught the bigger fish, but he thought the picture would look funnier that way.”

Sara giggled and continued to scan the pictures, pausing on one that featured three young men hamming it up for the camera. “Who’s that?”

“Me and my friends from college.”

Sara’s eyes widened in recognition. “You went to school with Tony Toronto?”

Michael nodded, his voice dropping. “We don’t talk much anymore, though.”

“Oh.” Sara moved on to the next portrait. A young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes. “Your mother,” she whispered. “She was very beautiful.”

Michael blushed. For several minutes he watched Sara. She was taken by the portraits, but he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary in her expression. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, he finally pointed to the end of the gallery. “Right through there.”

It was the informal dining room with a small table just large enough to seat eight. The kitchen was off to the left and a large window looked out onto the heart of the city. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Would you like something to drink? A soda or coffee?”

“Coffee would be great.”

“There’s a Chinese restaurant next door. Is that all right?”

“Chinese is great, too,” she said with a smile.

“I’ll be right back.”

Michael headed into the kitchen. A fresh pot of coffee was already brewing, thanks to Ravenswood. He zipped through to the back hallway, ducking into the surveillance room. “Got everything?”

“Yeah,” the private eye said with a thumbs-up. “Cameras working and I have audio. Will you order me some chicken fried rice?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Fine. Just make sure you have everything set-up. I’m going to ask her some stuff about Bling, too, so make sure you get it all.”

Making a call to order the food, Michael then set up a tray of coffee and brought it into the dining area. Afterwards, he hurried to his office, grabbing his computer tablet and a pad of paper and pens. When he finally settled down in the chair next to the redhead, she giggled.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“You didn’t have to go to all this trouble for me.”

There was something about the woman that made him smile. She seemed so sincere. “It’s all right,” he said as he poured her a cup of coffee. “Can I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer if it’s too personal.”

“Okay.”

“How did you get together with Bling? You’re not really...”

“His type?” Sara rolled her eyes a little. “Everybody says that.”

“Actually,” Michael continued, “I was going to say that you’re such a nice girl. You don’t look like Bling is your type.”

She glanced down, her cheeks flushing red. “Well, it’s not like we met at a bar or something.”

“I didn’t think that.”

Sara grabbed her coffee cup, fiddling with the handle. “Well, a few months back, the Home was in a severe financial crisis. We were literally days from being shut down. I’d hit up every charitable organization I could think of and simply couldn’t get the funding we needed.”

“You should have come to me,” Michael said.

“I did. I mean, I went to your company, but they told me I wasn’t on the approved agencies list. They said there was a six month application process and they couldn’t guarantee what kind of donation we’d get.”

“Really?” Michael was genuinely shocked. “What about emergencies and such?”

“They said they couldn’t help.”

“Wow. I guess I should know these things, being CEO and all.” Michael made a mental note to talk to the head of his charitable donations division.

“It’s okay,” Sara reassured. “It wasn’t your fault. Anyhow, I had read an article about how Martin had donated a lot of money to a crisis center in Alabama. I figured it was worth a shot to ask. Thing is, I couldn’t even get a call through to his secretary, much less talk to him. I was desperate, so I decided to go to Bling City personally.”

“And you got in to see him?” Michael asked, well aware of the tycoon’s heavy security.

“Well, I almost got thrown out, but I started making a lot of noise. He happened to be there and came out to see what was going on. So, yeah, I did get to see him.” A shadow flashed across Sara’s face. “Anyway, after we... talked... he ended up being very generous. He’s the reason the Home is still open.”

Michael realized he was being much too nosey, but he pressed on. “And you and him?”

“He said he admired my moxie, to go there personally, so he asked me out on a date. I said ‘yes’ and things just kinda went from there.”

“I’m really sorry about it ending and all.”

“That’s okay. You don’t date a guy like Martin Bling and expect it to last forever.” Sara’s eyes dropped to the table, and at that moment, Michael realized she loved the man. Before he could say anything else to console her, she took a sip of her coffee and turned to face him again. “Now, it’s my turn to ask you a question.”

“Go for it.”

“How did you lose your family?”

Michael always hated that question. It made him feel awkward, particularly since half the world already seemed to know the details. “Haven’t you read anything about me? They usually bring it up in articles.”

“I don’t read about celebrities much.”

“Tony Toronto’s a celebrity, not me.”

Sara reached over and touched his hand; Michael could imagine it was the same kind of touch she gave the children at the Home. “Will you tell me anyway?”

Unlike his own question a moment before, he could tell by her voice that she wasn’t asking out of curiosity—she truly cared.

She reminds me of my mother, he thought with a sad smile.

“All right.” He leaned back in his chair. “It was a long time ago. Twenty-six years ago, actually. My grandfather had invited my family to his chateau in Switzerland for Christmas...”