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Mary Campisi
Mary Campisi
Mary Campisi

Excerpt: Guilty Like Us

Book 5: Reunion Gap

Chapter 1

 

There were defining moments in people’s lives that changed them and most times they never saw it coming. They were too busy moving along in their own world: planning, dreaming, looking toward the horizon when the tornado hit and flattened every piece of what they thought they knew. Like now. At thirty-four, Daniel Reese believed his father possessed all the traits he most admired: honor, integrity, trustworthiness. A good man living a noble life.

But what if the man weren’t as good or noble as he appeared?

“Son, help me, please. Your mother can’t find out.”

Daniel took in the paleness of his father’s face, the sweat beading the upper lip, the fear clouding those blue eyes. He’d only half believed his father’s reason for visiting him without his mother. When had Lorna Reese ever been more interested in baking lasagna and manicotti for the church than visiting him? That was a no-brainer, and if he’d been paying closer attention, he would have asked more questions. But once again, he’d been distracted with his current project and missed the warning signs. Well, he wasn’t going to miss the signs that said his father didn’t look well. “Take it easy, Dad.” They’d almost lost him to a heart attack six years ago and since then, every wince made them nervous that the next attack was coming. “Maybe we should get you checked out.” He eyed his father’s pasty complexion, added, “Just to be sure.”

“I don’t need a doctor.” He slashed a hand in the air, agitation rolling through his next words. “I need your help.”

“Okay.” Daniel placed a hand on his father’s arm, squeezed. “I’ll help. Just relax and tell me what’s wrong.” If only he hadn’t been so caught up in his own life, he’d have made it home more often and not depended on his sister’s reports regarding their parents. Nothing new and same old same old did not describe the anxious state or the fear smothering Oscar Reese right now.

The man people called by-the-book-dependable adjusted his glasses, blinked twice and blurted out, “Six years ago, I made a decision that I’ve regretted every second since.”

For an accountant who’d relied on spreadsheets to guide him through life, this was an unexpected comment. In fact, it was what Daniel’s sister would call dramatic and Oscar Reese had never been given to drama, not even when it was warranted. “Talk to me, Dad. Tell me the rest.”

“It was only one time but it was wrong. I should have refused, flat out told him I wanted no part of his scheming, but I didn’t.” A sniff, a clearing of his throat. “A man like Harrison Alexander has a way of massaging details to make them seem almost acceptable. But understood the difference.”

“Dad, what are you talking about?”

“He bribed a man, son, paid him off so he could win a bid on a tract of land that would net him millions after it was developed. When I found out, he swore it was only one time and if I helped him…” His voice cracked, split open with regret. “I fixed the books. Me, a man who prides himself on always doing the right thing. Guilt stole my life that day. I couldn’t sleep or eat, could barely think. I snapped at your mother when she fussed over me, told her to leave me alone. But I went to work every day and for a few hours tried to forget how I’d betrayed my principles, my family…myself.” More regret spilled, mixed with pain. “The heart attack three months later was almost a relief. I knew I deserved to be punished and maybe that was God’s way of showing me I might be able to escape the law, but I could not escape Him. I vowed that if I made it through, I’d leave my job and spend the rest of my life helping others.”

Daniel wanted to ask Why did you do it? What made it worth destroying your life? But he couldn’t ask that question yet, so he sidestepped it with an easier one. “So that’s why you volunteer at the senior center and do taxes for free?”

A nod, a gruff “It will never fix what I did but I hope it helps a few people.”

“That sort of generosity makes a big difference, Dad. Too bad more people aren’t like you.” Daniel had known what it meant to be without and how a kindness could give a person hope.

His father’s expression softened. “It’s the least I can do, and I have no plans to stop, but…”

This next part was the reason Oscar had made the two-hour trip to visit Daniel and left his wife at home. “But someone found out what you did and is using old-school blackmail on you would be my guess. Who is it and what do they want?” Nobody was going to threaten Oscar Reese, not with Daniel watching over him.

“It’s Harrison.”

“Ah, the man himself. Didn’t the guy have a stroke?” His mother filled him in on local happenings, a.k.a. gossip, in Reunion Gap during their weekly phone chats, and she’d definitely told him about Harrison Alexander’s stroke a few years back. There hadn’t been much sadness in her voice when she relayed the story, but she did provide commentary on how the man had a greater affinity for his rose gardens than for his employees or his family. He doesn’t respect people, she’d said. He treats them like property and that is just not right.

“That stroke didn’t do anything but force him out of his own company and put Tate in his place. Harrison’s determined to gain back control, no matter who he goes after to do it.” Another swipe of his forehead, a quiet “He said I owed him a favor and if I refused, he’d make sure your mother learned what I did. He’d do it, too. I need your help, son. I hate to ask, but I don’t know what else to do. Will you help me, please?”

“Of course I’ll help you.” After, Daniel would realize that maybe he should have been more inquisitive about the favor, but how could he turn his father away? He couldn’t do that when he harbored his own share of guilt for not being more attentive to his parents. Just because his woodworking pieces garnered nation-wide attention, were coveted by the rich and powerful, and had made him insanely wealthy, did not mean he should ignore his parents. His mother had promised him everything was fine, they were fine. Go about your business and live your life, she’d said. And maybe find a nice girl, too. It’s time. Daniel cleared his throat, pushed his mother’s words away, and focused on his father’s problem. “What’s the man want?”

“He wants his daughter back in Reunion Gap.”

By daughter, he meant Meredith Alexander: trust-fund princess, spoiled, way too beautiful. Probably addicted to a lifestyle of spending, partying, and searching for the next whatever. “I remember her.” He’d known too many Meredith Alexander types and wished he didn’t.

“Do you think you could find a way to get her back?”

Daniel avoided rich girls with no purpose and less direction. They were a waste of time and oxygen and he would not make excuses for his negative feelings about such women. Why couldn’t they commit to something important that wasn’t about them or how a designer outfit made them feel or look? He did not want to do this, could tell it would be one giant headache, but he would never refuse, not even—

“Son? I know it’s a lot to ask, but Harrison seems to think you’re the right person for the job. He said you’d find a way and he’s guessing it won’t take more than a few weeks.” A hesitation, followed by more forehead wiping. “He has a file on her. I can give it to you…if you’re interested.”

“A file? You mean like an investigative file?” Daniel rubbed the back of his neck, wondered how his father had gotten into such a mess. Who investigated their own family?“ Alexander had his daughter investigated?”

“He investigates everyone.” His father’s eyes grew dark behind his glasses. “He calls it gathering information to effect an outcome.”

“Right. His outcome.” What a jerk. “Did he have me investigated?”

The surprise on his father’s face said he hadn’t considered that option. “I don’t think so, but I can’t say for sure.”

The possibility annoyed him. What if Alexander discovered Daniel was a whole lot more than a struggling “artist”? He’d invested a lot of money and effort to keep his real identity a secret so it wouldn’t be easy to follow the trail or uncover the convoluted path to one of the most lucrative, well-respected woodworkers in the country. Daniel was the mystery man behind Langston Turnings and while the curious had been guessing at the owner’s identity for six years, only a few close friends outside of his parents and sister knew the truth.

But Harrison Alexander appeared to be a man of patience, persistence, and cunning who always got what he wanted—no matter the cost or the damage. Would he uncover Daniel’s association with Langston Turnings, and if he did, then what?

Daniel had to take the risk because his father needed him, but he intended to play Alexander’s game. Patience and persistence were not foreign to him, and cunning? He’d do what was necessary to protect his father because nobody threatened his family, not even an Alexander.

The daughter was the key. Daniel ignored the warning that said people were going to get hurt. “I’ll do it. I’ll get Meredith Alexander back to Reunion Gap.”

“Thank you.” A long sigh, followed by a quick sign of the cross. “Thank you, son.”

Daniel studied the man who’d once told him if right was on your side, you could never go wrong. “I’m curious. No one could ever convince you to do anything on the other side of legal, no matter how smooth the words. What was in it for you?”

The shock on the man’s face said he hadn’t expected that question. “The less you know, the better. That was another part of the deal I made with Harrison. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done.”

Daniel laughed. “How’s he going to find out?”

“A desperate man is capable of anything, don’t ever forget that.”

“Alexander’s desperate?”

A nod, a weary sigh. “Oh, he’s desperate all right. He wants to control his company and his family, starting with his daughter. She may be a ploy to get to Tate.”

“Wow, nice family man.” Talk about treating your children like they were pawns on a chessboard. “If I’d said no to getting the girl back to Reunion Gap, what would have happened?”

The older man’s shoulders slumped. “It would have been up to me to get her there, though I’m not sure how I would’ve done it. My preference would be honesty, but since he’s removed that from the equation, I would have had to create a reason.” He blinked, rubbed his forehead. “What sort of reason would a middle-aged man have to convince a woman young enough to be his daughter to head home?”

He was right. Meredith Alexander would sniff out his father’s insincerity ten miles away. Oscar Reese was not a liar or a deceitful man and yet he’d succumbed to Harrison Alexander’s treachery. A treachery Daniel was not permitted to inquire about. Yet. There was a lot his father wasn’t saying and maybe it had to do with embarrassment, humiliation, or an attempt to protect his son, but Daniel would find out every piece of this sick puzzle, one delicate piece at a time. Alexander thought he could blackmail a man with a bad heart and high blood pressure? He thought he could do whatever he wanted, and damn right and honorable? Not very likely.

“I’m so sorry, son. I dreaded asking you but I didn’t know what else to do.”

“I’ll handle it, Dad.” He’d get the daughter back to Reunion Gap and then he’d go after Alexander. The man had to be stopped before he destroyed more innocent lives. “I’ll bet you aren’t the only one he’s tricked into one of his schemes and then turned around and blackmailed.” Pause. “Why don’t you let me see the file on Meredith Alexander so I can get started?”

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