Ira would normally hold a client’s will reading in his own office, but given this had the potential to wreak havoc, he chose what seemed best for Olivia. He’d only met her once, when Ben included her in their family’s estate planning decisions.
Ben’s personal study reminded Ira of his client, given it held an air of old world charm, full of historic beauty and cozy memories. Ira sensed Ben’s presence in the room, imagining him with an after-dinner cordial in one hand, a cigar in the other, and a symphony recording playing in the background. To the left, an expansive seating area circled around a beautiful stone fire place under twelve-foot cathedral-domed ceilings. And to the right sat a large traditional oak desk, near the over-sized bay windows, and an original Tiffany lamp in its corner.
Olivia held a striking yet maudlin pose, as she sat upright with her legs angled towards the fire place, posture clean and crisp with an arch matching the back of her tall, wing-backed leather chair. She held a cup of tea in her hands, atop a fine silver-rimmed china saucer, and looked calmly at him. Ira assumed she’d been crying recently as her swollen eyes refused to hide behind whatever makeup she’d applied as a wishful cover.
“Mr. Rattenbury, meet my sister Diane,” she said, while pointing to her left and placing the cup on the table. “It’s eleven thirty, we should start.”
Diane poured chamomile and raised the porcelain teapot towards him. “A cup of tea, Mr. Rattenbury?”
“Yes, kind of you,” he said, watching the other members of the family take their seats. “I’m pleased you could attend today. Ben included you in his estate, often speaking fondly of you when he’d come visit me.”
Diane blushed and handed him the tea. “I’ll miss Ben more than I know how to say.”
Teddy, the eldest son, and his wife Sarah, sat on the couch across from the oak desk. Teddy, six feet tall, boasted short salt and pepper hair, even though he’d barely entered his early thirties. His wide-set green eyes sparkled when the sunlight blasting through the front window found them. Teddy fussed with his collar, settling on leaving the top button open, and his awkward face scowled.
Sarah, thin as a rail, displayed a bird-like appearance. She had ash blond hair closely cropped to the sides of her face, a charming southern accent and almond-shaped green eyes she hid behind. Ira placed her at forty, almost a decade older than her husband, and while some might consider her pretty, she also appeared worn, tired and faint.
Ira nodded and shook their hands. “Nice to meet you both. You have my condolences.”
Sarah’s neck craned forward as she nodded. “Much obliged.”
Teddy did not respond. A frown still occupied the better half of his face.
Next to Teddy sat Caleb, with wavy dark hair and olive skin, different from his parents. Perhaps reminiscent of the relatives Ira had seen in the various family pictures scattered around the room. Caleb’s eyes appeared heavy and distant, as though he wished he were anywhere but in that room at that moment. Ira reached a hand towards him. “It’s good to meet you. Your father spoke highly of you. I’m sorry we haven’t gotten to meet before this weekend.”
Caleb shook his hand with a firm grip, his eyes looking past Ira towards the window. “I appreciate it, Mr. Rattenbury. I’m not home often, but my father mentioned you on our calls.”
Olivia said, “Caleb designed this room for his father many years ago. Ben proposed his study evoke a mid-century modern motif. I never saw the room until finished, but Caleb has always had good judgment. And he loved and respected his father.”
“Impressive. You’re an architect?” Ira said.
Matt, walking towards Ira, interjected before Caleb had a chance to respond. “Yes, my younger brother plays with his little drawings all day long. And by younger, I barely mean so –only eleven months, but he never could keep up with me, right Cabbie…”
Caleb twitched upon hearing his hated nickname, recalling tortures the brothers inflicted on one another over the years.
Matt was neither tall nor short, but his witty personality and energetic demeanor compensated for his indiscriminate height. He wore brown stubble across his cheeks and well-defined chin, and dark bags under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. “Caleb hates when I call him Cabbie… goes back to our golf days, when he ran up and down the course trying to catch any player who’d give him a chance at the ball. Breaking news… he never did!” He shook Ira’s hand and backed away, his dimples shining far across the room.
Caleb cocked his head, smiling at his brother over the childish banter. “Let it go, Matt. We all know you’re the sports hero in the family. No need to over-dramatize today.”
Matt crumbled a napkin and threw it with deft expertise at Caleb. “I’m just joshin’. It’s a hard day for all of us, Cabbie.” He ran his fingers through thick chestnut hair, his muscular arms thrown above his head, watching the napkin land in Caleb’s half-empty glass of seltzer. Matt’s fists pounded the chilled air, and he shouted “goal” as the dunk sprayed drops of seltzer and ice across Caleb’s unprepared face.
Looking back toward Ira, Matt’s tone dropped flat. “We appreciate you coming to the house. My wife wandered upstairs with our girls. We thought it best not to have them at the will reading. If we need Margaret, I can run upstairs to find her.”
“No, it’s fine. We can talk to her afterwards if anything comes up. Ben’s will is straightforward when it comes to what he chose to leave for everyone,” Ira said.
Matt nodded and took a seat after punching Caleb in his right arm. A token of affection. Or mischanneled grief.
Ira glanced next at the youngest son, whose youthful glow could challenge any teenager. He held a lanky, wiry frame, bore a thick head of reddish-blond hair and several freckles on his ruddy complexion. “You must be Ethan. Your father’s pride was evident over all the work you’ve accomplished at the hospital. Boston University, right?”
“Yes, sir. Second year of medical school complete. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Rattenbury.” He quickly took a seat on a chair closer to the window, on the far side of the grandfather clock, while his gaze constantly checked on his mother.
Ira said “We’re missing someone. Zach?”
Olivia looked around. “He strolled the hallways a few minutes ago. Let me go check.” She stood and angled towards the door.
Diane placed the tea cup back on the table, looking out the double doors, and motioned to Olivia. “Liv, he’s walking down the stairs. No need to find him. “Zach,” she yelled. “We’re in the study.”
Zach walked through the open double doors with his daughter, Anastasia. “I’m here, no need to go find me. Was checking on my girl.” He picked her up, swung her from side to side, and she giggled with an innocent flourish. When he put her down, she immediately closed both the doors with a flourish, as though she’d known it was time for privacy.
Zach, clad in acid wash jeans and a black t-shirt, with bare feet and dark wet hair, was considered ruggedly handsome. He kept a trim beard set across his squared chin and high cheekbones, as well as two visible tattoos. One on his arm, where an artist had drawn a green and pink crawling vine running from Zach’s left wrist up to the back of his neck. And on his right forearm, a pair of black and white dice danced, along with a few colored playing cards, the Ace and the King of hearts. The red had begun to fade, not unlike many other things in his life.
Olivia’s lips pursed as her voice grew harsh. “Zachary, it’s not a good idea to have her here with us. Maybe Margaret could watch her upstairs with the other girls. Would she mind, Matthew?”
Matt lifted his head and looked at his mother. Something he fiddled with in his pocket had been distracting him. He mumbled “Huh?” as his eyes pressed together and his neck jutted to the side.
Diane took Anastasia from Zach, gently brushing the girl’s wild copper locks while placing her on her lap. “I’ll watch her. Tea’s in the pot if you want a cup.”
“It’s valuable for her to sit with us, absorbing the family dynamics.” Zach walked to the sideboard. “No, too hot out for tea. Gonna pour a glass of brandy. Anyone else need liquid courage?” he said, carefully emphasizing the word liquid.
Sarah and Teddy exchanged glances, eyes shifting back and forth across the room.
Olivia kept silent, but Ira could tell by her rising, wrinkling nose, she was ready to summon a rattled angst at her son’s behavior.
Ira spoke to clear the strain. “Since we’re all here and seated, I can begin.”
“Yes, I agree with you. Thank you, Mr. Rattenbury,” Olivia said.
Ira stifled a laugh, considering Olivia appeared to view the reading of the will as her marionette show despite knowing he maneuvered the strings for the rest of the afternoon. A few minutes later, Ira completed delivery of the basic premise of the will, when he drafted it, and what the next steps would include. When everyone nodded with their understanding, he continued.
“Let’s discuss the specifics of the estate. I will cover a few items we should handle before anything else, when it comes to distribution of assets. And now, the following is directly from Ben’s will: To my beloved sister-in-law, Diane, I leave the sum of two hundred thousand dollars disbursed as soon after my death as possible. Diane, you have been like my own sister, and you have always taken care of this family as if it were your own. I should take care of you. You need to find happiness. You need to live the rest of your life as you want to live it, not as someone else forces you to do so. Think back to our conversation after your mother died and you will know what I mean. Do not accept what stands today. Find your own adventure in life.”
Diane’s eyes welled at hearing of the depth of Ben’s appreciation for their friendship over the years. She glanced at her sister with eyes hungry for acknowledgement. “Liv, did you know he was gonna do this?” Her voice strained and she gently tapped her chest.
Olivia’s lips curled in the corners, forming into a gentle smile as her cheeks grew pink. “I did. I didn’t know how much, but we wanted to take care of you should anything happen to us. You deserve the opportunity.”
Ethan stepped forward and hugged his aunt. “He loved you. This seems right.”
Diane placed Anastasia on the floor in front, and sat back into the chair, fumbling to find its arms. “Please, continue. Don’t mind me.” Her hands clasped together across her mouth and nose. Her eyes darted back and forth across the room, settling on disappearing into the family portrait on the far wall.
Ira nodded and noted he was reading directly from the will again. “To the three charities of Olivia’s choosing, I leave the sum of one hundred thousand dollars. Olivia, helping others has always been your passion. You have been a driving force behind so many positive causes. I am confident you will know how to divide this money to benefit the greater good of Brandywine and of Connecticut.”
Olivia nodded, looking towards the ceiling, her fingers and palm resting on her chest. “Thank you, Ben.”
Ira continued. “For clarity, Ben and Olivia drafted the next piece of the will together, and I assure you they were in full agreement on the following proceedings: For the remainder of my assets, I leave our house and property to my wife Olivia to live in and/or use as she decides, along with a monthly subsidy to use for any upkeep and maintenance, contingent upon Olivia or a member of the family retaining ownership of the property. The subsidy payments have been set aside for a ten-year period. For any investments, cash and/or equity to our names, we shall equally divide them with fifty percent allocated for Olivia and fifty percent allocated and divided equally between each of my five sons, thus being ten percent each.”
Ira stopped speaking while his eyes swept across the room. The lack of shocked expressions assured him they’d expected this division of assets. “As of earlier this month, the total monetary value of these assets, which we will divide as previously noted, equals twenty million dollars, meaning Olivia will inherit ten million and each of the boys will inherit two million dollars, net of taxes, payable within the next two months as I liquidate the accounts.”
Olivia broke the silence in the room. “Boys, your father and I considered putting the money in a trust for when each of you turned forty, but ultimately decided to release it while you’re younger and can spend it.”
Each of the five boys managed some form of a nod. Ira knew from his many conversations with Ben they’d all been careful with money, and even though the family had grown further apart over the years, Ira felt certain this was the fair approach.
Olivia said, “Good. We have enough money to take care of ourselves and families. We were lucky, and he was a remarkable husband and father to do this for us. Please continue, Mr. Rattenbury.”
“As always, you’re a shining example of grace, Mrs. Glass. Yes, to continue, the next discussion includes the law practice Ben owned, along with his two colleagues, Mr. Jason Wittleton and Ms. Nora Davis. For those who are unaware, Ben had sixty percent ownership in the law practice, and his two partners each owned twenty percent. They are minority owners but are comfortable abiding by the terms set forth in this will regarding Ben’s interests. Ben had been transitioning the firm to his eldest son Teddy with plans to transfer the daily administration by the beginning of the new year. Should Teddy continue to assume full responsibility for the daily administration of the firm, he will represent the sixty percent majority of the Glass family’s share, making the firm’s decisions; however, he should divide any of the firm’s profits among all five children. Given Teddy will handle the running of the firm, he will inherit twenty percent and the remaining four sons will each inherit ten percent, disbursed annually by the firm’s accountant. Should Teddy decide not to keep leadership, the first right of purchase goes equally to the two co-partners. Ben felt strongly the firm should stay in the family, but he recognized circumstances could change and he wanted provisions in either case. Do you have any questions?”
Matt spoke up, clearing his throat and puffing his chest. “Since I handle the accounting for the firm, I can explain any details you need. But I’ve got this one in the bag. I’ve already spoken with Mr. Wittleton and Ms. Davis and they understand we need time to process and decide on any changes.” His hands moved as he talked, his excitement and pride fighting for the top dawg trophy. “They trust me to handle daily operations. We’ve been paying profits from the firm on an annual basis, usually in February. It’s a minor adjustment if we’re only changing the percentages and not selling. We’re golden.”
Olivia interrupted, her voice cutting through a growing tension. “Of course, we’re not selling. Theodore has wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps since he was a young child. Within a few weeks, he will assume leadership with his new partners’ guidance expected from time to time.”
Ira looked quickly at Teddy, whose face held a grim expression, as if he’d grew discontented in the conversation.
Sarah, upon noticing her husband hadn’t responded, said, “I reckon y’all need a lil’ time to figure this out.” She bristled with a nervous energy, her pallor suddenly a blueish green.
Teddy nodded in agreement. “Yes, we’ll address it soon. No need to get into those details. Move along, please.”
Sarah looked back at Zach, locking eyes together, and quickly forced hers anywhere else but in his direction. She reached her hand to Teddy’s shoulder, resulting in his entire upper body flinching upon contact.
Zach rubbed his hand across his stomach as a nerve in his left forearm sharply twitched, waking the vines crawling on his skin. He stood to pour a second brandy, shaking his head the entire time he walked over to the sideboard.
Olivia said, “Do you need another one right now, Zachary? It’s not even noon.”
“Yes, Mom, I do. It’s been a long day. I don’t usually hear my father’s will being read, thank you very much.” He dropped two ice cubes in the art deco glass and swiftly swallowed. “Good stuff, Dad,” he toasted with a flick of his hand towards Ben’s desk.
Olivia looked back at Ira. “Do you have anything else we need to discuss right now? Or should we take a few days regarding next steps and reconvene as a family at the end of the week?”
Caleb jumped up, his voice cracked as he spoke. “Mom, I need to get back to Maine soon. I can’t stay through the end of the week.”
Before Olivia could respond, Diane chimed in. “Let’s not worry about it right now. Today’s a hard day. Way too much for any of us to get through in one sitting. We’ll figure it all out.”
Olivia nodded at Diane, appearing grateful to her sister for holding the peace.
Matt said, “Agreed. I need to go check on the Yankees game. They should play any minute. Time to kick your boys’ asses, Ethan.”
Ben had once told Ira about the long-standing rivalry over which of Matt’s and Ethan’s teams would win each season; it covered all the major sports and created many fierce battles of loyalty across the family. The Glass men had been solid supporters of all the New York teams, but when Ethan moved to Boston, his allegiance went with him, as did their father’s.
Ethan smiled. “Red Sox rule. No chance for the Yanks, brother.”
Matt and Ethan stood, assuming the will reading had ended. Both walked by the sofa and were about to open the doors. Matt had his hands pressed to Ethan’s shoulders, either to jump on him or hug him. Ira couldn’t decide.
Ira watched Olivia close her eyes and slow her breathing. He’d expected no trouble up to this point with Ben’s requests. The next part had kept him awake the last three nights, preparing for a potential confrontation. His palms grew sweaty, despite the years of experience he had in delivering difficult news. Ben had become a friend the last year, and Ira felt more empathy for the Glass family than for other clients. He cleared his throat and steadied his hand on the arm of the chair.
With eyes focused on Matt and Ethan, he spoke. “We have one more matter to discuss. Gentlemen, if you wouldn’t mind sitting for a little longer. I have a final message from your father he asked me to oversee.”
“You need me to stay too?” Matt questioned Ira as he slid the phone back into his pocket, his lips pursed and dismayed. His ample sigh perforated the room.
Ira nodded at Matt, noticing Olivia’s head tilting in his direction.
Olivia’s lips formed into a narrow slit, her eyes pierced at him as sharp lasers penetrate the fog. “Mr. Rattenbury, we’ve covered the house, the estate, the law practice, and the charitable donations. What else do we have to discuss?”
Ira withdrew two envelopes, leaned towards Olivia, and placed them in her shivering hands. “We need to discuss these, Olivia. Ben wrote them a few years ago, and he asked me to deliver them in the event of his death.”
Ira’s eyes glanced across the rest of the room with a determined focus. “But he clearly specified what he wrote in these letters does not change the terms of his will… he explicitly wanted them handed out after the will reading finished.”
The grandfather clock loomed in the background, the noon hour arriving with the loud crash of twelve cymbals. Olivia’s skin blanched an unnatural shade of white. She clutched her chest and the jitter of her legs caused the tea cup to rattle against the saucer.
“Do you need a glass of brandy, Mom?” Zach said, while taking the tea cup from her hands.
Olivia sighed. “Yes, I would like one now. Thank you.” Her hands rested atop her knees to steady them.
Zach poured her two fingers worth of Remy Martin, dropped off the glass in her cold hands and moved towards Diane to retrieve his daughter. “Interesting. Open them, Mom. Maybe Dad’s got another son planning to knock on the door.”
Olivia dropped the glass, already empty of its contents which settled in her nervous stomach. Her rapt eyes followed as it rolled across the carpet, landing at Ira’s feet.
Diane lunged, offering her sister a cocktail napkin. “Zach, don’t say such a thing. Your father would never cheat on her.”
“I was only kidding, trying to lighten the mood in here. We all know how much he loved her. Mom, my bad. He didn’t keep secrets from us. From you.”
Olivia retrieved the glass, dabbed at the brown and green basket weave carpet with the napkin, as her eyes and hands deeply focused on the task. “Of course not. I knew you were joking. It shocked me, that’s all. Please explain, Mr. Rattenbury. This is unexpected.” While she controlled her quaking legs, her neck and head still faltered.
Ira continued. “Yes, prior to opening the envelopes, please do let me provide a few more details. Several years ago, Ben arranged a meeting with me to discuss an amendment he wished to include in his estate. Ethan, you’d recently graduated from high school and Olivia, yours and Diane’s mother had just passed away. Ben spoke about the importance of family and how ensuring you all knew how much he cared for you directed his every decision. He handed me these two envelopes. One belongs to you, Olivia. And one belongs to his son.”
The room was silent for fifteen seconds until Teddy clenched his jaw and interjected. “Don’t you mean sons? He has five sons.”
Ira waited a moment to allow the family time to react, but soon continued as all eyes looked upon him; some with doubt, others with a discerning glower. “He meant son. Even I do not know specifically what he wrote in these letters. He asked me to deliver the first one to Olivia. When she finishes reading the letter, she will know what to do with the second one.”
Zach’s eyes rose and cheeks lifted with each word. “But which son? Mom, open the envelope. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Ethan remained silent. A hint of a boyish smile, full of innocence and adoration, focused on his mother. He seemed distracted.
Matt sent a text message, his interest only half connected.
Teddy spoke, dismissing everyone else’s input. “What silliness. Our father didn’t play games. What purpose does this business about final letters serve, Mr. Rattenbury?”
Ira watched Teddy grind his lower jaw, hearing the man’s teeth scraping against one another as they sharpened for a readied feast. He chose not to reply, hoping Olivia would know how to control her son.
Caleb stood and shuffled to the window, his shoulders hunched forward. He appeared angry or afraid of the contents of the second envelope. His eyes pressed tightly and his lips mumbled incoherently.
Olivia spoke, her voice echoing deliberate and soft with each phrase. “Let me open the envelope, boys. I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure reading the letters will clear any confusion.”
Diane walked over and sat on the chair’s arm with her hand around her sister’s shoulder.
Ira said, “He had one other message which I should deliver to Olivia after you’ve all left. He intended for the boys to give her time to read the letter on her own.”
Teddy again objected. “No, we will not leave the room. It would seem to me we’re all in this together. Give them to me.” His hands reached out towards Ira, stopping an inch away from his wife’s nose. Sarah jerked backwards with a distinct gasp of familiarity.
Ira, watching the involuntary judder of Teddy’s right cheek as the man’s top teeth pressed further on his jaw, was determined not to let Olivia give Teddy the envelopes.
Caleb spoke, surprising his brothers, with his back towards his family as he faced the window. “Dad wants Mom to read them alone. We need to give her time.”
Zach disagreed. “No, she needs to open it and tell us what’s going on. Come on, Mom. Let’s get to the juicy details.” He slid his hands together, lifting his brow several times.
Matt had stopped playing with his phone, but tapped the table beside him, fixated on the spinning needles of time on the grandfather clock. He shrugged his shoulders, bobbed his head a few times. “I need water. Maybe you should open it without us. I want an intermission.”
Ethan stared at the floor, absorbing the impact of what happened around him. “It’s up to you, Mom. If it’s between you and Dad, you should read it and decide if you need to tell us his last message.”
Zach and Teddy continued fighting, each raising their voice while arguing unsuccessfully over the best next steps. Teddy would not let up. His voice strained, eyes widened beyond their limits and a hollow tone grew more pompous with each response.
Olivia stood, her hands roughly pushing down against the invisible yet stagnant air. The shrill sound of her voice emanating across the room told them she’d had enough. “Boys, we’ve all had a horribly rough week and I can’t handle the disagreements. Your father died. I miss him so much and we should honor him by supporting one another, not silly little children throwing temper tantrums. Please give me time alone with Mr. Rattenbury.”
Diane took Anastasia from Zach, as he poured another brandy, and left the room. “I’ll wait outside if you need me, Liv.”
Zach took a sip. “Need another, Mom?” When she declined, he took the bottle and left the study, feet stamping the floor as if he marked a return path with each stride.
Matt had already disappeared up the stairs notifying everyone it was time to check the scores and read to his girls.
Teddy and Sarah walked out together, Sarah ripened near the point of illness.
Teddy tried to whisper, “this reeks of useless nonsense,” as he pushed Sarah through the doorway, but his voice carried across the room.
Ethan gently touched his mom’s hand, telling her he loved her, and looked over at his brother. “Caleb, you coming?”
Caleb said, “Yes, in a minute. I wanna talk to Mom.”
Ethan exited the room and joined his aunt and niece in the hallway. His relaxed posture and innocent eyes stood out, the only son focused on protecting his mother and not worrying about himself.
Caleb looked at Olivia, his eyes growing darker and heavier by the second. “Mom, I’m not sure what Dad wrote in the letter, but maybe it’s nothing. Maybe you shouldn’t read it.”
Olivia kissed her son. “Caleb, it’s the last communication I have from your father. It’s the only time I’ll ever again hear his words. I must read it. You go on. I’ll find you a little later.” She squeezed his hand.
Caleb hugged her. “Goodbye, Mom.” And after a long stare back, he dropped his head and pulled shut the heavy wooden doors to the study as he left the room.
Olivia sliced the envelope’s seal using the silver opener, with the Glass family crest, sitting on Ben’s desk. She looked at him as she pulled out the contents. “You mentioned you had one more message for me? I’d prefer to know before I read my husband’s letter.”
“Yes,” Ira said, noticing the skin under her eyes had grown darker since he first arrived. “Ben asked me upon his death to locate a woman named Rowena Hector. My associates are searching for her based on brief details Ben offered to me at the time. I know little of her nor what he put in the letter. Do you know anyone named Rowena Hector?”
Olivia’s eyes grew wider and her lips thinned out. “I do not, but I’m about to discover what secrets my husband has kept.” She unfolded the parchment with a delicate ease and read its contents. “I recognize his penmanship. He had distinct round and tall O’s whenever he wrote out my name.”
If you are reading this letter, it must mean…
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