I lean out the car window and press the button on the call box for the third time.
“Hello?” I say yet again. “Anyone there?”
No one answers. Yet again.
I sit back against the seat and slam my hand against the steering wheel. Stupid rich asshole. I've driven all the way out here to the middle of nowhere and he won't even let me in.
Not that I expected any different.
A pair of wrought-iron gates stands ahead of me in the driveway. They're covered in ivy, like the entrance to some enchanted garden in a fairy tale, and I have no doubt the family paid a small fortune to their landscapers to create that wild, “overgrown” look. I kill the engine of my beat-up Honda and climb out of the car. I don't care how long it takes—I won't leave until they let me through. If that means camping out here for the next several hours, then so be it.
I walk up to the gates and give them a good shake, hoping they'll magically pop open at my touch. They don't even wiggle. Beyond them lie the estates of the Cunningham family, the current residence of the infamous—and infuriating—Calder Cunningham.
His note arrived yesterday, and I've read it about fifty times since then.
Dearest Ms. Frazer,
While your persistence is admirable, I assure you your exertions on behalf of the Frazer Center for the Arts will do little to change my decision. I'm afraid I will not be including the Frazer Center in my financial plans for the foreseeable future, and for your own sake, I request that you abandon your efforts to change my mind. I would not waste any more of your time.
No mention of the fact that he's broken the pledge contract his late father signed. No acknowledgment that his actions might single-handedly be responsible for the closing of the Frazer Center. No apology for blowing off all my previous attempts to contact him.
I stand on my toes in front of the gates, trying to find a place where the vines part just enough to give me a view of the other side. Between the leaves I can see the long, cobblestoned driveway winding between a double row of live oaks. There's no view of the house from here, but if the rumors are true, it's something of a monstrosity. The rich love their ridiculous mansions.
The Cunninghams have always been weird about their property. No photos of the estate have ever been released to the public—except for the occasional grainy shot from a helicopter, which is always quickly retracted—though descriptions of the lands and house grow more extravagant with every story. They’re one of the last great “old money” families in this part of the country and have a reputation for being a little eccentric; as such, they attract their fair share of attention—and they appear to harbor their fair share of secrets as well.
Probably why security's such a bitch.
I step back and look up at the camera bolted to the stone wall above the call box.
“I don't have a camera,” I call up to it. “I’m not trying to sneak any photos or anything.”
I go back to the car and grab my purse. There are only four things inside: my wallet, a pack of gum, some sunglasses, and a six-year-old flip phone. I take them out one by one, and when I get to the phone I hold it up so the security camera can see.
“Look,” I say, flicking it open. “There's not even a camera on here.” I throw the phone down with the other items and grab the purse again. I turn it upside down and give it a good shake for effect.
The gates don't budge.
I give an exasperated sigh and walk around to the trunk of my car. It's full of the usual junk. I pull out the grocery sack I use as a makeshift garbage bag, rifle through it beneath the camera to show that it's only receipts and fast food wrappers, and drop it on the drive. Next I pull out a pair of sneakers, a small emergency car kit, and a couple of rough-edged file folders.
“See?” I say. “Nothing.”
There's no response.
I lean over to the call button and jam it another time.
“Look,” I say. “I'm not trying to cause any trouble. As I said before, I'm from the Frazer Center for the Arts.” I flip open my wallet and flash my ID card at the camera. Lily Frazer. Assistant Director. There's even a picture, though my naturally brunette hair looks rather orange in the image. “Please. I just want to speak with Mr. Cunningham in regard to the letter he sent us. He won't return my calls.” God, could I sound like any more of a stalker?
But there is still no answer from the call box. I walk back over to the gates and press my face against the bars.
“Hello!” I call. “Can anyone hear me?” I don't see anyone on the other side, but that doesn't mean there's no one there.
I'm about to yell again when the first raindrop lands on my cheek. I brush it off and glance up. The sky was clear when I left this morning, but now it's an ominous gray.
Great. Just what I need.
A crack of thunder sounds right overhead. I curse and run back to my stuff, scooping it up off the driveway as the rain starts to pick up. I've just managed to throw the last of it in my trunk when the skies open up and it begins to pour. I jump back into my car and roll up the window, but not before half of the driver's side seat is soaked.
I lean on my right hip, trying to keep the butt of my jeans dry. It’s too late for my upper half. For a moment I just sit there, sideways, staring at the water sliding down the windshield. Beyond the glass, the gates are still closed. It doesn't look like security is going to take pity on the poor wet girl sitting outside.
I chew absently on my lip as I try to think. Sure, this puts a damper on things, but I'm not about to let a little rain stop me. If I have to sit out here all night, I'll do it, but there has to be a way to convince them to let me through. I hoped, naively, that my determination would inspire some sort of sympathy. It’s easy enough for a gazillion-aire like Calder Cunningham to brush off letters and phone calls, but I thought it would be harder for him to ignore someone sitting in front of his own gate. Looks like I was wrong.
I tap my horn a couple of times, just to show security that I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon. They're probably having a good laugh at me, but I don't care. For once, I'm standing up for something. The Frazer Center is my life, and now it's going to close—unless I convince Calder Cunningham to reverse his decision to retract the promise his father made.
The late Wentworth Cunningham was a great patron of the arts and our largest donor for years. Apparently his son shares no such philanthropic tendencies. According to the tabloids, Calder's spent the better part of the last ten years gallivanting across Europe, romancing models and starlets and partying his way through every techno club he could find. Since his father's death this past summer, Calder's been in charge of the family funds, and he's wasted no time in undoing his father's contributions to society.
We received notice of the decision through his lawyers, who detailed in fancy legal jargon why Calder's actions weren't in violation of the pledge contract his father signed two years ago. We're a small nonprofit institution. We don't have the resources to challenge the decision, even if Dad would allow it.
A pang of guilt shoots through me. My dad doesn't know the whole truth about my trip out here today. He thinks I'm in Barberville trying to scare up some corporate sponsors.
He's been adamantly against pursuing the matter with Calder Cunningham, claiming he refuses to reduce himself to begging. I hoped to avoid calling him until I had this whole Cunningham business wrapped up—better to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?—but now that it looks I'm going to be here a while, I know I need to give him a call.
I grab my phone and punch in the number for the Frazer Center. Dad's been manning the phone in the evenings after the volunteer secretary leaves.
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