AnnaLise Griggs couldn't believe her ears. "Who did you say you intend to invite?"
Seated on the opposite side of his massive antique desk, Dickens Hart grinned. "You're the wordsmith, my dear, but I do believe the proper pronoun in that question would be 'whom.'"
AnnaLise clenched her teeth. "OK, whom did--"
Hart nodded toward a stack of papers between them. "By now, you've probably already made a functional guest list yourself."
Of course, AnnaLise thought, a mite dazed. After all, didn't every bastard child keep track of her philandering father's conquests? Notwithstanding, of course, her own mother, Lorraine "Daisy" Kuchenbacher Griggs, who had raised AnnaLise with absolutely no help from the indisputable bastard across the desk.
AnnaLise raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Dickens. Did you say . . . 'guest list'?"
"Yes." Hart raked a hand through his wavy white hair, a perfected gesture combining impatience, arrogance and--mainly--vanity.
Dickens Hart had regularly penned "Dear Diary" journals for his private amusement. And AnnaLise, under contract to compile them into a publishable memoir, had begun slogging, then just skimming, her way volume-by-volume.
According to her birth-father's many enthusiastic entries, he'd been quite the happening guy back in the seventies, especially after he opened "White Tail Lodge," a North Carolina High-Country rip-off of the Playboy Club concept.
Situated on Sutherton Lake like the current palatial mansion where they sat, the Lodge had been a "gentlemen's club," featuring "Fawns"--essentially scantily clad pseudo-Bunnies--supposedly to serve and entertain the clientele. Clipping after curled-corner clipping from local newspapers and glossy regional magazines showed Hart smiling at the lens as some young female's manicured fingers toyed with his both shaggy and darker hair.
"You went through my journals," Hart was now saying. "You must have found my big black book."
"You've given me at least a dozen boxes of journals, diaries and memorabilia," AnnaLise protested. "Not to mention digital files on computer disks from back when they still were floppy. How could I possibly--"
She interrupted herself. "Your big black book? Don't you mean 'little black book'?"
Hart shook his head and held his palms about six inches apart. "Big," sliding the hands out another six inches, "as in bigger, and even . . . biggest."
What a pig, thought AnnaLise.
But said "pig" had hired her for his memoir project, though admittedly before she knew he was her biological father. On an indefinite leave of absence from a reporter's job in Wisconsin while she tried to sort out her Sutherton mother's ongoing memory problems, AnnaLise was in no position to turn down a paying job.
Especially a well-paying job. One hundred thousand dollars as an advance, with a 50/50 split of royalties, should there be any. As the saying goes, money can't buy love. Or even respect. But, in this case, it could rent days--nay, weeks, if not months--of AnnaLise's professional time.
"I'm afraid I haven't come across this book yet," she said, making a note. "You say it's black?"
"I was using a half-truth to make a joke. And, probably a bad one at that." Hart shifted in his chair, at least having the decency to look uncomfortable, as though actually recognizing that he'd stepped over the line in conversation with a blood-child. "The thing has a black-and-white speckled cover, my name on the front in a juvenile's handwriting."
Wait a minute. "You're talking about a student's composition book? Geez, Dickens, at just what age did you start tallying--" AnnaLise waved away her own question. "Sorry, none of my business."
"Oh, but it is exactly that. You're writing my memoir, and even those early . . ." Hart put out his hands again, this time fingers splayed, ". . .'peccadillos' are a large part of the story. One might even view me as a bit of a hound."
That struck AnnaLise as beneath the dignity of understatement. According to even just her skimming of the hand-written journals so far, the man had seen more tail than the proverbial last dog in a sled-team harness.
She said, "As one progeny of your 'hounding,' I'm curious about something." A pause. "Do I have any litter-mates?"
Hart shifted again, his uncomfortable expression now approaching pained. "Honest answer? None more with your mother Lorraine--or 'Daisy,' as I know you call her. But otherwise, I'm not entirely sure. I was hoping you'd find any such."
"And, as I started to ask you, invite them to dinner here in your rustic, waterfront cabin?" Horror at the idea made AnnaLise's tone rise half an octave.
"Actually, I thought a long weekend might be better, even optimum. With, of course, their respective mothers attending as well."
"You do understand that you're out of your mind?"
"I do. Or at least that my invitation could be seen as evidence of such."
Dickens Hart suddenly appeared old. And very serious. "Listen, my dear. As disingenuous as it might sound, I truly want to do right by any children I may have fathered, even if unbeknownst to me."
"Unbeknownst?" AnnaLise echoed incredulously. "Weren't you there?" Did the guy really think he was God, right down to the miracle of Immaculate Conception?
A frown. "I'm just telling you that not one of the women I've been with ever told me about a pregnancy. Except, of course, for Ema Bradenham."
Ema Bradenham, mother of one of AnnaLise's oldest friends, Sutherton mayor Bobby Bradenham. "Ema was pregnant and needed money, making the rich 'hound' an awfully tempting target. But wouldn't the other women, who actually became pregnant by you, have come--"
Now an awkward, if theatrical shrug. "Your mother didn't."
AnnaLise clenched her teeth again. Lorraine Kuchenbacher Griggs had made that "one mistake" with her boss, Dickens Hart, but never revealed her condition to him. Instead, she'd married Timothy Griggs, a good man who loved her. And loved Daisy's child, as well, despite the fact he knew AnnaLise couldn't have been his own.
Decision time. "OK, I'll dig out this 'black book' of whatever size, but I'm damned if I'll track down your . . ." She'd been about to say "tootsies," but since her mother was one of them, AnnaLise settled on, "girlfriends."
"That's fine," Hart said hastily. "I'll have Patrick Hoag draft the letter of invitation."
Patrick Hoag, Esquire, represented Dickens Hart. AnnaLise had accompanied her birth-father to the law firm of Hoag, Christiaansen and Weir when Hart had insisted on legally acknowledging AnnaLise as his daughter. Though not before a DNA match came back "conclusive," of course. "So, I drop the notebook off with Patrick?"
"Ahh, no. Given his law firm's gleeful fee increases every time it sends me an invoice, I see my money better spent by having Boozer track down the leads first. He can then provide Patrick with names and current mailing addresses for the actual letters themselves."
Boozer Bacchus III was a broad-shouldered man of about sixty-five, who AnnaLise had been told served Dickens Hart in one capacity or another since the opening of White Tail Lodge. Despite his name, or perhaps because of it, AnnaLise had never seen the man take a drink. The propensities of his grandfather and father--Boozers Senior and Junior--were, however, up for grabs.
With a sigh, AnnaLise jotted another note on her pad. "OK, I'm to find your composition book and then give it to Boozer."
Hart squirmed, his expression now clearly pained. "Actually, I'd prefer that you study it first and generate a list of names and the most current, pertinent data for each. There are, I'm sure, certain personal . . . uhm, evaluations of my encounters that I'd just as soon not have come to his attention."
AnnaLise had a tough time believing that Boozer had missed many of his boss' self-described "peccadillos." Maybe if Hart was so concerned about appearances, he should have kept his "peccer" in his pants. "But you don't mind that your own daughter sees these 'performance grades'?"
"As you've just resurrected, AnnaLise, we are, after all, family." A shadow crossed Hart's face. "Though you might want to skip over any entries about Lorraine. And certainly don't pass them on to Boozer."
All of a sudden, Mr Sensitive.
AnnaLise reminded herself of the medical bills stacking up on the Griggs' kitchen table for Daisy's initial battery of neurological tests. And how many actual dollars her daughter might need to pony up toward covering the rapidly accruing twenty percent of those costs that Daisy's insurance wouldn't.
So," AnnaLise said, "to sum up, I should give Boozer the 'most current pertinent data' on each wom . . ." AnnaLise looked up. "I assume they all are female?"
"Yes." Hart's surprise at the question turned to a blush of apparently genuine embarrassment. "I mean, I did once consider--"
"Sorry I asked," Annalise said, to ward off any remainder of his answer. "What do you consider 'pertinent data' so far as Boozer is concerned?" Height? Weight? Bra size?
Her father looked relieved to move onto safer ground. "My black-and-white notebook entries are, not surprisingly, chronological. You'll find names, dates and, uhm . . . places?"
AnnaLise looked up. "As in cities, states?"
"Well, both. But more . . . specificity, too, such as rooms."
AnnaLise began to wonder about the "specificity" aspect. Perhaps entries like, Tuesday, October 3, 1974: 6 p.m., linen-topped table in dining area; 9:05, bearskin rug before a roaring fire near--
Hart cleared his throat. "I think simply providing Boozer each woman's name and the date and location of my being with her should be adequate. You'll find a cross-reference of sorts in the back of the book."
"Cross-reference?" AnnaLise's sometimes accursed reporter's training made her reflexively ask cringe-inducing questions. Cringe-inducing for the questioner, at least.
"By state and city, as you guessed earlier. Oh, and when necessary, by country also."
Now AnnaLise cleared her own throat and, not as successfully, her mind. "Might you also have noted where a given woman was from? And her age, at least approximately?"
"So far as I knew, yes. Which is just the kind of information Boozer should find helpful in searching for each, as opposed to--"
"--how good you thought she was in bed?"
"Exactly," AnnaLise's father, bless his lustfully dark heart, sounded relieved. "As a journalist, you'll instinctively know what's important."
Instinctively, AnnaLise thought, she knew the whole scenario stank to High Country heaven. "You had a vasectomy at some point after I was conceived?"
"Mid-eighties, roughly," Hart said. "But how could you-- oh, from my journals. Of course."
It hadn't been, though AnnaLise wasn't going to tell the man that. Her friend Joy Tamarack, who'd had the misfortune of being Hart's third wife, had been the not-so-confidential source on the operation.
The fiery little blonde was also not the most discreet of people under any circumstance, but she really threw caution to the winds when it came to her ex-husband. Except, of course, for keeping hidden whatever tidbit of information Joy had on Hart that leveraged her high enough to receive pretty much whatever she wanted from him, starting with a handsome divorce settlement.
AnnaLise hoped to find out more about the "tidbit" via Hart's own journals, though she was less anxious to reach "My Vasectomy: The Inside Story." Especially if Hart wrote about it as extensively as he did for every other aspect of his life so far. Even after thoroughly studying a half-dozen volumes, AnnaLise had barely reached the young man at thirteen and his academic prowess in seventh grade.
"I raise the snip-'n-clip," she said, "only because, after that procedure, you couldn't have impregnated anyone else. Do you want me to stop there?"
Either Hart was dense as a post or AnnaLise had become so. "I thought you wanted to find your natural children. Therefore, once--"
"Oh, yes. Yes, I see what you mean." A little glitter in the man's eyes. "I have to admit, though, I wouldn't mind seeing all my old flames, whether technically 'baby-mamas' or not."
There was something very wrong about a near-septuagenarian warmly using the expression "baby-mama."
"Even your mansion here isn't big enough for that size crowd," AnnaLise said, snapping her notepad closed and standing up. "So, I'll find the appropriate information, pass it on to Boozer and he'll carry the project from there."
Hart rose as well, rubbing an apparent crick from his lower back after their long, seated discussion. "Of course, you and your mother must come. And I'll invite my ex-wives, as well as Bobby Bradenham, if only for old time's sake."
"Old time" being when Hart thought the young boy was his son, though Bobby, happily, never did.
"That's very nice of you," AnnaLise lied, moving toward the office door. "And just when are you planning this soiree?"
"Actually, I've been thinking about that," following his acknowledged daughter into the mansion's two-story, marble-floored foyer. "As I mentioned earlier, a long weekend seems appropriate, since some people will no doubt need to travel. On my tab, naturally. But there's plenty of room here, so most if not all can stay under one roof."
AnnaLise had to admit the idea of being feted--along with any other illegitimate children, their mothers and assorted ex-wives and "girlfriends"--at Dickens Hart's east-shore estate did have its attractions.
If only for people who loved watching sunsets and train wrecks.
"I do hope you'll come, AnnaLise," Hart continued. "Although I have to warn you: I intend to use the opportunity to conclusively identify my heirs and put them in my will."
She stopped, dead-center on a huge marble tile. "Meaning I'll be required to share my inheritance? Not to worry, Dickens. I don't want anything from you."
"Like mother, like daughter," Hart said, opening the closet across from the sweeping staircase to retrieve AnnaLise's jacket. "I hope the other attendees aren't burdened by the same scruples, or Boozer may not be able to assure their attendance."
"Don't worry. Patrick Hoag's invitation letter will tell them upfront that you're searching for heirs, right?"
"Wrong," Hart said, now holding the coat spread so she could easily slip into it. "But Boozer probably will. And should."
"Ah," AnnaLise turning as she buttoned up against the November wind beyond the main entrance and her father's parallel coldness before it. "Might he also allow them to assume--mistakenly, of course--that you're in poor health?" As opposed to being the aging, randy scoundrel who wanted to revisit his conquests. Or, more accurately, to have them revisit him.
Another theatrical shrug. "Perhaps. I'll leave the optional tools of persuasion to Boozer."
Shaking her head, AnnaLise reached to open the door before Hart could. A reprehensible bastard in every way save circumstances of birth, the man had the manners of a Sir Walter Raleigh.
She stepped out onto the veranda, flipping up the collar of her jacket. "You aren't just out of your mind, Dickens. This 'reunion' of yours can only stir up trouble."
"I know that, and rest assured Boozer is of the same opinion. However, we are talking about my life. And even if I can't change the way I've lived it, I do intend to provide for my progeny, as I will for you."
Starting down the steps, AnnaLise reached the circular drive before pivoting to once again face her biological father. "Much as I hate to admit it, Dickens, I wouldn't miss your get-together for the world."
He winked over a sly smile. "It will be an event, I can promise you that."
AnnaLise had her hand on the door handle of her mother's old Chrysler before she realized Hart hadn't given her any dates for his soiree. "So, when might all this take place?"
"I've just now decided," he said, "on Thanksgiving weekend. That way people can arrive Wednesday night or even the next morning. We'll have a gourmet feast of turkey and all the trimmings on Thursday, allowing everyone to stay on afterwards and enjoy the grounds here before leaving Sunday to travel home."
But his mention of the holiday had slammed into AnnaLise Griggs like a sledgehammer--or, better, a meat mallet--to her chest. She managed to croak, "Thanksgiving?"
"And I'm hoping we'll all have a lot to be grateful for." With the sly smile virtually plastered on his face, Dickens Hart, self-appointed Emperor of the High Country, waved haughtily before disappearing into his hard-won palace.