Fifteen Years Later
Ricky Lam, idol to millions of fans, jammed his hands into his pockets as he strolled the grounds of his palatial Hollywood estate. He looked around, appreciating the beauty of the well-pruned shrubs, the brilliant flowers, and the brick paths that led to a gazebo at the far end of the grounds. All thanks to his acting skills and his brother's wise investment strategies. He picked a delicate, crimson flower, his fingers caressing its silky petals. He shouldn't have picked it. It would die soon. He wished he had left it on the bush. He hurried into the house and stuck it into a glass of water.
The house was state-of-the-art, befitting his star power in the movie industry. At forty-three, he was in top form. With two mini face-lifts under his belt, he could still hold his own with the young studs arriving in Hollywood in droves. He had a tinge of gray at his temples these days, but the studio expertly covered it up. He still had the same dark brown bedroom eyes, the same lean muscular body that had helped make him famous. He was still a hunk.
Variety said he was still the Platinum Boy. They said he had it all. If they only knew. He was probably the loneliest man in all of California. He had one close friend, his stuntman, Ted Lymen. And, of course, Philly. He could never discount Philly. He was where he was today because of his brother. But Philly was not his friend. Philly wasn't even his mentor. Philly was his warden.
His relationship with Philly had never been the same after he'd returned from the exclusive addiction clinic fifteen years earlier. Instead of treating him as a brother, Philly had reduced their relationship to that of business manager and client, sometimes even warden and prisoner. Oh, they still met for dinner once or twice a year, usually at some out-of-the-way restaurant. Conversation was always strained as Philly smoked and drank, and Ricky did neither. They still went to an occasional ball game together, and Philly even came on the set and watched him work when he was in town. But it wasn't the same. It would never be the same again, and they both knew it. It was an accept-it-or-reject-it relationship. Ricky chose to accept it.
No matter what he did, no matter what he said, he hadn't been able to recapture the old relationship. Secretly, he thought Philly was waiting for him to screw up. And, like the stupid ass he was, Ricky wouldn't give him the satisfaction. He never wanted to see that look of disgust in his brother's face again. Never, ever.
In the beginning, when he had first returned from the clinic, Ricky had blamed Roxy because he needed someone to blame. Fifteen years later, he laid the blame right where it belonged, on his own shoulders.
In the dark, late at night, when no one was around, he prayed that Philly would forgive him and throw his arms around his shoulders, and say, "Let's let bygones be bygones." It hadn't happened, and it wasn't going to happen. He knew that now. Fifteen years of being a straight arrow wasn't enough to satisfy Philly.
Ricky flopped down on a custom-crafted chair in the living room, his favorite, and picked up a script. It was untitled. What kind of scriptwriter doesn't give his work a title? He was supposed to read it, decide if it was worthy of his talent, then let his agent and the front office know if he was willing to negotiate. He tossed the script back onto the table.
Tomorrow was the final wrap for the movie he was working on, Seven Hours Till Sundown. An hour at the most, maybe two, depending on how many takes the director wanted. The wrap party was tonight, though, because once they wound up the film tomorrow, the crew was heading off to Washington, D.C., to start a new film titled Inside the Beltway. It was all about a politician's rage on the Beltway. He was glad he had passed on that piece of crap.
Ricky looked at the phone on the table next to him, willing it to ring. Philly was in town for the wrap party and to cart his check off to the bank, at which point he would head back to the islands to manage their two resorts.
Resorts for the rich and famous. All you needed to visit one of them was a bucketful of money and a reservation made two years in advance. It had been Philly's idea to build the resorts, pointing out that Ricky wasn't going to be able to work in Hollywood forever. Leading men had a tendency to get old, and after a while face-lifts left you looking haggard. "You need something to fall back on when that happens, Ricky," Philly had said. "You'll never be happy playing character parts. Get out when you're on top and hobnob with the new elite where you call the shots." It had made sense. As long as he didn't allow himself to get pissed off at his brother's financial prowess, Ricky realized that everything his older brother said made sense.
He looked down at the phone. He supposed he could initiate the call, but to what end? Ricky had never stepped over the boundaries Philly had erected when Ricky had returned from the clinic. Why start now?
He, too, was heading for the islands after the last shoot tomorrow. Thirty days of doing nothing but relaxing in his very own star suite. Philly hated it when he showed up at the resort. Ricky wasn't sure why. The attention he got from the staff? Roxy's strange attitude toward him even though he stayed out of her way?
Ricky continued to stare at the phone. Christ, how he hated tiptoeing around his brother.
He bounded off the chair and loped over to the mantel to pick up two small pictures. His sons. Children he provided for but had never seen. No, that wasn't true, he had seen them once.
It was one of two demands he'd made when he'd signed off on the deals Philly had negotiated with the boys' mothers, young girls he'd had one-night stands with during that wild time in his youth when he was Hollywood's number one hell-raiser. "Try explaining that to your studio and all those young adoring fans," Philly had said.
In exchange for signing a confidentiality agreement, each girl received the princely sum of ten grand a month until her son finished college and the assurance that Ricky would never attempt to interfere in her son's life. One breach on her part and the money stopped cold. Philly had used the word lawsuit a lot when he'd talked to the frightened girls. Even to this day, both women honored the agreements. Ricky recalled the excitement he'd felt when he'd laid eyes on his sons for the first time. They'd been three then, little blond-haired boys all dressed up and hating every minute of it. They'd looked at him suspiciously and hung on to their mothers' skirts. He'd just stared at them, committing their faces to memory. It was all he could do.
The boys, born three months apart, were twenty-three now and had never met each other. In fact, neither of them knew he had a half brother. Tyler had lived with his maternal grandparents until he'd left for college because his mother was off singing with a country western band. Max had also lived with his grandparents after his mother married a real estate developer because he didn't get along with her husband. Both boys had finished college and were working. He'd been tempted to call them, invite them to Hollywood, but Philly had made him swear not to seek them out, saying he should let sleeping dogs lie. "And don't try to do it on the sly, either, Ricky, because you'll be recognized, and I'm not pulling any more of your chestnuts out of the fire." That had been the end of that, which didn't say much for him as a father. It was always Philly's way or the highway.
He wondered what his sons would think of him as a person if they knew he was their father. Anonymously, he'd bought the boys their first cars, paid for their college educations and all medical and dental bills. They had both gone to exclusive summer camps and attended the best private schools in their areas. At least that's what Philly told him. Most of what Philly had told him about Tyler was a lie, according to the private detective he'd hired to report on his sons. A report he'd never showed Philly. Tyler had been booted out of the prestigious summer camps, usually three days after arrival. Incorrigible, the counselors said. He'd been suspended eight times while in high school and how he'd graduated was still a mystery. What was even more of a mystery was how he'd gotten into college and managed to graduate in the lowest percentile in the class. But he had graduated. Add up all the arrest charges for speeding while under the influence, loss of driving privileges, and his bad-ass attitude, car wrecks, drug experimentation, and he could have posed for a portrait of his father in his early twenties. A chip off the old block.
Max, on the other hand, could have posed as the poster boy for good behavior.
Ricky stared down at the two golden-haired boys. Three years old. That was how long it had taken to settle everything. His second demand before he'd signed off on the deal was a picture of each boy before he walked away from the six-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer's office. The pictures arrived two weeks later in the mail. He set both pictures back on the mantel.
Right now, Ricky thought his life really sucked. The phone still hadn't rung. "Screw it!" he said as he stomped his way back to the master suite of rooms where he hid out most of the time. Big Hollywood star a homebody. It was so damn funny he wanted to cry.
Ricky looked down at the phone he knew resembled something in the White House War Room. It was hooked up to the alarm system, the security gates, the intercom, and the doorbell. It had nineteen buttons he could press if he felt like it. He still didn't know how to work the damn thing. The doorbell was the funniest thing of all. No one could access his property without going past the part-time security guard, who had to open the security gates. How was someone supposed to ring his doorbell if they couldn't get to the door?
The phone rang. Ricky sucked in his breath before he picked it up. His greeting sounded cautious. It paid to be cautious with Philly. "Hello."
It was Ted Lymen, his stuntman. "Yo, Ricky, just calling to ask if you changed your mind about going to the wrap party. You wanna go, I'll stop by and pick you up. I just got a call saying they canceled the stunt for tomorrow. We're in a holding pattern until they get a part for the race car. Probably the day after tomorrow. So, do you want to go or not?"
Cancellation meant he didn't have to get up at four-thirty to be at the studio for makeup at five. Did he want to go? Did he want to stand around making nice so Philly wouldn't chew his ass out? "Yeah, sure," was his response. "What time?"
"Eight. Let's do the town afterward. Let's take in the Ozone Club and do a little partying. We both deserve a night out, Ricky. This flick kicked both our asses big-time."
"Sure." What the hell, it would beat sitting around with Philly praying to God he didn't say the wrong thing or make a mistake. "Philly's in town, you know."
"Yeah. Yeah, I heard. So you make nice for ten minutes, and we split. I wish to hell you'd get over that inferiority thing you have with your brother. He's what he is because of you, and don't you ever forget it. Without your money, he'd be working in some cubicle managing other people's money. Go easy on yourself, okay?"
"Okay, I will. I'll see you at eight."
As he hung up Ricky wondered if everyone thought he was a wuss where his brother was concerned.
The minute the gates to Ricky's estate closed behind Ted's Jaguar, the phone inside the mansion rang. The caller left a message. "The part for the car just arrived. The shoot's back on. Be at the studio by five-thirty tomorrow morning." The same message was left at Ted Lymen's home.
The wrap party was like every other one Ricky had attended. Food, liquor, flowers, the women teary-eyed, the guys looking macho as they tried not to worry about whether there was another movie down the road. They all promised to stay in touch knowing full well they wouldn't, unless somehow, some way, they needed a favor and they had your personal unlisted telephone number. In Hollywood, like almost everywhere else, it wasn't what you knew, it was who you knew.
"How are you, Philly?" Ricky said, slapping his brother lightly on the back in a friendly gesture.
"Good. Real good. You're looking fit, little brother. I hear you're coming down to the islands."
"I'm in the thinking stages," Ricky lied. He'd picked up his airline tickets yesterday. "Enjoy yourself," Ricky said, preparing to walk away.
"Didn't you forget something, Ricky?"
Ricky turned and faced his brother. "No, I didn't forget. I just wanted to make you ask for it." He reached inside his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope that he literally slapped into his brother's hand. Seeing the sudden look of embarrassment on Philly's face was worth all the angst he'd gone through that day. This time he did walk away.
"Damn, that felt good," he said to Ted.
"How in hell can handing over fifteen million bucks to your brother make you feel good?"
"I made him ask for it, and I stared him down at the same time. I never did that before. Don't ask me why I had to do it today of all days because I don't know."
"Yeah, oh. You said something about partying..."
"I did, didn't I?"
Philip Lam watched his brother walk away. He felt a sudden urge to run after him and give him a big bear hug. He squelched the desire. One soft move on his part, and Ricky would go back to square one. He raised his eyes upward. "I'm doing my best, Mom," he murmured.
Ricky Lam woke, his head pounding. He remembered instantly that he had fallen off the wagon last night to the tune of at least four bottles of champagne. His eyes wild, he looked around to see if anyone was sharing his bed. His sigh of relief when he saw that he was alone was so loud that Ellie, his housekeeper, probably heard it in the kitchen.
He deserved the misery he was feeling. What in the name of God had possessed him to start drinking after fifteen years of sobriety? Philly was the answer. Thank the Lord he didn't have to report to the studio. He'd never make it even if it was just a walkaway part for him. He scrunched his eyes to look at the clock: 6:30. He rolled over with the intention of sleeping all day so the headache banging inside his skull would go away.
The phone rang. No one called him at six-thirty in the morning except Philly, who was also known to call him at five-thirty, four-thirty, midnight, and any damn time he felt like it. The studio also called whenever they felt like it. Should I answer it or shouldn't I? The hell with it. The phone kept ringing. The sound was killing his head. He finally picked it up.
"Ricky," Ted said urgently, "the studio called last night and left a message. The shoot's on. Get your ass in gear, and I'll pick you up in ten minutes."
"Yeah, shit! Be by the gates, and we'll do a wheelie and get over there in nothing flat."
Ricky made it with a minute to spare. "You're in no condition to drive that race car this morning, Ted. Are you crazy?"
"Probably. However, I don't have a hangover like you do. I ate my breakfast. I also slept four hours. I'm good to go. Did you check your messages?"
"No," Ricky groaned. "Listen, Philly's going to be on the lot. Let's not say anything about last night, okay? I'll go to AA and confess my relapse. I'll go to Makeup before I see him."
Ted nodded. "I was thinking this morning in the shower. I will go with you to the islands if the invitation still stands. I decided to pass on that D.C. flick they're planning."
"Yeah, sure. Glad for the company." At least he would have someone to talk to while he was there.
Thirty minutes later, they showed their security passes to the guards and drove through the gates. Ted headed for the lot where they were scheduled to shoot the car chase scene. They both heard the sound of the siren at the same time. Ted pulled to the side as an ambulance careened past him. Another accident on the lot. Somebody probably broke a finger or sprained an ankle.
When they saw the ambulance skid to a stop on Lot 9, they both hit the ground running.
"What the hell happened?" Ricky shouted to be heard over the chaos.
"Where the hell were you, Lymen?" the director, Donald Sandusky, yelled. "I can tell where you were, Lam, by the looks of you. We waited a goddamn hour for you and had to go without you since time is money around here as you well know. This is the result, and you two can take the blame for it!" He waved his arms to indicate the bedlam.
"What...happened?" Ricky croaked.
The director dropped his head to his hands. "Jesus, Ricky, I'm sorry. We had it covered. I swear to God we did. That car was checked five times. Conway, Ted's backup, was driving. I don't know what the hell went wrong."
Ricky looked around at the milling cast, at the crumpled race car. Then he noticed that no one was looking at him. His stomach flip-flopped as the wind kicked up and ruffled his hair. "For God's sake, what are you saying, Sandusky? Why are you apologizing to me? You just got done blaming me and Ted. Make up your mind already." He started walking toward the wrecked car.
Ted Lymen, his face whiter than the tee shirt he was wearing, grabbed at Ricky's arm. "Don't go there, Ricky."
Ricky shook Ted's hand off as he raced to where they were lifting a still form onto a stretcher.
"Oh, Jesus, no!" he screamed. "Not Philly! Oh, God, why?"
Donald Sandusky put his arm around Ricky's shoulder. "He came by the lot. I think he wanted to talk to you. He was standing there watching and the car careened out of control. I think Philip thought it was part of the stunt. He didn't move, Ricky. Hell, maybe he froze. Everyone is crazy right now, so until we can piece together what happened from rational eyewitnesses, let's just call it a tragic accident. I told Philip he might as well leave because you weren't here, but he said time is money and insisted on staying. You know me, I had to relate to that and the budget. Jesus, Ricky, did your brother ever think about anything except money? I'm sorry, this is no time to be talking about money. My point was, we were prepared to wait another hour, figuring neither you nor Ted got the message we left for you last night, but then with the clock ticking I decided to go ahead with the stunt. I'm sorry, Ricky, I wish there was something I could say, but there isn't."
"I gotta go with..."
"No, you don't have to do that. Besides, the cops want to talk to you. There's nothing you can do now. When did you get the message?"
"I never did get it. Ted called and picked me up. What the hell are they blasting the siren for now? Did anyone call Roxy?"
"No. We thought you would want to take care of that, being family and all. I wasn't sure if Roxy came with Philly this trip or not. As soon as you finish with the cops, you better tell her before she hears it on the news."
"She came with him. She never lets...let Philly out of her sight. At least that's the way it usually is. She's either at the house or the hotel. When they come for just a day or so, they stay at the Beverly Wilshire instead of opening up the house."
Ricky walked away. He needed to sit down. He needed to think. He needed to puke. What he really needed was a drink. He knew he'd never, ever touch alcohol again. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He made no move to wipe them away.
It seemed like a long time later when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up to seeTed Lymen towering over him.
"This is all my fault, Ricky. It's not something I can make right either. I don't know what to do, what to say."
"It's no one's fault, Ted, so don't blame yourself. Where is it written that we have to check our messages at night? They could have given us a wake-up call. It's not like they haven't done that before when a shoot was canceled, then rescheduled. It's Philly's fault. Don't you understand, it's his own fault? Why do you think he always managed to show up for the action scenes? He wanted to be part of it. He loved the action stuff.
"Listen, drop me off at Philly's hotel. I don't want Roxy hearing this on the radio or television. She might need me to...I don't know...just drop me off, okay?"
"Sure. Christ, Ricky, I'm sorry."
"I know, Ted, I know."
He was always awestruck at the hotel where the rich and famous gathered to pay a thousand bucks a night, sometimes more, for a room. Philly loved staying in one of the cottages at the Beverly Wilshire. Usually he booked in advance to make sure he got the same one. Philly had always been a creature of habit.
Ricky walked slowly down the path that led to the little villa and knocked on the door. He wished he'd brought his sunglasses. When there was no answer, he knocked louder, then took two steps back to wait.
She was wearing one of the hotel's fleecy white robes, her hair wrapped in a thick white towel. "Philip went to the studio," Roxy said coolly.
"Do you mind if I come in? I have to...we need to talk, Roxy. Don't worry, I'm not going to attack you."
"I mind very much if you come in. Tell me whatever you have to say right here, or else call Philip on his cell phone."
Ricky took a deep breath. How to say it? Lead up to it? Blurt it out? What? "Philly's dead. He died in a car crash at the studio. The stunt car careened out of control and hit him. They said he died instantly. I came here to tell you because I didn't want you to hear it on the TV or radio."
He couldn't remember the name of the biblical figure who turned into a pillar of salt, but that's how Roxy Lam looked to him at that moment. She didn't so much as twitch or blink. She didn't cry or sob. What she did, after five, excruciatingly long minutes, was back up, step by step, until she was in the room. The door closed quietly. He heard the snick of the lock falling into place.
He turned around, aware of men and young boys moving about. The gardening crew was trimming and weeding the premises. He could smell freshly mowed grass. The smell reminded him of his boyhood, when he and Philly used to take turns pushing the old mower with the dull blades. Whoever mowed didn't have to rake up the grass. Then they invented power mowers with bags attached that caught the grass as it was cut. He wondered how many kids were put out of jobs by the new mowers. And then there were riding mowers. His own gardener had one.
Is it Roxy's place to make the arrangements, or mine as the closest blood relative? he wondered. Should I knock on the door again and offer my help? Why not? All she can do is say no. He knocked on the door. When there was no answer, he knocked a second and then a third time. While he waited, he noticed the gardeners looking at him strangely. Maybe it was time to leave.
Leave to go where?
Home to his empty house and the picture of the two little boys on the mantel.
Roxy wanted to bury Philly in a cemetery in Los Angeles and to hold a service at the grave site rather than at a chapel. Ricky fought her tooth and nail on that and finally won when he convinced her Philly needed to rest in peace next to their parents in the cemetery that was close to their old hometown, Placentia. The private service was mercifully short. Ricky listened to the words, wondering how the minister knew so much about his brother. Roxy must have told him. If everything he was saying was true, Philly was already a saint with a giant wingspread. The minister didn't say anything about his hard-ass attitude or his do-it-my-way-or-it's-the-highway philosophy. Nor did he mention his two nephews, Tyler and Max. He barely touched on Philly's name before going on to say that he was a wonderful father, which was an outright lie. Reba was Roxy's daughter. Roxy, according to Philly, had married at the age of sixteen. The marriage had lasted six months, and Reba was born three months later. Philly had never adopted Reba, and Ricky wasn't sure why. Maybe because he wasn't able to love another man's child. That had to mean Reba had no claim to his brother's estate. In the end, it wouldn't matter. Philly would have provided for his wife and Reba because that's the kind of guy he was. At least, that's the kind of guy Ricky thought he was.
Ricky looked over at Reba, who was standing next to her mother, having flown in from New York the night before. They were both dressed in black from head to toe. He thought Philly would have hated all that black. He'd always said black reminded him of Halloween, witches, and goblins.
Thank God the service was almost over. The little parade of mourners, and there weren't many, filed past the casket, each with a flower in hand. Ricky purposely waited, Ted next to him, until Roxy and Reba were on their way to their car.
"Some guy over there wants to talk to you, Ricky," Ted whispered.
"Who is it?"
Ted shrugged as he laid his white rose on top of the bronze casket. "He said he's your brother's lawyer."
"Tell him this isn't a good time. He should be talking to Roxy, not me. Is he some kind of ghoul? Go on, tell him. I want this one last minute with my brother for myself." Ted trotted off.
Ricky felt the lump in his throat grow larger as he placed his rose on the casket next to Ted's. He placed his hands, palms flat, on the shiny surface. "I did...do love you, Philly. Maybe I should have said it more often. Hell, maybe I never said it at all. If I didn't tell you, I'm sorry. What's making this all bearable for me is knowing you're gonna be with Mom and Dad. I'm going to miss you, Philly. I wish I could tell you I'll look after Roxy for you, but we both know that isn't going to happen.
"Wherever you are, I know you're going to be looking out for me. I know it as sure as I'm standing here. You know how you always used to say, 'This is where the rubber meets the road?' This is it for me. I'll come back, and we'll talk again."
Ricky felt rather than saw the stuntman's presence. "He says your brother wanted his will read right after his death. He reserved a conference room at the hotel where your brother was staying. Roxy and her daughter will be there. You have to go, Ricky," Ted said.
"Yes, I guess I do. Are there a lot of reporters outside the gates?"
Ricky sighed. "All right, let's go."
He walked away, head high, shoulders squared. And he didn't look back.
Copyright © 2003 by First Draft, Inc.
Ricky Lam had it all -- a thriving film career, the adoration of countless fans, incredible wealth, and a cocaine and alcohol problem that was about to destroy him. Luckily, he also had a business manager -- his straight-arrow older brother Philip -- who strong-armed him into an addiction clinic.
But not even the passage of fifteen years, Ricky's rehabilitation, and undreamed-of worldly success for both men can mend the rift that erupted between the brothers during those dark days. Now all that remains is a business relationship, although Ricky yearns for more.
When tragedy strikes, erasing Ricky's dreams of winning Philip's forgiveness, Ricky resets his priorities. He turns his back on Hollywood, invites his two illegitimate sons into his life, hoping to become a real father to them, and dedicates himself to his brother's dream -- the construction of a unique resort in South Carolina called the Crown Jewel. But when Ricky steps into his brother's shoes he encounters unsettling surprises and contradictions, as well as an amazing woman, his sister-in-law Roxy Lam, who leads him to the mystery at the center of his brother's life and into a love affair far richer and more challenging than any he has experienced before.
As Ricky attempts to discover the brother he loved but never truly knew, he must settle a grave injustice committed decades ago, even if it means risking his fame, his fortune, and his life.
In a dazzling story that holds readers engrossed until the final page is turned, Fern Michaels explores the complex emotional bonds that exist between brothers, parents and children, and lovers. Written with the keen insight, grace, and humor that have made Fern Michaels one of the world's best-loved storytellers, here is a novel that shows us the importance of forgiveness, the possibility of new beginnings, and the incalculable value of familial love.