Bella flew along the I-95 corridor in her Mercedes Roadster at an exhilarating speed. The wind tickled her face, and she laughed at the moist breeze on her skin. She loved Florida. Even the night air in early January held that special tropical warmth only found in her adopted home. The road was straight, and the late hour thankfully guaranteed a clear path for her drunken mind.
The evening had been epic, and the sun was still a few hours away. Half a dozen shots, several glasses of quality wine, and little food had launched her along with the car. Her Jacksonville friends were all victims of mundane employment and had abandoned her hours earlier, but no boring job awaited Bella. Her safety and security rested in the heart of a Madison Avenue bank, and an elaborate trust fund left by her dad.
Stoic Edward Mikelson’s memory caused Bella to slow her car in regret and his comforting image formed slowly in her mind. His death ten years earlier had left a huge hole in her life that backfilled with unrelenting pain, but she’d managed to Band-Aid the emotion with regular dosages of denial and anger that she was more than willing to share with those closest to her.
Pushing her sadness to the past, the speed of her Mercedes resumed under the nighttime sky, and Bella exited the expressway to the slower confines of the beach road. Her mind knew that the speed limit was reduced, but her heart refused to embrace the change, and she blew through the red light at the end of the ramp. Nothing interfered with her progress so she continued south toward her oceanfront condo.
Three a.m. traffic was limited, and she cruised along peacefully until she saw the fox. Under the artificial street lights, his frightened eyes gripped her soul, and the world turned to slow motion. With only a brief instant to respond, her hands instinctively turned the wheel as her foot hit the brake. In a screech of tires, the small Mercedes did a one-eighty and crashed sideways into an unyielding telephone pole. The thundering sound of twisting metal reverberated down the vacated beach road, but Bella registered relief when the tiny fox safely escaped into the sea oats before she lost consciousness to the sight of her own airbag.
The five a.m. phone call woke Katherine Mikelson from a groggy sleep, but the mother’s instinct that she’d nurtured for twenty-two years focused on her wayward daughter before she even picked up the phone. The official voice on the other end brought her heart to a stop. “Mrs. Mikelson, this is the St. Johns County Hospital in St. Augustine. There has been an accident involving Isabella Mikelson, and she asked us to call you.”
Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Is she okay?”
“She’ll be fine. She lost consciousness, has some bruises and a few stitches, but she’s alert and awake… and letting us all know exactly how she feels about her current restrictions.”
The reminder of Bella’s tenacious attitude almost made Katherine smile, but her relief was short-lived when the woman added, “I’m afraid she’s under arrest. Her blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit. The police have her in custody, and she’s pretty unhappy. She’ll need a lawyer fairly quickly.”
Despite her fear, Katherine had to ask the inevitable. “Did… was anybody else hurt?”
“It was a single car accident, but she’s very lucky it happened in the middle of the night. A few hours later and there would have been dozens of tourists crossing to the beach.”
Katherine gathered the information necessary to help her daughter while she started the coffee to survive the challenging day. Her first thought was to contact the family attorney, but her need for a calm foundation forced her to breathe for a few minutes while she processed her daughter’s turbulent life.
Spoiled by her father, Bella’s temper had been a challenge since she was a little girl. Elementary school mischief caused a few temporary setbacks, but her father had always forgiven her and he’d even helped clean up the occasional mess when school officials called with their complaints. In Bella’s world, taunting an inferior had been nothing more than a way to pass the time, and she’d seen no serious harm other than her father’s gentle scolding.
After his unexpected death, however, Bella’s misbehavior had taken a more serious turn when raw and untamed anger consumed her life. Her arrogance bullied its way past adults and peers alike, and she’d left many frustrated victims in her wake. Katherine had spent many hours as the target of Bella’s moods.
By high school, Bella had progressed from taunting and teasing children to acting out against all authority. Outright defiance with language destined to make a sailor blush had comingled with a reckless regard for her personal safety and the security of those around her. Out of options, Katherine had looked to boarding schools to provide structure and routine.
When the third elite private school in three years had asked Bella to leave, her overwhelmed mother had agreed to let her finish at the local public district. Bella’s money and good looks provided immediate publicity, and she’d ruled the year with an empowering vengeance and permanent scowl burned into her pretty face. The two out-of-school suspensions for keeping beer in her locker and refusal to follow school rules on attendance and dress codes had been received as no more than a nice few days at home while she slept until noon and continued her reign through social media.
All of Katherine’s efforts to curb the outrageous behaviors had been met with tantrums and outright defiance. Katherine tried to scold, support, and even punish her daughter, but Bella had been too far lost in her own emotions to give control to another person’s decisions. Their arguments inevitably ended with Bella slamming a door on her way out of the house while Katherine spent hours in anxious solitude.
The small liberal arts college located a thousand miles away from her Dallas roots had been carefully chosen to prepare Bella for a new beginning. Katherine led many serious conversations to help her understand the need to embrace the independence of college life and demonstrate responsibility for her own future. Bella had made promises in all the right places, so Katherine again looked to others to guide her troubled daughter with the full belief she had failed as a parent.
Instead of positive change, however, the reign of terror took on more serious tones when Bella received a DUI during Christmas vacation in Dallas. The police had pulled her over for erratic driving in her mother’s Lexus and her penchant for bitching out those who pissed her off had not been well received by the Texas state troopers. In an effort to make her point about responsibility, it took twenty-four hours before Katherine arrived to bail her out.
Even Bella had known to keep her mouth shut on the ride home. Her mother didn’t say a word until they pulled into the driveway and turned the car off. When Bella made a move for the door handle, Katherine closed her eyes to find her strength. “Just stop.”
Tired, frustrated, and more than a little frightened, Bella snapped, “I need to get some sleep. I want to go inside and take a hot shower. That place was disgusting, and you just abandoned me there.” She waited for dramatic effect before she added, “Dad never would have done that.”
“I don’t mean stop right now… I mean stop all of this. This is crazy, and your father would have agreed with me. You could have been killed or killed somebody else. You’re out of control. You’re rude and disrespectful. You’re spending way too much money even with the limitations your father put on the trust fund. It needs to stop, and I’m going to stop it now.”
Katherine reached into her purse and dropped a very familiar legal document on the seat of the car. “I’m taking over your trust until you start behaving.”
Bella had no reason to pick up the fund documents. Her daughter clearly understood the plan that Edward had left, and easily manipulated it to her advantage. Assets like the condo and car lease were put in the trust’s name so it didn’t count toward her spending limit. She’d managed to spend every dime allotted for her needs, and the distribution grew each year until she turned twenty-five and received full access. If she ran close to the maximum, she simply sacrificed a new designer dress until the next fiscal year.
When she’d figured out that educational expenses were not part of her limit, she’d enrolled in more than one class she’d failed to attend, but bought brand-new computers, iPads, and cell phones in the name of educational advancement. She’d even convinced the fund managers that she needed special clothing and expensive camera equipment for a bird-watching course. Within a week, designer outdoor clothing had been exchanged for beachwear, and the cameras provided some embarrassing photos of tanned men in bulging Speedos.
But mother and daughter both understood the power behind Katherine’s threats, and Bella froze. “Mom, you can’t be serious. The behavior clause was just the reaction of some conservative lawyer because I was so young when he made his will. Dad would never have put that in himself. He trusted me.”
Katherine frowned with the realization that Bella was likely correct, but she was determined to bring change. “I… no… it’s there, Bella. It says if you’re arrested, I get control.”
“But Elijah said he can get me probation, or maybe even dismiss the charges. And I won’t do anything like that again. I promise.”
Katherine’s guilt bubbled into a cauldron of emotions. Elijah Sullivan had been a childhood friend, and her attorney for the five years since he’d moved his Wyoming office to Dallas. His strong powerful presence had intimidated Bella on the few occasions they’d met, but Katherine drew strength from his support and looked to him for advice on many matters.
Since Elijah had not written the original trust agreement, his suggestions remained limited by the legal restrictions when dealing with an adult child who made poor decisions. As awful as Bella had been, she had never been arrested, and Katherine had no reason to mention the behavior clause.
“It’s clear, Bella. If you get arrested, you lose control of the fund to me. I’m going to call Elijah in the morning and set it up.”
Bella’s tears were real. “Mommy… please. I promise it won’t happen again. I learned my lesson, I really did. Somebody could have been hurt… or I could have been killed. I understand. I really do. I have my next semester all set up, and I need the condo and the car to get back and forth. I can’t come back to Dallas as a failure. Please… just help by giving me another chance.”
Guilt was such a natural part of her existence that Katherine could no longer separate the emotion from her daily life. The begging had lasted well into the night and under the pressure of her daughter’s unhappiness, Katherine did not call her attorney. She knew Bella’s remorse was sincere, and believed her when she promised to change.
Instead of working with Katherine on her future, however, distance became the cure for any regret. Bella had returned to Florida after Christmas, and simply never went back to Texas for any length of time. To fill the short holidays at home, she had tried to tone down her attitude long enough to maintain a small truce, but the inevitable conflicts had arisen to ignite her temper and dictate a speedy retreat to Florida.
By all reports, she continued her monarchial rule at school and shared her temper whenever the rare soul was foolish enough to cross her. Phone calls from her mother were ignored or rudely received and lacked any true insight to her life or emotions. Eventually, Katherine had stopped calling, and they simply exchanged texts and emails when the need to communicate arose.
Bella’s legal troubles weren’t over, but Katherine’s opportunity to invoke the behavior clause was never repeated. Her daughter had extracted herself from prosecution on two other occasions, even without consulting Elijah. For four more years, she’d lived a trust fund life filled with sunshine and fun before she scraped together a degree in art history with a dismal grade point average.
With one last shudder at what could have been, Katherine took her copy of the trust fund to the comfortable office that had been her husband’s haven. She faxed it to Elijah and settled in the large leather chair with her second cup of coffee to wait for him to call.