We head northwest of the city past Mount Bonnell and into Texas Hill
Country. Suddenly I’m surrounded by rolling hills, trees and foliage everywhere,
the lake muted outside the car windows, tepid. Unmoving.
The rain abates as we turn down Ranch Road. Charlie doesn’t say much, but
he tells me that his parents bought their Mediterranean estate nestled on the
shores of the lake a couple of years ago—the year Nicholas got out of prison, the
year before his mother died. This was his mother’s dream house, he says, this
private retreat, but Nicholas has stayed there since her death, on his own. I learn
later that it cost them a cool ten million dollars—this estate which, as I see on a
plaque at the foot of the driveway, Charlie’s mother, Meredith, named THE
It is easy to see why she has chosen this name. The estate is enormous, wildly
beautiful, and private. Entirely private.
Charlie enters a code and the metal gates open to reveal a cobblestone
driveway, at least a quarter of a mile long, that slowly winds its way to a small
guardhouse. The guardhouse is covered in vines, making it inconspicuous.
The main house is less inconspicuous. It looks like it belongs on the French
Riviera—complete with cascading balconies, an antique-tile roof, a stone facade.
Most notable are the gorgeous bay windows running at least eight feet tall,
welcoming you, inviting you in.
We pull up to the guardhouse and a bodyguard emerges. He is pro-linebacker
huge, dressed in a tight suit.
Charlie unrolls the window as the bodyguard bends down, leans against the
driver’s-side window. “Hiya, Charlie,” he says.
“Ned. How you doing tonight?”
Ned’s eyes move in my direction and he gives me a small nod. Then he turns
back to Charlie. “He’s expecting you,” he says.
He taps on the car’s hood and then goes back into the guardhouse to open a
We pull through it, drive onto the circular driveway, and stop by the front
Charlie puts the car in park and shuts o the ignition. But he doesn’t move to
get out of the car. It seems he wants to say something. He must change his mind
though—or think better of it—because, without a word, he opens the driver’sside
door and gets out.
I follow his lead and step out of the car into the cool night, the ground slick
from the rain.
I start walking toward the front door, but Charlie points to a side gate.
“This way,” he says.
He holds the gate open for me and I walk through it. I wait as he locks the
gate behind himself and we start heading down a pathway that runs along the
side of the house, succulents and plants lining the path’s edges.
We walk side by side, Charlie on the path’s outer edge. I look into the house
—look through those long, French windows—to see room after room, every one
of them lit up.
I wonder if it’s all lit up for my benet—so I can see how impressive the
design is, how every detail has been considered. The long, winding hallway is
lined with expensive art, with black-and-white photographs. The grand room
has cathedral ceilings and deep wooden couches. And the farmhouse kitchen,
which wraps around the back of the house, is accented with a terra-cotta oor
and an enormous stone replace.
I keep thinking how Nicholas lives here alone. What is it like to live in a house
like this alone?
The pathway winds around to a checkered veranda, which displays antique
pillars and a breathtaking view of the lake—small boats twinkling in the
distance, a canopy of oak trees, the cooling calm of the water itself.
And a moat.
This house, Nicholas Bell’s house, has its own moat. It’s a stark reminder that
there is no getting in or out of here without explicit permission.
Charlie points at a row of chaise lounges, sitting down in one himself, the
lake glistening in the distance.
I avoid meeting his eyes, staring out at the small boats instead. I know why I
needed to come here. But now that I’m actually here, it feels like an error. Like I
should have heeded Charlie’s warning, like nothing good is waiting inside.
“Take a seat anywhere,” Charlie says.
“I’m ne,” I say.
“He could be a little while,” Charlie says.
I lean against one of the pillars.
“I’m okay standing,” I say.
“Maybe it’s not you that you should be worrying about…”
I turn at the sound of a male’s voice, startled to nd Nicholas standing in the
back doorway. He has two dogs by his side, two large chocolate Labradors. Their
eyes hold tightly on Nicholas.
“Those pillars aren’t as strong as they look,” he says.
I step away from the pillar. “Sorry about that,” I say.
“No, no. I kid, I just kid with you,” he says.
He waves his hand as he walks toward me, his ngers slightly crooked. This
thin man with a struggling goatee—frail-looking with those arthritic ngers, his
loose-tting jeans, his cardigan sweater.
I bite on my lip, trying to hold my surprise in check. This isn’t the way I
expected Nicholas to look—soft, gentle. He looks like someone’s loving
grandfather. The way he talks so softly—with the slow cadence, the dry humor
—he reminds me of my own loving grandfather.
“My wife bought those pillars from a monastery in France and had them
shipped here in two pieces. A local artisan put them back together, returning
them to their original presentation. They’re plenty sturdy.”
“They’re also beautiful,” I say.
“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” he says. “My wife had a real air for design.
She picked everything that went into this house. Every last thing.”
He looks pained, even speaking of his wife.
“I don’t make it a habit of talking about the workmanship of my home, but I
thought you’d appreciate a little history…” he says.
This stops me. Is Nicholas trying to suggest he knows what I do for a living?
Could he know? Could there be a leak already? Or maybe I’m the leak. Maybe I
said something to Charlie without realizing it. Something that has given us all
Either way, Nicholas is in charge now. Ten hours ago, that might not have
been the case. But I changed all of that when I arrived in Austin. And now it’s
Nicholas’s world. Austin is Nicholas’s world, and I’ve walked us back into it. As
if cementing the point, two bodyguards walk outside—Ned and another guy.
Both of them are large and unsmiling. Both of them stand right behind
Nicholas doesn’t acknowledge them. Instead he reaches out his hands to take
mine. Like we are old friends. What choice do I have? I put my hand out, let him
wrap his palms around mine.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you…” he says.
“Hannah,” I say. “You can call me Hannah.”
“Hannah,” he says.
He smiles—genuine and generous. And suddenly I’m more disturbed by that
than I am by the idea of him presenting as the opposite. At what point was
Owen standing in front of him thinking, Nicholas has to be good? How could he
have a smile like that if he wasn’t? How could he have raised the woman who
It’s hard to look at him so I look down, toward the ground, toward the dogs.
Nicholas follows my eyes. Then he bends down, pets his dogs on the back of
“This is Casper and this is Leon,” he says.
“They’re gorgeous dogs.”
“They certainly are. Thank you. I brought them here from Germany. We are
in the middle of their Schutzhund training.”
“Meaning what?” I say.
“The ocial translation is ‘protection dog.’ They’re supposed to keep their
owners safe. I just think they’re good company.” He pauses. “Did you want to
I don’t think it’s a threat, but it also doesn’t feel like an invitation, at least not
one I’m interested in accepting.
I look over at Charlie, who is still lying down on his chaise lounge, his elbow
covering his eyes. His casual pose seems forced, almost like he is as
uncomfortable being at his father’s as I am. But then Nicholas reaches out, puts
his hand on his son’s shoulder. And Charlie holds his father’s hand there.
“Long night, kid?” Nicholas says.
“You could say that.”
“Let’s get you a drink then,” he says. “You want a scotch?”
“That sounds great,” he says. “That sounds perfect.”
Charlie looks up at his father, sincere and open. And I understand that I
misread his anxiety. Whatever he’s feeling badly about, it doesn’t seem to be
about his father, whose hand he still holds.
Grady was apparently correct about that much—whoever Nicholas might
have been in his professional life, however ugly or dangerous, he’s also the man
that puts his hand on his grown son’s shoulder and oers him a nightcap after a
hard night at work. That’s who Charlie sees.
It makes me wonder if Grady is right about the rest. Or, I should say, how
right Grady is about the rest. That to stay safe—to keep Bailey safe—I should be
anywhere but here.
Nicholas nods toward Ned, who walks over to me. I inch and move
backward, putting my hands up.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“He’s just going to make sure you’re not wearing a wire,” Nicholas says.
“You can take my word for it,” I say. “What would I have to gain by wearing a
Nicholas smiles. “Those are the type of questions I don’t get involved in
anymore,” he says. “But if you wouldn’t mind…”
“Raise your arms, please,” Ned says.
I look toward Charlie to back me up—to say this is unnecessary. He doesn’t.
I do what Ned asks, telling myself that this is like a pat down at the airport,
someone checking me out for the TSA. Nothing to think about. But his hands
feel cold, and the entire time he moves them down my sides, I can see his gun on
his hip. Ready to be used. And I can see Nicholas watching. The protection dogs
by his side, apparently ready to be used too.
I feel my breath catch in my throat, trying not to show it. If one of these men
were to see my husband, they would hurt him. They would hurt him so badly
that nothing I do now would matter. Grady’s voice runs through my head.
Nicholas is a bad man. These men are ruthless.
Ned steps away from me and motions to Nicholas, which I assume means
I’m all clear.
I meet Nicholas’s eyes, still feeling the bodyguard’s hands on my body. “Is
this how you welcome all your guests?” I say.
“I don’t tend to have many guests these days,” he says.
I nod, straightening out my sweater, wrapping my arms around myself. Then
Nicholas turns to Charlie.
“You know what, Charlie? I’d like some time alone with Hannah. Why don’t
you enjoy a drink by the pool? And head home.”
“I’m Hannah’s ride,” he says.
“Marcus will take her where she needs to go. We’ll talk tomorrow. Yeah?”
Nicholas gives his son a nal pat. Then before Charlie can say anything, as if
there is anything to say, Nicholas opens the doors to his house and walks inside.
He pauses in the doorway though. He pauses in the doorway, leaving me with
a choice to make. I can leave now and go home with Charlie or I can stay here
alone with him.
These are my choices—stay with Nicholas and help my family or leave my
family and help myself. It feels like a weird test, as if I need to be tested, as if I
haven’t already gotten to the place where helping my family and helping myself
have become the same thing.
“Shall we?” Nicholas says.
I can still leave here. I can still leave him. Owen’s face is in my mind. He
wouldn’t want me here. Grady’s face. Go. Go. Go. My heart races in my chest so
loudly that I’m sure Nicholas can hear it. Even if he can’t, I’m sure he can feel it
—the tension coming o me.
There is a moment when you realize you are out of your depth. This is mine.
The dogs stare up at Nicholas. Everyone stares at Nicholas, including me.
Until I move in the only direction I can. Toward him.
“After you,” I say.