First Things First

Barbara Delinsky

St. Martin's Paperbacks

FIRST THINGS FIRST (Chapter 1)

“I’D LIKE YOU to find my son,” Beatrice London announced, eyes level and cool.

Chelsea Ross sat across from her in the sitting room of the elegant Wellesley Hills estate to which she’d been summoned. It wasn’t the question that surprised her, for she received similar ones on a regular basis. Rather, it was the age of the woman, who had to be nearing sixty, and the setting itself, reeking of seasoned wealth, that took her aback. More often Chelsea found herself in a shabby three-family house or a crowded apartment. More often she faced a young mother whose child had been abducted or whose teenager had run off.

And more often there was a note of frantic pleading accompanying the request. Not so now.

“Your son?” Chelsea asked quietly.

Beatrice London didn’t blink. Her perfectly coiffed silver hair didn’t bob. Her fingers, with their perfectly painted nails, didn’t flutter. She sat in her Queen Anne chair with proper regality. “My son … Samuel Prescott London.”

It was certainly a name befitting the offspring of as stately a woman as Beatrice London, but if Chelsea was supposed to recognize it, she failed.

“I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with the name,” she said as kindly as she could. “Most of my work involves a different class of people.”

“I’m well aware of that, Miss Ross. I’m also well aware of your success rate in this line of work, which is one of the reasons I’m hiring you.”

Chelsea might have thanked her for the compliment had it been offered with a semblance of warmth. But there was an arrogance about the older woman that suggested thanks were neither expected nor called for. So Chelsea simply pretended that this case was like any other, and set out to learn what she could. Unfortunately the answer to her first question was further evidence of how different this situation was from the norm.

“How old is your son?”

“He’ll turn forty next month.”

Chelsea ingested the information with as much aplomb as she could muster. Different from the others? This was a first for her. “How long has he been missing?” she asked rather doubtfully.

“Six months. And it’s not a matter of being ‘missing.’ I have a rough idea where he is, and I know that he’s well.”

“Mrs. London, I’m not sure I understand—”

“Samuel left his office last December for a week’s vacation in Mexico. He’s still there. He’s abandoned a successful business, of which he is the president, an expensive condominium on the harbor front, a membership in the country club and a charming young woman who won’t wait forever. He should have long since come to his senses and returned. Since he hasn’t, I’m hiring you to bring him back.”

Her words, though evenly intoned, suggested an underlying anger. It was this that Chelsea homed in on. “Forty years old. He’s not exactly a child. I can understand your wanting to locate him if you haven’t heardfrom him and are worried, but to bring him back? Isn’t that decision his to make?”

“You obviously haven’t had children of your own, Miss Ross, or you wouldn’t say that. A mother feels responsible regardless of the age of her child. Right now, Samuel is shirking his obligations. It’s up to me to remind him of that.”

At that moment Chelsea felt distinct sympathy for the poor, irresponsible Samuel. If she’d had a mother as imperious, as overbearing as Beatrice London, she’d probably have run away from home, too. But then, her own mother had been just the reverse and her younger sister had still disappeared. That thought brought Chelsea back on track.

“Tell me more about him, Mrs. London. Do you have any idea why he left?”

“He wanted a vacation, so he said. He hadn’t been away in over a year and a half, and he wanted to rest. Surely he’s had enough rest by now,” she stated firmly.

“If you know ‘roughly’ where he is, I take it you’ve heard from him.”

“Not directly. He’s spoken on the phone from time to time with his office, so I know that he’s still in the Yucatán.”

“He passes messages on to you through the office?”

“No. I call the office to wheedle what little I can from his associates.”

Chelsea duly noted the disdain in the woman’s voice. “He has partners?”

Mrs. London raised her eyes to the ceiling in a brief show of impatience. “London and McGee is one of the largest real-estate developers in New England. Surely you’ve heard of them?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” Chelsea responded ever so calmly. “As I told you before, I’m used to dealing with a different type of clientele. Is London and McGree headquartered in Boston?”

“Yes. Its offices are at One Beacon Street.”

Chelsea did know the address and recognized the prestige it carried. “If your son is president, who is McGee?”

“Vice-president.”

“Is he the one you’ve been dealing with?”

“He won’t answer my calls. I’ve been talking with one of the lesser vice-presidents, a man named Norman Schialli.”

“What does he tell you?”

“Just that Samuel is alive and well and not ready to return to Boston.”

“I take it McGee’s running things in his absence?”

“It appears that way, and if Samuel doesn’t get back here, he may find his business stolen right out from under his nose.”

“You don’t trust McGee?”

“Not particularly. The man may be a hard worker, but he doesn’t have a bit of class. Why Samuel ever went into business with him is beyond me. Why Samuel didn’t go into the family business is beyond me.”

“What is the family business, Mrs. London?” Chelsea asked. Having already professed her ignorance, she had nothing to lose by being so blunt.

This time Beatrice London didn’t need to look at the ceiling to express impatience. It was written all over her face, generously mingling with the arrogance that Chelsea had had a taste of before. “The London Corporation. We own three large theater complexes and the Winslow Arena here in Boston, plus numerous otherentertainment centers along the Eastern Seaboard. My husband’s father started the business. My husband carried it on. I’ve been at the helm since my husband died four years ago.”

Beatrice London was at the helm—that Chelsea found easy to believe. The woman was a born executive, judging from the businesslike air she exuded. A born ruler. Once again Chelsea found herself siding with the hapless Samuel.

“I see,” she said, her thoughts moving on. “And your son chose not to go into the family business. I assume that was against your wishes?”

“Miss Ross, I’m not sure this is relevant to the problem at hand. I’m hiring you to find my son and bring him back, not to delve into the family history.”

“Everything is relevant, Mrs. London. Anything I can learn about your son will be of help.” Chelsea tipped her head to the side in a gesture of skepticism, perhaps wariness. “But, to tell you the truth, I’m not at all sure why you’ve come to me. I’d have thought that a woman of your standing would more naturally seek out a private investigator.”

Beatrice London was undaunted by the question. She had her answer fully prepared. “A private investigator might be able to locate my son, but I doubt he’d be able to bring him back.”

“And you think I would?”

“Yes.” Her gaze narrowed speculatively. “I do think so.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a woman, for one thing. An attractive woman. For another, you’re a blonde. For a third, you appear to be a good actress.”

It was all Chelsea could do not to self-consciously run her fingers through her hair. Yes, she was blond, though her short, bluntly cut cap was probably rather windblown at the moment. Attractive? She supposed, in a way. But … “An actress? Excuse me, but I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“I saw you on television last week, Miss Ross. You handled yourself with dignity and the kind of style that can’t have come naturally to a woman born and bred in a depressed New Hampshire mill town.”

Chelsea would have angrily spit out a response, but that would only have given credence to Beatrice London’s words. “We can’t all be born wealthy, Mrs. London, but dignity and style aren’t things you buy.”

“Maybe not dignity. Style certainly is.” Her eyes dropped in a blunt appraisal of Chelsea’s silk blouse and coordinating skirt. “You’re a good shopper. Filene’s Basement on the day of the Neiman Marcus sale?” Chelsea didn’t have to say a word in answer. “I don’t have the patience for it myself, though I do have my share of Neiman Marcus clothes. You look very nice, Miss Ross. But then, you intended to, coming to a home in this area, didn’t you?”

“There are appropriate ways to dress for every occasion,” Chelsea reasoned, sounding more composed than she felt. She was usually the one to ask the questions, yet somehow she felt she was on the firing line. “How did you know where I come from?”

For the first time in the interview, Beatrice London smiled. It wasn’t a smile Chelsea particularly cared for. “I hired a private investigator, of course.”

That, too, was a first, from Chelsea’s standpoint, and she cared for it even less than the smile, which had already vanished. “Was that necessary?”

“I felt it was. I’m entrusting you with a very serious job. I wanted to be sure I was hiring the right person. I saw you for the first time on that show last week. I’d have been a fool not to have checked you out. I know that you’ve been locating missing children for the past six years, that you’re successful in roughly three out of four cases you take on, that you have a tenacity that can only come from having been on the other end of the stick.” She barely paused for a breath, as though sufficient air was a given like everything else she owned. “I know about your sister, Miss Ross, and the fact that her disappearance was what started you in this line of work.”

Chelsea didn’t flinch, partly because she knew that Beatrice London would have expected her to, partly because she’d long since come to accept that certain cases, even some of those hitting closer to the heart than others, couldn’t be won. It wasn’t that she didn’t still ache for her sister, for her parents, for herself, because she did. But she knew enough to face the facts and go on with life. Dedicating herself to helping families in situations such as hers helped.

“You must know that I don’t have formal training or a license to do what I do.”

“You don’t need either. You’re dedicated and law-abiding. You’ve built up a nationwide network of contacts-groups formed to locate children, law-enforcement personnel who are more than happy to have help, public welfare officials and sympathetic bystanders. You work primarily by phone, traveling when your contacts aren’t enough. You very definitely undercharge your clients, and you pay taxes on every cent you make, including your salary from Icabod’s.”

Chelsea took a quick breath. “Your investigator earned his fee,” she commented dryly. “I hope he doesn’t undercharge you.”

“He doesn’t charge me; I pay him, and generously. Money, and the prospect of receiving it, does wonders for incentive. You’ll find that out yourself when we get around to talking business.”

“I thought that was what we were doing, but we seem to keep veering off the subject. I’ll need to know much more about the situation with your son before I decide whether or not to take on the case.”

Beatrice London studied Chelsea’s face for a minute. It was obvious the woman didn’t care for her independence, equally obvious that she didn’t care to air any dirty laundry until she had a commitment. Still, Chelsea felt her argument made sense. Indeed, she was doing nothing more than Mrs. London had done when she’d contemplated hiring her.

Apparently Beatrice reached the same conclusion. “All right. I’ll tell you what you need to know. Samuel grew up in this house, graduated from Harvard and the Harvard Business School as his father had, and then joined the family firm. He stayed with us for two years before he went out on his own.”

“Why did he leave?”

“He and his father had a disagreement. I never knew what it was about. My husband refused to tell me.”

“Had Samuel been living with you up until then?”

“Yes. After he left, I tried to get him to come back, both here and to the office, but he was adamant. I’ve kept trying, but he’s remained firm.”

Almost against her wishes, Chelsea found her interest piqued. Human motivations fascinated her, particularlywhen they involved family relationships. “Even after his father died?”

“Most vociferously then. He argued that he had his hands full with his own business and that I was more than capable of handling the corporation, but we both knew that it would have been simple to bring London and McGee in as a division of LC. Samuel wouldn’t hear of it.”

Chelsea was rooting for Samuel. “Have the two of you stayed close in spite of it?”

“Not as close as I’d like. Oh, we see each other often. He takes me to parties from time to time. But he won’t have anything to do with the corporation, even though he stands to inherit it one day.”

“There aren’t any other children?”

“No. Just Samuel. That’s why I want you to bring him back.”

Given the drift of the conversation, Chelsea looked again for signs of softness, of maternal need, of worry, but all she saw was the aura of command the woman wore like a royal cape.

“Tell me about Samuel—his likes, dislikes, hobbies, anything that might give me a lead.”

Beatrice’s right shoulder lifted in what could have been a shrug. “Samuel is straight as an arrow. He likes fine restaurants and good theater. He plays golf at the club, but he was never a dedicated athlete. He works hard at his job. I guess you might call him intense.”

“What about the woman he was seeing? Was it a long-standing affair?”

“‘Affair’ isn’t a term I care to use,” Mrs. London instructed disdainfully. “Samuel and Linda have known each other for years. She’s the daughter of one of our oldest friends.”

“Was a marriage in the offing?”

“I had certainly hoped so. Samuel wasn’t considering anyone else.”

“Did he want to marry?”

“Of course he did. He wanted a home and a wife. He wanted children to inherit from him.”

“But he’s nearly forty. Why hasn’t he moved sooner?”

“He claims he’s been too busy.”

“So you have discussed it with him?”

“Of course. It’s my responsibility.”

Chelsea bit off a retort. There was still more she wanted to know. Struggling to put the pieces of the puzzle together, she frowned at the Oriental carpet underfoot and spoke her subsequent thoughts aloud. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got. He had a good job, a condo, a lady friend. He left the business in the hands of his partner, and the condo and lady friend in limbo, and took off for a vacation in Mexico. Six months later he’s still there.” Slowly she raised contemplative eyes. “What do you think he’s doing there?”

“That’s one of the things you’ll have to find out.”

“Is it possible that he’s ducking some kind of legal hassle?”

“Absolutely not! Samuel is straight as an arrow. I told you that.”

“Maybe there was something he didn’t tell you.”

“No! Samuel wouldn’t do anything illegal. It isn’t in his nature. He never rebelled, even when he was younger. He’s as moral and upstanding as his father and I raised him to be.”

Chelsea had finally gotten a rise out of the unflappable Beatrice London. She was indignant, perhaps, but sincere. Whatever the facts proved to be, Mrs.London truly believed her son to be moral and upstanding.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offense. It’s just that I have to consider every possibility … . You said that Samuel was in the Yucatan?”

“That’s right. He started out in Cancun. From there he moved inland.”

“Is he still moving?”

“No.”

“But you don’t know exactly where he is?”

“I know that he’s living in a small Mayan village somewhere.”

“A Mayan village?” Chelsea echoed, wanting to laugh but squelching the urge. She saw definite signs of a time warp. Had it been twenty years before, she might have believed Beatrice London’s rich and proper boy had escaped the confines of his rich and proper life to reside with a guru in India. But that particular mania had passed, and Samuel Prescott London was nearly forty years old. “What’s he doing in a Mayan village?” she asked meekly.

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have hired you,” Mrs. London snapped.

“But I haven’t said I’d accept the job!” Chelsea retorted, helpless to stop herself. Even she wasn’t immune to such snobbery after a time. But the satisfaction she felt at momentarily having the upper hand was erased with her adversary’s next smug statement.

“You will. You need the money.”

For an instant, silence permeated a room that suddenly seemed closed in to Chelsea. “Another tip from your investigator?” she asked quietly.

At that moment, Beatrice London appeared to be in her element. Power was obviously something she savored,which perhaps explained why her son’s refusal to return to Boston rankled her. It was also a possible reason, in Chelsea’s mind at least, why the elusive Samuel refused to return.

“My investigator was thorough. I know precisely how much money you earn from your searches, and how much you earn at Icabod’s. Of course, a woman like you must do very well in tips, particularly working as a bartender in a place that caters to wealthy businessmen after hours.”

Chelsea found the elegantly scrolled armrests of her chair to be wonderful braces. She promptly used them to lever herself to her feet. “I think you should find someone else to do your bidding, Mrs. London. If your son is anywhere near as presumptuous as you, I’m not sure I care to go looking for him.” Purse in hand, she was turning to show herself out when Beatrice London spoke again.

“I also know precisely how much it will cost you to go back to school to get that degree you’ve got your heart set on.”

Chelsea stopped under the archway to the hall. She didn’t turn, simply dug her neatly trimmed fingernails into the crisp canvas of her purse.

“You see, I really know quite a bit, Miss Ross. I have to say that I admire you for what you want to do. You already have a bachelor’s degree, but you want a Ph.D. in psychology. Hoping to treat some of those confused young runaways?”

“Actually—” Chelsea gritted her teeth“—I was hoping to counsel their families. A runaway always has reasons, and nine times out of ten they relate to the home.”

The implication she was trying to make was promptly ignored by the indomitable Beatrice London, who remained sitting in her chair with her hands crossed in her lap. “I’ll pay you what you need, Miss Ross. I’ll give you half now and the other half when you retrieve my son. I’ll cover your tuition for the three-year doctoral program, plus add a generous amount to cover your living expenses during that time. I’ll even secure your acceptance in the program at Harvard.”

Chelsea whirled on her heels. “I don’t need your help with that, Mrs. London. I can get in on my own!”

“I know,” the other said with an icy smile. “You graduated third in your class from Mount Holyoke, on scholarship all the way, which would have made my job that much easier. But if you won’t let me pull strings in the admissions office, the least I can do is to give you a glowing reference.”

“If I retrieve your son.”

“If you retrieve my son.”

Chelsea hadn’t reentered the room; rather, she held her ground as she considered the bait Beatrice London dangled before her.

For six years she’d scraped by, working daily out of her tiny apartment and nightly at the bar, saving her pennies so that she might return full-time to school. She’d assumed it would take at least another three years to save what she needed. But if the fee on this job would cover it all, plus expenses—she made rapid mental calculations—she’ d be able to use what she’d saved for investing in an office when she finally got her degree.

Chelsea had no doubts about being able to locate Samuel London. What troubled her was whether or not she’d be able to convince him to come home.

“Your offer is generous, Mrs. London,” she said, “and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want the money. But your son is a grown man. Aside from my being female and blond, what makes you think that I can get him back here?”

“You left out the attractive part. My son is a good-looking man himself. And he’s not blind. You also left out the actress part. Well, perhaps actress is too strong a word. Let’s just say that, between your looks and your intelligence, I think you’d be able to trap him.”

Germs of suggestion were flitting through Chelsea’s mind and she had the sudden feeling they might be injurious to her health. “I’m not sure I follow you, Mrs. London,” she said stiffly.

“You do, Miss Ross, but if you want me to spell it out, I will. I want you to use your bloodhound instinct to locate my son. Then I want you to use your feminine wiles, and any other wiles you may have up your sleeve, to lure him back to Boston.”

“You want me to seduce him!”

“I never used the word ‘seduce.’ I’m not suggesting anything tawdry, and even if I were, Samuel’s not the type. He’s far from inexperienced, but I assure you he’s not a playboy. No, what I’m suggesting is something more subtle, which is where your innate intelligence comes to play. I want you to enchant him, to wrap him around your little finger, so to speak. I want you to give him good reason to follow you when you finally fly home—”

“Finally? How long do you expect me to stay in Mexico?”

“Only as long as it takes.”

“But I’ve got a business here, and a job—”

“Neither of which you’ll need, given the fee you’ll be receiving from me. Of course,” she went on in a patronizing tone, “it’s for you to decide where your priorities lie. You’re not getting any younger, Miss Ross. The way I see it, if you spend another three or four years saving up money for ever-rising tuition fees, then four or five years working for the degree—naturally, it will take longer if you have to earn your living expenses as you go—you’ll be nearing forty before you’ll be able to start work as a therapist. My way, you’ll be barely thirty-three.”

“The timing is actually perfect for you,” she went on, ignoring Chelsea’s cheerless expression. “This is June. You’ll have the entire summer to get Samuel out of Mexico. You can be back well before classes start in the fall.”

Chelsea didn’t know what to say. She’d never had a proposition quite like the one she was now being offered. But then, she’d never been manipulated by the likes of Beatrice London. “You’ve got everything worked out, haven’t you?”

“Not everything. You’re the one who’ll have to deal with Samuel, and I’m afraid I can’t be much help on that score. If anything you do smacks of me, he’s sure to become suspicious. He’s not to know I’ve hired you.”

“Then I’m to come up with some far-fetched excuse?” Chelsea was used to dealing with the truth, not fabricating it. Once more, doubts were surfacing.

“Not far-fetched. Plausible. It shouldn’t be too difficult. You could pose as a student of Mayan culture, or a bored young lady who’s run away from the city, or simply a tourist who’s fallen in love with the Yucatán.”

Chelsea took a deep breath and slowly shook her head. “I don’t know, Mrs. London. Despite what youthink, I’m really not an actress. I may have faked my way through situations in the past, but it would be nothing like this. To purposely lead a man on for days, maybe weeks—I just don’t know if I can do it.”

“What if I threw in a wardrobe bonus on top of everything else? You could skip the basement and go directly to Neiman Marcus.”

“It’s not a matter of money—”

“Isn’t it? If it weren’t for the money, you would have already turned tail and run.” With great care, Beatrice London rose from her seat and walked slowly toward a small marble-topped table. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing you for it. If I were in your situation, I’d accept the offer in a minute.” Lifting a photograph, she turned to Chelsea. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t care for, if only to get to those things that truly mean something to us. I do believe you want to be a counselor, Miss Ross. You certainly have good reason to want to be one.” In the unhurried gait of the confident rich, she approached Chelsea. “Is spending a few weeks, maybe a month or two, with this man too much of a price to pay to gain the means of achieving your personal goal?” With that, she held out a picture of her son.

Chelsea studied the formal black-and-white shot. Samuel Prescott London looked as unapproachable as his name sounded. He had dark, immaculately clipped hair, a pale, lean face and glasses. Though his skin was free of wrinkles, there was a sternness about him that made him look old and tired. Had she not already been told otherwise, Chelsea would have guessed him to be at least forty-five.

“When was this taken?” she asked, taking the photo from Mrs. London’s hand for a closer study.

“Two years ago. It’s standard publicity fare, but I’m afraid it’s the best I have.”

“Nothing less formal?” Chelsea was searching the face in the photograph for some hint of character but found none.

Mrs. London hesitated for just a moment. “I suppose I must have something in the den. Excuse me, please.” She sidestepped Chelsea and entered the hall.

Chelsea held the photo gingerly. It wasn’t heavy, yet it weighed her down, for it represented an unexpected passkey to her future. She knew, as did the shrewd Beatrice London, that she couldn’t possibly turn down the older woman’s offer. Nor could she deny the bad taste in her mouth that came with the thought of what she was being asked to do.

“Perhaps these will help.” Mrs. London was back then, offering three smaller unframed snapshots for Chelsea’s study. The first was of Samuel in black tie and tails, standing with his exquisitely gowned mother. “That was taken at my niece’s wedding four years ago.” The second was of Samuel sitting with four other people on the gleaming deck of a yacht. “Those are family friends. It was taken the summer before last in Newport.” The third was of Samuel with a pleasant-looking woman. “Linda,” was Mrs. London’s lone comment.

Chelsea slipped each snapshot behind the others, rotating them slowly until she’d seen them at least twice. In every shot Samuel Prescott London wore the same glasses, the same clipped hairstyle, the same formal expression. In none of them did he look particularly happy.

“May I keep this one?” Chelsea asked, taking the publicity shot and handing the others back.

“If it’ll help.”

“It should.” She tucked it into her purse, then withdrew a small notebook and a pen. But Beatrice London was already returning to the marble table, presenting her this time with a slim manilla folder.

“I think you’ll find all the pertinent background information here. I’ve included his vital statistics, plus the name and address of the hotel where he stayed in Cancun.”

Chelsea tucked the folder beneath her notebook. “I’d like the names of some of his friends. It would be a help if I could talk with them.”

“I … think not. They’re apt to tip him off.”

“I can get around that,” Chelsea murmured. She didn’t particularly like what she was going to do, but once committed—and she knew she was—she felt confident. “I can pose as a friend of any old friend of his. Perhaps you can give me a name—someone he may have known in college but hasn’t seen since?” When Beatrice remained skeptical, she added, “I can say that I’m headed for the Yucatan and heard he was there, perhaps even that I’m a writer researching the modern day Maya. If Samuel’s been there for six months, he’d be a logical contact.”

“And what kind of useful information do you think you could get from his friends?”

“At best, the exact spot where he is. At least some idea where to start looking.”

“And if no one knows that?”

“Then I’ll have learned something about Samuel simply by meeting his friends. You’d be surprised how many subtle things can emerge from a seemingly innocent conversation.”

“Is that how you usually work?”

“Not always, but often. It depends on the case. In this case, I think it would be wise for me to learn anything and everything I can about your son well before I hit Mexico. If I’m to … enchant him, as you say, I’d better find out what he likes.”

Mrs. London considered for just a minute, then decided to cooperate. For the first time that morning, Chelsea was grateful she was with a businesswoman. Like a dutiful secretary she raised her pen and took dictation, albeit in scribbled longhand.

“David McGee is his partner. One Beacon Street.” She dictated the phone number. “Norman Schialli is at the same address and number. Samuel’s golf partner is Hal Washburn, a lawyer in the Exchange Building. Neil Grant is a longtime friend. You’ll find him at Harbor Towers, but I don’t know his phone number offhand.”

“I can find it. What about Linda?”

“I’d rather you didn’t contact Linda. She’s a perceptive young woman. If she sensed too much interest on your part, she might be hurt.”

Too much interest … in Samuel London? Chelsea wanted to laugh. “Not if I handle it gently. Please, Mrs. London. You’ll have to trust me. Linda might be more help than all of the others combined … unwittingly, of course.”

“It had better be ‘of course,’” the other woman stated firmly. But nonetheless she yielded. “Linda Huntington. She has her own place in town, but I believe she’s already joined her parents at their summer home in Osterville. That’s on the Cape—”

“I know. Have you a number?”

“Yes.” She quoted it.

“Good. Now, about the name of an old college buddy …”

“Come with me.”

Chelsea followed her through the large hall and down a corridor into the family library. An ornate leather-covered desk stood at one end, surrounded by neatly filled bookshelves. Mrs. London approached one, withdrew a volume that proved to be one of Samuel’s college yearbooks, and thumbed through.

“Harcourt … no, here, Ingram. Jason Ingram. This should do it. The fellow was from the West Coast and I believe he went on to graduate studies at Stanford, so the chances are good he’s still out there. He and Samuel weren’t the closest of friends, but they must have known each other, judging from the message Jason wrote beside his picture.”

Chelsea took the book and read aloud. “‘To a fellow survivor of Madame LaFarge’s needles. Best of luck, J.’ Madame LaFarge?”

“I believe she was a professor of French literature. Samuel was good with languages.”

“Ahh. See, there’s something I’ve learned already. If he was good with languages, he’s probably been able to pick up Spanish easily in Mexico.”

“I’m sure that’s the case … unfortunately. Samuel is very bright.”

“May I borrow this yearbook also? There may be other things I can pick up from it.”

With a curt nod, Beatrice London moved behind the desk, withdrew a checkbook from one of the drawers and began to write. With a snap that rent the silence, she tore off the check and handed it to Chelsea. “I’ll expect you to keep me informed of your progress right up until the time you leave. After that, I’ll simply have to trust that you’re doing your best.”

Chelsea didn’t bother to look at the check. She prided herself on being a good judge of people. Though she didn’t care for Beatrice London personally, she knew that the woman wouldn’t cheat her. The check would cover half of the tuition rate for the doctoral program, plus half of what Beatrice estimated to be her living expenses for three years. And since Beatrice’s standard of living was far, far higher than her own, Chelsea was sure the sum would be more than she would have allowed herself.

“I will try, Mrs. London. You do know, though, that I can’t guarantee success. I have no idea what I’ll find when I locate your son. It may be that, short of actual abduction, I’ll be unable to get him back here.”

“That check,” Mrs. London stated, dropping her gaze to the small paper Chelsea held, “is yours in any case—unless, of course, I learn that you made less than a serious effort to bring Samuel back. The second half of the check will be forthcoming once you both return.”

“I understand,” Chelsea said softly.

“I think you do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way to the office.”

Chelsea nodded and turned, retracing her steps down the long corridor and through the hall to the front door. She’d reached her time-worn Chevette, which waited awkwardly on the curve of the well-landscaped circular drive, before she realized she was still holding the check in her hand. Without looking at it, she stuffed it in her purse, slid into the car and headed off.

Driving back to her small Cambridge apartment, Chelsea found herself in an increasing state of shock. The enormity of what she’d undertaken, of what it would do to her life, hit her with startling force. She wasgoing to spend the next weeks chasing after a man. Then she was going back to school!

Among other things, she felt guilt. Searching for Samuel Prescott London, formerly of Wellesley Hills, was a far cry from looking for Antonio Rodrigues of the North End or Chastity Watson of Roxbury or Peter Kolados of Somerville. Samuel was no innocent child who’d been abducted while on his way home from school. Samuel was no starry-eyed teenager running away from home in search of bright lights and glamour. Samuel hadn’t left a heart-torn mother behind, a woman who cried herself to sleep at night with worry even while she struggled to hold the rest of the family together.

Chelsea wondered if she could truly turn her back on the dozens of people who’d needed her in the past years, who’d seen her as their only hope of surviving a nightmare.

Then she thought of the degree she’d be able to get, of the work she’d subsequently be able to do, of the good in it, and she felt better.

And excited. And just the slightest bit afraid.

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK was as hectic a one as Chelsea had known, and since her life had always been one of long working hours and little sleep, that was saying a lot.

She tied up as many knots in ongoing searches as she was able to, guilt-ridden when she had to explain to one client or another that a new case would be taking her out of the country for a time.

She made frantic phone calls to each of the universities in the Boston area, filing applications in person, with silent prayers that it wouldn’t be too late in theseason to find a single spot for a doctoral candidate in psychology. Intellectually she was on a par with the other candidates, she knew, but time was against her. She could only hope that the work she’d been doing for the past six years would strike a sympathetic chord in one admissions officer or another. Pride kept her from calling Beatrice London, on that score at least.

She did call and subsequently meet with each of the people whose names Mrs. London had given her. Though her cover worked like a charm, she learned little of Samuel London’s whereabouts other than that the Mayan village in which he was staying was somewhere between Cancun and the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Given the fact that one hundred twenty miles separated the two, and that there were numerous Mayan villages along the way, she knew she would have some searching to do once she arrived in the Yucatán.

Equally discouraging was the information she gleaned from the interviews with Samuel’s friends—that they were friends only in the most formal sense of the word. It seemed that Samuel’s work was his life. He had few outside interests, no hobbies to speak of. He was, for the most part, a loner, as straitlaced and somber an individual as his photographs suggested. Chelsea was beginning to wonder how she was possibly going to warm up to such a man. The only glimmer of hope came from Linda Huntington.

All but breathless from the running around she was doing, Chelsea nonetheless forced herself to drive down to the Cape to meet with Linda, whom she found to be surprisingly approachable.

“So you’re headed for the Yucatán,” Linda said, offering Chelsea a tall glass of lemonade from the pitcher the maid had delivered moments before. They weresitting on the lawn. Behind them was a polished stone patio, before them a pool.

“The day after tomorrow,” Chelsea responded with what she hoped was due enthusiasm. It wasn’t that she had anything against the Yucatán; in other circumstances she would have liked nothing more than to enjoy it. Traveling for pleasure had always been impossible, given her need to save money, but it was something she desperately hoped to be able to do in the future. “As I explained on the phone, I’m writing an article on the modern Maya. Firsthand research seems in order.”

“Who do you write for?”

“I free-lance. Actually, I’m not sure who the article will go to, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a while and I figured this was as good a time as any. When I heard that Samuel London had been living among the Mayas for months now, I couldn’t resist trying to contact him. The only problem is that no one seems to know exactly where he is. Your name came up as the one person who was closest to him before he left.”

Linda smiled warmly. “Samuel and I have been friends for years.”

“I was told—perhaps I’m out of place here, but I was told you two were all but engaged.”

At that, Linda laughed softly, without malice. “That’s how the story goes.”

“If it’s true, surely you’ve been in touch with him. You’d be able to tell me where to find him.”

Linda raised delicate fingers to enumerate. “No, I haven’t been in touch with him, therefore I can’t tell you where he is. And no, we’re not engaged.”

Deep inside, Chelsea was relieved. The deception she was practicing now, the greater deception she’d haveto practice once she found Samuel, was bad enough. If Linda and Samuel were truly planning marriage, she would have felt all the more despicable. “That’s strange. His mother implied—”

“Beatrice has always implied that. She’s had her heart set on it for years. So have my parents, for that matter. And Sam and I let them dream. There’s no harm to it really.”

“But … why aren’t you engaged?”

“We’re not in love. Well, not in the sense that would hold up in a marriage. Sam has been a friend, a good friend. He’s always been there for me, and I try to return the favor. We spent hours talking of his need to get away. He was tired and—”

Linda stopped, leaving Chelsea hanging in the silence. She was sure Linda had been about to say more, to give some concrete reason for Samuel’s prolonged absence, until it had occurred to her that she’d be betraying Samuel’s confidence. Chelsea had to respect her, though Linda’s loyalty hampered her work.

“What do you think he’s been doing down there all this time?” Chelsea asked with just the right amount of innocent curiosity.

“I hope he’s relaxing. He works too hard.”

Chelsea chuckled. “He’s probably having a grand time for himself. A small Mayan village may be awfully quiet, but Cancun is jam-packed with tourists and restaurants and discos—”

Linda sighed. “I hope that’s the case.”

“It wouldn’t bother you?” She studied the blond-haired woman, who was far from beautiful, though nicely groomed. Chelsea wondered why a romance hadn’t ever worked out between them.

“It wouldn’t bother me in the least, though I doubt that’s what’s truly happening. Sam is inhibited. Like me, I suppose.” She laughed. “We make a very boring couple.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute,” Chelsea heard herself say. It was almost the truth. There were couples, and there were couples. If Samuel London overworked himself and Linda Huntington could get him to relax, there had to be some merit to the relationship. Moreover, Samuel was supposedly bright, Linda well-spoken. They’d both been reared in the same privileged class. In the right circles they probably did just fine.

“Well, that’s neither here nor there,” Linda was musing. “I wish I could help you more, Chelsea, but I honestly have no idea exactly where Sam is.”

Chelsea thought for a minute, reluctant to leave with any stone unturned. “If you were to guess, based on what you know of Samuel, what would he be doing? I take it you don’t think he’d be frequenting the hot spots in Cancun.”

“Hardly. If he were in London, he’d be sitting through session after session of Parliament. If he were in Rome, he’d be squirreled away in the Vatican museum. If he were in Tokyo, he’d be analyzing the workings of the nearest manufacturing plant. But in Mexico … the Yucatán …a Mayan village …? He was never the outdoorsy type. He sunburns too easily. I’m sure he’s visited whatever ruins are around, but … for six months?” She shrugged her shoulders, a gesture so much more human than Beatrice London’s nondisplay that Chelsea found herself liking Linda. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

 

OVER THE NEXT TWO DAYS, Chelsea struggled to make that guess, with little luck. Of what she’d learned from Linda, the only thing that encouraged her was the fact that, in Linda, Samuel had had a friend. He’d needed a friend. And Chelsea herself was adept at such a role. She was a born listener, as her boss at Icabod’s had effusively told her when she’d given him her notice.

“You’re the best damned bartender we’ve had in years, Chels. The men love you.”

“They should. I make great Harvey Wallbangers!” she’d teased.

“Aside from booze. They love to talk and have someone listen. And you answer them, giving them impartial advice. They like that. If you want work when you get back, you know where to come!”

But she wouldn’t want work … she hoped. At least not that kind of work.

She thought about Samuel Prescott London constantly and too often met the stern-eyed gaze that greeted her from atop the desk where she’d propped his picture. Linda had called him Sam, yet Chelsea was unable to do so. He was a formal Samuel, from the top of his neat dark head to the tips of what she assumed would be his Brooks Brothers shoes. All six-foot-one of him. All one hundred sixty-five pounds of him. Studious, spectacled, string-bean-shaped Samuel.

Only when she was at last airborne, headed south did Chelsea admit to herself that she was frightened. Samuel London was intelligent; he was bound to see through her ruse. Samuel London was straitlaced; he’d never fall for a tourist or writer or ruins-lover or whatever she decided to disguise herself as. Samuel London was stern and one dimensional; she’d never be able to pretend to fall for him.

But Samuel London was the meal ticket to her future.

With that thought in mind, she accepted a Bloody Mary from the flight attendant, opened the book in her lap and plunged into a history of the Mayan culture.

FIRST THINGS FIRST. Copyright © 1985 by Barbara Delinsky.