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Red Hot Obsessions

By:Ember Casey


CHAPTER ONE

I lean out the car window and press the button on the call box for the third time.

“Hello?” I say yet again. “Anyone there?”

No one answers. Yet again.

I sit back against the seat and slam my hand against the steering wheel. Stupid rich asshole. I've driven all the way out here to the middle of nowhere and he won't even let me in.

Not that I expected any different.

A pair of wrought-iron gates stands ahead of me in the driveway. They're covered in ivy, like the entrance to some enchanted garden in a fairy tale, and I have no doubt the family paid a small fortune to their landscapers to create that wild, “overgrown” look. I kill the engine of my beat-up Honda and climb out of the car. I don't care how long it takes—I won't leave until they let me through. If that means camping out here for the next several hours, then so be it.

I walk up to the gates and give them a good shake, hoping they'll magically pop open at my touch. They don't even wiggle. Beyond them lie the estates of the Cunningham family, the current residence of the infamous—and infuriating—Calder Cunningham.

His note arrived yesterday, and I've read it about fifty times since then.



Dearest Ms. Frazer,

While your persistence is admirable, I assure you your exertions on behalf of the Frazer Center for the Arts will do little to change my decision. I'm afraid I will not be including the Frazer Center in my financial plans for the foreseeable future, and for your own sake, I request that you abandon your efforts to change my mind. I would not waste any more of your time.

Respectfully,

Calder



No mention of the fact that he's broken the pledge contract his late father signed. No acknowledgment that his actions might single-handedly be responsible for the closing of the Frazer Center. No apology for blowing off all my previous attempts to contact him.

I stand on my toes in front of the gates, trying to find a place where the vines part just enough to give me a view of the other side. Between the leaves I can see the long, cobblestoned driveway winding between a double row of live oaks. There's no view of the house from here, but if the rumors are true, it's something of a monstrosity. The rich love their ridiculous mansions.

The Cunninghams have always been weird about their property. No photos of the estate have ever been released to the public—except for the occasional grainy shot from a helicopter, which is always quickly retracted—though descriptions of the lands and house grow more extravagant with every story. They’re one of the last great “old money” families in this part of the country and have a reputation for being a little eccentric; as such, they attract their fair share of attention—and they appear to harbor their fair share of secrets as well.

Probably why security's such a bitch.

I step back and look up at the camera bolted to the stone wall above the call box.

“I don't have a camera,” I call up to it. “I’m not trying to sneak any photos or anything.”

I go back to the car and grab my purse. There are only four things inside: my wallet, a pack of gum, some sunglasses, and a six-year-old flip phone. I take them out one by one, and when I get to the phone I hold it up so the security camera can see.

“Look,” I say, flicking it open. “There's not even a camera on here.” I throw the phone down with the other items and grab the purse again. I turn it upside down and give it a good shake for effect.

The gates don't budge.

I give an exasperated sigh and walk around to the trunk of my car. It's full of the usual junk. I pull out the grocery sack I use as a makeshift garbage bag, rifle through it beneath the camera to show that it's only receipts and fast food wrappers, and drop it on the drive. Next I pull out a pair of sneakers, a small emergency car kit, and a couple of rough-edged file folders.

“See?” I say. “Nothing.”

There's no response.

I lean over to the call button and jam it another time.

“Look,” I say. “I'm not trying to cause any trouble. As I said before, I'm from the Frazer Center for the Arts.” I flip open my wallet and flash my ID card at the camera. Lily Frazer. Assistant Director. There's even a picture, though my naturally brunette hair looks rather orange in the image. “Please. I just want to speak with Mr. Cunningham in regard to the letter he sent us. He won't return my calls.” God, could I sound like any more of a stalker?

But there is still no answer from the call box. I walk back over to the gates and press my face against the bars.

“Hello!” I call. “Can anyone hear me?” I don't see anyone on the other side, but that doesn't mean there's no one there.

I'm about to yell again when the first raindrop lands on my cheek. I brush it off and glance up. The sky was clear when I left this morning, but now it's an ominous gray.

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