Chapter Twenty-Five

GABE, LEXI AND ROBBIE WERE IN LEXI'S NEW YORK APARTMENT, playing cards.

Gabe was explaining the rules. "The game's called hearts. The aim is to dump as many hearts as you can on your opponent, without winning any yourself. Every heart counts against you, so the ten of hearts is minus ten points, the ace is minus twenty-five and so on. The most dangerous card in the pack is the queen of spades - the black Mariah. If you win her, that's minus fifty points. With me so far?"

Robbie said: "I think so. Losing is good, winning is bad, right?"

"Sounds like a stupid game to me," grumbled Lexi.

She was not in a good mood. Normally she loved having Robbie stay over. They saw him too rarely. He was a good, calming influence on Lexi and Gabe's fiery relationship; a reminder that their love ran deeper than the silly arguments and competitiveness of daily life. But today, not even Robbie could lift her spirits.

Lexi had spent the morning watching helplessly as Kruger-Brent's share price rallied, up almost twenty points. For years she'd been quietly pursuing her Jenga strategy: buying up strategic parts of the Kruger-Brent empire piece by piece, through anonymous shell companies. The idea was that if she could only remove the right piece at the right time, the whole edifice would collapse in on itself. Max would be fired. She, Lexi, would return in a blaze of glory to lead the company back to greatness.

But it hadn't happened. Kruger-Brent was like a giant spider. Every time you cut off one of its legs, it grew back. Max was winning the game. The bastard was beating her.

Her temper was not improved when she comprehensively lost the first two rounds of the card game. "This is ridiculous. Whoever heard of a game where you're not supposed to win?"

Robbie laughed. He adored the furious look on Lexi's face. It was the same look she'd had at age six when she lost at Chutes and Ladders, and demanded that either he or the nanny agree to a rematch.

"You are supposed to win. But you have to win by losing."

"Actually, there's another rule," said Gabe. "I didn't tell you about it before because it basically never happens. But if you somehow manage to win all the hearts and the black Mariah - if you get every conceivable penalty card against you, in other words - then you have an option either to halve your own minus points or double your opponents'."

Lexi was quiet. A few minutes later, her bad mood miraculously evaporated. Scooting across the couch, she wrapped her arms around Gabe and kissed him.

"Come on, then, let's play. Whose turn is it to deal?"

Robbie watched Gabe's face light up.

"What was that for?"

"Nothing. I love you, that's all."

Later that night, Gabe and Lexi made love for the first time in weeks. Lexi had been so preoccupied with work recently, she'd been neglecting Gabe. But tonight she made up for it, teasing and caressing him till he begged to get inside her, whispering her undying love in his ear. Afterward, Gabe fell into a deep, contented sleep.

Lexi lay awake, her mind racing, too excited to close her eyes.

At last, at long, long last, she'd figured it out. It was Gabe who'd given her the idea.

I know how I'm going to win back Kruger-Brent.

I've been playing the wrong game all along.

Lisa Jenner, Eve Blackwell's maid, brushed her mistress's long gray hair and let her mind wander. The old woman was rambling again.

"Rory loved me. He was going to marry me, you know. But then that man tricked me. He waited till I was helpless, unconscious, and he did this." Eve ran her wizened, veiny hands across her face, probing the scars with her fingers.

"Which man, madam?" Lisa had only been working for Ms. Blackwell for a month, but was already used to her insane outbursts.

"My husband, of course!" Eve snapped. "Max."

"Your husband is dead, madam. He was killed in an accident a long time ago. Max is your son. Remember?"

Eve frowned. Max is my son. My son?

"My son is a fool. He's destroying Kruger-Brent. He's weak, like his father."

Lisa Jenner twisted Eve's hair into a high, tight bun and secured it with an ivory pin. Then she replaced her mistress's veil.

"There we are. All done," she said brightly. "Max is waiting for you in the drawing room with Dr. Marshall. Would you like me to take you through?"

"No!" Eve's voice was shrill with panic. "My face! Don't let him touch my face! He's not a doctor. He's a maniac!"

"It's all right, Lisa. I'll handle this."

Annabel had insisted on coming with Max today. The last time he visited his mother on his own, he came home a wreck, his frail nerves stretched to the breaking point. She wasn't about to let it happen again.

"Come along now, Eve. Dr. Marshall isn't here to hurt you."

"Who are you?"

"It's Annabel, Eve. Max's wife. Max and I are here to have a chat with the doctor. We brought you some of that smoked cheese you like."

"She's a good breeder, Max's wife." Eve got unsteadily to her feet. "He should hurry up and marry her. Kruger-Brent must have an heir."

Kruger-Brent. How Annabel had come to loathe those two words. The pressure of running Kruger-Brent had brought poor Max to the brink of a nervous breakdown. His mother seemed to expect him to wave a magic wand and recoup all their losses overnight. She had no idea of the reality of the market. Then again, how could she?

The old battle-ax barely knows her own name.

"Hello, Mother. You look well."

Eve shuffled into the drawing room. Age had not crept up on Eve Blackwell. It had ambushed her suddenly. In a matter of months, her ramrod-straight spine had become bowed and stooped. Faint veins on the backs of her hands stood out like tree roots. Liver spots burst like a plague over her once flawless skin. But none of these changes mattered to Max. In his eyes, his mother was eternally beautiful.

He moved forward to kiss her. Eve brushed him aside.

"I know what you did," she hissed. "I'm going to tell everybody. Then you'll be sorry."

Annabel watched Max shrink. Why does he let her crush him? What power does she hold over him?

"That's enough, Eve," she said. "You're confused."

While the doctor took Eve's blood pressure, Max took Lisa Jenner aside.

"Has she been like this the whole time? Or is it worse, you know, when I'm here?"

"You mustn't blame yourself, sir," the maid said kindly. "She has her lucid moments. But this is pretty much par for the course. She's been writing a lot. That seems to calm her."

"Writing? Writing what?"

"I don't know. Just rambling, I think. She won't let me see it. She keeps all her papers locked in the desk drawer."

Later, Max repeated to Annabel what Lisa had told him. "Do you think I should open the drawer? Take a look?"

"No," Annabel said firmly. "She may be old and mad as a hatter, but she's entitled to her privacy."

In fact, Annabel Webster couldn't have cared less about her mother-in-law's privacy. Her only concern was for Max. God knows what venomous drivel is in those papers. As soon as she drops dead, I'll open the drawer myself and burn them.

Lexi was late home. Again.

Gabe couldn't hide his disappointment. "I made dinner. Two hours ago. Where the hell have you been?"

"At work." As always when she was in the wrong, Lexi's tone was aggressive. "Just because you've lost your ambition, it doesn't mean I have to."

Gabe's face crumpled with hurt. The irony was that he'd taken a backseat at Phoenix in order to spend more time with Lexi. He hoped eventually to persuade her to marry him and start a family. But whenever he brought up either subject, she either ducked the question or put her "bitch" hat on.

"You're lying. I called the office. You left hours ago."

"Oh, what, so you're spying on me now?"

"Not spying. You were late. I was worried."

"I'm a big girl, Gabe. If you must know, I was at a business meeting."

"With whom?"

"None of your damn business!"

Lexi stormed into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Pulling off her clothes, she tried to get her head together.

Why am I doing this? Why am I pushing him away?

Lexi loved Gabe as much as she ever had. More. But her stress levels were through the roof. She was preparing for the greatest battle of her life - the battle for control of Kruger-Brent - and she couldn't tell Gabe, or anyone, what she was doing. The stakes could not be higher. If she failed, she would lose everything. Her fortune, her company, perhaps even her freedom.

Actually, there's another rule. I didn't tell you about it because it never happens...

You are supposed to win. You have to win by losing.

What if she won back Kruger-Brent, but lost Gabe?

She pushed the thought from her mind. She would win the game. She had to. Once she had Kruger-Brent, and her revenge on Max was complete, then she would make it up to Gabe. He wasn't going anywhere.

Kruger-Brent failed to make payments on a loan in Singapore. The bank foreclosed on one of its properties. The amount involved was so small, Max never even knew about it. A Singaporian middle manager was fired. Kruger-Brent refinanced. End of story.

A few weeks later, a similar oversight in Germany led to another loan being called in. Again the amount was small.

Lexi made a note of the dates.

Karen Lomax, a financial journalist at the Wall Street Journal, received a phone call. After she hung up, she turned to her colleague Daniel Breen.

"Hey, Dan. You heard anything about credit problems at Kruger-Brent?"

Daniel Breen shook his head. "Have you?"

"Some lady just called. Said I should look into bad loans in Asia. Think there's a story in it?"

Daniel Breen shrugged. "Only one way to find out, I guess."

The cards were being dealt.

Gabe opened the file in front of him, skimming through the pictures.

"So she's not having an affair?"

The private investigator shook his head. "From the evidence I've seen, sir, no, she's not." Gabe's shoulders sagged visibly with relief. "However..."

Gabe looked up.

"There are some...anomalies."

"What sort of anomalies?"

"Financial. If you turn to page twelve of the written document, it's all in there."

Gabe turned. Slowly, methodically, he started to read.

The first few weeks of Gabe's love affair with Lexi had been like a dream.

Gabe had not believed it possible that he could love again after what had happened to Tara and his children. Certainly not while his grief was so raw. But in those first miraculous weeks at Robbie's African hideaway, Lexi had breathed life into his deadened heart. When Gabe woke in the small hours, sweating and screaming Tara's name, Lexi would wrap her arms around him and hold him till the nightmare passed. Gabe spoke about his children often, returning again and again to the terrible events of his birthday like a dog crawling back to its vomit. Lexi listened. He poured his guilt into her hands, and she took it from him, as gently and graciously as if he'd been giving her a bunch of flowers.

But eventually, inevitably, real life intruded upon their lovers' idyll. Gabe handed over the day-to-day running of Phoenix to others, content to focus on Lexi and his charity work. If Tara's murder had taught him one thing, it was that love and life were too precious to be wasted pushing paper around an office.

Lexi didn't see things that way. She could no more stop working than stop breathing. Templeton was based in New York. Gabe moved to the city to be with her. He enjoyed New York, the energy and the excitement, but he never stopped feeling like a guest in Lexi's apartment. As a first step toward building a new, joint life together, Gabe bought an exquisite period house in Bridgehampton. Somewhere for them to get away, to make time for each other.

"What do you think?" He led Lexi around the wood-paneled rooms, each simply but beautifully furnished with chesterfield couches and Irish linens from the White Company. "I tried to make it peaceful. An escape from the city."

"It's...it's cute." Lexi tried to sound enthusiastic. But inside she thought: I don't want to escape from the city.

Gabe's face fell. "You don't like it."

"I do! It's not that. It's just...when are we going to use it?"

"On weekends."

"I work weekends, baby."

Lexi didn't just work weekends. She worked early mornings and late nights. She worked Thanksgiving and Labor Day. Gabe hadn't realized that her fateful trip to visit her brother in South Africa was the first vacation she'd taken in over five years.

It wasn't only the long hours. It was the secrecy. Lexi often talked in her sleep, rambling about Kruger-Brent and Max and revenge. She seemed to be anxious that time was running out. But when Gabe asked her, "Time for what?" Lexi pretended not to know what he was talking about. Not long ago, Gabe had been shocked when David Tennant, Lexi's right-hand man at Templeton, mentioned in passing that the company was in trouble.

"Lexi's been liquidating assets faster than any of us can keep up. The money disappears into these obscure holding companies, then poof, it's gone."

When Gabe challenged Lexi about this, she was dismissive.

"David's a worrywart. I've moved some cash around, that's all."

"He says you're stripping Templeton bare."

"He's exaggerating."

Conversation closed.

Recently it had reached the point where Gabe felt he had to make an appointment to speak to Lexi at all. When he did, all the subjects he wanted to discuss - marriage, children, their future - were off the agenda.

"I can't have children, Gabe. I've told you."

"Can't or won't?"

This made Lexi angry.

"Fine. Won't. What's the difference?"

"There's a lot of difference! Why won't you? What are you so afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of anything. Stop harassing me! You want me to spend more time with you, but when I do, you give me the third degree."

Hiring the private investigator was a low point. But Gabe couldn't take any more. He had to know what it was that Lexi was keeping from him. He loved her, but he was tired of sitting home, alone while Lexi flew God knows where on a never-ending business trip. He wasn't her lover. He was her layover. That's when it hit him.

Maybe she's found someone else?

"I'm afraid I don't fully understand this." Gabe handed the file back to the PI, a fat man with the ruddy cheeks of a heavy drinker and a paunch so swollen it spilled over the edge of the couch, hanging almost to his knees.

"Ms. Templeton is a trustee of your charity?"

"She is, yes."

"She's authorized to make financial transactions on its behalf?"

"Yes. But that's just a formality. Lexi's celebrity is a useful tool for us. It helps to raise money. She's not involved in the day-to-day business of the foundation."

"Which makes it all the more curious that she's made a number of sizable withdrawals from the charity's accounts."

The PI pulled a red pen out of his jacket pocket. He handed the relevant sheet of paper back to Gabe with the amounts and dates circled. Gabe stared at it for a long time.

"You're sure it was Lexi who authorized these withdrawals."

"Yes, sir."

She's stealing from me? From the charity? It makes no sense.

"Do you know why?"

"No, sir. Not yet. I'm afraid your fiancee is a regular David Blaine when it comes to money. As soon as she get her hands on it, it vanishes. The paper trail around her is so complex, it's damn near impenetrable."

Gabe pulled out his checkbook. Scribbling down a number, he ripped off the check and handed it to the investigator. The fat man's eyes bulged.

"Penetrate it."

"Yes, sir. We will, sir. Thank you, sir."

Waddling down the driveway of Gabe's Bridgehampton beach house, clutching his check like a talisman, the PI marveled at the stupid things men did for love.

The PI had seen hundreds of pictures of Lexi Templeton. Blow-job lips on an angel's face. Tits and ass to die for, but classy with it. A woman like that could screw any man she wanted. But she'd picked this old, white-haired shell of a guy who just happened to have bucket loads of money and a trusting nature?

Maybe McGregor thought he was safe because the lady was rich herself. If so, he was an even bigger fool.

Didn't he know that rich women were the greediest of all?

It was Friday morning. Max sat in his corner office at Kruger-Brent staring at the photographs on his desk. His little boys, George and Edward, were five years old now. Max's office had countless silver-framed pictures of them, hand in hand, grinning at the camera. There were photographs of Annabel, too, and of Eve as a young woman at the height of her beauty. But it was Max's sons who mesmerized him, their innocence flooding the room like sunlight.

That's what childhood ought to look like. Happy. Pure.

August Sandford stormed in.

"Have you seen our share price? What the hell's happening?"

August Sandford had not aged well. His once thick chestnut hair had thinned, exposing too much middle-aged scalp. The muscled physique of his twenties had long since turned to fat. Kruger-Brent had made him a rich man, on paper. But this morning, August had seen the value of that paper drop by almost 15 percent. With a wife, three kids and a demanding mistress to support, August's stress levels were permanently set on high. This morning, the sweat patches under his arms had grown so big they were about to start dripping.

Max pulled up Bloomberg on his PC screen. Jesus.

August was shouting, "Some bastard's shorting us."

It was true. Somebody out there was borrowing massive amounts of Kruger-Brent stock and selling it at a discount. Effectively they were taking a bet on the share price going down. The problem was that by shorting on this scale, the seller was turning his prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"That piece in the Wall Street Journal, that's what started this. That bitch journalist, making out like we're some kind of major credit risk! Two lousy loans and the whole market's turning on us. How the fuck did she know about Singapore? That's what I'd like to know."

"I don't know."

"Well, you should know. You're running this company, Max. We're leaking bad news like a ripped condom and you're sitting in your ivory tower with your finger up your ass!"

Max's head began to throb. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, August was gone. Thank God. Standing in his place was an elderly man. He was leaning heavily on a wooden cane, clutching the handle with delicate, liver-spotted hands.

"Can I help you?"

The old man shook his head. "No. I'm afraid no one can help me anymore. It's too late."

Something about his voice sounded familiar. His sadness tugged at Max's heartstrings. "Too late for what, sir?" he asked kindly. "Perhaps I can help."

"Too late for everything. I'm dead, you see. My boy killed me."

Foul green slime began to ooze from the old man's nostrils.

"Why did you do it, Max? I loved you so much."

Keith?

A terrible, unearthly stench filled Max's office. He started to choke, clutching his desk for support.

"Get out! You're dead! Get out and leave me alone!"

"Max?"

"I said GET OUT!"

August Sandford was shaking Max by the shoulders.

"Max! Can you hear me? Are you all right? Max?"

"Oh God. I killed him!"

"Killed who?"

That was all they needed in a crisis. A chairman who was losing his marbles.

Slowly, Max emerged from the nightmare. The terror began to fade. It's okay. I'm in my office. August's here. It was a dream, that's all. Just a dream.

"I'm sorry." He smiled weakly at August Sandford. "The stress gets to me sometimes. I'm fine."

Like hell you are.

Max forced himself to look at the screen in front of him. This was the real nightmare. And he hadn't the first clue what to do about it. Sensing his indecision, August took charge.

"You need to call a board meeting. Right now. We need to find out who's short-selling our stock and why. If it's the credit rumors, we can address that. But we have to act fast."

August Sandford hurried out of the room. Max stared at the open door, half expecting his father's ghost to reappear. Annabel's right. I need help.

He pressed a buzzer on his desk.

"Tell the board I'm convening an emergency meeting."

His computer screen was flashing.

Fifteen percent down.

Sixteen...

"I want everyone around that table in fifteen minutes."

Lexi was clearing her desk at Templeton when David Tennant knocked on her open office door.

"Come in." She smiled at him warmly. David Tennant did not return the smile, or the warmth.

"I came to give you this." He handed her a sealed white envelope.

Lexi joked. "I take it from your expression that it's not an early Christmas card?"

"No. It's my resignation."

Lexi looked taken aback. "Are you serious?"

"Dead serious. I thought we were partners, Lexi. But partners don't lie to each other."

"David! I haven't lied."

David Tennant shook his head in disbelief. "Haven't lied? You've done nothing but lie for months. Lexi, you've plundered the company balance sheet without mercy, despite solemnly promising me you would stop. Our cash reserves are so low we can barely afford a hot dog. You refuse to tell me, to tell any of us, what you've been buying."

"I haven't been buying anything," said Lexi truthfully. "It's true that at one time I was acquiring businesses."

"From Kruger-Brent."

"Yes," Lexi admitted. "But I stopped that years ago."

"Really. So where is the money, Lexi?"

Lexi picked up a brass paperweight on her desk and studied it intensely. When she spoke, she did not meet David Tennant's eye.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you."

David Tennant turned to go.

"Wait! Please, David. Trust me. All the money I've borrowed from Templeton will be repaid. With interest. This deal that I'm working on could make us a fortune."

"And if it doesn't?"

"It will. But if worse comes to worst, I can refinance Templeton."

"How?"

Lexi looked at him brazenly. "By borrowing against my Kruger-Brent stock."

"Lexi, have you looked at the markets this morning? Kruger-Brent's stock is in free fall."

"What do you mean 'free fall.' They're down?" She switched on her computer, trying to hide her excitement. It's started.

"Not down. Crashing. Something's going on over there. People are dumping KB shares as if they were live hand grenades. Unless Max Webster can turn the tide, they could be bankrupt by Monday morning."

The stock price popped up on Lexi's screen. Her hands started to tremble.

In other circumstances, David Tennant might have felt sorry for her. If Kruger-Brent did go under, Lexi stood to lose a fortune. But having watched her strip the value out of his 10 percent stake in Templeton without a shred of remorse - seven years of work up in smoke! - he wasn't feeling at his most charitable.

He walked out of the office without looking back.

After he'd gone, Lexi sat at her desk for a long time.

They could be bankrupt by Monday morning.

If this doesn't work, I've destroyed the thing I love most in the world.

An hour later, Lexi left the office and drove out to the Hamptons. This weekend with Gabe had been on the schedule for months. She couldn't cancel. She had to behave normally. Act like nothing has happened.

Gabe saw Lexi's Aston Martin DB7 pull into the graveled driveway. He watched from their bedroom window as she stepped out of the car.

"Our" bedroom. That's a joke. Lexi can't have spent more than six nights here all year.

As always, her beauty took his breath away. She wore a plain gray wool business suit and cream silk blouse, her blond hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. But she still shone brighter than the polestar. She always will to me. He couldn't bear the thought of losing her. Maybe, somehow, she'd have an explanation for taking the money? For all the secrecy, all the lies? Clinging to faint hope, he went downstairs.

Lexi dropped her weekend bag in the entryway and hugged him fiercely. Gabe saw instantly that she'd been crying. Tears of remorse? Guilt?

"What's the matter?"

Lexi followed him into the sitting room. She sank down onto the white couch that only a few short hours ago had borne the weight of the fat PI.

"Is there something on your mind? Something you want to tell me?"

Not until that moment did Lexi realize how much pressure she'd been under. The greatest gamble of her life was under way. She longed to unburden herself to Gabe. But she knew she couldn't.

"I'm not sure where to begin."

Gabe felt the love well up inside him like freshly struck oil. She looked so forlorn and vulnerable.

She really is sorry. She's going to confess everything. I'll forgive her. Everything will be all right.

"Templeton's going under."

Gabe hid his surprise. It wasn't what he'd expected to hear. Was that why she'd stolen from his charity? To prop up her business? Hardly the most noble of reasons, but perhaps in desperation...

"David Tennant resigned today. I'm going to have to let the others go, too."

"I'm sorry, darling. I know how much that business means to you."

Lexi looked up at him with genuine surprise.

"Templeton? It doesn't mean that much to me."

Now Gabe was confused. "But...you've been crying."

"Not about Templeton." Lexi sniffed.

This is it. This is where she's going to come clean about the money. Ask to make a fresh start.

"Kruger-Brent's share price got decimated today. Wiped out. They could...it might mean the end of the company."

Gabe recoiled as if he'd been stung.

Kruger-Brent? She's crying over Kruger bloody Brent?

It was the last straw. Gabe hadn't hit another human being since almost killing that poor man in London thirty years ago. But he could feel his fists twitching. Did Lexi have no shame at all? She'd stolen money, not just from him, the man she was supposed to love, but from the thousands of AIDS victims who desperately needed it. But that didn't bother her. Oh no. All she cared about, all she'd ever cared about, was that godforsaken company. Gabe remembered his father, how he'd died broken and embittered, destroyed by his obsession with Kruger-Brent. I traveled halfway across the world to avoid the same fate. And here I am, in love with a woman every bit as poisoned and corrupted by Kruger-Brent as my dad was.

Oblivious to his anger, Lexi went on.

"There have been some credit problems. I didn't realize it was that serious, but obviously it must be. The market can sense Max's weakness like a shark smelling blood."

"I don't care." Gabe's voice was barely a whisper.

"What?"

"I said I'm NOT INTERESTED!"

Suddenly he was shouting. Screaming. Lexi had never seen him so angry.

"Kruger-Brent can go to hell, for all I care, and the same goes for Max Webster. You stole from my foundation."

Lexi said nothing. Gabe could see the wheels turning in her brain as she calculated her options. Deny? Explain? Apologize?

Everything's a game to her. It's all about winning and to hell with the truth.

Eventually she said: "I didn't steal. I borrowed."

"Why?"

Another pause. "I can't tell you." She hung her head. "But it was for something very important."

"More important than getting retrovirals to terminally sick children?"

"Yes," Lexi answered without thinking, from the heart.

Gabe looked at her with a mixture of horror and disgust. Was she really so far gone that she thought a business deal was more important than saving lives? Apparently so.

His disappointment was more than Lexi could bear. Tears welled up in her eyes.

"You'll get the money back, Gabe. You'll get twice what I took. I promise."

"It's not about the money." Gabe put his head in his hands.

Lexi thought: He looks so tired. So defeated. Have I done that to him?

"It's over, Lexi. I love you. But I can't go on."

Lexi felt the walls caving in. She wanted to cry, to scream: No! I love you. Please don't leave me. Don't go!

And yet she knew she couldn't keep him. Gabe was good and honest and true. He deserved a normal, happy life. She had done what she had to do. Gabe would never understand it, even if she told him. Which, of course, she never would.

It took every ounce of her self-control for Lexi to stand up, pick up her bag and walk to the door.

"I love you, too, Gabe. I'm sorry. You'll get your money."

Gabe stood in the doorway, watching her car drive away.

Good-bye, Lexi.

On Monday morning, when the markets opened, Kruger-Brent stock was down by almost 90 percent.

On Wall Street, rumors were rife. Someone had inside information about Kruger-Brent, and it was bad:

The default on the Singapore bank loan was the tip of a bad-debt iceberg.

A massive accounting fraud was about to be uncovered.

One of the "wonder drugs" of the firm's pharmaceutical division was going to be exposed as a lethal killer.

Not since the banking crisis of 2009 had the markets seen such a huge company brought to its knees overnight. A couple of traders emerged from the woodwork, admitting that they'd taken huge bets on the company's demise. Carl Kolepp, owner of the legendarily aggressive hedge fund CKI, was one. The Wall Street Journal estimated that over the weekend, Kolepp had personally made $620 million out of Kruger-Brent's misery.

Lexi Templeton, like the rest of her famous family, had lost everything.

Max Webster made a statement on CNBC, appealing for shareholders to stay calm, echoing Roosevelt's famous line that there was "nothing to fear but fear itself." Like millions of others, Lexi watched Max's broadcast live. She was shocked by how ill he looked, how frail and gaunt. The world was on fire, and Max was burning.

Think of it as preparation for the flames of hell. Bastard.

Max's statement calmed no one. By Tuesday, it was all over. Hundreds of thousands of Kruger-Brent employees all around the world woke up to find themselves out of a job. Tens of thousands of shareholders saw their money go up in smoke. Across America, the headlines screamed:


KRUGER-BRENT BANKRUPT!

U.S. GIANT COLLAPSES!


In the midst of all the commotion, few people noticed the short press release from Templeton Estates, announcing that the firm had ceased trading.

By Thursday, the press stopped hounding Lexi for interviews. She had given a statement, expressing her profound sorrow at Kruger-Brent's passing and making it clear that she had nothing more to say.

The entire extended Blackwell family was door-stepped by photographers, gleefully cataloging their spectacular fall from grace. Talk about the mighty fallen! The media gorged itself on schadenfreude like a blood-drunk mosquito. Footage of Peter Templeton looking old and frail outside Cedar Hill House was aired on all the major news channels, who were running back-to-back retrospectives of Kruger-Brent's illustrious history. Interviews with Kate Blackwell from the 1960s were dusted off and replayed, pulling in enormous ratings for the TV networks. America had grown up with the Blackwells and Kruger-Brent. It was, as Robbie Templeton told reporters outside the Royal Albert Hall in London, the end of an era.

Eve Blackwell, as ever, remained barricaded in her self-imposed prison on Park Avenue.

Max Webster's whereabouts were unknown.

Two weeks later, the furor began to die down. Lexi Templeton slipped quietly out of her apartment one night at about six o'clock. Taking a series of taxis, making sure she wasn't followed, she arrived at a nondescript Italian diner in Queens around seven.

He was at the table, waiting for her.

Lexi sat down. "Have all the transfers been made?"

"As agreed. Seventy percent for you, thirty for me. A bit harsh really, considering I did all the work," he joked.

Lexi laughed. "Yeah, and I took all the risk. I staked every penny I have on borrowing the additional stock we needed. I broke my own company - begged, borrowed and stole." She pushed the thought of Gabe from her mind. "If the market hadn't panicked, I'd have been wiped out."

"But they did, though, didn't they?" Carl Kolepp grinned. "How do you feel?"

Lexi grinned back. "Rich."

"Good. The spaghetti's on you."

They ate and celebrated. What they'd done was completely illegal. Short selling was one thing. But manipulating a company's stock price through an orchestrated campaign of misinformation? That was something else. Lexi had used her inside knowledge to defraud shareholders. If she and Carl were caught, they were both looking at a long stretch of prison time.

But we won't be caught.

This time Lexi had covered her tracks completely. All threads linking her to Carl Kolepp had been meticulously destroyed. Unless one or the other of them confessed, they were home free.

Carl asked Lexi: "So what'll you do now? Buy yourself an island somewhere peaceful? Fill your swimming pool with Cristal?"

The suggestion seemed to amuse her.

"Of course not. This is where the real work begins."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm going to rebuild the company, of course. Buy back all the decent businesses. Get rid of all the dross Max acquired in the last ten years. I've halved my own score. Now I'm going to double my opponents'."

"Excuse me?"

Lexi laughed. "Forget about it. Private joke."

"Let me get this straight." Carl Kolepp looked puzzled. "You bankrupted your own company just so you could rebuild it?"

"Uh-huh. I lost so I could win."

"Has anyone ever told you you're a little bit nuts?"

Lexi smiled. "A few people. Apparently it runs in my family."

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