Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 9 – James

During the afternoon drive to James’ law offices Trey thought of the relationship the two of them had enjoyed over the past six years, beginning after he’d gotten Murphy. He’d felt bad for taking the man’s dog, so he sent pictures and email updates on Murphy, hoping to ease James’ loss. After a few weeks Trey found it easy to confide in James; James listened to him and offered good advice. When things grew frantic at home and Trey needed a man’s guidance, he turned to James.

After Trey got his license to drive, he and James would meet in a park to walk Murphy, to talk about things Trey had never discussed with his father. He and James, along with James’ young son JC, had attended professional football and basketball games, something Trey hadn’t done with his father. Brandon and Robin had no knowledge of the relationship and Trey hoped to keep it from them. But his visit to see James may change things.

As he stepped from the tenth-floor elevator and made his way to the reception area, the expansive offices of Westbrook, Jones, and Steinbeck intimidated him. Get back on the elevator. Go home. At the entrance to James’ office suite, he stopped dead in his tracks. Murphy’s picture hung on the wall behind the woman who greeted visitors. Trey tried and failed to hold back his tears.   

“Young man, can I help you? Are you all right?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m all right. It’s Murphy. He died last week.”

“Oh, honey, you must be Trey. We’ve been expecting you. I’m so sorry you lost Murphy.”

The impeccably dressed middle-aged woman came around the desk and gave Trey a grandma kind of hug. She smelled good, too, like grandma love.

“Come with me. He’s waiting for you.”

James was on the phone, motioning for Trey to sit at the round table and help himself to a beverage. By the time Trey sat down and had two sips of water, James ended his call. It had been a few months since they’d seen each other.

“Trey, you’re as tall as I am.”

James pulled him into a bear hug where Trey stayed until he cried it out.

“It’s okay, son. I loved Murphy to pieces, too. Glad you called to tell me he died.”

“We buried him in the back yard.”

James handed him a box of tissues. Trey cleaned his face, then sat at the table.

“Murphy’s not the only reason for my tears. I have a lot to say, to ask, but don’t want to take too much of your time. How much time will three hundred dollars get me?”

James shook his head. “You’re family, Trey.  Your money is no good here. Are you in trouble?”

“No. Not yet anyway.”

 “Tell me what’s going on.”

“You can help me help Mom, in a way.”

“Go on.”

“I think my dad has a son my age, in my class at school, which may be the reason my mama left him. My dad goes with the boy’s mother, but I’m not concerned with those two right now. I want to find out if I have another brother. I asked Dad point blank if he had other kids and he said no. The same kid — his name is Darrius — looks like his mother but walks like me. And Dad. He acts like Dad. Sounds like Dad. Last week he got in my face and made a nasty comment about Robin—talking about she wasn’t much of a woman if she couldn’t keep my dad away from his mom.”

Trey stopped to catch his breath.

“I hope you handled him.”

 Trey’s chest bowed up. “I body slammed him and knocked the wind out of him. Suspension worthy if I’d gotten caught doing it, or if he’d turned me in.”

“I hear you.”

Tears flowed down his cheeks. “I don’t want Robin—Mom—blindsided. I don’t want her to do something out of anger. I don’t want my brother and sisters to lose their mom. We need her. I guess I’m trying to protect her, and I hope you’ll help me.”

“You want the truth on Darrius.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How is she, your mom?”

“She’s sad and she’s lonely. My dad pays no attention to her. Sometimes he acts like he doesn’t love her or us. She’d leave him if she didn’t have four kids to raise.”

“Understood.”

“You love her, don’t you?”

 “I do. Very much.”

“I saw it in your eyes and heard it in your voice, the day you gave us Murphy. You wanted her to have something good between the two of you. I saw it in her, too.”      

James crossed his leg. “What do you mean?”

“The way she hugged you in the park, the day you gave us Murphy. And at home, when she played with Murphy, it was like she was enjoying your company. She saw you, the good part of you. She loved that dog. And you.”

Shamefaced, James’ eyes stayed on the oriental rug beneath the table.

“Sorry.  You have a wife and two kids.”

“No wife. Two kids but no wife. She left me. Said I compared her to Robin all the time.”

Trey laughed. “Did you?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“When did you put Murphy on the wall? When I saw him, it was as if he could see me, like he knew it was me.”

“I had the portrait made after I gave him to you. He’s kind of our mascot. I missed him.”

“You missed her more.”

“You sure you’re only eighteen?”

“I had to grow up fast in my family.” Trey’s chest heaved as he tried to contain his tears.

After giving James details from the day Murphy died, he stood to leave. “I’ll let you get back to work. Will you help me, with Darrius St. John?”

“I will. What happens if I call and tell you Darrius is your brother?”

“I tell Mom.”

“I want you consider the possible outcome. He was born long before your dad met Robin. How will it help, telling Robin?”

“If it’s not a big deal, why is my dad hiding him from us?”

“Good point. If it’s yes, let me tell the two of you at the same time. It will take some of the pressure off you.”

“And you want to see Mom.”

They shared a quiet laugh and agreed to let James handle any bad news.

“You have a big day coming up. Graduation.”

Trey rested his elbow on the table and managed a smile. “I’m ready. Ready to leave home.”

“Savannah, right? Art school?”

“Right.”

James uncrossed his leg and leaned forward. “I want you to call me at least once a month and let me know how things are going. Call sooner if you need anything—money, reassurance, or just conversation.”

“I will. Thank you, Mr. Westbrook.”

 

James met with Tank, his investigator, for the results of his inquiry. Darrius was not Brandon’s biological son.     

“James,” said Tank, “that’s the good news.”

Twenty-six-years-old Tank had a thick chest, broad shoulders, and arms and legs of a body builder, all supported by his 5’10” body frame. He’d gone to law school at twenty-four but left in the middle of second year, bored out of his mind. He was comfortable in the streets and knew how to work them to get what he needed from people who refused to talk to the police or reporters.

“Word on the street is that Brandon married your ex for one reason: to give Trey a good mother. He knew about your breakup with her. He followed her to the concert. Knew she’d just lost a child. Knew she was vulnerable. He told Darrius’ mother Carla he’d marry Robin then stay with her until the boy got comfortable with his new mom, maybe a couple of years. Then he’d leave her. Leaving the boy with a live-in lover wasn’t an option; he had to marry the woman.

James tossed a bright orange stress ball back and forth in his hands, then flung it across the room.

“Why is Brandon still with Robin?”

“Trey wasn’t the only one who got comfortable. Brandon fell in love with her and didn’t want to leave. Carla pitched a fit, threatened to tell Robin the whole scheme. Don’t know why Carla never told Robin but I’m guessing money was involved. Brandon giving her money to shut up. Or agreeing to keep seeing her, taking care of her financially.

“Why didn’t he marry Carla before meeting Robin?”

“Brandon knew Carla would be a terrible mom for Trey. Brandon’s been with her for years, even during his marriage to Brittany, who left him when she found out. He wanted to do right by Darrius and Trey. Tried to protect Darrius from Carla, who was an abusive parent. And he didn’t want Trey to have a mean mother.”

James smirked. “He loves a mean woman.”

“He’s with a mean woman. No one believes he loves her.”

“Are you sure Darrius isn’t Brandon’s son?”

“DNA says Trey and Darrius don’t have the same father.”

“DNA? Where did you get the boy’s DNA?”

“Hair sample. Don’t ask.”

James chuckled. Trey.

“Darrius, Senior, the boy’s father, was Brandon’s college roommate back in the day. After graduating college as civil engineers they opened the business together. Few years later Darrius was killed in a car wreck, at twenty-eight-years old. Left a wife and small child. Brandon was devastated, losing his best friend and business partner. He made Carla and Darrius family number two.”

James stared out the window.

“You need any of this in writing?”

“No. Thank you, Tank.”

“One more thing. I took the liberty of checking out Brandon’s financials. If he’s dirty, he’s a pro at hiding it.”

 

Irritated by what he’d learned, James returned a few calls and attended a meeting, all with Robin on his mind. She was unhappy. Brandon was a lousy husband. He didn’t know what to make of the news about Brandon and Carla; doing nothing wasn’t an option. He glanced at the large clock on the wall. Three fifteen. If he left now, he’d get to JC’s school on time.

His phone rang. He considered his options: take the call and risk being late, or let it go to voice mail and risk missing a client. He answered without looking at the caller ID.

“James Westbrook.”

No response. He glanced at the number. Robin. His heart raced, glad that she called, afraid she’d found out about him and Trey.

“Robin, how are you, honey?”

“Hi, Jamie.” She called him Jamie, not James. A good sign, he thought.

He slowed his breathing. “You all right? You don’t sound like yourself.”

“I called to tell you Murphy died.”

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. When did he die?”

“Last week. Trey is devastated. Me, too. I loved that dog. Thank you for giving him to us. I should have said that when we got him from you.”

“You had other things on your mind that day. I knew he’d be in good hands with you. I’m sure he had a good life.”

“Yes, he did.”

“Is your life good?”

“Not really, no. How are things with you?”

“I’m good, now that Ashley divorced me.”

That made her laugh. “When did that happen?”

“Couple of months ago. I miss you. Can I see you for lunch or tea?”

“I’d like that, but no, maybe some other time.”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

“Okay. Take care.”

James sprinted to the parking garage, grinning with each step. He made it to JC’s school with time to spare.