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For a woman who prided herself on being cool and competent, who relied on her wits to win a case, Helen Decatur walked away from the Serenity courthouse with a strong desire to pummel some sense and decency into a few of South Carolina's good old boys.
Not that she could have proved—weekly golf outings aside—that the judge, the opposing attorney and her client's soon-to-be ex-husband were in cahoots to deprive her client of what she deserved after the nearly thirty years she'd devoted to her husband, his career and their children. Nonetheless it was clear that the ongoing delays and postponements were designed to wear down Caroline Holliday until she settled for a pittance of what her husband owed her.
One of these days Caroline would fold, too. Helen had seen the defeat in her eyes today when the judge had allowed Brad Holliday's attorney yet another postponement. Jimmy Bob West claimed they hadn't seen papers Helen had filed with the court weeks ago. Helen's production of a signed courier receipt for the delivery of those papers on the same date they'd been filed with the court had done nothing to dissuade Judge Lester Rockingham from granting her opponent's request.
"Now, Helen, there's no reason to be in a rush," the judge had said, his tone condescending. "We're all after the same thing here."
"Not exactly," Helen had muttered under her breath, but she'd resigned herself to accepting the decision. Maybe she could use the extra time to do a little more digging into Brad's finances. She had a hunch that would wipe that smug smile off his face. Men who provided such extensive records as quickly as Brad had often buried financial secrets under the avalanche, hoping they'd remain buried.
If Brad's smug expression annoyed her, at least she could take some pleasure in Jimmy Bob's careful avoidance of her gaze. he'd known her long enough to be leery of her temper once she snapped. On his own, he would only push her so far. Spurred on by a client, he was sometimes tempted to take risks—as he was now.
Jimmy Bob, with his slicked-back hair, ruddy complexion and ribald sense of humor, had tangled with Helen on so many occasions that she pretty much knew what to expect from him. He was a born-and-bred South Carolinian who'd been talking his way out of jams since high school. While he'd never crossed an ethical line to Helen's knowledge, he danced right on the precipice so often it was a wonder he hadn't lost his balance and fallen into some legal quagmire by now.
"I'm sorry," Helen told Caroline as she gathered up her files. "They're not going to get away with this forever."
"Sure they will," her client replied wearily. "Brad's in no hurry. He's too busy popping Viagra and sleeping with any female who crosses his path to be worried about when the divorce actually goes through. In fact, this is giving him the perfect excuse to avoid making a commitment to another woman. He's in hog heaven right now, free to do whatever he wants without any consequences. He figures that any woman hooking up with him does so at her own, fully informed peril."
"What did you ever see in a man like that?, Helen asked. It was a question Helen found herself asking her clients a lot lately. How did smart, attractive women wind up with men who were so unworthy of them? To her mind, marriage was something to be avoided. Her friends told her she was simply jaded from handling too many nasty divorces, and while she couldn't deny that, she could list on the fingers of one hand the number of successful marriages she'd seen. Her friend and business partner, Maddie Maddox, had one— though only after recovering from a lousy first marriage— and her other friend and partner, Dana Sue Sullivan, had recently reunited with her ex, and even to Helen's cynical eye it looked as if this time things would last for her and Ronnie.
"Brad wasn't always that way," Caroline told her, a faintly nostalgic expression in her eyes. "When we met, he was thoughtful and considerate. He was a great dad, a terrific provider and until a few months ago I'd have said we had a solid marriage."
Helen had heard the rest before, or some version of it. Brad had had a brush with prostate cancer that had threatened his virility. After that, he'd lost his grip on reality. All he could think about was proving he was still a man, and he did that by sleeping with a succession of younger women, never mind that a real man would've stuck by the family who'd stayed by his side during his treatment and recovery.
By the time Helen left the courthouse, she felt even more cynical than usual. She would have given anything to head to The Corner Spa, the business she'd started with Maddie and Dana Sue, and spend an hour working out, but she knew she had a full schedule back at the office. Normally a jam-packed calendar would have reassured her, but lately she'd begun to wonder what she was working so hard to accomplish.
She had professional success, she had money in the bank—quite a lot of it, in fact—and she had a lovely home in Serenity she rarely had time to enjoy. She had good friends, but the family she'd once envisioned for herself had never materialized. Instead she played doting surrogate aunt to Maddie's children—Tyler, Kyle, Katie and Jessica Lynn—and to Dana Sue's daughter, Annie.
It was her own fault, she knew. She'd always been too driven, too dedicated to the clients depending on her to take the time for the kind of serious dating that might actually lead to a relationship and marriage. And as the divorces had piled up in her caseload, she'd grown less and less enchanted with the idea of risking her own heart, especially on something that came with no guarantees.
When she reached her office, a small cottage on a side street near downtown Serenity, her secretary handed her a thick stack of message slips and nodded toward her office.
Barb Dixon was almost sixty and unapologetically gray-haired, and she'd come to work for Helen the day she'd opened the office. A widow who'd raised three sons on her own and gotten all of them through college, Barb was endlessly patient and compassionate with the clients and fiercely loyal to Helen. She also felt it was her right and duty to take Helen to task from time to time, which made her one of the few people on earth who dared. "Your two o'clock's been waiting in your office for an hour," she chided. "Your three o'clock will be here any second."
Helen glanced over Barb's shoulder at the calendar the woman maintained with careful detail, instinctively knowing when to allow extra time for a client and when to keep the appointment to a fifteen-minute session that wouldn't try Helen's patience.
"Karen Ames?, Helen questioned. "She works for Dana Sue at Sullivan's. What's she doing here?"
"She didn't tell me, just said it was urgent she speak with you. You had a cancellation for this afternoon, so I called her yesterday and confirmed her for that slot. If you can keep it short, maybe you can catch up a little."
"Okay, then, let me get started. Apologize to Mrs. Hendricks when she gets here. Give her a cup of tea and some of those cookies from Sullivan's. She'll say she's on a diet, but I know better. I caught her diving into a strawberry sundae at Wharton's the other day."
Barb nodded. "Done."
Helen stepped into her office, with its antique furniture and pale peach walls. Karen was seated on the edge of a guest chair, nervously biting her nails. Her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail that emphasized her fragile cheekbones and large blue eyes. She didn't look much older than a teenager, though she was, in fact, in her late twenties with two very young children at home.
"I'm so sorry I kept you waiting, Karen," Helen said.
"My court case didn't start on time and then it took longer than I anticipated to agree on a new hearing date."
"It's okay," Karen said. "I appreciate you seeing me at all."
"What can I do for you?, "I think Dana Sue's going to fire me," Karen blurted, her expression tearful. "I don't know what to do, Ms. Decatur. I have two kids. My ex-husband hasn't paid child support in a year. If I lose this job, we could wind up on the streets. The landlord's already threatening to evict us."
Helen's heart went out to the pale, obviously frazzled young woman seated across from her. There was little question that Karen was at the end of her rope.
"You know Dana Sue and I are friends, as well as partners in The Corner Spa," Helen said. "Why did you come to me? I can't represent you, but I'd be happy to recommend someone who could."
"No, please," Karen protested. "I guess I was just hoping you could give me some advice because the two of you are friends. I know I've bailed out on her way too often lately, but it's only because of the kids. It's been one thing after another with them—measles and then their babysitter quitting. I'm a mom first. I have to be. I'm all they have."
"Of course they're your first priority," Helen said, even though to her increasing regret she'd never experienced the need to juggle kids and a career.
"The thought of being homeless with two kids scares me to death."
"We're not going to let that happen," Helen said decisively. "Have you sat down with Dana Sue and explained about your ex and the threats of eviction?"
Karen shook her head. "I'm too embarrassed. I think it's unprofessional to bring my financial problems into the workplace, so I haven't talked to her or Erik about this. When I call to say I can't come in, I tell them the truth, but hearing about one problem after another involving the kids has to be getting old by now. I made a commitment to be there, and Dana Sue has every right to expect me to honor that commitment."
"Then you can understand her position," Helen said.
"Of course I can," Karen replied at once. "It's not as if she has a huge staff to take up the slack. In fact, it's almost too much for us when we're all there. I've been trying to find another sitter for the kids, but do you have any idea how hard it is to find someone willing to take care of two sick kids under five during the hours I need to work? It's almost impossible. And day-care programs don't run late enough and wouldn't have taken them when they were sick, anyway."
Her shoulders sagged with defeat. "Until all this happened, I was a good employee. You can ask Dana Sue or Erik how hard I worked. I love working at Sullivan's. Dana Sue gave me a fabulous opportunity when she hired me away from the diner, and I hate that I'm blowing it."
"You haven't blown it yet," Helen consoled her. "I know Dana Sue thinks the world of you. But you're right. She needs staff who're reliable."
"I know that," Karen said miserably. "And she deserves it, too. I guess I'm just feeling completely overwhelmed right now. Is there anything you can do to help? How should I handle this?"
Helen considered the situation. Though employment issues were not her area of expertise, she was fairly certain Dana Sue could legally fire an employee whose absenteeism was intolerable, especially if there'd been repeated warnings about the absences. At the same time, she also knew that her friend would never kick someone when they were down. Sullivan's was a huge success in part because Dana Sue had always thought of the relatively small staff there as a family. It was one of the reasons she'd been reluctant to expand.
"Why don't we sit down with Dana Sue and see if we can't brainstorm some solutions?, Helen suggested.
"Dana Sue is a compassionate person. I'm sure she's no happier about the prospect of firing you than you are. In addition, I know she's invested a lot of time in training you to become her sous-chef eventually. Compared to the man who had the job when she first opened, you've fit in perfectly. I also know you've taken a lot of initiative in creating new recipes for Sullivan's.And you were there when she had a family crisis of her own. Maybe I can mediate some kind of compromise to buy you time to pull things in your life together."
"That would be incredible," Karen said.
"Unfortunately, it only solves part of the problem, not the part about finding a reliable sitter," Helen reminded her.
"But between Dana Sue and me, we know a lot of people. I'm sure there's someone out there who has time on her hands and would be thrilled to be needed."
Hope sparked in Karen's eyes, but faded quickly. Clearly she was someone who'd come to accept defeat as the norm.
"I'm so sorry if I'm putting you in an awkward position," she said.
"Nonsense," Helen returned. "If it were a matter of you wanting to sue Sullivan's for wrongful dismissal, I wouldn't be able to help you because of my close ties with Dana Sue. This is just three reasonable women sitting down for a little heart-to-heart. I think being straightforward and honest with Dana Sue is the only option here."