Read an Excerpt
Family is rarely convenient. Case in point: Uncle Obadiah Horace Pickwick. Despite his summons to discuss his will, likely brought on by hospitalization for chest pains, I won’t be flying to Pickwick, North Carolina. As I explained to his ancient attorney before he put me on hold, as much as I like my uncle, I can’t get out from under my work load on such short notice.
Of course, neither am I ready to return to the town I escaped twelve years ago.
Staring at the phone on my desk, I will Artemis Bleeker to return to the line, but the music continues to drone from the speakerphone. Whine, whine. “Oh ma darlin’…” Groan, groan. “You left me standin’ here…” Wah, wah. “Left me starin’ after you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I flop back in my chair. “Cry me a river.”
“Well, ma dear”—the nasal voice drops several octaves—“I’m back.”
I roll my eyes. “Nice lyrics.”
“What’d ya say, Piper?”
It’s him! I grab the receiver. “Mr. Bleeker—”
“You’re no longer a little girl, Piper Pickwick. Do address me by ma first name.”
As he had asked me to do when I took his call, after which I politely informed him I had dropped the “Pick” part of my name. Though he spluttered over my “butcherin’ ” of the family name, I didn’t defend myself. But had I, my defense would have been based more on the Pickwicks’ scandalous reputation than on the nursery rhyme alliteration that plagued me through my school years.
Piper Wick clears her throat. “Thank you, Artemis. I’ll try to remember that. So you said the doctors are runningmore tests to determine the cause of Uncle Obe’s chest pains.”
“They are, but your uncle is certain it’s heart failure. And a man knows his own body. Um-hmm.”
“But so far the tests have come back negative.”
“These things can be elusive.”
Especially when it’s simply indigestion. Certain that has to be it, I’m relieved. I spent little time in my uncle’s presence, but he was never unkind to me, unlike the other Pickwicks.
You are over that. It’s Uncle Obe we’re talking about—a black sheep like you.
True, not only did he increasingly shun society the older he got, even forgoing marriage, but unlike his three brothers, he was always upstanding. Not a smidgen of inappropriate behavior—at least in the “criminal” sense. Now in the “odd” sense…
“Uh, what was Uncle Obe doing when he started having chest pains?”
“Just sittin’ in his hospital bed watchin’ a rerun—”
“He was in the hospital when he started to have chest pains?”
“What?” Artemis barks. “Ya think a man his age survives such a terrible accident without payin’ a price?”
Where is Scripture when I need it? Not committed to memory like I encourage my Christian clients. Fortunately, something of an alternative exists, Band-Aid strength though it may be: close eyes, breathe slowly through the nose, exhale slowly from the mouth…
“Piper! Did I lose ya?”
I clap a hand to my chest. Was Artemis booming when Uncle Obe’s chest pains started? “I’m just wondering why you didn’t say anything about an accident.”
“’Course I did.”
He’s old. Very old. And should have retired from practicing law years ago! “I’m sorry, but would you go over it again?”
He sighs. “Your uncle was in a head-on.”
“He was thrown clear but sustained cuts and bruises and messed up his knee. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well for Roy. He had to be put down.”
“Cryin’ shame. Of course, he wasn’t much use, what with them cataracts and that incontinence problem.”
Hold up. This is Pickwick, North Carolina. All is not as it seems. “Is Roy a…dog?”
“Ya all right, Piper? You’re not into drugs like all them folks out there in Hollywood, are ya?”
I will not bang my head. “It’s been a long day. So Uncle Obe hit a dog with his car.”
“Ya don’t listen too well, do ya? He hit the dog with his golf cart.”
“Musta been goin’ fifteen miles an hour. Traumatized your uncle, it did. The good news is, if he has to undergo heart surgery, the prognosis is good.”
I throw my hands up. “How can it be good if the doctors don’t know what’s causing the chest pain?”
“Why, he’s in good health.”
Sighing, I pull my desk calendar forward, and in the middle of June 3, I jot a note to send flowers. “I’m glad the prognosis is good.”
“For the surgery. But as for his will…ain’t nobody can talk him out of it. Nobody but you, maybe.”
Here we go again. “Talk him out of what?”
“The changes to his will. Your family is up in arms.”
Family. Hardly. “I assume it affects them monetarily.”
“Then he’s cutting them out of his will?”
“’Course not! He means to provide for his Pickwick kin, but he’s got it in his head to make provision for others.”
Up in arms is putting it mildly. “Uncle Obe’s money is his to do with as he sees fit, so even if I could influence him, it’s not my business.”
“If the changes to his will become public knowledge—and they will once he passes away—it’s gonna be as much your business as your kin’s.”
Public knowledge gives me pause. But then, in light of the business I’m in and that the words were spoken in the context of the Pickwicks, they should. “Go on.”
“Even if the integrity of your inheritance don’t mean nothin’ to ya, I’m sure your reputation does.”
My reputation? Considering how far I’ve distanced myself from my family, that doesn’t seem possible, and yet… What have they done now? More, how might this affect Grant?
Recently, a columnist noted that I’m the first woman he’s seen regularly in a while. “Business,” Grant had assured everyone. And it’s true. Grant hired my PR firm to aid in his reelection, resulting in trips between our office in L.A. and his headquarters in Denver. But now there’s a personal component to my relationship with U.S. Congressman Grant Spangler.
I look at the photo on my desk that shows us at a fund-raiser months back. We stood before a dozen of his supporters—well, nearly so. The woman in the crooked blond wig (chemo, she said) asked some tough questions, her New England accent setting her apart from the others. Though she warmed to Grant, her body language said she wasn’t convinced. But you can’t make all the people happy all the time.
“Did ya hear me, Piper?”
“I heard you.” I slide my gaze to Grant. At five foot ten, he stood lean and erect beside me. At five foot three, I stood passably fit beside him, curves contained by regular exercise and close monitoring of calories, jaunty red hair limp, smile tired. To Piper, Grant scrawled across the bottom of the photo. We make a good team.
“All right, Artemis, tell me about the will.”
“Well, see, the changes are confessional in nature.”
My uncle has something to confess? Whatever it is—watering his garden during the hottest part of the day or breaking up a family of earthworms to plant a rosebush—it can’t be scandal worthy. “What does Uncle Obe have to confess?”
So he ran over a road marker with his golf cart.
Probably skim-read a novel.
Bought Girl Scout cookies and believes he should have paid tax.
Took a fund-raising mint at the cash register thinking it was free.
I cannot have heard right. “Surely you’re not saying that the one irreproachable son of Gentry Pickwick fathered children out of wedlock?”
“I am. Your uncle has a daughter and a son not much older than you.”
Oh, dear. “So there’s something to these confessions? And Uncle Obe is responsible?”
“Yes and no. They’re serious wrongs, but he ain’t responsible for them all. For instance, the cheatin’ was done by your great-granddaddy when he won that big piece of land from the Calhouns back in the early 1900s.”
“That was just an ugly rumor.”
“Your Uncle Obadiah believes different. And if he provides for the Calhoun descendants in his will, it’s gonna be seen as true. Just as it’s gonna be believed your daddy conned Widow Stanley into investing her life savings in a shrimp farm that didn’t exist. As for the town square statue that went missing all those years ago…”
“That was a Pickwick?”
“Yep, and it’s somewhere at the bottom of Pickwick Lake.” This could be bad. “Is Uncle Obe doing this because of his heart scare?”
“That brought it to a head, but I’d say it goes back two years to when his godson came to town.”
Godson? Since when?
“Ya see, this feller is one of them ‘near-death experience’ Christians—nearly died and decided it was time to join the club. The more time your uncle spent with this young man, the more I noticed a change in him. Obe started payin’ attention to sermons, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught him with his Bible open.”
The shame of it! “I didn’t know Uncle Obe had a godson.”
“’Course you didn’t—was a surprise to all the Pickwicks when he showed up.”
So my uncle is in the clutches of a con man.
“Now don’t be thinkin’ Obadiah is a bad sort—”
“Obadiah? Uncle Obe’s godson is named after him?” Must be ingratiation since no one in his or her right mind names a kid that. Take the Pickwicks, for example. Not in their right minds.
“That’s his name, but like I said, Obadiah Smith has given me no cause to believe he’s manipulatin’ your uncle.”
I write Obadiah Smith in my planner. “Besides changing his will to make amends to those wronged by the Pickwicks, is Uncle Obe altering it in any other way?”
“Then he’s not leaving anything to Obadiah Smith?”
“He most certainly is!”
I thrust a hand through my chin-length red hair. “Then obviously—”
“I see where you’re goin’, but this godson has been an heir since I drafted the first will twenty years ago, and his portion of the inheritance will be reduced by the same amount as the Pickwick heirs in order to provide for the new beneficiaries.”
Talk about naive! This guy shows up on the doorstep of a godfather he probably never met, then uses Christianity to lay a guilt trip on an old man to get him to right long-ago wrongs? He’s probably in cahoots with the new beneficiaries. Well, maybe not the IRS…
Ugh. Tax evasion could make for really bad press. Or, as we say here at the firm, “There will be headlines to pay.” “If Uncle Obe truly wants to make amends, why wait until he passes away?”
“Though there’s millions in the estate, much of it’s material—the mansion, its contents, the land, etcetera.”
“Uncle Obe has gone through his money?” Or someone did. Obadiah Smith?
“Your uncle has enough to keep up the estate in an acceptable manner, but not to make the kind of restitution he’d like. That will happen when his assets are liquidated followin’ his death.”
“But he could liquidate now and make amends quietly. Call the restitution a gift.”
“True, but the thought of standin’ by as the family estate is turned into a tourist attraction or mown down for some fancy development just kills him.”
“What about his illegitimate children?”
“That there is a sticky situation, Piper, one I’m not at liberty to discuss further.”
Just enough to make me bite. “What role am I expected to play?”
“As I suggested to your relations, there are two possibilities. The first is as the favored niece. Ya know, he always liked ya best.”
Considering he doesn’t much like anyone, that carries little weight.
“So he might listen to ya more than your cousins. Failing that, ya put on that PR hat I understand ya wear so well.”
I’m surprised he knows my line of work. Of course, my work with some of Hollywood’s biggest names was recently mentioned in an entertainment magazine.
“Who better to explain the consequences of this ‘tell all’ will,” Artemis continues, “than someone who devotes her life to helping people out of nasty scrapes?”
Then it’s on me to get the Pickwicks out of this? Piper Wick? Not! While I don’t care to be exposed as “one of those Pickwicks,” it’s not likely to affect my career or my relationship with Grant, especially since my only crime is being born into a family I’ve completely avoided for twelve years.
“I had nothing to do with anything Uncle Obe wants to make restitution for.”
“Ya think?” Artemis rustles some papers. “Before I let ya go, I ought to tell ya that your uncle wants to includeTrinity Templeton in his will.”
The name conjures remembrance of a girl who the meaner kids called Trinity Simpleton. “Why Trinity?”
“Your uncle believes she took the fall for a prank of Pickwick proportions, namely what happened at the Fourth of July parade the night before your mother and you up and left Pickwick.”
An invisible hand slams me back in my chair.
“Caused quite a stir, what with Hugh Lawrence capturing it on his video camera. Made the nightly news and quite a few papers. Ya recall?”
I rub a hand over my face. “Everyone thinks it was Trinity?”
“That’s right, though I hold with your uncle that it was one of his nieces. Problem is, y’all were accounted for.”
“Maggie had given birth a few days before to little Devyn.”
Her illegitimate child that she refused to put up for adoption.
“Bridget was handin’ out them tree-huggin’, animal-lovin’ fliers up and down the street. And her sister, Bonnie, made a right spectacle of herself throwin’ that other girl off the float.” He smacks his lips. “So that leaves you. And everyone knows Piper Pickwick would never do somethin’ like that.”
Innocent by reputation, but Uncle Obe doesn’t believe it and neither does Artemis. “How is it that Trinity took the blame?”
“There was no accountin’ for her that night, she’s the right build, and everyone knows she don’t fire on all cylinders. Then, when rumors started circulatin’ that it might have been her, she didn’t deny it.”
“Why not? I mean, if it wasn’t her.” Er, right…
He snorts. “Like I said, she ain’t all there.”
Oh, Trinity…“What happened to her, Artemis?”
“Her grandparents who raised her decided that anyone who would do such a shameful thing couldn’t be trusted to run the family business—ya know, the knittin’ shop near the PigglyWiggly. It went out of business years ago, but your uncle says that don’t absolve the Pickwicks of wrongdoing.”
“What became of Trinity?”
“Oh, she’s around. So ya see, though I don’t fault your uncle for wantin’ to right family wrongs, this could be bad for the Pickwicks.”
Andme. Relax.You were eighteen. It was a teenage stunt. But one the future fiancée of a conservative politician will have a hard time explaining if it gets out. And it could if the will is changed. I feel the pitter-patter of a headache and rub my forehead.
“One other solution is bein’ whispered about.”
“Ya remember your cousin Luc?”
That no-good, Easter egg–thieving—“I do.”
“A mutual acquaintance told me that, if need be, Luc will have your uncle declared mentally incompetent to prevent him from changin’ his will.”
I feel split down the middle—one side relieved at a relatively simple answer to my problem, the other appalled that I’d consider it. Selfish, Piper. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I am. Unless…“Is Uncle Obe mentally incompetent?”
Artemis harrumphs. “Your uncle is a different duck, but he knows what he’s doin’.”
“But how together can he be if he’s letting himself be influenced by this Obadiah Smith?”
“I told ya, your uncle’s godson is a fine young man, if overly Christian. Though he influences your uncle, it ain’t in a bad way. Just inconvenient—for the Pickwicks.”
I sigh. “Where do you stand in all this?”
“As your uncle’s attorney, I stand with him. However, I believe he’s makin’ a mistake tryin’ to right them wrongs. Ya know, time was, the Pickwicks were well regarded, but your dad and his brothers messed that up with their gamblin’, drugs, scams, and shady politics. Now, just as respectability is returnin’ to the family—”
“—your uncle decides to hang out the dirty laundry. Um, um, um.”
I picture Artemis shaking his head, neck and jowls reddened by the rubbing against his starched collar.
“So ya gonna do right by your family? Now I know the town of Pickwick wasn’t kind to your mother and you, but things have changed. Forgive and forget, I say, as does the Good Book. Uh-huh.”
Forgive, yes. But forget? That would be like taking a leisurely stroll in front of a firing squad.
“Of course, the one thing ya shouldn’t forget is the kindness your uncle showed your mother and you.”
He was good to us. And my relationship with Grant could be on the line. “Okay.”
A piercing clap makes me jump, and I imagine him slapping a big, beefy thigh. “Glad to hear you’re comin’ home. That is, providin’ya ain’t anglin’ to have your uncle declared mentally incompetent.”
“No. If Uncle Obe is as you say, that would be wrong.”
“I was hopin’ ya felt that way, being God-fearin’ and all. Though it’s a cryin’ shame that your church attendance is down.”
How does he know that? I haven’t contacted anyone in Pickwick since we left.
“Why, your moth—” Artemis clears his throat.
Uh-huh. “What about my mother?”
“Whatever do ya mean?”
“Have you or Uncle Obe been talking to her?”
“That falls under attorney-client privilege, Piper Pickwick.”
Which answers my question. “Wick.”
“Pardonme—Wick. By the way, what happened to your pretty drawl? Ya sound kinda flat.”
Gone the same way as the Pick. “I left the South a long time ago, Artemis.”There is more to my drawl’s demise, but that’s explanation enough.
“Yep, went and traded us for the big city.”
I look across my office to the windows that would offer an impressive view of the skyline if not for today’s tiramisu-layered smog. Ah, L.A.—hub and tailpipe of life, giver and taker of dreams, shining star and black hole of the universe.
“’Course, I imagine Los Angeles is gettin’ old.”
Someone has definitely been talking to Mom. Did she reveal the incident from two years ago that precipitated our talks of trading L.A. for something tamer? The memory crawls up the back of my neck. A deserted parking garage, a soft tread behind me—
I grit my teeth. No, I’m not as happy here as I’d like to be, but I’m trying. “Actually, L.A. has been good to me.”
“Careerwise, but”—Artemis chuckles—“you’re what—thirty? And single?”
True, but once Grant is reelected…and after a suitable period of settling back into office…and when the timing is right, he will propose. “I don’t believe in rushing into something as important as marriage.”
“Um-hmm. So when can we expect ya? Tomorrow?”
Is he trying to be funny? “I’ll have to check my—”
“Sorry, ma dear. I’ve got someone on the other line. Bye.”
Lovely. As I lower the handset and reach for my planner, my headache goes from a patter to a pound. Lord, keeping in mind that I am God-fearing, even though work continues to get in the way of church—help me get in and out of this mess as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, I’m booked through June and my schedule doesn’t lighten up until the first week of July, which would put me in Pickwick during the Fourth of July parade and bring me full circle to that night. With a growl, I flip back to June.
“You okay?” my assistant asks as she appears in my office doorway.
I meet Celine’s gaze. “Peachy.”
She narrows her lids. “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”
Typical Celine. Though I resisted her attempts to befriend me when she came to the firm five years ago, her upbeat attitude and gentle but unabashed Christianity won me over. I don’t always listen to her when my moral rudder goes askew, but she doesn’t preach or criticize. And when I sit on my pride long enough to ask for advice, she delivers.
“Family crisis,” I say.
She frowns, but then her eyes pop wide, and she steps in and closes the door. “The Pickwicks?”
She’s the only one I’ve told about my connection to them, and while I kicked myself following that moment of weakness, I don’t regret it. “Yes.”
“Do you want to talk about it? Over an early dinner before book club?”
I’d forgotten about book club. Half the time I don’t get around to finishing the books, but when I’m able to attend meetings, I enjoy the discussion and diverse group of women. “Dinner, yes. Book club, no.”
No pressure. “So, what did you need to talk to me about?”
She startles. “Oh! I just got word that the Lears are in the building.”
Why am I not surprised? I consider telling her to turn away the young Hollywood couple who begged me to squeeze them in. After all the shuffling it took to accommodate them, they didn’t show. Now, an hour and a half later, they waltz in here as if they’re my only clients.
“You do have a half hour before Mr. Gibbs’s appointment.”
Unlike the millions of women who adore Justin Lear and the millions of men who adore his wife, Celine hopes the “perfect couple” will stay a couple despite the revelation that Justin strayed. The good news is that they’re working to save their marriage. The bad news is that Cootchie’s self-confidence is in the toilet. That’s where I come in: coaching the actress on the art of appearances and arranging opportunities for her and Justin to look to all the world as if their love can overcome a never-to-be-repeated indiscretion.
“Send them in?” Celine asks.
“Yes, but make them wait ten minutes.” A slap on the wrist, but it’s something.
I continue to search my planner, but no matter how far out I go, I don’t have time to deal with a Pickwick pickle. “Thanks a lot, Uncle Obe,” I mutter, only to be struck by a memory of him in his garden, loosening a vine from a sapling as my ten-year-old self peers over his shoulder.
I gasp. “Why, that’s poison ivy, Uncle Obe. You shouldn’t be touchin’ it with your bare hands.”
“Not to worry. Its oils don’t bother me. Want to see if you’re alsoimmune?” He turns.
“Here, touch it.”
And let that vicious blister-causin’ plant do to me what it did tomy cousin Bart? I retreat a step. “Mama said to stay away from it.”
He shrugs. “Well, then, I guess you’ll have to find out the hard way.”
Or not at all. I cross my arms over my chest. “You should use weed killer.”
“Oh no.” He strokes a leaf. “This here is God’s creation. Once I free it, I’ll replant it in the woods.”
Mama’s right. Uncle Obe may be churchgoin’, tolerant of children, kind to animals and plants, and make the best pickled corn in the county, but he is a little nuts.
Shrugging off the memory, I narrow my gaze on the name written in my planner. Who is this godson? And why is he messing with my life? I underline the name.
“Just wait until I get my hands on you, Obadiah Number Two!”