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Lauren Perkins's red Porsche looked as out of place in the parking lot of the Bricksville Correctional Institution's psychiatric ward as it did in Perkins, Massachusetts, the small town her family had founded. She pulled into a spot that might as well have had her name on it, she was here so often. She waved to the guard and walked to the old building where her sister was being held, bypassing the construction site of a new wing. After six months, she recognized some of the men in hard hats, and as usual, a select few eyed Lauren and her car with a sleazy combination of envy and lust. The only thing missing was catcalls, but since the actual prison was only a few hundred yards away, she assumed it kept them on their best behavior.
Lauren stopped short of flipping the men the bird. She had held her own in Third World countries and in the Garment Center of Manhattan. Not much could make her uneasy, but this place did, and she hated like hell having to be here.
Thanks to her sister Mary Beth and her antics, Lauren had no choice. She consoled herself with the promise that her visit to the prison would be like her trip to her grandmother's home.
Short and to the point.
Paris was waiting and nothing was going to keep her from being there in person when her dress designs debuted under the Galliano label. She'd sold the designs, so now she was free for the few weeks she needed to restore her grandmother's old Victorian into salable condition. Then she would fly to Paris and watch the fashion show in person. And pray her designs succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.
Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris was every designer's goal and Lauren had been gearing herself up for this for the past five years. After taking fashion classes in the city, working odd jobs to pay for them, and designing at night, she'd earned this chance. Though she was torn between her good fortune and her sister's situation, there wasn't anything else she could do for Beth that she wasn't already doing.
She'd had to uproot herself in order to focus on her grandmother's house because, as usual, her parents felt their humanitarian efforts were more important than Lauren's materialistic pursuits. Never mind that those pursuits had amounted to a successful career.
Her parents had never understood why Lauren and Beth hadn't shared their calling. Not even Beth's breakdown had caused them to put their work helping others on hold. They'd only visited their daughter, diagnosed as "unresponsive" by her doctors, once since she'd been incarcerated for arson, among other charges.
Lauren still couldn't understand her sister's actions. For reasons trapped in Beth's mind, she'd attempted to burn down a building full of innocent people about a year ago. According to Beth's own hysterical explanation, the police claimed that she'd been attempting to hang on to the Perkins family's declining power. Since many townspeople had come forward with tales of how her now deceased grandmother, the longtime mayor, had consolidated her power using blackmail and other forms of fear and manipulation, it wasn't a stretch to think Beth, her grandmother's loyal assistant, had followed in her footsteps.
Lauren had had no idea how mentally ill her sister had become and felt guilty that she'd been too busy with her own life to notice. As for her grandmother's mental state prior to her death, Lauren didn't have a clue. Except for occasional visits to her sister, Lauren hadn't had a relationship with the older woman in years.
Lauren did know firsthand about her grandmother's ability to control and manipulate. But Mary Perkins was gone, having passed away in the aftermath of Beth's arson attempt. She'd had a fatal heart attack while awaiting trial for her own crimes. And Beth continued to stare at the walls here in Psych Central.
Lauren visited her sister at least once a month, more often when she could. Revolving her life around Beth's wasn't much different from their childhood. Lauren had always taken care of her younger sister. Older by five years, she had been Beth's mother, father and authority figure as they grew up, because their parents had no time for them. Though the sisters were close back then, Beth had still been a handful. Even at twenty-seven years old, Lauren was still cleaning up her sister's messes.
She quickly crossed the parking lot and proceeded to the first checkpoint. Lauren hated the prison grounds. Even though Beth was in a separate building from the prison itself, Lauren detested the depressing psychiatric ward. But she hoped that by visiting Beth and keeping her aware of the outside world, her sister would recover faster.
Today Beth sat upright instead of lying in bed, but nothing else had changed. Before her breakdown, Beth had been a stickler for perfection, if not fashion—that was Lauren's forte and orange had always been her favorite color. But after seeing her sister in the fluorescent prison hue back when she'd originally been processed, Lauren had pulled the color from her portfolio. Beth now wore institutional gray with bold writing on the back, an outfit that would have horrified their grandmother. Something Lauren never mentioned to Beth.
Why upset her sister, who'd eagerly earned Mary Perkins's approval in a way Lauren never had. While Beth had pleased Mary, Lauren's one teenage indiscretion had isolated her from her grandmother. Lauren didn't care. That summer with Jason Corwin had been worth risking her grandmother's wrath.
Since Beth remained docile, she was never handcuffed for their visits, although guards patrolled the hall outside the room and a nurse regularly checked in.
"Hi, Beth. How are you today?" Lauren asked in a cheery voice.
No reply, not that Lauren had expected one.
Beth stared straight ahead, her hair hanging in her face. The once perfect, if conservative, bob had grown out, leaving her looking unkempt. The gray outfit didn't help her pale skin. Sometimes Lauren wondered if holding a mirror to her sister's face would shock her out of her unresponsive state.
Lauren cleared her throat. Trying not to fidget, she placed her hands in her lap. "Remember last week I told you I'd be staying at Grandma's house? Well, I've been in for a couple of days and I'll stay there until closing on December first."
Beth's eyelashes fluttered up and down.
Lauren had no way of knowing what her sister heard or understood. The prison psychiatrist encouraged Lauren to talk to Beth about the familiar and about Lauren's life. As if Beth were fine. So she chattered away, feeling like an idiot talking to herself but doing it anyway.
"As long as I get the house into what the buyers consider move-in condition, the closing will go off without a hitch." Afterward, she'd have two weeks to return to New York and get herself packed and ready for Paris.
Assuming she closed. The offer she had was conditional and the deadline was only four short weeks away. The renovation wouldn't be as easy a task as she'd first hoped. The house had been empty for the past year, held up in probate. On Lauren's arrival she'd discovered it was in worse condition than she'd anticipated. It seemed her grandmother had been more concerned with outward appearances, putting money into superficial aesthetics without fixing the structural problems that came with age. Between the general dilapidated condition, the holes in the walls from vandals or pranksters, and the old pipes and plumbing, Lauren's limited budget would be stretched. She hoped to find a contractor who was hurting enough to take on her project at a reasonable price.
She drew a deep breath and forged on. "The broker said the potential buyers are a nice family. They're moving from overseas and have no time to do the renovating themselves. In this market, I'm lucky to have them interested. I have to finish the repairs in the next month or they won't take possession and then what are the chances I'll ever find another buyer?"
A feeling of déjà vu overtook her and Lauren suspected she'd told Beth the same thing last week. But who knew? Beth loved her grandmother's old house. If there had been money left in the estate after the debts and her grandmother's lawyer bills, Lauren knew Beth would have wanted to keep the place, but that wasn't possible. There was no alternative now but to sell. By keeping Beth aware of the situation, Lauren hoped to trigger something inside her sister's mind.
Suddenly, the sound of hammering and sawing came from right outside Beth's window and Lauren tensed.
"Not again." For the last six months, Lauren's visits had been disturbed by construction of the new wing.
Beth's eyes flashed and a tick seemed to pull at one side of her mouth.
She was obviously upset and Lauren didn't blame her. The noise level was hard to take and Lauren didn't see how patients could heal in this environment, let alone hear themselves think.
She patted her sister's hand. "Let's try to ignore the noise," she said, pointing to the barred window and the construction beyond. No sooner had she spoken than drilling suddenly accompanied the hammering. Beth, who already seemed agitated, flushed and her eyes widened. Even Lauren was getting a headache.
"Excuse me," Lauren said to the nurse who had come in earlier, shuffling papers and making notations on her chart. "Isn't there anything you can do about the noise? It's upsetting my sister."
The young woman shook her head. "I'm sorry, but until they finish there's nothing we can do."
Lauren frowned. "I know. They aren't patients in a private facility. They're prisoners living on the state's dollar and taxpayers' dime, so let them suffer."
The nurse placed a comforting hand on Lauren's shoulder. "If it's any consolation, she normally doesn't seem to mind the noise."
"I suppose I ought to be grateful she's reacting at all." At the thought, Lauren rose from her chair. "Do you think it's a sign?" she asked, excited at the prospect of seeing some change in her sister's condition.
Again, the nurse shook her head. "This is just a normal reaction. Try not to get your hopes up." Her voice was kind.
Lauren exhaled hard and settled back into her seat.
As she studied her silent sister, she wondered whether even Beth thought that the price of believing in the Corwin Curse to its destructive conclusion had been worth the price she'd paid.
The Corwin Curse.
At best, Lauren thought it was a bedtime story her grandmother liked to tell. At worst, she figured it was the Perkins family's way to instill a sense of self-importance in its future generations.
To hear her grandmother tell it, the first Mary Perkins, an ancestor from the Salem Witch Trial days, had placed a curse on William Corwin and all of his male descendants in retribution for eloping with her son's fiancée. All Corwin men who fell in love were doomed to lose their love and their fortune. Whether by coincidence or circumstance, the curse had held true for the male descendants down the Corwin line. Yet she'd heard from her friend Sharon that Jason Corwin's two male cousins were currently married and attempting to buck the curse.
More power to them, Lauren thought.
As for herself, she hadn't believed in the curse at seventeen, when she'd met and fallen for Jason during a summer visit to her grandmother's. But Mary Perkins had, and when she'd read Lauren's diary entries about sneaking out to see Jason, she'd launched into a tirade Lauren would never forget. She'd forbidden Lauren to see that Corwin boy ever again and sent her back to her parents in Sierra Leone as quickly as possible.
Lauren had lost her grandmother's trust and approval from that day on and she'd never gained it back. Not that she'd ever really tried. She'd been too angry at her banishment.