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Once upon a time, in a tiny bayou village, there lived a beautiful widow and her three lovely daughters. The woman loved her children and her home, but as time passed, she grew lonely. A handsome and treacherous stranger swept her off her feet and she became a bride for the second time. But no happily ever after was forthcoming.
Alaina LeBeau stared across the desk at the senior partner of the law firm and struggled to contain her emotions. Finally, anger eclipsed common sense.
"You told me if I got my success rate up, the junior partnership was mine," she said. It was all she could do not to scream at the news that Kurt "Kip" McGraw, an attorney of woefully less skill and somewhat dubious personal reputation, had gotten the partnership she'd been all but assured.
Everett Winstrom III gave her a placating smile. "Now, now. I didn't say it was yours for certain. I merely said if you proved yourself a winner in the courtroom that I felt a partnership would be forthcoming, and I still think one is."
"When would that be exactly? The company is structured to only add a new partner when an existing one retires. All the original partners have been replaced with younger attorneys. It may be twenty years before one of you retires."
"In twenty years, you'll still be a young woman."
"In twenty years, Kurt will be even younger than I, and likely, still as incompetent."
The senior partner gave her another thin, placating smile. "Now, Alaina, you know that the courtroom isn't the only place an attorney makes a good impression on the partners. Kurt has political connections that the firm can take advantage of."
"Based on the news reports and the number of drunk-and-disorderly dismissals we've gained for his political connections, I would guess anyone could take advantage of them."
Everett's jaw tightened and the jovial-uncle act was over. "The fact is, we can't afford to have you as a partner of this firm. Not after the Warren fiasco."
Alaina felt as if she'd been slapped. As if she didn't feel guilty enough over that case, and now the man who'd been her senior adviser was putting all the blame on her?
"I see," she said. "The firm needs a scapegoat and it's not going to be you."
"Did you really think it would be? Someone has to answer for that screwup."
"A child died, Everett. That was far more than a screwup. You can put the blame on me all you want, but we both know we could have prevented what happened."
Anger flashed in the partner's cold, dark eyes. "Nonsense. A psychopath killed that child. That's unfortunate, but it's hardly my fault. You were lead. If there was something missed, that's on you."
Suddenly, Alaina couldn't take another minute of it. The years of busting her butt through law school while working full-time had been small challenge compared to the years of sucking up to these pompous, entitled men who'd never worked for anything other than a more luxurious life.
"Consider this my notice," she said before she could change her mind.
Everett's eyes widened. "Now, let's not be hasty."
"It's something I should have done years ago. I'd hardly call that hasty. In fact, I'd call it a little late in coming. So late that I might have ruined any chance I had at a big career."
"But you're in the middle of three corruption cases"
"No. You're in the middle of three corruption cases. I'm just assisting." As usual, she had been assigned to the anal-retentive detail work of sorting through all the financial informationwork that everyone avoided if at all possible and work that she caught far too often. With Everett's analyst on maternity leave, and her giving notice, he'd have no choice but to actually do grunt work for a change.
That thought gave her the sliver of joy that was necessary to smile and stand her ground. "I wish I could say it's been great, Everett, but the reality is, this job has shown me what I don't want to do with the rest of my life. I'll spend the next two weeks completing the paperwork on the cases I've just closed."
His face flushed red and he clenched his hands. "Don't bother. Get your things and get out of this office. I'll mail your final paycheck. You're making a big mistake."
"It's not the first."
She spun around and marched down the hall to her office before he could formulate a reply. A couple of seconds later, she heard the door to his office slam shut. The firm intern, a studious, humorless girl with an encyclopedic recall of law, stepped into her office, her eyes wide.
"Is everything okay, Ms. LeBeau?"
"Everything is perfect, Ms. Jensen. In fact, better than perfect. I've just given my notice."
"Oh, my I Well, if that's what you want to do, then I'm happy for you, of course." Emily Jensen stared down at the floor. "I guess you didn't get the partnership."
"No, they gave it to Kurt."
Emily sighed and glanced out into the hallway, then back at Alaina. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "I don't think that's right."
"If you mean, the person with the most ability didn't get the job, then I agree. But the reality is, it's their law firm and Kurt has connections I'll never have. Better to find out now than spend another seven years here."
Emily nodded. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm only working here to get the experience on my resume. I intend to establish my career in nonprofits."
Alaina smiled. "You're a good person. I have no doubt you're going to accomplish a lot for society with your career."
Emily blushed and she gave Alaina a shy smile. "What are you going to do now?"
"I don't know exactly. I have money saved. It's not like I've had much time off to spend it. I may do nothing for a couple of months and give some serious consideration to my options."
"I think that's a great idea. You deserve a break." She handed an envelope to Alaina. "This was addressed to you personally, not in care of the law firm, so I didn't open it. I was afraid it wasn't business-related."
"Thanks," Alaina said. "I'm going to miss you, Emily. Please stay in touch."
"Of course. I'm going to miss you, too, Ms. LeBeau." She left the office and quietly pulled the door shut behind her.
Alaina flopped into her office chair and the first twinge of fear ran through her. What have you done? Sure, the job sucked, but it paid well, and given the firm's long history, she had good standing in the legal community.
She sighed. If money and a good reputation were all that mattered, it would be perfect. But the reality was, they weren't the most important things to her. If she was being honest with herself, she'd been fighting discontent for years. Now she was thirty-two years old, and no closer to knowing what she wanted to do with her life than she was when she'd started law school.
It was depressing on so many levels.
She glanced down at the envelope lying on her desk and frowned. The return address was for a law firm, but wasn't one she recognized as related to any of her current work. She reached for her letter opener and then removed the single sheet of paper from the envelope.
Ms. Alaina LeBeau, I am writing to inform you of the death of your stepfather, Trenton Purcell. He passed away one month ago after a long-term illness. While Mr. Purcell had controlling interest of your mother's property during his lifetime, the will left by your mother indicated that all her property was to transfer to her three daughters, with a single stipulation: each of you must occupy the property for a minimum of two consecutive weeks.
I have tried to find a way around this stipulation, as most individuals cannot take a two-week break from their normal lives to live in another town, but the wording is unshakable. I am afraid that in order to inherit, all of you must fulfill the terms of the will or the property will be auctioned off and the proceeds passed to secondary heirs and charities.
You do not have to occupy the property at the same time, but each of you must take residence in the year following the death of your stepfather. That gives you each eleven months to meet the terms of the will. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience so that we can discuss your availability to fulfill these terms. Sincerely, William Harold Duhon, Attorney at Law
She stared at the letter for several seconds, then dropped it on the desk as if it were going to burn her fingers. All these years she'd assumed her mother had left it all to that worthless man she'd married. Over the years, she'd written letters to Purcell, begging him for information on the whereabouts of her sisters, but they'd all gone unanswered. Every weekend, she'd started to get into her car and drive to Calais and force him to answer for what he'd done. Force him to give her the information she wanted. But every time, something stopped her.
She'd known Purcell was still alive when she'd moved back to Louisianahad checked enough to know he was living as a recluse, with almost no contact with the outside world. She'd assumed that the home she'd been born in and spent the first seven years of her life was lost to her forever, along with the sisters she had to struggle to remember.
And now, it was all being offered to her for a mere fourteen days out of her life. Considering she'd just indefinitely cleared her schedule, it didn't seem a bad proposition. She had no idea what state the house and grounds were in, but at one time, it had been a beautiful estate. More important, the tiny bayou village of Calais was the perfect place to close herself off from society and figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She'd have all the time in the world to contemplate her options, tucked away deep in the swamp with only the mosquitoes to bother her. And her mother's ghost.
Carter Trahan tossed the paper onto his mother's kitchen table. "This is crap," he said.
"Carter Frederic Trahan!" His mother glared at him as she placed cups of coffee on the table in front of him and William Duhon.
"No, no, that's quite all right," said the silver-haired gentleman, who had been a longtime friend of his mother's. "The entire situation is a bit unorthodox."
"It's" he glanced over at his mother, who was frowning at him from the adjacent chair "worse than unorthodox. It can't possibly even be legal."
"Oh, I assure you that the terms of the will, while a bit unusual, are completely legal."
"I meant the other part," Carter said. "The part where the sheriff has to play babysitter to fulfill the terms of this will. You can't make me do something that's not in my job description."
William sighed. "You're right on that part. A promise made over fifty years ago can hardly be legally imposed on the current sheriff. But in the spirit of the agreement, I was hoping you'd help out an old friend."
Carter looked across the table at the man who'd been his mother's biggest supporter when his father had been killed, and sighed. "That was low," he muttered.
William beamed. "So you'll do it?"
"Explain it to me again."
"Each sister must occupy the house for two weeks in a row within the next eleven months. If they are outside of the estate borders for more than twenty-four hours, then the fourteen-day timetable starts all over."
"And they've all agreed to come?"
"What do you mean 'not exactly'? I thought they all had to do it or the deal was off."
"Thus far, I've been able to locate only one of the sisters, but she's agreed to the terms despite the fact that it could all come to nothing if her sisters aren't located."
Carter frowned. "Why doesn't she know where her sisters are?"
"Because that evil man sent those girls away after their mother died." Carter's mother broke into the conversation.
Carter stared. His mother was not one to throw around words like evil in a cavalier manner.
"Don't give me that look," she said. "That greedy no-count married their mother for her money and he killed her by breaking her heart. Her body wasn't even cold before he shipped those girls off to anyone who would take them."
A flash of anger rushed through Carter. "But no one would take all three?"
William shook his head, his expression sad. "If Ophelia had taken the proper steps before she died, things could have turned out differently for the girls. But as it stood, Trenton Purcell had legal control over her assets until his death. The life estate she created right after they married was still in effect."
"The girls weren't his," Carter's mother said, "so he felt they weren't his responsibility."
Carter shook his head. "In the interest of manners, I'm not going to say it," he said to his mother, "but you know what I'm thinking."
His mother nodded. "On this, we're in complete agreement."
"Okay," Carter said, "so when you locate the other two sisters, you'll get them to coordinate a date?"
"Actually, the girls don't have to occupy the property at the same time. As they are adults with lives already in place, they will start occupation at a time that's convenient for them. Assuming, of course, that abandoning your life and moving to the swamp for two weeks is ever convenient."
Carter felt some of the wind come out of his sails. "You mean I might have to do this three times?"
"I'm afraid so."
Carter looked over at the expectant expression on his mother's face. Even though every fiber of his body screamed at him to sprint away from this convoluted family mess, the reality was his mother rarely asked him for anything, and doing this would make her happy.
"Fine. Has the located sister set a date yet?"
"She's the oldest and, as a matter of fact, was available to come immediately."
"Not much of a life if she can drop everything in a matter of days," Carter mumbled.
His mother swatted him with her napkin.
"She's not wanted for anything, is she?" Carter asked.
"Carter!" His mother stared at him in dismay.
William chuckled. "Nothing of the sort. She'd just resigned her position as an attorney and wants to use the time to contemplate the direction she wishes to take her career."
"An attorney. Great."
"Oh, she's quite good. Went to work for one of the best firms in Baton Rouge after graduating top of her class at Boston College."
"A lawyer and a Yankeethe hits just keep on coming."