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The tortured soul wandered the mansion, calling for her children. Where had they gone? Why couldn't she hear their sweet voices? Why didn't their footsteps echo throughout the house?
Was it him? Had he done something to her babies?
The thought of it broke her heart and she screamed in anguish, vowing never to rest until her children were returned to her.
And until the man paid.
Danae LeBeau was running late, as usual, but today she had a good excuse. The local radio station had been abuzz since the wee hours of the morning, broadcasting information about the attack on Alaina LeBeau weeks before and the subsequent death of her attacker at the hands of the local sheriff. Until now, it had all been gossip and speculation, while everyone impatiently waited for the state police to clear those involved and declare it self-defense. Now it was the hottest bit of excitement the tiny bayou town of Calais had ever seen. My sister could have died.
The thought ripped through her as she listened to the reporter relay the gruesome details of that horrible night at their mother's estate, the weight of the words crippling her. Her sister could have died, and Danae had never even told her they were related.
After their mother's death, the three sisters had been separated by their stepfather, Trenton Purcell, and shipped off to be raised by distant relatives. Danae was only two when it happened, not old enough to remember anything about her life in Calais. The only childhood she'd known was in California, but years ago, she'd started slowly making her way across the country to Louisiana. Even though she couldn't remember anything about her life in Calais, she'd always felt a tugas if something was drawing her back to her birthplace.
Using an assumed name, she'd taken a job at the local cafe to try to find out information on her stepfather, who had lived as a recluse in her mother's family estate for over two decades. But she'd managed to find out very little about the man, given that most of the townspeople seemed to completely dislike him and were happy to see him disappear from society.
After her stepfather's death, Danae's sister Alaina showed up in Calais to meet the terms of their mother's will. According to the local gossip, each sister was required to live on the estate for a period of two weeks within one year after their stepfather's death. Once those stipulations were met, their mother's estate would pass to the sisters. It was shocking news to Danae, who'd always assumed their mother had left everything to their stepfather and that her ties to Calais had long since been severed.
Danae still remembered the day Alaina arrived in town. Through the storefront window of the cafe, she'd seen Alaina driving her SUV down Main Street. She'd dropped a whole stack of dishes and had her pay docked for the incident, but she hadn't been able to help it. The only thing Danae had from her past was an old photo of their mother. Alaina looked as if she'd stepped out of that photo, changed into current clothes and driven by.
When she met Alaina early one morning at the cafe, Danae wanted to tell her that they were sisters, but years of living on the street had taught her to always stand back and assess the situation. To always limit exposure of herself unless absolutely necessary. That level of caution had saved her life more than once, and just because she experienced a familial pull, she had no reason to sacrifice something that had always worked for her.
But now, she wondered if she should reveal herself. From the local talk, she had a good idea about the terms of the will and knew that if she wanted to take part, she'd have to come forward. The distant cousin who had taken her in when her mother died had passed away long ago, a liquor bottle clenched in her leathered hand, and Danae had never gotten close enough to anyone to make lasting friendships. If anyone tried to find her, the trail stopped cold in California.
After Danae met Alaina and got a good feeling about her as a person, she'd been tempted to talk to the estate attorney, but she'd still held back. What if their middle sister couldn't be located, either? Her understanding was that all three sisters had to meet the requirements of the will in order for any of them to inherit. If the last sister couldn't be located or didn't agree to the terms, then Danae would have exposed herself for no viable reason, and at a time when she didn't feel comfortable doing so.
But the attack on Alaina had her rethinking everything. What if her sister had died and she'd never gotten the chance to tell her who she was? She could have missed one of her only opportunities to have a real family.
As she grabbed her car keys, she glanced at her watch and cursed. She even had the advantage of working second shift that morning, but she wasn't going to make the later work time, either. Johnny, the cafe owner, was going to kill her for being so late. Likely, everyone in Calais would wander through the cafe this morning to gossip about the news report. Nothing this big had ever happened in the sleepy bayou town. It was going to be the talk for quite a while.
She flung open the front door of her rented cabin, ready to break some major speeding laws on the winding country roads, but stopped short at the sight of the plain white envelope that lay on the welcome mat.
Such a common, nonthreatening item shouldn't have set off the wave of anxiety that flooded through her, but she immediately knew something was off. She hadn't let her guard down long enough to make close friends, and even if she had, they would hardly drive ten miles into the swamp to leave an envelope at her doorstep.
Her hands shook as she reached for the envelope, and as soon as her fingers closed around it, she set off at a run for her car. Whoever had left the envelope might be watching, lurking somewhere in the swamp that enclosed the tiny cabin and blocked it off from the rest of the world.
She jumped into her ancient sedan, started it and threw it into Drive, tearing out of the dirt driveway before she'd even managed to close the car door. She pressed the accelerator just beyond the limits of safety, and her fingers ached from clenching the steering wheel as the old car skidded in the gravel. The narrow road seemed to stretch on forever, but finally, she reached the intersection for the paved road that led into Calais.
She pulled to a stop and looked over at the envelope that she'd tossed onto the passenger's seat. Habit had her checking her rearview mirror, but no one was visible behind her. She glanced back at the passenger's seat where the envelope lay, seemingly taunting her to open it. Lifting one hand, she bit her lower lip, then hesitated.
What are youa coward?
Unable to stand it any longer, she grabbed the envelope and tore it open. A single scrap of paper containing only one sentence fell out into her hand.
I know who you are.
She sucked in a breath so hard her chest ached. All her careful planning and secrecy had been for naught. Someone had figured out her secret. But why did they leave this message? What were they hoping to accomplish by doing so? Being Ophelia LeBeau's daughter wasn't a crime, and Danae had no reason other than an overzealous sense of self-protection for hiding her true identity.
Someone must be trying to scare her. But to what end?
She shoved the paper into her purse and continued her drive to town. She'd stop at the cafe first and let Johnny know she had to take a bit more time that morning. He wouldn't be happy and may even fire her, but that couldn't be helped. Danae had the sudden overwhelming feeling that she had to find William Duhon, the estate attorney, and reveal her true identity.
Whatever someone hoped to accomplish with the note, she was going to cut them off at the pass.
Danae spotted Alaina's SUV in front of the attorney's office and felt another bout of panic. Then logic took over and she decided it was a good thing. Might as well kill two birds with one stone. She hurried into the office and told a rather grim-looking woman at the front desk that she wished to speak to Mr. Duhon.
The grim woman frowned, which surprised Danae a bit, as she'd thought the woman was already frowning before.
"Do you have an appointment?" Grim asked.
"You know that I don't," Danae replied, trying to keep her voice level. After all, this woman and everyone else knew her as Connie from the cafe, and probably couldn't imagine why she'd need to speak to William.
"I can make you an appointment for later this week."
"Is he talking to Alaina?"
"Mr. Duhon's clients are all afforded the privacy they deserve"
Danae waved a hand at the woman to cut her off.
"Never mind," she said as she walked past the desk and pushed open the door to the attorney's office.
Alaina jumped around in her seat when Danae flung open the door, and the attorney jumped up from his chair, uncertain and clearly uncomfortable with the interruption.
"You can't go in there," Grim admonished behind her.
"I'm Danae LeBeau," she said before she could change her mind.
Alaina and William stared at her, their expressions a mixture of disbelief and surprise. She'd expected as much. Connie Smith, cafe waitress, had served them both breakfast on many occasions. She'd never provided her real name to anyone in Calais before now. And as her looks were a perfect blend of both parents, she didn't favor either enough to draw suspicion.
"I have documentation," she said and pulled some faded, worn papers from her purse. "A birth certificate and a driver's license with my real nameI'd appreciate it if you don't ask where I got the one I've been using."
She stood there, holding the documents, with both William and Alaina staring at her in shock. Finally, Alaina rose from her chair and walked the couple of steps to stand in front of her.
"Danae?" Alaina said, her voice wavering. "You were just a toddler You had on a new dress that day"
"Yellow with white roses," Danae interrupted.
Alaina's eyes filled with tears. "Yes." She threw her arms around Danae and squeezed her tightly. "I never thought When I came here, I didn't know what would happen."
Danae struggled to maintain her composure. "I didn't know, either."
"Why didn't you tell me when I first arrived?"
"We're fine, Ms. Morgan," William's voice sounded behind them.
Danae released Alaina and glanced back in time to see Secretary Grim pull the door closed, her frown still fixed in place. Alaina smiled at her and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.
"I uh " Danae struggled to find a way to explain. "I don't really know why I came to Calais, or even to Louisiana. I mean, I guess I thought I could talk to our stepfather and maybe find out somethinganythingabout my past, maybe find you and Joelle. But I never got the chance and then he died."
Danae sniffed and willed the tears that were building to stay in place. Now was not the time to go soft. "I don't really remember. I don't remember anything, and I kept thinking that it was important. That my life here mattered and I needed to know. I know it sounds silly "
Alaina squeezed her arm. "No. It doesn't sound silly at all. Not to me."
Danae could tell by the way Alaina said it that she meant what she said. She wasn't just being nice. She understood, as only the three sisters could possibly understand. A wave of relief passed over her, and the tug at her heart, the one she'd felt for Alaina the first time she saw her, grew stronger.
"I'm sure you've heard about how our stepfather lived," Danae continued. "I never even saw him. Then he died and you turned up."
Alaina smiled. "I felt a connection to you when we first met that I didn't understand. I slipped so easily into conversation with you, which is rare. Maybe somewhere deep down, I knew."
Danae sniffed and her eyes misted up a bit. "I wanted to say something when you arrived, but what would people thinkmy working here with an assumed name and all?"
She looked over at the attorney. "I swear I didn't know about the inheritance when I came to Calais."
The attorney waved a hand at the chairs in front of his desk, encouraging them to sit. "Please don't trouble yourself with those kinds of thoughts, Ms. LeBeau. You couldn't have been aware of the conditions of your mother's will. Ophelia was a very private person, and your stepfather wasn't about to tell anyone that he wasn't really the wealthy man he seemed."
As Danae slid into the chair next to Alaina, she felt some of the tension lessen in her shoulders and back. "But I still came here under false pretenses."
"No," Alaina said. "You came here looking for answers and didn't want everyone to know that evil old man was your stepfather. I hardly think anyone will fault you for your feelings."
The attorney nodded. "Your sister is correct. While some of the more dramatic of Calais's residents may find some fun in theorizing as to your hidden identity, those who partake in logical thinking will not so much as raise an eyebrow at your choices. In fact, most would assume you wise."
Danae smiled. "You're very refreshing, Mr. Duhon."
"Isn't he the best?" Alaina beamed. "Until I met him, I had no idea attorneys could be competent, nice and have a personality. I'd thought I was the only one."
"Please call me William," he said, a slight blush creeping up his neck. "Well, ladies, we have a lot to discuss, but I can cover the basics of the inheritance now and we can meet at a later date to discuss the rest."