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The woman stared out the second-story window of her mansion, looking across the overgrown driveway and down the lonely dirt road that led into town. Where had her children gone? Two were here before, then there were none. But the third the third had never returned. Did she not know how much her mother loved her? Did she not know that only the thought of seeing her again kept the woman tied to this place?
A tear slid down the woman's cheek as the house began to fade away.
"I grow weak. Come to me, soon. Before it's too late."
Joelle LeBeau stood next to her ancient Honda Accord, certain it was totaled and not even wanting to think of replacing it. The two Jackson, Mississippi, policemen documented the vandalism, one with pen and paper and the other with a camera.
It was only 6:00 p.m., but the fall sunlight was already fading, leaving the parking lot behind the Office of Social Services building dim. Joelle had been working late, as usual, when she heard a noise outside. By the time she'd removed her pistol from her desk drawer and peered out the back door into the parking lot, the vandal was already gone.
But he'd managed to do so much in so little time.
Every tire had been slashed and all the windows were shattered, leaving shards of glass littering the parking lot and the interior of the car. The windshield had a huge crack in the center that splintered out in every direction, and a message in dark red paint sprayed across it.
That one word left her no doubt who had done the damage, and if she'd had trouble guessing, the note on the dashboard cinched it.
Give me what's mine.
One of the officers stepped up next to her. "You said you had someone in mind for this?"
She nodded. "Victor Brant."
The officer made a note. "Is he a client of yours?"
She almost laughed at the thought of the abusive, narcissistic Victor Brant admitting he needed help. "No. His wife is."
"And I take it Mr. Brant is unhappy with that?"
"He's unhappy with anyone who doesn't bow down to his every word or whose thoughts differ from his own. He's the worst type of abusersuccessful, good-looking and adored by his colleagues and in his community."
"So you're saying it would have been unlikely that people believed Mrs. Brant when she said her husband was abusive."
"She wasn't believed. The police were dispatched twice to their home. Both times, they declined to even take Mr. Brant in for questioning. In fact, the last time all they did was schedule a round of golf with Brant the following week at his country club."
The officer frowned. "The Jackson Police Department?"
"No. The Brants' estate is in Willow Grove. It was their local department. The mayor is Mr. Brant's first cousin. The chief of police is his uncle. Are you getting a clear picture?"
"Yes, ma'am, and I don't like it, but I can assure you that neither the mayor of Jackson nor the chief of police are interested in playing flunky to Mr. Brant. If he's responsible for this threat, he will be prosecuted. What I don't understand is this note."
He held up the note in a plastic baggie. "What do you have that he thinks belongs to him?"
Joelle took a deep breath and blew it out. "His wife."
The officer's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"
"In addition to my counseling job at the crisis center, I volunteer with an organization that helps women quietly relocate, let's just say."
"An underground railroad?"
Joelle held in her frustration at the officer's obvious displeasure. Dedicated, honorable law enforcement professionals didn't like the vigilante-like tactics that the underground railroad organizations often used, but they had yet to offer a solution when their own departments couldn't keep women safe.
"There were no children," Joelle assured him. "And Ms. Brant left only with the clothes on her back and a watch that belonged to her mother. What we did was in no way illegal."
"Maybe not, but it's still not the usual way to get divorced."
"Look," she said, unable to control her aggravation any longer, "if any of us thought for a minute that Ms. Brant could simply file and get a divorce, like normal people do, she'd be staying at a Hilton, not hiding in a ten-by-ten room, afraid to even look out a window. Victor Brant said he'd kill her before he let her go. We have no reason to think he's lying."
The officer sighed and shook his head. "Assuming all of that is true, you haven't solved the problem. You've simply momentarily shifted Brant's focus from his wife to you. What makes you think you're any safer than she was?"
Despite the somewhat warm temperature of the fall evening, a chill passed over her and she crossed her arms across her chest. What he said was entirely correct, but it wasn't something she wanted to dwell on at the moment. When she'd decided on this profession and her volunteer work, Joelle invested time and money into her own safety. She lived in a well-lit condominium with a good security system. She spent at least an hour a week at the gun range and was a black belt.
"I'm safer, because I'm more qualified to handle this," she said finally. "It's my job to be prepared for these kinds of threats."
The officer didn't look convinced, but he closed the notebook and handed her a card. "If you receive any more threats, please contact me immediately. And be careful, Ms. LeBeau. Even the best trained among us can be gotten to. Can we give you a ride home?"
"No, thank you. A friend is coming to pick me up."
He nodded and climbed into his car with his partner. Joelle watched them exit the parking lot, then cast one more baleful glance at her junkyard-bound automobile. Sighing, she turned toward the office building, and when she did, she caught sight of movement out of the corner of her eye.
She spun around to peer at the Dumpster that rested in the corner of the parking lot against the fence. Nothing moved now, but she was certain something had just a second before.
You let that cop spook you.
Blowing out a breath, she hustled toward the back door of the office and let herself inside. Likely, it had just been an alley cat. Two or three regularly hung around the Dumpster, looking for an easy meal.
She pulled the dead bolt on the back door and hurried to the front of the office. Lisa would be here any moment to pick her up, and she didn't want her waiting too long. Her friend was an incredibly nice woman but a bit prone to dramatics and quite fearful of everything. Joelle had omitted the truth when she'd asked Lisa to give her lift, only citing car trouble as the reason for needing help.
As she walked through the office, she grabbed her purse from the desk where she'd dropped it earlier and continued through the reception area. As she approached the frosted glass door, a shadow moved in front of it and she drew up short.
The shadow stood for several seconds and Joelle dipped her hand into her purse and gripped her pistol. Then the shadow rapped on the door, causing her to jump.
"Anyone here? It's Myer's Courier Service. I have a package."
She hesitated just a second before releasing her pistol and stepping up to the door to unlock it. Myer's had delivered packages to the office many times before, but they usually made deliveries before the office closed for the day.
Peering out a tiny crack, she was relieved to see the same tall, skinny young man who always delivered. She pulled open the door and smiled at him.
"Hello, John. You almost missed me."
John handed her a legal-sized envelope and produced a clipboard for her to sign. "I know I'm late," he said, flushing a bit. "I had a flat tire and it took longer to change it out than I thought it would."
"Well, I'm glad you're fixed now. How's Janey doing her first semester of college?" John's sister had volunteered at the crisis center her senior year of high school.
"She'd doing fine. She's working with disabled kids two days a week after class."
Joelle smiled. "That's great. Tell her we miss her and good luck."
"Yes, ma'am," he said and left.
She closed the door and placed the package on the secretary's desk, but as she started to walk away, the name on the package caught her eye. Joelle LeBeau.
Frowning, she picked up the package again. It was unusual for her to receive a courier delivery. The secretary usually dealt with all incoming paperwork and orders. She glanced at the return address and sucked in a breath.
She studied the return address more closely. What in the world would an attorney in Calais want with her? She was only four years old when her mother died and she was sent to live with distant cousins in Mississippi, but certain moments of her childhood on the LeBeau estate were etched in her mind, with recall so vivid it was as if she were watching it take place on a television. For years, she'd tried to convince herself to visit Calaisto confront her stepfather, the man who cast off the three sistersbut every time she approached the entry for the highway to New Orleans, she drove past it.
Not ready to face those vivid memories yet.
She tore open the envelope and pulled out a letter, already certain she didn't want to hear anything her stepfather had to say. If Trenton Purcell was on his deathbed and begging forgiveness, she'd raise a glass and toast, but she'd never accept an apology for what he did.
As she began to read, her pulse ticked up until she could feel it beating in her temples. Her evil stepfather was dead. He had been much older than her mother, so Joelle knew the day would come sooner than later, but she'd never expected to be notified of the event.
Then she read the second paragraph and sank down onto the desktop, her knees weak. It was all theirs. The estate, the fortuneeverything her mother and her mother's ancestors had builtit all belonged to Ophelia LeBeau's three daughters. Purcell hadn't been able to control the fortune after his death.
She continued reading and frowned. In order to inherit, she had to spend two straight weeks on the estate, to be verified by the local sheriff. Her two sisters, Alaina and Danae, had already completed their two weeks and were anxious to meet her.
A wave of excitement rushed over her, then a flash of anxiety. All these years, she'd wanted to meet her sisters, but hadn't even known where to start looking. Now they were waiting for her at their childhood homewaiting for her to come fulfill a rather bizarre inheritance request so that they could finally claim their birthright.
But that meant not only returning to Calais, but staying in that house. The house with bad memories. A mental image of her vandalized car flashed through her mind. Maybe leaving Jackson for a couple of weeks wasn't a bad idea. It might give Brant a chance to realize that the Jackson Police Department wasn't for sale like the one in Willow Grove. She had plenty of vacation coming. In fact, she hadn't taken more than a day off at a time since she'd started working at the crisis center over five years ago.
A horn honked outside and she stuffed the letter into her purse and swung the strap over her shoulder before hurrying out of the office. She'd call William Duhon, the attorney who'd sent the letter, first thing in the morning. Then she'd call her boss to say she was taking a long overdue vacation for the long overdue purpose of addressing her past.
Tyler Duhon stared in dismay across the cafe table at his father, William, Calais's resident attorney. Not even Johnny's absolutely stellar banana pudding could sweeten Tyler's disposition toward what his father had just asked him to do.
"No way," Tyler said. "Look, I promise I'm not going to be lying around on your couch all day for months on end. I'll be starting my own security firm as soon as I get all the permits and approved formation documents."
William pushed his empty bowl to the edge of the table and took another sip of coffee. "I'm not worried about my couch. Your mother picked it out and I never liked it muchall those roses. And I'm well aware of your business pursuits as I filed the corporate formation documents for you last week."
"Then what's your angle?"
"I don't have an angle. What I have is a spooky, partially repaired old house that has three deaths attached to it in as many months, and an heir who needs to occupy that house for two weeks in order to gain back everything that was stolen from her. I'd really like her to have an easier go of it than her sisters did."
Tyler frowned. The happenings surrounding Trenton Purcell's death and the subsequent arrival of two of Ophelia LeBeau's daughters had set off a chain reaction of threats, break-ins, stalkers and eventually, three deathsone murder and two in self-defense. But the facts paled in comparison to the sheer amount of disturbance that had rocked the sleepy bayou town.
"I'm not sure what you think I can do," Tyler said finally.
"You plan on opening a security firm, don't you? I expect you can protect the heiress and her assets. I'm not expecting you to do so for free. The estate will be happy to cover the cost of on-site securityin fact, in light of recent events, they're requiring it."
Tyler shook his head. "I'm opening a firm, but I'm not going to do any of the face-to-face work. I'm focusing solely on hardware and administration. I'll hire some of my military buddies for the groundwork."
William scrunched his brow. "You plan on sitting behind a desk all day? You'll be bored within a week."
I don't think so.
"If I get bored," Tyler said, "we'll go shopping for a new couch. Mom's been gone for years. It's time you got some manly furniture in the place."
William studied him, and Tyler forced himself not to squirm under his father's scrutiny. Apparently, his attempt at levity hadn't distracted his father for a moment. Tyler had never been able to hide anything from the shrewd attorney, who seemed to possess the ability to read minds. And more than anyone, his father knew how much Tyler hated sitting stillhated concentrating on paper and numbers and words. He was smart, but it had been a struggle to get him out of high school. He'd sit in class almost twitching with anxiety, wanting desperately to jump out a window and run until he sated his body's always-demanding call to action.
It's why he'd joined the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated.