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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2012 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
Dunwoody, Georgia Ten years later
Mikala Aulani looked around her office for the last time. Now that her thirty-five-year professional life was packed up in boxes, and the pictures, diplomas, and photographs were off the wall, her personal space looked huge. Jay would have to paint the walls to cover up the telltale signs of where all the plaques had been hung. She eyed her old leather chair, which swiveled and rocked. She really had meant to have the crack in the leather repaired; it had been on her to-do list for years and years. She wondered now why it was she'd never taken the time to do it. But, then, she found herself wondering about a lot of things lately, not that it made a difference.
Jay Brighton and Linda Carpenter, husband and wife and newly minted senior partners, carried the packed and taped boxes out to the reception area. At some point later that day, someone would come and take them to a storage unit Kala had rented a month ago. All except for the single box that sat on top of her desk. That box was going with her. She was personally going to carry it down to the underground garage and personally put it on the passenger seat of her car, then drive it to her home, where she would put it in a closet in her bedroom. Sophie Lee deserved a closet rather than a storage unit, where her records would never again see the light of day.
Jay Brighton stood in the doorway. "That about does it, Kala. Told you we'd have this locked down in time for you to make your retirement luncheon."
Kala looked up at her former partner and grimaced. "I decided I'm not going. Call Ben and tell him I have a bellyache."
Ben was Judge Benjamin Jefferson, Kala's significant other of twenty-five years. Ben had retired two weeks earlier, and Kala had thrown a surprise luncheon, inviting all of his peers. For no other reason except retaliation, Ben had decided to do the same for her. His theory was, if he'd had to suffer through the shitty food, the boring speeches, and the overblown testimonials, then so should she.
Newly retired judge Ben Jefferson loved Kala Aulani heart and soul. Everyone said they were a match made in heaven. Sometimes, Kala believed it, and other times, she didn't.
Stepping into the office, Jay replied, "Oh, no, I'm not calling him! You're on your own, Kala. Hey, you aren't my boss anymore, so don't you dare look at me with those puppy dog eyes. No! You sold Linda and me the firm, and I absolutely do not have to take orders anymore. Not showing up at your very own retirement luncheon would be a pretty crappy thing to do," Jay said vehemently.
Kala grinned as she stared up at her old partner. Six-foot-seven, probably the tallest lawyer ever to grace a courtroom. An imposing giant of a man, with his flaming red hair, which he hated, and his freckles, which, if anything, he hated even more. Juries loved him and his folksy manner. They likened him to themselves, just plain old ordinary people. They were wrong, of course, because there was nothing in the least ordinary about Jay Brighton, Attorney at Law. Jay had graduated at the top of his law class, had a photographic memory that did double time acting as a steel trap. He was almost as good a lawyer as she was, Kala thought. She'd trained him well, and he'd listened to every pearl of wisdom that came out of her mouth, soaking it all up like a sponge. Yes, one of the best things she'd ever done in her career was to hire him the minute he applied for the job. She'd never been sorry, either, and she knew he'd never regretted joining her rinky-dink law firm back in the day.
"Listen, Jay, I just want to go home and be alone. Surely you can understand that. You didn't give me a going-away present, now that I think about it. How tacky is that? So, calling Ben and canceling my luncheon will serve nicely as my going-away gift. C'mon, Jay, one last favor. I have so much to do; we leave tomorrow, and I'm not even packed. Do you have any idea how many suitcases I have to fill to go away for six whole months? Well, do you?" Kala bellowed at the top of her lungs.
Linda Carpenter, a string bean of a young woman with corkscrew curls that poked up from her head, took Jay's former position in the doorway, and bellowed in return, "I'll do it!"
Kala looked Jay in the eye, and admonished, "You do not deserve that young woman, and I'm sorry I paid for your wedding."
"Stuff it, Kala!" Jay blustered. Long years of familiarity allowed him to talk this way to his old boss. "Why do you find it so hard to accept a few well-meaning accolades? Don't give me any crap here. The reason you don't want to go to that luncheon is some asshole told you that Ryan Spenser is going to show up. With a gift. You're a bigger person than he is. Why can't you go and stare the bastard down?"
"Because I can't. This is the end of it, Jay. I'm not going. Period."
"Okay," Jay said agreeably.
Kala eyed him suspiciously, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it didn't, Kala gathered up her laptop, her purse, her suit jacket, and dumped them on top of the Sophie Lee box. "Where's the dolly?"
"In the reception room. I'll get it."
"And I don't want or need a parade following me down to the garage," Kala shouted to Jay's retreating back.
"Like that's going to happen," Jay snorted, his eyes burning. Damn, he never thought saying good-bye was going to be so hard. He eyed his wife, who had returned to the reception area and seemed to be having the same problem he was having. The filters probably needed to be changed in the AC unit. Dust particles could really play hell with your tear ducts.
Linda grabbed her husband's arm and dragged him down the hall into the kitchen just as the door to the reception room opened. They didn't bother to look over their shoulders to see if it was a client or the mailman.
"What?" Jay blurted.
"I can't stop crying, that's what!" Linda said, burying her face in the crook of her husband's neck. "What are we going to do without her?
She's the rock. She's the glue that made this law firm work. I don't think either one of us is ready to step into her shoes. What if Kala's clients don't want us?"
"Then it's their loss, Linda. We have our own clients. This is a thriving law firm. We have five junior partners. We have five paralegals, an office manager, and a secretary who is not only as old as God but knows how to sweet-talk people who walk in the door. We can make it work. We really can."
Linda sniffled. "Well, don't expect me to give you wake-up calls if I have to leave the house before you, and don't expect me to remind you to take your umbrella, pick up your cleaning, and get a haircut. That was Kala's job."
"Yeah, okay, I won't expect you to do that. I'll flounder around on my own," Jay said, his voice choked with emotion.
Their eyeballs popped when they heard their names being screamed at the top of Kala's lungs. They almost killed one another racing to her office. Both of them pulled up short when they saw a man with two canes lower himself to the chair opposite Kala's desk. Underneath her summer tan, Kala's face looked white. She was shaking so badly, Jay and Linda thought she was having a seizure. "What's wrong?" they both shouted in unison.
To say the man with the two canes looked like death warmed over would have been too kind a statement. He was cadaver thin, his eyes sunken, his skin sallow. It was doubtful he weighed a hundred pounds. In the thirty-odd years Jay had worked for and known Mikala Aulani, he didn't think he'd ever seen her as agitated as she was at that very moment. He didn't know what to do, so he waited, his eyes not on the man but on Kala.
"Linda, Jay, this is ... this is Adam Star. He ... he came here to ... he came here to ..."
The voice was raspy, the words almost unintelligible, but the trio understood them nonetheless.
"What Ms. Aulani is trying to say is, I came here to tell you that ten years ago, I killed my wife, Audrey. Sophie Lee is innocent. As you can see, I'm dying, and I want to make things right." One skeletal hand reached inside his jacket to withdraw a DVD. His hand shook violently when he tried to slide it across the desk toward Kala. "My lawyer has a copy of this. It shows me confessing to the murder, along with all the details. My lawyer will be turning it over to the court when I ... am no longer here."
Three jaws dropped as three sets of eyes stared with unblinking intensity at the man.
Jay spoke first. "I guess my question would be, how much longer will it be before you are no longer here?" Jay didn't give a damn if he sounded heartless and cruel. What this man had done to Sophie Lee earned him a fat zero in consideration in Jay's opinion.
"You son of a bitch! You let that young girl go to prison for life! What kind of a monster are you?" Kala shrieked. "I knew it was you! I always knew! Now, when you're dying, you want to make it right! I hope you burn in hell!" Kala shrieked again.
Adam Star turned his head on its scrawny neck to Jay, and said, "I'm already on borrowed time, but I assume you want me to be more specific."
"Yeah, that would help," Jay drawled.
"Well, I'm already on borrowed time, as I just said, so I think it's safe to say I doubt I'll be here this time next week." He turned his head again to look at Kala, and replied to her question, "The kind of man who didn't have the stomach to be tied down to a paralyzed woman twenty-four/seven. I was never cut out to be the dutiful sort. The doctors said Audrey could live into her nineties with proper care. I didn't have the guts for that. Audrey demanded my constant presence, even during the night hours. I was tied to her. I couldn't breathe; she was smothering me. And yes, Ms. Aulani, I'm sure I will burn in hell." Star leaned back, the constant flow of words exhausting him.
"Why did you come here?" Kala whispered, her shrieking over.
"I owed you and your client a face-to-face. You can show her the DVD when you think it's time. She was an exceptional nurse. She actually cared about Audrey, which is more than I can say I did. Because of that, I want to give you this." The skeletal hand reached into the inside pocket of his cashmere jacket and withdrew a folded set of papers. "My last will and testament. I'm leaving everything I own, which is substantial, beyond substantial actually, to Sophie Lee. I have appointed you, Ms. Aulani, as my personal representative to see that my will is carried out the way I want it to be."
"You can't inherit if you kill someone," Jay said through clenched teeth.
"I didn't inherit a single dime when she died. Almost immediately after we were married, she put everything in my name. She said it was a wedding gift. We were very much in love. We had our whole lives ahead of us. We were 'as one,' was how she put it. She trusted me to handle her fortune for the both of us. The Star fortune already belonged to me at her death and had for some time. Therefore, I can leave it to whomever I choose, and I choose to leave it to Sophie Lee to make up for what I've done. I know Audrey would approve."
"I always suspected he knew I killed Audrey, but he was never able to prove it. On more than one occasion, he said the media would love the other-woman part of it, as they would never believe that Sophie and I were not having an affair. More meat, more fodder for the nightly news. He was right, and it was the trial of the century.
"Ryan Spenser became the golden boy. He rolled along, winning every case he tried after that one. I never saw him after the trial, but about six months ago I got a personal letter from him asking me if I would consider backing him in his run for governor next year. He, of course, didn't know I was ill, and I've been housebound since. If what you're asking me specifically is if he knew he was prosecuting an innocent woman, I would say yes. But that is just my opinion. He had the facts going for him. It was either her or me, and like I said, he couldn't prove I did it. That left only Sophie Lee, and he convinced a jury of seven men and five women that she did it."
This time the words did exhaust Adam Star. Before he closed his eyes, he pressed a button on his watch. Two male nurses barreled into the room, took one look at their patient, and scooped him up. They were out the door in thirty seconds, their patient in their arms, leaving behind three stupefied lawyers.
Kala was the first to speak, her eyes wide with wonder as she stared at the box on the top of her desk labeled SOPHIE LEE in permanent black marker. "My mind isn't working right now, so will someone please tell me what day today is?"
"Your retirement day, Kala," Linda said.
Jay knew exactly what Kala meant. His voice was pitched so low, Kala had to strain to hear the words. "It's Tuesday, Kala."
Kala lowered herself into the leather chair with the crack running down the middle. Gradually, she was able to focus. She reached for the stiff blue paper that covered Adam Star's last will and testament. She had to clear her throat twice before she could get the words out past her tongue. "Set up the DVD. I want to see what's on it. But first I want to read this will. If that bastard lied to us, I will kill him myself."
It took no time for Kala to read through the short, simple will. Everything appeared to be in order. She sifted through the legalese. Two persons had signed, attesting to having witnessed Adam Star's signature. It was in order and dated exactly one week prior. Everything Adam Star owned, compliments of his dead wife, Audrey Star, now belonged to Sophie Lee. Or would belong to Sophie Lee one moment after Adam Star's passing. Everything he owned amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in stocks, bonds, real estate, and, of course, 51 percent of Star Enterprises, whatever that happened to be. Somewhere there was a yacht moored, a corporate Learjet parked somewhere else, a helicopter grounded on some helicopter pad God only knew where, two cigarette boats worth $100,000 each, berthed in Key Biscayne, Florida, and a fleet of high-end cars to the tune of $5 million. Among the listed real estate were the mansion Audrey Star had died in, a ski resort in Aspen, Colorado, and a mountaintop estate in Hawaii, overlooking the Pacific. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The real-estate holdings ran to six pages and represented so many zeros, Kala felt light-headed.
The joke was feeble at best and didn't even draw a smile from Kala, when Jay said, "Guess Sophie can pay our bill now if this is on the upand-up."
Kala shook her head. "We took the case pro bono, and that's the way it stays. My God, how do we tell this to Sophie?"
"Well, I don't think we should say anything at all to her until ... until they shovel the last bit of dirt on that bastard's coffin. I'm not sure I'm buying all of this," Jay said.
"What part aren't you buying, Jay?" Kala asked.
Jay threw his hands high in the air. "The whole damn thing. Guys like Adam Star don't have a conscience. They take crap like this to their graves. The man didn't give two shits that a young girl got sent to prison for life. For life, Kala! Now, because he's dying, he wants to make nice. Be forgiven! Like Sophie is going to forgive him for taking ten years of her life, leaving her with no hope for a future? She has to hate his guts. How could she not hate that bastard? I don't think the word forgiveness is in her vocabulary these days."
Kala leaned back and steepled her fingers. "I think you're wrong. Sophie's bitch is going to be with Ryan Spenser, not with Adam Star. She knew just the way we knew that Adam was guilty. All three of us tried to convince Spenser of that, and he turned a deaf ear. Sophie will take the position that Adam tried to make it right in the end, mark my words. When Spenser finds out, if he doesn't already know, he's going to blow a gasket. And you can take that one to the bank. I think now that this has happened, it's why he was planning on attending my retirement luncheon. To see if I knew about it."
"Boy, what a shame that you're leaving for that six-month retirement vacation tomorrow," Jay said slyly as he winked at his wife. Linda did her best not to laugh out loud at Kala's expression. "Okay, let's view this cinematic masterpiece." Jay pressed a button, and Adam Star's face filled the screen.
Excerpted from Tuesday's Child by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2012 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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