Courting Danger. Carol Stephenson
surgeon called to the emergency room by my aunt and uncle hadn’t prevented the half-moon scar that was a permanent reminder.
As I reached the hallway leading to the ocean side, I cast one regretful glance toward the twin stairways that curved and twisted to the upper levels. A cautious person would’ve kept a change of clothes in her former bedroom. Only a rash person would burn all bridges by removing all her possessions in a desperate bid for identity.
I straightened the edge of my jacket and walked down the sweep of marbled corridor. For a moment I paused in the double French doors framed by amber silk brocade curtains to collect myself.
The view was primo Palm Beach: bands of green, gold and blue. Every rainy season the beach, like a worn wedding ring, would be tarnished, narrowing to a slip under the onslaught of storm-driven waves. Every year the inhabitants would lobby to have the beach restored. Mustn’t mess with property value. The rich and famous had seasonal homes on the beach, so that the beach must be perfect.
I used to believe the city council sent workers onto the beach every day before dawn to arrange shells so that the temporary residents would have the thrill of finding one. Once I crept down in a quest to catch the shell scatterers at work, but I only managed to step on a Portuguese man-of-war left by the tide. That ill-advised outing had catapulted me to a finishing school in Switzerland.
I crossed the patio and then went down the steps to the pool deck. With a smooth flip that barely rippled the water, my aunt made her turn at the deep end of the pool. In her youth Hilary’s prowess as a swimmer had earned her a spot on the Olympic team. Her bronze medallion held a place of honor over the fireplace in her sitting room. Although her years of competition were long behind her, she maintained a rigorous swimming regimen. I would match her stamina against today’s generation of women anytime.
“Are you going to stand there all day dreaming?” Wearing a peach tank swimming suit that showed off both her athletic form and golden tan to their best advantage, she stood in the shallow end. Ignoring the steps, she placed her hands on the side and pushed clear of the pool.
“No, Aunt Hilary.” I walked to the stack of towels and handed one to her. Although her actual date of birth was a secret as safeguarded as the gold in Fort Knox, Hilary had to be in her late sixties, early seventies, but she radiated the health of a forty-year-old. Her strict swimming regimen kept her thighs firm, her body lithe. Although her wet hair was sleeked back, I knew a superb hairstylist kept the trademark Rochelle hair a gleaming blond and arranged in a style contemporary in fashion but not inappropriately youthful.
After she dried off, I handed her a terry-cloth robe. Only then did she present her cheek for my air-kiss. She crossed to the wrought-iron-and-glass-top table and sat down. I followed, taking a chair that faced the sun and the inquisition I knew was coming.
“You look like something that dreadful cat of yours dragged in.”
“Gee, thanks, Aunt Hilary. You look fabulous as always.”
“Don’t get cheeky with me, young lady. Not after all I’ve done for you.” Hilary could look down her regal nose and make a person squirm at twenty paces. I resisted the fidget but issued the expected apology.
Without a word a maid appeared with a tray of frosted Waterford glasses of iced teas, and after serving us, just as silently disappeared. While Hilary sipped the sweetened brew with a twist of key lime, I studied her over the rim of my glass.
I had to hand it to her. No matter what the situation, my great-aunt always radiated strength, power and composure. Too bad Hilary was as cold as the Hubbard Glacier inside.
Whoa, watch the poor-little-rich-girl routine. After all, where would you have been without Hilary when Mom so lovingly dumped you on the doorstep?
Presented with a wailing baby, Hilary with her code of family duty had more than risen to the occasion. She had given me a home, such as it was. She had given all that she could.
It was not her fault that the burden of being a Rochelle had long ago burned out any softer emotions in her. And not my fault that I could never measure up to her level of perfection.
I placed the glass on the table without the slightest clink, as I had been taught. I folded my napkin, and along with it a child’s desperate need for love, and tucked it beside the glass.
“Aunt Hilary, you know I’ll always be grateful for what you did for me.”
The faint lines of displeasure framing her mouth eased. She nodded and leaned back in her chair.
“Your new office is doing well?”
I couldn’t resist a quick grin. “The Law Firm of Debt, Default and Miscarriage is doing great.”
Her fine brows knitted. “I beg your pardon?”
“An insider’s joke. When Carling, Nicole and I were in law school, we used to joke about opening a practice with that name.”
Remembering those days in the local bar frequented by the law students, and my friends’ discussions late into the night, satisfaction once more surged in me. By God, we had done it. After all the pain, setbacks and disappointments the three of us had experienced in our careers, we had joined forces to open our own firm. We would make it on our own, defying the all-old-boys’ network that still prevailed in this neck of the legal world.
“Oh, I see.” My aunt cleared her throat. “I would imagine you’ll be handling only civil matters given what happened to you at the U.S. Attorney’s office.”
Ah, here we go. She finally was getting to the reason she had summoned me. She was going to make a last-ditch effort to convince me to take a “title only” position with one of the family’s businesses. Hilary always manipulated a person until she had you trapped in a corner with no escape.
I kept my voice cool and level; she must not hear any uncertainty or vulnerability in my tone.
“No, we’re a criminal defense firm, which means I’ll be helping people charged with anything from misdemeanors to felonies.” That is, as soon as I could get my own clients rather than taking files over from Carling and Nicole. Their former positions with the Public Defender and State Attorney offices had given them a decided advantage in referrals. My past wasn’t so kind. It was not every day a CEO caught with his hand in the employee pension cookie jar—the kind I used to prosecute—walked off the street into a small law firm.
Maybe, just maybe, my victory this morning would help to rebuild my damaged reputation. Using my trust-fund monies for the start-up costs of the firm only made me a financial partner. For my self-respect I had to pull my own weight with client referrals.
“I have a…favor to ask of you.”
Although I maintained a relaxed pose, my Hilary antenna quivered. What was she up to? She demanded, ordered and, in short, expected people to snap to do her bidding. The word “ask” was not in her vocabulary. Certainly, her imperious summons this morning hadn’t suggested this new approach.
“A favor? From me?”
“On a professional basis.”
I couldn’t help myself, I gaped. “You want legal advice?”
Anger sparked in her crystalline blue eyes. “You still call yourself a lawyer, don’t you?”
Ah, her infamous disdain. With one efficient slash she could cut you off at the knees.
My own temper flickered. “Not call. Am.”
“Have you heard the latest about Grace Roberts’s death?”
Disbelief once more swelled inside me. Grace, the vivacious and efficient young woman who had maneuvered her way into becoming my aunt’s assistant, was dead. Violent death to people I knew was becoming a constant in my life, and that nasty realization had caused more than one sleepless night this past week.
“Nothing more than the brief coverage in the morning paper.”