What Alice Wants

Jan Darby

 

Chapter One

Alice Leeds was working her way through the maze-like draft of a complicated estate plan when her secretary's voice on the intercom warned that a Neil Parker and his apologetic wife had barged past the reception area and were on their way to her office.

Alice reluctantly abandoned her paperwork. When she'd set out to become the best wills-and-estates lawyer in the Commonwealth, she’d thought dealing with dead people would be challenging, lucrative, and, most of all, free from emotional involvement. Parker, however, like too many of the people who came to see her, was annoyingly alive and unlikely to be either challenging or lucrative.

A tightly-wound fiftyish businessman, Parker had barely forged his way through her open doorway when he said, "You drafted Uncle Clarence’s will. We need it probated as soon as possible."

His wife, Ginger, released her ineffective hold on his sleeve and settled herself in one of the leather visitors’ chairs with the practiced grace of a beauty pageant contestant. "You would have known him as Clarence Dodd."

"I'm sorry," Alice had liked Clarence, and he’d been unusual enough that she’d recognized his name, something she wouldn't have done for more than a handful of the other thousands of clients she’d drafted wills for. She would miss Clarence, but she was already bored with his nephew and this conversation, the gist of which she'd been through a million times before. She spared a moment to wish that just once a potential client would surprise her with something out of the ordinary. "I wasn’t aware he had died.”

"It happened Friday," Parker said. "Heart attack, I guess. The funeral was this morning."

"He was such a sweet old man," Ginger said with a sniffle that appeared surprisingly genuine, but either she’d never met him or she had an odd definition of "sweet." Clarence Dodd had been many things, including old and rich, but he had never, not for one second of his life, been anything approaching sweet.

"Oh, get over it," Parker said to his wife while hovering over her shoulder. "Crying won't help matters, and it makes your face spotty."

Ginger swallowed and then assumed a beauty-pageant smile. "You're right, of course."

Alice suppressed her annoyance with Parker for being a jerk and Ginger for putting up with him. Their relationship was none of her business; Clarence's estate was. "Are you familiar with the process of probating an estate?"

"Not really," Parker said. "But we know we need to find the will. We thought you might have it."

"I wish I did." Alice had warned Clarence about the possibility that his next of kin might destroy the will, which disinherited them, before it could be probated. She’d tried to convince Clarence to let her hold the original to protect it from the nephew he, himself, described as greedy and unscrupulous, but Clarence had insisted he had his own means for keeping the will out of the wrong hands.

"If you don’t have the will," Parker said, "it must still be at the mansion."

"Have you looked for it there?"

"We tried," Parker said. "But Uncle Clarence’s chauffeur wouldn’t let us in. He’s the only one with keys and the code to the security system."

"Chuck is a sweet young man," Ginger said, and Alice wondered if that meant he was every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as his boss.

"He’s got no business keeping family members out of the mansion," Parker said. "We’re going to own the mansion as soon as the estate is probated anyway, since I’m Clarence’s only blood relative."

Parker was wrong about who would inherit the estate’s assets, but telling him wouldn't be a good idea, not until the will was found and safely filed with the court. "For now, though, you're in a Catch-22. You can’t get access to the mansion without the court appointing an executor, and you can’t get an executor appointed without access to the mansion to get the will."

"So do something about it."

"Me?" Alice said. "I can’t do anything until someone brings me the will, which I'm sure Clarence made arrangements for."

"Maybe you should talk to Chuck," Ginger said. "He might let you inside the mansion to look for the will."

"I doubt it," Parker said. "He knows we can’t do anything without the will, and he’s going to stall as long as possible while he lives there, rent-free, doing who knows what to my uncle’s assets."

"Contacting Chuck wouldn't hurt," Alice said. "I’m just not the one to do it. Lawyers don’t generally make house calls."

"There has to be another way," Parker said. "Couldn’t we tell the court the will is missing, and take care of it that way?"

"We could, eventually," Alice said. "But first there has to be a good faith effort to find the will. At a minimum, someone would need to contact Chuck, search the mansion, and advertise for anyone who might know where the will is."

"How long will that take?" Parker said, gripping the back of his wife's chair. "It's all a waste of time, since I’m the only living blood relative, and I’m going to get the whole thing, either way."

"The estate's attorney is required to make the effort," Alice said.

"Okay," Parker said. "You might as well go see Chuck. Not that it’ll do any good, but at least then you’ll be able to tell the court you tried."

"Assuming Chuck lets me into the mansion, do you know where the will might be?"

Ginger smiled sadly. "Clarence would have hidden it somewhere interesting, not in a safe or drawer or anything. He couldn’t help himself. He was the prototypical Scorpio, obsessed with games and puzzles of every sort."

A Scorpio herself, Alice had made a career out of that same obsession with puzzles, only instead of playing games, she drafted legal mazes and solved complicated estate issues.

Ginger continued in a wistful tone, "Clarence and I used to play Clue whenever I visited, and his favorite movies were always murder mysteries."

Ginger had met Clarence, after all, Alice thought. And it sounded like she’d gone alone, without her husband. "Perhaps Chuck knows where the will is."

"I’m sure he does," Ginger said.

Parker snorted. "And I’m sure the presumptuous bastard won’t tell us."

"They were very close, Clarence and his chauffeur," Ginger said.

"You could say that." Parker smirked. "I always figured they were lovers."

Clarence had come across as a randy old goat, flirting with everyone in Alice's office, so she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn the octogenarian kept a young lover. It didn't seem consistent with the terms of his will, though, since Clarence had seemed to be a generous man, and he had given everything to charity, without any provision for family, friends or lovers. If this Chuck was a gold-digger, he was going to be in for an unhappy surprise when he learned the terms of the will. Of course, so was Parker.

Searching for the will might be interesting, though. At the very least, she owed it to Clarence to make sure his wishes were carried out, and to do that, she had to find the will. Besides, now that she'd met Parker, she was determined to prevent him from getting his greedy hands on his uncle’s assets. "I have commitments for the rest of the afternoon, but I’ll go see Chuck about the will this evening."

Parker looked like he wanted to insist that she reschedule everything and go now, but Ginger managed to silence her husband with a look and a pat on his hand. "Thank you. We appreciate whatever you can do. Clarence was such a sweet old man."

Parker was already on his way out of the office before Alice could say "I’ll do my best."

Ginger, who seemed accustomed to trailing behind her husband, paused on the threshold and said, "Neil isn’t as cold as he seems. He’s just worried about some business setbacks, and he’s afraid he won’t be able to provide for me and all his employees if the inheritance is delayed."

"Inheritances aren’t a sure thing," Alice said. "Your husband might want to consider other options."

"I see." Ginger raised one hand to run three fingers along the central pearls of her traditional and undoubtedly pricey necklace. "I can always sell my jewelry."

"Your husband is a lucky man," Alice said.

Ginger smiled, this time genuinely, her lovely face warming with obvious love for Parker. Alice wondered if Clarence had ever realized what a nice person Ginger was, and if so, why he hadn’t provided a little something for her in his will.

Ginger left, and a moment later, Frank Hughes came into Alice's office and settled into one of the chairs across from her desk. "You must be slipping," he said. "The guy who just left here didn't look like a satisfied client."

Apparently, unannounced visitors were going to be the norm for the day. She hated it when Frank made himself at home in her office, which he did almost daily, taking up time when she could be working on an interesting estate plan instead of politely brushing aside his usual advances.

"He's not a client," Alice said.

"I'm not a client, either," Frank said, "but there are other reasons for a man to leave your office satisfied."

Alice quashed a sigh, wishing she could get a restraining order, or at least call someone to toss him out, but he worked down the hall as the president of the financial services company that owned the building, and he signed the security guards' paychecks. Besides, he was related to the senior partner, and it was never a good idea to annoy the senior partner by having his relative tossed out on his ear. "You're supposed to be making your clients' money grow. Don't you have work to do?"

"A man's gotta eat," he said with a charming smile that caused her stomach to flutter ever so slightly, despite her best intentions. "Have lunch with me."

Frank was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome, with more than a dash of ambition and charisma. Just the type she'd always been attracted to, the type she had to work so hard to resist. She couldn't avoid Frank completely, so she'd learned to ignore her body's reaction to his. It helped that he was a little too aware of his good looks, charm and sex appeal.

Damn. She shouldn't have thought about that. She'd known from the beginning that he would have been the perfect man with whom to share an occasional, no-strings-attached romp in bed. He was handsome and, judging from the trail of disconsolate women he'd abandoned, almost as interested in his partner's pleasure as his own. Best of all, he wasn't looking for the commitment she couldn't give. She'd have encouraged his flirting if she weren't afraid she couldn't stop after just one lover.

She'd had to struggle in the beginning to resist Frank's appeal, but she'd grown stronger over the years, more in control of her sexual urges until she hardly ever noticed them. Surely, someday, she wouldn't even feel that involuntary flutter in her stomach every time he propositioned her.

"I'm busy," Alice said firmly, and prayed he couldn't tell she'd been tempted.

Frank shrugged as he stood to leave. "Oh, well. You can't blame a man for trying."

"You've been trying for ten years," Alice said. "I'm never going to have lunch or anything else with you. It's time for you to give up and move on."

"I didn't get where I am today by accepting no for an answer," Frank said. "Meanwhile, there are other fish in the sea, even if they aren't as appetizing as you are."

"Why don't you ask Eileen to lunch," Alice said. "She's been pining after you for months."

"Eileen? The corporate attorney?" His eyes narrowed and he appeared to consider the suggestion for several moments. He nodded finally. "She's not you, but she is pretty hot. You sure you won't be jealous?"

"Absolutely sure," Alice said honestly. She'd never been jealous of Frank's many partners in the past, and even if she'd given in to their mutual attraction and responded to one of his many advances, their coupling would have been nothing more than a physical outlet for them both, probably a single experience, maybe the occasional romp, nothing serious or long-term. In any event, she reminded herself, she didn't romp any more, so the issue would never arise. "Eileen would be perfect for you."

"Not as perfect as you are," Frank said with less than his usual conviction.

He looked disappointed and resigned to second-best, but Alice knew it was just an act. She knew him, knew the way he thought, because she'd been like him once. She had no doubt whatsoever that he was already forgetting about her and planning how to seduce Eileen into spending their lunchtime at his favorite little hotel down the block.

Frank headed out, turning to the right, in the direction of Eileen's office. Good. Alice looked forward to resuming her work, free of any unscheduled interruptions. She settled back to work on the complicated estate plan, but her usual single-minded concentration didn’t hold. She kept thinking about Clarence and the prospect of searching his mansion tonight. If Ginger was right, and he had approached the hiding of his will as if it were a game, finding it wasn’t going to be easy.

She should have known Clarence would be the one client in a million, the one who would do something out of the ordinary and present her with an intriguing new professional challenge.

 

 

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