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“Carly, here’s a crucifix to hang over your door. I’ve got plenty more at home, but your grandmother doesn’t have one for your room.” Momma shoved the small artifact of Jesus dying an agonizing death at me.
I took it, and when I looked down at it, Jesus and I made eye contact. Poor Jesus. Momma was so Catholic. She loved her crucifixes and her rosary. And going to mass every day. My sister, Leah, and I had realized early on that Momma’s religion was her crutch and her weapon, for pretty much everything. I still hoped I wasn’t going to hell for my somewhat small transgressions as I’d been told I was as a child.
We lived in Louisiana, and there was a lot of Jesus everywhere. Both Catholics and Protestants. The Catholics were quiet prayers and the Protestants, according to Momma, were competitive out-loud prayers. Having known many of both, I could confirm that was somewhat true. The out-loud praying was an accomplished skill honed by Protestants from childhood. Most Catholics were secretly impressed by it.
“Is that everything, baby?” Daddy pulled me from my dogmatic musings. I was thankful for my daddy, who still tempered Momma’s intensity at every turn.
“I think so. The van is empty and the storage room is full. And I’ve already brought everything over to Nana’s house that I need for now.”
I’d moved home to Cypress Bayou of my own free will. Hard to believe, but there was a pull to this town I couldn’t explain, besides my weird family and my two best friends—Jo and Sue—though we hadn’t spoken in a while. I’d been away for the better part of eight years. Now that I was done with law school, it was time to find gainful employment.
I’d put some feelers out with a few folks in Baton Rouge and New Orleans about job opportunities because I hadn’t quite reconciled living in Cypress Bayou forever, so I wanted to keep my options open for anything too good to pass up. Both cities were a half a day’s drive away, so even if I moved south, I’d still be somewhat close to home. Part of me didn’t want to settle for good enough, because it was likely that anything I found here wouldn’t be for the length of a career.
I planned to live with my maternal grandmother, Nana, for now, who was way cooler than Momma, her daughter. Nana owned a historical home right outside of town called Plaisance House. It was built back in the late 1700s and had some significance during and after the Civil War. It had burned during the war but was rebuilt in the Greek Revival style. So, yeah, really cool house.
My sister, Leah, was breaking ground on a house down the bayou with her new husband, Jake. They were sloppy in love, but it was okay because they’d worked hard to finally find their way back to each other after several years of being apart.
I was happy for them but couldn’t see finding what they had for myself anytime soon. I’d not experienced a great romance in my life. An epic crush, yes. And as a young girl it had felt like love. But I’d had nothing since that had been requited and could qualify for a deep relationship. Most of my friends had fallen in love at some point throughout our teens. Aching, crushing love. I’d had boyfriends, sure, but nobody who had brought me to my knees. It was all around me, but I didn’t truly understand that kind of passion and pain, or joy either, I guess.
I’d mostly been competitive with guys throughout college in pre-law and law school. And when I’d been in a dating situation and done better on a test or ranked higher in the class, those guys lost interest. They’d shown their fragile egos when it came to being beaten by a girl they were dating. I’d decided then that it wasn’t worth getting involved with a man who was so easily put off by my success. I don’t think my lack of boyfriends had anything to do with my looks because I noticed that men were attracted to me—initially anyway.
The problem was finding a strong man who was my equal and had no problem with my…ambition and perfectionist tendencies. Right now, dating wasn’t at the top of my list though. That made life a lot easier. That’s what I told myself anyway.
I knew my family would be thrilled to have me home while I figured out what to do next. I was pretty good being independent, but with a family like mine, it was easier to come on home and accept the well-meaning advice, delicious meals, and let them bless my heart as often as they felt the need.
In the meantime, did Cypress Bayou really need another lawyer? They were neck-high in them it seemed, so I had my work cut out for me in my employment search.
As I climbed in my car and waved at my parents, who’d been kind enough to help me move my things, I received a text. I didn’t recognize the number.
Hey Carly. I heard you were back in town and looking for work. Let’s meet and talk. This is Tanner in case you wondered.
I stared at the text. With punctuation. And my stomach did some funny flips.
Tanner Carmichael. He’d been my secret crush. My childhood addiction. I’d been in braces with zits when he’d dated the homecoming queen. But my one-sided love for him had been fierce and true, or so I’d believed at the time. He was my older sister’s boyfriend’s older brother. So, when I said earlier that I’d never been in love, Tanner was the exception.
My current age of twenty-six and his current age of thirty-two didn’t seem as insurmountable now as it had back then. But my twelve to his eighteen had been an ocean of impossibility over a decade ago for normal people. Not that we were normal, because of our family connection. But now, he was my sister’s brother-in-law. We were family-ish.
I responded: Hi Tanner. Thanks for reaching out. I’d love to meet. I was cool but interested. No signs of a hormonal crush there.
Tanner was a local attorney. He really could help me. The dots waved at me as I waited.
Him: I get out of court at five today. How about a beer and oysters at Mother’s at 5:30? Mother’s Oyster Bar was a dive right on Front Street. Nothing fancy, but the beers were cold and the seafood fresh. It was a local favorite.
Me: I’ll see you there
The sixteen-year-old me would’ve JUST DIED. But hey, I was a grown woman now. I’d been around. I’d even been around Tanner without making an idiot of myself countless times. Because his brother and my sister were married to each other, and it was required.
My girlfriends Jo and Sue would have so much to say about Tanner’s texting me. But I hadn’t yet let them know I was back home to stay. Jo was a paramedic in town. She was a lesbian and currently not in a relationship. She’d gone through some extremely rough times during our high school years and beyond. Her sexuality was never in question, but living here in Cypress Bayou, well, that made it hard for her. Her parents made it hard too. Jo was such a deeply nice person and hadn’t deserved the small-minded responses that had hurt her so badly.
I could empathize to some degree, but I’d never know what going through that was like as a teen and young woman. I’d been different too, but in a more socially acceptable sense for this small town.
Sue and I stuck by her, but we’d gone our separate ways after graduation. Sue had been boy crazy since middle school. She’d been in desperate love more times than any of us could count. Sue always had a boyfriend, and when she didn’t, she was abjectly miserable. Right now, Sue was engaged for the third time. I hadn’t met the latest fiancé, but I’m certain I would soon.
We were all still in loose contact, but it wasn’t the same as before we’d gone to college. I hoped to remedy that once I got settled. We’d all shared so much growing up. I looked forward to reconnecting.
For now, I would go home and shower, put on something cute, and make Tanner wish he’d noticed me when I was a preteen. No. Ick. That wasn’t right. But what really wasn’t right was that on the occasions when we’d seen one another over the past several years, he continued to treat me like I was a preteen in a training bra. Like I was still that braces-wearing little sister of Leah’s who tagged along and drooled after him. Though I’m not even sure he knew I had.
It was like I was invisible as a woman to him, specifically.
“Are we boring you, Mr. Carmichael?” Judge Keller’s booming baritone reverberated around the courtroom.
Tanner had yawned. “No, Your Honor. I’m just trying to figure out how my client could have been in two places at once. We have time-stamped video showing the perpetrator committing the crime at the same moment my client was filling up with gas six miles away at the Shop-a-Lott out on Highway Six West. You know, the one that sells meat pies and boudin? I can’t imagine why the prosecutor saw fit to pursue this case. Can you?”
“Objection, Your Honor! I’m not aware of a time conflict.” The prosecutor’s face got as red as a burnt tomato while he tried to figure out where he’d gone wrong.
Judge Keller narrowed his eyes at Tanner. “Is this legitimate?”
“It’s in the record, so I’ll leave it to the esteemed prosecutor to sort out his error. Might want to check your dates.” Tanner couldn’t have written a movie script any better.
“We are adjourned for the afternoon until you sort this mess out. We’ll convene at ten in the morning, and you’d better hope you’ve not wasted the court’s time, Mr. Grabert.” The gavel came down extra hard and loud.
Judge Keller and Tanner weren’t friends. The judge and his dad, Carson, were, on the other hand. Those two had been childhood cohorts, and even roommates back in law school. In fact, almost nobody here in Cypress Bayou could recuse themselves because of a previous relationship with one judge or another because everybody knew or was related to nearly everyone else in some way or another.
Tanner avoided going by the office on his way to the oyster house from the courtroom. Avoiding his father was something he did with near precision. Tanner had virtually overlaid Carson’s schedule onto his calendar. That way, Tanner could make certain they were almost never in the same place at the same time. Unless Carson intentionally sabotaged Tanner and forced a meeting.
Having a father whom one despised was difficult at best. It wasn’t that Carson was simply ornery or unpleasant. No, Carson was a narcissist. A true narcissist. The word was overused in the world today, in Tanner’s opinion, detracting from how truly damaging those who were the real deal could be. As a father to both his brother Jake and him, Carson had been dreadful.
On the exterior, and to the world, Carson had possibly appeared a decent parent. They’d had a nice house, their mother had driven a nice car, they’d all had nice clothes. But there was a savagery of spirit beneath Carson’s exterior that haunted their family. A nastiness. One misstep as kids and they’d been treated like worthless garbage by their own father.
Their mother, Judy Carmichael, had been a saint. She’d carefully maneuvered marriage to a man who could, at any moment, turn on her and her boys with a terrifying coldness. She’d pushed back when needed, but it was a learned response they now understood. She’d figured out the ways to handle Carson that manipulated his ego and his need to be seen by others as blameless and right.
Their mom had passed away just over six years ago from cancer. Carson had considered her cancer a weakness. Tanner and Jake, as adults, avoided their father as much as possible. But Tanner, unfortunately, was tied to him by profession, and trying like hell to get untied. He still worked at Carson’s law firm, per their financial agreement, because Carson had paid for Tanner’s education to keep him from accruing a mountain of student debt. Tanner’s deal with the devil hadn’t been worth it, he’d realized after the fact.
At the time, Tanner had accepted Carson’s help because he’d needed it, and he was young enough to believe that maybe his father was doing it because that’s what successful fathers did for their sons. But it was never about helping Tanner; it was about holding him hostage once he’d gotten out of law school.
But not much longer. That was one reason he was meeting with young Carly today.
Mother’s Oyster House was a fixture along the bayou. Several high-top tables sat outside, hugging the building, as the sidewalk was narrow. The air was warm and humid as summer rolled into the area. A May evening outdoors was not to be missed if one had the opportunity.
The doors of the small dive were flung open, allowing the smells and music to meet him as he arrived. “Hi there, Tanner. Would you like to sit outside? Party of two? Is Jake joining you?”
“Hi, Becky. Yes, there’s two of us. Jake won’t be with me tonight though.”
“Some lucky girl?”
The hostess, Becky, and he had gone through school together. And nobody around here had any intention of minding their business. Tanner laughed. “Just a friend, Becky.”
Tanner ordered an Abita and stared out over the water across the brick street. Cypress Bayou, the town, was a unique and special place. Maybe that’s why he was willing to fight his father to stay here.
“Hey there, Tanner.” Carly slipped her purse over the ladder-back wooden barstool and hiked herself up onto it. “Pretty evening.”
Carly had grown up nicely. He’d known her since she was a little girl in pigtails. He nodded and saluted her with his beer. “Beer?”
“You bet. Today was official moving day and I’ve had it up to here with my mother.” She motioned over her head.
Becky approached when she saw Carly. “Oh, hey there, Carly. I got excited for a minute when Tanner said he was meeting someone. You want a beer?” Tanner had been a bachelor in this town for so long that the locals were rooting for him to find someone.
“It’s only me, Becky. Nobody exciting. And yes, I’ll take an Abita.” She nodded toward Tanner’s beer.
“Y’all want me to get some oysters going? Got some in from the Gulf this morning. Special today is two dozen for twenty bucks.”
“Is that what smells so heavenly?” Carly closed her eyes and inhaled.
“Yes. We broil them like they do at Drago’s in New Orleans, with the Romano cheese, garlic, and butter.”
Tanner laughed. “We’ll take two dozen. And some bread.”
“I’m starving. Thank you.” She grinned at him, and Tanner was taken aback at how lovely she was. When had she become this gorgeous woman?
Carly stared out at the water and took a deep breath, then closed her eyes. The same exact thing Tanner’d done once he’d sat down.
“It’s so peaceful here.”
Becky plopped down Carly’s beer, pulling her out of what appeared to be a moment of satisfaction.
Carly knocked her longneck against Tanner’s and took a long draw. He had to appreciate a woman who enjoyed a good beer.
“So, what’s up? I was a little surprised to get your text.” Carly’s gaze was curious, and her eyes, well, they were clear, cat-eyed hazel, just like her sister Leah’s.
“Let me start by saying this stays between us until I make the move. I mean, Jake and Leah know, of course.” He told his brother and sister-in-law things he wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone else.
“Sure. I won’t say a word to anyone.” She made a crisscross pattern over her heart, which made him smile unexpectedly.
He leaned in. “I’m working on separating from my father’s law firm, but he has no idea yet.”
Carly’s eyebrows went up. “Wow. That’s huge. Tell me more.”
Tanner’s desire to part ways from Carson was something he’d spoken about freely in past conversations with Carly present, since it wasn’t uncommon for her to be with Leah while Tanner was with Jake. So Carly likely already knew this was something he’d wanted for a while.
“I’ve purchased a building on Second Street from a friend who’s recently moved his business to Shreveport. He’s already transferred the title but held off on filing it with the city, and we’ve made a mostly cash purchase, but he’s willing to self-finance the rest. It’s the only way I could do it without Carson sabotaging the sale.”
Carly frowned. “Sabotaging? In what way?”
“The usual stuff I could see him doing. Building code violations, licensing delays, which he could still make happen, if I’m not careful who I work with at city hall.”
Carly frowned. “I know your dad can be an ass, but why would he go to such lengths to keep you at his office if you don’t want to stay?”
The oysters arrived then, and they dipped the French bread in garlic butter and added hot sauce to the mix.
“Pride, mostly. He has some weird idea that keeping me as his associate within the practice demonstrates to everyone in town my loyalty to him. Going out on my own will infuriate him. In his mind, I might as well hang a banner from the bridge across the bayou that says I’ve defected.”
“He’s not somebody I’d want to piss off—that’s for sure.” Carly’s family had had some experience with Carson’s bad side quite recently. “So, I’m happy for you, but I have to ask how this affects me?”
“I need an associate. Well, at first, it would be more like an assistant. But there would be legal work involved. And court cases. And if all goes well, opportunity for advancement.”
“Can you pay me?” Carly had just completed an internship, so he could see where she might want to clarify this not-so-tiny detail.
Tanner shifted on his stool. “Yes. Not well at first, but the sooner we win the first case, the better the odds of your pay increasing quickly.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “What if I bring in my own cases?”
Tanner was impressed by her business savvy. Being such a young attorney, it surprised him how she looked him in the eye with a steady stare as if she were negotiating a contract. “Your cases would be your cases minus a small percentage. We can work it out in a contract if you’re interested.”
She grinned at him. “Let me think about it and get back to you. I’m not sure what my long-term plans are.”
“We could go into it with no strings, meaning you take the job and work with me until you figure out what you want to do. I need someone to help me with all the minutiae of setting the practice up, so think about it, okay?”
End of Excerpt