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Never by Lulu Pratt (1)

Chapter One

Lara

“Of course she had to go and die,” I mutter to myself, knowing it’s one of the worst things I can possibly say about my sister, and knowing it’s absolutely unfair. Pulling into a parking spot in the lot outside of the estate lawyer’s office, I take a deep breath.

If she had the choice, Alexis would be alive. Easter was destroyed by her death. The family was technically together, but the fact that she wasn’t there, that she was dead, had hung over everyone in the room, the house, over dinner, the whole deal.

I take another deep breath and flip down the mirror to check my makeup. It’s hard to believe it, but a week ago I was finishing my work and planning my packing to go home to see my father, my sister, her husband, and their child, and a few other family members for Easter.

And then I’d gotten the call.

Looking at my reflection, my eyes still look a bit bloodshot, and my mascara has smeared a bit at the corners of my eyes. I make a quick movement to clean it up a bit, and think about the whole big, stupid mess.

I can still remember the way Dad’s voice sounded on the phone. “I know you were planning on coming in a couple of days, Lara, but I would appreciate it if you could get here maybe tomorrow.”

I’d gotten the time off work for the whole week, and helped Dad as much as I could. We’d had the funeral for Alexis on Wednesday, and then there was the long wait between then and Easter Sunday, with Dad and me dealing with visitors to the house, telephone calls and accepting pre-Easter feasts worth of food that he didn’t even have room for. It’s difficult to say whether people would have insisted so hard on bringing so much food if Mom was still around, but I have to think that at least a few of the people who came to see us might not have come twice if Mom was still around.

I touch up my powder a bit and dab at the color on my lips, something that wouldn’t look like I’m joyful at my older sister’s passing but also something that doesn’t make me look like a corpse myself, and then I make myself get out of the damn car finally. Sitting there won’t make Alexis’ death un-happen, and it won’t take away the obligation to listen to the reading of her will. It won’t mean that I don’t have to sit in some stuffy estate lawyer’s office with the man I used to love, and my father, who has never reconciled himself to everything that happened a few years before and how it tore apart our family.

I just have to get through this and hope that Alexis forgot to even think of me, the same way she hadn’t thought about me at all when she and Ethan hooked up.

I straighten my skirt and smooth my blouse as I walk to the entrance to the office, trying to remind myself that it’s stupid to dread seeing Ethan again. It makes a little more sense to dread being around Riley, my niece, who is just eighteen months old, but I’m mostly looking forward to being around the little girl who reminds me so much of my sister when she was younger, before things went so sour between us.

The receptionist is at her desk, and she looks up when I come in. “You father and Mr. Parks have already arrived. I’ll just walk you through to Mr. Gottlieb’s office,” she says, taking me in for a moment. I nod and let her escort me through the reception area and down a little hallway.

I’ve known I have to attend this appointment for days, and I’ve been dreading it, not because I’m worried that my sister might have made some gesture to try to win me over from beyond the grave, but because I’m afraid that she decided to do something petty in her will, like specifically say that I’m not entitled to any keepsake from her estate or some final rebuke just because I’d spurned her. The fact that I’d shut her out of my life for damned good reasons would, of course, never have entered her mind.

My dad looks like he mostly has it together when Mr. Gottlieb’s receptionist lets me into the little office, decorated all in beige and green and blue. It’s supposed to be soothing, but somehow, it’s just all the more irritating because I know I’m supposed to feel soothed. Dad’s dressed in a suit, one of three that he owns, and I’m glad I dressed up a little bit, in spite of the fact that this isn’t really a formal meeting of any kind.

Ethan on the other hand is in a dress shirt and tie, along with some khakis. I guess he feels like being a single dad now makes the dress code more relaxed for him. Riley, my niece, the only thing that brought me back into the family, is in a cute little dress in a blue shade that brings out the brightness of her eyes. Her dark hair is down to her shoulders. Ethan hasn’t bothered to do anything cute with it the way that Alexis would have. My eighteen-month-old niece has already taken off her black shoes and is standing at her father’s knees in a pair of lace-topped white socks, asking him when they’ll go find Mommy.

“Ah, Ms. Hampstead,” Mr. Gottlieb says, calling my attention away from my sister’s daughter, my beloved niece. “Now that you’re here, I believe we can start.”

“Yes, please do,” I say, looking around quickly for a seat. “I’m sorry if I’ve delayed you.”

“Not at all,” Gottlieb says, taking something out of his desk. It looks like a binder, and I wonder just how long my sister’s last will and testament even is, and what her estate could even amount to. She was older than me, and as far as I knew, she and Ethan hadn’t exactly struck it rich in the couple of years since their marriage. The only seat open to me is right between my father and my ex-boyfriend, and I sit down in it, resigning myself to the fact that it’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable and unpleasant for the next hour.

Once we’re all settled in, Mr. Gottlieb starts to read through the will with plenty of hemming and hawing about legal matters, and for the most part I tune out, getting Riley to come over to me. It isn’t hard, but it’s much harder to get her to stop babbling about her mommy, and sit in my lap and play with the big pendant on my necklace.

Apparently, Alexis and Ethan invested in life insurance, which will cover enough for the funeral, as well as some security for Riley’s upbringing for a few years, and they had opened a college investment account for their daughter. I’d never really thought of my sister as being the kind of person to think ahead like that, but apparently she was.

“Now,” Mr. Gottlieb said, coming to the end of the document. “This part I believe will be a bit complicated. Mrs. Parks states in the end of her will, regarding the disposition of her daughter, Riley Hampstead Parks, that she wishes for custody to be shared between Mr. Parks and Ms. Hampstead.”

“What?” I stare at the estate lawyer as if he’s grown a second pair of hands. My father also makes a noise as it seems this is news to him too.

“I’ll quote the directive itself,” he says. “‘Because I can see how much my sister, Lara Jane Hampstead, loves my daughter, Riley, and because I know that Riley will need a mother in the event of my passing, and I can’t think of anyone who would do the job better, I wish for my sister, Lara Jane Hampstead, to be a mother to my daughter, sharing custody of Riley with my husband, Ethan James Parks.”

I’d been worried that Alexis was going to spite me somehow in her will. Certainly, we’d had enough arguments since she’d taken up with my ex-boyfriend where she’d gone low with her blows, but here she’d actually decided that I should be the one to help raise her daughter in her absence.

“That can’t be…” Dad sounds torn between anger and confusion and when I look over at him, I see he’s been crying a little bit while we’ve been listening. I wish I’d heard whatever it was she’d bequeathed or said to him in her will, but it could have been anything.

“For them to share custody…”

“It’s just a custodial arrangement. There are no real conditions,” Mr. Gottlieb says. “She wants for Ms. Hampstead to take an active role in helping to raise her daughter, and noted that this should stand even if Mr. Parks is ever re-married. The two of them are to work out the details amongst themselves, with court a final recourse if they cannot agree on equitable division of custody and/or visitation. You are, of course, under no obligation to do this. The will is not binding on you.”

All I can do is stare at the old, worn-down looking estate lawyer.

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