A contest of wills

Nicole settled back into the well-padded chair. She was tired already. She looked over at the other two members of her family present at this meeting. Kay and Denney were also reclining in the old fashioned, red leather chairs. She knew the relaxed postures were as false as her own. It had been a very hectic three days. However, she had mourned. Now she was glad her grandmother was at peace.

Only David Jones, the family attorney, stood. The photographer wondered if he had been teased about his name as a child. Suddenly, she found herself very curious about names and personalities. She wondered what would cause someone to curse a child with such a name. She only hoped that she could avoid the same mistake with her child.

"So, I guess you all are wondering why I chose to meet with just the three of you first." The tall, balding attorney’s nasal voice pulled her from her thoughts.

"I had wondered, Davey." Denney grinned at the attorney’s flinch. Nicole knew they had what her uncle called ‘bad blood’ between them, though she did not know the reasons behind their ill will.

"Adia’s will is very specific. It completes Henri’s." Mr. Jones quickly recovered his aplomb. "It mostly concerns Nicole, but I felt the two of you, as the oldest offspring still here, should hear what it says before the rest of the family." He stumbled a bit over the term. Nicole could not blame him. Every Herbert, no matter how distantly related had swooped down like buzzards after Adia’s death. The photographer did not know half of them, the others she had not seen in years.

"I take it most of the family will disagree with this?" Kay stood and walked over to her niece. She placed a calming hand on the photographer’s shoulder.

"I can imagine most of them will be displeased." The attorney unfolded a letter he had idly been turning over in his hands. "I have been instructed to read this."

"Nicole, it is my wish that this is to be taken as it is meant, for the best. You have been groomed from a young age for this. I have, as did your grandfather, every faith in you. Of all my children and grandchildren, you, Nicolette have the ability, as your father before you, to lead this family, manage the estate, and hold it in trust for future generations. I must now apologize. It must appear as if you are being thrown into this blind. This is not true. As I said before, you have been groomed for this, as your father was, all your life. Even though you often resisted, and your grandfather could not deny you anything, you are still the best equipped for the duty. In short, as I know you are most likely in shock, we have designated you as our heir. David will have all the details. Listen to his advice, but follow your own instincts when able. He will be able to walk you through everything, as will Denney and Kay. I trust in them to help you settle into this. This will not be a popular decision, but hopefully soon the rest of the family will see the sense in our decision. I know that I can count on Phil, Jessie, Cassie, Michael and Stan to help you with this as well. I thank God that you are not alone in this task. I know that you will not let us down and will fulfill all the dreams we had for you. Sincerely, your loving grandmother, Adia T. Herbert."

"That’s it?" Denney stood. "I’ve known that for a long time. Is there something in that pile of papers I don’t know?" He sounded slightly upset.

"Denney, calm down." Kay’s grip remained on Nicole’s shoulder. The photographer felt as if she were trapped in a very surreal dream. Nothing seemed real.

"Yes there is more. There are conditions to this will. Would you like to hear them now?" David sunk to his knees and lowered his voice as he spoke to the photographer.

"Yes. We might as well talk it all through now." From someplace inside herself she found strength to think of something other than her heartache. She had not known such a place existed, but she liked it.

"Alright. These are the conditions. You are the heir to the throne so to speak. Everything your grandfather and grandmother owned is now yours. That includes the Warehouse, this house, the plantation home, the antique stores, the restaurant, the club, the hotel, all the stocks and bonds and the art gallery. It all belongs to you, however there are conditions on this. You are not allowed to sell any of it for fifteen years. You can only be absolved from this if you suddenly disappear or cease to breathe. This is also transferable to any heirs you may produce within that fifteen year period. If you were to produce an heir within that time frame, you would be able to abdicate the responsibilities in favor of your child. Everything would then be held in trust until that child came of age. It is rather theatrical and Old Worldish, but Henri did always admire the kings of England a bit too much." He forced a laugh. "The fifteen year clause is to make sure your aunts and uncles continue to have an income until they retire. Then they’ll draw from a special trust set up just for that."

"Well, I guess she’ll have to take it then. It’s not like she’ll produce an heir with her lifestyle." Denney sank back into his chair. His tone was surprisingly calm as if he were not delivering a backhanded insult.

"I wouldn’t be so sure of that. I do plan on having a family one day." Nicole was finding it difficult to focus on any one thing. She did however register the impact of her uncle’s words. There had been no stipulation placed on the conception of an heir. She was not required to marry. No matter what happened, her child would be provided for and protected.

"Nicole, I know this is a lot to process. We will have the full reading of the will in two days. You have until then to make your decision. There is another out clause for you." The attorney stood and shuffled through his papers again. "If you decide to disappear, we can provide a nest egg of sorts. However, if within the time frame given, you were to have a baby, that child would become the heir by default. I think we’ll leave you alone to think it over. I will leave these with you." He handed her a pile of papers. They were copies of the letter and other assorted documents. "Come by my office if you have any more questions. We need your decision by the time we read the will. You have until Thursday at 5 pm." He awkwardly patted her shoulder. "I’ll be looking forward to hearing your decision."

"Thank you, Mr. Jones." Nicole managed to remember her manners. "I will be in touch."

"Have a good evening." He did not seem to know what else to say. "This conversation of course needs to remain private." He looked pointedly at Denney. "I shall see you all soon. I’ll see my way out."

"Well, I’ll be." Denney seemed at a loss for words. "I’m going home. I’ll see you both Thursday."

"Goodbye, Denney." Kay had yet to move.

"See you later, Uncle." She barely looked up to see him leave. She was too busy rereading her grandmother’s letter.


"Did you know about this?" She asked her aunt.

"Yes. Mother had me witness the will. I could not tell you about it, but she never rewrote the will. She wanted it that way, even after the fight you two had. She admired your willingness to walk away from everything and your determination to succeed on your own. She said it is what marked you as different from the rest of us." Kay finally walked over to her chair. She pulled it closer before taking seat facing the photographer. "Do you know what you’re going to do?"

"Well, I seem to be kinda stuck."

"You could leave. I hope you don’t, but it is an option." She was sincere.

"No, I can’t leave. I need to tell you something that is going to seem awfully convenient to the rest of the family, but trust me it was not planned." Nicole took a deep breath. "I am pregnant. By the terms of the will, regardless of my decision, it will still affect my child. I could not dump that on someone. I have a responsibility to my child and myself. I cannot run away again. I’ve gotten too good at that recently."

"How did you? I thought you were?"

"It was an accident and I am. I." She wondered what to tell her aunt. She had actually contemplated disappearing after she learned about her pregnancy, but knew it would have been the wrong decision. "I ran into Brian one night back in October. It was not a pleasant scene, but it happened. I’ve accepted it, I just need to move on now." She almost smiled as she remembered hearing those words from Laurel more than once. She knew the bassist would be proud of her at this moment. It was a tough situation, and Nicole was prepared to face it head on. She was not going to run, she was going to accept it, deal with it, and get on with her life. It was about time, but finally the final piece of her bruised soul healed itself. It felt surprisingly good.

"Oh, honey, I wish you would have said something." Kay had tears in her eyes as she leaned over and hugged the photographer. "Are you sure about this? I mean you have two days to think it over."

"There’s nothing to think about. This is my responsibility. I can’t turn my back on my family, my child, or myself. I can’t outrun my duties anymore. I’ll call Mr. Jones tomorrow and tell him my decision." She felt it was the right decision. She had no doubt about this. It was her responsibility and she was willing to embrace it.

"Well, this is good news I guess. What do you want?"

"What do you mean?"

"A boy or a girl. Which do you want?"

"I honestly don’t care." She did not want to admit that she often dreamed of a son. "I think Danny wants a little girl."

"What does Danny have to do with this?" Her aunt was understandably confused.

"He has agreed to stand as the father. We’re going to ask Sheryl and Aaron to be godparents." She felt the smile approaching a second before it appeared. It was a little tired, a little worn, but it was real.

"Good. Guess this means we’ll have to go shopping then. Can I at least throw you a baby shower? This maybe as close to a grandchild as I’ll get for a long time." Kay seemed pleased with the situation.

"Yeah. I get the feeling I’m going to need a lot of help."

"Well, I need to go round up my husband before he shoots one of my cousins. Honestly those people have no manners." She tactfully did not mention her sister and brother, the two ‘missing’ Herberts. Marie and Julian had appeared for their mother’s funeral, but that was about it. They were only staying around for the will reading.

"Thanks Kay." Nicole smiled at her aunt. "I’m just going to read these and hide from the crowd."

"I’ll send your friends back. Unless you want to be alone?"

"Send them back please." Nicole was absorbed in the documents once again. She did not hear her aunt leave the room.

Her mind was too full of "parties of" and "clause number" to notice much of anything. Her grandparents had planned their wills carefully. All Nicole was required to do for fifteen years was manage the estate. For that period of time, everything was to remain the same. She could not fire any member of her family from their job without cause and documentation to support that cause. She felt it was fair. She did not want to fire anyone. Denney, Kay, Stan, and Denney’s children depended on the profits from their businesses to live. She did not want to take that away from any of them. It would not seem right. After the fifteen years, she was free to do what ever she wished with the estate. She wondered at that. What would she want to do with it in fifteen years?

As it was, Nicole felt a little overwhelmed by it all. She had not expected to receive anything upon her grandmother’s death. She was content to work as a freelance photographer for the local paper and two local magazines until the baby was born. She had never given thought to returning to the family in such a way. Accepting her responsibilities almost seemed a relief. At least now she would never have to worry about finding a permanent job. Her grandparents had taken care of that for her. It was a shocking revelation, one she knew she would have to grow into, but it was a nice surprise in a way. Nicole simply wondered now if she were up to the challenge. She did not want to let them down, but more she did not want to let herself down.

"Hey Hotshot, what’s all the mystery going on for?" Danny poked his head around the door. "And why did Denney storm out of here like his feet were on fire?"

"Is this something you can tell us, or do we have to wait for the TV movie?" Aaron pushed his lover inside the room.

"A TV movie. Wonder who would play me?" Sheryl commented as she joined them in the study.

"That annoying band camp chick from that pie movie." Danny grinned as the critic grimaced. "Now, are you going to tell us what’s going on?"

"As much as I can, I guess." Nicole handed him the letter from her grandmother. She waited until after the three of them absorbed the shock. "That’s what it all was about."

"Wow. What are you going to do?" Sheryl asked.

"Well, I have a few choices. I can die, disappear or abdicate in favor of my child." She shrugged. "I really don’t want to die, disappearing does not sound appealing and abdicating is out of the question."

"That is logical." Aaron nodded in agreement. "Makes perfect sense."

"What makes perfect sense?" Danny did not think on the same levels his lover did. It was one of the many ways they complimented one another.

"If Nicole were to tell everyone she’s pregnant and then have that child be the heir, there’s no guarantee she’ll be taken care of, and there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to raise her own child." Aaron answered after perusing the other documents Nicole passed around. "So, it would be best for her to accept the responsibilities and then after the fifteen years is over, create her own children as her heirs. According to this, if she were to die without an heir, then everything would be split among the surviving Herbert children, not the grandchildren."

"Can’t your family do anything simply?" Sheryl groaned. The critic rubbed her forehead as if it ached.

"Actually, this is rather simple for them. I just don’t know why they chose me to do it. My grandfather died five years ago, and apparently I’m the heir in his too. I don’t get it." She understood her acceptance of it, but she still did not grasp the motivation behind her grandparents’ decision.

"We may never know. At least you won’t have to worry about looking for work." Danny chose the optimistic route. "Or running out of diapers, baby food, dog food, you know piddlely little stuff like that."

"Or college tuition." Aaron pointed out.

"True." She grinned. "I’ve already decided to stick it out, but I’m glad you agree with me. It’s nice to be backed up sometimes."

"We’re behind you." Sheryl spoke for the three of them. "Especially since now you can give us all jobs." The critic teased.

"Uh huh. You’d hate not working at a paper." Nicole stood. "Think it would be improper if we ventured out to find food?"

"Not in the least. Even if it is, we don’t really care. You do need to eat something." Danny told her.

"Where are we going?" Aaron offered his hand to the critic.

"I don’t care as long as it has lots of food." The photographer rubbed her stomach. She already felt as if she were hungry enough for two.

"I don’t care sounds like a nice place. Let’s eat there." Sheryl suggested.

"Well, there’s a great place not far from here, but we’ll have to drive or take the trolley." Danny looked down at his feet. "I know I don’t want to walk far in these, I’m sure you don’t either." He turned to Nicole. They were all still in their funeral attire.

"We can take one of the cars. Let’s just try to slip out quietly." She did not want to face the rest of her family yet. She would have invited Stan and Jessie, but did not want to make things awkward for the critic. The two had not spoken since Jessie returned home.

"Oh, good. Spy games." Aaron pretended to hold a gun. He ducked down and walked in parody of old TV shows. "Follow me."


"Ok. We change our set from time to time. It keeps us from getting too deep into a rut." Laurel explained. "Now, since you helped write the music for two of the songs, those shouldn’t be a problem right?"

"Right. We still practice those, and we do a cover of ‘Come to me’." Sam sat on the empty stage. The others had not yet arrived.

"Really. I’m flattered." She grinned. "Are you sure you’re ok with this?"

"Yeah. I’ll need the practice with the bass, but honestly, I’ve always fantasized about being in a band on tour."

"It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. At least you’ll have BJ."

"Yeah, that’s true. Did he tell you he asked me to marry him?" Sam grinned broadly. "He was so sweet about it. He got down on his knee, pulled out this ring and was really shy. He had to ask twice before his voice and my ears caught up with one another."

"That’s a beautiful ring." She looked at it. It was slightly larger than normal, but otherwise appeared to be a standard engagement ring. "I bought this one back in February for Nicole." She pulled the chain out from under her shirt.

"Wow. That’s incredible. Where did you find it?" Sam cupped her hand around the ring. "I like the cut of it." It was an oval cut set in a gold band. The band was slightly wider than normal. A delicate ring of Celtic knots circled the band. Inside was the phrase "Lovers destiny entwined’ in thin, ghostly runes. She had patterned the tattoo on her arm after the ring.

"Stan, Nicole’s cousin, works at their uncle’s antique store. He was at an estate sale and saw this. I asked him over Christmas to look for something, and he bought it for me to give to Nicole." She explained. As soon as Sam released the chain, Laurel carefully tucked back under her shirt. "I’ve been wearing it as a good luck charm since I was never able to give it to her."

"You will. And she’ll love it. It is gorgeous."

"Thanks. Stan has excellent taste. I had final say so on it, but I couldn’t have found a better one myself had I tried."

"Some things are just meant to be."

"I’ve been hearing that a lot over the last few days. What is it with you people?" Laurel asked. She was starting to wonder if there were a conspiracy afoot. "When you came up here, did you know we’d ask you to replace me in the band?"

"No. I really didn’t. BJ knows this is my dream though, so I guess he knew I’d say yes now that we’re back together." Sam looked at her. Laurel could read the truth in her eyes. It calmed the feeling of paranoia.

"So, when and where is the big day?"

"The day before you and Mandy leave. Mom’s bringing Thomas up, so I don’t have to worry about going home. I’m a convenience store clerk so I really don’t have to worry about getting fired for not showing up, so that’s taken care of. We wanted you two here. He’s talked to a JP who’s willing to do the ceremony on Monday."

"Harold’s supposed to be back tonight. I guess we’ll have a meeting with him then." Laurel was not looking forward to that.

"Are you sure this is what you want to do?"

"I’ve thought about it for four days. I have to go home. I mean forgetting for a moment that I slugged our lead guitarist; I still don’t need to be here. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the temptations. You’ve never been into the whole drug, booze and sex scene have you?"

"Not really. I’ve drank, and I’ve had sex, but I’ve never had an overwhelming desire to do either." Sam looked at her for a long moment. "I told you once that you had a good thing with Nicole. I meant it then. I mean it more now."

"I know. I don’t know what’ll happen. Hell, I really only know she’s in New Orleans. I’m guessing she’s staying at her grandmother’s house, but I don’t know for sure. I think I’ll go there first though."

"Why? Doesn’t she have an apartment down there?"

"Yes, but if I know Nicole, she’ll have made up with her grandmother since I’m not in the picture. She’s slightly more family oriented than I am." Laurel shrugged. "What’s taking them so long? It’s not like we haven’t scheduled this time for rehearsal every day for almost a week."

"I asked them to give us some time alone. I wanted to make sure you weren’t forced into this." Sam idly plucked at the stings on Laurel’s bass. She had yet to get one of her own.

"You know, it’s funny. There’s this little voice inside my head that keeps saying I should have not gotten on that plane to New York. But, there’s this other one that says it was the right thing to do. That somehow, I needed the time away from Hattiesburg, Nicole and everyone. It’s like I finally had to get a few screws tightened inside my head." Laurel leaned back against BJ’s drum stand. "I’ve learned a lot out here. Mostly it’s been about me, but that’s all good I think. I’ve never really been honest with myself about a lot of things. I can be now. It’s time to call a halt and send this weary soldier home." She pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Think they’ll know if we smoke in here? Nicotine goes so well with deep conversations."

"So I’ve heard. I don’t think they well. If it matters, I think you’re doing the right thing. Not that I want you to quit the band or well…" Sam took a deep breath. "You know what I mean right?"

"I think so." Laurel laughed. "It’s for the best."

"I’m glad you think so. I really would hate to think you were forced to leave when you didn’t want to."

"I need to and I do want to leave." She turned to the back stage area. "You guys can come out now."

"How’d you know we were there?" BJ asked as he appeared from his hiding place behind the stage.

"Lucky guess. C’mon. Let’s see how this new band sounds." Laurel stood. She watched as they took their positions. She would not be playing today. Larry was playing the lead guitar for them. She had to admit he was much better than Jenna.

"Not bad, Lakky. You conduct as well as you write." Mandy commented as Laurel took a seat next to her in the audience.

"I’m not conducting. If I were though, I’d move Larry over to lead guitar and boot Jenna. Actually, if I were staying I’d try to do that too."

"Are you staying?"

"No. Why does everyone keep asking me that?"

"Because we don’t want you to walk away and regret it." Mandy told her. "We’re just trying to make sure you know what you want."

"When haven’t I?" Laurel countered. "I want to walk away. I really do. I will always play music, so I won’t miss that. I have a stand up bass. I thought maybe I’d see about joining a jazz quartet or something."

"That would be cool. Have you given any thought about what you’re going to say to her?"

"Who? Jenna? I’ll be long gone by the time she returns. I’m very thankful for that too."

"No, silly. Nicole."

"Nope. Thought I’d wing it." She had thought about it, but had not formed a concrete plan. She knew the words would come when she was in the situation.

"That’s probably for the best."

"Hey, do you two mind? We’re trying to rehearse up here." Steve called to them.

"Sorry." Laurel was not the least apologetic.

"Well, how’s it sound so far?" Sam asked.

"I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention. I was caught in the throes of a conspiracy. Play it again. I’ll listen this time." She replied.

"We’re honored." Larry commented in a dry tone.

"I can’t listen if you all don’t play." Laurel warned.

"Alright. Once more from the top." Steve counted out Sam’s cue.

Laurel leaned back in her seat and listened. They sounded surprisingly good. Especially when she compared the first rehearsal. Sam was blending in well with Steve and BJ. It helped that she played in a band in Hattiesburg. Still, Laurel knew it was difficult moving from one band’s style to another’s. All in all, she was impressed. It was almost depressing. She understood then how replaceable she was in a way. However, on the whole it made her feel better. She would not be leaving the band in a lurch. Sam was more than able to pick up the slack Laurel’s departure caused. With one problem solved, she was finally able to turn her mind to the other one. She wondered how she could win back Nicole.

"Well?" Steve called out into the audience again.

"Better. Much better." Laurel stood. "Let’s take a break and get something to eat. I think everyone has the songs down. Wanna skip this afternoon?"

"Yeah. I could use a break." BJ rubbed his wrists. "Want Chinese?"

"That sounds excellent." Sam grinned.

"Works for me. Pack up and let’s move out." Laurel told them.

"Aye sergeant." Steve saluted.

"Smile when you say that, son. It’ll be all good." She laughed. "Hurry up, I’m hungry."


"Hey Hotshot, can you pass the salt?" Sheryl asked as the waitress placed her plate in front of her.

"Yeah, here you go." They were at one of Danny’s favorite restaurants. Somehow they managed to escape the house undetected.

"So, what’s the first order of business?" Danny asked.

"Well, since we have them both here, think we should ask them now?" Nicole asked.

"Yeah, go ahead." He said.

"What is going on?" Aaron asked.

"Danny and I wanted to know if the two of you wanted to stand as godparents."

"Are you serious?" Sheryl asked.

"Yes we are. We wanted to talk to the two of you about it. We want to have the child christened, and we thought you would consent to being the godparents." Danny looked at his lover. "Would this be ok since you aren’t catholic?

"I have no problem with it. In fact, I’m honored." He smiled. "But would that be ok?’

"All we’d have to do would be to donate something and it would be ok with Father Jason." Nicole said. "Well Aaron is in, what about you?" She turned to Sheryl.

"I can’t believe you asked me." The critic had tears in her eyes. "I’m honored, yes of course I’ll do it." She reached over and hugged the photographer. "Who else are you going to chose?"

"We haven’t thought that much about it." Nicole counted Danny in the equation. For all intents and purposes, he was the father of her child. It was easier for her to think of him as the father. She refused to think of Brian in that capacity.

"Well, we could at least ask Michael." Danny suggested. "Where is he anyway?"

"I don’t know. He disappeared after the funeral. He would like being asked I think." The photographer thought about it. She knew her brother would be flattered.

"I saw him go off somewhere with Jessie." Aaron informed them. "They seemed to want to talk in private."

"Wonder what that was about?" Nicole was curious. She knew she would find out that evening.

"Beats me. Have you met Jessie’s new girlfriend?" Sheryl did not sound bitter.

"Yeah I did. Are you ok with that?" She asked. They had not really talked about it.

"Yep, I am. I won’t settle for anything less than what you have with Short but Deadly. I didn’t have that with Jessie and we both knew it."

"We can talk about this later if you want." Nicole suggested.


"Because they just walked in with Stan and Michael." The photographer waved at her brother, her two cousins and Jessie’s new girlfriend, Dana.

"Now this is going to be interesting." Aaron muttered. He did not seem to get along well with Jessica’s new lover.

"Seems we can’t avoid you people." Michael teased as he approached the table. "Mind if we join you?"

"Go ahead." Nicole was getting apprehensive. Aaron was right. Things were about to get interesting.

"Here." Stan pulled a table over. "I think everyone knows everyone else."

"Yeah, we’ve all met." Danny did not seem happy about the turn of events either.

"Well, if this isn’t a quaint little spot. We have a few places like this in New York. Of course those are in the older sections where all the geriatrics hang out." Dana commented as she sat down.

"So where do all the drug dealers and mobsters hang out? Or do they just stay in Jersey?" Aaron seemed unable to stop the question. Sheryl quickly hid her snicker in her napkin.

"I think they stay on cable TV. Honestly, is that how you people learn of other places, from the TV?" She scoffed.

"No, I’ve been to New York. Nice place, little cold for my taste, but nice." Nicole commented.

"Bet you just did the tourist view, didn’t you? Broadway, the museums, Times Square." Dana dug the ditch a bit deeper.

"Pretty much. We did get to see some homeless guys on 42nd street." Sheryl managed to keep a straight face. "I didn’t remember that in the brochure, did you Danny?"

"Nope, but those adult video stores were interesting." He smiled at his friends. "Course, they have nothing on Bourbon Street."

"Yeah, and Father Jason almost had a heart attack when he discovered you were in one." Nicole pointed out.

"I wasn’t the only one in there. You and Sheryl were too."

"Yeah, but we managed to make it outside before the nuns came looking for us." Sheryl laughed. "It was an interesting trip. Great for the band."

"And us." The photographer agreed. "So, there you have it. We’ve been to New York and seen the culture there."

"Oh yeah, that’s a great culture comparison, the sin factor." Dana set down her menu. "What’s good here?"

"The today’s special is really good." Aaron’s smile could be described as wicked. "I highly recommend it."

"Yeah, it is great." Nicole played along. She wanted to see what the New Yorker would do after ingesting blackened alligator, spicy sausage gumbo, and the only ‘red alarm’ jambalaya in existence.

"Amazing. We’re getting some to go." Sheryl was overtaken by a suspicious coughing fit.

"Can I trust them?" Dana asked Jessie.

"Yeah, I didn’t see what the special was, but if they say it’s good, go for it." She did not look concerned.

"Um, you know, maybe that’s not a good idea." Michael looked uneasy.

"Nonsense, bro, if the Yank… I mean Dana wants to try some local cuisine, the special is a good way to start." Nicole leveled her best stern look at him.

"Right. On second thought, go for it. I think you’ll find it unlike anything you’ve ever had before, but in a good way." He winced. Fortunately Dana did not see it.

"Ok, I’ll take that then." Dana placed her menu on the table. "So what do you guys do for fun around here?"

"Oh, we sit by the River, toss food to the ducks, look for vampires, hunt some ghost, sit on our front porches in our underwear chewing on hayseeds. Nothing much." Aaron’s comments earned laughter from his friends and a scowl from Jessie.

"Right. Like there are vampires and ghost. What do you take me for?"

"The city mouse?" Danny asked under his breath. "Jessie, I think you need to warn Dana about Conti Street." He started their favorite prank.

"I’m sure she’s not a virgin though. So it should be safe, if she’s with other people." Sheryl picked up her cue.

"Well, the real question is, does lesbian sex qualify as loss of virginity to a vampire?" Nicole could not resist. The four of them had run that scam on more than one tourist. It was how they entertained themselves in high school.

"You know, that is a good question." Aaron picked up on the game. Stan seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face. He did not like his sister’s new girlfriend either.

"I don’t think it does. Hey, remember Missy Davidson?" Stan used the code name they devised in high school for urban legends.

"What happened to her?" Dana seemed drawn in to the discussion against her will. She sounded a bit skeptical, but that was more fun. They loved making ‘believers’ out of skeptics.

"It was tragic. She went out one night late to meet up with this college guy she was dating." Nicole picked up the thread of the story. People were more inclined to believe her than the others. "He saw her from a distance, problem was, they were meeting on the corner of Conti and Bourbon. She was picked up, floated in the air, and returned to the street lifeless. Her boyfriend called an ambulance. She did not have a drop of blood in her at all."

"Yeah right, like that really happened." Dana refused to fall for the bait.

"Why do you think all vampire stories and movies are set in New Orleans?" Aaron asked. "It is not coincidence."

"Yeah, right. Like I’m supposed to believe that." Dana stood. "Jessie, bathroom. Will you order for us please." She did not ask, but instructed Stan to place the order.

"Sure." He smiled as his sister and Dana walked to the bathroom. The table was silent until they were out of hearing range.

"Oh my god, that was pure evil." Michael laughed. He paused to place the order with the waitress. "Do you all practice that story?"

"Actually, we do. Well, we used to." Nicole wiped the tears from her eyes. "I believe we still have it."

"Man that felt great. You did a great job, hon." Danny clapped his lover on the shoulder. "You would have fit right in with us a few years ago."

"Yes you would have." Sheryl was still giggling. "That was so right on. We haven’t done that in forever."

"It felt good." Nicole agreed.

"Think she bought it?" Aaron asked.

"Not yet, but if the rest of the routine works, she will. Are ya’ll in for the whole nine yards?" Stan looked gleeful.

"Oh yeah. A night out on Bourbon, booze, ghost stories, that scary doll store. It’ll be just like old times." Danny rubbed his hands together.

"Sounds good to me. I’ll pass on the booze though." The photographer did not regret that part.

"Avoid booze? Why?" Michael asked. She had yet to tell him the news.

"The plan works smoother when at least two of us are sober." Stan saved her from having to answer. It was not quite true, but Michael accepted it. "So what was that secret meeting about today?"

"Just some legal stuff." Nicole avoided the topic. She wanted to tell him but could not. Though she had informed her friends about the outcome of the meeting, she could not tell her cousin. It did not make sense, but the attorney would not be happy if she explained it. "Speaking of secret meetings, what was the one between you and Jessie about?" She turned to her brother.

"Oh, just stuff. It wasn’t legal stuff, but it was stuff." He evaded the question. "I’ll tell you about it later, maybe."

"Did we beat the food?" Jessie asked as she reclaimed her seat.

"Just barely." Stan pointed behind her. "It looks like it’s coming now."

"Great, I’m starved. Whatever that was the maid cooked for breakfast wasn’t that great." Dana complained.

"Her name is Melba and she is the housekeeper." Nicole corrected. "What’s wrong with scrambled eggs and bacon?"

"She used the entire egg. Doesn’t anyone down here know that you’re just supposed to use the egg whites?"

"No, I think we missed that lesson this go around." Sheryl rolled her eyes.

"We don’t like to waste much down here." Aaron told her in his best hick accent. Nicole understood then why he got along with Laurel so well. They had the same sense of humor.

"You are not from New Orleans are you?" Dana enunciated every syllable in the name as she looked at the plate of food placed before her. It irritated them all.

"First off, it is pronounced Nu Ore-lens, or Naw’lens." Aaron illustrated. "Second, no I’m not. I’m from Gulfport." He pronounced it with out the ‘l’.

"Where’s that?" The Yankee asked.

"Mississippi. It’s on the Gulf Coast."

"Oh, that explains it."

"Grrr." Aaron seemed ready to stab her with his butter knife.

"Down boy." Nicole advised as Danny laid a restraining hand on his lover’s shoulder. "You shouldn’t go by stereotypes."

"I wasn’t going by stereotypes. I’ve seen the news and all those movies. I know what it’s like there. Do you all live in one room?" Dana seemed intent on sticking her foot in her mouth. Nicole was amazed. The woman had rather large feet.

"How do you like your chicken?" Sheryl asked innocently. It was a long-standing joke that alligator tasted like chicken enough to fool most people.

"Oh MY god." She hastily reached for her water glass. "This is hot."

"Not really." Stan used his fork to pull off a bite and taste it. "It’s rather mild."

"Mild? This is mild?" She tried the jambalaya. "Jesus. What did you people order me?" She drained her water glass.

"Blackened alligator, sausage gumbo and three alarm jambalaya." Nicole told her. "Here’s a tip for you Dana. Never piss off the people who know what you ordered. Are ya’ll ready to go?" She asked her friends. They were finished with their lunch.

"Yes, I think we’re all finished here." The critic stood. "Aaron and Danny?"

"Ready." They answered together.

"See ya’ll later." Nicole dropped the money for the check on the table. She waved goodbye and grinned at the look on Stan’s face. He looked like a child on Christmas Day.

"That was great." Aaron seemed in better spirits as he unlocked the car door.

"We’re gonna catch hell for it, but it was so worth it." Nicole agreed. "Laurel would have appreciated it." It was the first time she mentioned the bassist around them in a happy setting.

"Yeah, she would have. And she will when we tell her about it." Sheryl tried again to not so subtly get the photographer to call the bassist.

"Sheryl." The photographer was still smiling despite the warning. "Home, James." She instructed as she climbed in the backseat.

"Yes, Ms. Herbert. Is there anything else we can do for you Ms. Herbert?" Aaron played along.

"No thank you, young man. Home is all I want."

"Well, I must say one thing before we get there." Danny turned to face the backseat. "Welcome back Hotshot."

"What do you mean?" Nicole was perplexed.

"It’s nice to see you again." He continued when she still did not understand him. "This is the first time I’ve seen you smile, joke around, and goof off so much and so freely since college. Granted, Laurel helped a little, but it is nice to see you back, Hotshot."

"You know something? It is nice to be back." She smiled. It was true. She felt more alive now than she had in years. It felt nice to be immature again, to have fun again. It was good to be home.

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