But after seeing her sister in the fluorescent prison hue back when she’d originally been processed, Lauren had pulled the color from her portfolio. Beth now wore institutional gray with bold writing on the back, an outfit that would have horrified their grandmother. Something Lauren never mentioned to Beth.

Why upset her sister, who’d eagerly earned Mary Perkins’s approval in a way Lauren never had. While Beth had pleased Mary, Lauren’s one teenage indiscretion had isolated her from her grandmother. Lauren didn’t care. That summer with Jason Corwin had been worth risking her grandmother’s wrath.

Since Beth remained docile, she was never handcuffed for their visits, although guards patrolled the hall outside the room and a nurse regularly checked in.

“Hi, Beth. How are you today?” Lauren asked in a cheery voice.

No reply, not that Lauren had expected one.

Beth stared straight ahead, her hair hanging in her face. The once perfect, if conservative, bob had grown out, leaving her looking unkempt. The gray outfit didn’t help her pale skin. Sometimes Lauren wondered if holding a mirror to her sister’s face would shock her out of her unresponsive state.

Lauren cleared her throat. Trying not to fidget, she placed her hands in her lap. “Remember last week I told you I’d be staying at Grandma’s house? Well, I’ve been in for a couple of days and I’ll stay there until closing on December first.”

Beth’s eyelashes fluttered up and down.

Lauren had no way of knowing what her sister heard or understood. The prison psychiatrist encouraged Lauren to talk to Beth about the familiar and about Lauren’s life. As if Beth were fine. So she chattered away, feeling like an idiot talking to herself but doing it anyway.

“As long as I get the house into what the buyers consider move-in condition, the closing will go off without a hitch.” Afterward, she’d have two weeks to return to New York and get herself packed and ready for Paris.

Assuming she closed. The offer she had was conditional and the deadline was only four short weeks away. The renovation wouldn’t be as easy a task as she’d first hoped. The house had been empty for the past year, held up in probate. On Lauren’s arrival she’d discovered it was in worse condition than she’d anticipated. It seemed her grandmother had been more concerned with outward appearances, putting money into superficial aesthetics without fixing the structural problems that came with age. Between the general dilapidated condition, the holes in the walls from vandals or pranksters, and the old pipes and plumbing, Lauren’s limited budget would be stretched. She hoped to find a contractor who was hurting enough to take on her project at a reasonable price.

She drew a deep breath and forged on. “The broker said the potential buyers are a nice family. They’re moving from overseas and have no time to do the renovating themselves. In this market, I’m lucky to have them interested. I have to finish the repairs in the next month or they won’t take possession and then what are the chances I’ll ever find another buyer?”

A feeling of deja vu overtook her and Lauren suspected she’d told Beth the same thing last week. But who knew? Beth loved her grandmother’s old house. If there had been money left in the estate after the debts and her grandmother’s lawyer bills, Lauren knew Beth would have wanted to keep the place, but that wasn’t possible. There was no alternative now but to sell. By keeping Beth aware of the situation, Lauren hoped to trigger something inside her sister’s mind.

Suddenly, the sound of hammering and sawing came from right outside Beth’s window and Lauren tensed.

“Not again.” For the last six months, Lauren’s visits had been disturbed by construction of the new wing.

Beth’s eyes flashed and a tick seemed to pull at one side of her mouth.

She was obviously upset and Lauren didn’t blame her. The noise level was hard to take and Lauren didn’t see how patients could heal in this environment, let alone hear themselves think.

She patted her sister’s hand. “Let’s try to ignore the noise,” she said, pointing to the barred window and the construction beyond. No sooner had she spoken than drilling suddenly accompanied the hammering. Beth, who already seemed agitated, flushed and her eyes widened. Even Lauren was getting a headache.

“Excuse me,” Lauren said to the nurse who had come in earlier, shuffling papers and making notations on her chart. “Isn’t there anything you can do about the noise? It’s upsetting my sister.”

The young woman shook her head. “I’m sorry, but until they finish there’s nothing we can do.”

Lauren frowned. “I know. They aren’t patients in a private facility. They’re prisoners living on the state’s dollar and taxpayers’ dime, so let them suffer.”

The nurse placed a comforting hand on Lauren’s shoulder. “If it’s any consolation, she normally doesn’t seem to mind the noise.”

“I suppose I ought to be grateful she’s reacting at all.” At the thought, Lauren rose from her chair. “Do you think it’s a sign?” she asked, excited at the prospect of seeing some change in her sister’s condition.

Again, the nurse shook her head. “This is just a normal reaction. Try not to get your hopes up.” Her voice was kind.

Lauren exhaled hard and settled back into her seat.

As she studied her silent sister, she wondered whether even Beth thought that the price of believing in the Corwin Curse to its destructive conclusion had been worth the price she’d paid.

The Corwin Curse.

At best, Lauren thought it was a bedtime story her grandmother liked to tell. At worst, she figured it was the Perkins family’s way to instill a sense of self-importance in its future generations.

To hear her grandmother tell it, the first Mary Perkins, an ancestor from the Salem Witch Trial days, had placed a curse on William Corwin and all of his male descendants in retribution for eloping with her son’s fiancee. All Corwin men who fell in love were doomed to lose their love and their fortune. Whether by coincidence or circumstance, the curse had held true for the male descendants down the Corwin line. Yet she’d heard from her friend Sharon that Jason Corwin’s two male cousins were currently married and attempting to buck the curse.

More power to them, Lauren thought.

As for herself, she hadn’t believed in the curse at seventeen, when she’d met and fallen for Jason during a summer visit to her grandmother’s. But Mary Perkins had, and when she’d read Lauren’s diary entries about sneaking out to see Jason, she’d launched into a tirade Lauren would never forget. She’d forbidden Lauren to see that Corwin boy ever again and sent her back to her parents in Sierra Leone as quickly as possible.

Lauren had lost her grandmother’s trust and approval from that day on and she’d never gained it back. Not that she’d ever really tried. She’d been too angry at her banishment.

She hadn’t given up on Jason. She’d written him more than a few times but she’d never heard back. Once she’d turned eighteen, she’d come back to the States only to find Jason had gone off to follow his dreams of winning gold in Olympic snowboarding.

He hadn’t contacted her or even let her know where he’d gone. She’d been devastated as only a teenage girl could be. They’d shared their hopes for a future and she’d believed they would find a way to be together one day. Obviously that summer had meant more to her than to him. He’d forgotten about her, so she’d headed to New York to create some dreams of her own.

Lauren forced her mind away from the past and refocused on her sister. She only had a handful of visits left before leaving for Paris and she wanted to make the most of them.

So she returned to her monologue. “Anyway, as I was saying, Grandma’s house is a real mess. The windows are broken-probably some kids with nothing better to do than vandalize the old place for fun.” Or payback for Beth’s arson escapade, but Lauren kept that notion to herself. “But I’ll get it cleaned up in no time.”

Beth didn’t reply, of course.

Lauren glanced around and suddenly felt claustrophobic. A pang of guilt followed at the realization that Beth was incarcerated here without the option to leave.

“Don’t worry, Beth. Even when I’m in Paris, I’ll be in touch with your lawyer. I’m still trying to get you out of here.”

The lawyer was working hard to ensure Beth’s case was appealed. Beth had spent the first months after her arrest in a regular hospital being evaluated by both state and her own defense psychiatrists. She’d been declared unfit to stand trial and placed in this prison psych ward for the criminally insane until such time as she was deemed fit.

Beth’s lawyer was appealing her placement here, trying to have her moved to a mental hospital where she could get better treatment and eventually be released. To whom and to what, Lauren didn’t want to imagine. In truth, the lawyer had said the entire scenario was a long shot but Lauren wasn’t giving up hope.

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