A Contest of Wills: Chapter 9

Bex had a rough couple of days, worrying about the land and the cats, trying to finish up some projects for her clients, and racking her brain to think of ways to make some extra money. Perhaps if she put up a flier at the community college advertising her services writing resumes? As the weekend approached she even began thinking of people she knew who might be able to lend her money.

On Saturday morning she had just taken a break from cleaning out the pens when she heard tires crunching on the gravel drive. With a sinking feeling she headed back toward the house. Sure enough there was the silver Mercedes, and Kyle was stepping out of the driver’s side. To Bex’s surprise, he was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and work boots. He didn’t look like someone trying to dress up country – he looked like the real deal. The clothes were obviously well worn and there was now something about him that seemed familiar. She assumed it was simply because that was the way most of the men looked in the feed and hardware stores she frequented.

“And you would be here for…?” she asked, frowning in return to his smile.

His smile faltered and he cleared this throat. “Actually, I’m here to take a look at the property, and make sure there’s been nothing done that would permanently impact its value.”

Bex opened her mouth to tell him to get off her land when Popeye walked up to Kyle and began weaving in and out of his legs, purring like a motor. Bex’s mouth hung open a moment in surprise, then she snapped it shut and looked at Kyle with clear distrust.

“Fine,” she said grudgingly, “You can look around.”

He squinted and looked off into the distance, and then back down at Bex’s angry face. “Look,” he said, “I think we got off on the wrong foot and I just wanted to come by, check things out, and see if we could call a truce.”

“Well,” she replied, “I guess that just depends. Are you going to stop trying to take my land?”

“It’s not yours yet,” he said, and when she turned to walk away he said, “Wait.” She turned and looked at him without speaking. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s my job. I’m doing my job. But there’s no reason we have to be antagonistic. I did come by to make sure nothing permanent had been done, but I also wanted to try to learn a little about what you’re doing here, your relationship with the Szczepanskis, maybe try to understand why they would have left a virtual stranger a valuable piece of land.”

She studied him for a moment, not sure whether or not to trust him. She knew she had nothing to hide, and besides there was a long day of work ahead of her. She could always use the extra hands.

“Fine,” she said. “But if you’re going to stay you’re going to work.” He smiled. “That was the plan,” he said, “I wore my work clothes.”

“So I see,” she said, trying to not show the appreciation she felt for him, and the annoyance she felt at herself. She was actually finding this man attractive! He was the enemy, and she needed to keep reminding herself of that. Of course, Popeye did seem to like him. No, she couldn’t let her guard down. This man was trying to take her land.

She led him toward what appears to be an animal pen, a stack of what looked like wood and wire frames, and a large roll of chicken wire. “O.k.,” she said, “we need to put this chicken wire on top of this pen. The minute I put a feral cat in it, it’s going to shoot straight up the side and go right out the top.”

He eyed her, looked at the pen and then at the chicken wire. “Why didn’t it come with a top?” he asked.

She put her hands on her hips. “Because people don’t build pens for feral cats. This pen held hunting dogs. They don’t climb up the sides.” She paused for a moment before she muttered under her breath, “of course they probably should.”

He looked at her quizzically. “How on earth did you end up with a pen for hunting dogs?”

She handed him a hammer and pointed to the roll of chicken wire. “Work,” she said. “We can talk while we work.” He grinned and took the hammer from her. “O.k.,” he said, “where are the nails?”

Kyle proved to be a hard worker. Bex was sure he wouldn’t be very good at it, but he handled the hammer like an expert. As she helped him spread the roll of wire across the top of the wooden frame of the pen, she talked to him.

“The woman who runs the local cafe, Dot, her husband was a hunter. He built these pens himself, and he kept them on their land. He did a great job; they’re all modular. You can create one pen, two pens, one really big pen – well you can see by the way they’re built.” She gestured to the stack of frames with the hammer.

Kyle looked at the pen he was working on, and then at the pile and nodded with an appreciative look on his face. “So,” he said, “what’s the story?”

Bex reached into her pocket and pulled out a nail. Kyle was impressed with the way she expertly hammered it in – not like some girls he’d seen, holding the hammer too close to the head. She swung it by the far end of the handle, letting the weight of the hammer do the work.

“Dot’s husband died several months ago.” Bex was intent on her hammering and didn’t see the cloud that crossed quickly over Kyle’s face. “She called me up one day wanting me to come over and see if I could use some of her old doghouses. I went over and we were walking around talking. I had been thinking of ways I could bring feral cats on to the refuge, and then I noticed the pens.

I asked her what they were for, and she told me her husband Sam had built them for his dogs. I asked her what she was going to do with them. She said she wasn’t sure. Their son had talked about taking them, but he lives four counties over and that’s a long way to transport them. Plus, he wasn’t so keen to come over and take them down.”

Kyle didn’t try to suppress his smile. “Let me guess,” he said, “you offered.”

Bex looked up quickly and returned his smile. “Basically, yes. I told her why I wanted them, and she really got a kick out of it. The idea of these pens, which had been built for hunting dogs, to be used to house wild cats. So I borrowed a trailer, hitched it to my truck and went over there.” She paused to pull the wire over the top of the pen.

“Surely you didn’t do that all by yourself,” Kyle said.

“No, I’m not quite that good,” she answered. “I have a handyman, Ronnie, and a young girl Lindsey who come over occasionally to help me out. They were with me, and between the three of us – well, Dot tried to help some too – we dismantled every last one, piled it on that trailer, and crawled our way back here.”

Kyle looked at the pen in front of him and back at the pile. “How long ago was that?”

“Not quite a month.” She looked up and saw his surprise. “It’s a big job, and I can’t afford to have Ronnie and Lindsey come out that often. When they do, I need more immediate help – like getting the cats wormed or rounded up for the vet. Ronnie’s done a lot of clearing of trees and brush. So far, we’ve only had time to put up this one, and I’ve got to get it finished before we start any more.”

He hammered in a nail and asked, “How many more did you plan on putting up?”

“I don’t know. I need to see how well this works before I put too much time, effort or money into it.”

They worked for another couple of hours, and soon the pen had a sturdy top on it. Kyle then helped Bex nail a tarp over the back half of the pen so there would be shelter during the rain. When they finished putting a couple of old doghouses inside, Kyle was ready for a break.

“I’m not used to working like this,” he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with his arm. Bex smiled, “It’s good for you. Come on inside and we can grab something to drink.”

Kyle stopped in the front door of the trailer and looked around. His gaze swept the main room and seemed to take in everything, from the old television on the broken down TV tray to the worn rug in front of the yard-sale sofa.

Bex felt warmth spread up her face as she saw her home through his eyes. “Well,” she said forcefully, stepping in and inviting him to follow with a gesture, “it isn’t some fancy New York penthouse, but it’s home for me. I need to save every penny for the cats, and I don’t splurge much on myself.

“So I see,” he murmured. He took off his cap and set it on the sofa, and then walked back toward the bathroom. “Mind if I wash my hands?” he asked as he stepped in the bathroom and turned on the faucet.

Bex’s eyes widened. “No,” she said, “and aren’t you right at home. Like you knew right where that bathroom was.” Kyle dried his hands and walked into the kitchen smiling. “Well,” he said, “it’s not like there’s a lot of choices.”

Bex smiled and handed him a glass of iced tea. He looked at Bex and his eyes grew serious. “How long are you going to have to live like this?” he asked. He thought about Cassandra, and how she would react to having to spend even five minutes in the trailer. Although it was clean and fresh, everything was second hand and looked it. “Don’t you want some nice things for yourself?”

For a brief moment she looked tired. “No,” she said, “and even if I did it wouldn’t matter. The cats need me.” He took a step closer. “And what do you need?” he asked. For a long moment they stood staring at each other. When a sharp knock sounded on the door Bex jumped. Without answering Kyle she walked over to the door and opened it. “Hey Ronnie,” she said, “I’m on my way.” She stood back and held the door open. Kyle reached it in two steps, and headed for his car.

“Hey,” he said to the middle-aged man standing at the foot of the steps. Ronnie just nodded, and if he was surprised to see either Kyle or the Mercedes, he didn’t show it. Kyle turned as Bex came down the steps.

“Thanks again,” she said, holding out her hand, “you were a huge help.” As he took her hand to shake it she turned to the other man. “Ronnie, you’re never going to believe all we’ve gotten done!” The other man just nodded slowly. Kyle got into his car and left.

A Contents of Wills: Chapter 8

On her way home, Bex stopped at the feed store to pick up some cat food and some of the environmentally friendly disinfectant she used to clean the cats pens and the sickroom. As she walked in, she was greeted by a man in his 30s who had unkempt hair and was sweeping the floor.

“Hi Bex!” he waved enthusiastically and headed in her direction. Bex stopped and smiled.

“HI Johnny, how are you today?’ The large man came over and wrapped his arms very lightly around her to give her a gentle hug.

“Wow, that’s really good Johnny, what a great hug!” Bex backed up a step and smiled up into his innocent blue eyes. He beamed at her. “Yeah, mom and I have been practicing. She tells me that I don’t know my own strength, and it’s hard to learn my own strength, but I’m doing it!”

“You sure are. But it’s good to be strong. Look how much help you give everyone.”

“Can I help you?

“You sure can. I’ve got to pick up a couple of big bags of cat food, and I think I’m going to get some bird seed too.”

“Bird seed?” An incredulous voice was followed by a small woman in her 50s with gray hair. “You got a place full of cats and you want to invite the birds to come visit? What are you, anti-bird?”

“Hey Dot,” Bex smiled at the older woman. Dot was a no nonsense type of gal, and had been running the feed store and raising her son alone for the last 15 years since her husband had died.

“Mom, Ms. Bex said I hugged her just right!” Johnny smiled as he told his mother.

“Oh honey, good job!” Dot’s demeanor changed completely with her son. Her pride showed as she reached out and touched his arm. “But remember, you can only hug the people you know who have already told you it’s o.k.”

“I know,” he turned to go back to his sweeping. “And I can’t ask people I don’t know if it’s o.k.”

“That’s right,” Dot said, and saw Bex’s raised eyebrows and her smile.

Dot shook her head. “Oh, some fancy city woman came in here the other day looking for something. Of course as soon as he saw her, Johnny asked if he could help her find something. She just looks him up and down like he smells bad and tells him ‘no thank you.’ So then he asks if he can give her a hug. I guess he just assumed she’d say yes so he started walking toward her with his arms out. Well, her scream like to have brought in the entire town. I had to explain to Johnny that some people just don’t understand wanting to be hugged.”

Bex shook her head. “Oh no, Dot, I’m really sorry that happened. I’m sure that must have upset Johnny.” Bex couldn’t help but smile at the thought. “Sure sounds like she needed something, though.”

Dot smiled back at her. “Amen to that! And Johnny is just fine. It really didn’t upset him. He just didn’t understand why she shouldn’t want a hug.”

Bex finished up with her purchases, and Johnny carried everything out to the old pickup. As she left Bex gave him another hug and told him, “I love your hugs Johnny, don’t give away too many because I always want you to have one for me, o.k.?” Johnny nodded and waved as Bex drove away.

After a quick stop at the grocery store, Bex headed home. Ronnie and Lindsey were already gone, and it was turning into a nice evening. Bex poured herself a glass of the cheap red wine she’d gotten at the store, and headed outside to enjoy the stillness and the quiet.

She took her glass down to an old picnic bench that was off to one side of the cat pens, sat down and took a sip of wine while she looked around at the landscape. Before long, she could see several of the cats heading her way to enjoy a little socializing.

The first to arrive was Popeye. He jumped into her lap, and reached up his head to rub under her chin. He began purring almost immediately, and while he was rubbing she could feel the skin underneath her chin starting to get wet from his drool. She laughed and pulled him up under his front legs so she could look at him. His sweet face looked back at her, his one eye permanently closed where he’d lost it, the other yellow/green eye looking back at her.

“Hey mister,” she said, bringing him against her for a hug. “I hope your day has gone better than mine.” As she was talking, a black cat with a white chest and paws jumped up on the table and came over to her. She reached out a hand to pet him.

“Well hello there, Fred,” she said. “Looks like I’m going to have a full house tonight.” Several of the other cats were heading their way, lured by the sound of her voice in the evening air. She sat, slowly sipping her wine as the day slipped away into night. Just before it got really dark, she gave the cats a few final pets, stood and stretched, and headed back to her trailer.

“Good night, babies,” she called. “Be sure to get into your shelters and stay warm.”

The next morning she woke up feeling discouraged. Her visit to the library the previous day hadn’t been much help. Trying to read through the legal language and understand what the laws meant had made her brain dizzy. She was going to need help, but who would help her? The phone ringing interrupted her thoughts. Assuming it was one of her clients she answered on the second ring.

“Good afternoon, Miller Productions,” Bex answered crisply, in a professional voice that her steady clients jokingly referred to as her “phone voice.”

“Ms. Miller?” she didn’t recognize the voice right away.

“Yes, speaking.”

“This is Kyle Stephens.” Bex’s first thought was to hang up the phone, but she knew it was inevitable that she would have to talk with him, and alienating him probably wasn’t the best idea.

“How can I help you Mr. Stephens?”

“Oh, I’m fine. I just wanted to let you know that was a very expensive pair of shoes your cat ruined.”

“Popeye didn’t ruin your shoe. In fact, Popeye showed extremely good manners by using the litter box. If you stuck your foot in someone’s toilet, you would hardly blame them for ruining your shoes, would you?”

“Perhaps not, but then again it’s rather distressing to have a $400 pair of shoes ruined.”

“Four hundred dollars!” Bex gasped. “You spent $400 on a pair of shoes? That’s absolutely obscene!”

There was a slight pause at the other end of the phone. “Yes, I suppose it is. Actually they were a gift. And if I’m being perfectly honest, not one of my favorites.”

“So it sounds like Popeye did you a favor,” Bex couldn’t resist taunting.

“I thought Popeye had nothing to do with it?”

“Of course. Mr. Stephens, did you call to try and get me to buy you a new pair of shoes?”

“No, Ms. Miller, I was hoping we could discuss an offer of settlement in more neutral surroundings.”

“I’ve already told you Mr. Stephens, I have no intention of settling. I need this land and I won’t displace my cats.”

Bex heard a small sigh on the other end of the line. “Ms. Miller, I really do admire your dedication, believe me, but this is simply a battle you can’t win. If I read the situation correctly, and believe me Ms. Miller I make a great deal of money by correctly reading situations, you’re barely getting by as it is. You simply can’t afford the time to try and do your own research, nor do you have the resources to hire someone to help you.”

Bex felt a moment of panic. “Perhaps not, Mr. Stephens, but I have friends who are willing to help me.”

“Ms. Miller,” he sounded so calm, so sure of himself, “trust me when I tell you that in a county as small as yours, no attorney wants to gain a reputation for being a troublemaker. In addition, Ms. Szczepanski is quite a wealthy woman in her own right and I’m sure most people do not want to get on her bad side.”

Bex was silent. Of course he was right. She couldn’t afford the time to do her own research, plus it was obvious that he was a very good attorney. Despite the fact that she knew almost everyone in town, the Szczepanskis had been well respected and it was likely their daughter would be too, despite the general gossip that she was a spoiled, lazy young woman.

“Well, I’m just not sure.” She was trying to buy time so she could think about what to do.

“Ms. Miller, let me give you a little free advice – and trust me, the 15 minutes we’ve just spent on the phone are worth well over $200 to me – and tell you to take the money. I don’t like losing Ms. Miller, and against an unskilled, uneducated, emotional adversary such as yourself, well, quite frankly you have no hope of success.”

“Uneducated!” Bex was furious, furious with herself for being near tears, stunned at the amount of money he could command, and furious he felt he had to throw that in her face. “Listen to me you pompous, arrogant, morally bankrupt jerk, I don’t care how much money your time is worth, or your shoes or your stupid car, this is my land, and I will not just give it up!” and she slammed down the phone.

Breathing heavily she sank down in a chair and blinked back tears. What was she going to do? Well, there was one thing for sure. She wasn’t about to just give up. She’d figure out something. She went into the kitchen and started brewing some coffee. “Just one cup,” she promised herself, since she had to go out, as she did every day, and take care of the cats. She sipped slowly at her coffee, and when she finished she sat in her chair awhile, thinking. After checking on Dinah, she got ready for her day. Maybe some hard work would give her subconscious time to solve the problem.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 7

Once the cats were finished, Bex headed back to the house and ran into Ronnie, her handyman. She had been able to earn a little extra money in the last month, and was able to hire Ronnie to do some of the heavier work she couldn’t handle. He was putting together some outbuildings and installing cat doors so she would have more room. She left him to his work and went inside.

Bex checked her email to see if she’d gotten any responses. As she thought, so far there was no one who knew of an attorney who could help her or would be willing to work for free. She made a quick call to one of her clients to confirm that the brochure she had created was ready to go to the printer, and then called the printer to get the job started. She sat back and wondered what to do next.

She tried searching on the Internet for information about wills and how contesting a will worked, but found the information to be too general and vague. She decided that she had enough time to head over to the county court complex and visit the law library. She wasn’t sure what to look for, but thought maybe she could find a way to slow down the proceedings as much as possible. Didn’t they do that on television? File motions to continue or something like that? Not that she thought TV would be anything like real life, but occasionally there had to be a grain of truth in there somewhere, didn’t there?

After several fruitless hours looking through law books she didn’t completely understand, Bex left the courthouse feeling discouraged. She needed to go have a chat with Linda, so she backed out of the parking lot and drove down Main Street through the center of Byrd’s Mill. She arrived at The Brew-Ha and walked through the front door. The jangling of the bell on the door brought her friend out to the front.

“Hey Bex, what’s happening?”

“Not much.” Bex tried to smile, but knew it wasn’t very convincing. Linda’s dog Fubu came from behind the counter and approached Bex, tail wagging. She smiled as she knelt down to pet the dog. “Hey Fu, how’s it going? Come out to smell all the good kitty stink on me?” She smiled up at Linda as the dog buried his nose her shirt and began sniffing deeply. Fubu loved it when Bex came to visit, because she always smelled like the cats and outdoors.

“O.k., Fu, that’s enough,” Linda waved the dog away so Bex could stand up. The two women looked at each other. Linda squinted for a moment then said, “Right. Coffee. Strong.” And disappeared behind the counter.

Before long the two women were sitting together at a table, and Bex was pouring out her heart to Linda. Linda had had her own issues with the law when she had divorced her husband, and she was sympathetic to Bex’s struggles.

“What a jerk,” she said when Bex finished telling her about her first meeting with Kyle. “Lawyers. They’re all the same if you ask me. You can’t trust them.” Bex smiled at her friend. This was one of the reasons she loved Linda. Although several years older than Bex, she inherently understood many of the “rules” Bex had for good friendship. This was one of them. Bex knew that Linda’s father had been an attorney, and her sister, stilling living in Seattle, was an attorney.

“Thanks,” Bex said smiling. “I’m sure there are a few trustworthy ones out there somewhere.”

“Yeah, well,” Linda took a sip of coffee and looked away. “Listen, Bex, I can ask my dad or my sister about this, but you know it isn’t their area of expertise. And I’m guessing the laws in Washington are different from the laws in Virginia. Maybe they can recommend someone though. Do you want me to ask?”

Bex shook her head and took a sip of coffee. “Thanks, but that’s part of the problem. I just can’t afford to hire anyone. And I can’t afford to keep going to the courthouse because I need to keep my paying clients. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.” She sighed and looked down at her coffee cup. She could almost feel the struggle the woman across from her was having in her attempt to find a way to help. Bex looked up and smiled, and this time it was genuine. “I’m so glad I have a good friend like you to talk to though. I don’t know how I’d get through it without that.” Linda smiled and seemed to relax a little.

They finished their coffee and Bex left. She needed to get back to the refuge and she needed to get some work done.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 6

By the next afternoon Bex had gone from being angry to being worried. Although her temper could get the best of her, once she calmed down she knew there would be a fight ahead of her, and she had no idea how she would prepare for it. She had spent that morning emailing some of her clients to see if anyone knew of an attorney who could help her. She wasn’t hopeful, but someone might know of someone who could help.

At 3:00 Lindsey showed up to help her worm the cats. Lindsey attended the local high school and would be starting her senior year in a couple of months. Her dream was to go to Virginia Tech and become a veterinarian. Although she had a job with the vet in town, she came out once in awhile to help Bex with some of the cats, and Bex was always grateful for an extra pair of hands. And after a sleepless night, she was grateful for the extra ears as well.

“Wow, he sounds like a total jerk,” Lindsey said as she forced open Ginger’s mouth and popped in a pill. She held the cat’s mouth closed and gently petted her throat to help the pill go down. She put Ginger on the floor and straightened up. “Are we doing the feral pen next?”

Bex sighed. She wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that, but it needed to be done. “Did we get everyone out here?” she asked. Lindsey looked around the small room at the cats milling on the floor. “Let’s see, I just finished Ginger, you did Fred, and I think we got Popeye, Princess and Bugsy. What are you going to do about Dinah?”

Bex shook her head. “Let’s just leave her for now. She still seems to be agitated and stressed out, and had some wicked diarrhea yesterday. I’ve got an appointment for her to see Dr. Baxter at 4:30, and I don’t want to give her anything until after we get back.”

As they headed out to the feral pen, Lindsey asked, “How can he take the land if the Szczepanskis gave it to you? I mean, if it was in their will and everything?”

Bex smiled. “That’s a good question. But I guess just because someone puts something in their will, it doesn’t mean it automatically happens. Someone else can come along and say they didn’t mean to do it, or they were under the influence of someone, or even that they were blackmailed. Or sometimes people just aren’t very happy they didn’t get something they expected, which is what happened here. And really, I can’t say that I totally blame Tiffany. She doesn’t know me – we’ve never even met – and here her parents have left me a whole bunch of land that she thinks of as belonging to her.” Bex paused for a moment. “I just wish now that I’d had a chance to meet her sooner. I’m not even sure if her parents told her I was living out here.”

Lindsey said, “So they just let you start living out here? Why? Weren’t they using the land for anything before you got here?”

Bex laughed at the younger girl’s questions. “Well, it was really kind of an odd situation. I had just moved back in with my parents after. . ., well, anyway I was living with my folks and had gone to the Pet Palace to see if I could sell them some services, maybe create some brochures or a newsletter. You know, I was trying to get them for a client. Anyway, when I got there they had all these cages out front with cats in them that they were trying to adopt out. I was just looking at all those kitties and it made me so sad.”

“As I was standing there, this older woman came up next to me. She said, ‘Isn’t it a shame they have no one who wants them?’ I looked at her and said, ‘Oh, I want them, it’s a matter of where I would keep them.’ She laughed and we started talking. I don’t know why, but she was so easy to talk to. I started telling her how I would love to start a refuge for cats. A place where they could live out their lives and be cared for, even if they were feral. And then we talked a little bit about feral cats, how it’s very hard to relocate them, and how most of the time the best thing you can do is a trap, neuter, release program. But that I wanted to do more than that.”

Bex smiled at the memories she was reliving. “So she asked me what I thought I would need for something like that. I told her the first thing I’d need is a lot of land, and then a place to live. I told her that I was just back in town and trying to get some freelance writing jobs, but at that point it wasn’t enough to keep me going. She asked me a lot of questions about shelters for the cats, vet care and food. She was really interested. We kept talking, and the next thing I know she’s inviting me to lunch with her and her husband the following week.”

“And that was Mrs. Szczepanski?”

“Kate, yes. I met Bill when we had lunch in town, and he was just as delightful. It was obvious that Kate had already talked to him about the land. He told me that there was about 20 acres they hadn’t used in quite awhile, and that there was a little trailer set up on it that I could live in. For free. Can you imagine?” The teenager just shook her head.

“It turned out that the trailer was in pretty good condition, and mostly just needed a lot of clean up. And of course a lot of the land had to be cleared. Fortunately that big outbuilding was already here, so once I put in the cat door it was just a matter of getting the cats out here. I was able to get a satellite dish for Internet so I could keep freelancing, and then it was just some hard work and elbow grease to get where I am now.”

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“It really is,” Bex said and then laughed. “But Bill made me write a business plan and outline what I was going to do in terms of putting up shelters, how I’d pay for food and vet bills, all that stuff. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what he was really doing was forcing me to be realistic. And I realized that I could do this, but it was going to be hard and I was going to have to sacrifice a lot.”

She stopped walking and looked at Lindsey, all the smile gone from her face. “I had no idea they were leaving me land in their will, I really didn’t. We never talked about it.” She paused and said softly. “It was devastating to hear they’d died.”

“So what happens now?” Lindsey’s open face was worried as she looked at Bex.

“Right now?” Bex smiled and put her hand on the teenager’s shoulder. “Right now we de-worm some cats that will not be at all happy about the situation.”

Lindsey didn’t smile and was still looking worried. Bex unlocked the door to the outbuilding where the feral cats were currently penned. She said honestly, “I really just don’t know Lindsey, I’m just going to have to take this one day at a time.”

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 5

As Bex headed down the long drive to the trailer she called home, her spirits lifted. She stopped the truck in front of the two-bedroom unit and got out. She stood for a moment, breathing in the scent of the loblolly pines that surrounded her. She looked over the land and shook her head at all the work she had to do. There was a lot of clearing and clean up still to be done, and she knew she had a long way to go to turn this place into the refuge she had envisioned. And now there was more land available to her than before, thanks to the generosity of the Szczepanskis. She bowed her head for a moment and said a silent prayer blessing them, and wishing again that she could have paid her last respects.

When Bex opened the door to the trailer, the stench hit her immediately.

“Oh no,” she said, hurrying into the small spare bedroom where the cat she had picked up from the shelter yesterday had been quarantined. The cat was backed into a corner of the pen, eyeing Bex suspiciously. The small litterbox Bex had put in the pen was a mess. The cat had obviously had diarrhea and the mess, although amazingly confined to the small box, looked like it had partially dried on the sides of the box. Bex groaned but said to the cat, “It’s o.k. honey. I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Let me change and I’m going to get that all cleaned up for you.”

After changing her clothes Bex grabbed some paper towels, disinfectant and a plastic trash bag from under her kitchen sink. Heading back into the spare room, she carefully and slowly opened the pen and removed the box, and then grabbed a pair of latex gloves she’d gotten from the vet. “I’ll have this back for you in a jiffy,” she told the motionless cat.

Bex carried everything down the front steps of the trailer and headed over to where the hose was hooked up, put on the gloves and got to work. She tried dumping the contents of the box into a plastic trash bag, but the litter and mess had dried and just stuck to the sides and the bottom of the box. Bex signed and began using the scoop to scrape the contents into the bag. She bent over so she could spread the bag open on the ground while she scraped the waste into it. As she was bent over working on the box, she felt the sun come out from behind a cloud and groaned as she felt the warmth starting to spread over her bent back. Normally, she would have been grateful for the warmth while working outside, but today she wasn’t anxious for the heat. She continued scraping the contents from the dirty litter box into a garbage bag, trying to ignore the stench from the contents. If it got much warmer, this job was going to be even worse than it already was.

“I’m going to have to take her to see Dr. Baxter,” Bex muttered under her breath, “there is something wrong with this cat beyond just worms.” She turned her head to take a breath, and saw a one-eyed cat slide out from under the trailer and make its way toward her.

“No Popeye,” she said firmly, halting the cat in its tracks. “I don’t know if this is contagious, but I don’t want you over here until I’ve disinfected this box and gotten everything cleaned up.”

The cat thought about it for a moment, and Bex repeated a firm “No.” The cat sat and watched her, tail twitching, contemplating its next move. Bex turned back to the box. She scraped out the remaining contents and began to thoroughly clean the inside. When she was finished she threw all the used paper towels into the trash bag, peeled off the gloves and threw them in, and then tied up the plastic garbage bag and placed it in one of the garbage cans she used exclusively for cat waste.

She hosed out the box and set it in the sun to dry, and then went inside the trailer to wash her hands. At this point she wasn’t worried about Popeye. The most he would do was go over and take a whiff, but the disinfectant would most likely keep him from getting too close, and he certainly wouldn’t use an empty box.

She was just drying her hands when she heard the sound of tires coming down the drive. Puzzled, she looked out the window to see who would be coming to visit.

“Ho-ly,” she whispered under her breath as the sliver Mercedes convertible came to a slow stop. “Who on earth could this be?” She noted the New York license plates and felt a stab of apprehension as the driver unfastened his seat belt, stepped out of the car, took a quick look around, and mounted the steps to the trailer. He gave two hard knocks on the door.

Bex opened the door cautiously, leaving the chain in place and taking in this stranger. He was tall, and wearing a suit and tie. He looked completely out of place in these surroundings, but didn’t seem in the least uncomfortable. He looked Bex up and down and then spoke.

“Are you Rebecca Miller?”

“Who wants to know?”

He gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and reached into his left-hand breast pocket. He handed her an envelope. Instinctively, she took it from him. He said, “O.k., you’ve been served.” He turned and started down the steps.

“Wait a minute,” she called out. He stopped and turned. “Yes?”

“What do you mean, I’ve been served?”

He nodded his head toward the envelope in her hands. “It’s all there.” She looked down again and tore open the envelope. She read silently, her lips moving. When she finished, she looked up at him. “And just who the hell are you?”

He hesitated a moment, came back up the steps, pulled out a card and put it through the small opening in the door, giving her a moment to read it.

She looked up. “You’re a lawyer? What are you doing here?”

He crossed his arms and looked around without answering. Then he looked back at her.

“Yes, I am. As the card says, my name is Kyle Stephens, and I represent the estate of William and Katherine Szczepanski. More accurately, I am representing their daughter Tiffany. And I’ve just served you a summons to appear at an upcoming hearing regarding the disposition of the estate.”

Bex looked down at the card and again up at the man standing in front of her. “Yeah, I can read. But what does that mean?”

“We plan on presenting evidence to prevent the will from being admitted to probate.”

Bex frowned. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she did know that she didn’t like feeling like a prisoner in her own home. She closed the door and unlatched the chain. When she opened the door she caught a moment of surprise on Kyle’s face and she had to smile. He must have thought she was closing the door in his face. He recovered quickly.

As she opened the door to step out, he tilted his head slightly so he could see inside the trailer. She felt her face growing hot as he slowly took in the sparse furnishings. “Excuse me,” she said, as he was blocking the door. “I’d like to talk about this outside if you don’t mind?”

He looked directly at her, and she felt her heartbeat quicken. His eyes were brown and so dark she couldn’t quite see the pupils. She straightened up and raised her eyebrows. He tipped back his head slightly and raised one eyebrow back. He then stepped out of the way so she could exit the trailer. She shut the door behind her, pushed past him and walked down the steps. He followed her and she stopped short of his car. She turned to look at him.

She had to tilt her head back slightly. He was standing with the sun behind him, and she found herself squinting. Raising her hand to block out the sun she stared up at him without speaking.

He took several slow steps to the left, and Bex turned with him, lowering her hand.

Bex finally shook her head impatiently. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“What I mean,” he said, beginning to speak more slowly, “is that there is no evidence showing that the Szczepanskis were truly aware they were leaving you such a valuable piece of property, and that we plan to use whatever means are at our disposal to ensure that the property is returned to the family.”

Bex could feel her face getting hot. “The Szczepanskis left this land to me! It was for me to start a rescue facility and that’s what I’m doing. They cared about this land and didn’t want it turned into condos and strip malls. I know Bill thought having a refuge was a little odd, but Kate cared about these cats as much as I do, and she told me she wanted to be sure I was able to keep going with what I started here. That’s why they let me live on this land in the first place!”

Kyle slowly looked her up and down and Bex could feel her face getting even hotter. She knew she was a mess, her hair disheveled, her jeans at least one size too big, and her sweatshirt sleeves pushed up, but she met Kyle’s gaze with fire in her eyes.

“Well,” he said, “that may be, but the original arrangement was for 20 acres and this trailer. A far cry from 100 acres of prime land with full access rights to the rest.” He looked around and Bex had no doubt he was taking in every detail. “And from what I can see, this doesn’t look like much more to me than some slightly offbeat woman living in a trailer with way too many cats.”

“I’ve just started and I’m still working on it. I’ve got to put together shelters, which costs money, and in the meantime the cats have still got to eat, and believe it or not the vet expects to be paid. I’ve got a very sick cat inside, and that’s taking time and money. I’ve gotten a couple of people to volunteer, but this kind of thing doesn’t just happen overnight.”

“I see.” His demeanor suddenly seemed to change and he dropped his arms. He looked at her with a genuine smile, and she could see concern in his eyes. Or maybe what passed as concern for him.

“Look,” he said reasonably, “I’m sure you don’t want to get into a court battle over this. It would be time consuming and expensive, and it doesn’t seem like you currently have the resources at your disposal for that. I’m really here to try and settle this amicably. I’d like to offer you a settlement for the land in exchange for you agreeing to give up any interest in it you might have.” She inhaled to respond, but he kept talking in his smooth, even, calm tone.

“And trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to defend yourself in court. I’m pretty sure I can keep this will from being entered into probate, and have the judge ban you from the property until we get the matter settled. Which could be years. And then you’ll end up without a settlement or the land. I’d just like to expedite this whole process so I can get back home.”

She looked at his car, and then up at him. “A settlement. Money in other words. You want to buy me off. Well, I don’t have to listen to anything. The answer is no. I need this land for the refuge, and unless you plan on giving me enough money to buy land somewhere else I don’t plan on doing that. Not to mention the 26 cats that now call this place home, and last but not least I will not let Bill and Kate down by just giving this land to someone who will sell it to the first developer that comes by.”

Kyle’s smile vanished and he straightened up. “That’s fine,” he said, “if you’d prefer to walk away with nothing I’m just as happy with that. I’ll get my client her land and save her money. And maybe you and your cats can all find another trailer you can call home. I think there might be a vacancy near the landfill.”

“Get off my land, “Bex growled, taking a step toward him. “Get off of it now!”

Kyle stood his ground and smiled down at her. “It’s not your land,” he said. “Not yet. And I’m guessing not ever. I was hoping you’d be reasonable, but I should have realized that anyone who would live in a trailer surrounded by cats and filth would have no sense of reason.” With a last condescending smile he turned to go.

Bex wasn’t sure when Popeye had come over and used the ground behind Kyle as his litter box. She wasn’t even sure why he would have done that – a cat outdoors was highly unlikely to defecate in an open area. She was pretty sure that Popeye actually had a very good idea of what was going on and how upset she was, and it was his way of making a statement. No matter the reason, when Kyle turned to leave and put his foot in the middle of the mess Popeye had left, Bex couldn’t contain her laughter.

Kyle’s jaw tightened as he looked down but he didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he looked up at Bex and asked quietly, “Do you have anything I could use to wipe off my shoe?”

“Hmmmm, no, I don’t think so,” she answered, looking at him defiantly. He stood and looked at her for a long moment, then walked over to his car. He opened the door and sat down sideways in the seat. Then he turned and started the engine. When he drove away Bex sat on the gravel and laughed until the tears were running down her face. There, sitting in her driveway, was one very expensive looking brown shoe, covered in cat poop.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 4

Bex Miller had a lot of work to do, but first she needed some caffeine. A cup of Joe and a nice long talk with a good friend. She pushed open the door to The Brew-Ha and breathed in the smell of freshly ground coffee beans. At 10:30, the morning rush had passed and her friend Linda, also the owner, came out from the back to the counter, wiping her hands on a towel. An Australian Shepherd followed and bounded over to Bex, tail wagging furiously.

“Well hey there,” Linda greeted Bex, “I don’t usually get to see you during the day like this. It’s a real treat!” She stopped and took another look at her friend. “What’s up honey? You look upset and you’re all dressed up. What’s going on? Fubu, get down!”

The dog ducked it’s head and looked up at Bex, who smiled and rubbed his head. “It’s o.k. Fubu, you’re not used to me wearing nice clothes.” She walked to counter and gave her friend a half smile. “Do you have a little time? I just need to talk.”

“Of course!” Linda said. “Go grab a seat and I’ll get us some coffee.”

Bex sat in one of the plush armchairs toward the back of the store, Fubu curling up on the rug at her feet. Linda appeared a moment later with two steaming cups and sat opposite her friend, tucking her legs under her. She took a sip of her coffee and looked at Bex expectantly. “So what’s up?”

Bex sighed and turned to look out the window. After a moment she turned and looked at her friend’s concerned face. “The funeral was today,” she said. “This morning actually.” She looked down into her cup and said softly, “Actually, right now.”

Linda leaned forward and put her hand on Bex’s knee. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I know they meant a lot to you. But why aren’t you there? You obviously planned to go.”

Bex looked up at her friend and fought back tears. “I did go. I got there and when I got out of my car Bob Taylor walked over to talk to me. He said he was really sorry, but that the Szczepanki’s daughter, Tiffany, didn’t want me at the funeral.”

“What?!?” Linda’s expression reflected how Bex had felt when Bob told her she wasn’t welcome. “But why on earth not? What is wrong with that girl?”

Bex shook her head. “Bob said for some reason they read the will early – and that when the will got read, she just lost it. She’s mad. She’s mad at her parents and she’s mad at me. I guess she’s really just kind of mad at the world.”

“Why on earth is she mad at you? What did you do?”

Bex signed and took another sip of coffee. “Well, you know that I’ve been living in that trailer out on the land her parents own, right?” Linda nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I remember that Mrs. Szczepanski wanted you to be able to start your cat refuge, so they let you use that land.”

Bex nodded, and then continued. “Yeah, but what we didn’t know was that they recently changed their will and left 100 acres of that land and the trailer to me.” She looked at Linda to see how her friend would react. Linda didn’t disappoint her. She sat back in her chair, eyes wide, mouth open.

“I know,” Bex said, “it’s crazy. But the thing is, I actually do feel like that land is mine, and that I should continue the work I’ve started. But Tiffany is furious and plans to contest the will.”

“Wow.” Linda was still processing the information, and took another sip of coffee. “So what are you going to do?”

Bex shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, at first I kind of felt bad. It must be upsetting to have your parents leave a valuable piece of land to someone who’s not even in the family. But then, well, I don’t know, I started thinking about it and really, how much land does she need? I know that Kate believed in the work I was doing, and the last time they came out and visited they were really pleased. And now, with the way she’s acting, I don’t feel bad at all.”

Linda reached down to rub Fubu’s ears. “Well,” she said slowly, “it sounds to me like the Szczepanskis knew what they were doing and wanted you to have that land. How much more is there?” Bex shrugged, “I’m not sure, I think there’s over 200 acres left.”

“Oh for pity sake!” Linda put her coffee cup on the table and folded her arms. “That’s plenty of land! What does she want it all for anyway?”

Bex smiled and said, “Seriously? Linda, it took one day for a developer to contact me about buying that land. It’s worth a lot of money.”

“Really? How much?”

Bex laughed. “That’s really not the point. Anyway, the developer told me that based on zoning restrictions and access rights, the acreage left to me was the most valuable from a development perspective. The other land is almost worthless without my 100 acre parcel.”

Linda looked puzzled. “Why would the Szczepanskis do that?”

Bex was quiet for a minute. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think they wanted that land turned into condos and strip malls. Bill was a real advocate for keeping the county rural, and my guess is they were worried that Tiffany would sell the land. But they knew that I wanted it for something else, something that means more to me than money.”

Linda looked skeptical. “But Bex,” she said, “you could also do a lot of good for a lot of cats with a lot of money.”

Bex smiled at her friend. “Yes, but I can’t buy another piece of land and set it up like what I have now. And I’ve already got 26 cats out there.” Linda nodded and the two women smiled at each other.

“And,” Linda said, “whether Tiffany likes it or not, it sounds to me like her parents knew exactly what they were doing.”

Bex’s smile grew wider as she stood. “You’re right,” she said, “and I think that might be the part that makes Tiffany the maddest of all.” She sighed and said, “Thanks for the coffee, and for talking. I really do feel better. But I need to go, I’ve got a lot to do.” Linda stood up and gave her a hug. Fubu rose, wagging his tail and followed Bex to the door.

As she opened the door to leave Linda said, “I’m here for you honey, whatever you need you just let me know.”

Bex turned and smiled. “I know,” she said, “and I can’t thank you enough for that. But for now I’ve still got to make enough money to feed myself and 26 cats.” With a smile she let go of the door and headed down the sidewalk.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 3

It was a clear day in Manhattan, and Kyle was actually enjoying the view of Central Park from his living room window. It was rare that he took a moment to just look out and actually see what was there, instead of being distracted by problems at work. He began to wonder if he really needed to go into the office today when he heard the phone ring behind him. He ignored it, and felt a slight stab of irritation when he heard Cassandra pick it up. He really needed to find a graceful way to get back his key; her proprietary attitude toward his apartment, his belongings, and in fact he himself, was beginning to grate on him. He listened to her smooth, polished voice as she spoke to the caller.

“Hello? Yes, he’s here, may I ask who’s calling and what this is in regard to?” Kyle turned to look at her and she held out the phone to him.

“It’s a woman,” she said coldly, “she says her name is Tiffany and you know who she is.” She didn’t try to hide the displeasure in her voice, nor did she cover the receiver, ensuring the caller would hear her ugly remarks and hard tone. Kyle frowned slightly and took the phone.

“That was rude,” he said, not bothering to cover the phone himself. Cassandra pulled herself up to her full height and just glared at him. He turned his back on her and spoke into the phone.

“Yes?” He listened a moment, the frown fading from his face, leaving him expressionless. “Yes, o.k. I’ll leave this afternoon after I make a few calls. I should be there late tonight. I’ll see you then.” He paused for a moment, and his face softened just slightly. “I know, me too. But it’ll be fine. We’ll figure it out when I get there.” He hung up the phone and stood staring down at it. He turned and looked into the obviously displeased face of his girlfriend.

To say Cassandra Sanchez was beautiful would be an understatement. Kyle remembered the first time he asked the model out; he couldn’t believe she’d said yes. Now he only wondered why, after a first date where she’d done little more than talk about herself, he’d kept asking. She was beautiful, yes, but she was also ambitious, spoiled and selfish, and more often than not Kyle simply found her irritating. He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but he could no longer see the beautiful face that so many people coveted on the cover of magazines; over time she had become more and more unattractive in his eyes.

Cassandra was practically spitting as she spoke. “What do you mean you’ll be there tonight? Would you like to explain that one to me? We’ve got that gallery opening and I can’t possible go alone.” Kyle just stared at her, expressionless. Inexplicably, the thought that popped into his head was to ask for his key, so she could no longer let herself into the apartment. But the timing was wrong, and Kyle prided himself on having an uncanny knack for timing. He would have to wait for his key.

“There’s been an accident,” he said, “in Virginia.”

“So? Who was that and why is she calling you?”

He sighed. “Bill and Kate Szczenpanski,” he said, pronouncing the name slowly, “Tiffany’s parents, were in a car accident and they,” he paused for a moment, then shook his head, “they’re dead. I have to go to Virginia,” he paused again and looked around the room, running his hand along the back of his head, “to take care of some legal matters. Their assets were quite valuable.”

Cassandra relaxed her pose for a moment and said, “Well, I’m sorry to hear her parents have died, but what does that have to do with you?”

Kyle shook his head, starting to get impatient. “Apparently she doesn’t have anyone else to call, and I’m familiar with the family and the estate, o.k.? Look, I’ve got to go, her parents have died; can’t you accept that and feel bad for her? Think about someone else?”

Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “Give me a break Kyle. What, did you have a thing with her or something? How long have you known her?”

Kyle felt something break in his chest. “It’s none of your business,” he snapped. Cassandra’s eyebrows shot up, and she crossed her arms across her chest. He sighed, closing his eyes. In his line of work, emotional outbursts were something he simply could not afford, and he prided himself on staying in control. He needed to calm down before he lost his temper.

“Fine,” she said, dropping on the couch, her legs resting over the arm. She grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. Kyle took a deep breath and then spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve known her a long time, o.k.? There’s never been anything between us, it’s just that she has no one else to turn to and she needs help sorting through the estate. I shouldn’t be gone long, but I might have to make a few trips back and forth.”


Kyle knew that she wasn’t going to let him off the hook, but he didn’t care. He had more important things to worry about, and he needed to get ready to leave. He walked toward the bedroom and called back over his shoulder, “Just go the gallery opening with someone else. I’m sure there’s a dozen people that would love to go with you.”

On the couch, Cassandra rolled her eyes and muttered, “There’s a million men that would give their right arm to spend five minutes with me.”

Kyle walked back out, pulling off his tie. “Cassandra, I don’t know what you want from me. I’ve got to go.”

She turned her head to look at him and gave him a one shoulder shrug. “So go.” They stared at each other for a moment, and then Kyle returned to his bedroom and Cassandra snapped off the TV and stood. She grabbed her purse and called out, “I’m leaving.” She waited, but when there was no response from the bedroom she walked out, slamming the front door as she went.

In the bedroom Kyle sat on the edge of his bed. His empty suitcase sat open next to him, but he wasn’t packing. He sat on the edge of the bed for long time, then sniffed and wiped his eyes. He got up and began looking through his closet, trying to decide what he would need for the trip.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 2

Bob Taylor was just finishing a cup of coffee when the call came on his radio. Bad accident on Route 723; a head on collision involving a car and a truck, and a tractor had also been involved. Some serious injuries and paramedics were on the way, but it would take at least 25 minutes to get the victims to the nearest hospital. Bob quickly threw his cup in the trash and raced out to his cruiser. Lights flashing and siren blaring, he tore out of the Gas Up and Go parking lot and called for back-up as he headed to the accident.


Her act of defiance forgotten, Tiffany was sitting in front of the television eating popcorn and watching an old movie. She loved these cheesy old films where life seemed so easy and troubles so trivial. Things always worked out and the worst thing a man ever did to a woman was fail to immediately admit his undying love. There had been a time when she really thought life would be like that, but she knew better now. But it didn’t stop her from being swept up in a romance played out on screen.

During a commercial she looked up at the clock and sighed. She knew she couldn’t stay cooped up in her parents’ house forever – in fact she didn’t want to – but she just didn’t feel like going anywhere. She hadn’t kept in touch with any of her friends in Chicago, and was embarrassed to call them now. It had been a year and half since she had talked to most of them. Her mother kept encouraging her to call, but she just couldn’t face it. When Colin had coolly invited her leave if she didn’t like his having a “friend” over, Byrd’s Mill had seemed like a sanctuary; now it was starting to feel like a prison. The town had remained untouched by time, and while many thought it was charming it drove her crazy. In her opinion everything here was too “small town” and she wanted the things she had gotten used to in the city. Shopping at major stores, getting her hair and nails done at well-known establishments, and getting regular spa treatments that most people here had never even heard of. The closest places that might have anything near what she was looking for were Charlottesville or Richmond, and they were both at least an hour away. She hated the thought of driving along a highway lined by nothing but trees, in the car alone. And she couldn’t imagine asking her mother to go with her.

She tossed a piece of popcorn in her mouth and mused on her life with Colin Dawson. Maybe it hadn’t been so bad. He had bought her nice clothes and beautiful jewelry. They went out to dinner to wonderful restaurants, and he had taught her a great deal about things like wine and art. She had felt grown up and sophisticated with him, and despite the fact that he had made her feel unloved and insecure, and had jealously kept her from having a relationship with anyone else, including her parents, she missed him. When she had once told that to her mother, Kate had asked what she missed about him. When Tiffany began talking about the trip to New York, and how Colin had promised to take her to Paris, her mother had remarked that it didn’t sound much like she missed Colin, but that she missed his money. Although it stung, Tiffany had to admit it was true to some degree. And it was at that point that Tiffany had a major epiphany. She needed her own money. She just hadn’t been sure how to get it. And then George Hartwell had come knocking.

George was a developer who had arrived in Virginia a few months earlier. He had stopped by the house once when both Bill and Kate were out. He had been funny and charming and, Tiffany had to admit, kind of cute. Although she knew her parents would have had a fit, she was bored and lonely so she invited him in. They talked about the places he had visited, but eventually he began asking her a lot of questions about her parent’s land. He asked about the acreage, how it had been used, zoning restrictions. He’d had a lot of questions she couldn’t answer, but when he told what he thought the land could be worth, she had been shocked. It was then that she realized the land might be her way to get her own money.

She knew that her father would be dead set against selling the land for development, but Tiffany didn’t see why he needed all 300+ acres of it. She thanked George for his time, and told him it would be better if she spoke with her parents first. He left his card with her, and when Bill and Kate returned Tiffany tried to broach the subject of selling the land.

Of course her father was dead set against selling. He had raged against the developers who had been putting up all kinds of town homes and strip malls in other areas of the state, and he was determined to keep Byrd’s Mill as rural as possible. He had reminded her that he had been going to all kinds of meetings with the County Developers, trying to convince them that it was to everyone’s benefit not to turn Byrd’s Mill into just another town full of chain restaurants and strip malls. Tiffany knew then that she had her work cut out for her. She wasn’t sure how she would do it, but she was going to have to find a way to sell some of this land.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Tiffany frowned and got up from the couch. She hoped it wasn’t George – she hadn’t showered yet today – but she had no idea who else would be coming to visit.

Tiffany wasn’t surprised to see Bob Taylor on the other side of the door. While she’d been growing up he’d often come by during hunting season when the “No Trespassing” signs her father posted were ignored. She was surprised to see the young woman with Bob. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but had an official look about her. She opened the door wider to let them in.

“Hi Bob,” she said, and began to feel nervous. Bob wasn’t smiling and he looked serious. Bob looked at the woman with him, took off his hat and stepped into the door. Tiffany stepped back and both of her visitors came in.

They stood for an awkward moment in the hall until Tiffany said, “My dad’s not here right now Bob. Is everything o.k.?”

Bob looked again at his female companion who stepped forward and held out her hand with a warm smile. “Hi Tiffany, I’m Justine Hartwell.” Tiffany took the woman’s hand and shook it, looking at Bob in confusion.

Justine spoke, “Why don’t we all go sit down somewhere?”

Tiffany led them into the den and sat down on the couch. Bob picked up the remote and turned off the television. Justine sat on the edge of the coffee table and took one of Tiffany’s hands. Tiffany looked at Bob, and her eyes had grown wide with fear. “Bob,” she asked, and her voice trembled, “what’s going on?”

Bob looked at the floor for a minute, and then met her eyes. “Tiffany, it’s your folks. There’s been an accident.” Tiffany gasped and pulled her hand from Justine’s. She looked at the woman in front of her with accusation in her eyes. “What happened? Why are you here?”

Bob shuffled his feet, and Justine took her hand again. “Tiffany,” she said softly, drawing the younger woman’s attention to her, “there’s been an accident. I’m sorry honey, but your parents have been killed.”

Tiffany just stared at her, as if trying to make sense of the words. Justine moved from the coffee table to the couch, and put her arm around Tiffany. Tiffany looked at her as if she was still trying to solve a difficult puzzle. “What happened?” she asked. Justine looked over at Bob, who answered.

“We’re still not completely sure. It was a head-on collision out on route 723. It looks like your dad was trying to pass a tractor on a hill, and the oncoming truck was driving too fast.” Bob stopped for a moment, wondering how much he needed to tell her. “The driver of the truck was also killed, and the driver of the tractor is in critical condition. It will be awhile before we know everything.”

Justine spoke again, “Tiffany, I’m a grief counselor with the county, and I’m going to stay here with you until you can reach someone else. Do you have someone to call honey? A friend who can come over and stay with you?” On the way to the Szczepanski’s house, Bob had briefed Justine on the situation with Tiffany, and that she didn’t really have any friends in town.

Tiffany sat on the couch with a stranger’s arm around her, her thoughts drifting into her head slowly, like fallen leaves drifting downstream. Suddenly everything seemed to be going in slow motion, and she couldn’t make her mind form thoughts properly. Bob cleared his throat and she looked up at him, her expression confused.

“Is there anyone you can call?” he asked, repeating Justine’s question. “Justine can stay with you tonight, but is there anyone else you can talk to who can come and stay with you?”

She looked at him blankly for a moment and slowly shook her head. Then she stopped for a moment and said slowly, “Oh, wait. Well, yes, there is a call I guess I should make.” Justine and Bob exchanged a look as Tiffany got up from the couch and wandered out of the room. Justine nodded at Bob and followed.

Bob took a few steps away from her and spoke into his shoulder radio. He told his dispatcher that he was going to be another hour or so, and he wasn’t sure how long Justine would need to stay. When he finished, he could hear the murmur of Tiffany’s voice in the other room, and the sound of her weeping.

Justine returned a moment later, her arm still around Tiffany. The three of them sat on the couch, and Justine began to talk softly. Bob didn’t pay much attention to what she was saying, but was wondering who on earth Tiffany could have called, and who would be coming to stay with her. He’d always thought of her as spoiled and a little selfish, but right now he just felt a profound sense of sadness. He reached over and patted her knee, and felt ashamed that he was wondering how long he would have to stay. He really just wanted to go and be anywhere else right now. He heard Tiffany saying that someone would be there in a few hours, and saw Justine hand the young woman a glass of water and some kind of pill. Then she led her out of the den and told Bob he could go, that she would put Tiffany to bed and stay until whoever she called arrived. Bob tried not to look relieved and hoped he didn’t look like he was rushing out the door. But neither woman seemed to notice as he made his way out.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 1

Kate Szczepanski was sitting at the desk in her den, signing the letter she had just finished writing. Hurriedly, she folded it and slipped it into an envelope. She heard the decisive footsteps of her husband down the hall, and the car keys jingling in his hand as he pulled open the front door. He called out to her.

“Kate, are you ready? We need to go!”

“Just a minute Bill, I’ll be right there!”

She heard the sigh from the front door and hurried to write the address on the envelope. She didn’t like to keep her husband waiting; although he was usually patient with her last minute scrambling he was in a hurry today, anxious to get to the county zoning meeting a little early to get a good seat.

Kate quickly sealed the envelope she had just addressed and winced as she felt a slight sting on her tongue. Darn it! She hated getting a paper cut on her tongue! She hated feeling rushed like this, and the letter was important so she needed to get it out today. But she also knew that Bill wasn’t going to be patient for much longer, and she didn’t want to have to ride to the meeting in stony silence. She quickly put a stamp on the letter and was standing up to go as her daughter Tiffany walked into the room.

Tiffany had recently moved back home from Chicago. She had gone there two years before to live with a man that Kate hadn’t ever liked or trusted. When Tiffany had come home one day to find another woman sitting at her kitchen table, wearing Tiffany’s bath robe and drinking coffee as if it were her kitchen, Tiffany packed her bag and called her mother from the airport, crying. Although Bill didn’t think having Tiffany come back home to live was the best idea – he had said something about making her responsible for the consequences of her decisions, and making her stand on her own two feet – as a mother Kate couldn’t stand to hear her daughter’s pain, and had immediately paid for a plane ticket to get her home. Not that Bill had really objected. They were both glad to have their daughter home, but Kate was starting to wonder if letting her come home without a discussion of her future plans had really been such a good idea.

“Mom, you better get going. I think dad is about to have an aneurism.”

Kate frowned slightly and walked toward the doorway where her daughter stood. “Tiffany, don’t say things like that, it isn’t funny. Here,” and she held the envelope out to her daughter, “I’d like this to go out today and I know we won’t have time to stop at the post office. Would you please go to the post office for me and make sure it goes out today?”

Tiffany crossed her arms and looked down at the envelop in her mother’s hand. “What’s in it?”

“Nothing you need to worry about. Please just make sure it goes out.”

Tiffany sighed and shifted her weight so her hip was leaning against the doorjamb. She looked at her mother and said with a pout, “Mom I don’t want to go out, can’t you take it later? There’s an old movie on T.V. I really want to watch. You know how hard it’s been for me going out lately. I’m just not sure I’m up to it.”

Kate squared her shoulders and looked her daughter in the eye. “Tiffany,” she said firmly, “listen to me. I’m sorry that you had a bad experience in Chicago, and I’m sorry that your heart got broken. But you’re living her now, and….” Tiffany abruptly straightened up and grabbed the letter from her mother’s hand.

“Please, I don’t need a lecture. I’ll mail the stupid letter.” She looked down at the name and address on the envelope then up at her mother with undisguised amazement. “Why are you writing him?”


Tiffany jumped slightly and Kate pushed past her daughter into the hallway. As she headed toward the front door Tiffany called after her, “I don’t know why you care about saving all this land. You don’t need it and you could get a ton of money for it if you just sold it to that developer.”

Tiffany heard her mother’s response coming down the hall. “There are more important things in life than money Tiffany. We know what we want to do with our land, and it isn’t selling it off so it can be turned into condos and strip malls. Please just make sure that letter gets to the post office. Today!” Tiffany heard the front door close and the key turn in the lock. A moment later she heard the roar of the car engine and the sound of popping gravel as the car headed down the driveway.

She ambled into the den and looked around. Although it was only September her mother had a fire going in the fireplace and the room was quite warm. Tiffany walked over to the Queen Anne desk and sat down. The desk was neat and clean; a new brand new laptop computer sat off to one side of the desk, the lid closed and the power off. Tiffany looked at the computer and snorted. Although her mother had been trying to use it, she always seemed to have some kind of problem, undecipherable error message or other failure.

She pushed back from the desk, stood up, and looked around the room. It was the same room, exactly as it had been throughout her entire childhood. Nothing ever changed here, and her parents seemed to think they could make time stand still. She looked down at the letter in her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the letter opener from her mother’s desk and slid it under the flap. Quickly, she sliced open the envelope, pulled out the letter and began to read. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked up and spoke into the empty room. “What on earth are they thinking? They can’t do this!” She stood thinking for a moment, then jammed the letter back into the envelope and walked over to the fireplace.

“This is one letter that will get lost in the mail,” she muttered. She hesitated for just a moment, and then tossed the letter onto the flames watching as the envelope and its contents curled up, turned black, and dropped into ash through the grate. She knew her mother would eventually realize the letter hadn’t reached its intended recipient, but Tiffany figured she had at least a month to come up with an idea that would reverse the action the letter would have put into motion.

“And a lot can happen in a week,” Tiffany declared to the empty room. She knew that from hard experience. Her entire life could change in the course of a week. And this time, she intended to make sure that the change was for the better.

Bill Szczepanski was in a hurry. He had wanted to get to the county planning meeting early so he could be sure to sit up front where he could look everyone in the eye. He didn’t trust all the committee members, and wanted to be sure he could see exactly what was going on. He loved his wife tremendously, but her habit of finding things to do as she was walking out the door was extremely irritating, especially on a day like today.

Kate knew from her husband’s silence that he was upset with her. He would often stay silent until he could trust himself not to snap at her or say something that would hurt her feelings. Early in their marriage she would press him to talk to her until he would blow up. Then she would cry and it would be a scene. Over the years, she had learned to leave him alone and let him sort through things. When he was ready he would talk to her. But this time was a bit different. She needed to talk to him about the letter that Tiffany was taking to the post office. She wanted to be sure they were both clear on the content so there were no misunderstandings. She also knew he was irritated she seemed unable to figure out how to use her new computer, and decided to begin by addressing that.

“Bill,” she said, turning to her husband, “I don’t want you to be upset, because I really do appreciate the computer you got me.” She waited, but her husband didn’t respond. After a brief moment, he nodded. Kate turned to face the road.

“I’ve been trying to use it, I really have. Maybe I’ll need to sign up for a class or something – it just seems like nothing ever works when I try to use it.” She glanced over. He still didn’t look at her, but she could see his expression had softened slightly. She turned forward and continued, “Anyway, there was a letter I needed to write and I had it all ready this morning. It was all typed up in the computer, but then I couldn’t get it to print. And,” here she glanced nervously over at him, “if I’m being honest there are some letters I’d rather write than type. I can’t help it – I think a hand-written letter is just so much more personal.” Bill gave a tired sigh, and then reached out his hand and rested it on his wife’s thigh. She looked over at him and he just shook his head and smiled.

“Well, I do. Particularly when it’s a special letter and you really want the person reading it to feel your sincerity. The way I look at it, anyone could type a letter and pretend it was from me. But it would be pretty hard to deny that I put a lot of thought and feeling into a hand-written letter. But that aside, the printer just wouldn’t work! It just wouldn’t print out that letter. I figured it would just be faster to hand-write it then spend time trying to figure out why it wouldn’t print.”

Bill had to smile at his wife’s logic. So that’s why she’d been late. She was rewriting a letter she’d already composed on the computer. He had gotten her the computer late last year, thinking she could use it to create her annual Christmas letter. For weeks before Christmas every year she was glued to her desk in the den, handwriting letter after letter to their family and friends. He had hoped the computer would give her more time during the holidays. But she had been appalled at the idea. He had tried to point out that she could learn to put pictures and graphics in her letters, but she wasn’t interested. He couldn’t help but feel that all her issues, errors and problems with the computer were welcome reasons for her to keep hand writing her letters. Although, it sounded like she really had tried to use that morning. Even though she had still hand-written the final letter, drafting it on the computer was a start.

Kate’s voice broke into his thoughts. “And Bill, we really need to do something about Tiffany.” Despite her intention to talk about the content of the letter, she found herself more worried about their daughter.

Bill snorted. He knew what he thought they should do about Tiffany. He loved his daughter; she was still his little girl at heart, but he was disappointed with the choices she had made, and not altogether happy with the woman she had turned out to be.

“How about grounding her for the rest of the year?” he asked wryly.

Kate slapped his leg lightly. “Bill, I’m serious. This break-up was hard for her, and I’m glad her first thought was to come home. But now that she’s here she doesn’t seem to want to do anything with her life. She just hangs out around the house like a petulant teenager.”

“Kate, she’s an adult. We can’t control the choices she makes. All we can do is give her tough love and make her live through the consequences.”

Kate looked at her husband imploringly. “What do you want me to do? Kick her out? Where would she go? Bill, I know you don’t understand it, but I think Colin Dawson was abusive to her.” At the words, Bill’s head snapped around and he glared at his wife. Hurriedly, Kate continued. “Oh, I don’t mean he hit her, don’t worry.” Bill turned back to the road, but was still glowering. “I feel like he abused her emotionally. I’ve been reading about it on the Internet. Yes,” she said at his raised eyebrows, “I have actually been using the computer and I do know how to use the Internet. At any rate, these guys will get women into a relationship, then they slowly separate them from all of their friends and family. They pressure them to spend time with only them, and they start controlling every aspect of their lives. Then they treat them like trash. He probably thought Tiffany would just put up with another woman since he had managed to alienate her from everyone who cared about her.”

Bill cursed softly and Kate looked over, thinking he was upset about what she had just told him. But then she saw that there was a huge tractor ahead of them on the country road. Bill shifted impatiently in his seat, and Kate rubbed his thigh. “It’s o.k. honey,” she said, “we’ll get there in time.” Bill didn’t say anything. He followed the tractor for a few miles at a crawl. His patience ran out at the bottom of a rise, and he banged the steering wheel in frustration.

As if reading what was happening in the car behind him, the driver of the tractor stuck his arm out the window and began motioning that Bill should pass him. Although they were at the bottom of a rise, Bill accelerated the car and pulled into the left-hand lane.

Kate gasped and grabbed the bar above her window. “Bill!” she said, scared. “You’re passing on a hill!”

“It’s o.k.,” he reassured her, “he must be up high enough that he can see over the hill. He wouldn’t motion us to pass him if he couldn’t.” He was just coming even with the tractor getting ready to top the hill when the driver stuck his arm out the window again and began frantically waving for them to get back. In the confused moment it took Bill to understand the gesture, the truck suddenly crested the hill in front of him, going far too fast for the narrow country road.