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It must have been the last winter storm of the season that came overnight. It seems odd to say “winter storm,” since in San Diego “winter storms” do not have freezing temperatures and snow, the hallmarks of real winter. But even though it was 61 degrees when I went outside with the first of the retrievers at seven o’clock on Saturday morning, it felt colder than that. I put on my jacket before accompanying retriever two on her first potty break of the day.

We walked to Hendrix Pond after retriever breakfast. (Mine comes later with a foamy hot latte that I make myself in a bone china cup with pastel flowers that is the sine qua non for reading my emails.) Everything was shiny wet under gray clouds that carried the potential for new rain. The eucalyptus trees tossed restlessly overhead in the wild winds, and the world smelled of rain and the fruity, but faintly astringent, aroma of eucalyptus. Excitement was in the air; but I had no idea why.

The pond was a sheet of greeny-brown glass, with few green-headed mallards and navy-winged females swimming among the reeds. The three white heron that had been there yesterday were nowhere to be seen. (It has been ages since all three were present; a good sign, I think when all return together. I found a white feather once that one of them left behind, and tucked it into a flower pot by my front door as a symbol of magic and good luck.) Most of the ducks were tucked securely into various sheltered nooks around the pond, some with their heads under their wings. No one had come to feed them as people often do of a morning. The retrievers and I had the wild, windy, cold, wintry world of the pond to ourselves.

We followed our usual trail around the perimeter, the retrievers investigating every new smell that overnight wind and rain had created. I waited patiently while they exhausted every sniff of whatever blade of grass or smooth bit of rock caught their canine fancy. I gazed out at the ducks and listened to the creaking eucalyptus overhead and wished I had awakened in the night to hear the wind and rain. There is nothing more cozy than waking in the wee hours to hear the world being tossed to bits by winter winds accompanied by the staccato beat of rain on the roof while retrievers snore contentedly close by. I love to snuggle deeper into my warm bed and my heap of feather pillows and say a prayer of thanks for my roof, my bed, my dogs, and for being cozy and dry.

The retrievers and I walked out of the shadows just as the morning sun broke through the heavy clouds. I felt the warmth of a normal April morning on my back for a few minutes; and now my jacket, which had been so welcome a minute ago, was uncomfortably hot. In this new unwelcome heat, the world seemed to go fuzzy the way a scene does when you turn the focus ring of a camera too far the wrong way. In an instant, I remembered what hot summer walks are like, with the heat of the sun on my back, and the retrievers, in their fluffy blonde coats, anxious to return to the dark cool of the condo. But, as quickly as the heat of April emerged, it vanished behind the gray morning storm clouds sailing across the rain-washed sky. Now the focus ring had been turned in the opposite direction, and it seemed as if the world had gone from fuzzy into sharp focus in the crisp air.

Some people love summer. Maybe because I grew up in the excessive heat of Southern summers, that season has never been my favorite. In a few days, it will become summer-hot here. Nineties are predicted where we live by Tuesday. So this morning’s chance to bid farewell to the cozy focus that winter-damp air brings to life under the tossing eucalyptus was welcome. Winter, I will miss you.

The Pond - Our Daily Destination

The Pond – Our Daily Destination

Up until last week, the only contact I’d had with Lena Dunham’s series “Girls” was reading various blogger posts about the different fashion statements the four female leads represent. I love fashion, although to be more accurate, I love style because style is timeless and individual, whereas fashion is a fickle friend of the moment. Based on my limited knowledge of “Girls” obtained through the style blogs, I was kindly disposed toward Lena Dunham because she insists on a personal style that is definitely not influenced by Hollywood’s unnatural picture of what women must be. And I admired her for succeeding in a difficult business at age twenty-seven.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I read a review of “Girls” written by a British blogger, Emma Woolf (the great-nice of Virginia herself), which made me curious about the substance of the show. Ms. Woolf, who could be a contemporary of Hannah Horvath and company, didn’t like “Girls” one bit. The title of her essay was “Why ‘Girls’ Is Bad for Women.” She described her experience watching the episodes in the first series on DVD as “uncomfortable and unforgettable.” (Did she mean “forgettable”?)

Curious, I ordered the same first season DVD from Netflix and on a night when I was too tired to do anything else, I settled down to watch. I began by wanting to like Hannah/Lena. I sympathized with her plight as a writer, struggling to get started. I felt for her when she was suddenly and without warning cut-off financially by her parents, and I sympathized with her decision to go plead her case to them – until I discovered her “novel” that was “nearly finished” consisted of all of ten pages. How could anyone who called a ten page draft a novel, expect to be taken seriously? What emotion was Lena Dunham trying to evoke in me? Laughter, disgust, complete bafflement?

I considered ejecting the disk after episode one, but I thought “Girls” might get better, so I punched “forward” and “play” and ploughed on. Pretty soon, I understood Ms. Woolf’s objection to “grubby sexual content.” As she put it, “If you want to watch strangers copulating, I imagine professional pornography would be more satisfying.” And she was right about the sexual content of episode two, which as she said “opens with Hannah and her reclusive boyfriend Adam having sex, in a scene so disturbing that it felt close to abuse.” I kept wondering if I was supposed to like Adam because I did not like him even a little. Any respect I had had for Hannah/Lena vanished. She insisted a man was her “boyfriend” who wouldn’t return her texts, yet would use her (there is no other word for it) for some very unattractive sex when she showed up at his door, reeking desperation and misery. Why, I wondered would a young woman depict the lives of herself and her contemporaries in such a squalid, hopeless light? Was Ms. Dunham trying to say that women are still required to have a man in their lives at any price despite the enormous strides women have made toward equality and independence in the last fifty years? I found the suggestion that women must or should put up with abuse – physical or verbal – as distasteful and disturbing as the generation of “romance” novels that encouraged women to put up with domestic violence in the name of “hopeless love” for an “alpha male.”

At any rate, I gave “Girls” the same chance Ms. Woof did. I watched all of the episodes in series one. It didn’t get better, and I was relieved when it ended although I wasn’t entertained by Hannah/Lena’s inane monologue about the “benefits” of contracting AIDS as she lay on an exam table with her feet in stirrups for her annual pap smear. Really, are these private details of women’s lives interesting enough to be on television? And what is “Girls”s is trying to accomplish by airing the mundane details of womanhood: comedy? satire? social commentary? Beats me.

Like Emma Woolf, I am not a cultural snob. I admit I did not watch “Sex and the City” in its heyday, but I saw all the episodes while happily bypassing the 11 p.m. doomsday evening news. The redeeming grace of “Sex” was its ability to create a fantasy world of clothes, clubs, rich men, and expensive shoes on a writer’s budget. And, best of all, the warmth of the attachment of the four female leads came across as real and heartwarming. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for “Sex,” knowing only too well that no Wall Street partner has ever in the history of the world had time to hang out in a coffee shop with her girl friends. Miranda, I love you, but you are a work of extreme fiction.

Now baffled by all the hoopla over a show that to me seemed depressing and even dangerous for the messages it is sending to and about women, I turned to an expert for advice: my daughter who is exactly Lena Dunham’s age. I offered her the DVD and asked for her thoughts after watching it. But her response was even more telling. She said okay the night I called, but when we got together for dinner the next evening, she politely declined. “Mom, I googled it. And from what I read, it’s not something I want to see.” “Wise decision,” I told her. And I smiled to myself, “Validated!”

Girls

I was reading an article this week on tips for obtaining a literary agent. What struck me was the author’s authoritative insistence that without a “perfect” manuscript, drafted and redrafted and redrafted yet again, a writer is doomed to be ignored and never to be published. If that is true, I am wondering why so many books are out there, indie and traditionally published alike, because I am yet to read a “perfect” one. Have you?

I myself hate the cult of “perfectionism” because it creates a myth that victimizes the rest of us who are just trying to do our best work. Note that “ best work” is not “perfect work.” In between learning that Dance For A Dead Princess had been nominated by Foreward Reviews for its Book of the Year Award in Romance and learning Dance was the sole Finalist for the Beverly Hills Book Award in Romance, I got an e-mail one morning informing me my “review was ready” from a indie author book review service I had contacted ages ago. I scrolled down and read absolutely the nastiest, snarkiest review of my book imaginable. No, let me rephrase that. The nastiest, snarkiest review of any book imaginable. Apparently I’d unwittingly fallen into the hands of the High Priestess of Perfection. So while munching my slightly underdone egg and overdone toast, and drinking a less than perfectly brewed cup of coffee (but happy to have a warm breakfast anyway), I learned that the High Priestess found my plot “contrived,” thought the use of the diary to tell the inner story was “the oldest literary cliche” out there, and was just outraged because the word “lame” got into the text without an accent over the e. Oh, whoops, my eternal bad. High Priestess said nothing about my ability to draw a reader vividly into a scene. (A New York editor had given me that accolade years ago.) High Priestess had nothing to say about all the readers on GoodReads and Amazon who had stayed up at night to find out what happened. And, of course, she had no idea what the judges at Foreward thought of Dance for A Dead Princess. No, she was dead set in her opinion that Dance wasn’t perfect and therefore not worthy of anyone’s time of day.

Well, I agreed with her. If perfect is your bag, Dance is not for you. But, then, neither are the rest of the books out there. Wonder if High Priestess has given that much thought?

Fortunately, I’ve been a writer long enough to know what I do well, and where I can improve. I listen to honest reader feedback. I learn. I grow. But I have not one single aspiration to be Perfect. My heart was broken enough times on that wheel growing up, and I have no intention of the punched-in-the-gut feeling that comes from hours and hours of working and hoping for that “Perfect” accolade, only to find all effort wasted because the accent mark didn’t find its home over the “e.”

I think it is useless and wrong to preach the religion of “Perfectionism.” One Christmas I went to a luncheon here in San Diego that a local group of attorneys sponsored in honor of the season. We sat in a semi-dark cavern of a room, at fifty or sixty round tables covered in spotless linen (or the lights were dimmed to hide the spots, take your choice), and potted poinsettias were plopped in the center of the table (to give the proceedings that “festive” air, I guess). We ate rubbery chicken with a glob of gravy on top, dressing that I swear was made out of old newspapers, and green beans that had been run through a pot of boiling water for ten seconds flat. (I assumed those beans spoke French.)

Since I was starving, I opted to search for food value in the wilted lemon meringue pie that had probably been parked by each diner’s place around 8:30 that morning. And as I sent my blood sugar soaring on an empty stomach, I listened to the speaker, a middle-aged attorney in a bright purple suit, who was presenting a writing award to a student from one of the local law schools. What interested me was the Speaker’s awe-inspired assurance that this student was “Perfect” because she put every one of her writing projects through at least ten drafts. Had Madame Middle-Aged Purple Suit taken leave of her senses, I wondered. Which one of her clients would have paid the hourly rate of a junior attorney who couldn’t produce a fileable document (fileable, not perfect) in one draft and a final? No client on earth is going to pay for ten drafts. Nor should he or she have to. What unreasonable and unworkable standard of the cult of “Perfectionism” was Purple Suit advocating in the midst of stultifying boredom?

Perhaps Miss Ten Drafts went on to be a disciple of the High Priestess, I don’t know. I never went to another holiday luncheon. I’m not perfect, my books are perfect, my readers aren’t perfect, and I love us all just the way we are. I’m throwing my hat in the ring to stamp out the religion of Perfectionism!

The High Priestess

The High Priestess

One year ago yesterday, I pushed the publish button on Amazon and Nook Press and became a published author. I knew I’d embarked on a journey that I’d always wanted to make, but I had no idea what was coming.

At first, Dance For A Dead Prinessc was an e-book only. I didn’t realize until months later how simple and inexpensive and indeed, imperative, it was to create a paperback on Create Space.

And I started the journey with a website under construction and quickly learned not having a website made me a second-class author citizen. Thus, when I wrote one blogger who offered two-day guest spots for authors, to secure two days to guest post, she replied, “Well, ok. But you only get one day because you don’t have a website.”

But the website lesson was trivial compared to the advertising lesson. For breathtaking amounts of money, I bought ads on Kirkus Reviews, thinking their favorable review of Dance For A Dead Princess would quickly produce a readership for the book. Wrong. Expensively wrong. Ads ran. No one seemed to notice.

Then I tried an all-romance website and had the book’s cover pasted up for a month for another quite tidy sum. Again, no one noticed. My book was simply embedded in a mosaic of other books – most with far racier covers. Since I was a new and unknown author, and readers were perusing this site for their favorites that involved shirtless men, Dance For A Dead Princess wasn’t a candidate for their attention. Another lesson learned.

After a certain amount of frustration, I managed to get Dance up on GoodReads. But since Amazon does not cross-post reviews on that site, all my reviews remained on Amazon.

Then I discovered the Truly Expensive Blog tour. I wonder if I thought it would be effective because it was Truly Expensive or because the owner of the business persuaded me she knew what she was doing or because I had read how some blog tours had put Indie books on the map (and the bestseller list.) But of all the money I threw at advertising in the first year of being an author, the Truly Expensive Blog Tour was the most wasted. The owner of the business and my tour director had more excuses than you can count for why the tour dates weren’t honored and why the reviews promised were never posted. To put it mildly, I’d been scammed, big time.

About this time, I decided to do Facebook ads and Kindle Daily Nation sponsorships, although I also sat up nights hunting for websites where indie authors could post for free or nominal sums. Oddly enough, although multiple indie authors claimed Facebook ads were useless, I found them more effective than anything else I’d tried. And they were happily quite low budget. I began to think that the more money I threw at the problem, the less success I had. Whereas, when I was being cheap, I seemed to get better results.

Another example of that principle was another blog tour organizer, who appeared on top of a Google Search one day. Her rates sounded too good to be true. But this time I was careful to research her company and to ask her bluntly if she kept her promises, telling her the horror story of the Truly Expensive Blog Tour. I was delighted to learn she was everything she claimed to be. Organized, honest, efficient, and trustworthy. And she was able to produce reviews, which are the gold standard for selling books. Almost all of the reviews on GoodReads came from her blog tour (which has now continued for months for a fraction of the cost of Truly Expensive.)

And then, just as the First Year of Being An Author was ending, I received some exciting news. Dance For A Dead Princess is a finalist in the Foreward Reviews Best Book of the Year Award for 2013, with the final results to be published in June. And Dance is the Finalist for the 2014 Beverly Hills International Book Award. That award has one winner and one finalist in each category, so I’m honored to be No. 2 in Romance.

Yesterday I started the Second Year of Being An Author by writing the first press release I’d ever written in my life and sending it off to local media. Whether it gets noticed or not, just doing it felt good. And I contacted local indie bookstores I’ve been meaning to contact for months.

Most of all, so many friends have helped out during Year One. They’ve written reviews, they’ve offered encouragement, they’ve stuck up for me and the book when the inevitable Vicious Reviewers surfaced. Launching a book into the world takes friends, and I am very grateful to mine and to everyone who as read Dance for A Dead Princess. And now Year Two Begins.

eauthor-ebook-e-book-humor

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Sarah hurried to her car parked in the drive and got in. She sat behind the wheel and took a few long breaths to calm herself before she started the engine and backed out. She shouldn’t have gone to Jim’s last night. It had only made seeing him with Alexa today that much more difficult.

She decided not to drive through the heart of Pacific Beach because even on a Wednesday night at seven o’clock, the partyers would be taking over the streets. Her nerves were like frayed electrical wires, snapping and arcing, and she was not in the mood to worry about hitting jaywalking drunks.

She navigated her way back to Felspar Street which led on to Mount Soledad Road. She decided it would easier to drive over the mountain and through downtown La Jolla to go home. As she swung up the mountain’s long steep grade, she considered stopping at Trend for a drink. The bar offered half-priced appetizers on Wednesday night, and it was a big draw for businessmen in the office buildings near by. Maybe she’d pick up someone to spend the night with, and maybe he’d be interesting enough to take her mind off Jim cooking supper in Alexa’s kitchen.

But that was the trouble with Trend. She couldn’t go in now without wishing Jim were there, too. The bar had always been one of her favorite spots for picking up the men who rotated quickly through her life. She hated to think her interest in Jim had ruined that forever.

She reached the top of the mountain and began her descent. The BMW purred happily along the sharp bends and twists on the downward slope. She steered into the curves and let herself admit the truth: she wanted off this case. The emotions it conjured up in her slammed her to the ground, day after day. It brought back the dark days of Joey Menendez, a place of horror that she never wanted to revisit.

She was now on the steepest part of the descent. Her feet reached for the clutch and the brake to slow the big car into the hairpin turn. The brake depressed, but her speed didn’t change. Automatically she pumped the brake. Craig, Lewis had required its high-profile criminal lawyers to learn advanced driving techniques. She felt confident even in the emergency.

But the brakes remained unresponsive. She still had the clutch engaged, so she pulled the stick back to third gear. But nothing happened. Suddenly she was covered in cold sweat without time to think. The brakes and her clutch were gone, and she was hurtling toward a hairpin turn at sixty miles an hour. She frantically pumped the brakes and tried to steer away from the stone wall directly in her path. At the last minute, the car somehow made it around the turn without flipping over. Another lay just ahead.

She continued to hold the wheel as she reached for her last hope, the emergency brake. But, it too, was gone. The car continued to pick up speed, and she braced herself for the coming turn. And then nothing.

* * *
Jim Mitchell left Alexa’s around 10:00 that evening. The long day of waiting and wondering if Alexa would really get to go home had left him exhausted. The tension of not having anything to use for her defense was wearing him down, inch by inch. He needed to find that nanny.

He hurried home, downed a fast tumbler of scotch, and fell into bed at 10:30. When his phone went off at 1 a.m., he opened his eyes long enough to see the call wasn’t from Alexa. He didn’t recognize the number, so he pushed the dismiss button and went back to sleep. But the phone shrilled again, determined not to let him rest.

“Hello.”

“This is Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Someone whom we believe is a friend or relative was in a car crash tonight. The police found your name among her things. She’s here in the hospital. Sarah Knight.”

Panic seized him. How badly was she hurt?

* * *

She was sitting on the side of her bed, trying to sign something with her left hand. She had a white gauze bandage wrapped around her forehead and her right arm was in a sling. She looked angry and annoyed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Making sure you’re ok.”

“How’d you find out I was here?”

“The hospital called. My name was the only one they could find in the car. Apparently you don’t carry the names of your next-of-kin on you.”

“That’s because I don’t have any.”

“Well, I’m filling in tonight. Get back in bed. What are you trying to do?”

“I’m signing myself out and going home.”

At that moment the door whooshed open, and Jim remembered all the recent nights with Alexa in the hospital. He’d had enough of them, but he knew Sarah should stay put.

“I’m Tom Barrett,” the forty-something, square-jawed, salt and pepper haired doctor in the white coat strode in with a smile and an out-stretched hand. No wedding ring, Jim noticed, and the kind of George Clooney face women find irresistible.

“You must be Mr. Knight?”

“No, a professional colleague.”

Was that a spark of relief in the good doctor’s eyes? Jim didn’t want to think about it.

“Well, Sarah here has had quite a blow to the head. She’s lucky to be alive at all. Very lucky. She’s sprained her right arm; but more importantly, she’s got a mild concussion and shouldn’t go home tonight. Maybe you can get her to see reason.”

Tom Barrett turned to Sarah, who was frowning at his handsome face. “Put that down and let me take a look at you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You are not fine. Any nausea or dizziness? Double vision? How’s that headache?” He proceeded to shine a light in her eyes, in the face of her silence. He smiled, “You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

“I’m going home.”

“You are not going home. You can’t drive.”

“I’ll call a cab. I’m going home.”

Tom Barrett sighed and turned to Jim. “See if you can talk some sense into her.”

Jim sat down on the chair beside her bed as the door closed behind the doctor.

“Hand me the paperwork.”

“Not, yet. Tell me what happened.”

“The car hit a wall going over Mount Soledad on my way home.”

“Were you drinking?”

“No, I’d just left Alexa’s.”

“So why did the car go out of control?”

“Don’t know. The BMW people took it to the shop. Ask them.”

“I will. But you know what happened. Tell me.”

“Hand me the papers.”

“Not until you tell me.”

“Ok, ok. The brakes failed.”

“And you have a manual transmission. Why didn’t you down shift?”

“I did.”

“So no clutch, either?”

“Right.”

“Someone just tried to kill you.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“And now you want to sign yourself out of the hospital and go home in the middle of the night?”

“Don’t argue with me. Hand me those papers.”

Jim studied her wiry determined form, swallowed by the white tent of the hospital gown. He watched her try to scribble with her left hand.

“Come to my place instead. I’d rather know you were in my guest room.”

“Nope. Going home.”

“So there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay. Then I’ll drive you.”

* * *

She was fading, Jim noticed, as they turned into her drive. Her fierceness was no match for the medications Dr. Barrett had given her. He wondered if she’d fall deeply enough asleep to let him take her home with him. She had not been able to get her clothes on alone, so the hospital had let him wrap a blanket over the cavernous hospital gown.

She seemed to read his mind about taking her back to his place. Her eyes popped open. “Don’t even think about not letting me go inside.”

“You just seemed to have passed out here in the car.”

With a mighty effort, she heaved open the passenger side door with her left hand.

“Wait. Let me. Where’s you key?”

“In my purse.”

“Come on, then. Lean on me. If you don’t, you’re going to fall and send yourself right back to Dr. Barrett.”

She gave him a small, mischievous drunken smile. “I think he’d like to have me back.”

“He definitely would like to have you back. He knows you need to be in the hospital.”

“No, he liked me. I could tell. He liked me.”

“You’re on a lot of medication right now.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t know when an attractive man likes me.”

“Okay, okay. He liked you. Why don’t you let me take you straight back to the hospital then?”

“Because I’m tired, and I want to sleep in my own bed. He’ll call me tomorrow. He has to find out how I am.”

Jim suppressed his annoyance and helped her make her way up the walk in the chilly October morning dark. He realized the drugs were talking and exposing the lonely, vulnerable side of her life, something she kept expertly hidden.

She leaned on him while he turned the key in the lock. He stepped into the hall, drew her inside, and closed the door behind them. She smelled of antiseptic and her usual gardenia perfume. He put his arms around her and thought of a bird’s small bones as she sagged against him.

“Come on, then, let’s get you into bed.” He reached out and flipped the switch for the hall light.

“Oh, my God!” Sarah lurched toward the living room, which had been turned upside down. Lamps lay smashed on the floor. The end tables had been overturned. Someone had used a knife to rip open all the sofa cushions and scatter down everywhere.

Jim tried to grab her before she got beyond arm’s reach but was not successful. She stopped in the doorway, and Jim saw her legs sag as she grabbed the door frame.

He hurried to put his arms around her before she could fall.

“Turn on the light,” she commanded.

“No, don’t look.”

“I want to see.”

Reluctantly Jim reached out and switched on the overhead recessed lighting.

She shook her head in disbelief. He saw tears in her eyes. But his training immediately made him pull her close.

“We have to get out of here,” he whispered close to her ear.

“No.”

“Sh-h-h. We don’t’ know who did this. And we don’t know who might still be here.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but he picked her up and hurried out to the car. He didn’t have time to go back and clear the scene, and it would be dangerous to do that alone, anyway.

He bundled her into the car, and backed out of the drive quickly, still afraid someone might yet be in the house. Shock on top of the medications had silenced Sarah. She slumped against the passenger’s door and closed her eyes.

Jim’s mind raced through the possibilities of who could be responsible. Had the same person who’d cut her brakes been the one who’d gone through her house? And what about Alexa? He’d left her ready to sleep. Had they gone after her, too?

He drove through the dark, deserted streets wondering if he should swing by Alexa’s. But it was 2:30 in the morning, and she’d been instructed to call if anything seemed amiss. Right now getting Sarah to rest had to be his top priority.

He pulled into his garage, closed the roll-up door behind him, and got out of the car. Fatigue and fear had finally done gotten the best of her. He carried her into his guest room, pulled back the sheets and tucked her in. She smiled in her sleep but never woke up.

download (11)

CHAPTER THIRTY

“So we now know that Michael was bribing Ronald Brigman.” The last few rays of daylight were turning to long gray fingers of twilight as Sarah sat with Alexa in the living room of her tiny, two bedroom cottage. Alexa was curled up on the thread-bare sofa, a blanket over her legs. Sarah occupied the shabby overstuffed chair opposite. It was five thirty, and they were waiting for Jim to come back with provisions for Alexa’s empty pantry. They had only arrived a half hour ago.

It had been one of the most difficult days Sarah could remember. The probation department had not shown up at 10:30, nor did anyone call with any explanation for why they failed to appear. As the afternoon wore on, she, Alexa, and Jim had become increasingly tense as they wondered if the slender thread of Alexa’s impending freedom was about to be cut. Sarah eyed her cell phone constantly, bracing herself for word Preston Baldwin had decided to take his chances in the court of appeal after all.

Jim and Alexa whiled away the day-long uncertainty talking about studying at Georgetown and life in D.C. In the midst of her rising anxiety over why they weren’t leaving with Alexa, Sarah tried to tune out their patter about their favorite coffee shops, where to find half-price tickets to the Kennedy Center, and the best place to catch a cab in rush hour. They had led a similar life; and listening to them, hour after hour, made her wonder if they would one day live it again. Except this time, together. Jim had lost Cody. Deep down, Alexa knew she’d lost Meggie and Sam. If Sarah could save Alexa’s life, Alexa and Jim could start over. Sarah wanted to be happy that it might be possible, but the familiar jealousy demon griped her heart and squeezed until she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. Now she felt awkward, alone with Alexa, waiting for Jim to come back, so she could make her escape.

“Have you told Bob?” Alexa asked.

“Yes. He was happy to have his suspicions confirmed.”

“And I assume Tara was mixed up in it, too?”

“She was the one who orchestrated it. Jim says the bank records show payments to Brigman even before he was appointed on the case.”

“So Michael went to her because he knew she’d help him buy an evaluator.”

“That’s pretty much the story.”

Alexa’s large blue eyes were thoughtful in the deepening twilight. There were no street sounds to interrupt the silence. She lived in a little white cottage with bright blue shutters and a bright blue door on Crescent Court, a small cul de sac far from the main roads of Pacific Beach and the constant hum of its traffic. The tiny house was nestled among tall pine trees, surrounded by a white picket fence and had a curved stone path leading to the front door. Sarah had thought it was straight out of a fairy tale when she drove up.

But Alexa was no fairy tale princess. On unsteady but determined legs, she’d made it up the walk from Sarah’s car unassisted, smiled at Mary Hughes, her landlady who was there to let them in. She had crossed the front hall to the bedroom Meggie and Sam had shared, looked for a moment at all their belongings exactly where they had left them, and closed the door firmly and turned away, her face set resolutely.

Now she was looking at Sarah with that same expression. “I wish I could remember why I was at Brigman’s that night. It just doesn’t make any sense for me to be there.”

“It might yet come back to you.”

“Judge Tomlinson wants this to go to trial quickly.”

“Yes, he does. I’d bet he’ll set it within thirty days when we go in on Friday.”

“Is that enough time for you to get ready?”

“I’m going to do my best. Jordan and the ballistics expert have their results in.”

Alexa gave her a small, wry smile. “It’s not so much about being ready as I don’t have much of a defense. The bribe evidence doesn’t help.”

“I know. I wish it did.”

“I wish I could remember why I was at Dr. Brigman’s. I wonder if the truth would help or hurt.”

“It must have had something to do with your children.”

“True. I didn’t have any other reason to talk to him. But he’d just given the lion’s share of custody to Michael. So I can’t guess what I would have had to talk to him about that night. Maybe he called me in so he could gloat over how much it hurt to lose most of my time with them. He liked to do that. There was the humiliation of losing in the courtroom, and then there was the humiliation of being interviewed by Brigman for those so-called psychological evaluations.”

“Bob Metcalf mentioned that to Jim and me. By the way, there is something I should bring up about Meggie and Sam.”

“I think you’re going to say I have the right to at least speak with them on the phone.”

“Yes.”

“I know. I thought a lot about that when I realized I might not have to go back to jail.”

“I can get a court order for phone visits. You know that.”

“I do, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Her lovely eyes held Sarah’s, and she realized once more what a compelling presence Alexa Reed could be. “What could I say to them? They’ll ask when they can come home. You know I can see by their room, Coleman didn’t let them take anything but the clothes on their back. Meggie’s favorite doll and Sam’s beloved Mr. Wiggles, the bear, are still here. They would never have left willingly without them. He wants to obliterate me from their lives.”

“But that’s just it. If by some miracle the jury acquits you, it would take a custody fight to get them back. The court would want to know why you didn’t at least ask for phone visits now.”

Alexa looked away toward the fireplace that she’d filled with dried flowers in happier times. After a minute or two she said, slowly and carefully, “I know you are right. But the odds of me being acquitted are slim to none. The best I can hope for is prison time. And it would be a lot of prison time. I can’t do something now that would hurt them by getting their hopes up that I’m coming back when I know what the real story is.”

Sarah nodded. “I understand your decision.”

Alexa gave her a small twisted smile. “You’re lucky you never had children.”

Suddenly Sarah wanted to scream. She wanted to run out of the room and scream at the Universe for giving her this case.

But at that moment, Jim opened the front door and came in, carrying two large bags of groceries.

“What are the two of you doing in here in the dark?” He continued on into the living room and turned on a lamp.

“We were busy talking and didn’t realize the sun had set completely,” Sarah said.
“I was telling Alexa you’d confirmed the bribes.”

Jim nodded. “I wish we could do more with that evidence.”

“I know,” Alexa said. “It’s doesn’t help much, if at all.”

“Not so far,” Jim conceded from the kitchen where he was putting away the food. The house was so tiny it was almost one big room. “I’m making my favorite bolognese sauce tonight.”

Sarah felt as if one more minute in the tiny cottage with the two of them would suffocate her.

“Thanks, but I have to go home. I’ve got work to do.” She stood up as she spoke.

Jim left the kitchen and came into the living room.

“At least stay and for supper. I know there’s nothing to eat at your house.”

“I’m going to pick something up on the way home,” Sarah lied. In truth, she hadn’t any appetite after the stress of the day and knowing what was to come.

Jim frowned. “I think you should stay.”

“No, I can’t. Really, I can’t.” Sarah turned to Alexa who was observing the back and forth with Jim with calm blue eyes. She knows she has no reason to be jealous, Sarah thought. She knows he isn’t interested in me. She turned to Alexa. “I’ll pick you up at 7:30 on Friday morning. Get as much rest as you can.”

“I’ll pick her up on Friday,” Jim volunteered. “I’m closer than you are.”

Sarah studied him quietly for a moment before she said, “Ok, fine. I’ll meet the two of you there at eight fifteen. Get some rest, Alexa. You’ll need it.”

“I will. Thank you for everything.” Such sincerity in those eyes, Sarah thought. That would have helped with the jury if she’d had a story to tell. But she couldn’t remember anything.

She picked up her purse and her briefcase and turned toward the front door just as Jim stepped into her path.

“I think you should stay. You need to eat.”

“Not tonight.”

She’d started this case feeling as if she and Jim were on the same team, but now she was only a cumbersome third-wheel.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

She was afraid he’d gone to bed. She’d taken a desperate chance, driving over to his house at midnight just because she wanted to see him. He was wearing gray sweat pants and a white t-shirt and holding an empty glass that she guessed must have held scotch. It was the most casually dressed she had ever seen him. She had done her best to stay away ever since seeing realizing his growing feelings for Alexa, knowing as she did that even if Alexa hadn’t been in the way, nothing would ever be possible for her with him. But, she told herself, Jim had become her anchor in the swirling intrigue that surrounded this case; and she needed to be near him at least for that night to steady herself for what was to come.

“You haven’t been home to change since the hearing.” He was surprised to see her in the same dark purple suit.

“I went to the hospital to give Alexa the news, and then I had several meetings with prospective clients this afternoon. I went to Trend for a drink, and then I realized I needed to talk to you.”

“And I’m sure you haven’t had a thing to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Yes, you are.” He led the way into his dark kitchen, snapped on the light, and pulled out a stool for her at island in the center. Without asking, he took her briefcase and purse and began to unbutton her suit coat. He didn’t care if he was inappropriate. He was sailing on too much scotch, and he’d missed her, and right now nothing mattered more than having her here with him.

“What are you doing?”

“Making sure you don’t dribble brie and mushroom quiche on your very expensive jacket. Chanel?”

“No.”

“Then designer Who?”

“Does it matter?”

“You were the best looking one in the courtroom this morning.”

Sarah gave him the first smile he’d seen that day. “Preston Baldwin is fifty and bald and Judge Tomlinson could use a few laps at the gym. As for the sheriff – ”

“Aren’t you going to make a crack about real men and quiche?”

“No. I’m going to be happy you let me into your house at midnight and are willing to feed me. The suit is Marc Jacobs, by the way.” I’ve had too much to drink, Sarah thought. I shouldn’t have come here. But I’m so happy to see him that it hurts. I only hope I don’t do something stupid.

“Should I pour wine or make coffee?”

“Wine.” Ok, Sarah thought. That was stupid. I’m already over my limit.

He opened a bottle of cabernet and poured two glasses. “Go slowly on this. The quiche will be ready in a few minutes. I had some for supper.” He told himself not to be distracted because she was wearing a lacy black camisole under the discarded jacket.

“So how was Alexa when you gave her the news?”

“Surprised. Happy. Didn’t you go by the hospital tonight?”

“No. I knew you’d been there. And I figured after the Judge reamed out the sheriff, they wouldn’t try anything tonight. Congratulations, by the way. This is an unprecedented victory.”

Sarah’s stomach tightened because she was afraid he was about to mention Menendez. But to her great relief he didn’t. “Probably illegal, as the judge said. But thanks.”

“Killing her in jail is also illegal.”

“Good point.”

“Have you decided how to handle things tomorrow?”

“They are coming to the hospital at 10:30 to fit the ankle monitor.”

“And you’re going to be there to make sure they don’t smear it with poison.”

“Something like that. I want you there, too.”

“Me?”

“Well, you’ve done the lion’s share of looking after her. She trusts you.” Sarah tried to keep her voice steady.

“And you, too. I’m just doing what an investigator does for his boss.”

And it looks like a lot more than that to me. But I’m not going to say it.

“Here, eat up.”

“Thanks.”

He watched her wolf down the quiche. Unlike the inedible stuff she brought home in saran wrap that she picked at, she always ate his food.

“That was fast. I bet you haven’t eaten all day.”

She looked up guiltily from the empty plate. “Do the pretzels at Trend count?”

“Definitely not. Here. One more piece.” He fought down the wave of feelings that washed over him as he sliced another serving of pie and heated it in the microwave. She needed someone to look after her. She needed him.

“Thanks.” Sarah attacked her second helping more slowly, savoring every bit. “It’s wonderful as usual.”

“I still say you need a personal chef.”

She laughed. “Wouldn’t work. My hours are too irregular.”

“There would at least be something in the frig for you to heat up when you finally do get home.”

“It’s a thought. What have you found in Brigman’s bank records?”

“Do you really want to talk about those right now?”

No, Sarah, thought. No, I don’t. I want to put my head on your shoulder and feel your arms around me and feel safe. I never feel safe, but I feel safe with you. “I was hoping for just a preliminary opinion.”

He was disappointed. He didn’t want to talk shop at one a.m. He wanted to hold her and tell her how much she meant to him. “I can give you more than that. I’ve found evidence Michael was, indeed bribing Ronald Brigman. There’s a pattern of transfers into Brigman’s account each month and stupidly Michael used the same account to write support checks to Alexa.”

Sarah’s face brightened. “So we can prove Michael was bribing Brigman?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t help us put together a defense for Alexa because although she and Bob Metcalf suspected something illegal, they didn’t actually know what Michael and Brigman were up to. So the bribes couldn’t have influenced Alexa’s decision to kill them. If she killed them.”

“Have you told Alexa her suspicions were justified?”

“No. I figured that was your job.”

Well, at least they weren’t quite as close as they’d seemed that night. Sarah took some comfort in that. She was suddenly overcome by the desire to go to sleep.

“Hey!” Jim caught her as she was slipping off the stool.

“Sorry. Food. Wine. I’m tired, now. I’d better go home.”

“Well, you can’t drive. And to be honest, neither can I. I’ve killed quite a bit of scotch tonight.”

Because you missed visiting Alexa, she thought. But knew better than to say so. “No, I’ll be fine,” she insisted.

“You will not be fine. Guest room, now.”

“No. I have to go home.” Because something will happen if I stay. And tomorrow at the hospital, when I see you with Alexa, my heart break all over again.

Jim sighed. “Then I’ll call a cab for you.”

Within ten minutes, he bundled her into the bright yellow taxi and then stood in the drive like a love-sick school boy watching it vanish into the dark.

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