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This week I heard from a reader. I do not often hear directly from readers, but the ones who have written up until now have sent good news: they enjoyed Dance for A Dead Princess or Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. Until this week, the ones who didn’t like my books, either left words to that effect in Amazon reviews, or remained silent. No one took me to task in a long, personal email.

But this week, a reader not only left a negative review on Amazon, she wrote me a long email outlining everything she thought was wrong with Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. And I could immediately tell that she didn’t “get” the story. She had received a free copy as part of a Read and Review program, and I’m sure she was under the impression that Ride was a formula romance novel. And, reading between the lines, she was upset, outraged might be a better word, because there were no explicit sex scenes in Ride and because Ride is an honest look at how difficult love can be and how we sometimes find lost pieces of ourselves in the people we believe we love and hang on at all costs. Ride is a complex book. It does not say hot sex equals undying love. I know that is theme of formula romance. But I was not writing formula romance in Ride, to the chagrin of Unhappy Reader.

I have come to feel that, as a female writer, all of my work has to overcome the presumption that because a woman wrote it, it is formula romance. When I set up promotions on the various ebook promotions sites, I often have the Hobson’s choice between “Romance” and “Contemporary Fiction.” I consider both of my books to be “Women’s Fiction” although even that label does not immediately remove my novels from the formula romance presumption. While Dance for a Dead Princess does have some elements in common with formula romance, as Diane Donovan of the Midwest Review observed, it goes far beyond formula fiction.   In my day job, as an attorney, I deal with the presumption of innocence, which, frankly, is more akin to a presumption of guilt. And I have come to feel, in my night job, as a fiction writer, that any book for a female audience carries the formula romance presumption.  And when it doesn’t live up to that presumption, some readers, like Unhappy are, to put it frankly, outraged.  Hence her personal email critique.

What is formula romance, you are asking at this point. Good question. The roots of formula romance have impeccable literary credentials. The unforgettable Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and the equally charming Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin are the ancestors of the modern romance novel. In both books, a heroine of little fortune marries a man of means for love and not for pure social advantage.  In archetypal terms, the Cinderella trope.   The plots of both books center around the barriers between the hero and the heroine and how these are ultimately resolved. Jane Eyre attempts to resolve a moral issue, a married man in love with a young women of little means but great love and virtue. Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, poking subtle fun at the mating conventions of the day. The hero overcomes his pride of position to marry the young woman of great love and virtue but little fortune. From these outstanding beginnings, modern-day formula romance has evolved (or devolved) into predictable plot lines, which are resolved in fifty-thousand words or less. (Unhappy complained that Ride, at 100,000 words was just too long, and she was sooooo bored. My advice: if a book bores you, stop reading it.  It’s like  hitting yourself in the head:  it feels so good when you stop.)

In the modern formula romance, Hero, with six-pack abs, which he miraculously unveils within five pages of the opening, (and which are always on the cover), has sex with Heroine in Chapter One. Notably, they are both strangers. By Chapter Two, the glow of orgasm has faded, and they realize they have made a huge mistake. Like two mature adults, they immediately fight and vow never to see each other again. Then, for twenty-something more chapters, the two vacillate between their determination not see each other and their determination to have more sex, which is described in excruciating detail in alternating chapters. Fight a chapter, F– a chapter. (You get what I mean.)

On this solid and mature foundation for a marriage, Heroine winds up with a very large diamond on her finger, since Hero not only has that six-pack, but he is also great hubby material because he is good in bed and, more importantly, he has revealed he is not a simple ranch hand but the owner of most of Texas (or is a prince of a European state determined to restore its monarchy). Formula romances  close with a wedding or an epilogue showing a happily pregnant Heroine.

These books sell well to readers like Unhappy, so Clever Author multiplies this storyline like rabbits, varying the setting and the characters’ names, but never the plot. And if Author is even More Clever (or Diabolical, you decide) the original book will have a Heroine or Hero with ten brothers and sisters, each of whom will star in a subsequent formula romance. These books are easy to spot on the ebook promo sites because, in addition to male six-packs on the cover, they all have titles that include the word “Series” or “Chronicles.” “Book One of The Thornton Family Chronicles” Or “Book Three of the McLaren Brothers’ Brides Trilogy.” Or “Book Twenty-five of the Sisters of Seven Corners Series.” You’ve seen them. You know what I mean.

Not to be rude, but I run from these cookie-cutter books like the plague. They remind me of those clear plastic sleeves of chocolates that you can buy at Costco at Christmas. Year after year, the blue ones are milk chocolate with Kahlua centers, the pink ones are dark chocolate with an unidentified green cream inside, and the gold ones contain an unknown liqueur that might be brandy. Might. Many of these literary formula offerings have no ending, so that if a reader wants to know what happened to Hero and Heroine (does tragedy strike? does he lose that six-pack and therefore the girl? does he become King Travis the 25th of MoldyDisheveia), she has to buy “Books Two through Thirty of the Hot Brothers of MoldyDishevia Series.” And Extremely Clever Author laughs all the way to the bank. And gets featured as an Amazon Bestselling Extremely Clever Author in the Amazon Newsletter. (Read their newsletter if you don’t believe me.) Oh, and the piece de resistance, Author gets a lifetime guarantee of ads on the obnoxious Book Bub, which mainly features trashy formula romance with those hot-sex covers. But that is another blog post.

At any rate, I have come across a beautiful video that explains visually what Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is all about. I will explain in my next post and show you the video to see what you think. Is there room in the world for a woman writer to write a book that is not formula romance?   In the meantime,  my deepest thanks to my readers who did “get” it, and my undying gratitude to those who left reviews explaining exactly what they “got.”  I am forever in your debt and humbled by being allowed to entertain you in 100,000, I promise, well-chosen words.

And now, one last word to Unhappy. Despite your email statement to me making light of the loss of a child, losing a child is one of the most tragic events of anyone’s life. It is a tragedy that no one completely recovers from. The only thing offensive about you email, was your statement that “losing a child is no big deal.” Wrong, Unhappy. Very, very wrong, on that one. Formula romance books are fungible. Children are not.

Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is not a book for every reader. It is a book for anyone who wants to laugh and cry,  for anyone who is willing to be frustrated by characters that life has broken and healed and broken again,  and for anyone who is willing to look inside and love your own, beautiful and utterly unique soul. Ride is a challenge that not everyone will want to meet. But that’s just fine by me.

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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

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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.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Sarah waited until eight o’clock on Friday night to go to the hospital to see Alexa. She knew Jim would be leaving about then because he called around nine every night when he got home to report on his work for the day and Alexa’s progress. She dreaded talking to her alone, but under the ethical rules that Coleman had disparaged so thoroughly, it was her responsibility to maintain communications with her client. Even if she felt horribly guilty because her client was still alive.

Alexa’s room was dimly lit, and Jim was helping her settle some pillows to keep her head raised because she still had discomfort from the healing wound in her neck. He was wearing his navy sport coat, the one he’d worn that first night at Trend. It made him a stand out in the tall and sexy department, and Sarah resented the way her heart went flip flop when she saw him. The two were absorbed in getting Alexa’s head at just the right angle and in making sure the pitcher of ice chips was close enough for her to reach in the night. The sweet intimacy of the little moment sent Sarah’s stomach churning with resentment.

“I’ll be back at seven thirty in the morning, and I’ll bring you my amazing scrambled egg sandwich.”

Alexa smiled up at him, and Sarah saw what a dangerously charming woman she once had been. Her killer intellect was hidden under a veneer of naive, sweet femininity. No wonder Michael Reed had thought she’d always play the role of long-suffering wife and mother and would never object to any of his affairs.

Suddenly Alexa looked up and saw Sarah. Michael’s eyes followed her startled ones. He said, “You didn’t tell me you were coming by tonight.”

“No, I didn’t,” Sarah agreed but volunteered nothing more.

“Do you want me to stay?”

“No, I’m sure you’ve had a long day.” His look of disappointment cut through her heart. He didn’t want to leave Alexa. And he’d be back early on Saturday morning. Well, they would be good together, Sarah had to admit if she was honest. After all, she could never have had Jim even if Alexa weren’t in the way. Joey Menendez had seen to that. Now she had another reason to save Alexa’s life: for a man who was actually capable of loving her.

“Good night,” Alexa smiled up at Jim, and he squeezed her hand. “See you in the morning.”

He hurried out without making eye contact with Sarah, as she pulled up a chair by Alexa’s bed.

“You’re looking better.”

“Thanks.” Her voice was less raspy but still very low. “Jim brought in a hairdresser, and it really helped.”

“Of course.” Sarah hoped her disappointment in the exemplary way her investigator was doing his job didn’t show. “I hope I haven’t come too late. But it’s been a busy week, and this was my first chance to tell you what’s been going on.”

“That’s fine. I have trouble sleeping, anyway.”

Don’t I know about that, Sarah thought. “Have you been able to remember anything else about that night or about why you went to Dr. Brigman’s?”

She shook her head. “I’ve tried and tried. I know the video shows me there, but it doesn’t make any sense. The only time I ever went to Ronald Brigman’s was to drop the children off for the so-called ‘therapy’ he had ordered to set them up for a change of custody. Meggie and Sam weren’t with me that night, so I had no reason to go to his house.”

“Ok. I understand. But if you do remember anything, even the tiniest detail, you’ll let me or Jim know?”

“Absolutely. I can’t stop thinking about it. But all I can remember is Michael lying on the floor in that pool of blood. Alexa became thoughtful in the soft twilight of the room lit for sleeping. “Honestly, I can’t imagine shooting anyone. I bought the gun because Bob told me to, and I took the introductory class. But I wasn’t any good at it. The recoil made me miss the target every time.”

“Well, there are some facts we might be able to use. The bullets in Brigman and Michael were deliberately placed. If you’re a lousy shot, that tends to rule you out. Do you remember who your firearms instructor was?”

“No, but it’s on the certificate they gave me. At home.” Her face suddenly fell. “You know, I never asked what happened to our things.”

“Your things?”

“After the court made us leave the house Michael and I bought in La Jolla, I rented a cottage in Pacific Beach for me and the children. I was arrested on June 3, so I assume Mary, my landlord, has thrown out our belongings by now and rented to someone else.”

“No, you’ve been amazingly lucky. She’s one of the few people solidly on your side. Everything is just as you left it, waiting for you to come back.”

Alexa’s eyes suddenly filed with tears. Sarah handed her a tissue from the box by the bed. “I had no idea.”

“Yeah, Mary’s on your side. We’re hoping to have you stay at the cottage under house arrest until trial. If I can win the bail hearing.”

“Jim says you are an extraordinary attorney.” Alexa fixed her big blue eyes on Sarah adoringly, and Sarah realized this same gaze must be irresistible to any man on earth.

“Jim exaggerates. I won a big case some years back that law enforcement thought they could never lose, and people have been telling crazy stories ever since. When a prosecutor gets too confident, he gets careless, and the defense can profit. Taking advantage of another’s mistake doesn’t make me extraordinary. It just means I’m doing my job.”

“You said some things happened this week that you wanted to tell me about.”

“Yes. To make a long story short, we were able to get Ronald Brigman’s bank records, but not Michael’s.”

“Let me guess. Coleman sent a squad of his Warrick, Thompson buddies to tell the court Michael’s were covered by attorney client privilege. Bob and I saw this all the time in the family law case.”

“Actually, Coleman had to use some attorneys from King and White. But otherwise, that’s pretty much what happened.”

Alexa brightened slightly. “I wonder why Warrick, Thompson wasn’t involved.”

“Probably because Alan Warrick doesn’t share Coleman’s view of you and this case.”

Alexa brightened even more. “Did Alan tell you that?

“No, Coleman did. Alan is still in Paris with Brenda.”

“Okay, now I get it. Coleman called to offer you a bribe to throw my defense.”

“That’s a shorthand way to explain it. After Tara Jacobs couldn’t protect either Michael’s or Brigman’s financials, Coleman called to pressure me to withdraw my subpoenas. He knew I was going to get Brigman’s records even though he could protect Michael’s. And he didn’t want me to see either one.”

“What did he offer you?”

“A partnership at Warrick, Thompson. But I had already turned that down long before I was appointed to represent you. Alan asked me to join the firm when I came out from New York, but I said no.”

“So what else, then?”

“He offered to send some of his former clients who are now with Warrick, Thompson my way. In short, he offered to make me a rich woman.”

“And you said no? Even though you know you’ll lose my case?”

“I don’t know that I’m going to lose.”

“I’ve been researching Battered Woman’s Syndrome as a defense.”

“Jim told me.”

“It rarely results in acquittal.”

“That’s right. Usually the jury finds voluntary manslaughter or maybe second degree murder. Voluntary manslaughter will get you eleven years; second degree murder is fifteen to life.”

“So you can save me from lethal injection, but you can’t get me back to Meggie and Sam.”

“We don’t know that right now.”

“But being back with my children is a long shot.”

“Right. A long shot.”

Alexa was silent for a while, staring at the blank wall opposite. The she said, “That so typical of Coleman.”

“What is?”

“Offering you a bribe. He thinks money is the reason for living.”

“He’s not alone. I just happen not to agree.”

“Do you think you can learn anything from Dr. Brigman’s bank records?”

“We’re going to try. Of course, if Michael was bribing him, having Michael’s would make it a lot easier to figure that out.”

“I guess Bob told you we suspected Brigman was being bribed.”

“Yeah. He said you lost too many hearings you should have won.”

“That’s true. I went from being an attorney who could write persuasive majority opinions for a United States Supreme Court Justice to an attorney who couldn’t win even one motion in family law court. My self-esteem went to zero.”

“That’s not hard to understand. You were one of the top attorneys in the country, and you felt you should be able to use your skill to save your children.”

Alexa gave her that soft, charming smile. “I was never able to put it into words the way you have; but, of course, you’re right. I wasn’t much of a lawyer if I couldn’t protect my children from Michael and Ronald Brigman. And I couldn’t.”

“Losing in family court wasn’t the mark of your ability as an attorney. You were up against an unfair system.”

“Bob said that. He told me to leave San Diego and not to look back because the court would forever keep me dancing to Michael’s tune. Bob told me to go where the really good attorneys are — the ones who’d appreciate what I do. You did that, didn’t you? You left San Diego and moved to New York?”

“I don’t talk about my life. The past is better left where it is. You may find that to be true one day.”

“Maybe. It’s just I can’t imagine never seeing Meggie and Sam again.” Her eyes filled with tears once more, and Sarah handed her another tissue.

“It might be better for now not to think that way. Just focus on getting through each day.”

Alexa nodded. “You’re right. Thank you for taking this case. I know it hasn’t made you popular.”

“I wasn’t destined to be popular here. I don’t practice law the way they do.”

“You know, you ought to reconsider Alan’s offer. I don’t mean because of Coleman’s influence. I’m sure Alan would want you because you’d be an asset to the firm. You’d like working with Alan and his partners because they play by the rules.”

“I know. But I was with a big firm for a long time, as you probably know. And I could go back to Craig, Lewis in a heartbeat if I picked up the phone and told Hollis Craig I was ready to come back. But that’s not what I want.”

“I understand. I’m lucky to have you.”

“Thanks. Now try to get some sleep. Jim will be around with that egg sandwhich in the morning; and although I’ve never had one of those, I know he is very talented in the kitchen. Should I turn out this light by the bed?”

“Please. But leave the night-light on.”

Sarah noticed a nursery night-light with pink bears plugged in under the window. Alexa looked a little embarrassed.

“I’m afraid I’ve become a child again. I can’t sleep if there is too much dark. Jim brought it too me.”

“Of course.” Sarah’s heart twisted at the kindness in Jim’s gesture for the woman who was might soon be facing death’s eternal darkness.

* * *

It was eleven thirty when Sarah got home. She had stopped at Trend for a drink after she left the hospital because she hadn’t wanted to face her guilt over Alexa alone in her empty house. But sitting at the polished bar, staring out at the dark ocean, had made her feel even worse. She’d kept wishing that by some miracle Jim would walk through the door.

You could call him, she told herself, as she sipped her wine and watched the waves dance under the stars. And if he weren’t otherwise occupied, he’d probably drive up from Pacific Beach and join her. But she knew she wouldn’t feel any better because she would spend their time together thinking about the way he’d settled the pillows behind Alexa’s head, and their smiles of anticipation when he’d said he’d be back in the morning.

She sat in her dark car in her dark garage for a few minutes, summoning her courage to go inside and face the too quiet house where her own thoughts could swarm unchecked. Suddenly she felt tears like pin pricks behind her eyes, so she got out of the car quickly and hurried into the kitchen to self-medicate with more wine before she could actually begin to cry. That was another one of her hard and fast rules. Never look back, and above all, never cry. She poured a large glass of cabernet and took a few quick gulps before going into the bedroom and slipping into her black silk pajamas.

She turned back her bed, settled comfortably against the down pillows, and tried to concentrate on the mystery thriller she was reading. But the picture of Alexa and Jim in the hospital continued to haunt her.

Bob Metcalf was right about Alexa. She was a sweet woman. Sarah thought they would probably have been friends if they’d had jobs at the same law firm. Craig, Lewis always liked to recruit former Supreme Court clerks as associates, and the ones who went the distance with the firm, always became partners. Sarah would have liked having a young associate in her practice who knew constitutional law as deeply as Alexa did. And she was bright and charming; and above all, juries would have warmed up to her. Sarah would have liked mentoring her to partnership in the firm. And without any doubt, Alexa would have become a Craig, Lewis partner. If only she hadn’t thrown away her career and her life by marrying Michael Reed.

“It’s your job to get her life back for her,” the Universe reminder her in the too-quiet house.

“I know. But I’ve already told you, I don’t want that job.”

“Too bad because it’s yours.”

“But I want off this hook.”

“Want away, but you have to come through for her. You know that.”

Suddenly her phone began to ring. The clock said midnight, and her heart began to flip flop like a teenaged girl’s, hoping Jim was calling.

“Hey, babe!” David Scott. Her heart stopped dancing and became as still as stone. “You stood me up tonight.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s over.”

“Like I said, it’s not over until I say it’s over.”

“I don’t have time for this. I’m trying to save a woman’s life.”

“And that just happens to include sleeping with your investigator?”

“I’m not sleeping with anyone. But if I were, it would not be your business.”

“Wrong again. It is my business, and I’ve got my man watching you right now. You’re lying to me about that investigator.”

Sarah shivered. “I’m going to get a restraining order for you and anyone connected to you first thing Monday morning.”

David laughed. “Please do. You know those orders aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

And that was only too true.

“Don’t cross me any more, Sarah. You don’t want to get hurt. And no one would ever know I’m responsible. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. Why do you think Tessa stays in line so nicely?”

Sarah shivered again but said firmly, “Good night.”

A wave of raw terror washed over her as soon as she put down the phone. She crept through the silent house and peeked through the blinds in the front hall without opening them. Some sort of generic white car was parked in front of her neighbor’s house. It hadn’t been there when she’d come home.

She stood in the hall trembling and considering what to do. One part of her wanted to call Jim, but yet another part of her knew she should not to become dependant upon him. She had always fought her battles alone; nothing had changed in that department. She moved silently down the hall and into her bedroom. She decided not to turn out the light because she didn’t want whoever was in the white car to think she was going to sleep. She picked up her phone and dialed the San Diego police.”

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“I live in La Jolla Shores and there’s a suspicious car that’s been parked in front of my neighbor’s house for over an hour. My neighbor isn’t home, and I think they’re casing the place for a burglary.”

“Ok, ma’am. We’ll get right on it.”

And ten minutes later, Sarah smiled as she watched the police shine a bright light into the private investigator’s car. Ten minutes after that, he was gone.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN
“You’re very quiet, tonight,” Jim observed.

It was Friday night, and Sarah had accepted another dinner invitation against her better judgement. She was sitting on the stool in his kitchen with a glass of wine, watching him pound veal for piccata. He’d wanted her to come over last night, but she’d been too drained after the interview with Bob Metcalf. She’d lied and said she had a date with David, although she had actually gone home, poured herself a drink, and sat on her patio, staring at the stars. She had wanted to shake her fist at God and demand why she had to be Alexa Reed’s lawyer. But she didn’t believe in God anymore so there was no one out there to shake her fist at. She could barely remember the days when she had believed, had gone to church, had sung hymns, had had what they called “faith.” But “faith” had only taught her God was the ultimate abuser and the consummate cosmic joke from a sadistic universe. What kind of compassionate God would create Alexa Reed’s hell? Or hers?

“I said you’re very quiet tonight.”

“Just tired.”

“Do you think we have an insanity defense now?”

“You mean after talking to Bob Metcalf?”

“You’ve got to admit, Alexa a had a good reason to snap under that kind of pressure.”

“We’d lose on insanity.”

“Why?”

“Because insane people can’t premeditate, and she had lots of time that night to plan her moves. She arrived at Brigman’s at 9:30, and he didn’t die until 11:00. That gives her a couple of hours to decide to kill him. Maybe I could argue it was a snap decision to go finish Michael off, too, but I doubt the jury would buy it. The story Bob told hurts Alexa more than it helps because it gives her a strong motive for first degree murder as revenge for all the injustice she suffered. If I were the prosecutor, I’d argue ‘vigilante justice.’”

“But there must be something in all that horror that would swung the jurors her way?”

“Only if we can show he beat her. Then we have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Battered Women’s Syndrome going for us. That would get us down to manslaughter and keep her from lethal injection. Based on Bob’s story, I’d say it was plausible she regarded Brigman as an abuser as much as Michael. We just need some evidence besides what has come out of Alexa’s own mouth.”

“I’m still trying.”

“I know you are.”

Sarah watched Jim cut, slice and pound with a thoughtful look on his face.

“What are you thinking about so hard?”

“Wishing there were some way we could get her off completely. Manslaughter would still get her eleven years. That’s too much after everything she’s been through. And a manslaughter verdict means she won’t get her children back.”

Sarah tried to find her tough-as-nails defense lawyer face, but she knew it wasn’t working. “Well, there’s jury nullification. It’s rare, and courts hate it. But sometimes jurors just say, we don’t care about the law. We’re not going to convict.”

“I’d agree with that one here,” Jim said as he started to saute the veal.

* * *

It was a warm night for September in San Diego, and they ate on Jim’s jasmine scented patio, listening to the ocean rolling onshore in the distance. The good food and the wine lulled the pain that had gripped Sarah’s soul since meeting Bob Metcalf. She drank too much as she listened to Jim talke about Cody’s passion for model trains and Lego’s.

“He has a huge train layout in Josh and Gail’s basement. And he uses the Legos to build cities for the trains to run through and to create the people who live in them. Every time he comes to see me, he wants to go to Legoland to get more ideas for his projects.”

“What’s Legoland?”

“Oh, I forgot. You don’t have kids. You know what Legos are, right?”

She nodded.

“The company is based in Denmark. They’ve built an amusement park here at Carlsbad with rides and sides, and tiny cities and people made out of Lego blocks.”

“And you like to go?”

“With Cody, yes.”

Sarah watched him stare vacantly at his empty plate. The visit to Bob had upset him, too.

“When do you see him again?”

“Christmas. If I’m lucky. More and more he doesn’t want to come because he has things to do with his friends. He’s beginning to be interested in girls. When he gets a girlfriend, he won’t come at all unless she can come, too. And you know her parents will say no.”

“It hasn’t happened, yet. Don’t borrow trouble.”

Jim gave her his heart-melting smile, and she reminded herself theirs was a business relationship in the end-of-summer romantic dark.

“Good advice. Go sit on the loveseat over there while I take these plates inside and bring desert.”

“Desert? No, I’ve eaten too much already.”

“You can at least taste it. Coconut flan with raspberry sauce. And since you don’t eat at home, too much here is a good thing.”

Spinning happily in her wine-induced haze, Sarah obeyed him even though a few minutes later, he had returned with one plate and two forks and was sitting much too close for a professional relationship. She tried to concentrate on the flan. The soft, sweet pudding was the ultimate comfort food.

“Good?”

“Fantastic. And I don’t like sweets.”

He grinned, happy at his triumph. But then his face darkened. “You know, the toughest thing for me is knowing Cody’s happy in a world I can’t belong to. I mean, I’m glad Josh filled the void in Gail’s life my stupidity created, but the pain never ends for me. Every day I think about Cody getting up, going to school, doing his homework, playing with those trains without me. And all I can do is send him more trains and more Legos, but I can’t build them with him or watch them run. Another man gets to do that.”

His pain was so raw and so real that without thinking, Sarah put her hand over his. His dark eyes held hers, and he leaned toward her, his lips inches from hers. She wanted him to kiss her, but she knew it would change everything. And she wasn’t ready for everything to change. Suddenly her cell phone shrilled, and she jumped up at the last minute to answer it.

* * *

What had he been thinking? Jim asked himself as Sarah frowned into her phone. She’d been sleeping with David Scott the night before. He’d been stupid beyond stupid to turn tonight into a show of his personal feelings. But how to control himself on a gentle summer night with the ocean purring on shore and the jasmine in full bloom and her own gardenia scent overwhelming his senses. She’d had just a little too much to drink, and he’d been hoping to keep her here tonight.

But now she was frowning into the phone with her lawyer face on, and he knew the moment was lost forever.

He heard her say, “Very well. I understand. I’ll be right there.”

She ended the call with a decisive click of the “end call” button.

“What’s wrong?”

“That was the jail. Alexa Reed is in the hospital and not expected to make it.”

Jim’s mouth went dry, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach. “I thought they had her on suicide watch.”

“They did. It wasn’t suicide. It was a reaction to the medication the jail psychiatrist prescribed for her. They took her to USCD in Hillcrest. I’d better get down there. She doesn’t have any family that I know about.”

“You’d better let me drive.”

* * *
The Lord Be with you. And also with you. As she lay on her bunk, day after endless day, Alexa liked to chant to herself the words of the Episcopalian liturgy. She was ten years old again and holding Gramma Beth’s hand and believing God would always keep her safe.The rhythm of the words brought her peace.

Someone was whispering outside her cell.

“I’ve prescribed Lexapro and Depakote for her. Here’s the first dose.”

When the guard opened the door with the white paper cup in her hand, Alexa said a prayer of thanks and downed all of it. Within ten minutes, she could not breathe.

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CHAPTER FIVE

Sarah studied Jim’s display of Cody’s pictures on the bookshelves on either side of the fireplace as she listened to him clinking dishes into the dishwasher. The photos took Cody from plump babyhood in an old fashioned pram to the most recent ones in a little league baseball uniform. He had Jim’s dark hair and dimpled chin, but blue eyes like his mother. He looked tall for thirteen, so she guessed he took after his father in the height department, too. He smiled unself-consciously at the camera as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“That’s my boy,” Jim said as he entered the room, carrying a folder full of papers.

“Good looking. Takes after his old man.”

He smiled. “Thanks for the unexpected compliment. But I think he looks more like Gail.”

She heard the note of wistfulness that came over him whenever he mentioned his ex-wife’s name. It was like a theme song he played forever in her memory. For a moment, she wished someone would play a theme like that for her. But only for a nano second.

“I gather all that is information on Alexa Reed?”

“You are correct. Since our client wouldn’t tell us anything about herself, I did some digging. Here, sit down and let me show you.”

She would have preferred the seat across the room where she couldn’t smell the clean, spring smell of his soap and the light starch in his shirt, but he had laid the folder on the coffee table between them. She caught her breath when he opened it, and she saw Alexa Reed as she’d once been.

“That’s her engagement photo, taken in 2004, just after she graduated number one in her class from Georgetown. She was editor of the law review.”

Sarah couldn’t believe the exquisite little blonde with the enormous blue eyes, flawless complexion, and perfect cupid’s bow mouth was the woman they’d seen on the jail cot that afternoon. She felt Jim’s eyes on her as she stared at the picture.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” he said.

“She’s gorgeous.”

“She’s amazingly talented, too.”

Sarah felt that inappropriate stab of jealousy again. “How so?”

“She was born in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1980, making her thirty-three today. Her parents died in a car accident when she was six. She was raised by her grandmother, and had a habit of winning academic honors. She was the valedictorian of her class at Jefferson High and then went to Yale, your law alma mater, on a full academic scholarship. She graduated with honors in history and then went to Georgetown for law school where she met Michael Reed. They were engaged in 2004 when they both graduated from law school but didn’t get married until the spring of 2005. I assume they delayed the wedding so Alexa could spend that year clerking for Justice Mary Moreno, Coleman Reed’s colleague on the U.S. Supreme Court. Otherwise she’d have been stuck with a clerkship at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals like Michael because nepotism would have kept them both out of Coleman Reed’s court.

“In 2005, which was also the year Alexa’s grandmother died, they finished their clerkships, got married, and took jobs at Warrick, Thompson, Coleman Reed’s old firm. Michael went to work in litigation. Alexa was assigned to Chuck Reilly, their one and only appellate lawyer.”

Sarah continued to turn through the photographs of Alexa that Jim had found. She was a lawyerlike petite blonde, hair slicked into a tight bun and wearing an expensive dark suit next to Justice Moreno in one. In another, she stood between Justice Moreno and her father-in-law, Coleman Reed, still wearing a professional face. In another series of shots, she was the tiny, perfect bride in satin and white lace on a handsome Michael Reed’s arm.

“They were a good looking couple,” Sarah observed. Michael’s dark hair and eyes were a perfect counterpoint to Alexa’s light coloring.

“I think he was lucky to get her. She’s much better looking than he is.”

Sarah studied the wedding picture again. Although Michael had a Gerard Butler boyish charm, he had also inherited Coleman Reed’s too square face and stubborn jaw.

“He looks as if he could be a tough character.”

Jim nodded. “Heartless might be more to the point. Alexa had Meggie in 2007, after she’d been at the firm just two years. Six months later, she was pregnant again with Sam. She tried to go back to work, but by October 2008, she’d turned in her resignation. Three months later, in January 2009, Michael filed for divorce, seeking custody of the children. Sam, who had been born in March 2008, was less than a year old; and Michael wanted to take that baby away from his mother.”

“Callous, I agree. What is even more interesting is Trevor Martin’s claim that Alexa started the divorce proceedings.”

“All wrong. It was Michael.” Jim held up a copy of the divorce petition.

“Where’d you get that so fast?”

“I have my tricks. Don’t ask too many questions, and don’t worry, I know how to get copies through regular channels if we need them as court exhibits at trial. But in the meantime, I knew we had to have immediate information.”

“Wow, I can’t believe Martin got something as important as who initiated the divorce so wrong. I wonder what else he lied about? He called her a crazy manipulative bitch.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s going to turn out to be a lie, too.” Jim said, looking down at Alexa’s smiling engagement picture as Sarah fought back that stab of jealousy once more. Suddenly her phone began to ring, and she jumped up to fish it out of her bag. David’s picture appeared on the screen. She felt Jim watching her.

“I have to take this.” She pressed the accept button. “Hello? I wasn’t expecting to hear from you tonight. Oh, I see. Well, I’m just finishing up my meeting with my investigator. I can be at your house in, say, thirty minutes.”

She looked up to find Jim’s eyes still fixed on her, dark and unreadable.

“I take it that was your guy?”

“David. Yes.”

“How did he break free of the wife?”

“She decided to go to Cabo after all.”

“There are no flights this late.”

“David’s company has a private jet. She took that.”

“Ah, perfect for you, then.”

“Perfect.” Sarah was relieved to be leaving behind the conflicting feelings he aroused in her. Things were much simpler with David. Straight up sex, no strings attached. “Thank you for all the work you’ve done today.”

“My pleasure.” But he didn’t look at all happy she thought.

“So I’ll see you Friday at nine at Percy Andrews’ office. I’ll text you the address. Thanks for a lovely dinner.”

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Last Saturday began as an exceptional day for me. I normally have to work at least part of every weekend, but last Saturday, in honor of the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to give myself the day off.

I got up early anyway because I wanted to enjoy as many waking hours away from law practice as humanly possible. I fed my two Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm, and headed out for our usual morning walk. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we walk to the nearby duck pond night and morning, to sniff the sniffs, walk up and down the hill, and see what the ducks are up to. Usually it’s relaxing to stand under the eucalyptus trees and watch the mallards paddle around while we look for ducklings. (Well, I look for ducklings. Melody and Rhythm are more interested in finding road kill.)

And for the first fifteen minutes of our Saturday morning walk, all was serene. But then, Controversy struck like lightning in the form of a Thin Blonde in one of those black velour track suits attributable to Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie before Rachel Zoe got hold of them. Thin Blonde came sauntering down the hill with a Starbuck’s cup in one hand and a dog leash in the other. Only the leash was not attached to her dog, a portly little brown and white bulldog. He was toddling along on his too-short-for-his body legs completely unleashed. He looked as if he was fixing to light out for the territory on his own.

Now, the pond is not set aside by the city fathers as a dog park. Dogs are welcome but only when they are on leashes, and there are at least two signs prominently displayed informing all of us of that requirement. Thin Blonde had just sauntered past the one at the top of the hill. Obviously oblivious.

Now as you’ve probably guessed, Melody and Rhythm obey the law. They are leashed at all times at the pond. There are lots of reasons for that decision, not the least of which is their safety. We have rattlesnakes in our area, and I want them close by me whenever we are in off-path, brushy country. But having them leashed is also courteous to everyone else who visits the pond. They can’t bound up to strangers (as they would love to do) and plant two big paws on their shoulders and give them a big dog kiss. They also can’t treat small children like puppies they can play with. Being leashed means they are required to have good manners when they are at the pond, and it also means we aren’t arrogantly occupying more space than we are entitled to. Other people can have their fair share of the pond and its surroundings dog-free when we are there. And off-leash dogs present problems for the rest of us who are obeying the law. Some of them are aggressive and pose a danger to other dogs. Some are just very playful so that Melody and Rhythm pull my arms out of the sockets trying to run after them. No matter what, an off-leash dog at the pond spells discomfort and trouble. And I try to avoid them and their humans whenever I can.

But no such luck on Saturday.

Thin Blonde looked at me and Melody and Rhythm as if we were creatures from Outer Space and drawled sarcastically (ok, Stephen King, it’s an adverb and you hate them BUT she was sarcastic), “Oh, do I need a leash?”

“Yes,” I said. “The ordinance is posted at the top and bottom of the hill.” And I pointed in the direction she had come and in the direction she was going.

“Well, you don’t have to be rude!”

And that’s when the morning was no longer exceptional. I hadn’t been rude; she had been because she’d gotten an answer she didn’t like. I’d been sucked instantly into a vortex of bad feeling where I didn’t want to be. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible and get myself back into my exceptional Saturday mood.

But as I was about to turn and walk away with Melody and Rhythm, leaving her to mutter as she tried to attach the leash to Bulldog who clearly wasn’t having any of it, the situation escalated.

There are several regulars at the pond who make it a point of honor not to leash their dogs. They are quite aggressive about their right to ignore the city’s posted requirements. I avoid them whenever I can, but there are times when their dogs get too close to me or to mine, and I have to suggest politely that they get their pet under control. And of course that is the last thing one of them wants to hear because they are determined not to do that very thing. They usually launch the kind of ad hominum missiles Thin Blonde had just launched.

So just as I was preparing to leave Thin Blonde to her own devices, a large, large woman with perpetually greasy gray hair who lives in one of the houses that backs up to one side of the pond appeared with her Golden Retriever. Her Golden has never, ever visited the pond on the leash, and she is one of the more outspoken advocates of unleashed dogs. She proceeded, predictably, to attack me verbally and to tell Thin Blonde not to leash her dog.

It is silly to get invested in moments like that. I walked home trying to shake it off. None of us had gotten hurt. I’d done the right thing by my dogs who are very precious to me. And eventually the city will be out to enforce its ordinance. I understand they write pretty hefty tickets for off-leash dogs at the pond. Greasy hair lady will reap the karma she’s sown in the form of big fine. And more than likely Thin Blonde will probably never be back. She didn’t look as if she was from these parts. Or if she is, maybe the city will catch her eventually and make her take a crash course in READING. Or the fashion police might find her and sentence her to a reality TV session with Rachel Zoe, who would force her to give up the velour.

Rhythm is thinking about swimming.

Rhythm is thinking about swimming.

Our Goldens, Melody and Rhythm behaving themselves

Our Goldens, Melody and Rhythm behaving themselves

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