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Even before the name of the new little princess was announced, I, like many others, wondered if she would be called after her grandmother, Diana. Diana was thrust onto the world stage at age nineteen, a bit gawky, a bit naive, but utterly charming and sincere. By age twenty-three, she was the mother of two children, one a future king. By the time she died in Paris, at age thirty-six, she had grown into a beautiful, compassionate woman, anxious to be a healing and unifying influence in the world.

After Diana died, I found I missed her although we had never met. While she was living through her disastrous marriage and divorce in the glare of world wide publicity, I was living through my own marriage and divorce nightmare on a smaller, but nevertheless, public scale. On the days when I had to wait to check-out at the grocery story, I used to read the tabloid headlines written by Prince Charles’ supporters, accusing Diana of mental illness and instability; and I would comfort myself with the thought that at least no reporters were sitting in the courtroom to hear the man I’d married say exactly the same things about me. Although it was a public courtroom and anyone who walked in could have heard how, by having three children whom I loved more than life itself, I had maliciously morphed from an academic over-achiever who graduated Number Two in her law school class into a dangerous, crazy, lying freeloader. I felt a bond with Diana, although I was unenviably poor and she was enviably rich, because I realized that access to all the money in the world could never make up for the pain of having the father of your children heap lies and disrespect on you in a public forum.

When Diana died, I felt as if I’d lost a friend. And as the years passed and Charles and his publicists pushed Diana and her memory farther and farther into the background to replace her with Camilla Parker-Bowles, I wondered how many people remained who, like me, thought of Diana, not as a clothes horse or as a Royal Highness, but as a beautiful, loving woman, unfairly used and demeaned by a powerful and wealthy family.

My first novel, Dance For A Dead Princess has many themes, but one of the most prominent is the power of an aristocratic family to control its members. Nicholas Carey, the heredity duke, who is the hero of Dance for A Dead Princess, was forced to return from America when he was only sixteen to assume the position of heir to the dukedom, although given his choice he would have gladly remained in New York and studied to become a concert pianist like his mother. Diana was also affected by the power of her aristocratic family at a very young age when her father wrested custody of his children from their mother, leaving Diana and young Charles to be raised by nannies at Althorpe while grieving their mother’s loss.

Another central theme is the toll an unhappy marriage takes on the individuals involved. Having been unhappy in childhood, marriage for both Nicholas and Diana represented the chance to form happy unions of their own. For them, marriage was a chance to love and be loved rather than to be used as pawns on their aristocratic families’ chessboards. But Nicholas and Diana’s hopes were dashed yet again. Nicholas’ wife, Deborah and Diana’s husband, Charles, turned out to be powerfully in love, but not with their spouses. For Nicholas and for Diana, having lost the chance at a happy childhood, the loss of the opportunity to have a happy marriage was a second and even more powerful blow.

Some readers interpret Diana’s presence in Dance for a Dead Princess as an attempt to make believers out of the conspiracy theory of Diana’s death or as a crass attempt to sell books because her name is in them. But neither was ever my intention. I brought Diana into the book to keep her memory alive and to remind the world of the tragedy of her life. She was a beautiful, loving woman who was denied the thing she most longed for: the chance to create a loving family for herself, her husband, and her children. At one point in Dance, Nicholas observes how unfair it was for Diana to be called unstable and mentally ill all because she wanted what every wife wants, to have her husband to herself.

The haunting tragedy of Diana’s life was what I hoped every reader would take away from Dance. In the Prologue, the reader encounters Nicholas in Paris where he is grieving the loss of his beloved friend and the mutual support and companionship they offered each other in their isolated, unhappy lives. Nicholas stares down at the Place d’Alama Tunnel, thirteen years after that fateful August night, deeply longing for one more chance to talk to Diana. “How many nights had he spent talking to Diana about his marriage, about her marriage, about his guilt over Deborah and about the impossibility of being in love?” And he wonders how his friend felt as death approached. “ . . . What had she felt as she slipped away from everyone who loved her? Had she struggled against it, as Deborah had? Or had her torn and broken heart quietly accepted her fate? No, he doubted that. She’d have fought to stay with her boys.”

Whether or not there was a historical conspiracy to assassinate Diana is not the point of Dance. The role of the conspiracy in the plot is to give Nicholas an opportunity to express his unbearable grief over the loss of both Diana and his wife. Aching from all that loss in his life, Nicholas vows to expose Diana’s assassins, not as an act of vengeance, but as means of expressing his soul crushing sadness. And ironically, through this one, last powerful expression of grief, Nicholas meets Taylor Collins, the one woman who has the power to give him what he has always longed for, but has never had.

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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

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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 TWENTY-SIX

The phone woke her at six next morning instead of her alarm. She had drunk enough the night before to give herself a headache, and she thought about not answering. But it might be Jim. And it might be another emergency with Alexa. So she rolled over and picked up the receiver and said, with great effort, “Hello.”

“Good morning, Ms. Knight. I believe it’s morning where you are. It’s lunchtime in D.C. This is Coleman Reed.”

Sarah sat up and forced her hung-over self to concentrate. “What do you want, Justice Reed?”

“Well, first to congratulate you. I heard about Ms. Jacobs’ debacle yesterday. Clearly she did’t graduate in the top of her law school class.”

“Actually she managed to pass the bar after going to an unaccredited law school, so she isn’t stupid. I’m not convinced discussing Tara’s educational shortcomings is the purpose of this call.”

“You’re very acute, Ms. Knight. I remember you in oral argument in the Lewis versus New York case, three years back. Fourth Amendment. Illegal search. You won for your client.”

“No thanks to you, Justice Reed. You wrote the minority dissent in that case.”

“Like I said, you’re very acute. Talented, even. Your work in the Joey Menendez case is legendary. As you know. And you turned six of my colleagues against me in the Lewis case. Because of you, Myron Lewis, an international drug dealer, walked away a free man. It’s too bad they appointed you to defend my daughter-in-law. You’re going to lose and that will tarnish your considerable reputation.”

“I don’t think you called to discuss my standing in the legal community.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”

“Let’s get to the point.”

“You might not like that.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You can’t win against me, Ms. Knight. Haven’t you figured that out, yet?”

“I have to do my job, Justice Reed. You know that.”

“And how do you define ‘do you job’?”

“This isn’t oral argument. I don’t have to answer that. Go read the Sixth Amendment.”

“‘A criminal defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel.’ I know what it says. But ‘effective assistance’ doesn’t mean you have to commit professional suicide.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means don’t go prying into matters that don’t concern you.”

“As in your son’s bank records?”

“As in those and in Ronald Brigman’s.”

“You can’t stop me from seeing Brigman’s.”

“I realize that. And that’s why I’m calling you this morning.”

“I’m listening.”

“I could send a fleet of Alan Warrick’s best against you tomorrow to quash your subpoena for Michael’s bank records.”

“I’m not afraid of Warrick, Thompson attorneys, Justice Reed.”

“Of course, you aren’t. You cut your legal teeth with Hollis Craig and his partners.”

“Get to the point.”

“Okay. I can stop you where Michael is concerned. You know that. But I have no authority over Brigman’s financials.”

“And if I get Brigman’s, I’ll know about his dealings with Michael?”

“Right. So I’ve called to make you an offer.”

“An offer?”

“Withdraw your subpoenas. Leave the bank records alone. And stop defending Alexa like an angry pit bull. I don’t want her out on bail.”

“I don’t think the Sixth Amendment allows me to do that.”

“Of course, it does. Trevor Martin told you what to do in this case. Just go through the motions. File a few in limines that you will lose. Do some cross-examination. Make it look good. But don’t try to win. No one expects you to.”

“Throwing a case is not my job, Justice Reed.”

“What if your life depended upon it?”

“I’m sorry. Is that a threat?”

“You can call it what you want. No one will ever believe it came from me. Back off, Ms. Knight. I understand your business hasn’t grown much in San Diego. I can get you a partnership at Warrick, Thompson.”

“I’ve already turned down Alan Warrick’s offer of partnership in the firm. I like having my own shop.”

“Well, then, I still have a number of clients using Warrick who are loyal to me. I can send them your way. Alan and I aren’t seeing eye-to-eye right now over Alexa. I would love to damage his bottom line on your behalf.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”

“It is right now because you’re representing Alexa. But you are not going to be her attorney forever, Ms. Knight. The sooner she’s tried and convicted, the better for all of us.”

“If you’re offering me a bribe not to look at Brigman’s bank records, it’s a safe assumption there’s something there that will help Alexa. If anyone found out I’d made a deal with you to ignore exculpatory evidence for my own financial gain, her conviction would be overturned on habeas corpus in a heartbeat. And I’d be disbarred.”

“You know, Ms. Knight, I’m going to have to give you some advice. You and Alan take the Rules of Professional Responsibility way too seriously. The Law Offices of Sarah Knight will go down in flames if you play by the ethics rules. You aren’t in a Wall Street firm any more where you can afford to dither about what the State Bar thinks. Things are different in the local bar as Hal Remington has probably told you. Business is based on who you know. If you don’t play the game right, no one is going to send you any work, and an attorney’s bread and butter is referrals from other attorneys. If you aren’t a team player in that community, you’re going to starve. What the State Bar wants you to do for Alexa Reed, and what the legal community wants you to do, are two very different things. I can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, Ms. Knight. Your solo practice could grow into a firm as big as Craig, Lewis, or Warrick, Thompson. Or bigger.”

“In exchange for Alexa’s life?”

“She’s already a dead woman. Save yourself.”

“I’m sorry, Justice Reed, is that a threat?”

“It certainly is.”

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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 ELEVEN

The man and the beautiful woman with the unexpected scar on her cheek kept coming to see her. It must be every couple of days. Alexa wished she could talk to them and explain how much she wanted to die. They spoke in soft, concerned voices when they came, urging her not to give up hope, begging her to talk to them. But the words stayed in her head and refused to go into her mouth. Besides, if she spoke, she’d wake up in hell instead of drifting in the out-of-body world she had managed to retreat to.

Sometimes she could hear Meggie and Sam’s voices calling to her. “Mommy, Mommy. You said you’d come after us, Mommy.”

Was it real or a hallucination? Either way, her heart broke all over again every time she heard them. Did Coleman hit them? She couldn’t bear to think about it. Coleman had been responsible for turning Michael into the monster she’d married.

Mary Moreno had warned her. “I know the Reeds appear very normal and successful on the outside, Alexa. But something isn’t right there. Coleman has a temper, and I think Michael does, too. Watch Myrna when she’s around either of them. She’s afraid. You’re too bright and gifted to get involved with Coleman and Michael Reed. They’ll destroy you.”

Alexa pictured her final appeal as a large stack of documents in front of Justice Moreno. She’d look down at them and stamp “Denied” in enormous capital letters on the top. “Alexa Reed is a fool who deserves to die.”

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Wait, what was the next part? Alexa tried to remember how it felt to share the hymnal with Gramma Beth at church as they sang the hymns. Ah, there it was. That saved a wretch like me. Justice Moreno would say, a blind, foolish wretch who refused to be warned and who didn’t deserve to be saved.

But grace seemed to be coming to her aid. A tall, thin blonde woman with patient green eyes had started appearing with the man and the woman. She, too, begged Alexa to talk to her; and when she didn’t, the woman looked at the man and the woman with sad eyes who wanted to save her and said, “I think they might have to give her meds.” And the man and the woman always, said, “No! No!”

But Alexa knew the answer was yes, yes. But not for the reason the kind blonde woman thought.

* * *

On the last Thursday of August, Jim, Sarah, and Jordan met in the Sarah’s conference room to put the final touches on their preparation for the competency hearing on Tuesday. Sarah sat at the head of the table with Jordan on her left and Jim on her right. They had just come back from their last meeting with Alexa.

“Nothing changes,” Jordan began.

Jim liked her for being a straight shooter, even if she didn’t say the things he and Sarah wanted to hear. Sarah had been right: Jordan knew her stuff and had integrity in a world where many expert witnesses did not. She was tall and lean, in her mid-forties with blonde hair and green eyes that invited confidences. Her husband taught psychology at UCLA, and they had three teenage daughters.

“Agreed.” Sarah sighed. She had dark circles under her eyes, and she wasn’t eating. Jim wondered how many nights she’d spent with David Scott but knew he couldn’t ask.

“I think Alexa is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Jordan began. “When the mind encounters more than it can process, it shuts down.”

“I’m not sure I can use that,” Sarah said. “She kills two people and develops PTSD. Not much of an argument.”

“What if she didn’t kill anyone?” Jim said.

Sarah turned from Jordan to him. “And how am I going to argue that?” She tried not to think of Jim holding Alexa’s tiny, unresponsive hand on all those jail visits. Jealousy was a highly unprofessional emotion, and she didn’t intend to feel it.

“The police report. According to Officer Brent McColly, who was the first person to interview Alexa, she said that she received a phone call from Meggie at 11:15 on June 2. She said Meggie was upset because her father was arguing with a woman, and she could hear blows being struck. Alexa rushed over to Michael’s to find him dead and the children crying. She called 911, and told the dispatcher her children were there and upset, and she was taking them home to Pacific Beach. She gave the 911 operator her address where the police could contact her. She never mentioned Brigman or indicated she knew he was dead. And she made no attempt to leave town. She doesn’t sound very guilty to me.”

“What about the bullets from her Glock in Brigman and Michael?” Sarah frowned.

“That doesn’t prove she killed them. Remember she told the police the gun had been stolen a month before the murders. And according to the ballistics tests, two of the bullets in Brigman didn’t come from Alexa’s Glock.”

Sarah waved her hands impatiently. “You’re grasping at straws. The ballistics report said three bullets in Brigman matched Alexa’s gun. The other two were too deformed to make a judgment about.”

“Will all due respect boss, I have almost twenty years of firearms experience. And there are new reports that say traditional ballistics testing is unreliable.”

“I know all about that.” Sarah’s tone said don’t-tell-me-how-to-do-my-job. “That’s what cross-examination of the state’s expert is for.”
“I think you need to get a defense ballistics expert, too.” Jim realized he was challenging her judgment.

Sarah paused and took a deep breath. “We aren’t here to talk about trial strategy. We’re here to talk about the hearing on Tuesday. Are you willing to give an opinion, Jordan, that she should be committed to the state hospital for treatment until she regains her competency to stand trial?”

“I am,” Jordan said. “I know you said Percy Andrews will insist she can go to trial on psychotropic drugs; and honestly, she is so depressed, they might have to use those to even get her to speak to a psychiatrist. But I do think she needs counseling sessions, in fact, a lot of them, before she can stand trial. Drugging her is only putting a tiny band-aid on her condition.”

* * *

Jim drove Jordan to Solana Beach to meet her 5:10 train to Los Angeles. Sarah remained behind to work on her cross-examination of Percy Andrews.

As Jim swung his black Range Rover onto the I-5 North, Jordan asked, “Have you known Sarah long?”

“Only a month. We ran into each other in a bar in La Jolla one night, and she happened to be looking for an investigator.”

“Sarah never gets involved with anyone.”

Jim glanced quickly over at her and then put his eyes firmly back on the road. “Am I that obvious?”

“I don’t think you are to Sarah. I’ve known her a long time. She’s the most work-oriented person I know. But, yes, I can see you’ve got a thing for her.”

“Has she ever told you how she got that scar on her cheek?”

“Nope.”

“And you’ve always had the good manners not to ask, right?”

“In my profession, we wait to be told. If the client doesn’t want to talk, we wait for her to be ready.”

“Except Percy Andrews isn’t willing to wait for Alexa Reed.”

“Sarah says you know this town. Fair isn’t fair here.”

“True. But I can’t stop getting angry about it at times. And Alexa is so helpless!”

“She brings out your knight in shining armor complex,” Jordan smiled.

“Does she?”

“You were arguing pretty strenuously she’s not guilty.”

“I don’t think she is. Call it a hunch, if you like. But it doesn’t add up. Why call the cops and give them your address if you had just murdered two people?”

“She might be a narcissist and convinced she’s invincible.”

“Even Brigman, who did the psych evals for the custody litigation, didn’t say she was a narcissist. And honestly, I can’t see a narcissist resigning a job at Warrick, Thompson to be a stay-at-home mother of two kids under two.”

“I agree. As the mother of three.”

Jim pulled into the parking lot at the train station and got out to help Jordan with her brief case and overnight bag.

“What time are you arriving on Monday? I’ll meet your train.”

“I’m coming down Sunday night, arriving at eight. I’m paranoid about being late for the hearing on Monday morning.”

“I’ll be here to pick you up. I have a guest room. Want to use it? I make a better breakfast than a five-star hotel.”

“Sounds great.”

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The jail was never quiet at night, but it was quieter than in daylight. Alexa Reed shifted on her cot so she could see the single star shining through the tiny window of her cell. She guessed it must be midnight. Everyone seemed to be asleep except for someone crying softly down the hall. Probably a new prisoner. Everyone cried at first until the sheer futility of grief became apparent.

Someone had come to see her today. Or was it yesterday? All the days ran together, and she couldn’t remember which was which. A woman with deep dark eyes and a scar down one cheek. A ragged, unexpected scar in a beautiful face. And she’d had a man with her. Tall, warm hands, and the kindest eyes she’d ever seen. They said they’d come to help her. If anyone could help, they looked as if it might be them. But no one could end the nightmare she was awake in.

If she thought too long about Meggie and Sam, she’d start to cry like the lost soul down the hall. She hadn’t seen them since the third of June. It must be July by now. No, probably more like August. Wrapped in her semi-conscious state, she had lost the ability to speak, so she could not ask what day it was. There were words in her head, but none of them would come into her mouth to be made into sounds. Grief had left her mute, but it didn’t matter. No one had believed anything she’d told them about that awful night. Mute was better than being called a liar.

She wished she could wake up and find herself back in the rented cottage in Pacific Beach with Meggie and Sam. She would have given anything to be following the old routine of supper, bath, bedtime story, prayers, and goodnight kiss. She was glad she’d never taken even a minute of it for granted.

She could see Sam’s chubby little hands playing with the cut-up bits of fish sticks on his Winnie The Pooh plate. He was out of the high chair now and into a booster seat at the table, but he had to stretch just a little to reach his food. He loved to wipe the bits of fish through the ketchup at least twice and then stuff them in his mouth, giggling at Meggie because he knew he was supposed to use his fork. Meggie, who took her older sister status very seriously, alway frowned and reminded him about that fork. Then Sam would look at Alexa and giggle some more because he’d gotten the hoped for rise out of his sister.

Alexa missed bath time, too. Meggie and Sam loved to play with Sam’s shiny black plastic submarine. Sam scooted it across the water, making what he imagined were boat noises even after Alexa reminded him subs ran silently. Meggie, who was endlessly patient and precocious, liked to take the red, green, and yellow baby subs out of the mother ship and line them up on the edge of the tub coming up with new patterns every night.

Alexa didn’t mind if they splashed a little. Michael, who had much stricter rules, was never there to complain. If he was in town, he was at the office until after midnight. But more often he was on the road for weeks at a time. Meggie and Sam never saw him; and they were both a little bit afraid of him. But she shouldn’t think about that.

After the games in the tub and after trying to sing Row, Row, Row, Your Boat as a round, there was always that wonderful moment of lifting each precious little body out of the water, wrapping their chubby pinkness in big fluffy terry towels, and breathing in the smell of gentle soap and baby shampoo. Alexa marveled at each perfect finger and toe as she helped them into pajamas. At six, Meggie could do everything except button her nightgown in the back. But Sam, who was five, would dance naked down the hall to escape clothes altogether if he could.

They shared a room. When it was time for Sam to give up his crib, he’d been frightened unless he could sleep in Meggie’s room. Alexa always sat on Meggie’s bed with the two of them between her to read their bedtime story. Sam’s favorite was Goodnight Moon, but Meggie adored Runaway Bunny. She loved the part where the Baby Bunny asks the Mother Bunny what would happen if he ran away, and the Mother Bunny says she’d come after him. Meggie always asked, “You’d come after us, too, wouldn’t you?”

That was before Michael realized how effectively he could use family court to terrorize them. He had cemented them as a threesome by leaving them alone together. And then he launched his attack to destroy them. The star twinkled down at Alexa, reminding her to stop thinking about Michael and his scorched earth litigation tactics to preserve whatever remnants of sanity she had left. Since the horror of being arrested on June third and the even greater nightmare of the preliminary hearing, she could stay in her semi-conscious state, floating free from everything that surrounded her only if she didn’t think about Michael and Brigman. If those memories crept in, or worse yet if she talked about what they had done, it would bring her crashing back to the horror of being locked in this cell. That’s why she was glad she could no longer speak, and that’s why she was glad she couldn’t talk to the man and the woman who’d come today. Or yesterday. She wasn’t sure.

The man’s eyes haunted her. They were so kind. She hadn’t seen eyes like that since her father died. She’d been just Meggie’s age when her parents went off to church one wet Sunday morning, leaving her with Gramma Beth because Alexa had a sore throat. Her father’s mother lived with them, and she often stayed with Alexa when her parents went out.

Who would have thought a drunk driver would crash into their car at 9:30 on a Sunday morning? Gramma Beth said her parents skipped church that day and went straight to heaven where they became angels looking after her. The childhood fiction was still comforting. The star twinkled down at her, saying, yes, your parents are still watching over you, and now Gramma Beth is with them. You aren’t alone. She liked to think all three were standing right there in the dark cell with her. She hoped they’d come for her soon. People who went into the white tunnel and then returned always said your loved ones were there to help you pass over. Her parents and Gramma Beth would be there when it was time.

She had tried to endure the horrors so that she could get back to Meggie and Sam. She knew what it was like to have your parents vanish. The woman with the scar and the man with the kind eyes had been trying to tell her to hang on a little longer. But she already knew that was useless. Michael had done exactly what he’d threatened to do: he’d made sure she was separated from her children forever.

If she’d had Meggie and Sam with someone like the man with the kind eyes, they’d still be together. The four of them would have been a forever family. She had known Michael was a mistake as soon as she was pregnant with Meggie, but she had thought she could endure for her children. She’d been dangerously wrong.

Her precious star was nearly out of sight. A star was a sign of hope. When she was a child, the priest had always insisted God would never let his people give up hope. She’d believed that through everything Michael had done to her until the day they arrested her for double murder. She closed her eyes and wished she could be ten years old again, sitting with her grandmother in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, wearing her perfect attendance Sunday school pin and singing the hymns. Sometimes now she sang hymns to herself. Not out loud because she couldn’t speak. But in her head. One was beginning to play over and over now. “Savior, like a shepherd le-ad us.” Alexa had always loved the way “lead” was drawn out by the melody. What was the next line? She couldn’t forget that; chanting hymns to herself kept her floating in her out-of-body world. Ah, here it was. “Much we need thy tender care.” She knew she wouldn’t forget.

Nothing could ever be more precious to her than Meggie and Sam. Since Gramma Beth had died, they were the only people on earth who needed her. The thought of them with Coleman and Myrna Reed was more than she could bear. So she wouldn’t think about it. The star was gone, and it was time to stop thinking about anything.

But thoughts are hard to stop. Another hymn began to sing to her: “When I tread the verge of Jordan, all my anxious fears subside.” You crossed the river Jordan to reach the promised land. Death was now her promised land. Coleman wanted her to die, and she wanted to die, too. But not his way. Not after twenty years in a cell like this one, waiting while the lawyers like the ones who’d come today tried in vain to save her life. Would Justice Moreno still be on the Supreme Court when her last death row appeal came before the justices? Mary Moreno had liked her; she’d warned her not to marry Michael.

But, of course, neither Coleman nor Mary could hear her case if they were still on the Court when the end came for her. More words of the hymn comforted her: “Guide me oh thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak but Thou are mighty.” Alexa was weak, but God wouldn’t let her down. She’d die, but not Coleman Reed’s way. God would find her the dignified exit she deserved because He still loved her. And He loved Meggie and Sam, too. God wouldn’t want them saddled with the stigma of their mother’s execution. No, He’d find a better way out of life for her. She had first thought starving herself was the answer; but the guards threatened to force feed her, so she ate just enough to prevent that and nothing more.

For now, she could only lie on this cot, waiting for the star every night, and praying God would come and get her very soon. He could see she was still the ten-year-old in the perfect attendance Sunday school pin, holding her grandmother’s hand; and she knew He’d answer her prayer. She knew it as surely as she knew she hadn’t killed anyone.
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