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BEGUINE

CHAPTER FIVE

October, 1994
And so for the next week, Karen Moon was back at Jazz By the Bay every night except Sunday when the club was dark. At work, she struggled to concentrate on the dry financial forms piled on her desk. She much preferred to picture Stan on stage in his white dinner jacket, eyes locked on hers as he played.

She grew to hate the bright October sunlight streaming through the glass walls of her office because it relentlessly reminded her hour after hour that she could not see Stan until dark. She longed for eight o’clock when the firm would be empty of everyone except the night secretaries, the janitors, and the associates trying to impress the partners with their super-human billables. At eight, she could slip into the ladies’ room and change into the demure black cocktail dress she had bought at Nordstrom on that first Friday afternoon after Alan assigned her spying mission She had been tempted by the plunging necklines that the Table of Four favored; but, in the end, she was afraid of appearing too obviously in competition with them.

Her dress was knee length, with a modest V neckline; but she added a set of very long and expensive rhinestone earrings to give it glamour. She bought body glitter to sweep over her throat and shoulders and silvery eyeshadow to highlight her eyes.

When she had transformed herself each night from Karen-the-Lawyer into Karen-the-Woman, she headed to Seaport Village, hoping for the most distant parking spot in the lot, so she could walk longer with Stan after the show. She loved hurrying along the Village’s winding paths, lit by the hundreds of white fairy lights, knowing she was leaving the real world and heading into an enchanted land full of possibilities.

On Saturday, following her week of nightly appearances at Jazz By the Bay,
Stan walked her out into the cool October night just after midnight and said, “Want to walk by the Bay for a little?”

“Sure.”

“Let me put my horn in the car.”

He unlocked the trunk of a pristine red ‘65 Mustang and placed his trumpet bag carefully inside. He started to put his white dinner jacket in, too; but noticed Karen shivering slightly in the night breeze.

“Here, put this around your shoulders.”

The jacket still carried the warmth and smell of Stan’s skin. Karen felt a hard, stab of pure desire as he draped it around her and took her hand, leading her down the path toward the water. The moon was full, and its silver light was almost as bright as daylight.

He looked over at her with his mischievous smile. “Like the show?”

“Of course.”

“You’re going to have to pick a new favorite tune. People are beginning to think I like you.”

“And do you?” She echoed his bantering tone, but her stomach tightened as she waited for the answer.

“A little.” His eyes still twinkled, but his voice reflected his discomfort at being asked. As they turned down the path that wound by the Bay, he moved the conversation in a different direction. “You don’t seem like a ‘Karen’ to me.”

“What should my name be, then?”

He stopped and studied her face in the moonlight. For a moment she thought he might kiss her, but he turned back to the path and began to walk again. “Carrie,” he said. “You look like a Carrie.”

Her stomach tightened again. Why did the moment when he decided not to kiss her feel like rejection? And yet, why did the next moment when he guessed her name feel so intimate? “I used to be Carrie,” she offered.

“When?”

“All my life, until I went to law school.”

“Where you Carrie when you studied music at Boston University?”

“Yes. What made you remember that?”

“BU is an impressive music school. What was your instrument?”

“Flute.”

He looked down at the hand he held and smiled ironically. “Flute fingers. I should have known.”

They walked in silence for a few moments. Then Stan said, “Why did you decide to become someone else?”

“I was afraid to go on being Carrie Moon.”

“Why?”

“Because she wanted to be a musician. She wanted to go to Julliard after college, and she was accepted.”

“So why didn’t she go?”

“Because she was afraid.”

Carrie stopped and studied the yachts bobbing on the moon-streaked water as she remembered the day she had put the letter in the mail telling Julliard she wasn’t coming. “All through college, my parents kept insisting music wasn’t a reliable career. I majored in music to please myself and in accounting to please them. Just before I graduated, I auditioned for graduate school in music and applied to law school. I got into Julliard and Harvard.”

“And you picked Harvard?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“My parents were killed in a car accident just after I got the acceptances. Honestly, the three of us were never all that close. They were so busy struggling to pay the bills every month, they didn’t have much time left over for me. But when they died, I was suddenly weighed down by how alone I was. And I kept thinking about how much they had wanted me to have a career outside of music.”

“So you let someone else choose your life?”

“That sounds so harsh, but in a way a I did. Still, my decision to leave music was not entirely because of them. Have you ever wanted something so badly you were sure you could never have it?”

He nodded.

“A career in music was like that for me. I wanted to play so much it hurt. But I was so afraid I’d fail if I tried to be a professional musician. I was afraid I wasn’t talented enough.”

“So you couldn’t fail if you didn’t try?”

“Or I failed because I didn’t try.”

“Didn’t you miss music?”

“All the time. I promised myself I’d practice every day. I didn’t mean to ever stop playing. But law school was overwhelming. Gradually, days went by when I never opened the case. I kept telling myself I could go back whenever I wanted. But deep down, I knew it was a lie.”

“But still, Harvard law.” She could see the idea intimidated him and put space between them.

She felt the now familiar flicker of fear that any sign of rejection produced. “Don’t be impressed. The way you play is a much bigger deal than going to Harvard. Where did you study?”

Stan shrugged. “Here and there. I grew up in a bunch of different foster homes in San Diego. My father split just after I was born. My mother struggled to keep me until I was five. Then she handed me over to Social Services and never came back.”

They had come to a bench, facing the bay. Stan pulled her down beside him. She wanted him to put his arm around her or take her hand, but he didn’t. He stared at the waves dancing in the silver light. “I picked up the trumpet when I was nine. The elementary school had a beginner band, and my foster father had played the trumpet. He let me take the instrument with me when I went to the next family.”

“How many homes were you in?”

“Five. Or was it six? I’d have to count up.”

“But somewhere you learned to play like that.”

He smiled. “I got a paper route to pay for my lessons. And I went to UCLA for a year. But I was getting gigs by then, and I thought I needed the money more than the stuff they were teaching me. I saved up and took lessons from Jimmy Stamp and Claude Gordon. You know who they are, right?”

She nodded. “So why aren’t you still in L.A?”

A shadow crossed his face. “I was there for about twelve years, mostly playing in a lot of rock and roll bands and looking for better gigs. Four years ago, my wife died. Harry knew I needed a change of scene, so he offered me a regular spot here at the club.”

Karen reached out and put her hands over his which were clenched together in his lap. He smiled but remained slightly away from her on the bench, shoulders hunched, eyes fixed on the water. “I’m sorry about your wife.”

“Thanks. We had six great years. I met her in Vegas after a gig. She was a dancer. I was twenty-five; she was twenty-one. Three months later, we got married.”

“What happened?”

“Crystal meth. She started using during the last two years we were married. I didn’t like it. I’ve always stayed away from the people in this business involved in drugs. I wish to God Deanna had. Anyway, she told me she’d stopped using, but I came home on Christmas Eve after playing a party in Beverly Hills and found her dead.”

Karen squeezed his tightly interlocked fingers again, but he still did not respond. He looked at her, his eyes masked, apparently oblivious to having rejected her comfort.

He said, “Don’t think about getting involved with me.”

The now familiar flicker of panic shot through Karen, but she kept her voice devoid of emotion. “Why not?”

“Because I won’t fall in love with you. Or with anyone else for that matter. Losing Deanna hurt too much. And, besides, attachments don’t work out for me. I learned that growing up. As soon as I’d get attached to my foster family, they’d send me away.”

“What if I stay around?”

“Don’t. You’ll just get hurt.”

His final rejection stung, and Karen felt tears begin to well up. She looked out at the bay and concentrated on making them go away, so he wouldn’t notice.
He pulled her to her feet. “Hey, it’s late. I’ll walk you to your car.”

The return trip was devoid of the magic Karen had felt earlier. She continued to struggle to keep her emotions in check. Beside her, Stan was silent.

He took her key and opened her door. He was in a hurry for the evening to end. She slid behind the wheel, wondering miserably if she would ever see him again. She couldn’t go back to the gray life she had led before he came into it.

Stan closed her door and stepped back. “Take care driving home. See you around.”

“Thanks for tonight.” She started the engine and backed out of the parking space, fighting the urge to stop and jump out and beg him not to shut her out of his life. She drove away, tears streaming down her cheeks.

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PRELUDE AND THEME

CHAPTER TWO

December, 2007

In her early days at Warrick, Thompson, Karen had looked forward to the firm’s annual Christmas party. The venue varied. Sometimes oceanside at the Hotel del Coronado. Sometimes inland with exquisite food at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. And sometimes under chains of white fairy lights outdoors on the Prado at Balboa Park. But always with no expense spared. Before her legal career, Karen had no experience with formal parties. Her family’s budget could not cover Christmas dinner at a restaurant, let alone a catered affair for four hundred.

In those first years at the firm, she had shopped the second-hand designer stores to compete with the wives of the big name partners who imported their gowns from Rodeo Drive. Even before she was fully aware of how much appearance mattered in the Warrick, Thompson world, she had instinctively kept her true self hidden and disguised herself to look like those around her. At age thirty, as she stood by the hors d’oeuvres at her first firm Christmas party, white wine in hand, she had laughed privately at the thought of resale Givenchy as camouflage.

Now at forty-eight, she regarded the annual event as a dreary duty. Howard loved it for glad-handing big name clients. But she thoroughly hated wearing a pasted smile from eight to midnight, while watching unhappy people drink themselves into oblivion. And now that she had the money to afford original designer labels – in fact something Howard insisted on to ensure his status in the firm – she no longer found dressing up for the big night could take her mind off the exquisitely boring evening that lay ahead.

On Friday, December 16, she closed her courtroom at four p.m., an hour early, and made it home before I-15 became impassible. She had trained herself in the last two weeks not to look at the answering machine when she came in. She knew the light was not blinking. She had instructed her staff and Howard to leave messages only on her cell so that a winking red light would not tempt her to hope Stan had called again.

Because, of course, he did not. And it had been for the best, she reminded herself as she stripped off the gray suit of judgeship and ran hot water for her shower. Even if her heart still turned over at the sound of his voice after so many years, they had nothing to say to each other.

She stayed in the shower an extra long time. The last thing she wanted was to arrive before Howard. He was flying back for the party but would arrive so late he would go straight to the Hotel Del from the airport. He was still in trial in Philadelphia and had not been home since December 1. She had given his tux to his secretary to FedEx to him the day before.

She took extra time with her hair and makeup. Was there any trace of Carrie in the face of The Honorable Karen M. Morgan? Her auburn hair, which had been long enough to cover her breasts on those wild nights when she and Stan had made love from two a.m. until dawn, was now cut to a tame chin length. She pulled it away from her face with small black clips when she sat on the bench. Loose hair, even chin length, was unprofessional.

She still had Carrie’s round face and big hazel eyes that became green when she wore that color. But these days they were more often gray, influenced by the black robes. She had never looked her age – a disadvantage in the early days of her career when partners had passed her up as too young for important assignments. But Howard now loved having a “trophy wife” his own age who looked ten years younger. She shuddered at the way he’d said it.
She applied her Chanel makeup and studied the effect. Suddenly she wished she had picked the dark green velvet Prada gown at Nordstrom’s. Deep V-neck, long skinny sleeves, and a pencil skirt, slit to the knee. Hardly something the Honorable Karen would wear. But a dress the middle-aged Carrie would have adored. If she had survived.

Karen dug deeper into her cosmetic drawer and found an old emerald eyeshadow. Cover Girl. From the days when she had bought makeup in drug stores. She applied it lovingly to each lid. And then deepened her black liner, smudging it carefully so that it would look soft. She smiled. Her eyes were now the color of the sea on a sunny day. She slipped into her black silk Chanel gown, high neck but plunging V back, three quarter-length sleeves. She added the emerald and diamond earrings she had bought last summer when Howard’s secretary forgot her birthday. She wiggled into black satin evening sandals and picked up her discreet black evening bag. Eight-thirty. Cocktails had begun at eight. Howard shouldn’t arrive until nine.

She resolutely refused to look at the answering machine as she walked through the kitchen, car keys in hand. But just as she opened the door to the garage, she turned abruptly, ran across the room, and switched it off. There. Now she could come back untormented by any hope of a call. Besides, it was Friday night. Stan Benedict was working. Somewhere – she had no idea where – he was on stage, playing trumpet in a way that touched the soul of every woman in the club. One lucky one would go home with him. But not Carrie Moon. She had been home with Stan Benedict. And she was dead. The Honorable Karen M. Morgan turned off the kitchen light and headed for her BMW. Showtime at Warrick, Thompson. Again.

* * *

Everyone had just sat down to dinner in the dark paneled Crown Room when she arrived at the Hotel Del. To her surprise, Howard was already there and seated next to fifty-something Huntfield Harper, CEO of Harper Biotech. Her husband shot her an annoyed, but relieved look as she slid into the seat beside him.

“You’re late!” he hissed in her ear, smiling to mask his displeasure.
“Sorry.” She gave him and her immediate audience a vague smile, unperturbed. “Red zin,” she said to the hovering waiter and turned to engage the third Mrs. Huntfield Harper in mindless conversation. While the twenty-something, dripping in diamonds, chattered about shopping and redecorating her Rancho Santa Fe mansion, Karen tuned out. She had long ago mastered the art of lobbing a pointless question across the net to keep equally pointless social conversation flowing.

When the lobster entree arrived, Mrs. Harper received a warning look from her husband as the waiter poured her fourth glass of champagne. Karen heard the musicians begin their sound check. They were behind the closed folding doors in the middle of the Crown Room where dancing would follow dinner. First the deep reverberations of a bass guitar, then a sax, starting low and running an F scale into the upper octaves, followed by laughter and conversation that she couldn’t make out, followed by electronic buzzes and monotones that indicated they were adjusting the sound equipment. Mrs. Harper paused at that moment, and Karen tossed her another question about interior decoration that restarted her monologue.

The sax wailed a few notes of the blues scale, and then a trumpet began to warm up. Karen felt the first low notes vibrate inside her as if she were the instrument. No, she told herself. Stan’s not in there. A phone call does not mean he’s in San Diego. And even if he were, he’d be playing solo at a jazz club somewhere – probably Croce’s tonight. He wouldn’t be backup in the kind of corporate dance band Warrick, Thompson shelled out big bucks for every year. Stan wasn’t in the next room. But someone who could nail triple high C’s, just the way he could, was in there. The high, pure notes sent her blood racing. At least the music would salvage something of the evening for her.

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PRELUDE AND THEME

CHAPTER ONE
December, 2007

“Stan Benedict calling for Carrie Moon.”

Even after twelve years, his rich, baritone sent her heart racing. He still had a smile in his voice. On all the nights when she couldn’t sleep because she was thinking of him, she had tried to remember exactly the way he had just, an instant ago, pronounced her name, Carrie Moon.

But, no, she reminded herself quickly. Carrie Moon had been dead for twelve years.

“No one by that name lives here!” she blurted into the receiver and threw it down before she could lose her nerve. As much as she had dreamed of the day when she would hear from Stan again, she knew she couldn’t let him into the well ordered life of The Honorable Karen M. Morgan, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County.

“What’s wrong?” Her husband Howard appeared in the doorway of her study, his face contorted with frustration. “I need quiet to finish these depositions.”

“Sorry. It was nothing.” She tried to steady her hands as she adjusted the sentencing memoranda she had been reading in preparation for the sentencing of two convicted murderers the following day. But she was unsuccessful.

“Your hands are shaking. Was that some sort of threat? Should I call the police?”

Because she presided over criminal as well as civil trials, Howard resolutely believed that one day someone she had sentenced to prison would escape and murder them in their beds. He hated her job. He had wanted her to stay at Warrick, Thompson, and Hayes, San Diego’s biggest law firm, where they had both been partners. But after more than twenty mind-numbing years of ensuring the right accounting data of multinational corporations went on the right lines of Securities and Exchange Commission financial disclosure documents, she had chosen to accept the judgeship two years ago.

At six one, with one hundred and eighty pounds of well-honed muscle, Howard was not someone to be taken lightly. She was certain his stature enhanced his reputation as an unbeatable trial attorney.

At that moment he looked like an angry grizzly bear, roused from the comfort and isolation of his own fully equipped home office. When had the handsome man she married become this jowelly, gray-haired, fifty-year old? Where was the distinguished Howard Morgan, who had spoken to her in the elevator ten years ago on his first day at Warrick, Thompson? In 1997, a year after she became a partner at age 38, the firm had lured him from Elliot, Fitzgerald in New York to shake up their sleepy, backwater litigation section. From his first day in charge, the litigation lawyers at Warrick, Thompson were on call twenty-four/seven. They went to every initial client meeting with a fully prepared litigation plan and cost analysis. After five years of Howard, the Los Angeles firms that had been trying to take over the San Diego market, closed their branch offices and went home.

“No, you don’t need to call the police.” She regained more and more of her composure with each passing second. Her voice now carried its usual cool, unflappable judicial tone. “It was just a wrong number.”

“Good. I don’t have time for crises right now. I have to read three major depositions tonight.” He turned abruptly and went down the hall. She would not see him again for at least a week. He would study depositions until the wee hours, sleep on the sofa in his office, and be out the door to catch his flight to Philadelphia by six a.m. After ten years of marriage, she knew all his routines by heart.

She took a long breath and stared at the phone. All she had to do was hit *69, and Stan’s voice would be there again. And she could tell him the truth. Except she had already told him the truth. Carrie Moon did not live there. Carrie Moon no longer existed.

  * * *
She was in her office in her chambers by seven the next morning, an hour before her secretary, her court clerk, or her bailiff arrived. She had not slept, so there had been no point in staying in bed past five thirty when the first faint light of the December dawn filtered through her blinds. She actually had come downstairs in time to see Howard heading out, suitcase in hand. He regarded her with mild surprise.

“You didn’t have to get up to say goodbye.”

“I couldn’t sleep anymore. Have a good trip.”

He nodded and without a backward glance hurried out to the waiting limo.

No kisses, but she hadn’t expected or particularly wanted one. In the early days of their relationship Howard’s attention had been exciting. He had appeared in the doorway of her office at six in the evening and had taken her for a drink or for dinner before returning to his own office to work until the wee hours. Single, successful, and rich, he had been highly sought after. His attention had turned her head. He had asked her to marry him after three months of dating. She wasn’t in love when she said yes; but she had thought mistakenly, he was in love with her. On their third anniversary – by the time they were using a king-sized bed, so that they could maintain the appearance of sleeping in the same room without touching – she had asked him why he’d pursued her so relentlessly in the beginning. Unspoken were the words, since you obviously care so little about me now.

“I needed a wife. So everyone would leave me alone. It takes time away from work to fend off women and well-meaning friends who want to fix you up. You were terrific wife material for someone like me: a partner at the firm, discreet, undemanding. And you’ve turned out to be everything I thought you’d be, Karen. You’ve been great for my career. And I hope I’ve been the same for yours.” He had stretched across the mammoth bed and patted her shoulder before he rolled over and went to sleep.

The Honorable Karen M. Morgan sat down at her desk, wondering if she dared make herself a cup of coffee. When she became a judge, she quickly learned that everyone waited on her because of the dignity of her position. Her court secretary and clerk would be miffed if they showed up and found the pot brewing. She eyed her empty cup longingly but decided against rocking anyone’s boat that morning. She considered the sentencing memoranda and probation reports on her desk and wondered if she would learn anything else about Pablo Rodriguez and Vincenzo Lopez if she read them again. She already knew they were twenty-one and twenty-two. Gang members since the age of twelve. They had killed three bystanders in a drive-by shooting against a rival gang eighteen months ago. One victim had been a four-year-old child. Each defendant was up for 125 years-to-life. Pablo was the sole support of a widowed mother and a ten-year-old sister. There would be tears this morning.

The probation report and sentencing memoranda remained untouched. She would learn nothing more about these men whom she would soon sentence to a living death just as she would she never learn any more about Howard’s twisted logic which had produced their living death of a marriage. His coldness would have mattered if she had had a heart herself. But hers had been dead for twelve years.

Yet maybe a spark still lived inside her somewhere. After she had heard the limo drive off that morning, she had rushed to the phone and dialed * and 6 before she put it down without completing the 9. She had stared at the receiver longingly, wishing she had not told Stan the truth last night. Then she probably would be seeing him today. The thought of being near him created such a surge of joy that she couldn’t catch her breath for a moment. She had felt nothing like this for twelve years.

Howard would never know if she saw Stan. He was going to be gone for the entire week. And even if he found out, he would not care as long as no one else knew. In the world of Warrick, Thompson, no one frowned on having affairs; they frowned only on knowing they had occurred. One never made one’s personal or professional mistakes public.

She had stared at the phone and wondered how long * 69 worked to ring back the incoming call. But where would a ringing phone have found Stan at this hour except in bed with some woman half his age? For he, too, had turned forty-eight this year. He had been thirty-six on that last day.

She closed her eyes, summoning her memory of his smiling voice and her first sight of him on stage with his trumpet at Jazz By the Bay. Five feet eleven, dark, slightly wavy hair that he grew to collar length, slender build but well-developed chest, the result of years of relentlessly increasing his lung capacity. He wasn’t classically handsome, but he was drop-dead attractive thanks to the warmth in his smile and the twinkle in his dark eyes. His exuberant personality made him a born flirt. She’d watched him solo that night on “I Can’t Get Started” and, while her heart raced, she had realized most of the other female hearts in the room were pounding just as hard.

“Judge Morgan, you’re sitting in the dark!” Isabel Martinez, her secretary, flipped on the overhead lights as she entered the office.

Karen hadn’t noticed. The glow of the desk lamp that she left on around the clock had been sufficient for her musings. Mesmerized, she watched Isabel place a small artificial tree on the corner of her desk.

“What’s that for?”

“Christmas, Your Honor. Haven’t you noticed it’s December 1?”

Karen reached over and pulled yesterday’s page off her calendar. “Why, so it is.” She rubbed her eyes, sandy from lack of sleep.

“You need coffee,” Isabel said wisely. “I’ll put the pot on.”

Karen watched her small, overweight figure waddle over to the coffee pot and take charge. Isabel was only a year older than she was, yet looked ten years her senior. She had been married since the age of 18 and was a grandmother three times over. Karen wondered if she loved her husband but dared not ask.

In the law firm, secretaries and paralegals talked about their personal lives to the women attorneys. But as soon as she was on the bench that stopped. She could not be called Karen any longer. She had to be Your Honor or Judge Morgan. When she put her robe on each morning, she felt as if she disappeared under its weight. A figure that looked like her took the bench day after day and barked orders in the courtroom, while her soul hovered in some unknown place, waiting for the robe to come off so that it could return to her body.

“Here.” Isabel handed her a steaming mug just as Jim Scott, her court clerk, and Bob McGee, her bailiff came in. Eight o’clock. They met each morning to receive her orders for the day, but on this day she had none.
Fortunately Bob took the lead. “I’ve scoped out the hallway. Lots of press waiting to report the sentencing. And lots of victims’ families, too.”

“Tell the press they have to stay outside.” Panic hit Karen. Stan might see her on TV and realize she had lied to him last night. She remembered how he used to watch the morning news as he lay in bed, not rushed to go anywhere because his work day never started before eight p.m. What if he saw her and came down to the courthouse?

“With all due respect, Judge Morgan, the last time we tried to close the proceedings, we spent two mornings in litigation with those hotshot Los Angeles First Amendment lawyers that Channel 21 keeps on retainer,” Bob reminded her.

One of Howard’s few failures was his inability to capture Chanel 21’s First Amendment business. “Good point,” she conceded. “Let them in, but make sure they are set up by nine. I don’t want any delays today.”

* * *

At six fifteen that night, she sat on I-15, her silver BMW stalled like a ship dead in the water. She stared blankly at the parking lot that the freeway inevitably became after five o’clock. She recalled the impassive faces of Rodriguez and Lopez as she had sentenced them that morning. As she inched forward to her exit, she realized to her horror that she was as emotionally detached as they had been. She couldn’t shed any more tears about anything or for any reason – not like the mothers, sobbing their hearts out as their sons were led away. What if she could feel again? Even pain would be better than this continual numbness. But no, she reminded herself, blinding emotional pain had left her unable to feel. She had hurt until she could not hurt anymore. Not feeling was better than hurting that much ever gain. Stan had to stay out of her life.

But within ten minutes, she found she was wrong. She parked in
the garage of their six thousand square-foot-home with the view of the eastern mountains. This house was one of the few disagreements she had won with Howard. He had wanted to live in upscale La Jolla by the sea. But she had grown up in Asheville, North Carolina; and she missed mountains and forests. Her suburban Scripps Ranch home, among the eucalyptus trees, was in one of the few San Diego neighborhoods with anything green overhead. And she could see the mountains every morning from her bedroom window.

She hurried into the silent kitchen. She raced toward the phone, almost breathless at the sight of the red light on the answering machine, winking steadily like a monitor tracking her heartbeat. She pushed the message button and held her breath. Isabel’s soft monotone reminded her to bring ornaments for the barren little tree. The light stopped blinking as if her heart had stopped beating. She hit the erase button and burst into the tears she had no idea she could shed. She stood alone in her empty kitchen in her empty house in her empty life and sobbed for Stan Benedict – and for Carrie Moon.

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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 THIRTY-ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.”

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

Panic seized him. How badly was she hurt?

* * *

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

“What are you doing here?”

“Making sure you’re ok.”

“How’d you find out I was here?”

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

“That’s because I don’t have any.”

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

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

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

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

“You must be Mr. Knight?”

“No, a professional colleague.”

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

“I’m going home.”

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

“I’ll call a cab. I’m going home.”

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

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

“Hand me the paperwork.”

“Not, yet. Tell me what happened.”

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

“Were you drinking?”

“No, I’d just left Alexa’s.”

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

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

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

“Hand me the papers.”

“Not until you tell me.”

“Ok, ok. The brakes failed.”

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

“I did.”

“So no clutch, either?”

“Right.”

“Someone just tried to kill you.”

“I’m aware of that.”

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

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

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

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

“Nope. Going home.”

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

“Nothing.”

“Okay. Then I’ll drive you.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

“Wait. Let me. Where’s you key?”

“In my purse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turn on the light,” she commanded.

“No, don’t look.”

“I want to see.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CHAPTER THIRTY

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

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

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

“Have you told Bob?” Alexa asked.

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

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

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

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

“That’s pretty much the story.”

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

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

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

“It might yet come back to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. I wish it did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah nodded. “I understand your decision.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim left the kitchen and came into the living room.

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

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

Jim frowned. “I think you should stay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not tonight.”

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

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CHAPTER TWENTY-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 TWENTY-FIVE

Jim waited impatiently all day to hear from Sarah. His anger mounted as the hours rolled by, and his phone remained silent. They were a team. Why wouldn’t she call to tell him how things had gone in court that morning?

Afer Alexa was settled for the night, he headed to Sarah’s place only to find a black, Porsche 911 S Turbo Cabriolet in her drive. Stay calm, he thought. You don’t know who it belongs to, and you have no right to be upset. But he headed for home tired and preoccupied.

He was surprised when his phone went off just as he parked in his garage. It was Sarah.

“I was wondering where you were,” he said. “I’ve been waiting all day for news.”

“It looked like a victory, but it wasn’t. And things since then have been complicated. Are you still at the hospital? Can you come by?”

“Actually, I just got home. But give me a few minutes, and I’ll be there.”

“Thanks.”

* * *

She was wearing black leggings and a gray hooded sweatshirt that seemed to have swallowed her when she opened her front door for him twenty minutes later. The night air was unseasonably chilly, and she invited him inside quickly to keep out the sharp wind.

She looked uncharacteristically shaken by something, and he wondered what had ruffled her normally unflappable exterior.

She looked down at the plastic container in his hand. “What’s that?”

“My world famous beef stew. I figured you hadn’t had any supper. I’ll warm it up in the microwave while you fill me in on the details.”

He followed her into the kitchen where he prepared to heat the container, and she poured him a glass of wine. Why did this feel so natural and comfortable, he asked himself, as if they spent every evening talking over the events of the day?

“How is Alexa?”

“Brightening up more and more, but she still can’t remember that visit to Brigman’s, and her voice comes and goes. She wanted to do legal research on Battered Woman’s Syndrome, so I gave her a laptop and let her use my Lexis password.”

The oven beeped, and Jim opened the door and pulled out the container with the potholders Sarah handed him.

“It smells heavenly.”

“It is.” He poured it into the bowl she had provided and smiled. “Eat.”

“Ok. Thanks. Come sit in the living room.”

She perched on one end of the sofa and described the hearing that morning between bites while he sat on the other end and listened.

“Should I say congratulations?”

“No. Tara made a fool of herself, but I’m sure Coleman is the executor of Michael’s estate, and he’ll be back in a heartbeat to quash those subpoenas.”

“On what grounds?”

“The same grounds that kept Bob Metcalf from getting Michael’s bank records in the divorce: attorney-client privilege. As soon as Coleman hears about Tara’s fiasco today, he’ll send some of his Warrick, Thompson partner buddies to do what she couldn’t do: protect his son’s financial privacy.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I wasn’t served with any more motions to quash today, but I’d guess they would have one ready to go by day after tomorrow.”

“But isn’t it time for the bank to produce the documents?”

“Yes, and if they come back before Coleman can get his act together, we could at least look at them before he gets a protective order, sealing them.”

“Then let’s hope that happens.”

“And there’s another thing. Coleman can’t keep us from getting Brigman’s records. He’s not the executor of Brigman’s estate.”

“Do you know who is?”

“His ex-wife. She lives in Tel Aviv. I sent her notice of the subpoenas through her attorneys in New York and not a peep out of her. I doubt she cares if her ex is embarrassed.”

“So we’ll get Brigman’s even if we don’t get Michael’s?”

“Right. And that may be enough to show us if there were bribes going on.” She put the empty bowl on the coffee table and smiled. “Thanks. It was delicious as usual.”

“Alexa liked it, too.”

“Alexa?”

“Yeah, I’ve been taking her extras at supper time because the hospital food isn’t so great.” He was pleased to see her eyes darken.

“Every night?”

“One of us has to keep an eye on her.”

She frowned and studied the black and white durie rug on the floor. “Of course.”

“You seem upset.”

Her eyes met his again, and she ran her fingers through her close-cropped hair. “To be honest, I am.”

“Is it something I’ve done?” He knew the answer was yes, but she would say no.

“No, of course not. It’s the David Scott thing. I shouldn’t talk to you about it.”

“You can if it helps.”

She told him about Tessa’s visit that morning.

“She threatened your life, you could call the police.”

“No, I can’t. Those photographs were not fakes, but her threats were just bluffing.”

“You can never be too sure.”

“I’m sure. And David was too.”

“David?”

“I asked him to come by tonight before I called you.”

So David Scott drove a 911 S Turbo Cabriolet. Useless piece of trivia. “And?”

“He laughed about the whole thing, and said he’d buy the photographs from her.”

“What if she won’t sell?”

“As David said, Tessa always has her price.”

“Well, then, you are both off the hook.”

“Except David wants the affair to continue after he’s acquired Tessa’s pictures, and I don’t.”

Jim was careful not to show how happy that news made him. “Well then, let Mrs. keep the photographs because she’ll have no reason to use them.”

* * *

Sarah was restless after Jim left around ten o’clock. Her demons didn’t haunt her in his presence, but they came roaring back the minute she closed the door behind him. She poured herself another glass of wine, hoping it would help her silence the inner voices and go to sleep.

But she was still grappling with her guilt over Alexa when the phone rang at midnight.

“Hey, babe.”

“David, it’s late, and there’s nothing more to talk about.”

“Wrong. There’s plenty to talk about. I came back to your place around 9:30 to tell you the news, but I saw you were otherwise occupied.”

“You have no right to spy on me.”

“Yes, I do. I bought Tessa’s pics and her silence for half a mil.”

“I didn’t ask you do to that.”

“Doesn’t matter. You owe me. Don’t get the idea you can dump me for someone else. My relationships end when I say they do. Period.”

“I’ve had enough threats for one day. Good night.”

“You’d better take mine seriously. Dinner, my place on Friday. Eight sharp.”

“I have plans.”

“Then unmake them.”

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Sarah drove back to her office in La Jolla with her spirits lifted. Judge Tomlinson had shown he could be fair, and he seemed willing to give her a decent shot at putting on a defense for Alexa. He had agreed to grant funds to hire both a ballistics expert and to bring Jordan Stewart on board on domestic violence. Sarah suspected he was being generous because he was feeling guilty about ordering the meds after the competency hearing.

She wanted to tell Jim the news, and she regretted her decision not to have him at court today. She wished he’d been there to give her his own take on the hearing. Tara’s ignorance would have entertained him. She didn’t like admitting even to herself that she missed him.

She parked in the underground lot and hurried up to her La Jolla office. Even though there should have been no one in the waiting room, she decided to slip in through the back to give herself a few more minutes of privacy before facing her long-suffering law clerk who also doubled a receptionist.

She reached her office undetected, took off her suit jacket and hung it on the peg behind her door, and sat down to peruse the mail piled on her desk. A few seconds later, her phone rang, and she saw it was her clerk, Martin Browning.

“What’s up, Martin?”

“I heard you come in. Hope the hearing went ok.”

“It was fine. I got everything I wanted. I need a few minutes to look over this mail. Would you mind running downstairs and fetching me a latte from Starbuck’s?”

“No problem. But you might want me to bring back two coffees.”

“Why?”

“There’s a woman out here who’s been waiting at least two hours to see you. Her name is Tessa Scott.”

Damn, Sarah thought, and quickly ran through her options. Only she didn’t really have any options other than to accept the inevitable confrontation with David’s wife.

“Two coffees sound about right. Go ahead and show her in.”

Tessa Scott sashayed into her office a few minutes later like an angry Barbie in a red Versace suite with Angelina Jolie’s lips.

“You’re sleeping with my husband!”

Remain cool, Sarah reminded herself. “Would you like to sit down? My assistant has gone to fetch coffee.”

“I don’t want any coffee.”

“Well, what about a seat, then?”

Tessa shook her blonde layers like a Farah Fawcett throwback, and eyed the chair in front of Sarah’s desk as if it were a booby trap. After a few seconds, she folded her thin body into the chair and crossed her long legs.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Of course. Tessa, David’s wife.”

“Emphasis on ‘wife.’” She flashed the four carat diamond on her left hand at Sarah.

“Mrs. Scott, I’m sorry someone has given you false information, but I’m not sleeping with your husband.”

“Lying won’t help,” she snarled. “The household staff tells me what goes on when I’m not there.”

Shit, Sarah thought. I warned David about conducting an affair in his own house. Remain calm, she reminded herself. “I’m very sorry if someone close to you is trying to hurt you, Mrs. Scott. But I’m not sleeping with your husband. I’ve had dinner with him a few times because he hired me to straighten things out for your brother-in-law with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

“You did more than have dinner with him.”

Martin knocked and entered with the two coffees.

“Thank you,” Sarah smiled as if everything were going her way. He looked over curiously at Tessa and left the room.

“Now, Mrs. Scott, as I said, I am not having an affair with you husband.”

“It’s been going on for months.”

Sarah decided going on offense would get rid of her. “I refuse to keep repeating myself. I’m not sleeping with your husband, and that is all there is to it. Your story about being tipped off by the household staff is completely false. Your husband pays them, Mrs. Scott. They are not going to give you any information that would put their jobs in jeopardy. Blackmail is a crime. Now please get out of my office. We have nothing more to discuss.”

“Oh, don’t we?” Tessa reached into her cavernous Gucci bag, pulled out a folder, and held up the photo on top.

Sarah’s mouth went dry. It was a picture of her with David on the terrace outside the guest room on the night Tessa had wavered about going to Cabo.

“Okay, so the staff didn’t tell me. That’s true. I hired a private investigator to catch the two of you.”

“I repeat, blackmail is a crime, Mrs. Scott.”

“I’m not here for money. I get plenty of that from my husband.”

“Then what are you here for?”

“I want you to stop sleeping with my husband.”

“You won’t publish those pictures and risk upsetting David. You need your allowance from him too much.”

But Tessa was unphased by the insult. “Oh, I’m not going to do anything to upset my husband. You’re right. I depend on my allowance. But if you don’t leave him alone, there are a number of accidents that could happen to you.”

With that, she got up and left the room, making sure to slam the door.

Sarah sat back and closed her eyes. She had been ready to end the affair with David, anyway. She didn’t enjoy his company, and the sex wasn’t great. And it wasn’t the first time she’d been confronted by an angry wife. Until today no one had threatened her life, but she didn’t take Tessa seriously on that point.

The photos, though, were a different story. She doubted Tessa would publish them because that would very likely end her marriage. But just knowing they existed made Sarah uneasy. If they did get out, it would damage her professional credibility. And she needed every ounce of that right now to defend Alexa Reed.

She opened her eyes and stared blankly at the deeply autumn blue ocean stretching vast and infinite toward the lighter sky. The guilt pangs that had racked her since Alexa came out of the coma had subsided for the first time during the hearing that morning, but they had returned and were stronger than before. She’d drawn a peacefully departing spirit back into a hellish world of lies, bribes, and probably certain death in twenty years under the watchful eye of a roomful of strangers. And she’d done it in the name of reuniting her with her children, even though that was a promise Sarah could never deliver. She didn’t care what Tessa Scott thought of her, but Alexa’s opinion mattered. Sarah didn’t want to be the one who broke her heart all over again, yet that was exactly what was going to happen. Saving her life was a very long shot, but getting her back to Meggie and Sam – that was impossible.

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