I don’t often write strictly contemporary Romantic Suspense. However, in 2007, I sat down to pen the opening scene of a completely unrelated book, and what I got instead shook me to the core. I met Chelsea Hanover – a woman with a scarred past, and unhealed pain, whose betrayal by the Justice System led her to become a crusader for the rights of the wrongly accused and abandoned – and Justin Blakely, a prosecutor who’s earned the moniker “the Executioner” for his unwavering, black-and-white view of the law, and his high conviction rate. Throw in a murder where the prime suspect is far more sympathetic than the victim, and so begins a battle of wills that may just end in absolute disaster…
“Vanished” – Excerpt from BURDEN OF PROOF:
She wasn’t in the building. He even sent his secretary, Maria, to check the ladies’ restrooms, to no avail. She reported – rather nervously, he thought distractedly – that Chelsea wasn’t in the washroom. Chelsea might as well have never been there at all. With the exception of the ivory summer-weight suit jacket she removed during their earlier meeting, she’d vanished without a trace. Justin stared at the jacket clutched in his hands, and breathed in the scent of her perfume still clinging to it, and hated the bleakness in his soul. But the expression on Chelsea’s face right before she fled hurt even worse – like a hole punched straight through his heart. He sighed heavily, knowing his evening was shot. He wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on anything else until he knew for sure that she was okay.
Leaning forward in his chair, Justin snatched the phone from its cradle and punched in the speed-dial for Bateman, Marshall & Powell, Chelsea’s firm. If he knew anything about Chelsea, it was that she’d do her damnedest to bury whatever she couldn’t handle in her work. It was almost seven-thirty, but he was sure he’d still find her at work.
A brisk, businesslike voice answered after the second ring. “Bateman, Marshall & Powell. How may I direct your call?”
“Chelsea Hanover, please.”
There was a pause, then, “I’m sorry, sir, but Ms. Hanover is currently out of the building. Would you care to leave a message?”
Alarm tripped along Justin’s spine. Chelsea should be there. “Where did she go?”
“Sir, I’m not at liberty—“
“It’s important. Please.”
The woman sighed. “Oh, all right. She had a three o’clock appointment at the District Attorney’s offices. With a Justin Blakely.”
“I know,” he said quietly as chilling fear crept higher along his spine. “I am Justin Blakely.”
There was an alarmed gasp from the other end of the phone. “She never showed up?”
“Oh, she showed up,” he assured the woman quickly. “But she left in a hurry earlier, and I need to get in contact with her.”
“She hasn’t come back here,” the woman sounded concerned. “You might try Western Psychiatric. Maybe she went to speak with her client.”
Justin scowled. Now, why hadn’t he thought of that? He thought sarcastically. Maybe because Chelsea had flown out of there in a panic she would never have displayed to her fragile client. Still, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to check.
“Thanks. I’ll try there.” Hitting the receiver button, he quickly disconnected the call and punched in Chelsea’s cell phone number, first. It clicked on with a message saying that her cell phone was turned off. He left a brief message for her to call him if she got the message, then hung up and dialed the hospital.
“Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Can I help you?”
“I sure hope so,” Justin told the man who answered wearily. “This is Assistant District Attorney Justin Blakely. Has Mrs. Marlene Cavarella had any visitors since five-thirty? A lady in a white suit with red hair, perhaps?”
“I don’t know, sir, but I’ll transfer you to the nursing station in charge of that ward. Please hold.”
A moment later, he was repeating his query to the night duty nurse. Her response was exactly as he’d expected. “Ms. Hanover hasn’t been in since nine o’clock this morning, according to the log, Mr. Blakely.”
An unwelcome, hollow feeling settled in Justin’s gut as he hung up. Where are you, Chelsea?
Picking up the phone again, he flipped his Rolodex back to Chelsea’s card and punched in her home number, his heart hammering in his throat as he breathed a prayer that she’d pick up. The line rang twice, three times…
“Come on, Chelsea,” he muttered anxiously. “Pick up the phone, sweetheart.”