Plagued by troubling thoughts, Chelsea spent the drive home dreading the solitude of her apartment. Maybe, she mused with a twinge of loneliness, she should get a pet. She’d certainly never felt so alone in her life. Between the helplessness Marlene’s case resurrected in her, the fear of having her personal demons splashed on the front page, should the media ever learn why she took this case, and the tension — both professional and personal — her confrontations with Justin Blakely stirred, she knew she wouldn’t be safe with her solitude, tonight.
Grimly, Chelsea turned her SUV onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, heading for the Pittsburgh city center. Better to spend the night working than to face old ghosts and new crimes. There was something comforting about burying herself in her work; it gave her a sense of control nothing else could.
Pulling into the underground parking garage of the nearly deserted office building that housed her law firm, she breathed a tiny sigh of relief and, grabbing up her briefcase, slid from her vehicle and headed toward the elevators.
Two minutes later, she was unlocking her office door when a voice behind her made her pause, unease dancing through her.
“Chelsea! What are you doing here? I thought you went to visit your sister.”
How did she explain herself, now? Chelsea fought panic, until she told herself it was silly to be scared of answering to Gene Marshall. Of anyone in the firm, Gene knew she was at work more often than she was home. He once joked about installing a bed for her, until he realized she took his offer seriously.
Turning, she smiled as she watched Gene amble toward her, tugging on a light jacket. Gene didn’t race, or stride, or even walk. He moved slowly, but gracefully, in a way his wife, Cookie, called “moseying.” He always had a windbreaker around, too. Like a good luck charm. Chelsea let her smile expand into a grin. “And I thought Aunt Cookie told you no more late nights!”
He grinned at her mention of his diminutive drill sergeant of a wife. “In this case, she’ll forgive me. I was finishing up the Wiggaln estate paperwork, which means I am now officially on vacation for two weeks.” His grey-green eyes twinkled merrily. “The Clipper is going out, and I promised Cookie a cruise.”
Chelsea laughed. “Just see that you keep that promise. I don’t want to defend your wife, next!”
He sobered abruptly.
“So you took it.” No mistaking the note of concern there. He expelled a heavy sigh. “I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t.”
She cast him a sharp glance. Didn’t anyone think she was capable of defending Marlene? “Why not? It’s good money for the firm…”
“Forget the damned firm,” he said gruffly, his bushy brows meeting over worried grey-green eyes. “I’m worried about you, kiddo. I’ve known you since you were a baby, and I’m having trouble putting the kid I knew together with the woman you’ve become.”
Chelsea’s eyes shifted away. “I don’t know what you’re–“
“Bull. You spend too much time in this office, or in the courtroom. You work harder, and longer hours, than any three partners put together. I’ve never seen you anywhere outside of this place since you joined the firm. In fact, Cookie said something to me just the other day about how long it’s been since we saw either you or Sally at the house. Now,” he crossed his arms in the authoritative stance she remembered from her childhood, “do you want to tell me why you’re both working yourselves to death?”
She turned away, grim determination building in her. There was no way she could tell Gene her secret. He would do what Sally and Rebecca wanted to do but lacked funds or guns for, and she long ago promised herself she wouldn’t draw anyone into her mess. “It’s personal, Uncle Gene. Nobody’s business but mine.”
He continued to study her intently for a long moment, and then sighed. “All right, Chelsea. But don’t stay up here too late, okay? You need sleep.”
“Yes, Dad.” She waved him off with the teasing quip she used to in her teens. As his footsteps faded down the hallway, she rested one hand on the door frame, and closed her eyes against the sting of tears. It was good to know some things never changed. Eyes squeezed tight, she whispered, “Thanks, Uncle Gene.”
Friday, August 6
Justin shoved back from his desk and plowed his hands through his already-disheveled hair again. He’d been working on the Cavarella case for two months. How could a case so rock-solid also be so damned difficult to swallow? Glaring at the files and notebooks spread open on his desk, he only barely resisted the urge to hurl curses on Mack Martin’s head for handing this case off to him.
“If you didn’t already look ready to kill someone, I’d say that new, rumpled look of yours is pretty sexy,” quipped a cheery female voice from the doorway of his office. Glancing up, Justin smiled wryly. Slight, bespectacled, and with far too much sass for her own good, Darlene Masters was a highly competent A.D.A., and his childhood friend. Now, studying his face, small frown lines appeared above the rims of her stylish granny glasses. “Okay. What gives, Justin?”
Sometimes, he conceded darkly, Darlene could also be annoyingly perceptive.
“What makes you think anything’s wrong?” He masked his frustration, already knowing it was pointless. His courtroom face didn’t seem to work any better on Darlene than it did around Mack.
“Oh, no you don’t, Justin Blakely.” She marched into his office and planted herself determinedly in the seat opposite him. “I’ve known you since you were busy putting bugs in my hair and snakes in my lunch pail. You don’t get to pull that slick poker face with me.”
Justin regarded her in fond exasperation. Darlene was the closest he’d ever come to a sister, and she had a tendency to badger him like one.
“It’s nothing, Darlin’,” he assured her, falling back on the teasing nickname he gave her as a child. “It’s just this case I’m working on. It goes to arraignment Monday, but I don’t want to go charging into the courtroom without all the facts, this time.”
“‘This time’? Is this really the invincible, superhuman Justin Blakely I’m talking to? Don’t tell me you’re having an attack of nerves.”
He shrugged as his mind drifted back to those heated moments in the prison corridor. Damn, he’d never wanted a woman so badly in his life.
“You remember the Fairman case, two years ago?”
“The kid charged with armed robbery and evading arrest? Yeah.” She looked at him, her brown eyes wide in disbelief. “Justin, that was one case, and it was years ago. You’ve put away lots of bad guys and girls since, and never let that mistake affect your confidence.”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t had to face her again, either,” he muttered ruefully.
Darlene went dead silent. When she didn’t speak after a full minute, Justin glanced up at her, to find a wide grin plastered on her face, and her eyes twinkling.
“What’s so damned funny?”
“Is that what this is all about? Your infatuation with that defense attorney?” She laughed. “She’s really got you all tied up in knots, huh?”
“No, dammit, and I’m sorry I ever told you about that. Dar, have you ever faced Hanover in the courtroom?”
She thought a moment, and then shook her head. “Not yet, but I handle mostly sexual crimes cases. According to what I’ve heard, she never takes those.”
“Exactly. She’s–” He stopped dead, his heart clenching as he realized what she just implied. “What did you say?”
She shrugged carelessly. “She refuses to defend domestic abuse and rape suspects. It’s not that uncommon among female defense attorneys, actually. They don’t like to defend scum like that, and… Justin, are you okay?”
He stared at the files on his desk as his chest tightened with dread. Ill certainty settled like a lead weight as he replayed his conversation with Chelsea in the prison parking lot. The words she used weren’t what bothered him, he realized as the band tightened further, making breathing painful. It was the absolute contempt, and fear, in her eyes. If Chelsea Hanover refused to take on an entire category of offences, without exception, there had to be a very good reason.
Fighting against the pain lodged in his chest, he drew a breath and looked up at his friend with somber eyes. “Dar, I need you to do me a favor.”
She looked concerned. “Name it.”
“I need to know everything you can find out about Chelsea Hanover. The only way I’m going to piece together the truth in this case is if I can figure out what she’s thinking, and why.”
Darlene nodded, her cocoa eyes dimming with sympathy. “I’ll get right on it.”
Left alone in his office, Justin slumped back in his chair, and stared moodily out his window as Chelsea’s troubled eyes swam before him.
Just what are you hiding?
It was a question he would give anything to know the answer to.
Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.
©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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