An insistent, annoying buzz filled Chelsea’s head, dragging her from the arms of oblivion and into the dim early morning light. Bleary-eyed, she slapped her alarm clock off and groaned as she sat up, swinging her long legs over the edge of the bed. Damn Justin Blakely, anyway! He’d pushed Marlene’s arraignment through the courts faster than she anticipated.
Little as she liked the idea of Marlene being locked up, she couldn’t stop the growing fear that behind bars was the only safe place for her client, right now. She counted on the extra time to prove her case, but unless she came up with a compelling eleventh-hour argument for a continuance, Marlene would be arraigned, today. Oh, well, maybe it was for the best, she told herself with a heavy sigh. No use putting off the inevitable; whether arraigned or indicted, Marlene didn’t have a prayer of avoiding trial, and the older woman couldn’t handle much more jail time, anyway.
Rising with a sigh, Chelsea stumbled into the bathroom and a hot shower, in hopes of reviving herself enough to make it through the day. Five minutes later, as she lathered her hair with her favorite apple-scented shampoo, Chelsea frowned. This case could fall apart without one woman’s testimony. She had to find Linda Travis!
Rinsing off, she stepped from the shower and dried off, wrapping her hair in the towel when she finished. Standing before the clearing mirror, she studied herself critically. More than once, Sally declared it a waste Chelsea didn’t date, with the way she looked. She had a naturally slim figure even her poor eating habits hadn’t managed to ruin, yet. Sure, there were dark smudges beneath her eyes, thanks to a restless night and too little sleep in recent days, and her skin was pale from stress. But those could be covered up with cosmetics.
Her body, however, was only just beginning to show the ravages of stress. She was still willowy, with full, but not disproportionately large breasts and curvy but slim hips. Letting her hands slide down over her creamy, freckle-dotted flesh, she wondered dreamily what Justin would think. Would he appreciate the silkiness of her skin, or its sun-sensitive pallor? The thought of his hands on her caused her nipples to pucker and her insides to tremble. Then, as her foggy thoughts cleared, she gasped in horror. Why should she care what Blakely would think? He was never going to get close enough.
Chelsea frowned darkly at herself. There was no way she would ever let another Blakely hurt her. Even if Justin’s kisses did make her blood hot and her knees weak…
Stop it, she commanded her libido as she yanked on her robe and strode back into the bedroom, grabbing up the phone. Forget coffee, this morning — she was too wired, now. Besides, she needed to check in with Sally before court.
The phone rang twice before a sleepy voice answered, “Hello?”
“Sal, it’s me. Did you find any leads on Linda Travis, yet?”
“Good morning to you, too,” Sally muttered wryly. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“It’s five-thirty AM.”
“God, Chels, I love you dearly, but I swear I’m gonna kill you.”
“Sorry. I’m due in court by eight-thirty. Now, did you find out anything?”
Sally sighed, and yawned. “No. I called in a few favors from an old friend to get him to watch her place, but there’s been no suspicious activity, so far. The store’s been closed, and no one unusual has been in or out of the building since you were there. I got Deke to fingerprint the place, too. Chels,” her voice grew grim. “The only prints he’s lifted so far belong to Linda and your client, Marlene Cavarella.”
Excitement zinged through Chelsea. Finally, a break! “So Marlene was there? That’s great news, Sal!”
“Not if Linda’s been kidnapped, it’s not,” Sally said. “The D.A.’s office will be all over that one, and your girl might end up facing kidnapping and breaking and entering charges on top of the murder rap.”
Chelsea’s high deflated. “Damn; you’re right. Linda’s the only one who can credibly give Marlene a rock-solid alibi. Any leads on where she might have gone?”
“I think the question should be why, not where.” Sally’s tone implied how little she, too, liked this loose end. “I’ve already checked, Chels, and Linda Travis is in this up to her neck. The first suspicious thing I flagged was in her connection to your client. She was friends with Marlene in high school, when Linda was dating Dominic. The girls had a falling out over him, according to my sources, and didn’t speak from their senior prom until about two years ago, when Marlene apparently renewed contact with Linda. Sis,” her tone turned grim. “All this makes it look like Marlene had a motive to want Linda Travis out of the way.”
Chelsea’s gut clenched, and nausea swirled in her stomach. Her case was shredding around her. “Well, keep at it, Sal. We need to find Linda, regardless of where that leads.”
“I agree,” Sally said. “Take care of yourself, Chels.”
“You, too. Tell Mom I said hi,” Chelsea said, before hanging up. As she returned the phone to its cradle, she drew a shuddering breath, and gathered her strength for the day ahead. She still had to face Justin Blakely and pretend she didn’t remember the scorching kiss they’d shared.
It was a lost cause to try ignoring her hormones, Chelsea decided an hour later as she watched Justin stride confidently into the courtroom in a dark brown suit that outlined his trim, muscular shape and intensified the piercing green of his eyes. As his gaze raked over her, those eyes flared with hunger, and Chelsea’s heart sped up, even as her palms went damp and her mouth turned to cotton. Nervously, she wet her lips, and watched his eyes darken further as they fixed on her tongue’s motion.
“Counselor,” he said, nodding, and the husky timbre of his voice made Chelsea’s knees weak. Good God, what was wrong with her? Chelsea snapped back into her cool courtroom demeanor, reminding herself this man she was mooning over was a Blakely — a corrupt, disgusting specimen somewhere below human on the evolutionary scale. Nodding crisply in his direction, she turned away as Marlene was led into the courtroom, determined to ignore Justin Blakely’s presence across the aisle if it killed her.
By the time the bailiff instructed them to rise for the judge’s entry, Chelsea’s tension had reached boiling point. Somehow, through the thrumming in her blood, she belatedly registered the judge’s identity.
Chelsea blanched, even as she locked her knees against a defeated collapse. Jennings? She’d drawn Jennings, of all people?
I’m doomed, she thought, feeling the building pressure of unwelcome tears behind her eyes. God, was she going to break down here, in court? That would be a great start to her case — prove Jennings and his assumption women weren’t cut out for litigation right. Stiffening herself, she pushed aside her building despair over her crumbling case, and her rotten luck and forced herself to concentrate on her client’s innocence. She would find a way to prove it, somehow.
Justin, watching Chelsea out of the corner of his eye, saw her face pale, and the shakiness of her stance, before she snapped bolt upright. He imagined she’d locked her knees, and concern slashed through him. Was she going to pass out? She looked even more haggard — if that was possible — than her hollow-faced client did. God, Jennings would eat her alive, and he could see she’d reached the same conclusion. Even as he watched, her eyes hardened to ice-blue chips, and her features set resolutely, like a soldier preparing for battle. Admiration stirred in Justin, and he barely suppressed the urge to smile. He couldn’t afford to go soft over Chelsea Hanover. He needed to keep his wits about him, for justice’s sake.
Judge Jennings, a formidable-looking man with the jowls of a bull dog and the cold glare of a Gestapo agent, glanced over the docket he was handed, harrumphed quietly in clear disgust, and raised that implacable black glare to fix on Marlene Cavarella.
“You are Mrs. Marlene Cavarella?”
“Yes.” Marlene’s whisper barely carried in the cavernous courtroom, and her head bowed meekly.
“Mrs. Cavarella, I hold here an indictment claiming that you did, on June third, willfully and with disregard to the value of human life, murder your husband, Dominic Cavarella. Do you understand this charge as it has been read to you?”
“Yes.” Her murmured answer wavered, and she trembled as if holding back tears. Jennings frowned, clearly disgusted by the display.
“How do you plead?”
Chelsea’s eyes raised level with the judge’s and in a firm, clear voice she said, “The defense enters a plea of not guilty, Your Honor.”
Jennings’ beefy face contorted in disdain. “Very well. Let the record reflect that the defendant is pleading not guilty to the charges.”
“We further request bail to be set, Your Honor,” Chelsea continued, undaunted. “Mrs. Cavarella is under considerable mental and emotional duress, and to keep her incarcerated under these circumstances constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”
“Your Honor, it could be argued just as easily that stabbing a man sixty-four times with a butcher’s knife, in hopes of killing him, is also cruel and unusual punishment,” Justin said blandly. “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requests the denial of bail on the grounds that a person capable of such a gruesome execution is both capable and likely to commit another equally brutal offence.”
Chelsea’s eyes flashed rage as she shot him a scathing glance. “A woman of my client’s size is hardly capable, physically, of committing the murder of which she’s been accused, let alone a second like it–“
“Ms. Hanover,” Jennings leaned forward, his expression disapproving. “This is an arraignment. Kindly reserve your opening statements for the trial.” As Chelsea snapped her mouth shut, her cheeks flushing with rage and humiliation, Jennings continued. “As to the matter of bail, I’m not inclined to view size as a determining factor in the commission of a crime. In regards to your request for bail, I find sufficient grounds to believe your client is an opportunist. Her type will take a man for everything, including his life. As I’m not inclined to offer her the chance to prove me right, I’m denying bail. Mrs. Cavarella will be remanded to the custody of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution for the duration of this trial.”
Justin’s hackles rose, even as Chelsea straightened, rage flashing through her eyes. While it wasn’t uncommon for a judge to deny bail in a capital offence such as murder, he’d never seen a defendant’s sex used so openly against her, before. Justin let his own glare bore into Jennings, hating the arrogant, biased politician as he never had before. It would be a miracle if any of them got through this trial alive.
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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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