Talk about murder, Justin thought with dark humor as he dropped wearily into his chair after dealing with the inevitable circling of media vultures on the courthouse steps. He hated celebrity murders. He stared listlessly at the piles of paperwork that somehow always managed to congregate on his desk whenever he was in court. If looks could have killed, both he and the not-so-Honorable Willard Jennings would be dead men. Chelsea’s stormy eyes had shot lightning bolts at them that would have done Zeus proud. She made her disdain of Jennings’ role in this trial clear in her comments to the press.
For his part, Justin should be thrilled he drew a misogynist like Jennings to preside over a spousal-murder case involving a female defendant. Especially going up against Chelsea. Word around the office was Jennings had some kind of personal grudge against Chelsea Hanover. Yet the memory of her pale, lock-kneed courage clenched his gut, and he wished they pulled Halvanes, a feminist of the nth degree.
Chelsea had no way of knowing how much he detested Jennings’ degrading remarks at her expense, or worried about the vulnerability Justin saw in her eyes when she first realized she pulled Jennings. She’d looked ready to burst into tears for a moment, and the potential punched a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in his gut. Sighing heavily, Justin closed his eyes and rubbed his face as if that could banish the feelings stirring in him.
“Why so glum, Justin? I hear the big case is going well.”
Justin looked up to see Mack Martin, the Allegheny County District Attorney and his best friend since college, leaning in the doorway. Just what he needed today; one of Mack’s Semper Fi pep talks. A burst of dark humor went through Justin.
God, they must brainwash Marines in boot camp.
“Yeah.” He tried to work up enthusiasm, but Chelsea’s pale face hung before his mind’s eye, dampening his triumph. “It’s going great. All the evidence is pretty conclusive, and I’ve got Jennings presiding. I should be able to nail this one to the wall without much effort.”
“So why are you sitting here looking like someone just shot your dog?” Mack asked, stepping into the office and closing the door. Justin stiffened, frowning. Mack never closed doors for his little pep talks. Not unless they were potentially embarrassing to his staff.
“I’m up against Hanover again,” he finally admitted in a mutter.
Mack winced, but grinned. “Hey, she’s a pretty straight arrow, Justin. At least you don’t have to worry about perjured witnesses or sticky forensics from her. And she’s easy on the eye, too, you know?”
Justin bristled, not liking the glimmer of interest in Mack’s hazel eyes. But he forced himself calm. After all, who the hell was he to deny it, when he wanted Chelsea to the point of distraction? Calling himself a hypocrite didn’t cool his agitation. He didn’t want anyone else looking at her the way he did. Forcing the issue aside, he practically growled, “Yeah, but she also doesn’t take a case unless she’s sure of her client’s innocence.”
“And that’s got you worried?” Mack suddenly looked concerned, himself. He leaned his arms on the back of the chair opposite Justin, his expression pensive. “Look, Justin, I gave you carte blanche on this case, but not with the intention of driving it into the ground. We’ve dealt with some sticky cases before, but nothing like this. I don’t like the evidence we’ve got. It seems a little… ah, hell, Jus, it’s circumstantial, at best.”
“What?” Justin sat bolt upright. He hadn’t known Mack reviewed the case at all. “We’ve got a solid–“
“Not really.” Mack’s shoulders slumped. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about Dominic Cavarella, and you can bet Hanover will be pulling them all out at some point. Hell, there are even serious questions about the feasibility of the murder as the police have it outlined.”
Justin went absolutely still. “What are you saying?”
Mack’s hazel eyes were troubled, when he met Justin’s gaze and a pang of doubt twisted through Justin. Mack looked weary.
“Damn it, Justin, if I was a juror, based on our evidence, I can’t say I’d be willing to convict Marlene Cavarella. I mean, I’ve seen the woman before, and I have to tell you, I’m amazed if she really did pull it off.”
Justin shifted in his seat, recalling Chelsea’s open scorn on that very issue. “Maybe she had an accomplice,” he said. “I’m already looking into the possibility.”
Mack’s frown deepened. “And maybe she was set up.”
“Are you saying we should just drop the charges? She’s already been arraigned, Mack…”
“What I’m saying,” Mack said with uncharacteristic grimness, “is tread lightly, with this one. You tend to be a bludgeon with the law, and this case isn’t going to be that easy. Be open to ideas or deals if Hanover comes to you, and work with her on this one, Justin. We don’t want to lock up an innocent woman any more than we want to let a guilty one get away with murder. Okay?”
Justin nodded glumly, and started to speak, but a sharp rapping at the door cut him off. Mack lifted one eyebrow in question, rose to his feet, and opened the door.
“Blakely, I’ve got to talk to you.” Chelsea burst into the office, looking out of sorts, and too sexy for her own good, Justin decided as his heart and gut slammed together, sucking the breath from him. She gathered a deep breath in the same instant, and the significance of it punched Justin between the eyes. Behind her, he saw Mack raise a surprised brow.
“I’m in a meeting, Counselor.” Justin regained his composure first.
Chelsea blinked, and gasped as she glanced back and saw Mack. Mack, ever the Irish charmer, flashed her a wide grin and a wink, and Justin’s good humor fled. Mack Martin was an attractive man, and a born charmer who, at thirty-six, had women following him around in droves. That Chelsea could be one of them…
She smiled apologetically at Mack. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt…”
“Hey, pretty ladies are never an interruption.” Mack shot her another roguish grin. “I’m Mack Martin, by the way.”
“Chelsea Hanover. I know who you are, Mr. Martin. I was glad to see you get elected this term.” As she gave Mack a shy smile, jealousy slashed though Justin again, startling him. He wasn’t the possessive type, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, Chelsea stirred all sorts of primal urges in him — not least of which was the desire to pull her into his arms and stake his claim in a way that would no doubt get his face slapped.
“All right, Mack, leave the lady alone,” he said, trying for the teasing camaraderie he often used at Yale to pull his flirtatious friend back on task. Evidently, his attempt fell flat, since both Mack and Chelsea turned to regard him in surprise — Mack’s turning to a roguish grin, and Chelsea with the look of a cornered doe.
“I’m outta here,” Mack said, tipping an imaginary cap to Chelsea. “Nice to meet you, Chelsea. Justin, remember what I said,” he warned, then winked and, devilish gleam in his eye, added, “Play nice, you two.”
As the door closed behind Mack, Chelsea’s bemused gaze moved between it and Justin. “What was that all about?”
Justin shrugged. “Mack likes to give little pep talks to everyone around here — too many years as a Marine, I guess.” He leaned back, letting his gaze slide over her appreciatively. God, the woman always looked good. She definitely looked much better now than she had earlier, in court. There was color in her cheeks again, and her blue eyes were vibrant. “So what brings you down here? Already want to cut a deal?”
Temper flashed in her eyes, making him wonder if she applied the same passion to every aspect of her life. It unsettled him, how badly he wanted to know the answer.
“No deals, Blakely,” she snapped stiffly. “I don’t plead innocent people guilty.”
He shook his head in wry amusement. With her prickly shell, it was amazing she hadn’t ended up in contempt of court. “How do you manage to sleep at night?”
She blinked, clearly nonplussed. “Excuse me?”
“With all that passion and conviction, I’m amazed you can wind down enough to sleep.”
Chelsea averted her gaze. “I manage just fine. Are we going to discuss this case or not?”
He eyed her warily. “You said you weren’t here to deal…”
“I’m not,” she confirmed, then withdrew a sheaf of papers from her briefcase — God, didn’t she go anywhere without that thing? — and held them out, frowning. “I’d like your support in backing up my petition to the court to have Judge Jennings recuse himself on the grounds of personal bias.”
Watching the nervous way her gaze jumped from the papers to his face and back, and the way she licked those sexy-as-hell lips, Justin resisted the urge to smile. This was going to be fun. His expression deadpan, he leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest as he regarded her speculatively. “Now, why would I do that?”
“In the interest of justice,” she said with a defiant tilt of her chin. “I know you think you’re above fair play, but there’ll be no such thing as a fair trial with Jennings on the bench, and I’ll tie this whole farce of a trial up in appeal, if I have to.”
Her words stung. Didn’t she think he knew about Jennings’ bias? Didn’t she think he was as anxious to remove bias from these proceedings, in the interest of justice, as she was? Studying her wary, defiant stance, he sighed. Evidently, she thought nothing of the kind.
“I’m sure we can come to an agreement of some kind,” he said, striving for nonchalance he no longer felt. “How about we meet somewhere for dinner tonight, and discuss it?”
Just like that, an arctic chill wrapped around Chelsea’s entire posture, and her eyes grew icy and hard.
“How about we settle it here and now?” She bit out the words, each one snapping with disdain. “This isn’t a game, Mr. Blakely, and I’m not a prize to be won.”
“I never said you were.” Justin blew out a short breath. Damn, what did it take to get close to this woman? To be honest, he was as surprised as she about the dinner invitation. He wanted her, sure, but he wasn’t about to use this case to get to her. It was unethical, and she was too close to it, for reasons that mystified him.
“Sorry, Chelsea. I didn’t actually mean that the way it sounded. I guess… I’m just worried about you.” When her eyes flared with surprise, he shrugged uncomfortably. “You didn’t look too steady in there, today, and I was just thinking you seem the type who ties herself up in knots over a case, and doesn’t eat or sleep. You need both.”
Her expression softened, her eyes shimmering with gratitude, and Justin’s heart squeezed. God, he wanted to hold her. Just wrap her up in his arms and keep her safe. He frowned at his own thoughts. He never had these feelings, before.
“Thanks for the offer, and the thought, but I’m doing okay.” She met his gaze, then. “Can you help me with the judge?”
“Yeah.” He gave her a small smile, and the first olive branch of their ‘war’. “I’d already planned to file a petition of my own. You just beat me to it. I’ll back you up as far as I can on this. You’ve got enough to deal with in this case, without adding Jennings into the mix.”
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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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