“The First Fire” — Excerpt from UP IN FLAMES

UpInFlamesCoverArt

A serial arsonist’s path of destruction has turned into an eerie serial murder, and jurisdiction falls to the FBI’s resident expert on the bizarre, and the only forensic lab in the country equipped to handle tracking down a renegade psychopath. Are Doctor Faith MacKenzie and her team ready for what they’re about to uncover?

A mysterious serial arsonist has been setting fires over the Witch Hollow area for months, and when a charred body turns up at the most recent arson scene, Faith and Jonathan are called to the scene. While Faith begins the process of identifying the victim and determining cause of death, Jonathan suspects the danger runs deeper than either of them could have predicted. As the number of fires, and the body count, grows, the partners will have to ask themselves what’s most important — bringing down a killer, or finding the truth.

“The First Fire” — Excerpt from Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 2: Up In Flames

The blare of sirens jerked Doctor Faith MacKenzie from sleep. Through sleep-blurred eyes, she watched the whirl of colored lights dance across her bedroom wall and disappear, then closed her eyes again. She needed her sleep. Since the Bunker joined forces with the FBI a month ago, on a case so strange it left her questioning her own reality, her sleep was sporadic at best. More often than not, memories of events she still couldn’t reconcile tore any chance of sleep from her, leaving her in her studio at all hours, trying to forget the images of an obsidian knife biting through flesh, and blood covering her hands, clothes, and the floor of her lab.

She touched her fingers to her throat, aware the soreness lingering there was little more than memory, even if the yellowing bruises were not. Faith shuddered. She often woke unable to breathe, with the phantom sensation of hard fingers digging into her throat, or the impossible pressure of a hand as cold as the grave wrapped around her heart.

If only those were the worst of her recent memories, she might be able to ignore them. After all, Rene Haley was dead, the case closed. However, for the past week, the memory of a brutal dismemberment case they just wrapped up four days ago plagued her sleep. She still couldn’t say for sure what caused some of the marks on that body, regardless of her new partner’s assurance they had enough evidence for a conviction.

She started to drift back to sleep, only to be jolted awake again by the shrill tone of her cell phone, on the nightstand beside her bed. Fumbling for the device, she punched accept without looking and put the unit to her ear as she fell back against the pillows with a muttered, “This had better be good.”

Special Agent Jonathan Caulder’s wry chuckle filled her ear. “Good morning to you, too. I don’t suppose you heard the sirens screaming through town.”

She refused to open her eyes. He would go away, if she just pretended he wasn’t there. Then, with a sigh, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “Mmm. And if I was a firefighter, I might be concerned.”

“C’mon, Mac. Batter up — we have a dead body.”

She swung her legs out of bed, and groaned as she sat up. “No way can they know that yet. I doubt the flames are even out. Besides, what can’t wait until a decent hour? And what’s this ‘we’? Since when are fire-related deaths considered an FBI matter?”

“Since a scorched body ran out of a burning building, screaming about demons.”

Ice plunged through Faith, and she groaned again, in disbelief. Not again. “Demons.”

“Yup. Up and at ’em, Mac. Wetherly already signed over jurisdiction. Meet you at the crime scene — I’ll text you the address.”

Before she could protest that bodies neither ran nor screamed, he hung up, and her phone beeped, indicating an incoming text. Glancing down at her phone, she pressed open and her eyes widened at the address showing on her phone’s screen.

Look for this second book in Guardian, Inc: Witch Hollow

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COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

 

Tracy Cavarella was her mother’s daughter in looks, if not in attitude. Petite and pretty, with softly-styled dark hair and huge blue eyes ringed with dark eyeliner and capped with soft, earth-toned eye-shadow, her mocha-tinted lips turned down in a frown, she stared warily at Chelsea as she entered the room.

“Kim said you wanted to see me.” Her tone was sullen, with an undisguised note of hope at the possibility Kim was mistaken. She paused in the doorway, looking ready to flee at any moment and then, when Chelsea showed no inclination to excuse her, sighed heavily and sank onto the edge of one lounge chair. “It’s about Mom, isn’t it?”

Chelsea nodded, and pity twinged her. This girl was facing not only the loss of her father, but the possibility of losing her mother as well. If anyone had a right to be wary of strangers, it was Tracy Cavarella. As Chelsea understood it, Tracy and her twin brother were sixteen, and Tracy, at least, was hoping for college, and the chance to have a career in surgical medicine. Privately, Chelsea thought Tracy Cavarella didn’t look strong enough to handle such a blood-and-guts career.

“My name is Chelsea, Tracy. I’m representing your mom in court. I’d like to know about your mom and dad, and I’d like you to tell me what you saw the day your dad died.”

Tracy’s mocha lips trembled, and her blue eyes filled with tears, before she turned her face away.

“It… it was horrible!” she murmured, shuddering. “Mom and Dad have been fighting a lot, lately, about stupid stuff. I mean, who cares if he’s seeing another woman, again? He’s been doing that for ages. But Mom went crazy on him that morning, screaming at him that she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Then she just took off. Dad was pretty pissed, and stormed out after her. All day, I kept worrying one of them was going to do something stupid. Then, when I came home…” She sucked in a sharp breath. “There she was, just hacking away at him. It was…” Tracy blanched, and then buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

Chelsea’s blood went cold. “You actually saw her stab him?”

Tracy nodded, sobbing, before she drew in several gulping breaths. “I screamed, and ran over here to call the cops. I was afraid she’d kill me, next, if I stayed there. She just flipped out!”

Chelsea’s stomach roiled queasily. The only eyewitness to the murder actually caught Marlene in the act of murdering her husband. What kind of trouble did she get herself into, this time? Biting back a disheartened groan, she dimly recalled her conversation with Justin Blakely, in the prison parking lot. He’d called her case a lost cause. Had he already known?

Clearing her throat, Chelsea reached out to pat Tracy’s shoulder. “All right. Thank you, Tracy. Do you know where I can find your brother?”

Tracy blinked, her tears abruptly halting. “Tim? Why would you want to talk to him?”

Her reaction struck Chelsea as odd. “I need to know what he saw, and what he knows.”

“He didn’t see anything!” Tracy snapped with a hostile, defensive glare. “I’m the one who saw it all!”

“Tracy,” Chelsea’s expression hardened. “I have to talk to everyone involved. It’s part of my job. Now, do you know where your brother is?”

Tracy looked away, pouting like a four-year-old. “He’s next door, in the greenhouse.”

“Thank you, Tracy,” Chelsea said, rising smoothly from her seat. “And I’m sorry about your father.”

The girl’s only response was an annoyed shrug. How odd.

*****

The sound of the line ringing was a klaxon in her ear as she worried one dark-painted thumbnail.

“Come on. Come on. Pick up the phone,” she commanded in agitation, her gaze marking the progress of the redheaded suit through the back garden. No way was she going out on this one alone.

“Hello?” The sound of a familiar voice cut through her panic, but did nothing to slow the erratic bounce of her heart in her chest.

“They know!” She practically screamed the words, clutching the phone in both hands.

“They?”

“Some lady who knows about Mom and Dad. She knows what I did!”

“That’s impossible. What did you tell her?”

“J-just what you said to tell anyone who asked. I swear.”

There was a long pause from the other end, and a new terror gripped her. What if they decided she was a liability?

“I don’t want to die,” she sobbed into the phone, pleading for her life.

“Oh, shut up,” the voice on the other end snapped. “You’re not going to die. Not as long as you do exactly as I tell you…”

As she listened to her new instructions, the girl wiped away her tears, leaving black smudges on her cheeks. She would follow the instructions she was given, to the letter. After all, she had school to pay for.

*****

It shouldn’t seem so odd for Tracy Cavarella to be so reactionary, Chelsea reasoned as she walked toward the glass building to the right of the Cavarella house, just outside the police tape. Tracy was understandably shaken up, and Chelsea did her best to put herself into the girl’s shoes. To come home and find your mother stabbing your father to death would be a traumatic experience for anyone. Chelsea wondered if Tracy was receiving counseling. She’d have to ask Kim Manning.

If there was one thing her interview with Tracy hadn’t prepared her for, it was her meeting with Tracy’s twin. Shock reverberated through Chelsea. She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Where Tracy was petite and delicate, Timothy Cavarella was tall and muscular, and Tracy’s emotional fragility was eerily missing from Timothy’s hardened, unflinching eyes. Though they were the same age, Timothy looked years older than his sister, and it probably had a lot to do with those eyes. They were a dark chocolate color reminiscent of Dominic Cavarella, though they lacked Dominic’s arrogance or cruelty. His hair was dark, like his sister’s, but longer and swept back in a short ponytail. He barely glanced at her, his attention riveted on the gangly tomato plants he was transplanting.

“Yeah?”

Chelsea bit back a smile. She knew a preoccupied greeting when she heard one. “Timothy, my name is Chelsea Hanover. I’m an attorney–“

“If you’re from the D.A.’s office, you’re wasting your time, Ms. Hanover. I’ll never cut a deal.”

Chelsea started. This wasn’t the response she expected. “Excuse me?”

“You won’t get me to testify against my mom. Your case is a bunch of bullshit, too, by the way.” He regarded her with a measured look before turning back to the plant, muttering, “No one’s gonna miss that no-good bastard, anyway.”

“I’m not with the D.A.,” she told him. “I’m representing your mother.”

He stopped then, turning to give her his complete attention. After studying her face for a long moment, he arched one brow in surprise. “You’re serious.”

“Very. I need to talk to you about your parents. I have to find a way to prove your mother didn’t kill your father.”

His answering laugh was cynical. “The idea’s ludicrous, lady. She didn’t do it, okay? Mom can’t stand the sight of bloody meat for very long, before she gets dizzy. If she was going to kill someone, she sure wouldn’t choose anything bloody.”

Chelsea sucked in a sharp breath, her pulse accelerating with hope. Timothy Cavarella just corroborated his mother’s story that she passed out from the smell. “Do you know where your mother was when your dad was stabbed?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if I do, though. You can’t put me on the stand.”

“Why not?”

His answering look telegraphed she was either crazy or stupid. “The D.A. would tear me, and Mom’s case, to shreds on the stand. I’ve got a record.” At her stunned look, he laughed sharply. “Yeah, a record. Geezus, lady, don’t you have anyone doing research?”

Chelsea bristled. “I’ve been trying to track people down since I took the case. I haven’t had a chance to check out backgrounds.”

He gave her a searching look, and then shook his head. “You do that, first. But trust me, you’ll have to dig deep. Dad was a goddamned bastard who made a lot of enemies. He deserved everything he got, too, but Mom would never have killed him, no matter how hard he pushed her.”

With that, he turned back to his plants, and Chelsea knew it was a hint for her to leave. But she had one more mystery to clear up. Taking a step closer, she said, “Tracy said she saw it all. She claims your mother killed him.”

Timothy grimaced, not bothering to look up from his task. “My sister has a lot of problems, Ms. Hanover. She’s hardly a reliable witness.”

“Problems?”

He turned to pin her with his dark stare. “Tracy is lucky to know who she is, most days. She can hardly be counted on to remember an accurate detail about a crime scene.” He turned back to his plants again, dismissing her presence. “Good-bye, Ms. Hanover.”

It was an agonizing, question-filled drive back to the office, and none of the questions seemed to bring Chelsea any closer to the truth — just more questions. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a researcher, and she wasn’t good at digging up answers. Investigation was always Sally’s strength, and why Chelsea never wanted to defend a capital offence case. Capital cases were always full of difficult questions.

Again, Justin Blakely’s words came back to haunt her. You don’t like to risk losing.

“Damn,” she muttered, swiping with one hand at the tears stinging her eyes. What the hell was wrong with her, anyway? She hardly ever cried, and never over a case. But, for some reason, the idea of Justin reading her so accurately brought her to tears. Maybe because no one ever pierced her defenses so easily, before.

“This is stupid,” she chastised herself as she pulled into the parking garage of her office building. There was no way she let a Blakely get to her, again. “You’re just upset about the case.”

The case.

Timothy Cavarella’s words came back to her in a rush, along with all her unanswered questions. What had he been trying to tell her? She sensed he was hiding something important. What did he know about the murder? Who was he protecting? And why was everyone so certain Marlene couldn’t have killed Dominic except the eyewitness? Only Tracy claimed her mother to be mentally or emotionally disturbed enough to kill. But Timothy said Tracy was the unstable one. Just what the hell was going on in the Cavarella family?

Those questions stayed with Chelsea clear to her office. There, tossing her blazer over the back of one visitor’s chair, she grabbed the phone and punched the button for Tom Greene, the head of legal research.

“Tom, I need some help,” she said as she sank wearily into her seat.

“Sure thing, kid. What’s up?”

“I need anything you can get your hands on about Cavarella Enterprises, the Cavarella family, and a Linda Travis.”

There was a low whistle from the other end. “That’s a tall order, Chelsea. Our files on Cavarella Enterprises are quite extensive, and I’m sure there’s more we don’t have. Can you narrow the playing field a little?”

“Anyone who had a reason to want Dominic Cavarella dead ought to do it,” Chelsea said with weary humor. “Think you can do it?”

“I’m not a miracle worker,” he warned.

That slapped Chelsea’s brain into function. She was an idiot. She knew exactly who to ask.

“No.” She jerked upright in her seat as excitement bubbled through her. “But I know someone who is. Do what you can, okay, Tom?”

“You got it.” With that, the connection clicked off, and Chelsea punched the number for the one person she knew could help her.

The phone rang twice before it was picked up. “Hanover Investigations. How may I help you?”

“Hey, Sal. Where’s Martha?”

Sally laughed. “I sent her to nag Hal for some information I need. She’s probably enjoying every minute of it.” There was little love lost between Martha Kline and Detective Harold Pulowski, and Sally tended to use that relationship shamelessly.

“Someday, that’s going to bite you in the butt, girl,” Chelsea said wryly. “How’s the mommy-to-be?”

“Sick of not seeing my feet,” Sally said and sighed. “Do you know how hard it is to chase down suspects when you have to stop to pee every ten steps?”

Chelsea suppressed a chuckle. She’d been wondering when her highly athletic older sister was going to start complaining about her pregnancy. Sally was given to the dramatic when her independence was threatened. Then, noticing the line had gone silent, worry stabbed her. “Sally?”

“Chelsea, why are you calling me?”

“Can’t I call my sister, if I want to?”

There was an exasperated sigh from the other end of the phone. “Of course you can. But my sister only calls for a reason, and never in the middle of the workday. I know you too well, Chels. What’s wrong?”

“Okay, okay.” Chelsea sighed. “I need your help again, Sal. In the professional capacity.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from Sally’s end. “What’s happened?”

“Sally Anne Hanover, wipe that horrified look off your face this instant,” Chelsea chastised, humor edging her voice. Sally had a tendency of being overly suspicious. It made her a damned good detective, but left her prone to thinking the worst. In Chelsea’s opinion, Sally’s suspicious nature drove her sister away from Jack Carney. Chelsea’s smile fled.

“I’m not in any trouble, Sal. At least, not yet,” she amended wryly, even as a shudder lunged through her. “It’s about the Cavarella case. I need you to help me with some background checks.”

Sally made a confused sound. “That’s all? Chels, that’s what legal researchers are for. I swear someone was just bragging that Marshall, Bateman and Powell had the best in the business.”

“Tom’s looking into it, too,” Chelsea assured her, “but it’s a complicated case, and I thought you might be able to get your hands on the information faster. Besides, you have an infallible nose for when things aren’t right. Tom doesn’t.”

She heard Sally’s chuckle. “One of these days, I’m going to screw up big time, and you’re going to have to eat those words, sis.”

“Not you,” Chelsea teased back, even as sadness slipped through her. Sally made only one mistake in her life, in Chelsea’s opinion. She walked away from the only man she ever loved. “You’re invincible, sis.”

“Yeah, right. Hang on.” Chelsea smiled as she listened to the rustling sounds and muttering from the other end of the phone. Sally was forever losing her pens. It was funny to Chelsea, how a first–rate investigator like Sally could lose something as simple as a pen. After another minute of rustling sounds, Sally’s breathless voice returned. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Chelsea couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Find a pen?”

She could picture Sally’s blush, even as she heard her sister laugh. “Yeah, finally. I swear, pregnancy’s made me more scatterbrained. If it wasn’t for Martha…”

Chelsea grinned. Martha Kline’s organizational skills were the only thing that stood between Sally’s office and total chaos. “What are you going to do when she wants to retire?”

“Find a quiet corner and go completely postal!” That comment brought back, with stabbing swiftness, Chelsea’s unsettling case.

“Don’t joke about that, Sal. Please.”

There was a long moment of silence, before Sally asked, “What do you want me to find out, Chels?”

“Anything you can about the Cavarella family. Something tells me there’re a lot of skeletons in this closet, but the damned door’s stuck. I can’t get anyone to talk.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can find.”

Chelsea’s phone chirped then. “Thanks, Sal. I’ve got to go.”

“Okay. Take care. Come down and see me again, soon.” Sally’s cheerful voice signed off.

“Will do.” Chelsea punched the cut-off button, and then hit the blinking button on the console. “Chelsea Hanover.”

“Hey, kid,” Tom Greene’s excited voice boomed over the line. “I found something interesting. Are you sitting down?”

“Yeah. What do you have?”

“Seems young Timothy has quite a record. The D.A.’s office sent it over early this morning, claiming it was crucial to the case, whatever the hell that means. Apparently, my intern didn’t know what it meant, either, since it ended up in the bottom of a filing stack. I just got off the phone with the A.D.A., Blakely, and he seems convinced it’s worth you having a look at.”

Chelsea sighed. Was Blakely trying to make her life even more difficult than it already was? She wouldn’t put it past him. “I know about the record, Tom. Timothy confessed as much to me earlier.”

“He tell you what for?”

“No, just that he had one and it wouldn’t do any good to put him on the stand.” She rubbed her forehead as her head start to pound. It wasn’t even noon, yet. “Is it important?”

Tom uttered a short laugh of disbelief. “I’d say so. Seems our boy’s gotten himself arrested at least once for everything from possession to assault with the intent to cause bodily harm.”

Chelsea straightened abruptly, her headache pushed aside. “What?

Now, her earlier conversation with Timothy Cavarella began to make a sickening kind of sense. Good god, was this going to turn out to be another case like the Menendez brothers in California?

“Yep,” Tom was saying as she turned her attention back to the conversation. “He apparently got into a fight about six months ago, and attempted to beat some drunken sod to death with a pool cue. Worked the guy — one Eric Leland — over real good before they were finally able to pull Cavarella off him.”

A quick temper, a tendency toward uncontrolled violence, and a deep grudge…

My father was a bastard who deserved everything he got.

Suddenly queasy, Chelsea realized why Timothy’s statement bothered her ever since he uttered it. It had the ring of an unrepentant confession.

“Oh my god,” she managed, the fine edge of panic pressing against her pulse.

“Chelsea?” Tom’s concerned voice reached through the panic, freeing her. “You all right?”

She swallowed hard, unprepared to voice her suspicions, yet. “Yeah, Tom. Thanks for letting me know. And see if you can find any skeletons in Tracy Cavarella’s closet, as well. Last thing I need is a spotless eyewitness who claims my client killed her own husband. Keep me posted on what else you find on the Cavarellas.”

“You got it.” He paused a moment, and Chelsea wondered if he’d hung up, until he quietly said, “Hang in there, kid. We’ll nail this one down sooner or later.”

Chelsea made a non-committal sound and hung up. Then, staring blankly at the phone, she knew that, no matter how soon they wrapped this up, she’d never be ready for the answer. She had a dreadful premonition the answer was far worse than anyone suspected.

 

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.                                       

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 ©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

SIGHT UNSEEN available for sale!

I am super excited and pleased to announce that Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow’s debut book, SIGHT UNSEEN, is now available for sale!

If you’ve been waiting for this book, it’s finally here! You can pick up your copy of the e-book today at any of the following locations:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Desert Breeze Publishing

All Romance Ebooks

Hopefully, it’ll be available in print very soon. I will keep you posted on that front.

If you want to know what the book is about, keep reading:

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, in the midst of a series of bizarre murders, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them.

As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

sightunseencoverart

 

 

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

 

Justin was still feeling good two hours later as he made his way through the run-down neighborhood known as the Hill District. Why it was a source of pride that this area had been the inspiration for a popular crime drama, he’d never understand. Normally, he hated when a case brought him into this high-crime, heavily littered section of Pittsburgh. It set his teeth on edge to see how casually overlooked the crime he fought was among these abandoned storefronts and rundown tenements. Fortunately for him, today was different. With Chelsea’s smile hanging in his memory and warming his heart, he barely noticed the calculating stares of the street corner hangers-on, or the suspicious glares of the pushers and pimps leaning against the chain link fence surrounding an empty lot.

Scanning the storefronts, he saw the grime-covered neon sign proclaiming Painted Lady in garish pink. Smothering a sigh, he pulled into an open space in front of the building and resigned himself to this task. The file on Maria Cavarella said she owned and operated a tattoo parlor out of this building. From that sign, he wasn’t too optimistic about what he’d find inside.

Shutting off his car, he slid out and double-checked the locks before turning toward the building. Frowning, he glanced back at his new BMW Z-3 roadster, uncertain it was a good idea to leave it parked along these unsafe streets. Not like he had much choice. He had to go into this building if he wanted to talk to Dominic Cavarella’s sister. Her file indicated she might have information about her brother’s marriage, but she’d avoided him with the adroitness of a trained spy. She hadn’t returned any of his calls — no big surprise if she was hiding unaired family laundry — but she also ignored the official requests sent from the District Attorney’s office for her to appear for questioning. That brought him here in person. For the sake of his case, he had to know what Maria knew about her brother and his wife.

Justin strode through the door of the graffiti-covered building before he could change his mind, and promptly wished he hadn’t. Even the loudly-rattling air conditioner, working overtime to cool the windowless space, didn’t mask the eerie jangle of a bell, before a feminine voice called out, “Just a minute!”

Uneasy, Justin glanced around the small lobby again, suppressing a shudder of disgust. He didn’t consider himself a prude — hell, with the dreams he’d been having since his first run-in with Chelsea, he should lock himself up for indecency — but this entire room gave him the creeps. It was like something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s sickest fantasies. The furniture was dark wood and black leather, covered with an uncomfortable array of metal studs, and the deep red-brown hue of the walls reminded Justin of the few gruesome crime scenes he’d seen firsthand. The artwork covering the walls — if one took the liberty of calling grotesque charcoal drawings art — was clearly meant to shock as much as disturb. They all featured nude, tattooed models — both men and women — in various states of torment. Over each hovered a shadowy, bat-winged demon.

The beaded curtain rattled, and Justin was relieved to have somewhere other than those pictures to look. He snapped his gaze to the woman who’d come through the curtain, and stopped cold. She was tall and slim — emaciated-looking, really — and dressed in a black lace dress that flaunted a decided lack of curves. Spiked bands circled her neck and both wrists, and her dark hair was a wild mass of spikes that fell into her hollow, dark eyes. Her maroon-tinted lips curved wryly as she looked him up and down, before her eyes narrowed on his shocked expression. Clearly, his discomfort amused her.

“You don’t look like the tat type, sugar,” she observed in a Winston-and-whiskey drawl dripping with disdain. “Aren’t you in the wrong neighborhood?”

“I’m looking for Maria Cavarella.”

“You a cop?” Her gaze shuttered, her expression grown wary. Then, as she studied him, she snorted. “Of course not. Your suit’s too expensive. You must be one of Dom’s thugs, right?”

Thugs? Was she implying Dominic Cavarella had Mob connections? “Are you Maria Cavarella?”

She sighed heavily. “Yeah, that’s me. I told Dom I wasn’t gonna back down, so you can just kiss my Catholic–“

“Miss Cavarella, my name is Justin Blakely. I’m with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office. I need to talk to you about your brother, Dominic.”

She scowled. “He’s a pompous ass. There, you got what you wanted. Now, go away.”

“Miss Cavarella, I’m afraid that’s not enough.” He stopped her as she turned away. “Are you aware your brother was stabbed to death by his wife, two months ago? No one remembers seeing you at the funeral.”

She muttered something under her breath, and then barked a sharp laugh, before turning to face him again. “So? What do you want from me?”

Her attitude grated on his nerves. “So, it’s suspicious. I need to know where you were on June third, and if you know of any domestic difficulties Dominic and Marlene had, prior to the murder.”

She snorted indelicately. “Sugar, Dom and I haven’t spoken a word directly to each other since the sorry sonuvabitch threw me out and cut off my inheritance at his damned wedding. You think I’m working in this shabby dump because I like it here in the Hill District?” She looked him up and down, her gaze turning calculatingly heated. “You got company for tonight, sugar? I can free up my schedule if you want a tour.”

Suppressing a disgusted shudder at the thought of spending time with Maria, Justin scowled. “Whatever you’re trying to sell me, lady, I’m not buying. Your brother’s secretary said he received two calls from you the day of his murder, and he was on the phone for over an hour, both times. She also said he’s met with you at least three times in the past six months.”

An icy wall descended over Maria’s face, and her stance turned hostile. “I think we’re done here, Mr. A.D.A. You want to talk to me again, you call my lawyer. Otherwise, I don’t have to tell you a damned thing.”

And, as Maria Cavarella sashayed back through the beaded curtain, Justin couldn’t help but wonder if Chelsea didn’t just have something with her avowals of Marlene’s innocence. Compared to Dominic’s sister, Marlene Cavarella was a damned saint.

*****

August 8
10:30 AM

This wasn’t where she wanted to be, Chelsea acknowledged as she pulled into the sprawling, tree-lined driveway of the Gothic mansion abutting the Cavarella estate. The whitewashed stone walls of the old building looked cold and forbidding, and she shivered, hoping those walls weren’t harbingers of her acceptance here.

She wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the rich and famous today, but the police report listed supermodel Kimberly Manning as having assumed temporary custody of the Cavarella children at the time of their mother’s arrest, and Chelsea needed to talk to the kids.

Glancing through the oak trees forming the border between Ms. Manning’s home and the equally lavish Cavarella estate, Chelsea could see the taunting flicker of caution yellow dancing on the stiff afternoon breeze. Since Marlene’s arrest, police had cordoned off the Cavarella house and grounds for investigation, and she couldn’t wander into the crime scene without a writ or warrant from the judge, which wasn’t likely to happen. However, she could do the next best thing, for now. She could talk to Marlene’s teenage twins.

Not sure what to expect, Chelsea parked her car and walked toward the mansion’s front door, still wondering how she managed to get mixed up in a society murder case. Didn’t these people stick to their own? She frowned, recalling the last time she dealt with the rich. They certainly seemed inclined to band against her.

Shuddering in spite of the mid-afternoon warmth, Chelsea wondered how Sally stood the pressure of her case in Houston. It generated national media attention, and the trial was a circus. Sally shied away from any cases that might attract media attention, since then — a hard thing for a Private Investigator of her expertise to do — but Chelsea understood why. The longer Sally stayed out of the news, the longer she remained hidden from the Sentry Brigade.

If only she could stay out of the media limelight, too. Chelsea sighed as she rang the doorbell. A sweetly pitched voice called, “Just a minute!”

An instant later, the door opened, and Chelsea found herself looking into the smiling face that had adorned fashion magazine covers for the past three years. Kimberly Manning was a slim, beautiful woman with long, straight blonde hair and huge indigo eyes. Her softly tinted lips were curved into a welcoming smile that warmed her entire face and startled Chelsea. Weren’t models supposed to be cool prima donnas?

“Hi!” Kimberly said cheerily. “Can I help you?”

Chelsea blinked, nonplussed. “Do you always answer the door yourself?”

The musical cascade of Kimberly’s laughter was warm and friendly. “Usually. I like my private life to be private.” She winked. “I guess you can take the girl off the farm, but not the farm out of the girl. I grew up about two hours away from here, until high school. I thought I was so cosmopolitan, going to high school here, but all I did was prove how rural I really was.”

Chelsea nodded, unable to find a suitable reply. Clearly, Kimberly Manning’s magazine smile was the genuine article, as was the woman herself.

“Ms. Manning, my name is Chelsea Hanover. We spoke on the phone, earlier.”

Kimberly thought a moment. “Oh, right. Marlene’s attorney, right?”

Chelsea nodded.

Kimberly’s smile faded. “I can’t say I’m surprised someone killed Dominic, but I never would have suspected Marlene. She was always such a sweet, shy woman.”

Chelsea studied the woman carefully. How much did Kimberly know? “You know the Cavarella family well?”

Kimberly nodded, holding the door open as she stepped back. “Come on in. I’ll help you any way I can.”

As Chelsea followed the model through her house, wry humor bubbled up inside her. Kimberly wasn’t kidding about being a farmer’s daughter. There wasn’t any fancy art, or decorative furniture in the place. Everything was sturdy and functional, and there was very little clutter.

Kimberly saw her interested look, and grinned. “Not what you expect from a model, huh?” She shrugged, then. “I grew up with four brothers and two sisters. My mother didn’t believe in owning anything us kids could break, and clutter was just unacceptable.”

Chelsea smiled, then turned the conversation back to her case. “How well do you know the Cavarellas?”

Kimberly shrugged again, frowning. “I met Dominic about five years ago, when I was just starting out. My agent thought Cavarella Enterprises would be a good jumping off point for me. I guess he was right, but I wasn’t very thrilled by the idea, at the time. I’d heard a lot of bad stuff from industry people connected to Cavarella, and I didn’t want into any of that; it would have given my parents a stroke. And I didn’t care much for Dominic’s personality, when I met him. He was arrogant and domineering, and worked everyone at the agency nearly to death, but especially the models. He encouraged anorexic behavior in his models, badgering us to lose more weight. I ignored him, but most of the other girls were too afraid he’d kill their careers if they didn’t do what he wanted. I got out of there as fast as I could. Then, after the Paris show for Chritein Toumé three years ago, my agent had me buy this place, because I refused to move to New York or L.A. Marlene introduced herself to me almost immediately. I could tell she was lonely, shut up over there in that mausoleum with only two kids to keep her company. Not that they were much company, anyway.”

“Mr. Cavarella wouldn’t let her leave the house?”

Kimberly snorted. “Like I said, he was arrogant and domineering, and he particularly enjoyed lording it over his wife. Marlene made a lot of excuses for him, but I could see even she didn’t believe some of them. But she wouldn’t leave him, either. Not even when I offered to take her with me to my show in New York. I just wanted her to get out of there, to see that the world wasn’t as scary, alone, as she thought.”

“What did she say?”

Kimberly shook her head sadly. “She said Dominic had saved her. She’d worked too long and too hard to give him up.”

An eerie finger of dread ran down Chelsea’s spine. “If Marlene found out that her husband was having an affair, do you think she’d be capable of killing him to keep him?”

“No way,” Kimberly said firmly as they stepped onto the back patio. “You’d have to have seen them together to understand. Marlene was head-over-heels for that Neanderthal, but there wasn’t a shred of jealousy in her body. He flaunted his affairs in her face; I think he got some kind of power trip out of it. She gave up things for him, and she made his excuses, and she covered his tracks when he stepped out of line. The idea of facing life without him scared the hell out of her, and he used that power mercilessly.”

“What do you mean?”

Kimberly shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “He threatened to leave her constantly, just to hear her weep and beg him not to. He had affairs just to watch her crumble until she gave in to whatever he wanted. He thrived on her fear, and I don’t think she’s even aware of it.”

Chelsea frowned, remembering the soft-spoken, dainty woman she met two months ago. Marlene did seem well and truly beaten down — shaken, with an abandoned look in her eyes painful to see. But was it enough to prove the woman incapable of murder?

“Ms. Manning, I appreciate your candor in this matter. Would you be willing to testify to what you’ve told me, when this case goes to trial?”

“My mama taught me you have to stick up for people who can’t stand on their own. Of course I’ll testify.”

Chelsea smiled her thanks. “I need to speak with Mrs. Cavarella’s children, if you don’t mind.”

Kimberly shrugged. “I don’t mind, but they might. Tracy’s upstairs in her room. I’ll go see if I can convince her to come downstairs.”

“And Timothy?”

Kimberly laughed sharply. “Your guess is as good as mine, Ms. Hanover. Timothy has a tendency to…disappear.”

 

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.

BECOME A PATRON – DONATE HERE

©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVEDANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

 

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.

Damn.

“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.”

 

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.

BECOME A PATRON – DONATE HERE

©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVEDANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

“Serial Killer” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow)

 

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

sightunseencoverart

When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them. As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

 

“Serial Killer” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 1):

She lifted one brow and stared him down expectantly.  He fought the urge to chuckle. She was adorable, when she was pissed. Not that he was about to admit it to her.

“All right.” He threw his hands up in mock surrender. “You’re right. I had the forensic accountants go over his financials, and it doesn’t look like your pal, Adam, had any reason to want Parrish dead.”

“Good.” She turned back to the samples on her workstation. “Now maybe we can get back to finding the real killer.”

“Like Patton.”

She shot him a withering glance over her shoulder. “Would you let it go, already?”

“Why? Even you admitted he matches your profile of the type of person most likely to want Parrish dead.”

She turned toward him again, her arms crossed over her chest and her gaze cool. “Perhaps. But if he’s Ramsey’s killer, what’s his connection to Carol-Ann? Or the other five victims?”

“You found a solid link?” Jonathan straightened, instantly on alert. Mac wasn’t able to link the cases more than peripherally, before. Not enough to convince her they were connected, and he wasn’t about to argue with someone with her credentials, when it came to these things.

“Not conclusive, no. But I had Mark run gas chromatographic analysis of the clothing of four of the other victims, and there are consistent levels of the same incense components in all of them as we found on Ramsey.”

“What about the others?”

“Carol-Ann’s body was submerged in the Monongahela for so long, all chemical traces were washed away, and one of the other victims was little more than a skeleton. We barely found enough clothing fibers to confirm she was definitely clothed at the time of burial. Beyond that, there just wasn’t a big enough sample to get a definitive test, and we can’t be sure there wasn’t any environmental contamination of the sample.”

Jonathan reached into his pocket for his cell phone. “Consistent is good enough for me.  Thanks, Mac.”

Even as he dialed Damion’s number, Jonathan squashed the uneasy feeling in his gut. This was almost too easy. What kind of sick game was Haliatus up to, now?

Look for SIGHT UNSEEN, coming from Esther Mitchell and Desert Breeze Publishing on October 11, 2016.

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 6

Chapter Six

August 7
5:00 AM

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.

 Never.

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.

 Willard Jennings.

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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