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

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Burden of Proof Final

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COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 3

Chapter Three

Shaking her head at the insanity of men who believed a woman capable of a gruesome execution, but not of political or social acumen, Chelsea sighed as she stepped out from the oppressive jailhouse walls and into the bright June sunlight. Patting her purse, she smiled in satisfaction as she felt the soft thump of metal and plastic under her hand. Marlene’s story was safely on her recorder, her alibi secured in Chelsea’s head. All she had to do now was to verify the alibi, and they’d be ready for whatever Blakely planned to throw at them.

As she crossed the parking lot, Chelsea cast a wary glace toward the cluster of reporters peppering Detective Talbot with questions. At the moment, only Chelsea and her client knew for a fact she’d taken on Marlene’s case. Chelsea dreaded the day the press found out. This trial was high profile and already a media frenzy — exactly the kind of case most attorneys lived for. Exactly the kind of case she did everything she could to avoid.

Chelsea frowned, aware of the struggle ahead of her, even if her client was not. It wasn’t going to be an easy case to prove Marlene’s complete innocence. Especially not with the media already trying the case in the court of public opinion. Right now, as far as they were concerned, Marlene was guilty as hell. And, while Chelsea was convinced Blakely could never make a Murder One charge stick, Marlene had, by her own admission, been the last person to see Dominic alive. The murder weapon was found literally clenched in her hand, and she’d been covered in Dominic’s blood.

The only person who could possibly save Marlene from that damning evidence was this Linda Travis she’d mentioned. If that fell through… Chelsea’s face set grimly as she dug into her purse for the keys to her Ford Explorer. It wasn’t going to fall through, she promised herself. She wouldn’t let Blakely add another win to his near spotless record.

“Such a serious expression doesn’t belong on such a beautiful woman.”

The words, spoken in a mild, sexy voice she’d have recognized anywhere, sent Chelsea’s pulse skittering in a mixture of fear and unwanted anticipation. Snapping her gaze up, she met Justin Blakely’s lazy grin and smoldering green eyes. Bedroom eyes, her adoptive mother would call them. Staring into those thick-lashed, soulful eyes certainly made Chelsea wish for a bedroom.

Pulse skittering as she realized what she was admitting to, Chelsea pushed the thought, and the images it evoked, away. This man was the enemy, and she’d do well to remember it.

Letting her gaze slide from his, over his limber body, she schooled herself to objectivity. Not an easy pursuit, she admitted grudgingly, with a man who radiated masculinity and pure sin. He was leaning nonchalantly against the hood of her Sport Utility Vehicle, his well-muscled, trouser-clad legs crossed at the ankles and his arms crossed casually over his broad chest. With the stiff summer breeze ruffling his neatly cropped brownish-blond hair, he looked like a magazine model come to life. The effect, she decided as her breath backed up in her throat, was damn near lethal.

“What do you want, Blakely?” she asked, forcing herself to remember this man was an arrogant, dangerous opponent, and a Blakely, besides. He was not fantasy material; he had the power to destroy her, again. “I’m very busy.”

At her sharp tone, he stiffened, the lazy, sensual magnetism of a moment ago displaced by brisk efficiency. “I want to know what sob story Marlene Cavarella dished out to you, to get you in her corner.”

She glared at him as she moved to open the driver’s side door. Just what kind of brainless moron did he take her for? “Why? Because I’m a silly, sentimental female who’ll go to any length to stand by another woman?”

“No.” His eyes narrowed. “Because I don’t think you’d take the case without a reason.”

She lifted her chin in open defiance. “So who’s to say she gave me a sob story?”

The feral gleam in his eyes as he crossed in front of her SUV gave his answering smile a sardonic, dangerous cast. “Last I checked, you weren’t into losing cases, Counselor.”

She stiffened, righteous fury for the maligned Marlene Cavarella shooting through her. “You think I’m going to lose?”

“It’d be a long shot for you to win.”

She refused to let another Blakely intimidate her. With forced bravado, she shook back a cascade of coppery curls and offered him a saccharine smile. “Maybe I like long shots.”

His eyes took on a hooded look, an unholy gleam entering them.

“No,” he said as he took a step toward her. “You don’t. You like sure things, definite wins. You don’t ever risk losing, Chelsea.”

That unflattering, but accurate, observation pricked her, especially from this man. He made it sound like her being cautious was a bad thing. She didn’t imagine he’d ever done much particularly reckless in his own disciplined life. Only fools rushed into things with the intent of getting burned for their mistakes. Well, she’d been burned enough to learn it wasn’t worth the pain, and she had no intention of letting anyone close enough to do it again.

“So, what did your new client tell you?” Justin pressed, watching her intently.

“You know I can’t tell you that.” She glared at him again. “Attorney-client privilege.”

He frowned. “So you did take the case.”

She nodded curtly, meeting his assessing gaze. “Yes.”

His gaze grew darker, more intense, before his hand came up, fingers stroking a strand of flyaway hair from her face. The brush of his fingers against her skin set off a flurry of sensations Chelsea didn’t want to contemplate.

“Why do you believe she’s innocent?” he asked quietly.

Chelsea stiffened, calling herself a traitor even as a shiver of delight wound through her. There was no way she’d ever trust a Blakely again. Her glare pierced him.

“Because a ninety-eight pound, five-foot-two-inch woman can’t just overpower a six-foot-four-inch, two hundred-fifty pound weight lifter long enough to stab him even once, let alone sixty-four times. Because a woman who looks stricken and guilty for forgetting to call nine-one-one in a crisis would hardly be capable of hiding her guilt if she premeditatedly killed her husband.”

*****

Chelsea’s quiet words hit Justin square in the face, facts he could hardly argue. While he might have argued a good actress could hide or display guilt and grief at will, even he had to concede that a woman of Marlene Cavarella’s size would have to be operating in an emotional frenzy to stab her much-stronger husband, and even then, she would sustain wounds of her own before she managed to subdue him. He frowned. There went Murder One. The best he could hope for now was second degree. There was no way he’d accept Marlene Cavarella as innocent. Provoked, insane; whatever case Chelsea made, the crime scene evidence didn’t lie, and it said Marlene was as guilty as sin. He could only hope time and the detectives on the case could unravel how she’d carried it off.

The sound of a door slamming brought Justin out of his thoughts, just as Chelsea started the engine of her Explorer. Watching her drive away left him frozen inside, caught between duty and desire for the first time in his life. For some reason, he knew he’d have to sacrifice one for the other, and he had a sinking feeling he knew which would win out. It was an immensely depressing thought.

*****

The next morning, half an hour of negotiating Pittsburgh’s hellacious tunnels between Green Tree and the Strip District brought Chelsea to a block of brick warehouse buildings converted into shops and loft apartments in the Strip District.

Breathing in the mouthwatering scents of fresh bread and meat, mixed with an abundance of ethnic spices, Chelsea maneuvered her SUV into a parking space in front of a confectionary-white building with plate glass windows proclaiming Travis Catering in bright, blue, and flowing script. Even as she stared at the beautiful window display, however, a frown creased Chelsea’s brow, and an eerie tingling raced along her spine. Something was wrong; she could feel it.

Her hyper-vigilant awareness screaming at her, Chelsea studied the building and its environs. Beyond the colorful display of patriotic symbols and plastic foods, the interior of the shop was dark. Glancing at her watch, Chelsea noted that it was shortly after eleven in the morning on a busy Friday, and less than two weeks from the Fourth of July. Concern etched her brow. Surely, being closed like this constituted a bad business practice for anyone in the food industry. Or maybe the store just looked closed.

Climbing from her SUV, Chelsea strode toward the door, her eyes searching the darkened interior for some sign of movement. Worried, she tried the door, only to find it locked.

“Looking for someone?”

Chelsea turned at the sound of a voice, to find herself face-to-face with a jovial-looking Asian man dressed in slacks, button-down shirt, and loafers.

“Linda Travis,” Chelsea said with a rueful nod. “Do you know when she opens?”

He shook his head, his expression worried.

“Very strange goings-on, there,” he nodded toward the darkened store. “I’ve been Linda’s neighbor for nearly five years, and I’ve never seen that store closed.”

“Neighbor?”

He nodded. “I’m George Tzou. I own the Happy Dragon,” he explained, gesturing toward the next storefront, where an assortment of Chinese art was festively displayed. “I sell jade and fine jewelry.”

Chelsea offered him a small smile, shaking his extended hand. “Chelsea Hanover. I’m an attorney.”

“Attorney? Linda in trouble?”

“No.” Chelsea shook her head. “She’s a potential witness in a case I’m handling. Do you know Ms. Travis well?”

A broad smile split his face. “Oh, yes. Linda’s a very social person, very approachable. She runs a business owner’s organization for this block, and I doubt there’s a person who frequents this area who doesn’t know her. Very friendly.”

“And she’s never been closed?”

His smile faded, the worry lines reappearing on his forehead. “Up until the other day, no. She used to be there, cooking up a storm, until ten or eleven at night, most nights. Then, suddenly, she’s closed for two days straight during one of her busiest times of the year, and her assistant, Merrill, hasn’t been able to reach her.”

Uneasiness knotted in Chelsea’s stomach. So far, George Tzou’s words provided nothing except more questions, prime of which was, where was Linda Travis?

“Do you know where Ms. Travis lives?”

He pointed toward a nondescript door nestled between the two storefronts. “She lives in an apartment above the store.”

“She owns the building?”

He nodded. “Yes. She has two tenants in her building, besides myself.”

“And no one’s seen her coming or going?”

“No.” He sighed. “When Merrill first came to me, I spoke with both other tenants. They live on the third floor, so it didn’t surprise me when they both said they hadn’t seen her, but Sheryl Turner, one of the tenants, said she called down to Linda about her kitchen sink not working, and Linda never called her back or went up. Highly unusual.”

“And her car?”

“Blue van. It’s parked around back.”

Chelsea frowned. There was most definitely something wrong here. “Didn’t anyone call the police?”

He nodded. “Merrill did. Twice. They said they didn’t have any reason to believe she hadn’t left on her own, since she’d still been working, with the store’s door locked, when I went up Wednesday night.”

The eerie tingling at the base of Chelsea’s neck grew. “Do you have a key to her apartment?”

He nodded. “Linda left a key, in case she accidentally locked herself out.” He smiled. “She’s always losing her keys. Bad habit for a landlady.”

“May I borrow it, please? I’d like to make sure she’s all right.”

He studied her for a long moment, and then nodded. “If I may accompany you, yes.”

Chelsea nodded her agreement, but cautioned, “Just don’t touch anything, no matter what we find.”

As George returned to his store to get Linda’s spare key, Chelsea studied the building with a critical eye. Three windows on the second floor stood open, letting in the summer breeze, but no noise drifted out from them. Dead silence settled over the building, and caused Chelsea’s taut nerves to pull tighter. Suddenly, she wished Sally was with her. Her sister was a trained Private Investigator, a former bomb squad dynamo who could usually tell at a glance what was wrong with a scene.

Chelsea paced restlessly, cursing her bad luck. Without Linda Travis, Marlene’s alibi fell apart on the spot. It wasn’t enough Marlene left the morning of Dominic’s death — she was angry, and they’d argued. That gave her motive. The murder weapon was one of Marlene’s kitchen knives, which gave her means. Without Linda’s testimony, it wouldn’t be hard for Blakely to establish opportunity, either.

Damn it.

George returned with the keys, and Chelsea followed him silently as they climbed the stairs to Linda’s apartment. Inside, Chelsea stopped dead as she heard George swear softly. Her eyes wide in dismay, Chelsea took in the disaster inside Linda Travis’ apartment, before turning to look at the man beside her.

“Tell me she’s a messy housekeeper.”

He shook his head. “Not Linda. She’s a very orderly person, very neat. Has,” he swallowed hard, “do you think she’s been robbed?”

Chelsea glanced over the contents of the room, before shaking her head. “Not unless the robber was looking for something specific. Her TV, stereo, and antiques are still here, and I’m betting her jewelry’s right where she left it, too.”

His dark eyes widened in fear. “Then what do you suppose–?”

Chelsea frowned, feeling her case crumbling beneath her feet. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.

“Mr. Tzou, would you please call the police and report the break-in, and remind them Ms. Travis is still missing. I think she might be in danger.” And any hope of saving Marlene along with her. Chelsea scowled. Whoever did this, whoever killed Dominic Cavarella, would pay. She wouldn’t rest until she proved Marlene’s innocence once and for all.

*****

If there was one part of his job Justin hated more than any other, it was dealing with the press. Sure, he could have left that to Talbot and the other investigators on the case, and for the most part, he had. Appealing to the public, however, could get them badly needed witnesses, so he did his face time with the cameras. He even spoke to the witness and EMTs, and all responding officers to the scene.

With Chelsea Hanover sitting opposing counsel, he wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Bad enough she got under his skin, and he was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the fascinating paradox of a woman so driven she sent most of the District Attorney’s office fleeing for their lives at the mention of her name, but whose nervous demeanor and frightened eyes gave her the look of a cornered doe in the middle of hunting season.

Her obsessive dedication to this case rattled him. Chelsea Hanover didn’t defend anyone whose innocence she didn’t believe in. That she took on Marlene as a client left him questioning whether or not this case was the slam dunk it appeared to be when it first landed on his desk two weeks ago. Her staunch defense of Marlene Cavarella, from the very beginning, left him with one indisputable fact — if he didn’t do his due diligence and speak with everyone involved with the case directly, this case could blow up in his face, later. And if there was anything he hated worse than talking to the press, it was a case imploding at trial.

Justin grimaced, and tossed his suit jacket over the back of a chair as he rounded his desk and dropped into his own chair, already logging into his computer as he did. The witness interview with the victim’s daughter, Tracy, netted him a story he questioned, and the First Responders hadn’t provided him anything he didn’t already know about the scene — he hadn’t expected they would — but it did give him an idea or two where to start in getting a confession out of Marlene Cavarella.

His desk phone rang, and Justin snagged it, even as he scrolled through e-mails from the lab and investigators. “Blakely.”

“She’s back. Again.” Talbot grunted out the last word, his annoyance clear. “She’s demanding access to the physical evidence. What do I tell her?”

Justin’s lips twitched, and he wasn’t even sure if he was annoyed or impressed, himself. One thing for sure — Chelsea Hanover wasn’t just stubborn. She was a bulldog, when she was on a case. And she was getting on Talbot’s last nerve, apparently.

A wry grin tugging up his lips, he answered Talbot, even as he opened an e-mail from the lab. “Direct her my way. Tell her to direct all of her inquiries to my office. I’ll handle it.”

Talbot grunted again, and Justin thought he heard the man mumble something that sounded like “Good luck,” before the line cut off, and a dial tone filled his ear, instead.

Hanging up the phone, Justin focused on the e-mail from Penny James. A single line of text read Come to the lab. We need to talk.

Justin’s gut clenched. What did Penny find? Normally, she just e-mailed him the result forms, for his file, and left him to call her if he had any questions. Getting summoned to the lab was rare, and only rarely good news.

Scrubbing his hand over his face, Justin levered himself back out of his seat and, with a heavy sigh, bypassed the chair where his suit jacket still hung, and headed for the lab, tugging loose his tie as he went. God, he hoped Penny had good news to tell him.

 

Five minutes later, Justin stopped in the doorway of Forensic Technician Penny James’ lab and leaned one shoulder against the door frame.

“Tell me you have something good.”

He knew better than to cross the threshold without permission. The sixty-two-year-old grandmother of four scolded him like one of her grandkids a number of times when he was a rookie prosecutor about cross-contamination and improper attire for the lab.

Now, she glanced up at him over the rims of her glasses, her brown eyes twinkling in welcome. “Depends on what you consider ‘something good,’ young man.”

“At the moment, I’ll take whatever you’ve got.” Normally, he enjoyed matching wits with Penny. She had a brilliant mind, and a sharp sense of humor. He knew she and his Uncle Mic went way back, but he never dared ask how far, or how close.

Today, however, with Chelsea’s assertions of her client’s innocence ringing in his ears, he was just too weary, and too worried, to muster up the fortitude for one of Penny’s brain teasers.

“You’re sure in a mood, today.” She tsked beneath her breath and turned toward her desk, flipping through the files neatly stashed in the drawer there. “Case got you on edge?”

He opened his mouth to agree, but the words wouldn’t come out, as Chelsea’s thunderous green eyes seared through his mind, again. No, he was pretty sure the source of his mood wore a skirt and blazer that looked more second-hand than high-end. His breath caught at the memory of her slim form — the woman really needed to eat more — severely controlled red hair, and flashing green eyes… and he didn’t want to let his mind wander that way. No matter what he wanted, for years now, Chelsea Hanover wasn’t going to ever give in. She might look like sex up and walking, but she made it pointedly clear she considered him somewhere beneath pond scum on the evolutionary chain.

“I just need to know if this case is going to fall apart on me, Penny.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know anything about that. All I can tell you is, at the moment, the evidence is confusing.”

His own lips turned down. “How do you mean?”

“The autopsy report says the victim wasn’t a smoker. Are any of your suspects?”

Since he only had one, and there was no indication Marlene Cavarella smoked, he shook his head. “No. Why?”

“Because the swabs taken at the scene turned up a trace of tar and nicotiana tabacum around the wounds. The same trace turned up on the swabs we took here in the lab, off the knife.”

“Tobacco?” Justin didn’t like the sound of that. It hinted there might be another suspect. Tension stirred in his gut. Could Chelsea be right?

He didn’t want to believe it. Not yet. There was still far too much evidence against Marlene that couldn’t be explained away. “That’s it?”

She glanced over at him, looking over the tops of her glasses. “That’s significant, young man.”

“But not conclusive.”

She shook her head. “Not one way or another, no.”

“So, basically what you’re telling me is that, even though the prime suspect was found next to the victim, covered in blood, and with the murder weapon in her hand, none of the evidence you found conclusively proves she committed the crime.”

Peggy lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I know it’s baffling, but the evidence doesn’t lie, young man, and aside from fingerprints that appear to have been deposited on the weapon after it was used to stab your victim, there’s no physical evidence to prove Mrs. Cavarella committed this crime. Even the blood on her clothes and skin are more consistent with after-death transfer. I went over her clothes three times, and couldn’t find a single cast-off pattern. I don’t have to tell you that with a stabbing this brutal, the perpetrator should have been covered with spatter from the attack.”

Justin rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. “You realize I have to turn all this over to the defense, right? Hanover’s going to have a field day with this.”

Peggy’s lips twitched. “And if that’s the part of all this that’s got you worried, young man, we have bigger problems than this case.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I’m more concerned about what we did find than what we didn’t. None of it matches the alleged attacker, and if she’s not the killer…”

“Then we still have a brutal murderer out there, running free.” The idea was sobering, but he really didn’t see how the murderer could be anyone but Marlene Cavarella.

“I’m still waiting on DNA results from swabs taken of the blood on the knife,” Penny offered. “That should give us something definitive.”

“Because killers who stab often end up cutting themselves as well,” Justin concluded.

“Right. And I’ve sent some of the samples to a colleague at the Bunker, down in Haitsburg. He’s a brilliant trace evidence expert, and I’m waiting to see if he comes to the same conclusions I did, before I release the results.”

Justin frowned. As a rule, he didn’t like forensics being farmed out to other labs. “Why? I trust your results, Penny.”

“Given the samples, I’ll feel more comfortable with my results if they’re corroborated by an outside source. It’s the trace we found in the blood sampled from the print on the phone, and the unknown footprint found beside the body. That trace wasn’t found anywhere else at the scene.”

Justin sighed heavily, and tugged at his already-loosened tie, unbuttoning the top button of his dress shirt. Nausea gripped him, and he wondered if he was in for a strike two against Hanover.

“All right. Send me the results when you get them. And, if you wouldn’t mind, could you copy Chelsea Hanover, at Marshall, Bateman, and Powell, as well?”

Penny cast him a curious glance, but nodded without further comment, turning back to her task. Leaving the lab behind, Justin headed back out onto the night-draped streets, turning up Forbes Avenue toward the Courthouse, and his office. He had no idea where the evidence would end up leading, now, but he just had to keep his attention on finding justice. The rest would take care of itself.

 

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 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

 

 

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 2

Chapter Two

Friday, June 4
 9:30 AM

 

“I’m telling you, I didn’t kill my husband!”

Justin Blakely, Allegheny County Executive Assistant District Attorney, traded skeptical glances with Detective George Talbot, and anger slashed through him. He was less convinced of Marlene Cavarella’s innocence, if that was possible, than he had been when she was booked yesterday afternoon.

“Mrs. Cavarella,” he cut her off as he rose from his seat to pace about the room, “you were found with the murder weapon and the body, covered in your husband’s blood. Do you really expect us to believe you had nothing to do with what happened to him?”

Huge blue eyes filled with tears, and a dark head Justin was certain came straight from a bottle dropped into her hands as she sobbed brokenly. Marlene Cavarella was one hell of an actress, he acknowledged sourly, but all the tears in the world weren’t going to sway him.

“Oh, cut it out!” He slapped his hands down on the metal table. She jumped, her eyes wide in fear. Justin frowned. What the hell? “The waterworks aren’t helping your case, lady.”

“Find Officer Martin Kopinski,” she implored Talbot, turning her broken gaze on the veteran detective. “He’ll tell you. I’d never k-kill my hus…band.”

A low curse of frustration left Justin and he plowed one hand through his hair as she started sobbing again. He was just about to launch into a full-blown tirade when an icy voice broke in.

“Well, I guess some things never change. Still resorting to scare tactics, Counselor?”

Justin’s glare snapped to the doorway. He froze as he locked gazes with the new arrival, those electric-blue eyes like a sucker punch to the chest, knocking the wind from him. Her!

She was slim, but curvy, encased in a conservative powder-gray business suit and spectator pumps that still managed to show off enough of her long, shapely legs he was sure that outfit should be illegal. Coppery hair fell in a riot of curls over her shoulders, and one fine-boned hand clutched a dark leather briefcase so tightly he was surprised it didn’t shake with the strain.

But her eyes were what held Justin spellbound. They were eyes he fantasized about since the Fairman trial, two years ago. He never expected to see them, or her, again. Especially not like this. Lightning blue, and currently glaring back at him as if he was the most vile creature on Earth.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he snapped, scowling to cover his runaway pulse.

Her answering laugh was mocking.

“Why doesn’t it surprise me you’ve already forgotten I’m a defense attorney, Mr. Blakely? Naturally you’d want to forget about Chad Fairman, and the one smudge on your spotless record, wouldn’t you?” She snorted derisively. “Of course, you tried this very same tactic on that poor kid, whose only crime was running away from an abusive parent.”

He stared at her, thunderstruck by the suffusion of passionate rage on her classically beautiful features. He could have argued, turned her words back on her. He could have admitted he’d been unable to forget the Fairman case, unable to forget her, for all the trying he’d done in the past two years. Damn, but she was beautiful when she was furious. Even as the thought crossed his mind, a sharp retort sprang defensively to his lips.

“Well, if it isn’t the crusading Counselor Hanover. What brings you to the lock-up? Finally get arrested for contempt of court?”

 

Chelsea watched the smug little smile tug at Blakely’s lips, and the anger she held under tight control since walking in to find him bullying her client erupted.

“I’m Marlene Cavarella’s attorney.” Her glare raked over both men like striking lightning. “You gentlemen should have waited for me. Mrs. Cavarella isn’t required to answer a single question without legal counsel present, and you,” she fixed her scathing gaze on Justin’s bland expression, “should have known better than to badger my client. Or are you Blakelys all above the law you cherish so damned much?”

Justin snapped upright, contempt flaring in his green eyes at her accusation. He glared at her for a long moment, and then bit out a sharp bark of laughter, startling the bewildered-looking woman seated at the table.

“I was not, as you so eloquently put it, ‘badgering’ your client, Hanover. Detective Talbot and I were merely–”

“Trying to intimidate a confession out of an obviously-distraught woman,” Chelsea snapped, her tone dripping disdain, and watched Talbot shift as if his seat was uncomfortable. Triumph flared in her as she turned back to Justin. “Or am I misreading the detective’s squirming?”

“Now, wait just one damn minute,” Blakely protested, before his expression went as cold as she felt. “Can I speak to you?”

She raised a brow. She had to maintain the upper hand, here, if she had any chance of surviving this ordeal without some kind of break down. Her heart was already beating too fast. “Sounds like that’s what you’re already doing.”

Those intense eyes narrowed. Uh-oh. She already knew from the Fairman trial it was a bad sign when his gaze went intense like that. “Outside, Counselor.”

Chelsea debated the wisdom of following his request. One glance at her client told her Marlene Cavarella couldn’t handle the argument sure to come. Meeting Blakely’s gaze again, she nodded, and turned toward the door. Shock plunged through her as he grasped her arm, and she tried to jerk away. His grip tightened ever so slightly, and she gritted her teeth, knowing she couldn’t react without creating a scene. Once they were outside the door, however, he was a dead man.

 

Even before the door finished closing, Chelsea glared frostily up at him and demanded, “Remove your hand this instant, Counselor.”

God, but she was a beauty, Justin thought as he studied her flashing eyes. Too bad she was more mercurial than a damned thermometer. Irritated with himself for his fascination, Justin couldn’t resist a taunting, “Or what?”

“Or I will remove it, and you, permanently,” she retorted with a sharp yank of her arm.

Justin tightened his grip, but eased up when she winced in pain. “That sounds dangerously like the textbook definition of a terroristic threat, Hanover.”

“And you’re treading perilously close to assault,” she shot back, her gaze going pointedly to his hand on her arm. “Not that I’m surprised.”

A dangerous smile curved on his lips as an idea for putting her off-balance, while satisfying his raging curiosity, came to him. “In that case…”

Before Chelsea had time to realize what he was up to, he dragged her against himself and smothered her angry protest in a kiss damned close to incendiary, he decided as he drank in the sweet taste of her lips. She brought her hands up, and for an instant, he thought she’d save them both, and push him away. Instead, those hands ended up clenched in the lapels of his black suit jacket, as a soft sigh betrayed her.

Justin was shell-shocked. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her for nearly two years, fantasizing over what she’d taste like. None of his fantasies ever came close to the reality in his arms now, her mouth fused to his and her body plastered against him in a passionate response that knocked his experienced socks off. She tasted fresh and new, like a field of wildflowers after a summer storm, and her scent was apples and roses, surprisingly soft and innocent for such a driven woman.

Because he wanted to tear off those all-business clothes of hers and see if she was as soft and hot underneath as she was hard and cool in the courtroom, he took a mental step back, and pulled away from her. The dazed expression on her face made him chuckle, happy to have rattled her.

“So, Counselor, still think you can make those charges stick?”

He knew he was baiting her. He also knew Chelsea wouldn’t disappoint — she had too much passion buttoned up tight inside that prim little suit coat to not rise to the fight. Even as the words left his mouth, he watched ice-cold fury slice away the haze in Chelsea’s eyes. He tried to let her go; he really should. But the warmth of her, and the soft texture of cloth and warm female body conspired against him, and his hands refused to release her. With a gasp of outrage, she took the choice away from him, yanking away. Her palm connected with his face hard enough to burn.

“If you have anything to discuss with me or my client in the future, save it for the courtroom.”

With that, Chelsea spun on her heel and marched back into the interrogation room. As he watched her go, Justin realized he just made the biggest tactical mistake of his entire career.

Staring after Chelsea, Justin wondered what it would be like to actually get to know her. He’d seen her in court — the cool, imperious beauty whose faith in her clients’ innocence was unshakable, and far too often right. Her flashing eyes and sexy lips hinted at a woman hell-bent on mischief lurking somewhere under all that conviction. The passionate way she returned his kiss…

He wondered what other fascinating secrets she hid behind that all-business exterior of hers. One thing was for certain. Keeping up with her was going to be exhausting — just keeping a step ahead of her mercurial moods would require superhuman strength. How could one woman be so perfectly poised, and so supremely irritating at the same time?

She accused him of bullying the prisoner. Him. Had any other attorney leveled the accusation at him, he’d laugh it off, aware his pristine reputation for adhering to the letter of the law was in no danger. But something about Chelsea Hanover made it impossible to find the notion amusing. Her earnestness and complete lack of guile were an oddity in the business of criminal defense.

He witnessed, firsthand, how those same qualities served her in the courtroom. The results were staggering. Chelsea believed in her client’s innocence, and her unwavering faith spoke volumes to a jury. No matter the evidence, in the end Chelsea poked holes in the prosecution’s theories.

Grudgingly, he admitted she was right about Chad Fairman. The poor kid was set up from the beginning, and only Chelsea believed him, until she gave the most brilliant cross-examination Justin ever saw, and brought Chad’s abusive father to a tearful confession, right there on the stand.

That was when the fantasy began, Justin acknowledged, swallowing hard as he clamped down on his libido. From the moment Chelsea turned from the stand with that blazing look of triumph on her face, he was lost. He couldn’t admit just how much he wanted her, and nor could he approach her. They occupied different worlds, which only crossed at points like this one, leaving them no room to be anything more than adversaries.

Not this time, he decided fiercely as he reached for the door handle. He wouldn’t let her slip away on him again. He didn’t see belief in her eyes when she stormed into Interrogation, and he noticed the slight hesitance in her voice when she proclaimed herself Marlene Cavarella’s attorney. She wasn’t convinced of the woman’s innocence, either, and he planned to use her doubt.

As he opened the door, Justin suppressed a grin at the cool ultimatum Chelsea was in the process of issuing to a haggard-looking Talbot.

“–I will not allow my client to speak with you until then, Detective, so you might as well accept it. I want to speak with her now, before she answers another of your questions.”

“Ms. Hanover, please,” Talbot calmly tried to head off the storm. “It’s police procedure. We–”

“The Miranda Warning specifically states she isn’t required to answer a single question without legal consultation,” Chelsea brushed his explanation off, her back ramrod straight. It was obvious she was taking out her anger at him on Talbot.

“She’s right,” Justin broke in as Talbot opened his mouth in protest. “Mrs. Cavarella has both the right to silence and to an attorney. We’ve got lots of time. We can let her confer with her lawyer first.”

Chelsea turned, eyes wide in surprise for an instant, before she recovered. Her surprise bothered him. Did she think he would violate the law just to win? The mere idea she might was insulting. He was very aware of the law, and he wasn’t about to prove her earlier accusation right. The triumph on Chelsea’s face as she gave him a curt nod, then turned her glare back to Talbot, fascinated him. Just what was she trying to prove?

“If you gentlemen will excuse us, my client and I have some talking to do.”

Talbot rose from his seat and left, but not without a wary glance at the prisoner. Justin, taking a step toward Chelsea, leaned to murmur in her ear, “I’ll concede this battle, Counselor, but choose your future battles carefully, because I intend to win the war.”

With that, he turned and followed Talbot out of the room. But not before he caught the flicker of relief on Marlene Cavarella’s haunted face.

*****

Now, just what in God’s name was that all about? Chelsea wondered as she turned to frown at the closed door. Blakely made it sound like he was doing her a favor, rather than following a well-established principle of law. Weary, she decided she most likely didn’t want to know. Turning back to Marlene, she gave the other woman a brief smile.

“I’m sorry you had to be put through that display, Mrs. Cavarella. I’m sure you’re under enough pressure without having to deal with any unnecessary stress. My name is Chelsea Hanover. I was told you requested my services yesterday evening.”

The petite, pretty woman at the table nodded miserably. “Nick always said you were the best. He told me to call you if anything ever… if I needed… if…”

Every ounce of strength seemed to desert the tiny woman, and her calm poise of a moment ago evaporated. Burying her face in her trembling hands, she sobbed uncontrollably; great, heaving sobs that looked enough to tear her apart. Compassion flooded Chelsea, and she moved to sit beside Marlene, placing a comforting hand on the older woman’s shoulder.

Marlene Cavarella didn’t look like a murderer, or like she’d ever have been able to hold down and stab her six-foot-four-inch, two hundred-fifty pound husband. She was tiny, like a fragile china doll, and Chelsea doubted she weighed more than a hundred pounds. If the murder happened as the police report laid it out, then Marlene would have to have been acting in an emotional frenzy, which meant she was provoked.

Reaching into her briefcase, Chelsea drew out her digital recorder and a notepad and pen. Turning on the recorder, she gently rubbed the sobbing woman’s shoulder. “Tell me what happened.”

Marlene nodded, making a valiant effort to pull herself together, but her lips continued to tremble as she haltingly began. “My husband and I had a fight yesterday morning.”

Chelsea started, surprised. Was she hearing the beginnings of a murder confession? Please, God, don’t let it be!

“It was such a stupid fight. I don’t even know why we were arguing.” She looked up at Chelsea with weary blue eyes. “All we seem to do, anymore, is argue.”

“What did you argue about?”

A bitter laugh answered her. “Anything and everything. The kids. Work. Some woman he’s been seeing on the sly.” She shrugged helplessly. “Everything was falling apart. Nick was always working, Tim was in trouble constantly, and neither one of them would listen to me. So when Nick made a comment about having to work late last night, I guess I just lost it. I demanded he stop lying to me and just admit he’s been seeing some woman from the studio. He denied it, yelled at me about doubting him. I don’t know what else was said. We just screamed at each other.”

“And then what?” Chelsea prompted, her stomach knotted in dread.

“And then I left.” Marlene shrugged.

Chelsea blinked, hard. “You left?”

The older woman nodded. “I just picked up my coat and purse and walked out the door. I was afraid he might hit me if I stayed, with the mood he was in.”

Chelsea sucked in a sharp breath. “He hit you? Before, I mean?”

A half-shrug answered her.

“Marlene,” Chelsea pressed her fingers against the other woman’s shoulder, “you have to tell me. If he hit you anytime, it’s important I know.”

“Yes.” The word came out faint, barely more than a whispered breath. “He didn’t use to, but over the past year, Nick’s been… different. Tense and easily upset — moody all the time. He never talks anymore, unless we argue.” She sucked in a pained breath, fighting tears. “I was afraid of him, but he made me so angry, too. I had to leave.”

Chelsea nodded. “Where did you go?”

“To a friend’s house.”

“Can you give me a name?”

“Linda. Linda Travis. She owns Travis Catering. She’s my best friend.”

Chelsea allowed herself a small smile. At least she would have an easy time verifying part of Marlene’s story. “What did you do at Linda’s?”

“Talked. I told her about the trouble Nick and I have been having. Then we went shopping. I bought a…” she stopped, color flooding her cheeks, before she continued in a whisper, “I bought a new nightgown. I thought, maybe Nick would like it… you know… maybe we could get our marriage back on track.”

Chelsea smiled, vindicated. A woman who couldn’t hide her embarrassment over buying sexy lingerie would never be able to hide her mortification over committing murder. “That sounds like a good idea to me.”

Marlene gave her a teary smile. “That’s what Linda said, too.”

“What time did you return home?”

Marlene smiled again. “It was just shortly before two in the afternoon. I remember because I was thinking the kids wouldn’t be home for nearly an hour, when I saw Nick’s car in the driveway. I thought, maybe he’d come home to apologize, hoping I’d be there.”

“And then what?”

Marlene swallowed hard, her cobalt eyes going wide in horrified memory. “I walked into the living room, and… and…” Her lips trembled, and her face went ashen as her hands started to shake violently. “There was Nick, laying on the floor, with his chest all bloody, and one of my best kitchen knives sticking out of his chest.”

Chelsea reached out, placing her hands comfortingly over Marlene’s. “I know it’s hard to talk about, but I need to know everything that happened, exactly as it happened.”

Marlene swallowed again, fighting for composure, and steadily losing as her eyes became huge and haunted.

“I… I didn’t know what to do,” she whispered. “I ran to him, screaming his name. He opened his eyes… looked right at me, and said…” she stopped, looking away for a moment. “I don’t remember what he said. I was too busy trying to stop the bleeding. I thought, maybe… I thought if I took the knife out of his chest, he’d be able to breathe easier.”

Chelsea’s breath caught. Could the explanation be so easy? “Go on.”

“When… when I pulled it out, Nick started gagging… turning purple. I panicked. I kept trying to stop the bleeding, pressing on his chest with my hands. But…” her huge blue eyes lifted to Chelsea’s face, imploring. “The blood made me dizzy, the smell, I guess. I don’t remember anything after that, except Tracy screaming.”

“Tracy’s your daughter?” Chelsea already knew the answer; she’d studied everything in the file she’d wrangled out of research before leaving the office last evening. The Cavarellas had two children – twins. Timothy and Tracy both just turned sixteen.

Marlene nodded, a small smile flitting over her lips. “Yes.”

“What time was it, when you woke up? Do you remember at all?”

Marlene nodded timidly. “It was five o’clock. Time to make Nick’s dinner. He always eats at six, on the dot. I remember I looked at the clock, and thought I better start dinner, or he’d be…” Tears welled in her eyes. “He’d be mad.”

Chelsea sighed. It all sounded so innocent, but there was something strange about the whole picture.

“Did you call nine-one-one?”

“I…” Marlene’s gaze faltered. “No. It never occurred to me.”

Her ashen features as she admitted to that one small error convinced Chelsea Marlene was telling the truth. She was innocent. A woman who looked that guilty for not calling an ambulance and went so irrational as to be worried about cooking a dead man dinner would never be capable of carrying out the bloody kind of execution performed on Dominic Cavarella. With a reassuring smile, Chelsea squeezed Marlene’s hands.

“It’s okay. I’m sure the shock made thinking difficult. Don’t worry; I’m going to help you.”

 

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 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

COTW: BURDEN OF PROOF

Our first Chapter-of-the-Week book is Burden of Proof

The charities benefited by this book are the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and The Rape Foundation.

Thank you to the talented Nikita Gordyn for the beautiful cover art.

This book contains possible triggers for those who are survivors of rape and domestic violence. Chapter specifically involving trigger information will be marked with a trigger warning.

About the book:

When Justice Fails, Can Love Prevail?

Chelsea Hanover prides herself on one undisputed fact; she’s never lost a case. A crack young defense attorney, she takes only cases she believes in, and sticks to her rule of never mixing business with pleasure. Now, Pittsburgh socialite Marlene Cavarella has been arrested in the fatal stabbing of her wealthy husband, Dominic, and Chelsea finds herself thrust into the midst of a murder case set to turn her entire reality inside out. And the only man who might save her is a man she doesn’t want to trust, or to love.

Burden of Proof Final

If you, or someone you love, has been the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault,  please know you are not alone.  Domestic violence and sexual assault crimes are the  largest number of unreported crimes in the US and Europe. Break the silence, and help take back the night.  For help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or  RAINN at 1-800-656-4673. 

Get involved, and help take violence out of our homes, and rapists off the streets. Contact  your local shelters and domestic crisis organizations.  Together, we all make a difference.

“In Morning’s Light” — Excerpt from BURDEN OF PROOF

Burden of Proof Final

HE WANTED JUSTICE,

BUT AT WHAT COST?

Assistant District Attorney Justin Blakely believes only in the letter of the law. When asked to prosecute a dangerous woman accused of killing her husband with sixty-four stab wounds to the chest, he sees only a butcher who should be locked away for her depraved act. But when he comes up against the woman’s driven, feisty attorney, he knows Chelsea Hanover has the power to change his mind. And, as he realizes her aim is truth rather than law, he can do nothing but respect her integrity. Knowing she’s stumbling into trouble, he’ll do anything to save her from herself, even if the casualty of his crusade is the law in which he believes

“In Morning’s Light” — Excerpt from BURDEN OF PROOF —

Justin blinked awake to the feel of warm fingers on his face. Opening burning eyes, he looked up to see Chelsea sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, fully clothed, with her right arm in a sling. The fingers of her good hand traced his stubbly cheek again, as a soft smile touched her face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look disreputable, before.” The soft lilt of teasing in her husky voice twisted his heart in the best way. She frowned, then. “I think I remember talking to you, last night. Have you been here all night?”

He sat up straighter, stifling a yawn as he glanced at his watch. Six-thirty. “Yeah, you did. And yes, I have.”

Her frown deepened, confusion and fear written in its lines. “You’ve been here every night when I go to sleep, and every morning when I wake up. Why?”

He tensed in surprise. He hadn’t expected to be cross-examined about his motives.

“Because I l–” He stopped, sucking in the words he was about to say. She wasn’t ready to hear how he felt. Not yet.

“Because I promised you I’d stay,” he answered instead, his voice husky with sleep and emotion. “The doctor says you have nightmares when I’m not here. I promised you I’d be here for you, and so…”

He managed an awkward shrug. He couldn’t tell her how important helping her was to him.

She shook her head slowly, as if having trouble thinking. With the amount of blunt force trauma she took to the head, he wasn’t surprised. Fresh anger shot through him, and he squeezed her good hand gently.

“You still haven’t told me what happened.” Her worried gaze searched his.

“Don’t you remember?”

“I… I think so. I just don’t know what’s real, and what’s a nightmare.” She pressed slim fingers to her forehead, eyes squeezed shut in effort. “I remember coming to your office. Talking. We were trying to reach a deal on Marlene’s case.”

He nodded, silently encouraging her to continue. The doctor told him to let her recall things at her own pace. Telling her what happened would force her to face the attack before her psyche was ready, and could be even more damaging.

“We had to go see the D.A. I remember that. And seeing–“

She cut off sharply, sucking in a shaky breath.

He straightened, alerted by her response. “Chelsea? What do you remember?”

She shook her head. “Running. I had to get away. I,” she stopped, thought. “I went home. I needed to hide.”

“From what? From who?”

“From… from everything! From him!”

Look for BURDEN OF PROOF, coming soon from Esther Mitchell and FyrRose Productions!

“Confronting the Past” – Excerpt from BETWEEN WORLDS (Project Prometheus)

Project Prometheus BadgeThere are levels to this book even I haven’t fully grasped, yet (mainly because I’m still writing it). It takes quite a bit of detail juggling, as it ties the starter set of Project Prometheus together. But mostly, it’s the details of these two people, and the complicated, interwoven past they share.

From the outside, these two might seem uncomplicated, but there are so many layers to each of them, I’m almost certain we’re going to see them, again, during the course of this series.

“Confronting the Past” – Excerpt from BETWEEN WORLDS (Project Prometheus, Book #5)

She had no reason to be here. He said he didn’t want to see her. She shouldn’t be here. Delila glanced nervously over her shoulder at the sensation of eyes on her back, even as she inched closer to the hanger door. Hell, she wasn’t supposed to have even been behind the wheel of the jeep. But she couldn’t let Jim leave. Not like this. Not with their argument hanging between them.

The sense of eyes on her grew stronger, and her heart beat like a hummingbird trapped in her throat. Who was out there? She shifted her shoulders uneasily, and nearly screamed when large, hard hands closed over her arms from behind. She nearly wilted at the voice that growled against her ear.

“How the hell did you get here?”

She opened her mouth to tell him, but he cut her off with a gruff, “Scratch that. I don’t care how you got here.”

He spun her around to face him, and Delila swallowed hard as she stared up into Jim Walker’s scowling face and angry green eyes. “What do you want, Delila?”

She stiffened at his snarled demand. This wasn’t the gentle man she knew. This man was beyond angry. But that anger only stiffened her spine more, and she glared back at him.

“I came to apologize.”

The thunderstruck expression on his face nearly made her smile. The anger faded from his eyes, replaced with surprise. “Apologize?”

She nodded, and dropped her gaze from his face. She had to do this. She knew their argument was more her fault than his. But her pride took a beating beneath that knowledge, and his suddenly kind regard. She cleared her throat.

“I didn’t mean to lead you on. I know you thought I was…offering…”

“Shh.” The gentle touch of Jim’s fingertips to her lips startled Delila, and jerked her head up to him. And the soft light in his green eyes twisted her chest and yanked seldom-loosed tears from her eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for, sweetheart.”

“But I… I…”

“You said no.”

She nodded miserably.

He sighed, and his hands dropped to her shoulders, rubbing gently. “Delila. Look at me.”

She glanced up, met his gaze. The serious light in his eyes grabbed hold of her heart and wouldn’t let go.

“You said no.”

“I… I’m sorry.”

“Damn it!” He exploded, releasing her to stalk away. She cringed as he whirled around, his expression intense. “You have the right to say no, Delila. Never apologize for it.”

She hunched her shoulders and mumbled to herself. It hadn’t mattered to John if she said no.

He froze, and the air between them crackled with tension. “What did you say?”

She flinched. She didn’t want to tell him. “Nothing.”

“Delila.” His voice was so gentle as he approached her again that Delila blinked away her tears. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”

She winced, but met his gaze again. “I said, it never mattered before.”

He sucked in a breath, and she watched a new anger kindle in his eyes, but this time, she knew he wasn’t angry at her.

“Who?” He gripped her shoulders again, giving her a tiny shake. “Who hurt you?”