I’m so excited about the release of my newest book – a poignant clean romance that was a 4-tissue story for me!
Enjoy chapter 1 and be sure to order the full novel on Amazon (available both in print and e-book). Oh/, and don’t miss out on a free copy of COUNTER POINT today only! 1/16/18
Her future wasn’t the only thing at stake.
Annalee Chambers slipped into the bare consultation room with her mother, father, and attorney. Reporters filled the hallway and shouted questions as the door closed.
She tugged at a stray blond curl the August breeze had pulled from her hair clip and sank into the wooden chair. If only invisibility were possible—a desire initiated when they’d arrived at the Frank Crowley Court Buildings, and cameras started flashing.
Leaning against the high back of the seat, she stared at a ceiling fan making a slow rotation. For a solid minute, she matched her breathing to the fan’s rhythm.
“The judge has to toss away this whole fabrication.” Her mother paced the same path as the shadows from the circling blades. “Can’t she identify the real victim in this case?”
Annalee bristled at the insinuation. “Mr. Madison was the victim. He and his family are the ones impacted by the accident.” Accident. She hadn’t even realized she’d hit anyone.
“It’s clear the district attorney is only trying to hurt my campaign.” Father lifted a slat from the blinds hanging over the only window in the room. The sunlight made him squint. “He’s been a fan of Mayor Ellis since the beginning. Now, since I’m a real threat, he’s doing everything he can to make me look bad.”
And Annalee had aided in the destruction of her father’s mayoral campaign when she traveled to club-row to pick up her tipsy friend.
“We don’t have too much time to plan this defense.” Mr. Walbright bent his balding head over his briefcase. He unearthed a stack of legal-sized documents and came up for air.
She caught her father’s disgusted glance. Poor Walbright. He probably hoped that his representing Annalee would pave the way for him to work at her father’s firm, but his lack of organization and planning for this case destroyed that dream in its infancy.
The man thumbed through the stack until his forehead relaxed, and he pulled a page from the chaos. “As I understand the events of the night, the officers didn’t actually see you driving the car. Is that correct, Miss Chambers?”
“Yes, but what does it matter?”
“That is the whole point. Can’t you see?” Mother took another lap around the room. “There are no witnesses. Not even Mr. Madison saw your face because you had something white covering it.”
“Giselle’s napkin.” She eyed her Versace bag, tempted to pull out her sketch pad and let this conversation fade from her mind.
“Whatever.” Her mother halted. “If no one can place you in front of the bar, there is no case.”
“But her car was at the scene.” Mr. Walbright pointed to another report he’d extracted from the mess. “Circumstantial, yet it does place her at the accident.”
“Except she wasn’t in her car when the police joined her in the parking lot.” Her father swung around, his blue eyes bright under his tawny hair. “She was helping her friend get in the backseat.”
Friend. A Strange term to use for Giselle. The woman claimed she remembered nothing of her trip home—not blocking Annalee’s view or hysterical giggling or even slamming her foot on the gas pedal. And she hadn’t so much as called to wish Annalee luck in court.
“If only you hadn’t gone to that club.” Mother stared at the ceiling.
“I told Giselle to call me. She needed a safe trip home.” And the ride would have been safe if her friend had stayed on the passenger side of Annalee’s Mustang. The moment she crawled across the seat, Annalee should have pulled over.
“I assume she didn’t appreciate having to sober up at the jail.”
Better than being in the hospital if she’d attempted to drive herself home. Annalee focused on the heavy table in front of her. What unpronounceable combination of elements made up the super industrial-strength material? And where could she get some to help her through this next hour?
Sharp heel clicks resounded in the hallway. The low rumble of voices gave way to a few raised ones, maybe questions being shouted but not distinguishable. The door opened. Annalee shielded her eyes against camera flashes. Several of the reporters called out, but she ignored them.
Her tall, elegant sister shut the door and tugged sunglasses from her face. “The people are crazy out there.” As a well-known model, Ramona Chambers knew what crazy looked like.
“Another reason why the judge will throw this whole thing out.” Her mother stood as tall as her daughter, though her hair was short-cut and silvery instead of the perfect long waves that Ramona enjoyed.
Annalee examined her French manicure against the smooth gray of the sturdy table. How many fists had pounded on it yet not affected its steady balance? The temptation to do a little pounding crossed her mind, but instead, she refocused on Mother’s comment. “If the judge throws out the case, what will happen to Mr. Madison and his family?”
“You’d better worry about what happens to your father and his campaign if Judge Vaught doesn’t.” Mother withdrew a lipstick from her purse and applied the pinkish tone.
“But the man works two jobs.” She lifted her gaze to the quad. Each of them stared down at her like her nose had gone missing. “His family will be on the streets.”
“Where did you get all of that hogwash?” Her sister pulled the wispy scarf from around her head and tucked it into her bag.
She stood. “It’s not hogwash. The story has been on the news and all over the Internet.”
“Well, you’ve got me there. Must be true.” Ramona chuckled.
“None of that matters, Annalee.” Mr. Walbright packed his things back in his case. “The judge will decide.”
“But if there is a case …” Father stood.
“If Judge Vaught accepts the DA’s charges, which she won’t, I’ll make sure the delays extend well past the election. After November, DA Barrett may lose interest when his man is no longer in office.” Walbright chuckled and led Mother to a back door leading to the courtroom.
Father patted Annalee’s hand. “See, Sunshine? Things are going to be fine.”
Fine? Maybe for her family, but the Madisons would see nothing fine about Mr. Walbright’s scenario.
He ushered her in front of him through the door. She followed her attorney to a small table on one side of a wooden rail while the rest of her family sat behind the divider.
The slender judge climbed to her place as everyone stood. She took her seat in a cascade of black robes.
In this heat? No wonder the woman’s gray-brown bangs stuck to her forehead.
“Be seated.” She proceeded to read the formal case title and all of the details of the accusation. “Defendant, please stand.”
Annalee rose, every eye watching like an audience at an open-heart surgery. She lowered her chin but glanced at the judge. The robed woman there gave her a lingering perusal.
“Straighten up.” Her mother’s whisper brought reality to the situation.
Annalee relaxed her shoulders and lifted her face.
“You stand accused of the crime of Leaving the Scene of an Accident Involving Injuries, a Class A misdemeanor carrying up to one year in county jail, a fine not to exceed $5,000, and restitution to the victim in this case …” The judge flipped a page in her file and continued in a robotic tone. “… a Mr. Robert Madison.”
She hadn’t considered the possibility of jail time. The thought chilled her. Maybe Walbright’s ideas were best after all.
“How do you plea?”
Annalee stole a look at her attorney. Why didn’t he say anything?
“Just say not guilty,” he whispered.
What? She had to talk in front of this whole roomful of people? Wait … she was the one to declare her plea?
A low rumble resonated over the room. The judge tapped her pen against a wood block. “Quiet, please.” She arched her unibrow in Annalee’s direction. “Miss Chambers?” The jerk of her head made her wispy bouffant teeter.
“Guilty.” Annalee’s answer came out in a conversational tone, as though she commented on the weather.
The room erupted with urgent voices. Annalee clamped her jaw tight. Her announcement would have repercussions of storm-like proportions.
Mother exclaimed and leaned over the bar, hissing instructions. Ramona joined her, though slightly more composed. Mr. Walbright called for the judge to give him a few minutes alone with his client. Father stared at his hands on his knees.
Annalee hated betraying him, but the mayoral race wasn’t life or death.
The judge tapped on the block again and raised her voice to gain order. “Mr. Walbright, you just came from a conference with your client. Didn’t you discuss this?”
“No, your honor. I mean yes, but …” He ran his fingers through what little hair decorated his bare scalp. “She’s confused.”
“Are you confused, Miss Chambers?”
Annalee shook her head and lifted her chin higher. “No, I’m not.” She dug her nails into her palms but kept her voice steady and strong.
“She seems coherent to me, Mr. Walbright.” The judge narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you’re the one who’s confused.”
He nodded, adjusting his rimless bifocals. “A minute, please?”
“You have five while I consider the matter.” The judge held up her hand as Walbright shoved Annalee back through the side door and shut it behind him. “What were you thinking, Annalee?” The man mouthed her mother’s words like a ventriloquist dummy.
The thought caught her off guard for a moment, but she clasped her hands in front of her and straightened her shoulders. “I told you I didn’t want the Madison family to bear the financial burden of the accident. Then you and Mother and Father decided their needs didn’t matter.” She turned toward the window.
“So, you took it all on yourself?”
She whirled on him. “Who else should?” If her father’s money was the only valuable thing about her, then at the very least, she could support those poor people.
“But I could have gotten you off. You would have walked away.” He lifted both fists and turned toward the doorway, probably plotting his escape?
“Mr. Madison can’t walk. At least not for a couple of months while he heals.” Surely, Mr. Walbright could tell the difference between winning and stepping on people.
He spun in her direction. “Don’t you realize you can go to jail for this?”
Not until the judge mentioned it, but by then, Annalee had already made her decision. She crossed her arms. “It’s your job to see I don’t. Your magical defense?” She eased the sarcasm out of her voice. No need to further rile the man.
“The only thing I had was their lack of evidence. With your guilty plea, my defense is null and void.”
She hadn’t thought through the details but didn’t regret her action. “This was the right thing to do, Mr. Walbright.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no.” He took her arm and led her back toward the courtroom door. “But you put your future in the hands of a perfect stranger.” He paused as he pushed the door open. “And she was appointed by Mayor Ellis.”
Summoned to Camelot.
CJ Whelan approached the expansive doors of the Preston Park Country Club. Hand-carved wood, wrought-iron handles, and lead-crystal insets proclaimed their value in a dignified tone. He jerked one of them opened and passed through the portal from normal life to luxury.
“May I help you?” The host’s tuxedo seemed too formal for such an early hour and way too hot for the Texas heat wave going on outside.
“I’m here to see Scott Whelan.” His dad had insisted he attend the Intercede Foundation’s board meeting. Everything in CJ wanted to rebel or at least, find a plausible excuse. But when he’d blown off last month’s meeting, they’d cut some of the funding for the program he directed.
This time, he’d spent almost an hour talking to God about the situation before he arrived. Dad didn’t understand the importance of the program.
Or maybe he only cared about getting his way.
The man behind the concierge counter dipped his gaze toward CJ’s sneakers and back up across his blue jeans and shirt. “I beg your pardon. Mr. Whelan is in the formal dining room.” He emphasized formal.
What was his problem? CJ wore a button-down shirt over his tee. In this August blast, that took effort and dedication. “And?” He lifted his chin and nailed the host with steady eyes.
The man didn’t meet the challenge. Instead, he dug through a drawer on his left. “The Preston Park Country Club has certain standards for our formal areas.” He pulled a folded, navy tie from the drawer. “This should satisfy the membership.”
Next time his dad forced him to come here, he’d not bother covering his Casting Crowns tee shirt. He ground his molars together and snatched the silk dog collar. Knotting it around his neck, he left it loose. The maître d’ attempted to tighten it, but CJ swatted his hands away. “I can see myself in.”
“No, no, no.” The man leaped to bar his way. “I must see your identification, sir. Mr. Whelan has given me a list of his guests, and I must check off your name.”
Of course. We mustn’t color outside of the lines, must we? He whipped out his license and dropped it on the host station. “There. We good now?”
“Mr. Whelan?” The host’s eyes widened. “I’m so sorry, sir. I had no idea.”
“So, I’m not on dear Daddy’s list?” CJ collected the card and stuffed his wallet into his back pocket.
“No need to be on his guest list. As Mr. Whelan’s son, that is, your father’s son, I mean of course you are, but your entrance is automatic, or at least it should be. I’m terribly sorry for all
CJ raised his palms. “Look, if you’ll tell me where to find my dad …”
“This way.” The man’s face had reddened from his ears forward.
He probably expected CJ to raise a fuss or make an official complaint. Fishing a dollar out of his front pocket, CJ stuffed it in his hand. Not the amount of tip the man normally received, but it would have to do. “It’s all right. Really.”
The worker slunk away and left CJ scanning the six faces around the table. His dad had his head buried in a deep discussion with two men on his left. Leon sat beside him with Davis one seat down. On his right, Mr. Simons had his arms crossed and lips pressed together. Next to him, the only woman in the group, Delfia Moncrief, matched his body language, only adding furrowed eyebrows. A large balding man, Arthur Bench completed the circle. The grimace he wore, along with his hand on his swollen belly, looked more like gas than disagreement.
“Ah. Carlton.” Dad’s toothy smile didn’t reach his eyes. “You decided to come.”
“After you cut funding during your last meeting, I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“And I didn’t agree with that motion, either.” The woman pointed a slender finger toward Dad.
With every seat occupied, CJ pulled a chair over from a neighboring table. Dear old dad hadn’t truly expected him. Fancy that.
“So, what is it you don’t agree with Mrs. Moncrief?”
“Selling that beautiful old house where the center is. I’d rather see it become some sort of monument than another parking lot.”
Sell the center? A thousand tiny scorpions stung the back of his neck and began traveling down his spine. “The center is kinda still using the building right now.”
Dad straightened. “We can’t expect you to come in mid-discussion and understand what all is going on.” He tapped the table in front of Leon.
Alton Leon cleared his throat. “I move this discussion be postponed until we can discuss details more fully.”
“I second.” Charles Davis puffed out his chest with the announcement.
“Well, I don’t. I want to discuss this now.” Mrs. Moncrief patted the surface of the shiny wooden table.
You go, Mrs. M. CJ studied his father. The man’s lips curled up a bit, and he acknowledged Mrs. Moncrief through half-closed eyes. He held the influence, and he knew it.
“Let’s keep moving.” Arthur Bench popped a couple of Tums from a small bottle and leaned on his elbows.
How had this group ever made any decisions? “Where are you planning to move the center if you end up selling the Haskell house?” He didn’t care what Davis and Leon declared. Dad was the puppet master, again attempting to direct CJ’s life for him.
“That’s a discussion for another time.” Dad pointed to Mr. Bench. “Didn’t you have a—”
“But I’m here. And moving the center will make drastic transitions for me and my team, not to mention the families we serve. If you move to a building too far away, those who walk to their homes, almost thirty percent of our children, won’t be able to use our services at all.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Dean Simons slapped his palms on the table. “Moving isn’t necessary. We can add on where it is right now.”
Add on? This was a discussion CJ could embrace. “Absolutely. The side lot goes virtually unused, except for the bus drive-through. We could move the lane further over and have enough room to make two more buildings, both as big as the first.”
Mrs. Moncrief smiled at him. “You are so like your mother, CJ. So singular in your purpose for those children.”
Dad stiffened at the mention of Mom.
“I love the idea.” Simons tapped the table.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Carlton.” Dad’s gaze, no longer under the comfortable half-lids, pierced him with warning. The others chimed in and a rumble of discussion overwhelmed the table.
CJ gave his dad a side-long look. “I’m not the one selling a building that’s still in use.”
Dad’s composure slipped. “No one said we were selling.” A red blotch grew above his proper business shirt.
“I second the motion.” Mr. Simons slapped the table again.
“That wasn’t a motion.” His dad pulled at his collar.
“All in favor.” Mrs. Moncrief’s wide smile overwhelmed her tiny mouse-like face, but she raised her hand and called out “Aye” along with Simons and Bench. “Opposed?”
“Now just a minute.” Dad’s graying hair, normally smoothed to perfection, had a few fraying edges. His eyebrows mimicked the look as he attempted to regain the control he’d lost. “This isn’t a real—”
“None opposed. The ayes have it.” Mrs. Moncrief let out a tiny giggle, girlish despite her sixty-some-odd years. Bench and Simons joined in her laughter. Davis and Leon looked confused.
Dad took an audible breath. “Very well. We won’t be selling the center … this year.” He drew a hand across his hair from front to back and lowered his tone. “But we have received a serious complaint from one of the surrounding businesses.”
Surrounding businesses? “There’s only one, and the owner and I are good friends.”
“I’m not speaking of the adjacent body shop. I’m referring to The Glan-Sec offices on the east side of the property. They insist the loud noises of the children while they play interrupt their business dealings.”
“What business dealings? One’s a dentist and the other’s a day-trader.” And neither of them could claim quiet offices if CJ’s visits were any indication.
“Nevertheless, the children may not play within fifty feet of their building from here on in.”
“That’s ridiculous. They can’t stop children from playing in their own yard during the middle of the day.”
“But it’s not their yard.” Dad’s volume rose and conversation at nearby tables silenced for a moment. His Adam’s apple dipped. “The center’s in a business district and had to earn the acceptance of the surrounding owners before we could move in.”
“And the owners of the Glan-Sec building approved. They can’t go back on their agreement now.” CJ leaned forward. “Besides, Glan-Sec are only lessees. They don’t have any say.”
“But they can complain to the city planning and zoning committee.” Leon agreed with Dad. Small wonder there.
“Yes, and the committee can remove the center’s license, making the entire foundation look bad.” Davis’s comment only confirmed CJ’s opinion that he was indeed a shadow of Leon and not a separate man at all.
“Still, you can’t force the children to stay indoors all day. That’s not healthy.” Mrs. Moncrief’s argument brought mumbles of agreement from the other two men.
“You seem to have a standoff, Dad.” CJ gripped the edge of the table. “Maybe you should postpone this discussion, too, until someone actually makes a formal complaint against the center.” Which would never come.
“Seems fair, Whelan.” Mr. Bench rocked forward. “I suggest we call this meeting complete.”
“Second.” Simons raised his hand as the rest of the attendees mumbled. “I think we’re on the right course, Scott.” Mr. Simons shoved against the table to stand. Bench engaged him in conversation as they walked out together.
“Well, if we’re done here, I have an appointment.” Leon didn’t look at Dad. “Good-bye, all.” Davis followed him out without a word.
What sort of invisible adhesive did those men use to be so synchronized?
“You’ve got a good man in charge over there.” Mrs. Moncrief smiled in CJ’s direction and patted his dad’s shoulder. “The afterschool center is in good hands.”
Dad’s eyes hadn’t strayed from CJ’s face.
CJ ignored the stare-down, drumming his thumbs on the polished wood. “Don’t you all eat at these meetings?”
“We ate before the meeting began. And you were late.”
“Better check with your secretary, Dad. I was here five minutes early according to her e-mail.”
He broke his choking glare and scooted his chair back. “I’ll do that. Next month, be here at eight.” He waved a finger at CJ’s neck. “And wear your own tie.”
Dad exited the dining room without a backward glance.
CJ resisted the smile wanting to spread.
This win was only round one.