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More static but no mistaking when he says, “What. In. The. Ever-loving. Fuck?”

“We need to run, Dennis, and it needs to be fast. I’ll make it worth your while,” I tell him desperately.

“Just hold on a second—” he says in an effort to slow me down.

“I don’t have a second. It has to be fast.”

“Beck, I’m going to help you,” he says reassuringly. More static. “Let me get online, get up to speed on what’s going on, and I’ll get on the next flight out of here. I’ll call you with my arrival details.”

“I don’t see any other options,” I tell him, so he knows this isn’t a whim.

“Just hang tight,” he says, the phone crackling even more. “I’m on my way.”

It’s Friday, late afternoon. The courthouse is all but deserted, lending an almost eerie feeling to this meeting. Because there’s no hustle and bustle of attorneys, court personnel, jurors, and accused, the silence of the building doesn’t make this meeting seem real.

Doesn’t seem legitimate.

And yet I hope.

There are five of us in here right now, sitting around a battered-looking conference room table that sits two doors down from ADA Hammond’s office. I saw the nameplate on her door when we were ushered back here by a secretary.

Beck and I sit side by side on one side, our hands clenched under the table. We both dressed up, on the advice of our attorneys, and he looks beyond handsome in a dark charcoal suit with a summer-sky-blue tie with little fleurs-de-lis in yellow. I wore a simple black A-line skirt and a rayon long-sleeve blouse that had a slight cowl neck that exposed the barely visible bruises on my neck. Even though it had been eleven days, there was still some yellowing to my skin, and if the reminder that I was attacked that night by JT helps, then I was going to use it.

My attorney, Kerry, sits to my left, and Doug took the chair on the end, since he’s going to be leading this discussion on behalf of our group. To Beck’s right sits an attorney I just met early this morning. His name is Roger Nichols and he’s from New York, and you only need to look at his expensive suit and four-hundred-dollar haircut to figure he’s a big-city boy.

I pull my hand from Beck’s, because it’s sweating, and wipe it on my skirt. He grabs it back, locks his fingers around me tightly, and gives me a squeeze.

Doug appears to be casually comfortable, his bow tie spiffily tied. Kerry is vibrating with energy. I can feel it coming off of her. And the New York member of our crowd is busily working over his smartphone, his fingers flying as he no doubt bills out several hundred bucks an hour for whatever work he’s doing. You know damn well by looking at him that the man is working and probably doesn’t know the meaning of the words rest and relaxation.

The door to the conference room opens up and ADA Hammond walks in. She glances around the room with an irritated air and sits just to the right of Doug and opposite Kerry. She’s got two manila files in her hands, which she smacks down on the table, causing me to jump slightly. My hands start sweating even more.

“It’s a little bit late in the week to be calling a meeting on this case, isn’t it Mr. Shriver?” she asks dryly as she pins Doug with a superior look. Like she’s the one holding all the cards.

“It couldn’t be avoided,” he says smoothly. “With Miss Halstead’s prelim set for next Tuesday and Monday being a holiday, we felt we needed to have this meeting today.”

Her lips tip up and she has a “knowing” look in her eyes. She strokes a finger on the files in front of her—clearly one for me and one for Beck—and gives Doug a contemplative look before she says, “Mr. Shriver, I’m not sure I really want to entertain a plea offer from you or Miss Suttenson. The evidence is mounting. In fact, we got in some more DNA results just yesterday that places the defendants in Mr. Townsend’s house.”

My heart is pounding as I take in her smug look and her condescending tone. She holds all the power here and we are doing nothing more than making a play to take it from her. My entire world depends on this working, and that’s a lot of stress to bear right now.

If it doesn’t work, however, Beck and I are prepared to run. This weekend, as a matter of fact. Dennis assured us he could get us out of the country quickly and with good documents.

“Miss Hammond,” Doug says gently. “We are not here to discuss a plea deal for either of the defendants.”

“You’re not?” Her eyes widen with surprise.

“No,” he says matter-of-factly. “In fact, we’re here to discuss you dropping charges against Miss Halstead and Mr. North.”

It’s an indication of the level of her ego when Hammond’s head falls backward and her mouth opens to let out a deep laugh of delight. Her eyes are shining with amusement as she tilts her head back into position, carefully sweeping her gaze over all the occupants of the room. She doesn’t even hesitate when she looks at Mr. Nichols, who I note has been steadily texting or emailing or whatever the hell he’s doing on his smartphone while this conversation is being played out.

“Mr. Shriver,” Hammond says as the smile slides off her face and her eyes glow with an iciness I’ve never seen before. “I will never drop these charges. I have sufficient evidence to make my case and I’m sorry, but your clients are just going to have to suffer the consequences of their rash acts.”

“I think you might feel differently after you’ve seen something,” he tells her calmly, refusing to get flustered by her bullish ways.

“And what could that possibly be?” she asks sarcastically.

Doug nods down the table toward Roger Nichols, who doesn’t even look up from his phone. He takes a few more seconds, his thumbs flying over the screen, and I hear Hammond make a sound of irritation in her throat. Finally, he taps the screen one final time and says, “There. That’s taken care of.”

Then his head lifts up and he pins Hammond with a challenging stare. “Miss Hammond. My name is Roger Nichols. I practice criminal law in New York—”

In a move that’s beyond rude, Hammond turns to Doug and gives an amused chuckle. “Doug, tell me you didn’t bring in some big gun all the way from New York to help out your case. You’re more than adequate to represent Mr. North.”

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