Ch. 1

Even though she could feel the blood draining from her face and a sick thud in her stomach, Evangeline Williamson knew she had to hold it together for her client Antonio Vega. The moment before Judge Edith Cantrell announced her decision to grant full custody of Antonio’s daughter Jamie to RJ Gannon, Evangeline had a weird sensation: all of the sound seemed to drop out of the room and a sharp, metallic scent filled her nose as if someone had shoved her head into a bucket of pennies. Then she heard the words she’d been dreading: “Given the instability in Mr. Vega’s personal life, the court feels that at this time, it would be in the best interest of the child for Jamie Vega to remain in the primary custody of her grandfather RJ Gannon.”

Evangeline reached for Antonio’s arm as he leapt to his feet. RJ’s rich baritone rang out in a crow of victory – to think she’d once loved that sound. Behind her, she could hear Carlotta sobbing. “Your honor!” Antonio cried, incredulity and anger distorting his handsome face.

Cantrell banged her gavel and cast a weary glare at the well-dressed array of men and women before her. “Order in the court! Mr. Vega, sit down. Mr. Gannon, I’ve had enough of your outbursts. The court orders that Mr. Vega will be able to spend Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 5 p.m. Fridays to 7 p.m. Saturdays with his daughter. If either party violates the terms of Mr. Vega’s visitation, I will see both of you back here. Court is dismissed.”

Evangeline passed the next several minutes on auto-pilot. She ignored RJ’s cackling and, with Adrianna’s help, steered Antonio and Carlotta out of the courthouse. Across the street, she could see Jessica Buchanan sitting behind the wheel of her powder blue BMW convertible. Ever since the day RJ’s lawyer tore Jessica apart on the witness stand, she’d been afraid to come into the courthouse. But each evening, Evangeline saw Jessica in her car, sitting vigil behind an oversized pair of dark glasses. It was nearly 5 p.m., but the spring sky was still bright. She knew Jessica could see the tears streaming down Antonio’s face and, for a moment, the young blond woman seemed frozen in her car, the door half open and one sandaled foot on the pavement. Then, as if thinking better of it, she pulled her foot back in, slammed the door and peeled away from the curb.

“Mijo, mijo,” Carlotta sobbed. Her tears mingled with Antonio’s as she pulled his cheek to hers. Evangeline felt her own throat clenching with emotion, but she couldn’t afford to cry now.

“Antonio, we’re going to get through this. I’m sure we can repetition the court in a few months – sooner if RJ violates your visitation. I know this is hell for you, but I’m not going to stop until Jamie is back with you. I promise.” Antonio turned from his mother and wrapped his arms around Evangeline. “I know. I know,” he sobbed. “It’s my fault. I never should have left her with RJ. I can’t let him turn my baby against me.”

Gently, Evangeline pulled away from him. “We’re not going to let that happen. I’ll come see you in the morning and we can go over the visitation paperwork.”

Leaving the Vegas at the back door of the Angel Square Café, she turned and raced across the street to the Llanview Police Department. Before she lost it and became a weeping wreck on the sidewalk, she had to see John. Outside of her family, he was the only one she trusted with her tears. He had been there for her, quiet and supportive, nearly a year ago when she’d lost her first case – oddly, enough, another custody case. She had been so much surer of winning that time – but the judge ruled against her client Kelly Buchanan and awarded custody of Baby Ace to Kevin Buchanan. This time, she’d known she’d have a bloody battle on her hands – if it wasn’t bad enough that RJ was going to play dirty, the week before the trial began, Jessica accidentally set RJ’s apartment on fire while she was alone with Jamie. When she lost Kelly’s case, most of Evangeline’s pain was over her own bruised ego. She was used to winning. But this time, she felt heartsick for her client: she knew Antonio was the best parent for Jamie, but she couldn’t convince the judge. And right now, she couldn’t convince herself she’d be able to make things right soon enough for Antonio and Jamie.

She needed John’s arms around her, his deep purr in her ear, that safe embrace that could keep her from feeling her world was flying apart. Head high so as not to spill the tears brimming behind her lashes, she strode fast past the officers and clerks milling about in the halls of the police department. The closer she got to him, the closer her true emotions came to the surface. She wasn’t thinking as she grasped the brass knob to the side door of John’s office. Yanking open the door, she was overcome with the odor of dirty pennies she’d smelled in the courtroom, but this time, instead of going deaf, her ears filled with buzzing as if a bee hive was descending over her head.

John’s back was to Evangeline and Natalie’s arms were wrapped tightly around his neck, one of her porn-star French-manicured hands sunk deep into the dark hair that flowed over his collar. With the high-definition vision that sometimes comes just before the bullet hits the flesh or the car runs off the bridge, Evangeline noticed that the nail tip on Natalie’s middle finger was broken. Just over John’s shoulder, Evangeline could see a flash of red hair. She couldn’t see what his hands were doing, but John was definitely bent over Natalie in a kiss. Suddenly, his head jerked up and he half-turned to where Evangeline was frozen on the doorsill. She watched as he pulled a hand away from Natalie’s waist and the other from the back of her neck. Startled, his blue eyes looked so young, as if he’d never seen anything awful before. When that fresh blue gaze caught her own shocked eyes, she felt as if she’d been struck by lightning. Before the hoarse cry, “Evangeline!” made it out of his throat, she was running.

John pushed Natalie aside and lunged for the slim flash of tan silk disappearing around the corner, but for the first time Evangeline was too fast for him. When he got to the corridor, she had vanished. He didn’t realize she’d ducked into the next office, hiding behind the door until she heard him run past. She crossed the hall to the stairwell and raced down to the parking garage. She jumped into her champagne Mercedes and eased out of the garage in time to see John running out of the front door of the LPD. She prayed he wouldn’t see her as she headed in the opposite direction.

If she couldn’t see him, maybe she could pretend it hadn’t happened. Maybe she could pretend the past ten months hadn’t happened. Maybe she could pretend this day, this life, this Evangeline, who lost cases and threw away her heart on a man who couldn’t tell her he loved her, didn’t exist.

Her cell phone slid out of her satchel and was vibrating on the passenger seat like an angry bee. She grabbed it and saw the incoming call from “McBain”. She turned off the phone and steered away from her apartment – she knew that was the first place he’d look for her.

A crazed sense of mission kept her hands steady on the wheel as she got onto the interstate. It had been hours since she’d eaten or gone to the bathroom, but she didn’t stop until she’d put 178 miles between herself and Llanview. It was nearly dark when she drove up the sandy drive to her Aunt Grace’s beach cottage. The nearest neighbor was half a mile away and this early in the season, only a handful of locals were around. She parked her car around back and grabbed her gym bag out of the trunk.

Evangeline rooted around in the bottom of her leather satchel until she caught hold of the pair of keys on a seashell keychain. Her mother had given her the keys and the deed to the cottage a month earlier when she and John had gone home for her great-aunt’s funeral. The funeral. Everything seemed to be getting simultaneously better and worse between her and John from the hour he’d insisted upon going home with her. Their relationship had been suffering growing pains ever since. She thought they’d come through it all stronger, but every day seemed to bring a new challenge. John was growing increasingly obsessed with the Killing Club serial killer and things grew even more charged once he became convinced Natalie was a target. The long days she was putting in on Antonio’s custody trial cut even further into the little time they had together. And then there was that night John cried out “I love you” in his sleep – words she’d been praying to hear for so long – and then he said he couldn’t remember who he had been dreaming about. She was trying to be patient and to listen to her heart, but John seemed to be shutting her out again. Natalie had never made any secret of the fact that she wanted John, she felt entitled to him and resented Evangeline for getting in the way of her so-called “connection” with him. And John had been honest with her when Natalie made a pass at him and told him she wanted to be with him. Evangeline knew he was carrying some unresolved feelings for the girl, but she’d convinced herself those feelings were nothing like what they shared. She’d seen John comforting Natalie many times, but she’d decided to swallow her jealousy and put her faith in John. She could barely stand to see him hug her, but this? She’d believed what she’d been telling her mother, her best friends, herself: John loved her and soon enough, he’d tell her so. But now, she didn’t know what to believe anymore.

Pushing open the door of the cottage, she started gasping and grabbing at the collar of her suit. She felt as if she’d die if she didn’t get out of her clothes. Safe in the quiet cottage, she staggered sobbing down the darkened hall, stripping to her slip. She grabbed the neckline of the silk slip and ripped it with her hands. The phrase “rending their garments and weeping” suddenly made sense to her. She didn’t bother to turn on a light – she couldn’t see the point of seeing just now. She felt as if she was falling down the darkest well of despair and she couldn’t reach the bottom. She paced and flailed in the darkened rooms, knocking against sharp furniture corners until she tripped over a hassock in the livingroom and tumbled to the rag rug by the fireplace, her shin ringing with fresh pain. And then she howled, openmouthed until her diaphragm was heaving. She cried like a child, with her whole body, until she was exhausted, head throbbing, eyes swollen shut. The best criminal defense attorney in Northern Pennsylvania, Llanview’s Woman of the Year, the Girl Most Likely to Succeed, fell asleep on the faded rag rug, curled up in her shredded, tear-streaked slip.