As Ben Kincaid peered at his client through the acrylic screen, he was startled by how appealing, how downright cute she still looked. Usually, the first few weeks behind bars took a terrible toll on first-time inmates. The lack of sunlight, the coarseness of the company, the absence of hair care and beauty products, the low-watt institutional lighting, the inevitable depressionall conspired to make the newly incarcerated appear as if they had emerged from the ninth circle of hell.
But not Candy Warren. Somehow Candy had managed to retain her fresh-faced charm. When her father first introduced her to Ben, he had compared his daughter to Lizzie McGuireperky, effervescent, goofy but lovable. Two weeks in the slammer and a switch from Gap jeans to TCPD orange coveralls hadn't changed any of that. She was still adorable. She even had her hair up in pigtails.
"So you've talked to my daddy?" she asked, speaking into the telephone receiver that allowed them to communicate.
"Yes," Ben answered. "He's worried about you, of course. But I assured him we would do everything we could. And I got him the present you wanted to send. The Hilary Duff poster."
"Oh, that's wonderful." Ben loved the way her nose crinkled when she laughed. "Can you believe it? The man is in his sixties, and he's crazy about this girl who's barely a teenager. Isn't that wild?"
Ben could think of a different word for it, but never mind that. Always refreshing to have a client who still cared about her parents. "I have some good news for you. To my utter surprise, DA Canelli has made an offer."
"An offer?" She lifted her chin, giving those pigtails an endearing bounce. "What kind of offer?"
"A plea bargain. A chance to avoid trial."
"Assuming I plead guilty."
"To a lesser charge. Yes."
Candy kneaded her hands. Ben noticed that her fingernails were painted electric pink. "But what will my daddy say?"
"What will he say if this goes to trial?"
"Aren't I entitled to my day in court?"
"Yes. But that day is fraught with risk. Canelli is offering you a sure thing."
She sat up straight, throwing her shoulders back. "I can't do it. I can't take the easy way out. I owe that much to my daddy. And while we're talking about this, Ben, I want you to do something about those newspapers."
Ben didn't follow. "Which newspapers?"
"All of them. Have you read the articles they've been printing?" Creases flanked the bridge of her nose. "File some kind of lawsuit against them."
"On what grounds?"
"What grounds?" she said with great indignity. "They've been saying horrible things about me. They're libeling my reputation! Destroying my good name!"
Ben shook his head. "Candy . . . you're"
"Ben, don't. You know I have labeling issues."
"Ben, I don't want to hear"
"Candy . . ." Ben cleared his throat. "You're a hit man."
She gave him a stern look. "Excuse me?"
"Sorry. Hit person."
"Better." Her face hardened; the adorable factor vanished. In the space of a second, she went from Lizzie McGuire to Lizzie Borden. "Now, what are you going to do about those goddamn newspapers?"
Ben drew in his breath. "Nothing. A libel suit would be frivolous, given the circumstances, detrimental to your criminal case, and so utterly stupid that if you really want to do it, you're going to have to find yourself another lawyer."
She glared back at him with eyes like Uzis. "Then what do you suggest?"
"I suggest you take the DA's deal." He hung the phone receiver back in its cradle. "Be seeing you, Candy."
Christina McCall sailed through the front doors of her law office with an air of insouciance, bouncing with each step, whistling as she walked. Jones, the office manager and part-time oracle, did his best to interpret the signs. He could tell she was in a merry mood, not only from the whistling, but also because she was dressed less like an attorney and more like, well, Christina. She was wearing a short, pleated skirt, knee-high boots, and a clinging sweater ornamented with irregular patches of fake fur.
"I'm guessing you didn't get that outfit at Saks," Jones commented.
"Dear Jones," she said smiling, "Don't you know? This is all the rage amongst the jeunesse doree."
Jones didn't know what that meant and wasn't interested enough to ask. "Is there a reason why we're whistling this morning?"
Christina beamed. "Because it gives me a happy."
"Uh-huh. May I assume from this unsuppressed display of jocularity that you must've beaten Ben at Scrabble last night?"
She stopped at his desk in the lobby and snatched the pink message slips from her spindle. "Jones, Jonesyou're so passe. We're long past the Scrabble stage."
"'Zat a fact," he said dubiously. "Might I have the temerity to suggest the possibility that he actually . . . kissed you good night?"
"Jones, Jones, Jones!" She leaned across his desk, still grinning. "You are such a busybody."
"I'm just trying to stay up-to-date on this putative romance."
"And I'd love to continue this delightful raillery, but"
"Look, I'm trying to run an office," Jones said, raising his chin. "It's my job to know if anything insalubrious to the firm is developing. So I'm naturally concerned when the firm's two attorneys make the incredibly boneheaded decision to start dating each other. But if you don't want to tell me anything, fine. I don't care."
A few seconds of silence passed. Christina stared at him. Jones drummed his fingers.
"All right, so I do care. Don't make me grovel. Tell me already."
Christina fluttered her eyelashes. "Dear sweet Jones. Don't work yourself into a swivet. I'll tell all. Ben and I are so past the good night kiss stage." She gave him a pronounced wink. "Way way past. What a libido that man has."
"Really. I thought Ben was more glibido."
"All talk and no action."
"Well, you are . . . totally wrong."
"Glad to hear it. I guess." As Christina bounced toward her office, he added, "But I notice there's no ring on your finger."
Her neck stiffened first; the rest of her body soon followed. She slowly pivoted on one heel. "That . . . doesn't mean . . . anything. We haven't been dating all that long."
"Oh? Seems to me it's been . . ."
"Just a little over a year." She paused. "With, like, ten years of foreplay. Look, he's a typical nineties male. Afraid of commitment."
"Wake up and smell the calendar, Chris. The nineties were over a long time ago. Your boy is stalling."
"He isn't stalling. He's just . . . Ben." Her fingers fluttered through the air. "You know how hard he was hit by that Ellen mess, how she betrayed him. That's how he sees it, anyway. And that business with Belinda Hamilton didn't help any, either."
"And Keri Kilcannon."
"Ugh." Christina's face twisted into a grimace. "Did you have to bring her up?" She sighed. "I keep telling myself this so-called romance isn't hopeless, that eventually we'll take the next step. But how long can I wait for this man to come to his senses?"
"Hearing that old biological clock ticking?"
"Yeah. The one that tells me I probably won't live past one hundred and ten. And that may not be long enough."
"I feel for you. Truly."
"What would you know about it? You and Paula fell in love right off the bat."
"We didn't get married right off the bat." Jones's eyes twinkled. "But I knew it was going to happen. Knew the first moment I laid eyes on her."
"And you've been happily married ever since. How did you know? How could you be sure? Give me a test."
"That's easy enough. Has he ever told you he loves you?"
She frowned, then stomped across the lobby to her office.
Jones leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "That's what I thought."
Ben crept into the lobby, carefully opening and releasing the door so the automatic chime would not sound. When was he going to have that private-access elevator to his office installed? Answer: probably sometime after he actually made some money, a goal that perpetually eluded him. And it wasn't because of his profligate ways, either. In all his years as a lawyer, he'd tried dozens of cases, mostly with some degree of success, settled a multimillion-dollar tort case, written two books, inherited a boardinghouse, and rarely spent a dime on himself. But he still only barely managed to keep the firm afloat. And for the most part, it was his own fault. And he knew it.
Which was why he was tiptoeing past his office manager's desk, hoping Jones kept his attention fixed on his computer screen. He felt certain that Candy Warren would take the DA's offer. He also felt certain that as soon as her father found out about it, he would refuse to pay Ben a dime, which would make her the third no-pay in a month. The only check he remembered seeing recently had come from the government for a court-appointed representation, and that hadn't amounted to enough to take his staff to the Golden Arches for a burger and fries. No, he definitely didn't need to have a confrontation with Jones this early in the morning.
As he turned stealthily down the corridor to the private offices, he saw that Christina was already in. His spirits got an instantaneous lift, as they always did when he saw her. He almost said hellothen thought better of it and returned to stealth mode. They'd had a wonderful time together the night before, absolutely blissful: takeout from Right Wing, a new episode of Says You! on the radio, and some extremely gratifying snuggling. But when the evening came to an end, and they stood at the door together, and he'd given her one last goodbye kiss about as many times as was possible without it becoming ridiculous, she paused, held him at arm's length, and waited.
He knew what she was waiting for. And the pathetic thing was, he wanted to comply. But he couldn't make himself do it. No matter how hard he tried. So he bumbled something inane about what a "swell girl" she was, and she left.
Yes, he was definitely tiptoeing past her door, too.
He slid into his desk chair and thumbed through the mail Jones had left. Bills, bills, and more bills. A possible case in Creek County against a crop-dusting school. A small-time Internet florist that wanted to sue its fulfillment service. Nothing remotely interesting. Nothing likely to make him rich overnight. And nothing that was ever going to help him work up the nerve to do right by
"Christina!" He sat upright, startled by her sudden appearance. "What"
She marched past his desk, grabbed him by the shoulders, raised him to his feet, and planted a big wet one right on his lips.
"Yes, yes, I know your rules. No smoochies in the workplace. But today I think you've earned an exception. I just got word from the courthouse. Father Beale is going to be released!"
"You know I wouldn't joke about something like that. He's been wrongfully incarcerated for far too long. It's an embarrassment to the entire state."
"So our appeal finally worked."
"Appeal, schmiel. It was your book that did it." Not long after he had tried Father Beale's caseand lostBen began writing his second nonfiction book. It had finally been published about a month before, and the sales had been considerably better than those for his first bookwhich meant they were at least in two-digit numbers. Bad Faith had also generated a fair amount of media attention, especially in legal circles.
"The governor, archconservative that he is, couldn't help but get involved after you turned up the heat, Ben. People were calling for Father Beale's release all over the stateheck, all over the nation. Greta van Susteren devoted an entire hour to the case, for Pete's sake. Make no mistake, Benthis had nothing to do with any judge, jury, or legal argument. You made this happen."
"Well . . . I'm glad he's getting out, anyway." Which was putting it mildly. Father Beale had been Ben's childhood priest, a man he loved dearly for all his faults. Losing his case had been a devastating blow. "I want to be there when he's released."
"I knew you would. I've made all the arrangements."
"Great. That's just . . . great." Ben had been trying to avoid her eyes, but something about Christina made that impossible. Whether he wanted to or not, his gaze returned to her long strawberry-blond hair, her freckled nose. She was half a foot shorter than he was, and yet everything she did, everything she said exuded confidence and fortitude. "Look . . . ," he stuttered, "about last night . . ."
Her eyes turned up. "Yes?"
"I justI just wanted you to know thatthat"
Ben felt beads of sweat trickling down the sides of his face. "That you were totally robbed by that Says You! fake definition round. I mean, who on earth would know that babbing was some kind of eel fishing? Arnie has a way of bluffing that takes everyone in. Andand you shouldn't feel bad about missing that one."
Her head moved slowly up and down. "Thanks, Ben. Appreciate that."
A large crew-cut head bobbed into the office. "Hey, you guys got the TV on?"
It was Loving, their investigator. A huge man, built like a storage freezer, but at heart as soft as a new pair of Hush Puppies.
"No," Ben answered. "Why? Oprah going to help you find fulfillment by buying some book?"
"Nah. Somethin' really excitin'. On C-SPAN."
Something exciting on C-SPAN? Ben thought. That'll be the day. "What about?"
"Come see for yourself. It's that Senator Glancy guy."
"Glancy?" Christina turned her head. "Don't you know him, Ben?"
He nodded. "Went to law school with him."
He shrugged. "His family knew my family. Titans of Nichols Hills, that sort of thing. But no, he and I were never particularly close. My mother is constantly comparing us, throwing his success in my face."
"Why? Because he was a successful and fabulously wealthy oil magnate and then got elected to the Senate, and you're aa"
Ben waited. "Ye-es?"
"a . . . increasingly prominent attorney. Let's go see what Loving is talking about." She did a quick about-face and headed out of the office.
Ben almost smiled. Smoothly done, Christina. Very smooth indeed.
Ben and Christina stared at the small television set in the office lobby, their lips parted. Even in black and white, it was difficult to believe. Or stomach.
"And you say they've been running this all morning?"
"Oh yeah," Loving replied. "You know how these news guys are.