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Bits of ice plinked against the courtroom windows, to the odd accompaniment of whispering fans that dispersed the heat of too many bodies packed into one small space. The defense attorney, a walking cliché of paunch and righteous anger, set a composition book in front of Dr. Maria Keaton on the witness stand.
"Do you recognize this diary?" Buck Collier pointed with his thick finger.
Maria stared at the marbleized cover, rubbed almost gray. Her patient, Griff Butler, had scrawled shapes into the cardboard, bearing down so hard he'd drilled red and blue ink beneath the surface. He'd written words and then crossed them out with heavy marker. He'd drawn muscle-bound men firing guns that sprayed bullets across the mottled cover.
And he'd tried to make her read the pages, swollen with his secrets.
He'd had a crush. Sometimes patients got them, but as they healed, they also found out they didn't truly love their therapists.
But one look at the man behind the judge's bench, just above her, made her reconsider. The man whose gaze she'd avoided because his black eyes made her painfully aware that inappropriate, nearly mind-drugging attraction could also afflict her. Judge Jake Sloane didn't even have to move to capture her attention.
Soon after she'd moved to Honesty, he'd said hello at a party and taken her hand just as someone else called to him from across the buffet table. She'd let go, but the low timbre of his voice had touched her. She'd dragged her hand out of midair to hold it close to her stomach. With a nod, Jake had strode away, his lean body cutting a swath through the crowd.
Attraction that felt more like instant addiction made her wary. After that,she'd hung back, watching Jake at town meetings and the food bank where they both volunteered. She'd waited for her ridiculous crush to wane.
Since the moment she'd answered the bailiff's summons to the courtroom, she'd been uncomfortably aware of Jake, leaning back in his chair, his sharp features focused, totally belying his body's false image of indifference.
"Dr. Keaton?" Buck's imperious tone cut through Maria's thoughts. "The journal. What's in it?"
"I don't know." She forced her attention back to the defense attorney's sweating face.
Buck waited, letting her reply echo in the room. "You may be ashamed to answer my questions, but the court demands you tell us what's in that book." The man's beady blue eyes glittered with anticipation.
"I didn't read the journal. Your client insisted he killed his parents. I had to call the police. That's everything I know."
He stared at her, his skepticism a big show for the jury. "You're trying to make us believe you never opened that book?"
"Griff never let it out of his reach."
Buck Collier continued to watch her, but again he didn't speak. She'd used that same method too many times to be felled by it, and matched his silence with her own. He cracked first.
"You never asked to read it? He never asked you to?"
"He did." He'd tried to make her, pulling it out of his book bag, hauling it out of the back of his pants, letting it slip from his folded jacket. He'd shoved it to her floor the day she'd finally called the police. "I couldn't."
"You couldn't? You were too involved with him to read aloud his intimate feelings?" Collier waved his hand as bitterness crept, acidlike, into the pit of Maria's stomach. The attorney performed a slow, surprisingly graceful twirl toward the jury box. "Didn't you tell him to write those entries?"
"I suggested that writing about his feelings might clarify them. Writing about them with me in mind as a potential reader would have made the exercise pointless," she said, her tone emphasizing that the journal had been a kind of prescription.
Collier gave her a smile that felt like a pat on the head for a troublesome child. A wordless That's the best you can do?
It damn well was, because it was the truth.
Buck glided closer, a magician setting up his best trick. "You know what that book contains?"
"I do now." Movement at her side drew her glance. Jake Sloane, deceptively relaxed, stared at her, and her throat tried to swell shut. She gave herself a mental shake.
She'd called the police because Griff had insisted he'd shot his parents. To this day, she doubted he'd actually done the crime. Regardless of whether he'd confessed to get her attention or truly had killed his mother and father, he needed help, and she had to get Jake out of her head and concentrate on her former patient.
"Dr. Keaton, why won't you answer me?"
Behind Collier, Gil Daley, the prosecutor, leaned around his opponent's body and shot her a warning glance.
"It's your client's journal, Mr. Collier." Sitting back, Maria folded her hands in her lap, careful to erase all signs of tension. "I never opened it."
"Uh-huh." He took it back, weighing it in his hand, his glance filled with disdain. "Review it for us. A stirring tale of young love on the psychologist's couch?"
Subtle as an anvil to the skull. Tittering rustled among the citizens of Honesty, Virginia, who'd arrived at court in time for tickets to this circus. Maybe they didn't need proof.
Maria stifled a compulsion to face Jake and declare her innocence. Instead, she stared at the boy with the cold, blank eyes. Buck had dressed him in a nice black suit of mourning, but no one could show Griff how to pretend he felt—anything.
"I've never touched it. I haven't opened the cover."
"What did you touch, Dr. Keaton?"
On the raised bench, the judge moved in his squeaking leather chair.
Daley sprang from his seat. "Your Honor, I—"
Buck waved a dismissing hand at Gil. "Question withdrawn. I'm sorry, folks, but I get hot under the collar when justice is perverted." Buck shook the book at Maria. "You know how Griff used this."
The prosecutor spoke out for the eighth time during Maria's cross-examination. "The defense asks the impossible. How does he expect the witness to testify to the contents of a journal she's never read?"
Buck turned on Gil.
Scowling, Daley sat.
"If the prosecutor would maintain his seat and the peace, we could drill to the truth." Like a powerful figure on a Michelangelo ceiling, Buck pointed at Maria. "This woman made my client write the diary. Not only has she read it, they've read it together. With every entry, they relived their sexual encounters. She thought up new—"
Maria froze. The packed courtroom erupted in whispers of "I told you so," and shrill "No's," all backed by a slithering undercurrent of gasps, which Jake cut off with a curt, "Order."
Maria heard and saw it all through a revolted haze.
The prosecutor leaped to his feet. "I object—"
Jake lifted his hand. "Hold on, Mr. Daley." He hit a key on the laptop in front of him. "Step forward, gentlemen, and not another word out of anyone, or I'll clear the gallery."
As he sat forward, he glanced at Maria, searching for the truth. Every false indication of indolence fled as he raked her with his eyes. Shame—unexpected, unwelcome and totally unwarranted—made her skin sizzle.
Determined to face him down, she willed Gil aside when he stepped between her and Jake to have his say in furious whispers. Buck drawled a response, but he grabbed the ledge of Jake's desk with his fists and betrayed the hard-fighting lawyer behind his mellow, country-boy mask.
Jake covered the microphone. Control vibrated in his husky tone, though Maria couldn't discern most of his words. When she heard him say her name, she became even more uneasy, but Gil still blocked her view.
Jake's low voice emphasized his warning to the attorneys with the words "personal attack" and "contempt." He finished with a louder "Stand back."
A red flush slowly spread from Collier's collar. Gil turned away, saying respectfully, "Thank you, Your Honor."
Collier retook the podium at the end of his table. "What's in the notebook, Ms. Keaton?"
"Doctor," Gil said.
Jake swung calm but killing eyes toward the prosecutor, who sat. Jake prompted Buck with raised brows. All the while, Maria either sensed or imagined the judge's focus on her. And she could barely breathe.
"Dr. Keaton?" Distaste dripped from Buck's tone.
Maria refused to act the defensive, sex-crazed, older woman part he'd dreamed up. "Griff offered me the notebook." Now that the accusation was out in the open, she kept her voice calm and rational. The law required her to report a crime, but she didn't have to throw away her client or her own reputation. "I never read it."
Buck laughed as if she'd told a joke that wasn't in the least funny. "You've seen these pages how many times?"
"Asked and answered," Gil said. "Ad nause—"
"Gentlemen," Jake said, as if nothing about this situation troubled him in the least, "I've warned you."
Buck's complacent expression faltered. "You can't deny Griff wanted you to see what he'd written."
She'd come to this courtroom with one goal in mind, to make the jury see the kid needed help, not a prison sentence. Instead, she was defending herself against Collier's plan to make her seem like a pervert on the prowl in her own practice.
"You opened Griff up to his feelings, didn't you, Dr. Keaton?"
Revolting filth of a man.
The courtroom spectators whispered. Jake's chair squeaked, like nails raking a chalkboard, and she felt him looking at her. She refused to meet his gaze. She'd put distance between herself and Jake after she'd begun to treat his daughter, Leila. The last thing Leila Sloane or any of Maria's clients needed was for their therapist to be suspected of seducing an under-aged teen.
"My clients don't walk out of textbooks. Textbook answers won't always help them."
Gil leaned forward, warning her again.
"I hear you took a suicidal teen mountain climbing," Collier said.
"We climbed the side of a ridge at a camp." And she'd been scared half out of her wits.
"You also ran a marathon?"
"A half one." With a woman who couldn't stand still for fear her father's sexual abuse would catch up with her.
For another client too afraid of public speaking to make a simple speech in his own boardroom, Maria had listened to late-night rehearsals on the phone until her ear was as cauliflowerlike as the most inept boxer's.
She'd cooked meals and walked labyrinths and finally gone to the police when Griff Butler had refused to retract the confession she still doubted.
"You know how to make people comfortable. You make them trust you."
She eyed him but said nothing.
"And you used what Griff Butler said in this notebook to make him your—"
She planted both business-casual heels on the floor. This man would not make her look incapable, even to save a kid she cared for. "I don't know what he wrote."
"Open it," Buck said. "Read the pages you shared with my client at each meeting—including the ones outside your office."
"I've never met Griff outside my office, Mr. Collier."
"You're formal with me, Dr. Keaton." He made her title an insult. "But you dropped the decorum with Griffy, didn't you?"
She let herself smile. The prototypical Southern lawyer had made an error. "Griff claims I called him that?" Insecurity plagued the boy. He'd feared that no one, not even his own mother and father, had loved him.
"Open the book, Dr. Keaton."
She stared at Buck, pretending his peremptory tone amused her.
"Objection," Gil said. "The defense is harassing Dr. Keaton. She has sworn under oath several times that she never read these pages. How can they be relevant?"
Jake's exaggerated stillness was a warning. His bland expression suggested he'd expected Gil to come up with something more effective, which troubled Maria. At last, Jake looked at the defense. "Get to the point, Mr. Collier. Skip the commentary."
"Did you have an affair with my underage client, Dr. Keaton?"
It hurt. Against her will, she glanced at Griff, who stared at nothing.
"Answer me, Dr. Keaton. Don't look at that boy."
"I did not have an affair with Griff. I wanted him to be well. I'm his psychologist. Nothing more."
"You were his so-called therapist. After you broke doctor-client privilege, I believe his aunt fired you?"
His aunt was the only one left to fire her after his parents died. "Griff, you know why I told the police what you said."
Jake's seat came upright with a scream of springs. "Dr. Keaton, you will not—"
Buck pointed a vindictive finger. "You can't control this boy now that he's come to his senses. He understands you abused him."
"Your Honor." Gil went off like a rocket.
Maria turned to the jury, Griff's last hope. He needed treatment, and they held the power. But Buck had come up with the perfect offensive defense. If the jury thought she'd seduced a kid in her care, they could set a possibly murderous boy free on their own unsuspecting community, on his younger cousins and their parents.
"I never hurt Griff. He and I discussed only the problems that brought him to my office, and none of those problems included an inappropriate relationship between us. I care about this boy as I care about all my clients, but I did not sleep with him."
Jake banged his gavel once. "Dr. Keaton, Collier, Daley, this remains my courtroom, and you're all perilously close to contempt."
"I'm sorry." She turned to him. His black gaze was a wall that bounced her back. "No one seems to realize what's at stake for that kid."
"You were telling us how deeply you care for my client, Dr. Keaton." Collier leaped on her apparent weakness. "Enough to ruin his future after he rejected your sexual advances?"
Jake turned in his chair, silent, menacing. Behind Maria, the jury rustled like debris swept up in a tornado.
"Stop, Mr. Collier, or I'll walk you to a cell myself." Jake's voice seemed to shatter Collier's bloated confidence. "Bailiff, take the jury out."
The men and women stepped on each other's heels, trying to size up Maria. She glanced at Jake. His thoughts were as plain as Buck's. Griff's defense had already created at least one instance of reasonable doubt.
She turned to stare after the jury. Would her word be enough for them? What would happen to the rest of her clients when word of Griff and Buck's story got out? She was no martyr. What would happen to her and her practice? Her future?
The soft thud of Jake's fist dropping onto his desk made Maria jump, but she couldn't look him in the eye. She didn't want him to think the worst of her.