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The First Day
By Barbara McMahon
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOH, GOD, please let this nightmare end! Susannah Chapman prayed, her heart pounding wildly, her palms clammy. Her stomach churned. She couldn't breathe. For a moment she feared she would faint. Surely everyone in the courtroom could hear the blood pounding through her veins, could feel the overwhelming fear that filled every cell of her body. How could this have gone so far?
She stared straight ahead at the walnut paneling on the front of the judge's bench. Tuning out the sounds of the courtroom, the sounds that had grown more and more familiar as each day had progressed, she tried to hold on to her control.
She was so scared. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined things going so wrong. The American legal system was built to defend justice, not make a mockery of it. How could twelve men and women find her guilty of a crime she had not committed?
She swayed slightly.
The nightmare was endless. Sliding her hands beneath the edge of the table, she pinched one thumb, trying to wake up. The pain was sharp and sudden.
But she was still in the courtroom awaiting the judge's sentence.
Swallowing against the rising bile that threatened to spew out, she took a shaky breath. She'd felt sick for weeks, unable to eat, unable to concentrate, fighting the injustice of the situation with all she had. Which, granted, wasn't much.
The jury was seated in the box. Present to hear the sentence their guilty verdict demanded.
From the corner of her eye she saw the young deputy district attorney lounging carelessly in his chair, talking with someone she couldn't see without turning her head. The prosecuting D.A. sat upright, smug, radiating triumph. Why wouldn't they believe her? Timothy Winters had been alive the last time she saw him.
Focusing ahead, she took another breath. She rubbed her palms surreptitiously on her skirt, trying to dry the dampness, trying to quell the fearful dread. She dropped her gaze to the table before her. Harry Lind, her attorney, had file folders neatly before him.
"Are you all right?" he asked before a paroxysm of coughing took over. He'd been ill during the entire travesty of a trial. But he had pushed onward, her only hope.
She shook her head slightly. "I think I'm going to throw up," she whispered back.
"Hang in there. It will all be over soon." His tone sounded bracing, but Susannah wasn't reassured. The trial might be over soon, but the nightmare would go on forever.
She looked directly at the opposing counsel. He had been relentless in his prosecution. Especially when she'd taken the stand. She had tried to convince him she had done nothing wrong, but he hammered at her until she became confused and she knew her testimony sounded muddled. She was no match for a district attorney with years of experience behind him. Especially one up for reelection and anxious to get a quick conviction to clinch the vote.
He had gone after her as though he had a personal vendetta against her. She had hoped the cross-examination by her own attorney would have minimized the damage for the jury. It hadn't. Now her only hope lay in an appeal.
The judge arrived, taking his place behind the bench.
Blinking back tears of frustration and anger, Susannah stared straight ahead again as the judge rapped his gavel.
She wiped her hands against her skirt again and stared at the man, her heart in her throat.
"We have to stand, now," Harry said, his hand coming beneath her arm to assist her up.
Susannah stood, her legs feeling wobbly. Turning slightly she stared at the men and women on the jury. They were strangers. They didn't know her. They hadn't known Shawn, or Timothy. The evidence had been skewed. From that alone they shouldn't have had the power to decide her fate. They didn't know her!
"... found the defendant, Susannah Chapman, guilty of murder in the first degree ..."
She swayed, steadied by her attorney, his hand her only anchor. She stared as if through a fog. The nausea gained a stronger grip. She held her breath hoping she wouldn't vomit all over the shiny table before her. It was the only trace of pride she could muster.
"... life in prison, without parole," the judge droned.
Susannah had a manic desire to laugh. She had come to Denver to begin a career, get married and start a family. She was only twenty-one years old. She had her whole life before her.
She swallowed hard, fear and terror gaining a foothold. She had her whole life before her but she needn't worry about establishing a career. Needn't worry about going it alone after Shawn's death. The state of Colorado had decided her future for her.
She was to spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime she hadn't committed.
"We'll appeal," Harry said gruffly, coughing into his handkerchief again.
Susannah looked at him as if he were a stranger.
Glancing over to the prosecutor, she stared at him, fear clawing at her, nausea threatening to overcome her control, anger churning. His triumphant satisfaction grated. He was surrounded by men and women congratulating him. Smiling, laughing, slapping him on the back as if he'd just accomplished some great feat. Not as if he had ruined her life.
The press strained across the wooden railing that separated the spectators from the participants in the courtroom drama, vying for attention, calling out questions, cameras flashing.
For a moment the tall, dark-haired assistant district attorney turned and his gaze locked with hers. His eyes held a trace of compassion. Susannah stared at him, willing him to do something.
"I didn't do it," she whispered. Somehow she had to get it across to him. He had to believe her. Someone had to!
"Let's go, miss." A marshal was at her side, the cold, steel handcuffs snapping sharply over her wrists.
Turning, Susannah took two steps and slid into a faint.
Excerpted from The First Day by Barbara McMahon Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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