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"Jane, talk to me."
Jane's heart pounded as Brad's gaze met hers. Pressure, rising like a tidal wave from within, strangled her throat and throbbed behind her eyes.
She had enough to handle without Brad Manchester adding to the mix.
Sitting on a log in the wilderness in Illinois, part of a two-hundred-acre plot of land Brad had purchased with plans to someday build a cabin on it, Jane just wanted a couple of hours away from all the stress. The basket and water bottles, remains of their picnic lunch, still lay on the blanket spread a few feet away. Brad sat with them.
They'd left their homes in Allenville, a suburb of Chicago, only hours ago. Right now it felt like days.
The rough bark dug into the backs of her thighs through her jeans. A twig poked just behind her right ear. Strands of chocolate-brown hair hung loose from the clip holding her twisted bun. She'd sweated off most of her makeup—she never left home without it on—an hour into the day-long hike.
Her employees would look askance if they could see her now. As the editor of a new national women's magazine, with only initial backing and the threat that if they failed they'd be left in the dust, Jane prided herself on being always professional and well put together.
She didn't usually let her hair down.
Except when she was with Brad. He was her buddy. Safe.
"You've been distracted all day," Brad said now.
Jane nodded, not quite meeting his eyes.
"We've been friends what, two years?"
"About that." Long enough to see the countless women who flitted in and out of his life almost as frequently as he changed his underwear. And to share in many, many court triumphs with him as he represented abused women seeking freedom.
"I've seen you happy, worried, angry and exhausted, but I've never seen you look so…lost."
She felt lost. And utterly alone.
"Obviously something serious has happened. What I can't figure out is why you aren't talking to me about it."
At her silence, his expression intensified.
"I thought we could tell each other anything."
Not quite. But almost.
"Have I done something to…"
"No! Oh, God, no, Brad. You… I… You're my best friend."
"You sure about that?"
"Okay, then, why don't you tell Uncle Brad what's got you so distracted that you completely missed my last three attempts at conversation?" His words, while cloaked in levity, increased the tension tightening her chest.
Funny how one phone call could undo years' worth of moving on.
"I'm sorry," she said, trying to recall anything he'd been talking about during the lunch stop.
"Don't be sorry. Just tell me what's wrong." He sat forward, feet on the ground, his arms resting on his knees.
"Did your doctor say something? Are you sick?"
He knew she'd been for her yearly physical a few weeks before.
"No." She shook her head. "I'm in perfect health." Physically, at least. And she was determined to be so mentally and emotionally, too. She'd fought too hard to let someone else win now.
"You got another threat, then," he guessed. It was a testament to how rattled she was by the call she'd received that morning that she hadn't thought once about the threats. She'd received a couple of pieces of anonymous mail at work, one each for the past two weeks.
Do what's right or else.
Until this morning, the threats had occupied her thoughts almost constantly. She'd read the words countless times, trying to figure out what they meant. What they referred to.
And hated that she came up blank.
"No," she said. "Though I got a call from the police yesterday. They found no fingerprints other than mine and Marge's on the letters. The envelopes had been handled by so many people they couldn't identify any thing. They've talked to everyone and didn't find anything." Which hadn't been a surprise to her. She knew her staff. If any of them had a problem with her, they'd talk to her face-to-face.
"So what happens now?"
"They're running a search for similar crimes on other magazines, particularly those dealing with women's issues. They're also checking into relatives, spouses and ex-spouses of the women at Durango."
Jane wasn't all that upset by a check on the women's shelter where she and Brad both volunteered. Extra police protection wasn't a bad thing when you were afraid for your life.
"What about you? Do they think it's safe to continue going into the office?"
"I can't not work."
"That's not what I asked."
"They're running extra patrols around the office, and around my house, too. And they suggested I hire someone.…"
"And did you?"
"Marge made some calls. Found a guy who's going to be starting on Monday at Twenty-Something."
"What about at home?"
"In the first place, I can't afford a round-the-clock private bodyguard," Jane said. "In the second place, the danger is clearly at the office—even the police think so. I haven't received any threats at home. And in the third place, I couldn't stand to have someone shadowing my every move. I'd rather take my chances."
Brad didn't look entirely convinced. "So why couldn't you tell me about this?"
"I just forgot.…" As soon as the words slipped out, Jane wished she could take them back. Brad would've been satisfied with the threats as the reason for her unusual mental absenteeism.
Brad stood up. "Forgot?" He shook his head. "What's going on, Jane?"
As Jane thought about the phone call from the Ohio prosecutor, she tried to figure out what she could tell Brad. Brad Manchester might be determined to live footloose and fancy-free, but he was also one of the most decent men she'd ever known. He truly cared.
And while he dated a lot of women, maybe because there were so many of them, Jane was the one he turned to when he needed a friend.
He wanted to return the favor.
She didn't blame him. She didn't blame anyone.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe she should blame her creep of an ex-husband. Or the woman who'd stolen him away from her.
Except… Lee Anne was… And James was… Jane did blame herself.
When she could stand the internal cacophony no longer, Jane jumped up, stepping over the backpack she'd worn on the hike. She stopped a couple of feet from the ledge directly in front of them. It wasn't a sharp drop, but it was the high point of the property. It seemed as though they were in heaven up here. At the top of the world. And for as far as she could see there was nothing but green, trees, hills, brush, grass and wildflowers. Wilderness.
No pavement. No cars. No people.
Sometimes, looking into Brad's deep brown eyes was a lot like standing there at the top of the world. They'd managed to rise above life's complications to form a bond that was near perfect.
He was the truest friend she'd ever had.
"I've never trusted anyone like I trust you," she blurted.
Her career she had down pat. But not this.
Not being emotionally vulnerable. Or out of control.
Jane continued to survey the world. "I… This is just something I have to handle on my own."
"You sure about that?"
Hell, no. She wasn't sure about much of anything at the moment. Except that she had to be strong, had to take care of herself.
"This is me you're talking to, Jane. I'm on your side, remember?"
There really was no reason to panic. She'd had a phone call. A blast from the past. Nothing that affected the woman she'd become. Nothing that affected her life today.
And the threats—she'd hired protection for herself and her staff. The police were working diligently on that investigation.
"Maybe I can help." Brad was just a few feet away.
Her only close friend. A lawyer. The best.
"I got a call this morning." The statement could have been random.
"Who from?" He'd come closer.
"A prosecutor. In Ohio. Chandler, Ohio."
"That's where your ex moved after your divorce, isn't it?"
"Right." It didn't surprise her that he'd remembered a detail he'd heard only once—one night when they'd shared a bottle of wine and exchanged divorce horror stories. "James has been charged with murder. They want me to testify."
Two short sentences. Manageable.
"What!" Brad turned her around, brought her back toward their blanket. His hands were surprisingly gentle on her shoulders. Odd that she'd even noticed. He'd touched her before. A hand on her back as she preceded him into the theater. Or a restaurant. And she'd never reacted. Brad meant nothing to her in the physical sense, no matter how attractive other women found him.
"Who'd he kill?" His fingers slid from her shoulders, but the warmth of his touch lingered. "And why would they think you know anything about it?"
Another surge of panic swept over her.
Jane wasn't a complete stranger to court. She volunteered at Durango, a Chicago women's shelter, helping battered women with professional writing like letters and résumés, and helping them gain healing through personal writing, too. She'd been asked to be a supportive shoulder during domestic abuse trials several times. That was how she'd met Brad. He offered free legal advice at the same shelter.
Jane also volunteered as a receptionist one night a week for a local Victim Witness program, a government-funded project that provided free support to victims obtaining protection orders.
She was seasoned. The call that morning, while disturbing, shouldn't be debilitating her.
"They say he killed Lee Anne." She couldn't understand it. Couldn't seem to focus on anything but the words. They just repeated themselves, again and again, in her mind.
"My God. Lee Anne's dead?"
Brad sounded as though he'd known the woman, rather than just having heard about James's second wife from Jane. She nodded.
"She was found at the bottom of a cliff." Jane shuddered, glancing back at the expanse below them. Standing atop the cliff—looking out—could seem like heaven and could quickly become hell. "Her hyoid bone was broken, which could point to strangulation, but there was no obvious bruising there. But there was some on her back." Jane rattled off the facts as though reading a finance report. They seemed just as distant, just as impersonal. "Lee Anne apparently told a friend that she was going to meet James for lunch. But they never made it to the restaurant she'd said they were going to. Her car was found at the base of a trail leading up to the cliff. James's truck was spotted in the same area and there were footprints his size at the cliff. Broken foliage and dirt patterns indicated a struggle. His fingerprints were found inside her car and when questioned, he'd said he was at home that morning, alone. They told him his truck had been seen near the cliff. After which he admitted to being in the woods with her, to being in her car, but he claims that they talked and that she was still sitting in her car, perfectly fine, when he left."
"How long ago was this?"
"They've had enough time to go over the body, then. Did they find anything to indicate that she'd been pushed?"
"The prosecutor, a Sheila Grant, said that the coroner found fingerprint-shaped bruising beneath the skin on her back."
Brad practiced family law these days, mostly representing abused women, but he'd also done a stint as a prosecutor, so he was familiar with the challenges Sheila Grant could be facing. From everything Jane had heard, he'd been a great prosecutor. And he'd been stifled by politics and people above him who were apt to seek convictions and sentences based on factors other than the severity of the crime. Especially if there was an election or a point to prove.
A breeze blew through, rustling leaves and cooling clothes still damp from the sweat she'd worked up on their hike. Chilling her skin.
"What exactly does Ms. Grant want from you?"
And that's where her throat froze up.
"She wants me as a character reference."
Brad studied her from below his lowered eyebrows and she could almost hear that talented brain of his whizzing along. A prosecutor would only seek character testimony from someone who had information that would support the murder theory.
"Did you tell her you would testify?"
"Yes." And then she quickly added, "But I don't know what good I'm going to be. It's not like I expected something like this. I'm in total shock. The James I thought I knew was weak and selfish, but he wasn't a murderer."
"Very few people have any idea someone they loved is capable of murder," Brad said, taking her hand in another unusual show of physical support. Something she rarely needed.
She let him link her fingers with his and held on.
"I come up against it again and again," he was saying. "The shock. The disbelief. You know this as well as I do. With all of the articles Twenty-Something has done, your volunteer work and the editorials you've written, you're as much an expert on domestic abuse as I am. I'm sure you can quote statistics."
Probably. Being the CEO of a start-up magazine focusing on issues facing today's young women did have its benefits. And what she hadn't gleaned from her work on Twenty-Something, she'd learned through her years of volunteering.
Domestic abuse. Brad's words, couched in generalities, lay between them. She'd told Brad her ex-husband had been unfaithful. His infidelity had been the reason for their divorce.
She'd told him the truth. At least, as much of it as she'd known.
"Sheila Grant told me this morning that James is a bigamist. And that I'm one of his victims."
A victim. Jane hated the sound of that. The feel of it. As though she'd been branded.
Brad leaned back, staring at her. "You're still married?"
"No!" Shaking her head, she squeezed his hand. And still didn't let go. She'd been hanging out with Brad for a couple of years now and this was the first time they'd held hands. "My divorce is perfectly legal," she said. "But it hadn't happened yet when he married Lee Anne. He wasn't just having an affair with her—he'd taken her to Vegas and married her."
"Then, he wasn't really married to her at all."
"Apparently he'd asked her for a church wedding, complete with an Ohio marriage license, after our divorce, still without telling her about his first marriage. It was for their anniversary. He told her the Vegas wedding didn't feel legitimate enough."
"What a guy."
"Yeah and it gets worse. He married a third time, about eighteen months ago."
"Let me guess, he didn't bother divorcing Lee Anne first."
Brad frowned, taking on the look she'd seen him wear in the courtroom. His thinking face. "If he doesn't want her around anymore, why not just divorce her?"
Jane relayed what Sheila Grant had told her about the triangle in Chandler, Ohio. Some supposition. Some not.