Every town has one-a mean girl, hell-bent on taking down everything in her path-and Danielle Ranier played the role to a tee. She broke up Storybook Lake's most beloved couple and to save herself from a lifetime of lectures on morality, she hopped on the first plane out of town. Six years, one child, and a big secret later, she's back, fleeing from her abusive husband, who isn't quite willing to set her free. Now on trial for a murder she didn't commit, Simon Hunter, the only man she's ever loved is offering her a lifetime of love and security. If she could only reveal the secrets long-held inside her, a family that never was might finally come together . . .
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A Storybook Lake Romance
By Melissa Shirley
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Melissa Shirley
All rights reserved.
Being on trial for my life taught me two things. One, when the bailiff says "all rise," everyone in the courtroom should immediately shut up and stand; two, the business end of being on trial and the tremors associated with it did not couple well with coffee drinking and silk blouses.
I blotted at my shirt while my lawyer leaned in close to advise me, yet again, of the possible outcomes of the case should I lose. Grace Wade turned to face me head-on and recommended I at least consider the prosecutions deal of life in prison with the possibility of parole in twenty-five years. Twenty-five years? I decided to gamble on a jury trial and a possible life sentence. Surely, at least one of the twelve people would realize I didn't kill Sean, no matter how badly I wanted to, and no matter how much unwavering gratitude, trial talk taboo, I harbored for the person who'd actually done the job.
The jurors filed into the courtroom, seven women between the ages of thirty and late sixties and five men from early twenties to late forties. A school teacher, bus driver, street sweeper, an accountant, landscaper, college student, and three food service professionals--translation: waiters and waitresses--a dog trainer, boutique owner, and a hairdresser, all had been chosen as my peers. Somehow, being accused of murder changed how I evaluated my peers, especially since I had no choice but to put my life in their hands.
Calvin Coolidge Connor, the prosecutor and apparent love child of Beetlejuice and Mr. Frodo--dark black hair, a slender waist, and a suit swallowing him almost whole--looked over at me with slits for eyes and a grim smirk on his lips. As green as any other small town thirty five-year-old prosecutor eager to make a name for himself, he probably jumped at the chance to take this case. He'd been an opportunist in high school, too, but as friends back then, I'd overlooked it. In this moment, with a gallery full of TV cameras, former friends, and reporters with pens poised to capture every detail, I hated him for it.
My attorney, the only lawyer I'd ever met, had been my best friend growing up, and though ten years had passed since we did more than make small talk on the phone, she took my case, no questions asked. Even though Grace had been career dormant as of late, I sat next to her not at all worried. She'd always been wrapped in some karmically blessed aura of greatness. At least, that's what I told myself in the morning before I dressed for trial.
She smoothed her skirt as we sat and waited for the prosecutor to begin his opening statement. At seventeen months older than me, Grace had movie star beauty. Along with her dramatic good looks, she capitalized on her porn star figure by wearing short, mostly respectable skirts, and blouses opened at the throat, thoroughly enhancing her pushed up C cups.
Without looking at me, checking her notes, or picking up a pen, she stared at the troll and waited. To anyone else, she appeared calm, poised for battle, but her fingers trembled as they sat idle against the table. A light sheen of sweat dotted her forehead and upper lip. We ignored the whirring of cameras, crinkling of papers, muffled coughs, hushed whispers in the court room, and most of our childhood friends on the witness list. For a former glory hound like Grace, ignoring it all said something.
As much as I'd come to love Storybook Lake over the last year, we weren't holding the trial at home. Storybook Lake would never let something so tainted as murder touch its cobblestoned, gas-lit streets. The proceedings had been transferred to neighboring Bloomington and my friends and former neighbors, all with ready-formed opinions as to my innocence or guilt, elbowed for space in the tiny courtroom.
Cal, whose grades in high school mirrored his initials, stood and walked to the center of the room, facing the jury, his back to me. While I understood he had a job to do, it irked me he'd been able to start without as much as a glance at the pile of notes on his table. Executing a perfect military turn in his too-shiny clown shoes, he took three paces toward the judge parallel to the jury, pulled in tight, turned a hard left and stalked to his original spot. He stopped abruptly, facing the twelve people instructed to hang on his every word.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Calvin Connor and I represent you, the good people of the State of Illinois."
I nudged Grace and mouthed the words, "suck up." She shot me a glare and then went back to ignoring me.
"Storybook Lake, Illinois is an innocent little tourist town with a quiet character based on works of literary greatness. Its existence celebrates the lives of those who let us borrow their words to transport ourselves through whatever carefully woven life they have created in their pages. On June fourth, this woman"--he pointed at me without turning his head or body--"shattered the calm normally floating over the quiet little city. She lured her husband away from his home in California with the promise he would get to see the son she kidnapped."
I scanned the room for the Academy Award presenters and shrugged when no little gold statue or red carpet actress appeared.
Grace leaped to her feet. "Objection, Your Honor. Mrs. Turner had, and continues to have, sole custody of the child. There was no kidnapping involved and absolutely no evidence she lured her husband here. In fact, all evidence points otherwise." Grace turned to me, eyes wide and the hint of a smile on her lips.
The judge turned her attention to Cal. "Mr. Cooper?"
He simply lifted one shoulder, cocked his head toward it with an off-handed smile, offering no explanation.
The judge shot him a dirty look.
He refocused on the jury and continued. "This woman, the defendant, is a cold, calculating killer who involved herself in a relationship with another man while still married to Sean Turner. She knew in order to be with the love of her life"--Air quotes?--"and raise her son with him, she needed to get rid of her husband. She had to make sure he didn't have the ability to interfere. So, what did she do? She took a knife and stabbed Sean Turner, not once, not twice, but seven times. And, in a matter of seconds, her burden of marriage disappeared."
He shook his head and clucked his tongue. "But then, Sean turner refused to die, to let her take his son away and live with another man. He refused to give up his hold on his wife and on life. She couldn't let him live, especially not now. Attempted murder? She would have lost her son, anyway. So, she ran to her purse, took out the gun she stole from her boyfriend, a former chief of police, and shot Mr. Turner in the face." He made a pistol with his fingers, flicked his arm out in aim. and shot me. "She lied to investigators, not once, but three times. She lied to her friends, her family, and to her son."
Grace rocket-launched out of her chair again. "Objection, Your Honor. May we approach?" Without waiting for an answer, she stomped to the front of the courtroom and stood, hands on hips, feet apart. Grace Wade, princess warrior, ready for battle.
After an animated discussion--her hands flailing, his head bobbing and the judge jerking her head back and forth ping pong style--she returned to her seat next to mine and picked up her pen. She scribbled, No worries. I got this.
I aspired to worried.
The judge glanced at Cal, then the jury. "The objection is sustained. Ladies and gentleman, there is no evidence the gun used to shoot Mr. Turner was, in fact, the gun belonging to Simon Hunter." Cal received his second stink-eye from the judge in a matter of minutes. "Proceed, Mr. Connor."
"The point isn't who this defendant lied to or whose gun she used, or why Sean Turner turned up in Illinois. The point is she lied and she lied a lot. She left Mr. Turner in his hotel room bleeding to death."
Nope. By the time I arrived, he'd been stabbed and shot and died alone. The way I always knew he would.
"The relationship between the defendant and Mr. Turner was born in the back of a limousine where the defendant conceived the couple's child. After trying unsuccessfully to dupe Keaton Shaw into believing the child belonged to him, a DNA test proved her a liar. Another lie in her long list. With no other choice after being chased out of Storybook Lake in shame, she sought out Sean Turner and married him, then quit her job."
I hadn't quit my job. My job didn't require a desk or an office, just a pen and piece of paper. I designed kids' clothes for a living.
"Then she moved to California to be with her husband. After a few thousand arguments over money, she left the marital home, taking the child with her. When she returned over the Christmas holiday, she visited Storybook Lake with her husband, and while they were there, together, as a couple, she flaunted her desire to be with Mr. Hunter in Sean Turner's face."
We had been fighting over my money and the way Sean spent it in big fat wads, but the tone of Cal's voice turned the greed around on me. And, for his information, during the trip in question, Sean found me talking to Simon for the sum total of one minute, hauled me back to the hotel, and hit me with such force my eyes rolled back. I thought he'd literally broken my face. The next morning, he'd cried like a baby, said he couldn't stand the thought of losing me. I went home with him because he'd been sorry and because he promised to start over with me and make a life with me and Kieran. Plus, Simon went to the New Year's party with Kelly Devlin, the big shot magazine writer he'd broken up with me to date.
"Mr. Turner, by this defendant's own admission, cried, begged, and pleaded for her to return to him so he could share in the life of their child. Reluctantly, by another of her own admissions, she returned home to Mr. Turner where the real fighting began."
Rage at the injustice behind Cal's half-truths welled up inside me. Grace covered my fingers with her own, squeezing hard, probably to stop the drumming against the table top. The fighting started because Sean slept with every stripper in his employ, as well as some who worked for other clubs. Jeez! Where was a tiny-headed voodoo doll when I needed one?
"By the time she finished with him, Sean Turner couldn't wait for Danielle to leave, but he wanted his son. Within hours of her leaving, he filed papers for custody of his child."
Sean had used custody as leverage to lure me back. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Grace had been forthright about how I should behave, and eye rolling topped the no-no list.
"But did this defendant cooperate after the police found the body? Did she ever tell them she had, in fact, been in Mr. Turner's hotel room? No. Did she tell them she stalked him to the hotel, fought with him? No. Instead, she pretended she'd had no contact with him since she'd taken their son and run home to Storybook Lake months earlier." He shook his head and his pacing in front of the jury continued.
"When investigators discovered otherwise, her story changed again, tailored to fit the evidence. She finally concocted this story of abuse toward not only her, but the child. She, in her desperation to stay out of jail, involved their four-year-old son in her web of lies." He stared down most of the time, presumably to make sure his clown shoes didn't catch on one another and cause him to topple head over feet. "Danielle Turner is the worst kind of predator. She uses her beauty"--he stabbed a bony finger through the air in my direction and gazed up at the jury--"to snare men into her web of lies."
His words curdled my blood.
"She used her over-average intelligence to try to outwit cops and investigators. And she used her son as a weapon to get her way. In this case, to get her way she had to kill Mr. Turner. Otherwise, she couldn't embark on her new life with Simon Hunter. In a town which celebrates its fiction, don't lump her in with the likes of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or even Dr. Seuss. Her fiction is as unbelievable as the evidence will prove it to be." With a smirk, he raised one eyebrow at Grace and went back to his chair, needing a copy of the yellow pages on his seat to properly see over the top of his table. Without it, he seemed to have tucked himself almost underneath the smooth, flat surface holding the mountain of notes and binders on the case.
Grace stood and smoothed her skirt. "Mr. Connor." She shook her head, long, blond hair swinging along her back, soft curls dancing. "Shame on you."
"Your Honor." Calvin shoved his legs against the fabric of his cushioned chair, shooting it backward into the short wall dividing us from the gallery. The clatter echoed throughout the high-ceilinged room. "Ms. Wade needs to speak to the jury, not the prosecutor."
The judge smiled at Grace. "Miss Wade, you know better."
Grace nodded, her lips pursing as she tried to wipe the smile from her face. "Yes, Your Honor." She turned back to the jury and introduced herself, then began. "Mrs. Turner didn't lure her husband to Storybook Lake. She didn't want him anywhere near Storybook Lake or her son. Since the day of their wedding, Sean tortured Danielle, beating her and later Kieran. There is irrefutable evidence to prove it."
She turned to Cal, with another quick shake of her head as though reprimanding him for his lie. "As soon as the private detective Sean Turner hired to hunt Danielle found her, bad, scary, dangerous things started to happen. He had her home vandalized, then broken into. She received countless texts on numerous cell phones indicating Sean knew exactly where to find her and exactly how she spent her days. The week he died, Sean bought a plane ticket and flew to Storybook Lake to step up his efforts to intimidate my client, her friends, and her family. The evidence will show you Danielle did not kill Mr. Turner.
"Instead you'll see how Sean Turner taunted her, threatened her life repeatedly, not only over the last week of his life, but during the entire course of their relationship. What the evidence will not show you is that she had a single thing to do with his murder. The prosecutor has no murder weapon, no eye witness, not a single, tangible thing to prove Danielle had anything to do with Sean's murder. She admitted to seeing him. She admitted to being in his hotel room, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't shake her story about what happened after she got there."
She paused for a moment, her eyes pivoting from me to the jury. "You are going to hear things about Sean Turner which are going to make it seem as though he's the one on trial, about his behavior, his job, and his sex life. Make no mistake. We're not trying to smear Sean Turner's name, but this is all information you need to walk into the jury room with a full picture of the events leading up to the night Danielle left her husband and returned home to the safety of Storybook Lake.
"Danielle had the most to lose and nothing to gain by Sean Turner's death. When he died, she inherited an almost bankrupt strip club and a pile of debt he ran up in the months since she left. She had an army of friends surrounding her to keep her safe from Sean and his henchmen. The fact is, many, many people had a reason to want Sean dead. Danielle didn't kill him, and Mr. Cooper cannot prove otherwise."
Grace smiled once more at the jury, then came to sit beside me as Calvin stood. "Your Honor," he said, with enough glee in his voice I imagined him about to spring into cartwheels. "I call Mr. Keaton Shaw."
Ugh. Keaton's debt to me had been repaid, and no matter what he said about forgiving me, I had no idea what he would say or do on the stand. He raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth, and took his seat to the left of the judge. After he stated his name for the record, he shot me a half smile. I hoped against all other hope it was a good sign.
When he tightened his tie, adjusted his jacket, then pointed a straight-forward gaze at the jury, several of the female jurors sat up straighter. His beauty inspired the same reaction wherever he went.
"Mr. Shaw." Calvin walked from his seat to the podium, almost wringing his hands together in evil merriment. This had to be his nerd dream. He had the captain of every sports team in our graduating class sitting in front of him testifying against the homecoming queen. It played out like an after school special gone wrong. "How do you know Mrs. Turner?"
Keaton's eyebrows moved toward the center of his forehead as though he'd never heard a question more stupid. "We all grew up together." His tone clearly indicated he included Calvin in the group.
Calvin chuckled. "Right. We did."
Though I'm sure Cal remembered growing up outside their circle a little differently than Keaton remembered growing up surrounded by Gatlin, Joss, Simon, Kelly, and Luke.
"Growing up, how well did you get to know Mrs. Turner?"
Keaton smiled. "We were friends, then we dated in high school. After high school we lived together for a while."
"And when you were living together, was it while you were still married?"
"I was in the process of getting divorced."
Excerpted from Breaking Hearts by Melissa Shirley. Copyright © 2016 Melissa Shirley. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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