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"I'm not crazy." Cynthia Merritt crossed her fingers behind her back, in case that was a lie.
She fixed her gaze above her father's head, on the framed Harvard diplomas decorating the wall of his study. Her law degree and his, side by side.
"Of course you're not," Jonah Merritt soothed her, in a tone that would convince any jury of an insanity plea. "You're tired, that's all. Stressed."
Stressed. Cynthia could imagine how pathetic that sounded to her dad. Jonah Merritt had never once, in his illustrious legal career, succumbed to stress. And Cynthia had always been as stoic as her dad. She hated how disappointed he must be.
"It was just one incident," she promised. Funny how in her office or in the courtroom, she could be as cool as a defendant with a cast-iron alibi. But sitting in the wing chair in front of her father's desk, she was reduced to knotting her fingers in her lap.
"The problem is," Jonah said, "unless we act immediately, news of that incident will get around."
Everyone will hear the acting Georgia attorney general was found gibbering in a broom closet. Cynthia's face burned, unrelieved by the evening breeze wafting through the open sash window. "Dad, let me explain."
Her father held up a hand. "Let's look forward, not back, Cynthia. Everyone suffers the occasional glitch. Given your meteoric rise, it's hardly surprising you're not immune to the same stresses… my dear."
The tacked-on endearment surprised her and, though it was scarcely effusive, warmed her. She lowered her defenses long enough to smile. Her father lavished endearments on her youngest sister, Sabrina, and was affectionate with Megan, the middle Merritt girl. But he wasn't prone to showing affection toward Cynthia. She'd always known she had his respect. But just sometimes, she yearned to see love, rather than pride, in his gaze.
Cynthia drew a breath that was unfortunately shuddery; she caught the scent of polished wood and leather that always made her think of her dad. "How do you suggest we progress from here?"
Jonah leaned forward, pleased with the question. "You need a break."
"A vacation?" she said. "Dad, I wouldn't know what to do with myself." I wouldn't have anyone to go with.
Her father chuckled. Back in the days before the heart attack that forced his retirement, his response to a suggested vacation would have mirrored hers. "Nothing as drastic as that. We'll get you out of town, but we'll make it look like a step forward in your career. People will assume the gossip can't be true."
A lump of lead settled in Cynthia's stomach, weighing her down in the chair. After yesterday's fiasco she should be thrilled her dad was still committed to supporting her career. But she was so tired, she almost wished he was sending her to the Caribbean, with or without company. "Great," she managed to say.
"I've talked to a few people." With Jonah's unrivaled connections in the Atlanta legal fraternity, that had to be an understatement. "Turns out they're looking for a state court judge down in Stonewall Hollow."
"I've never heard of it—and I thought we agreed I'm not ready to be a judge."
Her dad ran a hand through his hair impatiently. It was almost completely gray now, a reminder he wasn't as strong physically as he'd been a year ago. "Stonewall Hollow is a small town a couple of hours south. They're offering a temporary position—the present judge is on extended leave for health reasons. You're not ready for the Atlanta judiciary, Cynthia, but this is exactly the kind of experience that will get you ready."
"How—how temporary?" She was being banished. She wedged her fingers beneath her thighs, against the seat cushion.
"A couple of months." Jonah relaxed as far as his high-backed leather chair allowed. "You'll cut your teeth in a place where not much happens, then come back to Atlanta with a new dimension of experience that will serve you, and the city, well."
It was three years since some of her dad's colleagues had first suggested Cynthia Merritt had what it took to make judge. A couple of her father's pals on the superior court had even said she was potential Georgia Supreme Court material. The supreme court!
Jonah had passed their comments on to Cynthia casually, but he'd been thrilled. So had she. Together, they'd made the decision to broaden her experience, and she'd left Merritt, Merritt & Finch, the family law firm, to work as a district attorney. A welcome banishment, that one. Her elevation to interim state attorney general following the sudden death of the incumbent had been a real coup.
Shame about the broom closet.
"Your career has moved so fast, it's no wonder the pressure grew too much," her father ruminated, evidently thinking along the same lines. "A change of pace will be just the thing."
"Dad, do I have to go away?" Couldn't she just curl up in her father's lap, the way she used to when she was five years old, before Sabrina was born? Of course not. But at least here in Atlanta, she knew exactly where she fit, even if lately the fit hadn't felt right.
"It will be difficult for you to continue in the attorney general role after yesterday." Jonah rolled his gold-plated fountain pen between his fingers. "More than difficult. Jake won't allow it."
Jake Warrington, Sabrina's husband, was the governor of Georgia. He'd been reluctant to accept his staff's recommendation to appoint his sister-in-law in the acting role, worried about accusations of nepotism. Though he'd eventually been persuaded, he'd made it clear that at the first whiff Cynthia wasn't up to the job, she'd be out.
No way could he ignore the stench of the broom closet.
Cynthia scooted to the edge of her seat. "I could go back to the D.A.'s office." One last stand against the inevitable sentence.
"Your colleagues on the other side of the courtroom will take every opportunity to undermine your credibility," her father pointed out.
She'd do the same to any lawyer foolish enough to crack under pressure.
"Let's be honest, Cynthia," Jonah said. "Your future is decidedly shaky."
Normally, she was a big fan of honesty, to the extent she could be too blunt. She got that from her dad. So it was stupid to sit here wishing he'd just said, I don't care what you did. You're my daughter and I love you.
"Better to leave town, get through this, and come back with judging credentials no one can ignore." Her dad wasn't giving her a choice. "You should see a doctor before you leave, have him give you something to calm your nerves."
"I won't take it," Cynthia said automatically. Her father nodded. The Merritts drew on inner strength, not drugs. She thought about not seeing her dad, or her sisters, for two months, and rubbed her arms.
"What is it, Cynthia?" he asked gently.
"I just want to get past this," she said. "I want to get back to how things were."
Impossible. Because her meltdown hadn't been triggered purely by work stresses, no matter what her father thought.
In the past year, her two sisters had fallen in love with men who adored them. Cynthia had always been out in front of Megan and Sabrina: she set the pace, they struggled to keep up. Now, they'd been admitted to some exclusive, blissful club, and she could only stand outside, nose pressed to the window, envying them.
Unconsciously, she touched her nose. They would be shocked, maybe even disappointed, to hear about her fall from grace. Megan had called Cynthia's cell yesterday, but Cynthia hadn't picked up. Which was crazy—that word again—because her sisters loved her, they were her best friends. "Dad, please, let me stay in Atlanta."
In court, Jonah could mold the toughest witness like putty…but a disintegrating daughter was beyond his capacity. After a moment's hesitation, he walked around the mahogany desk to pat her shoulder. "Cynthia, sweetheart, this is for the best."
Sweetheart? He really did think she was nuts. Fleet-ingly, Cynthia yearned for the broom closet at the attorney general's office on Capitol Square. The coziness of the dark confines, the musty, dusty smell that intimated the undisturbed passing of time…
She was losing what was left of her mind. And since her mind was by far her biggest asset—she didn't have Sabrina's beauty or Megan's sweet nature—she snapped to attention and clamped her hands over the arms of her chair.
"I'll do it," she said. "I'll go to Stonewall Hollow."
The Griffin County Courthouse sat smack in the middle of downtown Stonewall Hollow. The redbrick building's colonnaded facade was disproportionate to its size, as if some nineteenth-century architect had overreached his brief in the quest for professional glory.
"You and me both," Cynthia murmured to the nameless, long-deceased architect as she gazed up at the building from the bottom of the marble steps. She'd been so obsessed with being appointed the youngest-ever judge in the Georgia Supreme Court, she'd gone beyond her capabilities in accepting the interim attorney general role.
Her confidence, which had grown with every mile she'd put between herself and Atlanta, wavered. She was the new girl on her first day in town. Not just the new girl, the new judge. No room for nerves if she wanted to do her job properly. She switched her briefcase from her right hand to her left, testing its reassuring weight. Then she buttoned her suit jacket and walked up the steps.
The huge, wooden double doors stood open, admitting the Monday morning sunlight to the marble-floored foyer. Inside, more pillars supported a mezzanine that revealed a view of a domed ceiling three stories up, painted with a frieze of classical gods and goddesses riding on pink-tinged clouds. They really had gone overboard with this place.
This empty place. It struck Cynthia there was no security screening, as there was at Fulton County Court in Atlanta. And no clusters of lawyers and their clients. Because there's no judge, she reminded herself. Until now.
To her right, a small sign promising Information was almost obscured by a poster advertising the county fair, coming up on the Fourth of July weekend. Next to the poster was a counter with a window.
Cynthia rang the bell on the counter—a real bell, the old-fashioned kind, rather than a buzzer.
"Just one moment," a woman called. A couple of dozen moments passed before she appeared. Dark hair sprinkled with gray and a curvy shape that had spread in all directions suggested she was in her fifties, but she moved at the deliberate pace of someone older. "Can I help you?" She spoke slowly, too.
"I'm Cynthia Merritt."
"The new judge?" Judge became two syllables. The woman looked at her askance. "It's nine o'clock in the morning."
"I know I'm a little late, but—"
"Oh, honey—I mean, Your Honor." The woman chortled. "We weren't expecting you until midday, is all. You must have left Atlanta in the middle of the night."
Cynthia had been on the road at six-thirty, the usual time she left her apartment to go to work.
The older woman stuck a hand through the information window. "I'm Melanie Wilkes. Yes—" she laughed, delighted at Cynthia's double take "—just like in Gone with the Wind. I think my mama was gone with the whiskey when she named me…" She paused; this was clearly a well-worn joke. Cynthia smiled through her nerves.
"I'm your secretary—I'm just filling in on the information desk until Faye-Anne arrives. But I'm going to close this window right now and take you upstairs." Melanie appeared in the foyer a minute later. At the top of the sweeping staircase, she paused to take several deep breaths. "You do look very young, Your Honor."
From what Cynthia had seen of the quiet town, she doubted the local crime rate would tax her abilities, no matter how little experience she had. "I'm older than I look." Should she admit to thirty-two? Or hope the woman would assume thirty-five plus?
"And you're a lady."
"Uh, yes." Pressure built behind Cynthia's temples, and she took a slow breath.
"There's folks around here can't abide the thought of a lady judge," Melanie warned. "I'm not one of them, let me tell you that."
"Pleased to hear it," Cynthia said coolly.
Melanie beamed. "Oh, yes, that's very good, Your Honor. You use that voice and everyone will know who's boss."
Should Cynthia tell the woman to stop calling her Your Honor? Enough with the uncertainty. "How about you call me Cynthia when it's just the two of us," she told Melanie. "And Judge Merritt in public." She was determined to fit in with the less formal atmosphere of a smalltown courthouse.
"Yes, ma'am." Melanie saluted sloppily. "Let me show you your chambers." She crossed the spacious second-floor reception area and opened an oak-paneled door that made Cynthia think of her father.
Sunlight streamed into the large, airy space, dazzling her for a moment. A leather-topped oak desk sat between two sash windows, flanked by two flags—the Stars and Stripes to the left, and on the right, the Stars and Bars of Georgia.
In front of the desk were a pair of serviceable chairs. Cynthia tried to imagine hearing lawyers' arguments from the other side, from the cracked maroon leather seat that looked as if it had been there a couple of decades before she was born. It seemed absurd that she could go from lawyer to judge in the space of Friday's brief swearing-in ceremony and this morning's three-hour drive. But although, in theory, all Georgia judges were elected to their positions, in reality most were like her—lawyers appointed to a judge position between elections. When the election came around they competed to retain their seat. Which she would not be doing in Stonewall Hollow.
"This carpet is…unusual." Cynthia stepped back to gain a better perspective. The enormous rug covered almost the entire room. It depicted a Civil War battle scene, Confederate soldiers bayoneting their Union opponents.
"Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, woven by the Daughters of the American Revolution," Melanie informed her proudly. "There's a little bit of my great-great-grand-mother in there. Not literally, of course."
"It must be valuable," Cynthia said. "Wouldn't it be better off in a museum?" She didn't relish seeing the bloodthirsty scene every time she crossed the room.
"The museum's full up and the rug's always been right here on this floor," Melanie told her. "We value our traditions here in Stonewall Hollow. Now, you have your own bathroom." She pointed to a door in the far corner. "Judge Cartwright had it installed after he—" she lowered her voice to a loud whisper "—lost control of his bladder. That was three judges ago," she added hastily, seeing Cynthia's alarm.
Anxious to move on from judicial incontinence, Cynthia pointed to another oak-paneled door, adjacent to the bathroom. "What's in there?"
"That's just a broom closet."
Cynthia's head snapped around. Had they heard? Could they possibly know?
Melanie met her shocked expression with a look of polite inquiry.
Of course they don't know.
"It seems an odd location for a broom closet," Cynthia explained.