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About the Author
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Off the Record
By Elizabeth White
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Elizabeth White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly November
Laurel Kincade, surrounded by reporters in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building, suddenly understood her great-great grandmother's propensity to shoot Yankee invaders on sight and ask questions later.
How was she supposed to remember the most important speech of her life with him hulking in their midst like a Great Dane infiltrating a pack of Jack Russell terriers?
Okay, so Coleman Davis McGaughan IV-having burst upon this mortal coil some thirty years earlier in a Tupelo, Mississippi, delivery room-couldn't technically be called a Yankee. And if the threadbare khakis were anything to go by, Cole had somehow mislaid his family carpetbag full of filthy lucre. One might also note that under the tweed sport coat hugging those defensive-end shoulders, there was no place to hide a gun.
Still. He'd spent the last two years in New York City (never mind how Laurel knew that) and marched onto her turf toting notepad and Bic pen. This, in her experience, could be infinitely more dangerous than a gun.
As a southern woman, hyperbole was her birthright. Yankee invader.
Outwardly as cool as the Italian marble beneath her feet, Laurel looked up at the white dome soaring overhead. God, please give me strength. The weight of the occasion, its historic significance, mashed her insides to pudding. She wasn't the first woman to declare candidacy for Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, but she could be the first one to win. Unless Cole was here to make trouble.
Behind the crowd of supporters gathered for Laurel's campaign launch, a few reporters from Alabama's backbone papers-the Montgomery Advertiser, the Birmingham News, the Mobile Register, the Huntsville Times-as well as the wire services, stood in a circumspect clump, shuffling cameras, PDAs, and recorders. Cole was the only one she recognized from out-of-state.
Laurel checked her watch. It was almost time for her speech. She adjusted the tail of her navy pinstripe suit jacket, though it already hung with razor military precision. People expected a judge to look sober, so she bought designer suits in the Boutique at Stein Mart, where she could get a good fit for ... okay, face it, her statuesque figure.
Which was one reason the six-foot-four Neanderthal had managed to pull her under.
Ignore him, sister, Renata would say. Not worth a wasted brain cell. Her best friend and campaign manager, standing over by the entrance to the law library with Laurel's family, caught her glancing at the dark-haired giant at the back of the press pack. Though Laurel and Renata went all the way back to a dorm room at Spring Hill College, after graduation they'd gone their separate ways, and Laurel had always kept to herself what happened with Cole.
Therefore, Renata's brown eyes widened, not in recognition, but because Cole still had that inexplicable something. Charisma. Never pretty-boy handsome, he had a way of tucking his chin, brows knit over eyes like raw magnesium. A ragged white scar, new since the last time she'd seen him, cut into his upper lip and veered upward across his left cheekbone. And he still had a gladiator stance that dared men to take him on and women to try to tame him.
Renata raised her eyebrows at Laurel and fanned her face. Then, with a little smirk, she tapped her watch.
Debate team training took over. Gathering herself, Laurel took a breath, released it, and stepped up to the mike. "I'd like to thank everyone for coming out to support me today. My decision to run for chief justice wasn't made lightly, though many will be surprised to learn that it's been in my plans since I was young."
The irony wasn't lost on her. Some would claim that, as the youngest woman ever to run for supreme court, she didn't have enough judicial experience to handle the job. But she'd worked and planned and kept her nose firmly to the grindstone to get here. Smart voters would recognize that youth and femininity didn't equate to stupidity.
She glanced at Cole, fumbled for her notes, and remembered she'd left them in the hotel room. Her photographic memory had blanked as if erased by acid.
Don't look at him again. Cold sweat ran between her breasts. She looked down at her hands gripping the edges of the lectern.
A camera flashed. She looked up and found a cameraman standing next to Cole lowering a big zoom lens. He elbowed Cole and stepped back.
Blinking against red and yellow spots, she lifted her chin.
In return, Cole raised his pen: a silent toast-or more likely a challenge. Go ahead, baby, let's see what you're made of.
She jerked her gaze off him and looked at her grandfather, who smiled his pride and encouragement. The next line of her speech clicked back into place. "I'm honored to come from a family with a rich tradition of public service, beginning with my grandparents and continuing with my parents. They have supported me, encouraged me, taught me, and presented me with incomparable examples of hard work, faith, and personal integrity.
"These are the values that have undergirded the laws of our country and our state from their inception, and these are the values that will guide me as I seek this critical judicial post."
Once she got rolling, the words flowed. She'd practiced. She'd prayed. Didn't matter what Cole was up to. God was in charge of this whole thing.
* * *
"Judge Kincade looks nervous," said Matt Hogan with unnecessary relish.
"Nervous? I don't think she looks particularly nervous." Cole surreptitiously stepped in front of Hogan's camera. Laurel might be famous for nerves of steel, but she was definitely distracted. He'd known it might not be a good idea to show up like this without warning.
"You said you could get an interview with her." Hogan lowered the camera, more interested in excavating Laurel's checkered past than taking her picture. "Have you arranged it yet?"
"I just flew in this morning. Give me time."
"We don't have time to waste." Hogan's whisper took on an aggrieved tone. "I've been here a week and haven't found out diddly about any dirty little skeleton in her closet-at least nothing we can document."
"Have you considered the possibility that she might be as clean as she claims to be?" The question had to be asked.
Hogan gave him a yeah-right look. "We're talking southern politics here."
Cole sighed. "Point taken. Now shut up so I can take notes." He leaned away from the column behind him to stare at Laurel. Half the copper-laced mahogany hair was twisted in a complicated knot on top of her head, with the rest swirling in fiery waves past her shoulders. She'd always worn it that way, and he wondered if she knew how telling it was-softness and passion under that tightly controlled persona.
He forced his pen across the paper as he listened.
Neutral umpire on any dispute to come before her court.
He couldn't help remembering the last time they were in the same room. She'd told him not to color her world until Jesus came back-at which time he'd undoubtedly be bound for that place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth anyway.
Editor of Law Review, clerk for Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, youngest partner in firm history, state attorney general's staff, well-rounded lawyer with extensive experience in the state court system.
She'd gained a little weight, filled out into womanly curves that catapulted images across his brain like Rockettes in a Christmas Eve show. Oh, Lord, help me out here.
Would interpret the law, not legislate it; loved the judicial process and promised to bring experience, leadership, and integrity to Alabama's highest court.
Hogan and his buddy Field would crucify her if they found out the truth.
He felt a sharp jab in his ribcage and looked down.
Hogan was peering at Cole's notepad. "You writing an article or drawing her portrait?"
Cole looked down, realized he'd been sketching instead of taking notes, and flipped to a clean page. "Go over there and listen in on her family. The old man with the cane-that's her grandfather, Judge Gillian. The middle-aged couple are her parents."
Hogan perked up, a hound on a scent. "I'll meet you back here after the speech."
Cole was left alone to take notes like a good boy.
Laurel would make a fine justice. She'd been the only one of her law school friends with a lick of common sense-as if he'd cared about her brain back then. The evening he met her at a university picnic, she'd been sitting at the edge of the group, a fine queenly decorum in the turned-up corners of that lush mouth. He couldn't quit staring at it-beautiful and unglossed in the natural deep rose that came from her high Scots coloring. Then she'd spiked his guns with her humor, and he'd felt like a kid slammed in the gut with a volleyball. The fact that he could still remember that moment was a measure of its impact, considering his brain had been half pickled with a six-pack of Budweiser.
"I thank you all for coming out today." Laurel beamed her warm smile, and the cameras took advantage of it. Flashes went off everywhere. "I look forward to the upcoming campaign with great excitement and anticipation."
An enthusiastic cheer erupted. As the applause faded, several reporters vied for her attention. Laurel good-naturedly ignored them.
Until Cole stuck his hand in the air. "Excuse me, Ms. Kincade! Judge Kincade, I'm sorry. I have a couple of questions."
Laurel froze in the act of removing the mike attached to her lapel. Her beautiful, elegant head turned his way. "I'm sorry, I wasn't planning to-"
"I won't keep you long." He let his voice slide into the familiar southern cadence he'd worked hard to eradicate. Charm, his stock in trade. "I'm from the Daily Journal in New York."
One fine line creased Laurel's milky brow. "You may call my campaign manager and request an appointment." Her smile gave him a private warning.
"I promise, just a couple of questions."
A young black woman in long, complicated braids and a designer suit, who seemed to function as some kind of personal assistant, stepped close to Laurel. "Sure, we can take just one or two," she said.
Laurel gave her a "thanks a lot" glare, then grabbed the lectern and swallowed. "All right." They stared at one another for a long moment. Somebody in the crowd coughed.
He cleared his throat. "All right, then. Your grandfather, Judge Gillian, was involved in the Ten Commandments issue back in 2004-when the Alabama chief justice was impeached for refusing to remove the monument from this very building. Tell us how that will affect your interpretation of the Constitution regarding religion."
Laurel's grip on the lectern relaxed. "My grandfather, as much as I love and respect him, will not be seated behind this bench. My decisions have always been my own and are solely based on Alabama law." She smiled faintly. "They always will be."
"Um, that's good." He jerked his gaze away from Laurel and cased her family.
Judge Gillian didn't seem to recognize him. Silver head poised like a hawk, the old man proudly watched his granddaughter handle this unexpected inquisition. Laurel's parents, Dodge and Frances Kincade, were lined up in front of the library, in solidarity with several other people Cole had never seen.
There was so much he hadn't had time to learn about Laurel.
He glanced at Hogan, who was making circular "keep going" motions. But Cole didn't want to antagonize Laurel.
"You said two questions. Do you have another?" Laurel was back in control, smiling and confident, ready to walk off with her family and supporters.
"Yes. Yes, I do." His voice jackknifed off the marble of the rotunda. "Actually I have several more questions, Judge Kincade. Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?"
* * *
"One has to admire that young man's nerve." Her grandfather, affectionately nicknamed "Fafa," handed Laurel a tray and waited for her to collect her silverware. "Quite the bold tactician."
The Commerce Café, located in the Center for Commerce a few blocks down from the Judicial Building, was nothing fancy but was quite the weekday place to see and be seen. Laurel often had lunch here when in Montgomery on business trips.
She snatched a container of coleslaw at random from the salad array. Her hand still shook so hard that the bowl rattled against the tray. "I can't believe he asked me out in front of all those people."
Actually she could believe it. It was just like Cole to go for what he wanted without concern for the consequences. What was completely out of character was the fact that he'd let his interview go with just the one question-well, technically two, if you counted the dinner invitation. When she'd stared at him, openmouthed and speechless, he'd backed off, lips curved, leaving her to face a barrage of laughter. Pretending to find the humor in the situation, she'd smiled and removed the microphone with a dry, "I think I'm going to recuse myself."
But Fafa's patent curiosity wasn't any laughing matter. Avoiding his gaze, she moved to the entrée kiosk. "Catfish, please," she told the server. Most of the world's ills would be cured if all its bottom-feeding scavengers were fried to a crisp and served with hushpuppies.
If she weren't such a big chicken, she'd have taken Cole on right there in the rotunda; tried to find out what he was doing down here. Instead she'd ducked out, letting Renata and Fafa carry her off for a celebratory lunch with the family.
They clustered around a table by the window looking out on downtown Montgomery. Daddy had already taken off his suit coat and loosened his tie-"left-wing Communist inventions," he always called them with a wink, ignoring the fact that Communists had gone out of style with stirrup pants and shoulder pads.
Her father got up and pulled out Laurel's chair as she approached the table. "Here's our woman of the hour. Appetite come back yet?"
"More or less." She never could get food down before a big speech. And this had been one of the biggest of her life. She sat down and opened her napkin. "Where's Mom?"
"I think she went to powder her nose." Daddy gave her a searching look. "What's the matter? You knocked their socks off, little girl. You're a shoo-in."
"Daddy. The media thinks I'm a spoiled, ultraconservative rich girl with too many political antecedents and not enough experience. Didn't you hear that question from-" She stopped. She shouldn't have brought up Cole.
Sure enough, Renata, seated across from her, joined the fray. "You mean the dinner invitation? I don't know what's the matter with you, Laurel. You should've jumped on it. Jumped on him." She laughed. "Whichever came first."
Laurel frowned. "Renata-"
"You are so prissy." Renata sighed. "But he sure was cute, in a Russell Crowe kind of way."
Fafa bent an indulgent smile on Renata. "You've got the right idea, sugar. Best way to handle the press is to give them the old soft soap. Let 'em think you're rattled, and they'll hound you to kingdom come." He picked up his tea glass and jiggled the ice. "Which is why I sent your mama back over to the Judicial Building."
The gargoyle of impending doom that had crouched on Laurel's shoulder since meeting Cole's hot silver-gray eyes suddenly swooped down and took a chunk out of her stomach. "Fafa, what have you done?"
"Honey, a New York paper wants an interview, and we need all the name recognition we can get. Your mama lived in NYC for three years. She'll know how to talk to him." Fafa sipped his tea, then dabbed his white mustache with a napkin. "She can give him your statistics and background and sell you like a Prada handbag."
At one time Laurel might have objected to the auction block terminology. At the moment she was more worried about what Cole might say to her mother. She pleated her napkin. By the world's standards she hadn't done anything so terrible; besides, it had happened a long time ago. The problem was she'd very publicly set herself above the world's standards-back in law school days and certainly in her recent career as a public servant.
Laurel Josephine Kincade-family values candidate.
She pushed away from the table. "I've got to go talk to him."
Renata's smile leaped out. "I knew it."
"Stay and finish your lunch." Daddy patted her hand. "I'm sure he'll call your office later-"
"I'm not hungry." She picked up the plate of cooling catfish. Too bad to waste it. Too bad about a lot of things.
Excerpted from Off the Record by Elizabeth White Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth White. Excerpted by permission.
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