Guilty or Innocent? Even after the sensational trial of St. Louis builder Holden Sawyer, the answer to that question haunts marketing consultant and juror Mara Taylor. All Mara wants is to resume her normal life But because of the lengthy, notorious trial, her business is in ruins. Her roommate is gone along with Mara's boyfriend. Then a series of 'accidents' convinces her that someone wants her punished for setting Holden free. And the former defendant wants her help in solving the murder! Pushed beyond endurance and determined to regain her fife, Mara sets out to solve the murder on her own. Every clue embroils her more deeply into the life of one prime suspect, Holden Sawyer, the defendant she helped acquit. What was Holden's relationship with the beautifully erotic murder victim? Why does a mysterious gold necklace help Mara tap into the victim's mind and the secrets a television evangelist religiously protects? In the midst of the front page backlash her investigation generates, is Mara filling in love with the man she helped free, or the allure and excitement that surround him? Which is more important, knowing the truth ... or trusting her heart?
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Liz Hunter has been spinning tales all her life and saw her first book, a romantic suspense published in 2001. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America, Wisconsin RWA, The Golden Network, EPIC, Books We Love and Jewels of the Quill.
A finalist in the prestigious Golden Heart Contest, The Fabulous Five, the Lories, Golden Network and EPIC contests, her stories consistently garner four and five star reviews. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
"This gripping mystery is full of bright dialogue, interesting plot twists and outrageous characters who would make the hardest of detectives blush. Parts of the book are not for the squeamish, but they are for readers who like a fine balance of romance, suspense and faith. Excellent!"Affaire de Coeur Magazine
"A strong and determined heroine fighting for her life dominates this tightly-written suspense with well-rounded characters and a host of suspects. The plot will grab hold and keep readers in its grasp as an amazing amount of secrets are shed among this cast. Sexual tension abounds right along with the mystery of trying to find out who-dun-it. Ms. Hunter successfully weaves past and present to show readers the why and the how but then she throws us a curve and you're on the edge of your seat waiting for the next surprise. As an added bonus for those of us who like a little something extra, she throws in a hint of the supernatural which only adds to the enjoyment of this delicious romantic suspense that captivates from the very first page."Sime-Gen
"Ms. Hunter plunges the reader into a world of sexual deviancy, murder, and deceit and winds it up into a satisfying conclusion."Scribes World Reviews
"This mystery holds back the thrills until just the right moments, then pleasatly surprises the reader."Romantic Times Magazine
THERE WERE storm warnings out.
The clerk at the grocery store was the first to comment on the threatening weather. "Stocking up for the storm?"
Mara Taylor looked up from unloading her cart to check the view through the store's tinted windows. Not a breath of breeze stirred outside. Heat radiated from the pavement in waves. Above the well-tended strip mall, the sky hung low. Dark. Threatening. Exciting. "I love storms," she said.
"Me, too, but they're talking tornado. Maybe you should wait here 'til it passes."
"It's still as a summer's day out there."
"The calm before the storm?" the clerk suggested, her tight curls a perfect match to the fresh carrots she swiped over the scanner. Last time Mara had been in, she would have had to buy beets to match the clerk's hair color. A badge identified her as Emmy, and though Mara shopped here regularly, neither called the other by name. Recognizing a familiar face was the extent of their friendship.
"I love storms," Mara repeated, pulling her checkbook out of her purse. That's me, all right. Ignore all warnings. Go against the grain. That's how I got myself into this mess to begin with.
"You haven't been in for awhile," Emmy observed.
"I was on jury duty."
"Hey, did you hear the verdict in that murder trial? The building contractor accused of stabbing the evangelist's daughter?" She tsked and completed the order. "That'll be $53. 97. Her pregnant, and he gets off scot-free. What a crime. All because of that one juror -- what was her name?"
Mara flushed with guilt, but signed the check with a flourish. "You mean Mara Taylor?"
"Yeah, that's the one. Talked the rest of the jury into letting him off the hook. It's been all over the news the past couple days. I figure she ought to be strung up behind a barge and dragged down-river for getting him off. Maybe one of those alligators that stray this far north could teach her a lesson: don't mess with the justice system." She laughed, taking the check from Mara's grasp.
Mara tried to shrug the comment off. She'd heard worse in the last three days since the trial ended. But it still hurt. All of St. Louis -- hell, the whole country blamed her for freeing a murderer.
He probably did it, too. But I'll never know for sure, will I? Wish I could give him a piece of my mind. He'd be sorry I ever served on his jury.
She brushed her sun-streaked hair off her face with the back of her hand and winced as the clerk gasped at the name on the check.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I never connected you with the -- You look different on TV. I didn't mean nothing, honey."
"It's all right," Mara assured the mortified clerk. "Really." With a forced smile, she accepted her receipt and wheeled the cart out the automatic door. Outside, shoppers scurried for cars, their haste incongruous with the unearthly stillness. The lot was less crowded than usual for a Friday afternoon. The sky was tinted green -- sure sign of tornadoes. The air hung as heavy as her thoughts.
Again Mara wished for the opportunity to let Holden Sawyer know how badly he'd screwed up her life. The city's persona non grata. Grocery clerks had biased opinions of her. Even worse, she'd been gone all spring, sequestered two long months. Her new business was in ruin. Her roommate gone -- with Mara's boyfriend! Sure, they'd watch her business for her, they'd assured her. Urged her to fulfill her civic duty and serve on the jury. To get her out of their way. Why couldn't they have just told her?
All she'd worked for in the past several years seemed lost. Every cent she could afford, she'd squirreled away for the future, for security, for control of her own fate. Only months before the trial, she'd invested her savings in office space in St. Louis' West County, followed by a mass mailing to promote her sales and marketing consulting service. Inquiries dribbled in, satisfyingly so, but most of the contracts she landed had since gone unfulfilled due to her long absence and her loved ones' betrayal. All his fault.
God, I sound like my mother, she realized, coming to her senses. Forever whining. Lord, save me.
What good would it do to vent her anger on Holden Sawyer? He'd just laugh at her misery, or find her an object of pity. He'd tried to contact her since the trial, leaving messages on her machine. She was half tempted to return his calls just to find out what he wanted. She couldn't deny some warped fascination with this man who had so thoroughly disrupted her life. Insanity.
Digging in her purse for keys, she didn't notice the van at first, though the distinctive green color -- a cross between puce and lime -- screamed Sawyer Construction. How could anyone miss it? This particular sickly-green van, one of many in the fleet, had pulled into the space behind her car, parked so tight against her bumper, she couldn't squeeze between the two vehicles to unlock the trunk.
As she unloaded her groceries into the back seat, all the frustration and false accusations of the past three days welled up inside her, boiling over. She raised her right hand and flashed the van a bird. "Here's what I think of you, Mr. Fancy Pants."
She had no idea the driver was inside the van. That quick he was out, slamming the door and striding toward her. Holden Sawyer. Recently acquitted murderer.
"Oh, Christ. Oh, sweet Jesus. Now what do I do?" She pushed the empty cart away. Grabbed for her driver's door, fumbled with her keys. The cart rolled against his van, stopped with a thunk.
"Mara Taylor! I want to talk to you." Same rich voice she recognized from his testimony at the trial.
The whistle! On her key ring. For emergency.
"Wait. I just want to talk to you. I won't hurt you." He grabbed her arm.
"No, don't!" Before she could lift the whistle to her lips, he covered her mouth with his callused hand. His other arm slipped around her waist.
This can't be happening! Not in broad daylight in a parking lot. Why doesn't someone help me? Where're the police? She struggled, brought her heel down hard on top of his foot, jerked her body forward to throw him off balance, ribbed him with her elbow. Anything she could remember from her self-defense classes. She caught the masculine scent of him.
She broke free. Jumped in her car. Popped the automatic door lock. Shoved the key into the ignition.
She heard the string of expletives from him as she peeled out of the parking space. Checking the rear view mirror, she saw him standing in the empty space with hands extended, palms up, as if to say, What happened? Same summer-weight tan suit he'd worn a few times during the trial, same strikingly handsome features, giving him a false image of warmth and earnestness. Shaking his head as if she were the crazy one.
Memories of the trial shivered through her, along with a rush of doubt, not the first since the trial had ended. She'd lain awake nights, head pounding with uncertainty, wondering if she'd been right, worrying she'd been wrong. Had she really set free a murderer?
The words of one of the other jurors flashed into her mind. Just vote guilty with the rest of us, goddamn it! With his money, he'll probably be out in less than a year, anyway.
Mara cringed at the memory. It seemed the juror had been right. In light of the incident in the parking lot, Holden Sawyer was obviously an unbalanced, possibly demented man, well deserving a guilty verdict. She drew a shaky breath, assuring herself it was over. No harm done. At least he hadn't jumped in his van and followed her.
Traffic slowed, and Mara pulled to a stop behind other cars at a light. Just to the right, a big rig idled loudly, its trailer even with her car. She matched her breathing to the slow rumble of the truck's engine. The light changed, and she waited patiently for traffic to move. What she wouldn't give to be back in the safety of her own apartment.
In the rear view mirror, she caught a glimpse of the green van pull up a few cars behind. What were the chances it was a driver other than Holden Sawyer?
"Non existent," she said aloud. "That's enough. I'm calling the police." There were laws against stalking. She grabbed for her cell phone on the seat beside her.
It wasn't there.
Belatedly, she remembered setting it on the kitchen counter next to her grocery list to put in her purse. And walked away without either one.
Pulling up even with the cab of the big truck, she honked the horn, pantomimed dialing 911 on an imaginary phone. The driver frowned, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head. Frustrated that he could be so obtuse, she swerved in front of his rig just in time to swing onto the I-64 ramp. All she got for her trouble was the blast of his horn.
Behind the truck, she spotted the Sawyer Construction van doggedly following her.
She couldn't go home. She needed the police. Which exit? She couldn't think. Strange, she remembered passing police stations in any number of places across the city, and couldn't for the life of her remember where they were now that she needed them. If she were speeding, it would be a different story. There'd be a cop on the spot.
Inspired by the thought, she forced the pedal to the floor. The whole world suddenly turned surreal. The ominous green sky, the van dashing after her through the heavy stillness, the uncertainty of where she was headed and why.
The speedometer inched up, eighty, eighty-five. No police siren broke the terrifying silence.
Her head swirled from the unaccustomed speed. In the rear view mirror, the van grew smaller, less threatening. Too late, she spotted a slow moving car in her lane, slammed her foot on the brake. She'd never stop in time. Miracle of miracles, a car in the right lane took the exit, and Mara swung into the open spot and passed the car safely before reaction set in. She shook all over. Why jeopardize her life and others fleeing from this fool?
Forest Park with the zoo and art museum zipped by. What she wouldn't give for a quiet visit to the planetarium. Something normal, non-life threatening. He probably wasn't even following her. He lived down here in the Central West End. Most likely he was on his way home, while she was well on her way to paranoia.
Buildings grew taller, closer together. She caught a glimpse of the sleek arch on the skyline. The wind suddenly kicked up, a forerunner of the storm, buffeting the car at highway speed. Still she drove until she had no choice but to exit unless she crossed the river into East St. Louis. A city notorious for crime. She was upset, yes. Crazy, no.
Exiting the freeway system, she soon pulled into a parking space along the river. The paddlewheel restaurants, the retired minesweeper, the tourist attractions under the sturdy legs of the stainless steel arch were all reassuringly familiar. Fewer people were about than usual in the freshening breeze. People. No longer was she alone, fleeing from a madman.
A sigh of relief escaped her. Too soon.
Into the parking space behind her pulled a distinctive green van. It was too much. Climbing out of the car, she marched to the van. Hands on hips, sparks shooting from her hazel eyes. "What the devil do you want from me?"
He rolled down the window. "All I wanted to do was thank you for saving my life."
"Send me a thank you note!" She started to walk away, her earlier fear and current anger roiling in her stomach, needing an outlet. Viciously, she kicked the tire.
His amused look said what he thought of her behavior.
She turned on him, wishing he wasn't protected by a metal door, wishing for something much softer to kick. "People don't go around grabbing other people in parking lots to thank them. I almost had an accident back there!"
"You shouldn't have been driving so fast." He opened the door and swung out of the van, looming over her. Gone were thoughts of a swift kick to someplace soft..
"I apologize," he said.
"You scared the hell out of me! I would have thought you'd be grateful. If it wasn't for me, you'd be rotting away in a jail cell right now."
"Or worse. I meant what I said. You saved my life."
Her bravado fled with the sincerity in his voice. She desperately needed to take him at his word. She drew a shaky breath. "I wouldn't say I saved your life, exactly. You wouldn't have got the death penalty."
"Okay, a life sentence." He turned to lock his van. "Same difference. An inmate probably would have finished the job for the DA." He nodded to her car, and she found herself locking it without protest. By unspoken agreement they set off across the street. May as well let him get whatever he wanted from her out in the open, here and now. In a safe environment.
He shrugged as if he were unaffected by the whole experience, though his words belied his behavior. "When I found out how close it was, I think I went into shock."
Her heart responded with a pity she wasn't sure he deserved. "Who told you how close it was?"
"One of the reporters. He asked me how I felt when I heard the first ballot was eleven to one against me, and that you were responsible for swaying the other jurors. I had no idea."
Mara wished he'd never found out. She didn't like being the object of his gratitude. She'd rather remain within the security of anonymity, one of twelve rather than singled out as the only one to believe in him. Which she didn't. She simply didn't believe one hundred percent in his guilt.
Convincing eleven other jurors to change their minds sounded like a monumental task when he said it, but it hadn't really been that hard. The foreman had insisted on voting as soon as they retired to deliberate, with no discussion, just to see where we stand. As soon as a few of her fellow jurors had found one other member with doubts about convicting Holder Sawyer, they were relieved to change their vote.
But he must be guilty. Why else would the prosecution spend all this money to bring him to trial? That was Sarah, the retired factory worker.
What about all the evidence the judge ruled against? You know darn well they have something really incriminating on this guy. They just can't use it, Larry, the foreman, argued. Surprisingly, Sarah answered him. The judge told us to decide the case on the evidence presented. We're not allowed to consider any of the other stuff.
Exactly, Mara had summed up her own feelings. We cannot in good conscience deliver a guilty verdict without clear and compelling evidence linking the defendant to the crime.
"Do you know which of the jurors talked?" Mara asked.
"Lawrence...something. Wasn't he the big guy in the front row?"
"That's him." Larry the Loud Mouth, she'd christened him. Larry of just-vote-guilty-with-the-rest-of-us fame.
He shuddered. "God, I have nightmares just thinking about it."
The compassionate side of Mara sympathized with the newly acquitted man for the ordeal he'd gone through. Her practical side warned he could be capable of murder, despite the acquittal. Why else would she be in this predicament?
"Well, it's over now," she said, deciding it wise to terminate the subject. "Time to put it all behind you."
"Right," he agreed flatly.
A couple passed them, on their way to their car. The man eyed them as if he should recognize them, but he didn't ask the obvious. Instead he said, "Better watch the weather. There's a storm coming."
Mara nodded and frowned. To Holden, she said, "Maybe we should go back."
Apparently he was in his own world. "I used to come down here a lot during the trial. I don't know what it is, the flow of the water maybe. Always relaxes me."
The wistful tone of his voice alarmed her. Why did he need a relaxation technique? What if it didn't work? Did he turn violent?
He looked perfectly normal, casually alert, interested in the river traffic. A grain barge glided effortlessly down river on the swift current. The coming storm had stirred the water into a chop.
Neither he nor the storm were any threat to her, she told herself. Not with shelter close by. Not with other people around.
"Let's walk," he commanded.
The wind gusted, creating whirlwinds of debris, and he switched sides to offer protection. How could such a dangerous man smell so damn good? The devil in disguise?
She moved well away. Nearby, a crew hurried to secure the helicopter so popular with tourists. No tours in this threatening weather.
They neared the water's edge before Holden spoke. "I worry about the position I've put you in."
Appease him. Let him have his say. Then I'll be rid of him. "What position is that?"
"All the uproar about the verdict. People are ticked off about your interference in seeing justice served." Off in the distance lightning forked against the backdrop of clouds.
"It'll die down." A churning in her stomach made mincemeat of her casual reply. Why else but the trial was she talking to a man she'd planned to lambaste only thirty minutes before? It felt more like a lifetime.
"Did you see Crazy Charlie on Larry King Live Wednesday night?" he asked.
"Charlie Cranston. TV evangelist extroadinaire."
"Cathy's father?" Despite the brooding heat of the afternoon, goose bumps prickled her skin. Would she never bury the memory of the graphic photos introduced at the trial? Multiple stab wounds sounded clinical in theory, unforgettable once she'd seen visible proof of the victim's horrible death. How could he be so cavalier when talking about his former lover -- the woman he'd been accused of slicing to death with a butcher knife?
"Charles Cranston himself," he went on without interruption. "He's convinced I killed his daughter and his future grandchild. He's talking about bringing a civil suit against me. Haven't you seen the news the past couple days?"
"I got sick of seeing myself on TV." She hadn't even gone out for a paper with all the reporters camped on her doorstep. Had to unplug the phone, too. They wouldn't quit calling.
She'd had no support from family or friends. One brief message on her answering machine from her mother the same day the trial ended, How could you! How could you free a murderer!
"The press is responsible for half the panic." Holden turned from the water, dark and menacing. "They're out there stirring up trouble in the name of full coverage. At any rate, there's a lot of anger out there, directed at both of us."
"I know. I'm trying to ignore it." Perhaps it was the shared sense of persecution that allowed her to talk so casually with the recently acquitted murder suspect. Whatever the reason, it seemed perfectly natural to engage in a civilized conversation.
"I take it you haven't received any threatening letters, then." Lightning flashed closer, thunder rumbled.
Her heart skittered. "As a matter of fact, I have." She'd tried to shrug off the hate mail, knowing a piece of paper couldn't hurt her. Still, she called the police, only to be told they'd investigate.
He continued, "Mine are signed, 'The Lord'."
Mara gasped. One note to her said only, Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord. Addressed to Mara Jezebel Taylor, though her middle name was Jane. Another greeted her as Harlot. She assumed they were from some religious fanatic, one of Reverend Cranston's faithful followers. The fact that Holden, too, had received similar letters more than doubled the threat. The sky darkened to near black. "Did you call the police?"
"For all the good it did."
Her throat was suddenly so dry she could barely get words out. "They won't provide protection?"
"They said they'd investigate."
The identical response unnerved her, dashed all hope. The idea of being linked with an acquitted murder defendant brought chills to her spine. They were both targets, and though some whacko might not be able to broach Holden's defenses at home, hers were virtually non-existent. She swung away, her anger erupting. "How could you do this to me?"
"I didn't do anything, at least not intentionally."
Her life was in danger from some vigilante zealot, and Holden denied any involvement? A brutal wind drove the first sheets of rain at them. "Son of a bitch! Why can't this whole nightmare just be over?"
"It can't," he yelled. "Not on its own. That's why we have to stick together on this."
"Stick together!? I'm calling the police again." Cold rain lashed at her face. She took off at a dead run.
He nabbed her, his hand remorseless, choking off her escape as well as the blood flow in her wrist. "What would you tell them?" he demanded. "That someone may be after you? Has anyone threatened you directly? Do you have proof your life's in danger?"
She wanted to scream at him but realized he had a point. She'd heard of people being denied protection until an actual attempt had been made on their lives. The authorities wouldn't act on the basis of a few letters. "What do you suggest I do?"
"Work with me. Help me investigate the murder."
"You're out of your mind!"
Twisting her arm free, she took off, running blindly in the wind and rain. Sirens pierced the air, warning that tornadoes had been spotted. Pea sized hail stung her back, pelting her arms and shoulders. She tripped, scrambled against bare pavement, sobbing with pain and frustration.
Holden wrapped strong arms around her, and she wanted to give in to his superior strength, stay within the aura of his seductive embrace. He helped her into her car, then left her. Cold. Alone. Shaking from the absence of his touch. He returned with clean rags to mop the worst of the rain away from her face. "Will you be okay to drive?"
"I'll be fine."
"I'll follow you home."
The thought frightened her. Lord, if a simple embrace could shake her, what power he could hold over her. Mightier than a storm. "I don't want anything more to do with you!"
"I'm no threat to you, Mara."
Those words sounded like a threat in a world that had turned against her. She didn't believe him, yet he was as good as his word. To a point. When he pulled up behind her at the apartment complex and she got out of her car, he detained her, his touch firm on her arm. "We have to talk."
"No, we don't," she said, tasting freedom, terrified it would be denied.
"I'll call you."
"Don't waste your time. I'll just hang up."
"Then I'll have to come over." Again the threat, hanging thick as the recent storm, staying with her long after she watched him drive away.