Coming in November 2009, A Conflict of Interest.
I have the best job. I get to write romance for Harlequin Enterprises. At about twelve, I read my first Harlequin, a Romance, set in a coastal town in Canada. I can’t remember everything about it, but I’ll never forget a scene where the heroine ran down a wooden staircase to the beach and ended up in the hero’s arms. My grandma gave me that book. Before that I’d only read the classics or history or mystery. As I read that first romance, I kept waiting for a body to fall. But how cool–this book was all about love growing between a man and woman who were as real to me as if I were seeing them.
I’ve never stopped reading everything else, but I love romance. I can’t wait for the first pinch of tension and the relief when the hero and heroine find they cannot resist each other. From that first book, I moved on to Presents. When Anne Mather had a new release, I hurried it to the cash register. In college, after analyzing lit all semester, I’d rush to the book store for a break filled with romance. I remember when American began, and SuperRomance. Then the lovely little red books, Desire, and eventually Blaze showed up.
Finally, I sold my own first novel. Then, one surreal day, one of mine appeared on the Mills and Boon site on the same page as a Betty Neels release! I took a screen shot that follows me to each new laptop.
I’ve tried to bring all the passion I love reading about to Judge Jake Sloane and Dr. Maria Keaton’s story. While Maria’s reels with relief that Jake hasn’t betrayed her, he’s torn by guilt because he should have. Being Jake’s conflict of interest isn’t enough for Maria, but how can she learn to trust him?
Happy 60th anniversary, Harlequin! Happy reading to all of us who seek out our favorite books each month.
Bits of ice plinked against the courtroom windows, to the odd accompaniment of whispering fans that dispersed the heat of too many bodies packed in one small space. The defense attorney, a walking cliche of paunch and righteous anger, set a composition book in front of Dr. Maria Keaton on the witness stand.
“Do you recognize this diary?” Buck Collier pointed with his thick finger.
Maria stared at the marbleized cover, rubbed almost grey. Her patient, Griff Butler had scrawled shapes into the cardboard, bearing down so hard he’d drilled red and blue ink beneath the surface. He’d written words and then crossed them out with heavy marker. He’d drawn muscle-bound men firing guns that sprayed bullets across the mottled cover.
And he’d tried to make her read the pages, swollen with his secrets.
He’d had a crush. Sometimes, patients got them, but as they healed, they also found out they didn’t truly love their therapists.
But one look at Griff’s journal, and the man behind the judge’s bench, just above her, filled her mind. The man whose gaze she’d avoided because his black eyes made her painfully aware that inappropriate, nearly mind-drugging attraction could also afflict her. Judge Jake Sloane didn’t have to move to capture her attention.
Soon after she’d moved to Honesty, he’d said hello at a party and taken her hand just as someone else called to him from across the buffet table. She’d let go, but the low timber of his voice had touched her. She’d dragged her hand out of mid-air to hold it close to her stomach. With a nod, Jake had walked away, his lean body cutting a swath through the crowd, detachment and sexual awareness a promise in his long stride.
Attraction that felt more like instant addiction made her wary. After that, she’d hung back, watching Jake at town meetings and the food bank where they both volunteered. She’d waited for her ridiculous crush to wane.
Since the moment she’d answered the bailiff’s summons to the courtroom, she’d been totally aware of Jake, leaning back in his chair, his lean, sharp features focused, aware, totally belying his body’s false image of indifference.
“Dr. Keaton?” Buck’s imperious tone cut through Maria’s dread. “The journal. What’s in it?”
“I don’t know.” And she had no urge to find out with Jake slowly propping his chin on his fist as if he had no interest at all.
“You may be ashamed to answer my questions, but the court demands you tell us what was in that book.”
The man’s beady blue eyes bared his anticipation.
“I didn’t read the journal. Your client insisted he killed his parents. I had to call the police. That’s everything I know.”
He stared at her, his skepticism a big show for the jury. “You’re trying to make us believe you never opened that book?”
“Griff never let it out of his reach.”
Buck Collier continued to watch her, but he didn’t speak. She’d used that same method too many times to be felled by it.
“You never asked to read it? He never asked you to?”
“He did.” He’d tried to make her, pulling it out of his book bag, hauling it out of the back of his pants, letting it slip from his folded jacket. He’d shoved it to her floor the day she’d finally called the police. “I couldn’t.”
“You couldn’t? You were too involved with him to read his intimate feelings?” Collier waved his hand as bitterness crept, acid-like, into the pit of Maria’s stomach. The attorney performed a slow, surprisingly graceful twirl toward the jury box. “Didn’t you tell him to write those entries?”
“I suggested that writing about his feelings might clarify them. Writing about them with me in mind as as a potential reader would have made the exercise pointless,” she said to emphasize that the journal had been a kind of prescription.
Collier gave her a smile that felt like a pat on the head for a troublesome child. A silent, “That’s the best you can do?”
It damn well was, because it was the truth.
Buck Collier glided closer, a magician setting up his best trick. “You know what that book contains?”
“I do now.” Movement at her side drew her glance. Jake Sloane, deceptively relaxed, intensely aware, stared at her, and her throat tried to swell shut. She gave herself a mental shake.
She’d called the police because Griff had insisted he’d shot his parents. To this day she doubted he’d actually done the crime. Whether he’d confessed to get her attention, or he’d truly killed his mother and father, he needed help, and she had to get Jake Sloane out of her head and concentrate on helping her former patient.
“Dr. Keaton, why won’t you answer me?”
Behind Collier, Gil Daley, the prosecutor, leaned around his opponent’s body with a warning glance.
“It’s your client’s journal, Mr. Collier.” Sitting back, Maria folded her hands in her lap, careful to erase all signs of tension. “I never opened it.”
“Uh-huh.” He took it back, weighing it in his hand, his glance filled with disdain. “Review it for us. A stirring tale of young love on the psychologist’s couch?”
Subtle as an anvil to the skull. Tittering rustled among the citizens of Honesty, Virginia who’d arrived at court in time for tickets to this circus. Maybe they didn’t need proof.
Maria stifled an absolute compulsion to face Jake and declare her innocence. Instead, she stared at the boy with the cold, blank eyes. Buck had dressed him in a nice black suit of mourning, but no one could show Griff how to pretend he felt–anything.
“I’ve never touched it. I haven’t opened the cover.”
“What did you touch, Dr. Keaton?”
On the raised bench, Judge Jake Sloane moved in his squeaking leather chair.
Daley sprang from his seat. “Your honor, I–”
Buck Collier waved a dismissing hand at Gil. “Question withdrawn. I’m sorry folks, but I get hot under the collar when justice is perverted.“ Buck shook the book at Maria. “You know how Griff used this.”
The prosecutor rose for the eighth time during Maria’s cross-examination. “The defense asks the impossible. How does he expect the witness to testify to the contents of a journal she’s never read?”
Buck turned on Gil Daley. “If the prosecutor would maintain his seat and the peace, we could drill to the truth.” Like an Old Testament patriarch on a Michelangelo ceiling, Buck pointed at Maria. “This woman made my client write the diary. Not only has she read it, they’ve read it together. With every entry, they relived their sexual encounters. She thought up new–”
Maria froze. The packed courtroom erupted in whispers of “I told you so,” and tragic, shrill “no’s,” all backed by a slithering undercurrent of gasps, which Jake Sloane cut off with a single look from dark eyes.
Maria heard and saw through a revolted haze.
The prosecutor leapt to his feet. “I object–”
Jake lifted his hand. “Hold on, Mr. Daley.” He leaned toward the attorneys, at the same time hitting a key on the laptop in front of him. “Step forward, gentlemen, and not another word out of anyone, or I’ll clear the gallery.”