Innocence Series Book 1
She's a prosecutor chasing demons. He's wrestling them. Will they find proof of innocence? Or will the demons win?
Every prosecutor has one – the case that won’t let go, long after the verdict. Maggie Frye’s has just jumped from nightmare to worst-case reality.
Four and a half years ago, she served as special prosecutor in a remote mountain county in Commonwealth of Virginia v. J.D. Carson. Shaking off echoes of the family tragedy that drove her to be a prosecutor, she did her damnedest, despite cards stacked against her. The verdict? Not guilty. A moment that rattled her in ways she’s done her best to bury.
Except now another young woman has been killed in chillingly similar circumstances.
Either Maggie prosecuted the right man and got the wrong verdict or she prosecuted the wrong man and got the right verdict. Either way, a murderer went free to strike again.
And there is J.D. Carson -- not only still in town, but far too close to the investigation for Maggie’s comfort.
But Maggie’s going to be part of this part of this investigation, too. Because this time she’ll get it right … no matter what it costs her.
Proof of Innocence, by USA Today bestselling author Patricia McLinn, will entertain fans of stories that swirl suspense and romance with an ongoing murder investigation in which the man the prosecutor is drawn to might be the one she's trying to catch.
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Note to my CAUGHT DEAD IN WYOMING readers: Proof of Innocence and its upcoming sequel, Price of Innocence, do not have nearly as much humor as the Caught Dead mysteries, though there is some. (I just can't help myself.) They're a bit grittier and darker ... though not in the deep end of grit and dark. I strongly recommend you read the excerpt to be sure this is something you would enjoy. ☺
Four and a half years ago
November wind skied down the county courthouse's steepl, plunged three brick-covered levels, and blasted any mere human braving the backside of Courthouse Hill.
Prosecutor Maggie Frye’s sole concession to its assault was dipping her head as she marched, coatless, up the steep grade toward the courthouse’s back door. A damned hurricane wouldn’t keep her from Courtroom One.
The jury had a verdict in Commonwealth of Virginia v. J.D. Carson.
For the murder of another woman denied the fullness of her life, denied the chance to grow old among those who loved her.
She would not open that door.
She could only gain justice for this victim. For Pandora Addington Wade.
This trial. This verdict. This defendant.READ MORE
J.D. Carson, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who’d turned his life around in the Army, but then killed the one person who’d always believed in him. All because she’d refused to run off with him.
A success story gone very, very wrong. Tragically wrong for Pan Wade.
But Maggie could at least get J.D. Carson convicted. She could do that much this time.
Sure, she was on edge.
Because of the need to get a conviction.
Because this was her first murder trial as lead prosecutor.
Because the jury was out only two hours, meaning her post-trial re-acclimatization was barely started. That odd period when she bobbed up, disoriented, like a deep-sea diver without good equipment. Blinking into the light, forced to recognize the world beyond the witness chair, bench, and jury box had gone on while she was immersed in the trial.
That all explained this strange unsettledness. Nothing to do with the past.
She overlapped the edges of her suit jacket. The wind meant business here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was accustomed to a tamer version in Northern Virginia. Possibly hot air coming across the Potomac River from D.C. tempered it in Fairlington County.
“We should go around to the front entrance,” said Nancy Quinn, assigned to her from Fairlington as paralegal, assistant, and — Maggie suspected — babysitter.
“This is faster.” She didn’t alter her route.
Ed Smith, her second chair, hurried to hold the metal backdoor that accessed a utilitarian stairwell to Courtroom One.
Like her, he was an outsider in Bedhurst County, but with far less experience, since this was the first murder trial he’d worked on.
His charcoal suit was wrinkled, his pants scuffed the floor. Had he dressed like this all along?
She hadn’t noticed.
Up the stairs, he stepped ahead again to open the courtroom door. “Full house.”
Word spread fast around here. Or no one had left since the jury went out.
“She’s the one came from the city to prosecute,” someone in the back row muttered with a disapproving sniff.
As if she’d had a choice.
Her boss, the Commonwealth’s Attorney of Fairlington County, assigned her the case, so here she was.
In Bedhurst County, the Commonwealth’s Attorney office consisted of exactly one part-time lawyer. He’d claimed a conflict of interest in this case, requiring prosecutors from other counties be brought in. Not that unusual for rural one-CA counties.
But this specimen had waited to the last second to back out, left her inadequate files and a stubborn, chauvinist sheriff, then departed on a sudden and extended vacation as she’d arrived. No doubt a cover-his-ass move to ensure he couldn’t be blamed, no matter the outcome.
All around, a great case.
None of that mattered.
Pandora Addington Wade was what mattered.
She looked toward the front of the courtroom and saw, inside the railing dividing spectators from the working area, defense counsel — one Dallas Herbert Monroe — talking with the victim’s family, who sat in the first row. The victim’s mother smiled at Monroe, her father shook his hand.
Sucking up to the family of the woman his client murdered. That was low, even for a defense attorney.
Though Pan’s parents had favored the defense, indicating they didn’t believe Carson was guilty — or wouldn’t believe it.
On the other hand, Rick Wade, the estranged husband, now a widower, stared straight ahead without acknowledging Monroe.
Ed stopped to greet two young women — one with her crossed legs extending into the aisle where they couldn’t be missed. A middle-aged man across the aisle appeared mesmerized. A chemical redhead beside him was decidedly less entranced.
“Judge Blankenship’s two daughters. Been here every day,” Nancy murmured as if to fill in gaps for Maggie.
Pan Wade’s parents and husband had testified, so Maggie knew everything about them she could cram into her head. The rest of the spectators? She’d swear she’d never seen them before.
But Nancy couldn’t possibly know that.
Nancy tipped her head to the middle-aged man and redhead. “Also regular attendees, Eugene Tagner and the third Mrs. Tagner.”
Then, not returning Maggie’s look, Nancy glided into a seat behind the prosecution’s side.
In the next row sat Teddie Barrett, who’d also testified. He bobbed his head and smiled broadly. Maggie forced herself to smile back.
It wasn’t his fault, it was hers for getting caught flat-footed.
Monroe’s cross-examination shredded Teddie’s testimony. He hadn’t recognized it, as happy at the end as at the start. Everyone else in the courtroom had. Including the jury.
But she’d given them enough to counteract that. She was sure she had.
Inside the railing’s gate, she placed her briefcase on the prosecution table, and gave Monroe a cool, level gaze.
He was in her territory. Not by chance.
With a smile and a tip of his head that artfully tumbled a hunk of silver hair, Monroe shuffled back to the defense table.
She sat, then raised the briefcase lid.
Pan Wade’s wedding portrait stared up from atop legal pads, files, and notes. Pan faced away, except her head, looking over her shoulder at the camera. You barely noticed the dress, the veil, the earrings. You saw the wide smile, the soft eyes, the slight, questioning head tilt.
A nice woman.
A thoroughly nice young woman.
As always, Maggie touched the briefcase lid’s suede pocket, feeling for the edge of the plastic sleeve inside it, leaving the sleeve where it was.
Ed Smith slid into place beside her, as the court reporter, a wiry man about thirty, unbuttoned the cuff of his white shirt’s left sleeve and folded it back.
A side door opened.
A bailiff escorted the straight-backed defendant with a solicitous touch. A law enforcement officer of fifty being solicitous toward a man twenty years younger, half a foot taller, and packing considerably more muscle could have been amusing.
She found nothing amusing about J.D. Carson.
Not when she first read the file and especially not after she encountered his powerful composure in person. This was not a man who would lose control and explode in anger. When J.D. Carson killed, he meant to kill.
All rose. All sat. The court reporter spread his well-kept hands like a pianist. The door next to the jury box opened.
Maggie had never seen proof of the folklore that a verdict could be read from jurors’ body language or expressions. Besides, in minutes she’d know the verdict rather than trying to divine it.
And yet, she watched the jury enter. Every time.
She blinked. Refocused.
She studied their faces, peering into the shadowed hallway beyond the door to see the next. Each face appeared unchanged, with the exception of a deeper solemnity.
Yet there was something … off.
It prickled at the hair at the base of Maggie’s skull. It twitched the ends of her fingers.
Without looking away from the jury, she widened her focus. The judge, clerk, court reporter, bailiffs, all watched the jury enter. Beside her, Ed watched, too. At the defense table, Monroe did the same. His bulk blocked her view of the defendant’s face, but most defendants couldn’t take their eyes off the people about to tell them their fate.
All as expected.
What the hell was the matter with her? She did not indulge in this sort of crap. Something off. For God’s sake, she sounded like —
Like someone she wasn’t. She pulled her chair in tight and square to the table.
Then she did something she never did.
She faced away from the entering jury.
And met the direct, hard gaze of the defendant, now visible around Monroe.
He wasn’t looking at the jury.
He was looking at her.
The boy from the wrong side of town, who had been championed by Pan Wade from childhood, who had been trained as a warrior, who had come home on leave last summer, and who had murdered Pan Wade because he couldn’t have her.
If anyone deserved the ultimate punishment it was this guy.
What if he’s innocent?
Words spoken in Maggie’s head by a voice she’d sworn to forget. A voice she’d swear she had forgotten.
Now it flooded her.
She no longer heard the scrapes and slides as jurors took seats in the box. She no longer smelled the blend of dust, despair, and legalities. She no longer felt the disorientation of returning from the depths of a trial.
Smooth, gentle even. She’d hated it. From the first question, she’d hated it. Felt it leading her away from where she’d needed to be, what she needed to do … Yet she hadn’t known how to stop it. Or how to stop herself.
Until that final question.
Are you sure? Are you absolutely certain?
A touch on her arm.
She jolted, swung around. And met only the innocuous concern of Ed Smith.
She silenced him by turning away, again facing the — this defendant.
Carson’s right brow ticked upward.
“Have you reached a verdict?” the judge’s distant voice asked.
“We have, Your Honor.”
“Are you—?” Ed started.
“Fine. I’m fine.” Quick words, from the side of her mouth.
She focused on the clerk carrying the written decision to the judge, waiting for it to be read, then returning it to the jury foreman. The defendant and his attorney rising.
“We, the jury…”
This was the moment.
She touched the pocket in the briefcase lid.
Had she succeeded in making the jury see the truth? Would they put this murderer away? Prevent this happening to another woman?
What if he’s innocent?
Stopped breathing, stopped thinking, stopped waiting.
“…find the defendant…”
She turned her head again.
To most observers it would appear the defendant was looking at the jury. She knew better. He looked at her.
His eyes were dark, unreadable. She didn’t look away. Not this time. Not as she had from that other defendant so long ago.
Saturday, 5:20 p.m.
Laurel Blankenship Tagner slammed the door of her blue Lexus SUV, a gift from the judge, birthday before last, and leaned against it, arms crossed under her breasts.
She’d learned at thirteen to show off what she had. She had considerably more to show off, not to mention considerably more ways to show it off. That didn’t mean you shouldn’t make the most of the basics. Because it was too damn easy for people to take you for granted, to treat you like you were just anybody.
Well, not anymore.
She’d shaken things up plenty with Eugene and nobody would take her for granted now.
She’d shaken up Charlotte big-time, too. Her sister getting all cross-eyed over the possibility of her being single again hadn’t entered Laurel’s mind while she’d made her plans. It was pure, sweet bonus.
Charlotte had been beside herself with Laurel living back at Rambler Farm these past weeks. Even before Laurel had a little fun with Charlotte’s husband.
Ed Smith. God, even his name was boring, which matched his moves in bed — and with Ed, it was always in bed.
Sure, she’d let him screw her some before he’d settled for Charlotte, but Ed hadn’t been enough for her four years ago and he sure as hell wasn’t enough for her now on.
She had bigger fish to fry. And dammit, she wanted to get on with it instead of standing here freezing her ass off.
If he wasn’t here when the sun dropped behind the ridge, she wasn’t waiting around.
He hadn’t even bothered to call directly. Besides, why the hell had his message said to meet out here in the damned woods anyway? He knew she wasn’t an outdoors kind of woman.
That was one thing she’d liked. He did know — and appreciate — what kind of woman she was.
But she should have told him to forget it when he’d suggested this.
Although there’d been one second when she’d told him how things were going to be from now on…
Laurel rubbed her arms under the light sweater she wore. Too light for this early in spring, but his message had said to wear it for old-time’s sake. What the hell, might as well give the guy a bone. Besides the silk weave showed off her figure, and after this, she was going to Shenny’s. It was Saturday night, and she deserved to celebrate.
Damn him, where was he? It was cold. The noises from the woods were creepier by the second. Not just birds making a racket, but rustlings. Animals or something.
Hadn’t the judge talked about mountain lions at breakfast? She hadn’t paid much attention, not like Charlotte, hanging on his every word. Her older sister liked to pretend he was discussing issues with her, when he was really making sure she filled the library decanters before he took his cronies aside tomorrow.
More got done at the judge’s Sunday afternoons at Rambler Farm than the rest of the week put together. Charlotte was forever saying that. As if she’d started the whole thing, instead of filling in where Mama left off.
A new sound caught Laurel’s attention. It wasn’t the hum of a motor she’d been expecting, but it had damn well better be him. From habit, she adjusted her posture, dropping her arms to the best position under her breasts and cocking one hip to draw attention to the length of leg below her skirt.
The figure came from an unexpected direction and was hard to make out.
Hell, she didn’t care what direction he came from. Her wait was finished. Now, to get this over with.
Sunday, 9:14 p.m.
“You heard?” Sheriff Roger Gardner demanded.
No pleasantries, no easing into it. Just a city-bred cut to the chase.
Dallas Herbert Monroe rocked back as much as he could in his easy chair, wishing it were the chair behind his desk, which allowed more latitude, and looked at the younger man from beneath lowered lids.
He’d adopted this pose early in his career. It masked when the pilot light on his mind fired up. No sense warning other folks when you were about to strike. Lost half the advantage of having a devious mind if folks knew you were fixing to be devious.
Not that he needed to do the lowered lids much these days. His mind still fired up with enough regularity to keep his skull from freezing — no, that hadn’t changed, thank God.
What had changed was the face that stared back at him from the mirror while he shaved each morning. Under eyebrows trailing the rest of his hair toward silver, skin pouched and folded until it resembled another eyelid.
Come to think of it, a second layer of defense might be handy now that he was supposed to be on the same team with the sheriff.
This new sheriff was sharp. This would take some handling.
“I heard,” Dallas said with a slow nod. “A tragedy. One so young, one so beautiful. Judge Blankenship will be devastated.”
Something crossed the other man’s face. “He is.”
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