Chapter One

Senator Meredith Mitchell struggled to concentrate on the witness’s testimony, but the woman’s long, slender neck and waves of golden blond hair generated a buzz of attraction that blocked out the captivating story told by an obviously accomplished storyteller. Despite what sometimes aired in prime time on C-SPAN, these Senate Judiciary Committee meetings were usually notoriously dull and dry, but Stevie Palmer, the public defender currently fielding questions from Meredith’s fellow senators about proposed changes to the federal sentencing guidelines, was riveting.

“Leroy Johnson’s only real crime was loyalty,” Stevie said. “Loyalty to his older brother, the only father figure he’d ever known, and the only person who’d ever supported him or cared for him. When the police came calling, threatening to take away the only constant Leroy had ever known, he lied to protect his family. A lie that would land him in federal prison for the next ten years of his life.”

“Well, isn’t that a sad tale.”

Meredith glanced at her colleague, Senator Connie Armstrong from Texas, who’d made the remark, and wondered if she’d missed something in Stevie’s testimony that had gotten under Connie’s skin. God knows she might have zoned out on the actual words Stevie was saying. But who could blame her? Stevie Palmer was breathtaking. You should be ashamed of yourself for ogling the woman.She should, but she wasn’t. It had been way too long since she’d paused to enjoy the beauty of anything, let alone a gorgeous woman, and she couldn’t help it if the sentencing commission, which was normally composed of stodgy old men, had decided to send a young, hot public defender to testify before her committee. 

“Senator Mitchell?” Connie asked.

She tore her gaze away from Stevie. “Yes, Senator Armstrong?”

Connie raised an eyebrow but pressed on. “I’ve heard all I can take about the woes of Ms. Palmer’s drug-dealing clients. It’s your turn to question this witness.”

Meredith cleared her throat to buy a moment of time. She’d prepared a long list of tough questions for the witness, but that was when she thought she’d be sparring with someone who didn’t look like a movie star and wasn’t as compelling. No way out now. “Thank you, Senator.” She took a drink of water and jumped right in.

“Ms. Palmer, you argue that mandatory minimums in drug cases are inherently unfair, but isn’t it true that over half of the offenders subject to these laws receive sentences below the minimum in exchange for cooperating with the government?” Stevie’s eyes locked on hers, and the room was silent for several beats. When she finally spoke, Meredith realized she’d been holding her breath.

“Stats like the one you just quoted only add to the problem,” Stevie said. “When you say ‘over half,’ most people assume something in the seventy to one hundred percent range, but the truth is that the total number of offenders who received some reprieve from mandatory minimums as a result of their cooperation was less than fifty-two percent, barely over half.”

“But isn’t the goal to raise that number, and doesn’t doing so benefit society as a whole? The more incentive offenders have to give up other criminals, the safer we will all ultimately be?” Meredith kept her tone even and her gaze trained on Stevie, but she shifted in her chair as she asked the questions, unaccustomed to the sudden and stirring attraction Stevie roused in her.

“It makes for a nice sound bite, but it’s not that simple,” Stevie replied. “Basically, you’re rewarding people involved in big conspiracies and slamming the door shut on solo operators or the low-level participants unlikely to have any useful information. The current system only benefits people who have a bunch of bad friends. If I have a client who was going it on their own or too incidental to the conspiracy to know much, they are sh—” Stevie grinned. “Well, let’s just say they out of luck.”

Meredith cocked her head, wishing Stevie had gone ahead and uttered the curse if only to see how the Republicans on the committee would react. Most of them were predisposed to think someone like Stevie, a public defender who argued for the rights of accused criminals, was de facto wrong about anything having to do with public policy. As a former assistant US attorney, she didn’t necessarily agree with Stevie’s arguments, but she wasn’t about to dismiss them out of hand either. “Do you object to the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences or only the effect they have?”

“Both. There’s no denying that the result of minimums is unfair and not just to offenders who happen to be loners, but there are other issues as well. Studies show that the very act of incarceration increases recidivism. Close to forty-five percent of offenders convicted of an offense that carries a mandatory minimum have no criminal history yet they will be detained at higher rates than many who are repeat offenders. That is not just.”

Meredith admired Stevie’s certainty, and brushed away the internal voice that whispered she might be letting attraction get in the way of objectivity. She sparred with Stevie a few more rounds and was surprised when Connie signaled their time was up by gaveling the session to a close. Meredith remained seated while her colleagues fled the building, everyone anxious to get out of town for the weekend. She noticed Stevie talking to another one of the committee members, Bob Lawton. She could’ve predicted Bob would home in on Stevie. He had a habit of sleeping with every attractive woman inside the Beltway whether they were available or not—the bonus of never aspiring to higher office. Wondering if Stevie were available and wishing she had Bob’s kind of freedom, Meredith tucked her head down, organized her notes, and filed them in her briefcase so they’d be easy for her secretary to locate and type up for the file.

“That was quite the grilling.”

She looked up to see Stevie standing next to her, and her heart raced. “That was nothing. I barely got warmed up.”

Stevie grinned. “Duly noted.” She folded her arms. “I’m not a fan of this format. It’s extremely limiting when it comes to sharing information. I don’t suppose you have time for a cup of coffee, or are you headed out of town with everyone else?”

Meredith silently gave thanks for her plans to stay in DC for the weekend, but still she hesitated. Coffee was harmless. Coffee was easy. There was a coffee shop right here in the building. A couple of grande somethings, some casual conversation, and then they’d go their separate ways. Anyone observing would think it was exactly what it looked like—a business meeting like the dozens she conducted every day in the Russell Building across the street from the nation’s Capitol. But she wanted more and decided to be bold. “Let’s have dinner. I have a table at the Old Ebbitt. Meet you there at seven?”

“The Old Ebbitt? I’m up for dinner, but I’d prefer someplace a bit more casual.”

“I like casual.” Meredith did her best not to sound too eager.

Stevie leaned down and plucked a pen off of the table and scrawled a note. She handed it over. “Perfect. I’ll meet you there at eight.”

Stevie turned and started walking toward the door before Meredith could answer, but it didn’t really matter because there was only one possible response, and Stevie clearly knew she was going to say yes. That kind of confidence was intoxicating, and Meredith couldn’t wait to have another drink.

 

v

 

Stevie could barely believe her own nerve, but hell, it wasn’t like she had anything to lose. She knew the hearing hadn’t gone her way, but maybe if she had a chance to talk to the senator without C-SPAN filming their every word, she could convince her to see the light. It didn’t hurt that Meredith Mitchell was breathtakingly beautiful.

Stevie walked out of the Russell Building and cut across Constitution Avenue to stroll by the Supreme Court building. It was already getting dark outside, and the lights on the building captured the majesty of this place in a way that daylight never did. She took a few moments to enjoy twilight before she walked to the Metro and took the Orange Line to her office. She’d welcomed the opportunity to appear before the Senate committee, but the day spent waiting to testify meant that her desk was likely piled high with work. For a brief moment, she regretted challenging the senator to meet her for dinner. What she should do is make a sandwich from whatever random fixings she could find in the fridge at the office and get caught up on her files, but it was too late now. She wasn’t about to call the senator’s office and cancel. The look in Meredith Mitchell’s eyes told her she was intrigued, and a little intrigue could go a long way toward persuasion.

She strode through the door of her office and shoved the stack of files on her dinged up wooden desk to the side. Everything was as she’d left it that morning with the exception of one new file with a neon green Post-it prominently placed that read “See me before you do anything on this.” She picked up the file and walked to her boss’s office and knocked.

“Joe, what’s up with this?”

“Have a seat.” He waved her toward a chair. “Tell me about the hearing. How did it go?”

“Fine, I guess. I don’t think we changed any minds, but I felt like they were listening at least.”

“How about Mitchell? Was she as rough as I’ve heard?”

“She played the part of a former prosecutor to a tee, but I felt like she was actually listening.” Stevie toyed with mentioning their dinner date, but date was too strong a word, and she didn’t feel like giving him a play-by-play of how it had come about. “Convincing her or anyone else that offenders have rights is an uphill battle, but I remain confident everyone will eventually see the light.”

“You’re such a glass half full kind of gal.” He pointed at the file in her hand. “Which is exactly why I wanted to talk to you. I’ve reassigned this case and it’s yours now. Defendant refused to talk to pretrial services, so he’s sitting in a cell when, based on how he looks on paper, he should be out on bond. I sent Santos to talk to him,” he said, referring to another public defender in the office, “but the guy wouldn’t talk to him either, and when I say wouldn’t talk to him, I mean would not utter a word. Judge continued the detention hearing to Monday afternoon.”

Stevie opened the file and scanned the scant information, noting the client’s name was William Barkley. “It says here he works in IT for Folsom Enterprises. Shouldn’t he be able to afford an attorney of his own?”

“Worked for Folsom, past tense. He was fired because of this case, and his credit report doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The magistrate has appointed us for now.”

“Any idea if he’s just stubborn or is there some competency issue?”

Joe shrugged. “Opinions vary, but I don’t think we’re going to get very far on his case if we don’t make a good faith effort to check it out. I know you’re busy, but I need someone with experience to assess the situation. These new kids are killing me—too much energy and not enough savvy. Go see him Monday and let me know what you think.”

Stevie answered quickly to keep from having to hear his usual lament about the more inexperienced attorneys at the office. “I’ll look at the file this weekend, and we’ll go from there.”

Joe gave her a curious look. “You calling it a day already?”

“After the grilling I just had, I think I deserve to leave before ten o’clock on a Friday night for once.”

“Fair enough. You want to grab a beer? Some of us are headed to Quarry House.”

“Thanks, but I’m going to bow out tonight. Believe it or not I have plans.” The minute she spoke the words, she was sorry. The folks who worked at the public defender’s office were a tight-knit group, and her peers knew she hadn’t been out on a date in forever. She could see Joe starting to form a question, and she beat him to the punch. “Not for public consumption yet. Probably never. If there’s ever anything serious going on in my life, I promise you all will be the first to know.”

“Sure, yeah.” He play-punched her on the shoulder. “Have fun, you deserve it.”

Stevie considered his words later as she walked from the Metro stop to her house in Maryland. She didn’t know about the deserving part. She took time from her demanding schedule to fit in a personal life now and then, but this wasn’t that. She was meeting a US senator to sway her to her side on an issue that had become politicized. A business meeting and nothing more.

Then why hadn’t she just stayed in the city instead of coming home to change, and why was she exhilarated at the prospect of seeing Meredith again? And when had she started thinking about her as Meredith instead of Senator Mitchell?

She peeled off her suit and hung it back in the closet. Dressed only in boy shorts and a tank, she wandered into the kitchen and debated whether or not to have a drink before she headed out to meet Senator Hotness. Opting to keep her wits about her, she fixed a glass of ice water and did a mental inventory of everything she knew about the senator.

Meredith Mitchell was the youngest of four children, and had been born into a family full of political power players. Her father, the former governor of New York, served three consecutive terms before stepping down to run a nonprofit foundation whose stated goals were to create economic opportunities and inspire civic service. Her oldest brother was the current governor of Massachusetts, and her other siblings, Michael and Jennifer, had spent their lives working in politics, but out of all of them, Meredith was the golden child. Two thirds of the way into her freshman term as senator, rumors swirled that she might enter next year’s presidential race.

Stevie didn’t believe the rumors. She hated politics, but living in DC, they were impossible to avoid, and even she knew that with the primaries starting just a few months away, Meredith would have a lot of catching up to do if she entered the race now. The current slate of presidential candidates had been working for months to lay the groundwork to hit the campaign trail full-on right after the first of the year, and filing deadlines for most states were only a couple of weeks away. Besides, the Democratic party already had their darling picked out, the senior senator from Texas, the feisty Senator Connie Armstrong.

Stevie glanced at her phone and realized she’d drifted off. She’d have to rush to get ready in time. She dressed quickly in jeans, a sweater, and a pair of boots, and grabbed a leather jacket on her way out the door. The Metro ride was quick, and she spent the few minutes on the train wondering if Meredith would show up and questioning whether she should’ve chosen a different spot if she’d really wanted to discuss business. Of course someone like Meredith would rather meet in a more traditional venue like the Old Ebbit where power plays were discussed on the daily. She was beginning to think this entire exercise was silly and she should go back home and dive into her work, when the train lurched to a halt, and the conductor announced her stop. Stevie shrugged off her second guesses and stepped off the train.

A few minutes later, when she walked into The Saloon, she spotted Meredith, seated at the bar. She was pleasantly surprised Meredith had beaten her here, but she tried not to read too much into her early arrival. Stevie stopped in the doorway, taking a moment to take in the juxtaposition of Meredith, still dressed in her business suit, holding a beer and chatting with the usually reticent bartender. Despite her formal clothes, she looked relaxed, casual, and utterly charming, and if Stevie really was here for a date, she couldn’t have asked for more.

 

v

 

The minute she walked into The Saloon, Meredith felt a sense of relief. At the Old Ebbit, she would’ve been stopped at least five times on the way to her table by shout-outs ranging from attagirls to blunt requests for favors, but here the patrons were more interested in the people at their own tables than whoever else might be inhabiting the same space.

She didn’t spot Stevie, so she took a seat at the bar and debated whether she should order a drink. Lord knew she needed one. She placed her cell phone on the bar, pulled out her credit card to start a tab, and smiled at the bartender who strode her way.

“You’re going to need to put that away,” he said in a gruff voice, pointing at a sign on the wall.

She followed the direction of his gaze. No cell phones, No TV, No standing, No martinis, No American Express. She palmed her platinum card and shoved her phone into her purse. Obviously, this place didn’t cater to politicians, but that was a good thing, right? Since her usual Hendricks martini was also off the table, she decided to embrace the challenge and put her beverage fortune in this guy’s hands. “Give me whatever you drink.”

He grunted and stepped to the row of tabs, pulled a beer, and clunked the glass onto the bar. Meredith set a twenty-dollar bill next to the glass and took note of the bartender’s slight nod. Well, she’d gotten that part right at least.

She sipped her beer while keeping watch on the front door. No matter what Stevie had said about this being a chance to discuss the pending legislation, she’d agreed to take the meeting because Stevie intrigued her. Anyone else and she would’ve told them to schedule an appointment with her staff. At exactly eight o’clock, the door opened and Stevie walked into the bar. She was no longer dressed in the sharp black suit she’d had on at the hearing, but the sportier look she was wearing now suited her like a second skin. Meredith envied the casual comfort—she couldn’t remember the last time she’d appeared in public in anything but senator-drag.

“I see you found the place,” Stevie said with a grin. She waved at the bartender and pointed to Meredith’s glass. “You like?”

“The beer’s amazing, but I’m a little surprised at your choice of venue.”

“Is that so?”

Meredith gestured toward the wall of rules. “This speaks more prosecutor than defense attorney.”

Stevie settled into the seat beside her. “Ah, that’s right. You worked for the US Attorney’s office once upon a time.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Did you like it?” Stevie asked.

Interesting question. Meredith couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked her about her time as a prosecutor. “Looking back, yes, but at the time I remember feeling boxed in. Young AUSAs don’t get to exercise a lot of discretion.”

“Interesting observation. I would’ve expected you to say something about how your time as a prosecutor gave you valuable perspective and all that.”

“Oh, I can say all that,” Meredith said, “but I get the impression you aren’t really impressed by political bullshit.”

“Would it be bullshit?”

“Not entirely, but there’s not a ton of room for nuance when it comes to sound bites. Which brings me to the subject of this meeting. I get the feeling you were feeling a little boxed in with the time limits during the hearing.”

“You read that right,” Stevie said. “If something’s important enough, it seems like you would want to hear everything there is to say on the subject.”

“And you think we don’t get much done now. Just wait and see how little we’d accomplish if everyone got to say their piece.” As she spoke, Meredith studied Stevie’s face, certain she’d seen a twinge of disappointment after she’d brought up the hearing. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who’d had an ulterior motive for tonight’s meeting. Before she could test the water further, Stevie smiled and said, “Are you hungry?”

Meredith’s head spun at the abrupt change in subject, but she didn’t let it show. “Starving. Is the food good here?”

“Basic bar food, but yes. Trust me to order?”

“Absolutely.” Meredith sat back and watched Stevie negotiate with the bartender, occasionally looking over to confirm that she was okay with the selections. Meredith didn’t say anything other than to nod her assent. She was used to everyone deferring to her choices, and it was nice to have someone else take control for a night.

“We can move to a table if you want,” Stevie said once she’d completed their order.

Sensing that Stevie was only making the offer for her benefit, she demurred. “I’m fine here if you are.”

“Good.”

A moment of silence slipped between them, but instead of being uncomfortable, it felt natural, like they were old friends enjoying a night out with the knowledge there would be many more. Meredith raised her glass and took a drink, enjoying the idea of spending more time with Stevie.

“Do you really believe that mandatory minimums work?”

Again with the abrupt change in subject. Meredith took a moment to consider before shaking her head. “Not always, no.”

“Then why the fuss about getting rid of them?”

“What do you suggest in their place?”

“Better treatment options for prison populations. More options for probation with treatment. Stop filling the prisons with low-level drug offenders.”

“I agree with you in theory.”

“I hear a but.”

“But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Treatment programs have their own issues.” Meredith ticked off the points. “Cost. Recidivism. When treatment is dangled as a way to get out of prison early, people will do or say anything to get a clean bill of health. Put them back on the streets and they’ll be using again in no time without ongoing treatment which most convicts do not continue once they get their get out of jail free card. Then there’s the problem that many times the people you want to help avoid mandatory minimums aren’t addicts at all so they don’t qualify for the sentence reduction a treatment program would give them.”

“You really know your stuff.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t?” Meredith was genuinely curious.

“I don’t know. I guess I thought you were pretty far removed from your days dealing with criminal law.”

“Doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Sometimes I miss being a prosecutor.”

The clatter of plates interrupted their conversation, and the bartender shoved the food toward them and then strode off to wait on some new arrivals.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Stevie said. “No sense inducing heartburn.”

“I have a feeling these onion rings will do that all on their own.”

“But totally worth it,” Stevie said.

Meredith nodded and tugged one of the golden rings free from the pile. She was just about to put it in her mouth, when she noticed Adam Rondell, a reporter, striding toward them.

“Hey, Senator, you slumming it with us regular folks tonight?”

She set the onion ring down and cast a quick look at Stevie who looked between them with a curious expression. Meredith smiled to signal all was well. “Hi, Adam, am I encroaching on your space? I’d say I’m sorry, but since you spend your life following me around, I think turnabout is fair play.”

“Touché.”

Hearing Stevie clear her throat, Meredith broke contact with Adam and turned her way.

“Adam Rondel, meet my friend Stevie Palmer. Stevie, meet my stalker, Adam. He works for the—”

The Metro Mash-Up.” Stevie interrupted. “I’m familiar with your blog.” 

“Smart and pretty,” Adam said. “She’s a keeper.” He turned back to Meredith. “So, I heard something interesting today. Do you have a minute to answer a couple of questions?”

If she were dining alone, she might, but Meredith had sensed Stevie tense up when Adam approached the bar. She had a reputation for allowing the press extensive access to her professional life, but no matter what she’d told herself about her reason for this meeting with Stevie, it was no longer purely professional, and she was more interested in pleasing her than satisfying the insatiable appetites of the reporters who dogged her on a daily basis. “Call my office Monday and we’ll set up a time to talk.”

“Sounds like a brush-off.”

Meredith spotted Stevie opening her mouth to respond and she jumped in, pointing at her onion rings. “Dinner. It’s a thing. You should try it sometime.” She smiled to defuse her refusal. “Later, I promise.”

He shook his head. “I heard a rumor today that you are jumping in the presidential race. Sure you don’t want to comment?”

Meredith kept smiling, but she wanted to strangle whoever had started the rumor and Adam for spreading it. “Here’s my comment and listen close because I’m not going to repeat it and I’m not answering any follow-up questions. I fully support Senator Armstrong in her bid for the Democratic nomination, and I think she’ll make a wonderful president.”

Adam made a show of pretending to take notes on his hand while she spoke. “Got it. Okay, ladies, have a nice evening.” He tipped an imaginary hat and strode away.

Meredith watched until he walked out the door of the bar. “Sorry about that. It’s a hazard of the job.”

“Definitely a hazard,” Stevie said. “That guy’s an ass. Have you read the stuff he writes that passes for news? Of course, that’s more the norm than not nowadays.”

She heard the edge in Stevie’s voice and noted that it sounded like Stevie had a personal bias against Adam Rondel and the press in general. She started to form a question, but Stevie beat her to it.

“Although he’s not the only one speculating about you entering the race. Is it true?”

Meredith took her time chewing her food. The rumors had swirled after her speech at the Democratic convention during the last election cycle. She’d been given the speaking spot mostly because of her family connections and she knew it, but showcasing her at the convention had been part of a grand plan to put her on the path to an eventual run for the top office. “Maybe someday. Senator Armstrong is going to carry the standard this time around, and I support her all the way.”

“Connie Armstrong, really?”

“What, you don’t like her? She’s a strong woman with a deep history of service to her country.”

“Is that the party line?”

Meredith bit back a sharp retort. “If you think I walk a straight party line, you don’t know me very well. Do you have a specific beef with Senator Armstrong?”

Stevie nodded as if to acknowledge Meredith was right to put her to the test. “If she’s the nominee, I’ll vote for her, but only because the alternatives on the other side of the aisle are positively frightening, but you have to admit she comes with a lot of baggage. Armstrong’s had to walk a pretty fine line between liberals and conservatives to maintain her popularity in Texas, and she’s a little too moderate for my taste.”

“Sometimes moderates are the only ones who get things done.”

“At what compromise to their principles? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for moderation when it comes to things like foreign affairs, but when it comes to civil rights, gun control, poverty, the environment, someone has to take a stand on the side of what’s right and just.”

“And you think I would be that person?”

Stevie looked taken aback by the question, and she took a moment to answer. “You come closer than Armstrong.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. “It’s not as difficult for me since my New York constituents expect me to lean left, but Connie’s had to work hard to build a base in a state that has teetered back and forth between liberal and conservative. What she’s managed to accomplish in the South has groomed her for this position.”

“You have a point.”

“I’m guessing you don’t concede that very often.”

Stevie grinned. “Only when necessary.”

Meredith tossed a half-eaten onion ring down and pushed her plate aside. “I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.”

“I’m thinking you’re mostly a salad girl.”

“Is that so?”

Stevie blushed slightly. “Either that or you work out a lot.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment. And inspiration not to skip my morning run.” Meredith noticed for the first time that she hadn’t wanted to glance at her phone the entire time they’d been sitting at the bar. The relaxed vibe was refreshing, more like a date than a business meeting. She tipped her empty glass at Stevie’s. “Are we having dessert or another drink? My waistline can’t afford both.”

“Which one will convince you to change your mind on the sentencing guidelines?”

And just like that, they were back to business, but Meredith didn’t want to be. “Tell you what, let’s have whichever one you want tonight and skip the shop talk. Tomorrow, send me whatever additional information you want me to review, and I’ll have my staff put together a position paper. I promise to give it a full review before we vote on the amendments.”

“And if you’re convinced about my position, you’ll sway some of the other committee members?”

“If you convince me, I’ll convince them.”

Stevie stuck out her hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal. And prepare yourself because we’re having apple pie. With ice cream.”

As Stevie waved a hand at the bartender to order their dessert, Meredith reflected on what a pleasant surprise this evening had turned out to be. Sometimes being prepared was overrated.

 

Chapter Two

First thing Monday morning, Stevie filled out the prisoner request form and handed it to the warden at the DC detention center. He examined the form and pointed to a row of chairs along the wall.

“We’ve got a space for you at the third window.”

Stevie shook her head. “I need a room.”

“The notes say no contact visits for this guy.”

She’d dealt with this before, increased restrictions on defendants deemed to be a threat to national security, and she was fully prepared to push back. “I’ll take the room,” she said, keeping her tone even but firm, and hoping her hard stare conveyed what she didn’t want to have to say. A few beats passed and she was about ready to tell the warden he’d hear from the judge, but he relented before she had to go all law-and-order on him.

“Sign the sheet,” he said in a curt voice.

She complied. She didn’t blame the guards for having a little bit of attitude. Working in the prison every day had to be a drain, but ultimately her allegiance was to her client not their keepers. Once she was in the attorney room, she selected the best two of the three chairs and positioned them on either side of the rickety table in the center of the room. The file wasn’t very thick, and she spread it out in front of her, counting on the fact the guards would likely take their time getting the client to her to allow her time to prepare.

She’d skimmed the file the night before, but she’d been distracted and she knew why. She’d been completely unprepared for Meredith Mitchell in real life. She was even better looking than she was on camera, and her charm was palpable. Stevie had half expected Meredith to be uncomfortable in the casual bar with its restrictive rules, but by the end of the evening, she had the surly owner eating out of her hand, and a casual observer would think she was a regular. Except for the encounter with Adam Rondel, the entire evening had been easy and comfortable, and Stevie couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed herself as much. So why did she feel unsettled?

Maybe it was because now that Meredith had agreed to take a second look at the committee’s report, she no longer had an excuse to see Meredith again.

The door opened and jarred her from her reverie. Three guards escorted a tall, skinny guy who looked to be in his late twenties into the room, and she shoved aside all thoughts of Meredith Mitchell and focused on assessing her new client.

He slid into the chair across from her and tucked the extra folds of his orange jumpsuit under his legs while she motioned to the guards that she wanted to be alone with him. The one in the lead shrugged and motioned for the others to follow him out. She waited until the door was firmly shut behind them, and then turned to her client. “Are you William Barkley?” She felt silly asking the question, but when she was a young lawyer, she’d had a very confusing new client conference until she realized the guards had brought out the wrong inmate.

He nodded.

“How old are you, Mr. Barkley?” She knew what the file said, but this was a softball question designed to get him to start talking.

He wasn’t falling for it. Barkley jabbed a finger at the file, and Stevie pulled out the page that listed his personal data. William Barkley, age twenty-five, six two, one hundred sixty pounds. Resident of Maryland and employee of Folsom Enterprises, an IT company whose primary work was as a subcontractor for government agencies. He was accused of violating the Espionage Act for sending classified documents to an online news outlet. She vaguely remembered the information having to do with the FBI having a lead on Russian hackers infiltrating social media and failing to act on the intel. She didn’t get why the government was still trying to keep a lid on that since these kinds of stories were popping up all over the place now.

She decided to start with the basics. She slid the paper with his personal data across the table. “Is this information correct?” She watched him scan the paper and then look up to meet her gaze. He nodded again. Good. So far he didn’t seem crazy, just really reluctant to say words out loud. “I don’t suppose you’d like to talk to me about the charges against you?” A slight shake of his head was his only response.

Stevie mentally reviewed the prior attorney’s report and recommendation for a competency screening. He’d listed only a couple of factors as a basis for the recommendation, relying heavily on Barkley’s failure to communicate. She decided to dive right in. “Your last attorney believes you need to be evaluated for competency. Do you know what that means and why he would make that kind of recommendation?”

Barkley hunched down in his seat and placed a finger over his lips. Stevie braced for whatever he was about to say, certain this was the crazy she’d been warned about. He pointed at her pen. She hesitated for a just a second to consider how dangerous a pen could be in the wrong hands and decided to risk it. She shoved her legal pad and pen across the table and watched him form big block letters. He tore the paper from the pad, folded it in half, and slid it back toward her. She lifted the edge and peeked at the secret note.

NOT SAFE TO TALK HERE.

And there was her first glimpse at crazy, but it was only borderline. She wrote back. This room is secure. The guards aren’t listening. You can talk to me. And slid the note back to him.

He scanned her writing several times before reaching for the pen, scrawling words in a firm press, and sending it back her way.

YOU DON’T KNOW THAT.

Okay, this was the real deal, but she’d need more specifics to file a motion with the judge and this back and forth note thing was getting old fast. “Talk to me about what you’ve experienced. I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s going on.”

He shook his head and crossed his hands on the table as if to signal he was done. She gave it one more try. “Mr. Barkley, this afternoon, we’re going to be back in court for your detention hearing. You haven’t provided any information to pretrial services, and without their report, the judge will have no choice but to keep you in custody while we either prepare for trial or work out a deal, neither of which can I do if you do not communicate with me. In addition, if I have reason to suspect that you may not be competent to stand trial, it is my duty to ask the court to have you examined by a mental health practitioner, which sounds like an easy process, but it isn’t. You might be shipped off to another facility for an undetermined amount of time while the process is taking place. If you are indeed competent, the examination will only delay your court procedure, and delay is not always to your benefit, especially since you will remain in custody while your competency is being assessed. Ultimately, you will wind up right back here with me asking you to provide information so that I can assist you with your case, a lot like what I’m doing right now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Barkley frowned as she spoke and shifted in his chair. When she was done, he reached for the note and pen again and drew heavy black lines beneath the words NOT SAFE TO TALK HERE, and then shoved the paper across the table with enough force to send it flying onto the floor. Stevie leaned down to pick it up and placed it in her bag. If she chose to file a motion to have him examined for competency, this would be exhibit A. 

Back at the office, Stevie tossed the file on her desk and stretched her arms over her head. Joe poked his head in. “What’s the verdict? Cray or no cray?”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re not the most sensitive person in the office?”

“I’m okay with that assessment.”

“Good. The guy is paranoid, for sure, but incompetent? I’m not convinced. Besides, isn’t there a saying, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you’?”

“Maybe he spent too much time working on top secret projects for Folsom. The real question is whether he’s nuts, er, I mean mentally challenged, and whether you think he’ll respond to you.”

She considered his question carefully. As unsure as she was about her interaction with William Barkley, she did feel like they’d made a connection. At the very least, he seemed to want to confide in her even if he was leery about doing so at the jail. “I’ll stay on it. Maybe once he gets hauled in front of the judge again, he’ll agree to talk to me.”

“Fair enough.” He handed her an envelope. “This came for you. Hand-delivered. Hannah asked me to give it to you. She wouldn’t let me open it.”

“Maybe because it says ‘personal and confidential’ on the outside of the envelope.”

“We’re a law office—almost everything says that.” He jabbed a finger at the envelope. “You going to open it or what? It’s from Senator Mitchell’s office.”

Meredith’s name in the upper left corner had been the first thing she’d noticed when Joe waved the envelope her way, but she didn’t want him to know that. She tucked it under Barkley’s file. “If there’s anything in it that affects you, you’ll be the first to know.”

He scrunched his face at her, but she wasn’t deterred and waved him off. “Now go. I’ve got work to do.”

He wandered off to bother someone else in the office, and she slowly slid Meredith’s envelope out from under the pile on her desk. It was thick and heavy, and curiosity quickly took over. She grabbed a letter opener and sliced her way in, quickly shaking the contents out onto her desk. On top was a note card in heavy linen stock engraved with Meredith’s name. In flowing script it said: I followed your suggestion (that’s twice now) and found the enclosed articles. I made copies for the rest of the committee members and thought you might like to have a set for yourself. Thanks for the nudge. Yours, Meredith.

Stevie read the card three times before setting it aside to look at the stack of paper—articles from a cross-section of legal journals arguing the exact points she’d been trying to make when she’d appeared before the committee and with Meredith at the bar. Had it really been that easy to convince Meredith to be swayed toward her side or was there more to this message than a simple, you were right, I was wrong? Stevie picked up the card and read it again. Thanks for the nudge.What exactly had nudged the senator: her arguments or the evening they’d shared?

Stevie set the stack of paper to the side of her desk and tried to focus on the rest of her work, but it kept calling out to her. After a completely unproductive hour, she picked up her phone and dialed. A woman’s voice answered before she could talk herself out of it.

“Senator Mitchell’s office, how may I help you?”

How indeed.

v

 

Meredith raised her glass and motioned for Addison to do the same. “Here’s to your last lunch as a single woman.”

“You make it sound like I’ll never have a meal again. Is that what married life is like?”

“How should I know?” Meredith delivered the casual words with a carefree tone, but the truth was she’d begun to grow tired of personal relationships taking a back seat to everything else in her life. Addison Riley, the chief justice of the United States, was the last of her close group of friends to head to the altar, and the realization she was now the only single member of the group came with its own set of baggage.

“You might want to consider joining the club you know?”

Meredith nearly choked on her drink. “Of married couples? Not in the cards, for a while anyway.”

“Why? Because of a presidential run you may or may not make in the future? Seriously, Mere, you don’t have to choose between ambition and happiness, and if you think you do, then it’s probably best to let the ambition part go.” Addison dropped her voice to a whisper. “But if you want to get the professional piece out of the way, there’s still time to get in the race this go-round.”

Echoes of Friday night’s dinner conversation about the same subject rang in Meredith’s head. She hadn’t been able to get Stevie out of her mind since they’d parted. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on a date with someone who had been utterly unimpressed with her position, and it had been refreshing. That Stevie was not only good-looking, but smart and articulate was a bonus, but she told Addison the same thing she’d told Stevie. “It’s not my time. Connie’s worked hard for this and she’s earned her spot. It’s always like this in the primaries—everyone jockeying for position and wanting to challenge the old guard. If Garrett had the chance to run again, he’d be facing the same kind of opposition as Connie, and he’s got the highest favorables of any second term president in history.”

“Then you might as well go ahead and start a family so when it is your turn to run, you can check those boxes.”

What Addison said made sense on paper, but after surviving several grueling statewide elections, Meredith knew firsthand the toll running for office took on every aspect of a candidate’s life, and she had no desire to impose the rigors of campaigning on anyone else, especially not a new love interest. Besides, she was absolutely committed to achieving her career goals before focusing her interests elsewhere. “I’m in no hurry.”

“Well, neither was I, obviously, but here I am, a week away from being married to the most powerful woman in the country.” Addison raised her glass.

“I think a lot of people would argue that in a race between you and Julia for most powerful woman in the country, you’d finish in a dead heat. Frankly, I don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s not easy. I’d love to come home after work and discuss my day, but the president’s chief of staff isn’t a viable sounding board for Supreme Court gossip. We’ve learned to dance around certain topics at the dinner table. It’s not always easy, but I love her so much it’s totally worth it. This Saturday, when we say our I dos in front of all our friends and family, nothing will stand between us.”

Meredith pointed at Addison’s dreamy smile. “I’m going to get me some of that someday. But not right now. Now, I’m going to keeping working for a better future, which means campaigning for Connie to win the election. I’ll be sitting in the front row when you swear in the first female president.”

“Here’s to that.” Addison took a drink and set her glass on the table. “The wedding planner said you RSVP’d for one, but Julia told me to tell you that she had an extra spot held. You know, in case you want to bring someone. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It might be nice to have a wing woman.”

“Are you scared I’m going to get drunk and sappy about my lack of a love life and ruin your special day?”

“Not hardly.” Addison reached a hand across the table and squeezed Meredith’s arm. “I just want you to be happy. I’m the last person in the world who thinks you need another person to make you happy, but let me be the first to admit that it’s pretty fabulous when you do find someone.” She pulled her hand back and smiled. “Bring someone, don’t bring someone. You’re always welcome with us.”

An hour later, Meredith was back at her office trying to keep her mind on her briefing, but Addison’s words kept cropping up and with them images of Stevie, dressed for a wedding. Would she wear a dress or a tux? Did she even own formalwear? Meredith was so used to black tie affairs being part of her job that she rarely considered whether it was optional. As soon as her briefing was over, she buzzed her secretary. “Do you happen to have a copy of the invite for Justice Riley’s wedding?”

A quick knock on the door and Kate stuck her head in, waving the invite in her hand. “I loaded all the info to your phone. Pretty sure you’re not going to need the actual invite to get in.”

Meredith took the folded card stock. “I know, but I wanted to check the dress code,” she said distractedly.

“Your schedule’s pretty tight for the rest of the week. Do you need me to have Neiman’s send over some dresses?”

“What? Oh no, I’m good.” Meredith stared hard at the invite until she finally located the note: black tie optional. She doubted many would deviate from the norm of long dresses and tuxes for the occasion, but the word optional gave her some flexibility. She handed the invite back to Kate. Kate had been with her since she’d run for the New York state legislature many years ago, and she trusted her implicitly, but she wasn’t ready to share the plan brewing in the back of her brain. “Did you send that packet over to Ms. Palmer this morning?”

“I did. Delivered by courier, like you asked. She called earlier to say she received it.”

Meredith paused as she considered whether to go with her gut or abandon this half-baked plan. “Thanks. Could you get me her office number?”

“I’ll get her on the line, but you have to be at the Hartford Building at four, so you have ten minutes tops,” Kate said, already on her way back to her desk directly outside of Meredith’s office.

Meredith waited impatiently for Kate to connect the call. She probably should’ve just texted Stevie or phoned on her cell instead of making a personal call under the guise of a professional one. She hadn’t fully committed to what she was about to do, but she’d lead with the packet and go from there.

Her indecision was interrupted by Kate’s voice. “Please hold for Senator Mitchell.”

Meredith waited until she heard Kate click off the line. “Stevie?”

“I guess I have to call you Senator now.”

She heard a tiniest bit of an edge behind the otherwise friendly voice. “Sorry about that. Kate has a habit of being formal.”

“I get it. You probably have to do something to keep people at a distance or everyone would be beating down your doors asking for favors.”

“Maybe.” She considered asking Stevie what kind of favors would top her list, but stopped short. “Did you review the packet I sent you?”

“I did, and thank you. I can see you had your staff delve into the issue. I appreciate the effort.”

Meredith noted, with pleasure, a warmer tone to Stevie’s voice. “I did the research myself. And I provided a copy of my findings to the rest of the committee. We’ve put a vote on hold until we have more time to fully investigate the issues you raised.”

“Thank you. I had no idea apple pie could provide such efficient results.”

“Well, it was really good pie. And there was ice cream.”

“You think that was good, then I’ve got a chocolate, chocolate cake I’d like you to meet.”

There was absolutely no mistaking it—this was flirtatious banter, and Meredith was surprised again at Stevie’s down-to-earth, easy manner which was not at all what she would’ve expected after Stevie’s aggressive testimony during the confirmation hearing. Caught up in the fun, Meredith dropped her normal reticence and blurted out, “What are you doing Saturday night?”

“This Saturday?”

She heard the pause and rushed to fill the silence. “I’m sorry. I hate when people ask me questions like that. My mother does it and it’s always a trap because if we say nothing then she’s ready to pounce, and by then it’s too late to come up with an excuse for why we can’t attend whatever boring benefit she has planned.”

“It’s okay. I’m going to be brave and say I don’t have any plans, but I’m holding my breath that you’re not about to ask me to repay you by attending some fancy benefit where everyone is dressed in tuxes and gowns and there’s a silent auction where we’re all supposed to bid on a trip to Bali to save the children.”

“Well,” Meredith drew out the word. “I can promise no one will ask you for money, but the fancy outfits, they might be happening.”

“I’m a little intrigued.”

“It’s a wedding. The brides put me down for a plus-one, and now they’re hassling me about paying for the extra meal. You’d be saving me.”

“Brides?”

Meredith waited for Stevie to figure it out, and it didn’t take long. The newspapers had been featuring the story for weeks.

“Wait a minute. You’re going to Justice Riley and Julia Scott’s wedding?” Stevie laughed. “Of course you are. It’s the event of the season or so the Postsays.”

“I didn’t peg you for a social section reader.”

“I’m not, but our secretary is up to date on all things having to do with Beltway gossip, and she makes a habit of keeping me informed.”

“Then you understand how important it is for the brides not to have an empty seat. Such a travesty might make the front page and doom their wedded bliss.”

“Well, if I’d truly be doing you a favor.”

“You would. I promise.” Meredith hesitated for a second. “It’s a tiny bit formal.”

“You think? Hell, those two are the closest thing to gay royalty we get around here. I’m surprised they’d let you bring just anyone.”

“I won’t be bringing just anyone. I’ll be bringing you. That is, if you accept.” Meredith resisted tacking on a “say yes.” She’d lobbed the ball firmly into Stevie’s court now and it was up to her to play ball. Two seconds that felt like ten ticked by before she had her answer.

“I’d love to.”

Meredith grinned, surprised at how much she wanted Stevie to say yes and how relieved she was when she did. Maybe this wedding would be fun after all.

 

v

 

Stevie walked the few blocks to the courthouse thankful for the temperate fall weather. When she reached the steps of the Prettyman Courthouse, home of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, she took a moment to scan the area, conscious of how lucky she was to do the work she loved in a part of the country steeped in rich history. The Capitol Building loomed in the distance, and she wondered if Meredith was there today or if she’d spent the day working at her office in the Russell Building. Either way, Meredith was likely only a few blocks away, and Stevie let her mind stray to their phone conversation and their date for the Riley-Scott wedding.

“You don’t know for sure it’s a date,” she muttered as she pushed through the doors to the building.

“What’s not a date?”

Crap. Stevie looked to her right to find AUSA Emily Watkins walking next to her. “Don’t mind me. Just sorting out a particularly hairy fact pattern.”

“Sounds like. Hey, I heard you’re the new attorney on the Barkley case. That’s mine.”

Stevie breathed a sigh of relief. She and Emily had started working in the District around the same time, and even though they were always on opposite sides, she’d developed a healthy respect for her as a prosecutor. “Are you seeking to detain him?”

“Yes, pending the report from pretrial services. I heard he refused to give an interview. Is that still true?”

Any hope her client had reached out to pretrial services since she’d met with him this morning vanished. Without the interview, there would be no report detailing family history, ties to the community, prior offenses, etc., for the judge to consider in his decision about whether to set bond conditions so Barkley could be free pending trial. “Unfortunately, yes, but I’m hoping Judge Solomon can scare him a bit and maybe he’ll come around. Would you be agreeable to holding over the hearing another day if I can get the interview scheduled?”

Emily frowned. “Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, but Stine is making us take a hard line on these cases. In fact, I’ll tell you now that the only way we’re going to work anything out at all is for him to roll over on someone. Someone big.”

Stevie had heard that Stine, the US Attorney for DC, had instituted some tough new rules for his staff, but this was the first time she’d run up against them. “Yeah, well, considering he won’t even tell pretrial his name and whether or not he’s married, I think you’ll have to get your big fish from someone else’s line. Can you at least get me early discovery? Maybe I can use what you’ve got to nudge him into talking to me.”

“I’ll do what I can. I’m waiting on some forensics from the computer guys that I’ll need for grand jury. As soon as I’ve had a look at it, I’ll give you a shout.”

“Deal.” It was the best Stevie could hope for. She wasn’t entitled to see anything other than what was contained in the arrest affidavit yet since the case hadn’t been indicted, but without something definitive, she wasn’t sure how she was going to get Barkley to talk to her.

Judge Solomon’s courtroom was milling with attorneys when she walked in. Most of them were crowded around the jury box where their clients in orange jumpsuits were leaning forward, giving their best pitch for why they should be allowed to change back into street clothes and get back to their lives. The attorneys whispered details about how the hearing would go and took notes on all the reasons why their clients were upstanding citizens unfairly trapped in the oversized net of government overreach. She spotted Barkley seated apart from the rest, looking curiously nonchalant, like he was waiting for a table in a restaurant instead of waiting on a judge to decide his fate. She slid into the seat next to him.

“I heard you still haven’t talked to pretrial services.”

He nodded.

“Without a report from them, the judge is going to keep you in custody, and since you refuse to talk to me while you’re in custody, I can’t help you with your case. Plus, if you don’t complete a financial affidavit, the judge is going to make you hire an attorney. See how this works?”

“It doesn’t.”

Pleased she’d gotten something more than a nod, Stevie pressed on. “You’re right about that.” She leaned in closer. “Everyone in this room is focused on their own problems. No one is listening to us. Now would be a perfect time for you to tell me what you weren’t comfortable saying back at the jail.”

He shook his head. “There is no safe place.”

“There has to be.” She uttered the words more forcefully than she’d planned, but she was growing tired of his games. “Look, if you really did send classified information to the news, you don’t strike me as the kind of guy who has a problem spilling his guts. We can talk about the case later. All I want to know now is enough information to get you released on bail.”

His look was sympathetic, but his reply was still vague. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Before she could respond, the bailiff entered the room and called for them to rise as the Honorable August Solomon took the bench. As judges went, Solomon was fair and even-tempered. Stevie hoped he would remain so when he found out her client had snubbed pretrial services. When Solomon called her case, she approached the podium with Emily while the bailiff directed Barkley to a seat at counsel table.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Palmer,” said Solomon. “I understand your client opted not to be interviewed by pretrial services.”

Stevie shot a look at Barkley who sat staring straight ahead. “That’s correct, Your Honor.”

“Does the government have a position on this matter?” Solomon asked Emily.

“It’s our position that the defendant should be held pending trial. He shared classified information from his employer with news outlets in flagrant disregard to whether doing so might compromise the safety of law enforcement personnel or government security. And because he has refused to consent to an interview with pretrial services, we do not have sufficient information to evaluate whether bail would be adequate to ensure his appearance.” Emily finished her spiel and glanced over at Stevie with a semi-apologetic look, but the damage was done. Stevie didn’t blame her for doing her job, but she wished she’d drawn a less qualified opponent.

“Defense counsel, please approach,” Solomon said. He waited until Stevie was standing right in front of the bench and lowered his voice. “Ms. Palmer, your predecessor on this case mentioned to me he might be filing a motion to have Mr. Barkley examined for competency. Do you plan to file such a motion?”

Stevie looked back at Barkley who continued to stare straight ahead as if nothing happening in this room really concerned him. Her gut told her something was off, but nothing he’d done so far was a clear sign of incompetence. “Judge, I just met with Mr. Barkley this morning. I have no immediate plans to file such a motion, but I’d like to keep my options open until such time as I’ve had a chance to spend more time with him.”

“I understand, but I don’t want to be in the position of continuing trial dates because we’re shipping him off for an evaluation, especially since I have no plans to release him on bond pending trial. Please do whatever you have to do to speed up your decision and let me know what you decide within the next two weeks.”

“About that, Your Honor.”

“Yes?”

“Mr. Barkley hasn’t filled out a financial affidavit, which I imagine stems from the same reluctance he has to talking to pretrial services. For all I know, he might be considering retaining other counsel.”

“Go ahead and step back, and I’ll handle this.”

Stevie was barely back to counsel table before Solomon started admonishing her client.

“Mr. Barkley, I understand you have not spoken to pretrial services, nor have you completed the paperwork necessary for me to continue the appointment of the public defender’s office to your case. Do you plan to hire an attorney on your own?”

Barkley shifted in place, but he didn’t answer.

“You have every right not to speak to pretrial services, but I can’t use taxpayer dollars to fund your defense until you do the minimum required of you to show you can’t afford to hire counsel.” Solomon leaned across the bench and fixed Barkley with a hard stare. “Ms. Palmer is a fine attorney. If you want to keep her, complete the paperwork before you leave here today.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stevie watched the exchange with mixed feelings, but she didn’t have long to wonder what Barkley would decide. The rest of the proceeding went like clockwork. The judge set a date for trial in the spring and entered an order denying bail. The minute he gaveled the hearing to a close, Barkley held out his hand and said, “I need the form.”

She waited and watched while he filled it out, which didn’t take long considering he had very few assets. His job had paid well, but it was gone, and she imagined he’d lived like a lot of twenty-five-year-olds, thinking they’d save when they were much older. He handed the form to her without another word, and merely nodded her way when the bailiff herded him into the holdover. Stevie watched him go wondering how the hell she was going to get him to open up to her. Frustrated, she gathered her things and walked out of the courtroom with Emily following close behind.

“Was Solomon asking you about a motion for a competency examination?”

“Maybe.”

“The guy’s not incompetent, you know.”

“Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.”

“Are you going to file?”

Stevie hunched her shoulders. “I haven’t decided. Are you going to get me that early discovery?”

“I’ll try.”

“In the meantime, maybe you could tone down the rhetoric. ‘Flagrant disregard’? If you talk like that to the press, they’ll skewer this guy before he has a chance in court.”

“That’s my job.” Emily jabbed her shoulder. “Besides, you’ve said much worse about my witnesses in the past.” She waved. “I’ve got to get back to the office for a meeting. I’ll talk to you later.”

Stevie watched Emily go, reflecting on her words. She had said bad things about government witnesses in the past when she needed to in order to make her case. She liked to think she never stretched the truth too far out of recognition, but they all did what they had to do to advocate for their clients. She supposed it was a little like politics, which led her back to thoughts of Meredith Mitchell. Despite having lived most of her life in DC, Stevie had never in a million years thought she’d be dating a politician, having written most of them off as fake and power hungry, but Meredith struck her as uniquely genuine.

You barely even know her.Her internal voice spoke the truth, but with it came another revelation, equally true. But I’d like to.