M.J. was late, as usual.
Kelly Wainwright sat in one of the trendy swivel chairs in Sunny Jones’s elegant beauty salon and tried not to think about the stack of contracts waiting for her perusal on her desk at Wainwright & Wainwright, or the deposition in the Thompson probate case she was supposed to be taking in just a few hours.
She wasn’t going to worry about any of that, not when she was here with two of her four best friends in the world — Sunny and Pat Turner, in town from New York for a long weekend with her fiancé, Gray Lee. Investigative journalist M. J. Carter was supposed to meet them any minute now for lunch. The only one missing from their group was Isabella Sanchez, the world–famous cover model who was off on a photo shoot in Brazil.
“When are you going to let me give you a makeover, Kel? Top to bottom,” Sunny asked. “A few highlights, a new style, and a brighter shade of lip color and you’d be a brand–new woman.”
Kelly raised one eyebrow at Sunny, who stood over Pat with weapons in hand — a blow dryer and round curling brush. While they waited for M.J., Pat had convinced Sunny to give her sleek hair a trim.
“I like the old woman, thanks all the same,” Kelly murmured.
“We like her, too. You know we do. You look great, as usual — poised and professional. But no offense, hon, you look like a lawyer.”
“Isn’t that a coincidence? I am a lawyer,” Kelly replied, smiling.
“What legal code says you have to look like you just stepped out of the courtroom every moment of your life?”
Coming from anyone else, Kelly might have been offended. But she and Sunny had been having variations of this argument for years, since their days at Freemont High School, better known by its inmates as Cagemont. Even in high school, Kelly had never had an easy time dressing casually. On the rare occasions when she wore jeans, she topped them with an Oxford shirt and blazer.
Her parents had had some influence on her fashion choices. Both lawyers themselves, they’d emphasized the importance of looking the part to instill confidence in their clients. William and Nadine Wainwright wanted their daughter to dress like a junior associate in their firm.
She hadn’t minded. Kelly liked looking professional, serious. In high school it helped keep her focused on her goals: a 4.0 grade point average, being class valedictorian, and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. Two out of three wasn’t bad, she reminded herself as she once more felt the familiar sting of failure. After her mother died in a car accident the month before high school graduation, Kelly had traded in her Ivy League dreams and full–ride Yale scholarship for a perfectly respectable — if unremarkable — education at the University of Denver.
She had done the right thing. Her father had needed her. He’d been adrift without Nadine — they all had, William, Kelly and her two younger brothers — so she had stayed. She was still here, 10 years later, despite the offer of her dream job after she graduated — as a trial associate at a leading New York firm.
Once more fate had intervened, though. Three years ago her father, William, had been diagnosed with cancer. He’d needed her help again or Wainwright & Wainwright would have folded.
She sighed. Why did she continue to angst about this? She didn’t regret any of her choices. Not really. She had done the right thing by staying. Sometimes she just wondered what might have happened if her life had taken the road she’d mapped out for it.
“As always, I appreciate the offer,” she told Sunny. “But I’m going to pass.”
Before Sunny could push the matter, M.J. rushed in, out of breath, and threw her leather backpack on one of the chairs. “Sorry I’m late but you’ll never guess what I just heard.”
All three of them waited expectantly, used to M.J.’s little announcements. She lived for moments like this, when she could spring juicy tidbits of information on them. “Don’t keep us in suspense,” Kelly finally said. “Give.”
“Okay, but you’re not going to believe it. Do you remember Jackson Hunter from Freemont? Big, gorgeous guy a few years ahead of us?”
“I think so.” Pat frowned. “Didn’t he have detention with us?”
The five of them had become lifelong friends after spending six memorable weeks in detention for their free–for–all with the Four Queens, the self–proclaimed social rulers of Cagemont.
“I remember him,” Sunny said. “Dark, sexy. Never said much, just brooded a lot.”
“What about him?” Kelly asked, trying to calm her suddenly racing pulse. She hadn’t thought about Jackson Hunter in years. He’d been one of those unwilling fascinations. She wouldn’t call it a crush, exactly — how could it be when she’d never even talked to him? They moved in completely different circles. Well, she moved in a different circle, anyway. Jackson Hunter always seemed to stand alone. Still, she used to watch him sometimes, and a few times she had even caught him watching back.
“Apparently he’s been a Denver cop all these years and a pretty good one if my sources are accurate. Won several commendations and made detective after just a few years.”
“And?” Kelly prodded.
“Hold your horses. I’m getting to that, counselor.” M.J. paused for dramatic effect. “And, word in the newsroom is that he was arrested today for murder.”
Kelly stared at her friend while shock and dismay churned through her. “Who is he accused of killing?” Her voice sounded funny, Kelly thought. All hollow and distant.
M.J. didn’t seem to notice. “Get this. Another cop. A woman he recently had an affair with, apparently. They broke it off a few months ago and the speculation is that he didn’t take it well. Too bad this isn’t my beat. It has all the elements of a huge story. A decorated cop is accused of killing another cop over a secret affair that went wrong. The tabloids are going to have a field day over this one. I bet the wolves are already circling.”
“Poor guy.” Sunny was always on the lookout for a cause. “It sounds like what Jackson Hunter needs is a good lawyer.”
As if they were joined at the earlobes, all three of Kelly’s friends turned their heads to look at her.
“No. No way. Absolutely not.”
“Come on, Kelly.” Sunny’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “This could be your big chance!”
“My big chance to what?”
“To get some trial experience, just like you’ve always dreamed. It sounds like it’s going to be the murder case of the year. Think of the exposure!”
“Think about how my father would have a heart attack if he knew I ever even thought about defending an accused murderer!”
Pat spoke up for the first time since M.J. joined them. “At some point, you have to think about your own dreams, Kel. You’ve given 10 years to your family. Don’t you think that’s enough?”
Trust Pat — a syndicated advice columnist — to cut right to the heart of the matter. No matter what she might think, Kelly’s family still needed her. Her father’s cancer was in remission but chemotherapy and radiation had left him permanently weakened.
“I’m sure Jackson Hunter already has a lawyer. Even if he didn’t, why would he want me as his counsel? I’ve never even tried a case.”
“Because you’re the Brain of Cagemont High. If I were accused of killing someone, I wouldn’t want anyone else to defend me,” Sunny said loyally.
“According to my sources, he’s being arraigned this afternoon at three,” M.J. added. “If I didn’t already have an interview lined up, I’d run over just to get a look at him, to see if he’s as hot as he used to be.”
“The man’s accused of murder,” Kelly said dryly. “He’s probably been interrogated for hours. I doubt he’s going to look his best.”
“Why don’t you go? Check it out for us?”
M.J. was late, as usual.